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Early Catholic Church and English Folk Religion - a tale of blended beliefs

Cross-fertilization of Religions in Late Anglo-Saxon England
by Deborah Bogen

Much of what I’ll be sharing here comes from a fascinating book, Popular Religion in Late Saxon England by Karen Louise Jolly. I ran into Jolly’s work while researching The Witch of Leper Cove and The Hounds of God, books that examine the interplay of the early Inquisition and herbal healers circa 1230 A.D. in England.

The historical record confirms many interesting combinations of the popular Anglo-Saxon culture (that embraced elf charms, dwarfs, Ald Trees, and the magical powers of plants) and the new teachings of the Church (forerunner of the Catholic Church) with its emphasis on God as the source of all healing, Jesus as the necessary savior for the attainment of heavenly afterlife and suffering as a spiritual good.

The extent to which Christian and popular folk-based religious views not only co-existed but interrelated was a surprise to me. However, texts created by Christian scribes evidence a strong assimilation of many “pagan” practices. For example, charm remedies in which magical acts are performed were not uncommon. This will seem less surprising once we note that the pre-church popular religion was one in which the entire world was alive with spiritual presences. To the Anglo-Saxons it may have seemed perfectly reasonable that where elves and dwarfs impacted the lives of men, saints and demons could also do so and that a combination of these two groups might yield strong results.

And in an era in which survival from one growing season to the next was always in question it should not surprise us that any avenue of ensuring a good harvest might be pursued. One example of this is a field remedy (blessing of the fields) that has been found on a number of different folios dating from the late 10th and early 11th century. In this ritual the entire village or congregation participated in the performance of magical acts as it walked around the growing field and to the local church accompanied by the local priest. What I give you here is an abbreviated portion of a long ritual.

The supplicants (or active magic practitioners – depending on your point of view) were instructed to cut four sods “from four sides of the land and mark where they were before. Then take oil and honey and yeast and milk of the animal that is on the land, and a piece of each type of tree that grows on the land…and put then holy water thereon…and then say these words: Crescite, grow et multiplicamini, and multiply, et replete, and fill terre, the earth….”

When this was done the villagers were instructed to take the sod into the church where a priest would sing four masses over them. The green sides would be turned to the altar “before the sun sets.” A cross was made for each sod, and they were named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

At this point in the ritual these words were repeated nine times (it should be noted that nine is a very important number in the world of Anglo-Saxon charms.) Here is part of what they chanted:

Eastwards I stand, for mercies I pray
I pray the great dominie I pray the powerful lord
I pray the holy guardian of heaven-kingdom
earth I pray and sky
and the true Holy Mary
and heaven’s might and high hall
that I may this charm by the gift of the lord
open with my teeth through firm thought
to call forth these plants for our worldly use
to fill this land with firm belief
to beautify this grassy turf as the wiseman said
that he would have riches on earth who alms
gave with justice by the grace of the lord.

The ritual continues with turnings to the sun and a plea (or calling to) both Erce earth’s mother and the eternal lord.

There’s great deal more to this ritual, but it seems clear that at least two traditions are being implored and employed. All the Church’s powerful are called out, but so are sky and earth. The Church’s holy language (Latin) appears but so does vernacular speech. This kind of combination ritual is sometimes called a “middle practice” since it incorporates portions of two belief systems that we may have viewed as doctrinally separate and perhaps even temporally consecutive.

The interesting question to scholars is whether the view that once prevailed, that the Church assimilated folk religion, is supported by fact. An argument from texts such as this one might argue that the popular religion of the day, at least to some extent, assimilated Christian belief (and its pantheon of God, angels, savior, saints etc.) While the Catholic Church’s current global constituency and economic power suggests that it eventually won out over popular folk-based religion, there are those who think the jury is still out. According to credible polls (Pew and others) individuals self-identifying as observers of pagan, wicca, neopagan or even new age belief systems within the US appears to be growing. And whether a religion is called Christian or pagan, ideas like the belief that the wine in the communion cup actually becomes the blood of Christ (rather than symbolizing it) certainly point to the presence of magical thinking.

