Any day the Badger doesn’t have to zoom away and involve himself in Busy Work, we have our evening in the morning and chat in bed for a long time before we get up.
Today our conversation ranged over many matters. While he was making a cup of tea downstairs I crawled into the attic space through the hatch in the eaves to survey the muddle that needs sorting out there, and dragged the various stored items into our bedroom for perusal and to give me access to face the Cleaning That Must Be Done.
Then, back in bed with a cup of tea we talked about our spice shelves delivered yesterday by a man who helpfully makes sets of shelves of any dimensions required. The Badger said he is interested in making things so always feels curious about the mode of manufacture involved in such artefacts. And I asked him in what language the word “make” originates, because the word “manufacture” has obviously a Latin root and it intrigued me finding “make” and “manufacture” side by side in the same sentence. The Badger said he thought it probably came from the German “machen”. Then we considered the other meanings of make – for example in the medieval song I syng of a mayde þat is makeles, in which makeles (makeless) means “matchless” in the sense of “peerless”.
And when the Badger later got up and oozed off into the world, I carried on thinking about that song and its beautiful second verse:
He came also stylle þer his moder was as dew in aprylle, þat fallyt on þe gras.
(He came all so still, there where his mother was, as dew in April that falleth on the grass)
It’s about Jesus’s coming into the world, uniting the being of the cosmic and heavenly Christ, the identity of the Godhead, with the human flesh of Mary.
And I stopped on the word “stylle,” which intrigued me because it’s a big word, having no adequate parallel in modern English.
It’s with us yet in German – Stille nacht, heilige nacht, that we translate as Silent night, holy night; and in the description of the Amish as Die Stille im Lande (the quiet folk of the earth).
“Silent” is only part of what is meant by the Middle English stylle and the German stille. Full of peaceful, quiet, calm, restful – stylle means all of that. And a person who is stylle will correlatingly be mindful – noticing, hearing, really present to any encounter. The nearest we have lingering in modern English to summon the sense of stylle, is the adage “Still waters run deep.”
He cam also stylle . . . There’s an old Spiritual, Steal away to Jesus. “Steal” in that sense has some relation to this word stylle.
He cam also stylle . . . It is saying, He stole into this world . . . as simply and unobtrusively as the dew that you cannot see falling, cannot see it at all until its presence accumulates on the grass. Though you can feel the dew of the morning in the air all around.
It’s there again in Elijah’s experience of the Spirit as a still, small voice – elsewhere translated as a silent, thin sound. Interesting. In Middle English (that’s medieval English) there’s also a word smal, meaning slender or narrow – Chaucer describes the arm of a young girl as “smal” (heheh – my spellcheck hates these words and keeps rendering stylle as “style” and smal as “small”). Slender. Delicate. The Spirit breathes into us as a stylle, smal voice. Quiet, restful, calm, full of peace, unobtrusive, hard to pin down or define, slender, delicate, fine.
Sometimes people leaving reviews for my Hawk & the Dove novels criticise them for incorporating into the monks’ speech phraseology that seems modern. They think I’ve got it wrong. What they mean is that I should use eighteenth century idiom (if I went any further back they just wouldn’t be able to understand it). But I didn’t get it wrong, I thought about every sentence, every phrase, every word – that’s how I write. In my novels set in the medieval monastery, I have tried to capture the quality of earthiness and immediacy of medieval speech, and the down-to-earth, cheerful, almost casual conversational speech of monastics. Sometimes that means using phraseology that seems anachronistic because it creates the right feel for both the time and the context. But I love language – love Middle English, and exploring the landscape of language, tracing my finger along the roots of words to where they disappear into the earth where they grew.
In the book my publishers are currently considering for publication (that would be Book 7 of the Hawk & Dove series), the word bradawl occurs. I spent a long time – maybe an hour or so – finding out about how and when and from where “awl” and “bradawl” had come into our language before I let it loose in my book.
But stylle is a beautiful word. That will stay with me all day.
Assorted buttons, as you can see. Put together with other things to make up a craft kit and Freecycled.