Friday, December 29, 2017

For the feast of St. Thomas Becket: In Rama sonat gemitus ("The sound of weeping is heard in Rama")

Here's something quite interesting for this feast day. It's a 12th century anonymous composition found in a French manuscript; its subject is Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral on this day in 1170.

The story related in this piece is not Becket's murder, though, but his exile at the hands of King Henry II of England.  From the YouTube page:
'In Rama sonat gemitus' (The sound of weeping is heard in Rama) is an anonymous work (conductus) found in the French manuscript source Wolfenbüttel 677. Using biblical allusion, it comments directly on the exile of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, from England to France in 1164. Although eventually returned to England in [1170], he was murdered just a few months later. This dates In Rama sonat gemitus to the years of his exile: 1165-1170.

Here are the words, in Latin with an English translation, from CPDL:
In Rama sonat gemitus
plorante Rachel Anglie:
Herodis namque genitus
dat ipsam ignominie.
En eius primogenitus
et Joseph Cantuarie
Exulat (? - or 'si sit') fisto venditus
Egiptum colit Gallie.

A lamentation is heard in Rama:
England's Rachel weeps.
For one begotten by Herod
treats her with ignominy.
Her firstborn -
Joseph of Canterbury -
is exiled as if sold,
and lives in the Egypt of France.

- Translation by Mick Swithinbank

My friend Robert pointed out to me this CD of music "in honor of St. Thomas of Canterbury."  The liner notes for this piece on that CD say this:
This plaint for solo voice is the earliest surviving piece of music about Becket. Since it mentions his exile in France, it must date from the period 1164-1170, though it was not copied into its only extant manuscript source until much later. In the poem, Rama refers to Canterbury, Rachel to the Mother Church, Herod to Henry II, while the Joseph sold by his jealous brethren is Becket.

Pretty interesting!  I was curious about the Scriptural reference; I know it best from this verse from Matthew, where it refers to the slaughter of the innocents (which was yesterday's feast day, in fact):
A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.

I thought it was sort of odd, though, for such a verse to be used for this purpose; the exile of an Archbishop isn't really anything like the slaughter of innocents.  So I searched some more on this theme, and found - although I hadn't remembered it - that Jeremiah had Rachel weeping, too:
Thus says the LORD: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.”
And here, Rachel IS weeping for an exile:  for the exile of Israel in Babylon.  So this is the basis for In Rama sonat gemitus, referring to Thomas Becket.

(I could have realized what Matthew was doing a bit sooner by simply reading the verse prior to Matthew 2:18 above!  Here's Matthew 2:17:  "Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:  ".)

That leaves us with the original Rachel; did she actually weep over her children?

There seem to be at least two takes on this.  One thought is that Genesis 30:1 is one reason for Rachel to weep:
When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister. She said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!”

Another interpretation of the reference to Rachel is that she:
....died with "sorrow" in giving birth to Benjamin (Ge 35:18, 19, Margin; 1Sa 10:2), and was buried at Ramah, near Bethlehem, is represented as raising her head from the tomb, and as breaking forth into "weeping" at seeing the whole land depopulated of her sons, the Ephraimites.
The commentators often group several of these things together, as well.  It is also true that, again according to Jeremiah (40:1), the captives were taken to Ramah as they began their journey into exile in Babylon:
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord after Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard had let him go from Ramah, when he took him bound in chains along with all the captives of Jerusalem and Judah who were being exiled to Babylon.  The captain of the guard took Jeremiah and said to him, “The Lord your God pronounced this disaster against this place.  The Lord has brought it about, and has done as he said. Because you sinned against the Lord and did not obey his voice, this thing has come upon you.  Now, behold, I release you today from the chains on your hands. If it seems good to you to come with me to Babylon, come, and I will look after you well, but if it seems wrong to you to come with me to Babylon, do not come. See, the whole land is before you; go wherever you think it good and right to go.

(Some commentators have also pointed out that the meaning of the word "Ramah" is "high place."  It may be that Er-ram, north of Jerusalem, is the modern-day city that was once Ramah.)

In any case, the choice of text is to symbolize Becket's exile, not his murder - which means that the Scriptural reference is to Jeremiah and not Matthew.


Benjamin Ekman said...

Why does it have to date to the time of St Thomas exile? Couldn't it have been written about that period, in retrospect? In what context could we imagine that it would be sung, while he was alive?

bls said...

Interesting questions, to which I don't really know the answer since I don't know the manuscript (except that it's 12th century).

But I'll hazard a guess for now: since there is no mention of Becket's murder, it seems unlikely to have been composed after that. That is/was a completely shocking event, and I think it unlikely the composer would have concentrated only on the exile without mentioning (or somehow working into the composition) the murder.

I do need to learn more about the ms, though. Thanks for commenting!

bls said...

Here's another possibility; apparently some are convinced by the tense used in the composition:

'The conductus In Rama sonat gemitus (In Rama, sounds of lamentation) is an anonymous work found in the French manuscript source Wolfenbüttel 677. Through clever use of biblical allusion, it comments directly, and rather caustically, on the exile of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, from England to France in 1164. Becket famously returned in 1170, only to be murdered there after a couple of month's time. This dates In Rama sonat gemitus to the years 1165-1170; its closing lines, "an exile, as if he were sold as slave/dwells now in France, as though it were Egypt" indicates that his arrival in France was a relatively recent occurrence.'


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