Given that many religious practitioners who currently self-identify as pagan are likely to have been raised in what is now commonly described as a more traditional faith (e.g., Christian, Jewish or Islamic) it’s possible, indeed probable, that we, like the Anglo-Saxons of the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries, are living in an era of cross-fertilization amongst religious cultures.

For those of us who write about very early England this is both important and interesting stuff. For relevant fiction read Bernard Cornwall’s Saxon Tales series and for a more scholarly take check out Jolly’s book. Should your cow ever get sick, she may be able to help you out.


Deborah Bogen is the author of The Witch of Leper Cove and The Hounds of God, the first two volumes of The Aldinoch Chronicles. These books bring 13th century to life as they tell the story of three orphans who find themselves up against the early Inquisition. She's also written three prize winning books of poetry.

The Witch of Leper Cove

The Hounds of God
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The History of the Rosary

Rosary Tales: Emergence, Development and Controversy
by Deborah Bogen

Perhaps the first thing non-Catholics have to learn about the development of the rosary in the middle ages is that the focus of inquiry is not the physical object (i.e., the often gorgeous string of beads that serves as a counting tool) but rather the prayer cycle itself which is prayed and meditated upon by both clergy and laypeople. The prayer cycle appears to have emerged in the early13th century and has, ever after, been the subject of interpretation, change and even heated debate.

The second thing is that we cannot be definitive about its history: there are multiple and often opposing views and records on nearly every aspect of the rosary. Among the sometimes confusing sources are historical references, long-standing myth, connections to the imagery of courtly love and earlier traditions (with their own pantheon of gods) and, of course, the wide range of local culture, geographical constraints and even village customs that come in to play.

In short, there is not now, and never has been, only one rosary. But given the intense focus on religion and especially the afterlife in the middle ages there is still much we can learn about the rosary’s development and practice that will enrich our writing about medieval life.

What follows are jigsaw puzzle pieces, each with a history, a basis in teaching and a religious justification as well as a place in the culture of the church. I hope it will be possible to arrange them in a fashion that allows a larger and richer picture to emerge.

1.) Relying on that dubious source, “according to tradition,” the rosary was first given to St. Dominic by the Blessed Virgin Mary in the year 1214. In fact, aside from stories passed down and later promoted by the church there is no documentation linking Dominic to the rosary. Better documented is the fact that the rosary’s importance was later boosted by Alain de la Roche (who claimed he received a vision from Jesus encouraging the reinstatement of the rosary as a form of prayer.) de la Roche (also known as St. Alan of the Rock) promoted the rosary as a devotional exercise and encouraged the establishment of rosary confraternities.

2.) The tradition of using knotted string or strings of beads to keep track of prayer recitations is an ancient one and can be found in Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist cultures, among others. Scholars assume Christians brought these beads back to Europe when they returned from the Crusades, but some beads were already in use (e.g., Lady Godiva of Coventry who died in 1041 and bequeathed a set of gems threaded on a cord that she had used to recite her prayers.) The beads that can be documented pre-date the use of the Hail Mary and were used to recite paternosters and other prayers. In addition to helping the devout keep track of prayers the physical rosaries were an opportunity for some religious persons to own and wear beautiful objects that might have otherwise been counted as vain or worldly.

3.) There is some controversy about the power and precedent of the Our Father versus the Hail Mary in the development of the rosary. Some church sources claim that the ultimate source for the rosary as a prayer form is the Book of Psalms, part of the Jewish heritage of the Christian Church. The psalms were replaced by praying the Our Father at intervals. Other sources say the Ave Maria took precedence but in either case antiphons (in the form of short verses) connecting the lives of Mary and Jesus to the psalms were devised as part of the recitation. Eventually the psalms fell away and the antiphons remained providing direction for meditation on a specific aspect of the life of Mary or of Jesus.

4.) One Church reference, Dominican Father Frederick M. Jelly, writes that in the early 15th century the devotion was 50 Hail Marys linked to 50 phrases about Jesus and Mary. “This is the origin of the word rosary since the 50 points of meditation was called a rosarium (rose garden.) Rosary came to refer to the recitation of 50 Hail Marys.

