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from Medieval Lives

Madeleine Wurzburger

These poems form part of a medieval ‘lives’ or ‘voices’ sequence, an ongoing project which currently numbers around 70 poems. The sequence originated with a poem on the effects of light through Tudor glass, and developed into a series of poems looking at life from the perspectives of ordinary people e.g shoemaker, nun, farmer – sometimes a bird or the sun’s viewpoint! I am fascinated by the mix of intense faith and everyday issues in medieval religious life, so nuns, monks, priests etc are prominent; also animals (sheep, bees, oxen for example) seem to work for me as symbols of suffering, sensitivity, human error. Ideas can come from a quotation in a 10th century medicine book, a church misericord or an illustration of a medieval shoe. The use of medieval personas allows me to enter a historical period overloaded with references and stereotypes (Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Black Death, courtly love etc) in order to explore human issues relevant today. I love experimenting with language, using a blend of old and modern English to set the poems in their time, while hopefully making them accessible and interesting to the modern reader.

from Medieval Lives



Here are my hands, red scallops, or a pair

of soft leather shoes, in cutaway rose-window style, perhaps.


It was the threading that unpicked my sight.

It was the bending that folded up my back – and the lack of light.


Sir, I hear your pointed toe in the cobbled yard.

Your shoes are stitched. But I cannot reveal


the delicate embroidery, the woven jewels

if you continue to come at night.





An arrow found a heron’s breast

soft as a stook of wheat.

A table was waiting and a purse and a belly.


Greenbreast, blackbreast, yellow songbird,

those with a long, swift beauty –

all tithed by God to be hung by the feet.


And the torn breast dropped feathers

as out of a rich man’s pallet

over the hurdle, where the pigs grunted.





We are here for the herring and the loaves.


We are thirteen rags & bones, hand

chosen under the vaulting. Thirteen fishy palms


under the Abbot’s nose. We get a kiss

& threepence; our gullets unhooked for ale.


Daily our bones are as welcome as piss

but it’s Maundy Thursday


when God oversees the washing of thirteen pairs

of feet in the east cloister


and on the stone bench along the wall,

during Holy Week, we are given love.


We are here for the love.





Lavender, I dream about

for lovers true; fennel, rue.

Pink-frilled gillyflowers;

marigolds wed; daisies

over the marriage bed.

A posy of violets, tended.

Cowslip roots to mend

a bladder’s sting; and roses,

a ring, most joyful

in a nosegay, held close

when I’m led, shaven-headed,

to the whipping-post.



Lancastrian Bowman, 1461


The Battle of Towton was fought in a blizzard. Lancastrian archers, blinded by snow, were unable to see the Yorkist enemy clearly. Yorkist bowmen shot the Lancastrian army’s own arrows back at them, resulting in huge numbers of dead.



For us, no light.

For them, plain sight.

Loose arrows floored in flight;

York favoured in the fight.

Through the blizzard’s spit and spite

God lays no sun this day of night.





The labourers are silent in our presence

for we are a terrible crop, and feared.

If we appear mystical in yellow dress,

drag our illness across fields, they to us

blaze blue at their hoes, indigo at day’s end,

for they go forth from the gates nightly,

as we may not, to share an ale or other wisdom.


I have had sight of kindness. A smile thrown

or pewter badge unhooked for luck

from a tunic. Our garments may not touch,

but a thought has travelled solicitously,

as the chime of the bell travels from chapel to ear;

mind and chime might heal, having heeded,

sound their clear intent across the field.


*Outside labourers were sometimes employed to work the land in a leper’s hospital. Any physical contact between inmate and worker was forbidden.



Nuns at Fenland Priory


We have been gathering light since autumn,

setting oily tapers at squint and stall.


Ours is a communal bravery: against winter’s envoy

we are unbending; delicate boned constructs lit


in white wool, for if we opened our arms to the dark

he would roughly ride our breast, unfold us on the night


stair. Our joinings hold as a cruck frame;

no spirit or flesh may undo our solid work


or slip through the door of our faith.



Farmer’s Advice to his Sheep


If sheep be ailing, take a little new ale, and pour it into the mouth of each sheep; and manage to make them swallow it quickish; that will prove of benefit to them


Down the hatch, before your bladder’s nabbed

for a jester’s slapstick or your skin’s

stretched and inked; a sick sheep must take ale

if he be ailing and even when hale – from the costrel

a jot, brown as a monk’s gown, is the devil’s antidote

to ewe’s milk. To coddle us

and stave off death, we all take to the bottle,

our days being so many seeds

or grains nibbled, lost, taken by the wind

and spread over three fields; all bound beasts

on God’s ground, addled after the first cup.

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