And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

lørdag 15. februar 2020

For the feast of Saint Sigfrid

Today is the feast of Saint Sigfrid of Växjö in Sweden, the patron saint of the city and of the region of Småland. His legend survives in thirteenth-century sources, and according to this legend he was the archbishop of York in the early eleventh century, who went to Sweden on the invitation of the pagan Swedish king who wanted to learn about Christianity. This king was Olof Skötkonung (d.c.1022), who is the first recorded individual to have claimed rulership over both the Geats and the Swedes, which were the two main political entities of medieval Sweden.Olof Skötkonung (interpreted as tax-king) is a historical figure, but Sigfrid's historicity is highly dubious. We do know that there has never been an archbishop of York by that name, and the English king Mildrith who also appears in the legend is likewise not authentic. 

Växjö Cathedral

The legend of Sigfrid continues with a description of his arrival in Denmark, where he was greeted by King Svend (presumably Svend Forkbeard who died in 1014). The Danish king was himself a Christian, and had Sigfrid escorted safely to the Swedish border. By this point in time, Denmark extended into the region of Skåne, or Scania, which today belongs to Sweden. Consequently, at Sigfrid's time, it was Småland that constituted the border zone between the politically fragmented Sweden and the more centralised Denmark.

In Småland, Sigfrid set up camp by Lake Växjö, a name that I have seen interpreted as veg-sjö, or road-lake, i.e. a lake by the crossroads. If correct, this name points to the existing trade routes through forests and by water that were in place at the time of Sigfrid's alleged arrival. This also makes sense, considering that Christian missionaries - historical or mythical - were not pioneers in unknown lands, but settled where there already existed networks of human contact and infrastructures by which the new faith could be disseminated. Close to Lake Växjö, he established his first church, said to be on the spot where the cathedral stands today. While Sigfrid's church is mythical, it is likely that a wooden church was erected in the early stages of the Christianisation of the area. It is also likely that this wooden church was placed where the cathedral stands today, because when Växjö became a bishopric in 1170, the building of a new stone church was started. This stone church were a replacement for the previous wooden structure, and likely raised on the same foundations - this is a very common pattern in the history of Nordic churches.

In the first stages of Sigfrid's missionary campaign, he was aided by his three nephews that he had brought with him from England. They were named Unaman, Sunaman and Vinaman, and they were in charge of the nascent church while Sigfrid went to visit King Olof to tell him about his progress. While Sigfrid was away, a group of twelve local aristocrats - i.e. rich farmers and chieftains - conspired against the three nephews. These twelve had been selected as honorary members of the church organisation, presumably in imitation of Christ's apostles, and possibly also with a nod to the twelve monks that were chosen by Benedict of Nursia in his establishment of the Benedictine Order. The twelve Swedes, eventually, stole into the sleeping quarters of the nephews and decapitated them. The bodies were buried and the heads thrown into Lake Växjö.

When Sigfrid learned about this, he returned to Växjö and as he was walking by the lake a celestial light shone down on the water, revealing the three heads placed in a small wooden tub. The heads spoke to him, and vowed revenge on later generations. The culpits were later punished by Olof Skötkonung, and Sigfrid continued his work as the first bishop of Sweden. He later died peacefully, and is therefore listed as a confessor in the calendars. 

Since today is the feast of Sigfrid, there was a concert in the cathedral featuring excerpts from the liturgical office, which survives in thirteenth-century sources. The arrangement was organised by Karin S. Lagergren, a friend and colleague at Linnaeus University whose research is the foundation for the musical arrangement, and the recording of a CD of Sigfrid's liturgy. It was a wonderful experience with beautiful music permeating the sacred space of the cathedral and bringing to life the mythical and inauthentic figures, whose story nonetheless is likely based on some collective memory from the time of conversion. This office was likely composed in the bishopric of Växjö - thus pointing to the existence of a scriptorium at the cathedral - and from there it was disseminated throughout the Swedish metropolitan see (which had been established in 1164). The performance, in this way, brought me closer to how the story of Sigfrid, and how the identity of the cathedral, was communicated to the medieval community of clerics from the thirteenth century onwards.