5. The Ave Prayer (Hail Mary Full of Grace) was an early core of the rosary. Anecdotes from the twelfth and thirteenth century tell of pious individuals who recited the Ave Maria in chains of 50, 60, 100 or 150 repetitions, believing that upon hearing these words the Holy Virgin would experience delight recalling the joy of the Incarnation. The faithful might also experience bliss. There exists a report (circa 1200) of a matron who, upon reciting 50 Hail Marys experienced a taste of wonderful sweetness in her mouth.

6.) As the prayer developed, various methods for meditation were introduced. One was the recitation of rhymed quatrains to help with memorization and provide focus for meditation. These meditations would be interspersed with Hail Marys. Since the meditations were based on the stations of Christ’s life they were considered particularly good for the layperson (who was supposed to be incapable of higher-order imageless contemplation.) Thus the rosary was dispersed freely and even actively to the laity. The prayers were recited in the vernacular so they could be recited quietly by laypersons even during a service at which the priests used Latin.

7.) Social brotherhoods called confraternities were established for various purposes throughout Europe during the middle ages. Women were not admitted to most of these, but the confraternity of the rosary welcomed women into its ranks. Members of the rosary confraternity could participate as a group in processions (for which indulgences were granted) and worship at rosary altars in chapels in their mother tongue. This was worship outside the official liturgy and was also associated with the granting of indulgences for recitation of the rosary – that is, a member could pray his or her way out of certain punishments for sin, e.g., by shortening time spent in purgatory. In addition a member could also enroll dead family members in order to help pray them out of purgatory. This practice opened the rosary to criticism, as it was claimed the interest of participants was not really in praising Mary or Jesus, but rather in obtaining personal gain through early release from purgatorial suffering.

8.) Despite criticisms the rosary was an enormous success and part of that success was due to the methods by which it was popularized. Broadsides and pamphlets provided testimony to the miraculous effects of saying the prayer. One broadsheet (c.1530) says: “Whoever wants to be of the family of Mother Mary let him enroll himself in the brotherhood of the rosary, for I tell you, she will protect him from the pain of hell. Indeed she can free him from it eternally.”

A further attraction of the confraternity of the rosary was its lack of class distinction. People of all stations could enroll. Those of you who study these times can imagine how radical that would be. Analysis of the rolls of one confraternity shows its members to include monks, nuns, artisans, children and six lepers.

9.) Another aspect of the rosary’s popularity was that literacy was not required. “How-to” books were block-printed and the most successful of these were entirely pictorial. Just as the murals painted inside cathedrals instructed the illiterate in the life of Christ and in the pleasures of heaven and the pain of hell, picture books detailing an aspect of Jesus’s life told the non-reading devout what to meditate on at various points in the recitation of the rosary prayers. There were at least three picture texts designed for this purpose and distributed before 1490 (and in regions as distant from one another as Ulm, Barcelona and Florence.) These had the further advantage that they could be “read” in any language as you needed neither Latin or a particular vernacular to understand them.

10.) Perhaps one of the most entertaining disputes regarding the rosary involves Dominic of Prussia and Alain de la Roche. Dominic called the prayer cycle a “rosary” but Alain adamantly opposed this label and insisted on calling it a “psalter.” He states clearly that his objection is based on the profane associations attached to the rose – claiming it has “vain and worldly connotations.” The rose had long been associated with Roman spring festivals and Aphrodite. Further “rose gardens” were part of other folktales as “love gardens.” Finally there was the “obscene” usage of “rose garden” and “rose-bush” to refer female genitalia. However strong de la Roche’s argument, the masses adopted rosary with enthusiasm. There is Christian iconography to support their choice (e.g.,“Lo, How a Rose Ere Blooming” ) but we will never know definitively why Dominic’s terminology won out. In his promotional material for the rosary he writes “We live as though we were in Mary’s rose garden, all of us who occupy ourselves with the roses.”

