Rosalind Love on rowing songs..

In conversation Rosalind Love, Reader in Insular Latin and a Fellow of Robinson College Cambridge, shares some of her thoughts…

‘I like the idea of rowing songs – I have never thought of it in the context of Old English verse and am not certain what there is that would or could work that way: something to follow up. But your question connects up in my mind with a strongly rhythmical poem in Latin that was traditionally believed to have been written by St Columba on Iona (possibly not by him, but undoubtedly connected with Iona. I have always thought it would make a good rowing chant and it does include a prayer for the speaker ‘wretched little man, rowing through the infinite storms of this age’. It has a regular pulse, always with the stress on the last but one syllable of each short line – adiutor laborANTium, bonorum rector OMNium etc.) and is memorable because alphabetical. I am not sure anyone has ever suggested it could be used as rowing rhythm song but … Anyway, the Latin Life of Columba involves, naturally enough for Iona, plenty of tales of movement in boats.’

‘The other recollection that your question prompts is that the earliest Anglo-Saxon to write extensively in Latin (late 7th century), Aldhelm of Malmesbury, talks in one of his poems about the helmsman beating time for the rowers with his ‘portisculus’, a Classical Latin term for a mallet, which we find glossed with the Old English ‘hamure’ , ‘hamell’. It is – since this is literary imitation, obviously hard to know whether his reference to such a hammer reflects his knowledge that such things were used to keep time in the rowing-boats of his day, but I don’t see why not.’

ADIUTOR LABORANTIUM (attributed to St Columba, d. 597)
Adiutor laborantium,
Bonorum rector omnium,
Custos ad propugnaculum,
Defensorque credentium
Exaltator humilium,
Fractor superbientium
Gubernator fidelium,
Hostis inpoenitentium,
Iudex cunctorum iudicum
Castigator errantium,
Casta uita uiuentium,
Lumen et pater luminum,
Magna luce lucentium,
Nulli negans sperantium
Opem atque auxilium,
Precor ut me homunculum
Quantum ac miserrimum
Remigantem per tumultum
Saeculi istius infinitum
Trahat post se ad supernum
Vitae portum pulcherrimum
Ymnum sanctum in seculum
Zelo subtrahas hostium
Paradisi in gaudium.

English Translation
O helper of workers,
ruler of all the good,
guard on the ramparts
and defender of the faithful, who lift up the lowly
and crush the proud, ruler of the faithful, enemy of the impenitent., Judge of all judges,
who punish those who err, pure life of the living,
light and Father of lights, shining with great light, denying to none of the hopeful Your strength and help,
I beg that me, a little man trembling and most wretched, rowing through the infinite storm of this age,
Christ may draw after Him to the lofty most beautiful haven of life… …an unending
holy hymn forever.
From the envy of enemies
you lead me into the joy of paradise.

Text and translation from T.O. Clancy and G. Markus, “Iona. The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery” (Edinburgh, 1995).