Following the concert, I had a stroll by Lake Växjö, following the shore where Sigfrid mourned his nephews and miraculously found their heads. There was no celestial light today, but it was nonetheless a very atmospheric afternoon, and with my head filled with the watery imagery of the Sigfrid legend, it became somewhat easier to imagine the scenes of the story. It was, in other words, easy to see how the legend and the landscape in combination served to solidify an identity centred on the figure of Sigfrid. We now know that he never existed, but to the Swedes in the twelfth century onwards he was, and he became the representative of their identity both in relation to the local geography and in relation to the Swedish history as a whole.

fredag 31. januar 2020

Two voyages centuries apart - unexpected connections in academic research

Research into medieval history often opens up strange and unexpected pathways, and many of these pathways lead into the modern world, highlighting the unbroken continuity of time and disabusing us of the insufficiencies of periodisation. As a medievalist, I enjoy exploring these various ways in which any given research topic also has a reception history that yields knowledge about a time much closer to my own than that of the individuals and institutions of my research. One such case that delighted me this week was that of two voyages centuries apart, the legendary voyage of Saint Olaf, king of Norway (d.1030), and the historic voyage of Lev Trotsky in 1917.

Olaf encounter the trolls of Norway
Dingtuna Church, Albertus Pictor, c.1500 
(courtesy of this website)

The voyage of Saint Olaf is an episode in the corpus of stories told about the saint-king throughout medieval Northern Europe. According to the various accounts, Olaf races his half-brother Harald Hardråde (d.1066) in a ship, and it became a popular theme of church art in late-medieval Sweden, as seen in the example by Albertus Pictor above. The roots of this story might lie in Olaf's return to Norway in 1016 to claim the Norwegian kingship, after having spent years as a mercenary in Normandy and England. But this possible kernel of historical truth became a fantastical tale that was expanded by various villages which claimed that Saint Olaf's voyage had passed through the area.

But what does this have to do with Lev Trotsky? In March 1917, Trotsky had left New York where he had been living for a period of time, and began to make his way back to Europe on a Norwegian steamer. Trotsky was a person of interest to the American and British intelligence services, and was detained in Halifax for a short while, but he was eventually allowed to continue his voyage. The ship that had brought Trotsky from New York to Halifax was SS Kristianiafjord, one of the steamers of the Scandinavian-American line that connected Europe and America, but since this crossing had been interrupted Trotsky had to find a new ship. This ship is what connects him with Saint Olaf, because the steamer on which he travelled from Halifax to Oslo was SS Hellig Olav, named after the man whose legendary voyage to Norway had such a tremendous impact on the cultural history of Scandinavia. So they travelled, Olaf and Lev Trotsky, each in their own vessel, centuries apart.

Now, you may ask what we are to do with this information, how can this contribute to a greater understanding of either Saint Olaf or Lev Trotsky. The simple answer is that this information is of very little consequence to our understanding of either. This is an amusing coincidence that does not yield any information beyond itself. However, the fact that a steamer was named after Olaf is an example of the reception history of the saint-king into the modern era, and gives us at least a somewhat more nuanced understanding of how the myriad ways in which Saint Olaf has set his mark on Norwegian culture. 

Plan of the steamer Hellig Olav of the Scandinavian-American Line
Courtesy of this website

For information about Trotsky's voyage, see Nigel West, Historical Dictionary of World War I Intelligence, p. 223.

onsdag 29. januar 2020

Article - The Odense literature and the liturgy of St Cnut Rex

Last month I announced the publication of a collection of articles, Life and Cult of Cnut the Holy, edited by a few colleagues and myself. The entire publication is available in Open Access, and I am very satisfied with the articles it contains.

Today, I was also given a pdf of my own article in the collection, and in case it might be practical to access the individual article rather than the entire collection, I have made this available here:

fredag 10. januar 2020

Working with liturgical manuscripts, part 15 - a little teaser

Two years ago I was employed to participate in a pilot project dedicated to researching fragments of medieval manuscripts at the university library of the University of Southern Denmark in Odense. My job was primarily to identify those liturgical fragments that had been discovered in the books once belonging to Herlufsholm School, an institution founded in the town of Næstved on Sjælland in 1565.