11.) The rosary devotion became inextricably bound to the string of prayer beads that came to represent it. These were made from diverse materials, pebbles, precious stones, bones, glass, horn, coral, mussel shell, amber and even polished brown coal. A flourishing rosary trade developed and as early as 1277 makers of “paternosters” are recorded in London (even today Paternoster Row and Ave Maria Lane can be found.) I was surprised to learn that the creation of rosaries was a trade Jews participated in.

12.) Rosaries were an acceptable adornment for the devout, and were often so beautiful that ostentation had to be curbed. Fifteenth century Nuremburg passed an ordinance that “no unmarried woman shall any longer wear a Pater Noster (meaning rosary) which is valued at more than twenty Rhenish guelders.” There were other regulations governing just how they could be worn (around the neck, on the arm but not down the back where they might touch the buttocks.) These often beautiful strings could also be displayed in the home, and were something that could be cherished and passed from generation to generation. This may have been especially important for converts to Christianity as the display of rosaries, religious pictures and, of course, the cross was considered by the Inquisition to be “further evidence” of true Christian devotion.

13) The beads were also thought by some to have the power of an amulet to ward off evil. In 1496 one author wrote:
If you will keep the devil’s wiles at bay
Then you should have this chain and wear it.
If you would not fall prey to the devil’s tricks,
Never let it leave your side.
For if you wear it on your arm,
It will protect you from sin and harm.
It was also believed that if you kept the rosary near a picture of the Virgin the beads gained strength. Rosary manuals even describe cures of illness and insanity effected by placing the beads around the neck of an afflicted person.

14.) Mary as a loving, helpful figure may have contributed to the popularity of the rosary. Over time the church worked to make changes to the rosary to shift its focus to a more “Christo-logical” one. For those who have studied Marianism and the Church’s response to religious devotion outside official channels this will not come as a surprise.

This is a highly incomplete account of facts about the rosary that relies heavily on sources I will list below. I am most indebted to Anne Winston-Allen’s wonderful book, Stories of the Rose. I recommend this as a most fascinating and insightful read.


Deborah Bogen is the author of two historical novels, The Witch of Leper Cove and The Hounds of God. About Witch Justkindlebooks writes: “The Witch of Leper Cove transports readers to a small river-bend hamlet in thirteenth-century England. Here, three recently orphaned siblings are getting by one day at a time, and soon have to fight against injustice. This is an enchanting, atmospheric and heart-rending book that richly examines true strength and courage in life. Highly recommended!”
Available through Amazon: The Witch of Leper Cove and The Hounds of God.  Read More 
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What's so special about Hemingway's

Last night I was privileged to read at Hemingway's with Robin Clarke, Fred Shaw and Robert Gibb. Have you been there? It's a strange physical set-up - large room in the back of the bar, nearly divided by a wall - so that the reader and mic are set up right across from that protruding part-wall and you read to both sides of the room. I always feel a bit like an oscillating sprinkler, moving my head back and forth at hopefully useful intervals.

The tables are close, the crowd big and the (wonderful and long-suffering) waitress has to wind her way through, nearly brushing the mic as her tray of beer and fries moves to meet its buyer. In short it's awkward - and it's wonderful. Why is that?

It's the poets who run this series and the poets who come to hear the readers. Joan and Jimmy and Don-the-sound-guy fill Pittsburgh's summer with readings from all kinds of word-artists. And the Hemingway listeners are among the best you will find. Every face is glued to the reader, all those ears are open, and the feedback for the poet is immediate and genuine. There is something both unpretentious and serious in the room.

The evening closes with an open reading - two poems per reader (many only read one.) When a young man stepped to the mic and announced it was the first time he ever read a poem in public, the whole room murmured encouragement. If you are reading your first poem out loud ever -- Hemingway's is the right place place to do it. The readings are every Tuesday at 8 p.m., the line up is exciting. You can google Hemingway's Poetry Series to learn more. Come on out.  Read More 
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Hounds of God - On Sale Now

It's a bit dicey for me to type anything this early but: this is to let you know that right now you can download The Hounds of God (to your kindle, computer, phone, tablet) for only .99. Have some medieval fun. Happy Summer
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Asking the Right Question

Last night Jim & I attended "A (micro) History of World Economics" at the Hazlett Theater. The play is directed (and was written) by Pascal Lambert, a director from Paris who travels the globe staging it. In each city Rambert uses only 4 professional actors who are supported by 50 local "raw bodies." These local performers come from different social groups. In Los Angeles he used people from a homeless shelter. Here in Pittsburgh he offered the supporting parts to people that, prior to last night's performance, I thought of as "disabled."

