Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro

Nigel Butterley’s anthem Surrexit Dominus sets a poem by the Scottish priest and poet William Dunbar, who lived in the late 15th and early 16th century. In the published score, the words are rendered in modern spelling, for the benefit of the singers, but I have the original poem in a book of Christian poetry I bought some time ago (don’t know where, don’t know when). It’s interesting to see what’s changed and what hasn’t in 500 years of English.

The poem in full is:

Done is a battell on the dragon blak,
Our campioun Chryst confountet hes his force;
The yettis of hell ar brokin with a crak
The signe triumphall rasit is of the croce,
The divillis trymmillis with hiddous voce,
The saulis ar borrowit and to the blis can go,
Chryst with his blud our ransonis dois indoce:
Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro.

Dungin is the deidly dragon Lucifer,
The crewall serpent with the mortall stang;
The auld kene tegir with his teith on char,
Quhilk in a wait hes lyne for us so lang,
Thinking to grip us in his clows strang;
The mercifull lord wald nocht that it wer so,
He maid him for to felye of that fang.
Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro.

He for our saik that sufferit to be slane,
And lyk a lamb in sacrifice was dicht,
Is lyk a lyone rissin up agane,
And as gyane raxit him on hicht;
Sprungin is Aurora radius and bricht,
On loft is gone the glorius Appollo,
The blisfull day depairtit fro the nycht:
Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro.

The grit victour agane is rissin on hicht,
That for our querrel to the deth was woundit;
The sone that wox all paill now schynis bricht,
And dirknes clerit, our fayth is now refoundit;
The knell of mercy fra the hevin is soundit,
The Christin ar deliverit of thair wo,
The Jowis and thair errour ar confondit:
Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro.

The fo is chasit, the battel is done ceis,
The presone brokin, the jevellouris fleit and flemit;
The weir is gon, confermit is the peis,
The fetteris lowsit and the dungeoun temit,
The ransoun maid, the prisoneris redemit;
The feild is win, ourcumin is the fo,
Dispulit of the tresur that he yemit:
Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro.

It is certainly possible to understand most of the poem and to get the gist of rest.

The words which have not changed spelling (some of which appear multiple times) are:
a, the, all
he, him, his, it, us, our
is, was, can, done, go, gone (compare ‘gon’), thinking, grip
on, of, with, to, for, in, up
and, so, that
dragon, force, hell, Lucifer, serpent, lord, lamb, sacrifice, Aurora, day, knell, mercy

These are mostly ‘function words’, some of which have retained their spelling over 1000 years and more, and are still very common in modern English. In fact, of the words in the first six lines immediately above, all but ‘grip’ are among the 100 most common words in modern English (including the first eight – the, be, to, of, and, a, in, that). (‘day’ on the seventh line is also in the top 100). Of the ‘content words’ on the seventh line, half are mono-syllabic and most of the rest are loanwords from other languages.

But just because the spelling is the same, doesn’t mean that the pronunciation was the same; even now, Scottish pronunciation exists on a continuum of variety from ‘lilting’ to ‘utterly incomprehensible’. So, when considering the next batch of words, the question must be asked: does this different spelling represent a different pronunciation, or not? Probably, but not necessarily. (The ensemble in the video uses broadly standard modern English pronunciation.)

The words which have changed spelling are (divided into some preliminary categories; some words appear in two categories):
function words:

* hes (has; have = 9th most common word in English), ar, wer (be = 2), fra, fro (from = 25), thair (their = 38)
* plural nouns ending with ‘is’ where modern spelling has ‘s’ or ‘es’: yettis, divillis (? – see below), saulis, ransonis (? – compare ‘ransoun’), jevellouris, Jowis (compare Christin), fetteris, prisoneris (but compare ‘clows’)
3rd person singular present simple verbs ending with ‘is’ where modern spelling has ‘s’ or ‘es’: trymmillis (? – see below), schynis, dois
* regular past tense (simple and participle) verbs ending with ‘et’ or ‘it’ where modern spelling has ‘d’ or ‘ed’: confountet, confondit, rasit, borrowit, sufferit, woundit, clerit, refoundit, soundit, deliverit, chasit, fleit, flemit, raxit, depairtit, confermit, lowsit, temit, dispulit, redemit, yemit
* irregular past participle verbs ending with ‘in’ (whether the modern English equivalent exists or not, or has ‘en’ or nothing): brokin, dungin, rissin, sprungin, ourcumin
*silent ‘e’ where modern English doesn’t have one: signe, sone, lyone, presone, gon (compare ‘gone’)
* no silent ‘e’ where modern English has one: lyk, wo, fo, tresur,
* y > i: Chryst (compare Christin), lyk, lyone, nycht, fayth, gyane
* double letters < > single letters: battell, battel, blis, mortall, mercifull, blisfull, triumphall (which still exists, but triumphant is more common), hiddous, crewall, Appollo, dirknes, paill
* /ei/: maid (viz – made), saik, slane, agane, paill
* what for the want of a better term I will call ‘simple vowels’: auld, blud, deidly, feild, teith, peis, ceis, lang, stang, strang, tresur, croce, voce, kene, wald, grit, Christin, presone, deth, tresur, indoce, dirknes, win, hevin, weir, tegir, querrel, wox, lyne (?lain),
* what for the want of a better term I will call ‘complex vowels’: campioun, hiddous, crewall, glorius, dungeoun, victour, errour, ransonis, ransoun, radius (>radiant)
* ‘ch’ (probably pronounced in Scottish English at the time): nocht, dicht, hicht, nycht, bricht, hicht
* consonants: campioun, blak, crak, croce, ransoun