One of the books presented a particularly challenging case, namely Herlufsholm 534.11. As can be seen below, the spine has been strengthened by six strips of parchment - one of which had fallen off - as well as a loose fragment strip that is currently attached to the binding (not pictured). My colleague and I could identify this as having belonged to a liturgical manuscript thanks to the notation, but this was as sure as we could be about anything when we began our inquiries. 

Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek, Herlufsholm 534.11

The main problem was that with the exception of the two fragments at either end of the spine (about which I have written here and here), the manuscript had been cut vertically. On the one hand, this has provided us with a better sense of the original folio layout and the length of the texts. On the other hand, it meant that the individual fragments contained many incomplete words. This is a major issue when it comes to identifying such chant texts, because identification is often done by searching liturgical databases, such as the Cantus database. In order to use these search engines, it is important to have at least one complete word, and preferably more than a conjunction or preposition, in order to avoid wading through large quantities of material. And because Latin words have various endings depending on their grammatical clause, it makes a huge difference to be able to ascertain whether a word ends in the nominative or the accusative clause, for instance. In the case of the fragments of Herlufsholm 534.11, this grammatical information was often absent, either because the beginning or the end of the word had been cut off, or because of smudges or wear had made some letters illegible.

I have been working on these fragments on and off since this pilot project, always returning in the hope of teasing out some more information, and hoping that with some time away from the matter my eyes will be able to detect new details. Thankfully, this method has paid off. In the past month, I have twice returned to my images of the fragments as a way to distract my brain from various tasks, and this has yielded some breakthroughs that has changed my understanding of the fragments, and allowed me to fill in some important gaps. The second of these revelations came only two days ago.

Presently, I'm still systematising the information that has been gleaned from the recent revelations, and consequently there are still many things I'm leaving unsaid until I'm able to present my findings in a more coherent way. This blogpost is more as a way to express my excitement, and to provide an idea of why these particular fragments have been so challenging. I therefore hope the reader will forgive me for being a bit coy about the details.

But in order to illustrate the significance of the recent breakthroughs, I present you with the picture below. This shows the upper part of one of the fragments, showing the side that faces inward against the spine. The text on this side of the fragment is now completely lost to us, and all that remains are these letters, letters so difficult to read that I had since the very beginning of my work discarded all hope of teasing out their meaning. However, thanks to this week's revelation, I have been able to compare it with texts from some of the other fragments, and I now know that the text below reads "potuque dignas", and that it comes from a sequence for the feast of Easter Wednesday (Cantus ID: ah53050). In the microcosm of these fragments and my research on them, this is terribly exciting, and I hope to be able to share more details anon.

Spine fragment 5 
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek, Herlufsholm 534.11

søndag 5. januar 2020

The three kings at Sotosalbos

Today is the feast of Epiphany that commemorates the visit of the wise men to the Christ-child, as recounted in the Gospel of Matthew. From at least the third century, the number of wise men, magi, or kings was commonly set to three, and this is the standard representation throughout the Middle Ages. Images of the three kings were ubiquitous in medieval Christian art, since they were an important feature in the story of the life and time of Christ. For this year's feast, I'm presenting to you one of these medieval representations, which I encountered last year on a capital in the thirteenth-century Church of Saint Michael in Sotosalbos, Spain.

lørdag 28. desember 2019

Saint Thomas of Canterbury in Skive Church

Today is the feast of Saint Thomas of Canterbury, more commonly known as Thomas Becket, who was killed in Canterbury Cathedral on this day in 1170. The murder of the archbishop at the hand of knights in King Henry II's retinue was a scandal in its time, and even though the English king had not himself ordered the death of Thomas, he was widely blamed for the deed, especially in ecclesiastical circles.

The cult of Thomas spread quickly throughout Latin Christendom. This was in large part due to the network of ecclesiastical figures to which Thomas had belonged, and that shared his reformist views on the relationship between royal and ecclesiastical power that marked the political map of the twelfth century. The key figure in this network was Pope Alexander III (r.1159-81) who had supported Thomas' cause during the archbishop's exile in France from 1164 to 1170. It was Alexander who canonised Thomas in 1173.

Other important reformist figures were the Norwegian archbishop Eystein Erlendsson (r.1157-88) who is largely credited with bringing the cult of Thomas to Norway (see this blogpost), and the Danish archbishop Eskil Christiernson, or Eskil of Lund, who is considered to be responsible for bringing the cult of Thomas to Denmark, in no small part through the Cistercian order to whom both Eskil and Thomas were close. 