The entire enterprise was visually entrancing, intellectually fun and emotionally charged. Part of its strength was that it was not turned into a show about "disabilities." It's basically about money, how we make it - and why that's problematic.

I'm so glad I didn't miss this show. It reminded me that in the early days of feminism someone said - "don't just ask are we being fair to women? Ask - are we being fair to everyone? Why are we depriving ourselves of this incredible resource, these doers and thinkers, these creative people whose active participation in all affairs will enrich us and help us?"

I left the theater thinking the same thing about the group of differently-abled people who, last night, enriched Pittsburgh and all of us with their performance, their insight and their willingness to take center stage in a conversation that makes many of us uncomfortable. Kudos to The City of Asylum for spearheading this venture and to all the organizations who provided funds. And 16 tons of thanks to Pascal Rambert and his amazing crew. It was a night to be treasured.  Read More 
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In Defense of Making it Up

I loved Ken Follett's "Pillars of the Earth" series. It was a journey I undertook for days at a time, living other people's lives in a time and place that was never been mentioned in any of the history books in my school.

But Follett's series is not the only reason I started writing historical novels. I'd long found medieval art entrancing -- engagingly weird. That interest led to book buying, and book buying to reading the fine print about the times. Before I knew it I was caught - absorbing info about medieval educational systems, the economics of the time and the power grabs of the early church. That last interested me most since religious belief has long been the root of so many wars, so much hate among us.

Eventually I started my own story and right away I hit a glitch. What did peasant children call their parents? Ordinary speech was not recorded. But my kids had to call their father something and "father" didn't seem right. So I wrote to Ken (Follett!) asking him what to do. He wrote back, admitting that while research truly mattered - and was fascinating - there were some things writers could never find out. At that point the thing to do was to "make it up." What a freeing thought. I made the "Da" and "Mam" bits in my book up.

But even when records are sparse there's much that can lead us to "make it up" in the right way. For instance, when the wills of townspeople specify that a blanket and a worn dress go to a daughter we can guess that those items were important - valuable. That tells us that the lifestyle was not lush - probably not even comfortable. When we read tax rolls that itemize crops and animals that were lost to storm or famine we know something else. When we see an archeologist's finds we often see that there was something in common between us and these distant people. A woman craved ear bobs, a man wore a ring with jewels to advertise and perhaps protect the family fortune.

Likewise we can see critical and often extreme differences. It's hard to convey in a book the extant to which medieval people, rich and poor, were absorbed with religious issues. The belief that ordinary life was some kind of prelude to eternal life was not controversial in the 13th century. Fear of eternal damnation was palpable and the writings of the time reflect this (although the actions of the wealthy have caused me to wonder how universal this was.)

No one can do a perfect job of "making it up." It's so tempting to impose our way of thinking on "humans" in general - but like Follett I am giving it a try in "The Aldinoch Chronicles." You can see how I do by checking out Book Two, "The Hounds of God" -- available at Amazon  Read More 
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Wed is the worst day to post anything and other mistakes I've made

Who knew? Wednesday blows. Whatever else you do, don't post things on Wednesdays because no one will see them.

And this is not just me telling you. Marketing-type-expert-people have researched this. They have studied it. They have run the numbers and, you know, numbers don't lie.

They tell me "No one will see your Wednesday post because people are busy working on Wednesday." So if it's Wednesday and you're reading this I guess I have to say "shame on you."

Also, "I love you" because I am not very concerted with marketing. I will probably break the no-Wednesday rule thousands of times this decade. Why? Because marketing is my most work-like work and so I tend to do it (you saw this coming) on Wednesday.

All this points up the fact that writers aren't really marketers. Its' full of rules and we generally approve of breaking rules. Buy a book on a Wednesday - I dare you!  Read More 
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Witch on Sale

Trying the book on sale thing at Amazon and seeing how it goes. I feel sort of dirty/commercial/nonliterary doing this -- but I do love getting a good read for almost nothing myself, so perhaps others...