The meanings of most the above are probably understandable to anyone will some linguistic knowledge and/or a lot of patience. There remain several phrases which might need some sort of explanation, either from the editor of the poetry book, what I’ve found on the internet or my own speculation:

on char – the editor glosses this as ‘ajar’
in a wait – the meaning is clear; the modern equivalent is ‘in wait’
as gyane – the ensemble in the video sings ‘as a giant’.
on loft – ? aloft
divillis trymmillis – either this is ‘the Devil trembles’ or ‘the devils tremble’ (which the ensemble in the video sings)
quhilk – the internet says that this means ‘of which’, but if so I’m not sure what the antecedent is
felye of that fang – the editor glosses this as ‘come short of that booty’. The internet suggests that felye means ‘fail’, and says that fang is cognate with German Fang  meaning ‘capture, booty’
the sone that wox all paill – waxed = grew. Wax as a verb is usually used positively, as in the moon waxing and waning. defines the verb as ‘to increase in extent, quantity, intensity, power, etc.’. It sounds strange to say ‘to increase pale’.
jevellouris fleit and flemit – the editor glosses this as ‘gaolers affrighted and put to flight’

Vocal and ensemble music in English exists from around 1250, but comparatively little of it survives compared to the amount in Latin, the language of public worship. Music in English was either sacred music for personal devotion, or secular music for personal/social enjoyment. Professional and amateur choirs still sing music by Josquin des Prez (slightly earlier than Dunbar) and John Taverner (slightly later). Modern composers have turned to early English texts: immediately before this poem in the book are ‘I sing of a maiden that is makeless’ and ‘Adam lay y-bounden’, best known in settings by Benjamin Britten in A Ceremony of Carols.

I was previously unaware of the ensemble in the video, either in real life or on Youtube. All Saint’s Ainslie (Canberra, Australian Capital Territory) has a highly proficient amateur choir; the singers here may or may not be connected to the choir. I have visited All Saint’s twice but wouldn’t have recognised the building – the first visit was a long time ago and I spent most of the second visit facing the other direction (seated at the organ console).

The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, ed Donald Davie, Oxford University Press, 1981


4 thoughts on “Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro

  1. * I’m interested to notice the past tense has still the German -et at this point, rather than the modern English -ed (although, as we discussed in your recent post, -t endings remain in some English past tenses).

    * ‘ch’ is, indeed, still pronounced in Scots in some words, for example in the well-known song “Deoch-an-Doras” (a Gaelic phrase, but never mind), with its line “it’s a braw bricht moonlicht nicht”, all ‘ch’s of which are pronounced. That’s why we have the ‘ght’ combination in a lot of these words today, because at one point, it was pronounced even in English. This is a distinctly Germanic carry-over: compare for example Nacht (German), nycht (poem), and night (English).

    * ‘quhilk’ would seem to me to be related to the modern Scots ‘whilk’, which means ‘which’.

    * my final comment is the word ‘campioun’ in the second line – I’m interested to see it spelt with just a ‘c’, which does make sense next to ‘Christ’, which is pronounced with the hard C, but not compared to croce (cross, a few lines down) or crewall (cruel), or even ‘can’, which is still spelt the same. Perhaps ‘champion’ was pronounced with a hard ‘c’ back then?


  2. * I’m not sure when the -ed spellings took over. When they did, they were first fully pronounced. In 1712, Jonathan Swift was complaining of the pronunciations ‘drudg’d’, ‘disturb’d’, ‘rebuk’d’, ‘fledg’d’. (quoted by Steven Pinker, ‘Words and Rules’). Some adjectives derived from nouns retain the pronounced -ed eg learned.
    * It is interesting to trace the word for ‘night’ through European languages, including Greek nύξ, Latin nox, German nacht, English night and French nuit.
    * ‘which’ would make more sense – the antecedent clearly being ‘tiger’.
    * ‘Christ’ is derived from Greek, whereas ‘champion’ is derived from Latin ‘campus’ meaning ‘(battle)field’ (which I’d never thought about until I looked it up just then). Online Etymology Dictionary says the ‘ch’ developed in Old French. I’m trying to think of another Latin > French pair with ‘c’ and ‘ch’. There is still a surname ‘Campion’ (Edmund Campion, Australian RC priest and historian, Jane Campion, director of ‘The Piano’)


  3. Greatly enjoying your blog David! Curious to see Luminescence feature; I was involved with this group a few years back, and recognised the singers in this video 🙂
    Dan (from CELTA)


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