The cult of Thomas in medieval Denmark is still a subject that requires more work, and I hope to be able to contribute to this scholarly lacuna in the coming year. As a way to remind myself of the work to be done, I'm sharing with you one late medieval example of the veneration of Thomas in Denmark, namely a wall-painting from Skive Church in Northern Jutland.

Tomae de Cantuarienus [sic]
Wall-painting from Skive Church, Northern Jutland, c.1500

The example in question comes from the Church of Our Lady in the town of Skive in Northern Jutland. The church was built around 1200, and it is commonly known as Skive Old Church to distinguish it from the eighteenth-century church situated nearby, and which appears to be the hub of today's religious life in Skive.

The early history of Skive is uncertain, and the current scholarly consensus is that the town was most likely established around 1100. Its status as a market town - i.e. a town with particular mercantile privileges - was confirmed in a letter from 1326 (see this website), but the status might have been achieved earlier. Judging from the Church of Our Lady, Skive appears to have been an important town by the turn of the twelfth century, and its importance can be explained or measured by three main factors. First of all, Skive lies very close to Viborg, the episcopal see of Central Jutland which was established c.1060 and thus one of the main power centres in the area. Secondly, a royal manor, Skivegård, is mentioned in the survey of King Valdemar II (r.1201-41), the so-called Liber Census Daniae (see here), and points to the town's vicinity to royal power in addition to the episcopal power at Viborg. The third factor is the fish trade which is likely to have brought a lot of money to the town's wealthier inhabitants. These three factors must all be taken into account as possible explanations for the erection of the Church of Our Lady around 1200.

Vor Frue Kirke, Skive

Vor Frue Kirke, Skive, interior, towards the main altar

In the nineteenth century, the Church of Our Lady was about to be demolished, which was the fate of several redundant churches in Denmark at the time. Fortunately, an impressive programme of late medieval wall paintings was discovered in time, and the church was preserved. It is in this programme that we find the aforementioned late medieval depiction of Thomas of Canterbury. 

The interior of Skive Church is filled with a vast array of saints. These saints were painted c.1500, and it is thought that the workshop that executed these paintings was the same, or was at least connected to, the workshop that decorated Roskilde Cathedral (see here, and here). Among these many saints we find Thomas of Canterbury, situated in the vaulted roof between Peter Martyr of Verona (d.1252) and Sebastian. The question then is how we are to understand this as an expression of veneration of Thomas.

The painting of Thomas of Canterbury in Skive is interesting, both because it is one of very few known medieval Danish depictions of him, and also because of its wider pictorial context. Thomas is here one of many saints. On the one hand, these wall-paintings were commissioned by local donors who might have given very specific instructions about which saints to include. It is therefore tempting to see the inclusion of Thomas in light of the wider history of his cult in medieval Denmark. 

On the other hand, we might understand this as just an expression of his general popularity in Latin Christendom at the time. The saints of Skive Church are for the most part universally venerated in the Latin Church and by the time of the programme's execution these universal saints had been venerated for a very long time. Even the youngest of the saints included, Peter Martyr and Roch (whose traditional, but not uncontested, year of death is 1327), became widely celebrated within a relatively short timespan and are therefore unsurprising to see among more veteran saints. Even those saints that are not universally venerated outside the Nordic countries are nonetheless of regional importance, such as Knud Rex (d.1086) and Knud Dux (d.1131) whose cults were established throughout all of Denmark, and Saint Olaf of Norway (d.1030) whose cult was immensely popular throughout the Nordic world. The inclusion of Thomas in this saintly collegium is, therefore, a testament to the contemporary trends within the cult of saints, rather than a stage in a continuum in the veneration of Saint Thomas in medieval Denmark.

Even so, while the depiction of Thomas in Skive Church might not yield much information about his Danish cult, it nonetheless provides evidence of the endurance of his cult in Latin Christendom, and we see both that he was one of the trendy saints even in Northern Europe around 1500, and that he was one of the many ways in which the donors of Skive's wall-paintings sought to express their participation in the religious trends of Latin Christendom.