This is a new story-telling age. I imagine a museum with skeletons of dinosaurs and samples of the $28.99 historical novel, species defunct. Read More 
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Yes, yes, I know. "Switch hitters" aren't always baseball players. Sometimes they're bisexuals, and I doubt it would even be much of a stretch to use the phrase for double agents in the spy-biz.

But today I'm thinking about writers who seem at home with both poetry and prose: Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich, Michael Ondaatje, HD, Doris Lessing, even Stevie Smith. These writers hear two calls and answer both. Or, maybe nothing that profound. Maybe they just like flexing different muscles, playing different games.

I want to think I'm one of them, but when I started down fiction-road I expected that my prose would at least be poetic. Just typing the word "poetic" opens a can of worms (is there such a thing and if so what might it be?) but if you're a poet, maybe you get a feel for what I was expecting. It didn't happen.

Story telling of the straight-forward (historical fiction) kind meant an entirely new kind of writing. For one thing, it did not have to begin with a pen in my hand. That's how I start poems. With the computer I can line up bits of language in a way that "looks like a poem," long before that label is justified, and that scares me. Then there are the gaps I'm at home with in poetry - gaps I depend on. They are usually inappropriate in the stories I tell because at least for now there's a beginning, middle and end connected up in a way anyone can follow.

Even the environs in which I write are genre dependent. For poems I need quiet. And since I need to read each attempt out loud, I need privacy. I write novels in coffee bars (as long as the muzak is bearable and the interruptions limited) and I even find it helpful to desert my home desk and report to the same cafe table for "work."

And size matters. Even long poems are nothing like the tens of thousands of words that make up a novel. In historical novels you can't depend on artistic gesture. You describe it all, both the glory and the stink, creating a dense world and hoping your readers will fall into it.

The challenges and opportunities are also different. Novelists can develop a few characters for several books. That's rare for poets. But even though fiction writers have a bigger audience, poets have a dedicated group of readers who are behind the art before they begin reading. They may extend themselves more ardently, expecting to do a little work to appreciate what the poem has to offer. I do that with poems, but when I pick up a novel I'm hoping most of the work will be the writer's.

So this is a slim slice of a gigantic pie -- there are many variations on "poet" and "novelist," on "poetry and "prose." Right now I'm trying to be both, or at least be both in close tandem. How about you? Read More 
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I spent a day resisting.

"Need to prep, need to prep" said the little voice in my head. My granddaughter wants me to come to her class to "teach poetry" which means I'm about to do what I swore I'd never do again - teach middle school.

In the past fifteen years I've taught fifth-grade-to-college-age students about this thing I can barely name. Of those, the middle schoolers were the toughest sell. What did poetry have to do with popularity? And the subject matter of many poems is so difficult. I didn't want to resort to Shel Silverstein.

Shel Silverstein is great but not who I want to teach...and every middle schooler has read him (or been forced fed him) to death. Oh, those safe subjects and quick laughs. They won't make anyone uncomfortable.

But I want to give them that gift - being uncomfortable. It can be risky. Sometime principals veto great poems because they might upset a parent who heard we were reading them. Sometimes students stare at me with garage-door-eyes as they disappear into themselves.

Thus, my resistance to prep but time's a great motivator. The day came when I could not put it off. Where to go for help? The books on my shelves, the minds of you other poets, Poetry 180 (though even it must claim it is for high school, not middle school) and finally my own love affair with this language art, this grasping after the unutterable.

Who knows how this will go with the kids, but for me it's meant days of meditating on what I love and that's rich. It's meant re-reading poems I can't use with them, but finding more than enough that may work. When I was twelve I already had a secret "grown-up" mind that thought deeply about the enigma we call life and what felt like a hurtful mystery -- death -- so I am hoping one of that-kind-of-kid will be in the room. Because I'm taking the plunge. I'm going to read them Gunter Eich's "Inventory" from "Valuable Nail." I'll keep you posted... Read More 
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