Similar blogposts

Saint Olaf in medieval Denmark

Thomas of Canterbury in medieval Norway

On the early cult of Thomas of Canterbury

A song for Thomas of Canterbury

Martin of Tours in Skive Church

fredag 27. desember 2019

The chalice of John the Evangelist

Today is the feast of John the Evangelist, and for this occasion I decided to dig deep in my archives in search of a memory from when I was an MA student and spent quite a lot of time in York. I was reminded of the many beautiful pieces of surviving medieval stained glass in the city's many churches, and I had some hazy recollections of John the Evangelist featuring in some of them. In particular, I was convinced that the Church of St Denys on Walmgate had at least one memorable depiction of John, and it turned out that I was right, in a fashion. The images I found were not quite what I had envisioned, but what I found was well worth sharing, especially because one of the images teaches a very good lesson about the importance of iconography. But I'm getting ahead of myself. 

John the Evangelist, holding his attribute, the eagle

The above picture was one I had forgotten, but which shows one of the typical representations of John: A young, beardless man holding the eagle, his attribute which points back to the tetramorph of the vision of Ezekiel. In his other hand he holds what looks like the palm leaf, commonly attributed to martyrs, which is puzzling considering that John was not martyred but rather died of old age. It is possible that it is a lily signifying his virginity, but this is uncertain. The glass is fourteenth century. 

Saint Denys

Saint Denys, tower and repaired Norman doorway

The Church of Saint Denys is a treasure trove of medieval vestiges pointing to its long history. The doorway beside the tower, for instance, points to its early twelfth-century origin, as it is a Romanesque Norman arch with mason work typical of the period. Although the stonework and the gateway itself is, to the best of my judgement, original, its placement is a result of the continuous changes of the medieval church space. The main church building with its central nave and two flanking aisles dates from the fourteenth and fifteenth century, the period when the oldest surviving stained glass windows were constructed. The nave was badly damaged during the English Civil War, presumably in particular during the Siege of York in 1644, and therefore significantly shorter and more quadratic than it was originally. Consequently, while the Norman doorway once was the main entrance into the nave, it presently stands in its rebuilt form as a side entrance. 

Saint Denys, interior

Because the church has undergone many accidents and tumultuous changes in the course of its long history, a lot of what survives today is not in its original place - as demonstrated by the case of the Norman doorway. This is particularly evident in much of the stained glass. Some of the figures remain in their original positions, either by being put back in place or simply by serendipitously surviving the many changes in the subsequent centuries. Much of the medieval glass, however, survives only in fragments. These fragments have been put into whichever empty lead frame that fit them, resulting in an incongruous mix of displaced details that together provide an imperfect but powerful glimpse of the once complete programme of stories, episodes and figures that filtered the light for the churchgoers in the late Middle Ages. To the medievalist, these assemblages of fragments provide a veritable treasure hunt by which a picture, a narrative or a figure might be teased out from the chaos. One of these figures is John the Evangelist. 

In the picture above we see some of the many details that once were part of complete stories in glass. We see trumpeters that might hint at a doomsday window since the gonfanon is decorated by horned devils and ominous black birds that could be owls. We see the crowned head of the crucified Christ that might have been a free-standing crucifix or part of a larger crucifixion scene. And we see a chalice with a serpent. This chalice is the chalice of John the Evangelist, and can be found in a story recounted by Jacobus de Voragine in Legenda Aurea. According to this story, John was given a cup of poisoned wine by a pagan priest, but John drank the wine and survived, thus proving the power of God.

What is particular interesting about this disembodied attribute is exactly that it is recognisable even outside its original context. Once this stained glass fragment flanked a figure of John the Evangelist and reminded the onlookers of the story of the poisoned wine, which the priest might have recounted in sermons on precisely this day, December 27. They would have been reminded of this story whenever they went to church, looked up and saw this chalice and the now-lost figure of the evangelist. And even now, centuries later, with the figure of John irretrievably lost to the accidents of history, this single chalice, displaced from its original context, is still identifiable precisely because the stories survive, and precisely because the stained glass is a reminder of that stories, a shorthand for a larger narrative. In this way, fragments of a now-lost vitreous splendour is sufficient for us to, at least mentally, piece together what was once a familiar sight to the parishioners of Saint Denys, Walmgate, York.