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

torsdag 29. april 2021

Sources for a conference presentation (30.04.21)

As I mentioned in my previous blogpost, I am giving two conference presentations this week. The first of these is tomorrow, where I will be speaking on the third and last day of the Becket conference, the belated 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of Thomas of Canterbury in 1170 (as well as the 800th anniversary of the translation of his relics in 1220). 

In my presentation, I talk about the veneration of Saint Thomas in medieval Norway, as evidenced by materials for the liturgical office for his feast-day on December 29. While there are many interesting sources to the cult of Saint Thomas in medieval Norway, my focus is only on the materials from the feast-day office, and not about his translation feast or the materials for the mass. 

The presentation is pre-recorded, and to access it you need to register for the conference. If you have not done so, you might still find this blogpost useful, as the purpose of the post is to provide links to some of the sources that I have used in my research. 

AM 679 4to, f.10r

The first source is AM 679 4to, a thirteenth-century Icelandic manuscript which contains a version of the so-called Ordo Nidrosiense, i.e. a book containing the liturgical feasts celebrated in the Norwegian archiepiscopal province, which included Iceland, Greenland, Shetland, the Orkneys, the Faroes, the Hebrides and Man. This source is invaluable for understanding the yearly cycle of liturgical performance in the churches throughout the Norwegian archdiocese.

The second source is Breviarium Nidrosiense, a breviary containing the materials for the office for the feasts celebrated throughout the liturgical year in the Norwegian church province. The breviary was printed in Paris in 1519, commissioned by Archbishop Erik Valkendorf. The content was most likely drawn - at least in part - from a manuscript of the Ordo, or some similar manuscript used at Trondheim, the metropolitan see of Norway. This means that despite the use of new technology, the content was old and therefore a valuable source to liturgical observance in earlier centuries. 

A digitised edition of Breviarium Nidrosiense can be found on the website of the Norwegian National Library.

A searchable, transcribed edition of the content of the Breviarium can be found on the website Bokselskap. This version is edited by Ingrid Sperber, and it includes an introduction by Espen Karlsen and Sigurd Hardeide, and it is a phenomenally useful tool for any researcher or enthusiast. The edition was published by the National Library for the 500-year-anniversary of the printing of what are known as the first Norwegian (printed) books, and which was celebrated by a series of events throughout Norway in The Norwegian Year of the Book in 2019. 

The third source that I mention, although I do not engage with it, is Missale Nidrosiense, the sister-volume of the Breviarium containing the materials for the mass celebrations in the Norwegian archdiocese. 

A digitised edition can be found at the Norwegian National Library. 

And as with the Breviarium, the National Library has also published a transcribed edition made by Ingrid Sperber, including an introduction by Espen Karlsen and Sigurd Hardeide. And as with the edition of the Breviarium, this edition is an extremely helpful and valuable tool for anyone interested in the medieval liturgy of Norway.

These sources will be mentioned in the course of my talk, and in the event that my presentation, or just the reading of this blogpost, inspires you to explore these sources, here they are gathered on one single plate. Enjoy.

mandag 26. april 2021

Two online conferences

This week, I am participating in two online conferences, where I will be presenting my research. Since these conferences are available for anyone who registers, and because these conferences have a great number of interesting speakers, I am including the links for the events here, and I hope that you will have the time and the interest to join. 

Thomas Becket - Life, death and legacy (28-30.04)

This conference is a belated commemoration of the 850-year-anniversary of the death of Thomas Becket, one of the most famous ecclesiastics of his time, and subsequently one of the most famous saints of Latin Christendom. I will be presenting on the liturgical veneration of Saint Thomas in the Norwegian archdiocese, and there are also a number of other interesting topics covering a wide geographical remit. The conference is organised by Canterbury Cathedral and the University of Kent.

The event can be found here:

Medievalisms on the Screen: The Representation of the Middle Ages in Audiovisual Media in the 21st Century (29.04-01.05)   

This conference brings together scholars of medievalism in order to explore the various ways that the medieval past is imagined, represented, used and abused in contemporary audiovisual media. As has become abundantly clear these past twenty years, the Middle Ages exert a tremendous influence on popular imagination, popular culture, politics and identity-formation. While the influence of the medieval past is not a new discovery, the recent developments in audiovisual culture has allowed that influence to become even stronger, and therefore in greater need of being understood. I will be presenting on how the historical encounter between Norse and indigenous American cultures has been utilised and developed in popular culture, and how this should be understood in light of contemporary politics. There is also a great array of other interesting topics, all immensely relevant to how we understand our current political and cultural climates.

The event can be found here: 

søndag 25. april 2021

A lion from Skibet Church, Denmark


Today is the feast of Saint Mark the Evangelist, whose main attribute is the lion, and on whose feast was performed the great litany, letania maior, a catalogue of saints invoked in the performance of the mass. As an evangelist, Mark belongs to the oldest register of saints, and therefore one of the truly universal saints of the medieval kalendars. 

This year, I had hoped to put together a blogpost on Saint Mark, but as I have been preoccupied with various commitments, I have decided to leave Saint Mark for later, having now convinced my readers that there is a lot to return to. Instead, I will make use of his leonine attribute to share my encounter with one of several glorious medieval lions that can be found throughout the medieval church spaces of Denmark. I encountered this lion in May 2019, my last spring in Denmark, when I joined some colleagues on a trip to Skibet Church near Vejle in Jutland.  

The church was built around 1200, and originally had a broader nave. The main feature of interest in the church is a spectacular restored fresco from the early thirteenth century, which covers the Eastern end of the nave. Unfortunately, as the nave has been narrowed at a later point, there are several details missing, and the general scene and its meaning remains a matter of contention. Despite the unresolved questions, the scene is an absolute delight to behold, and a forceful testament to quality of church art in medieval Denmark. And as always is the case with medieval art - be it wall-paintings, sculptures, illuminations or any other medium - there are several details in which one can get lost when perusing the scenery. One such detail is a lion.

The lion might not appear very leonine to our modern eyes, but it follows the established conventions of how lions commonly were depicted in the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries in Latin Christendom. It appears to serve a mainly decorative function, as an architectural feature, a corbel uniting the pillar with the vaulting in the timeless architectural backdrop depicted in the scene. There might be additional layers to how we understand it, as medieval images could carry several meanings at one and the same time, but because the scene remains somewhat obscure to us, it is unclear how we should interpret this lion. As it is now, it serves as a reminder that the iconographical conventions of Latin Christendom also were in place in medieval Denmark, and that although very few Danes could be expected to have ever seen a lion, it was such an established part of the semiotics of the Middle Ages that it is ubiquitous in the sacred spaces even as far as the Nordic world.

There is also another lion from roughly the same period hiding in the architecture of Skibet Church, but that is another blogpost.

lørdag 3. april 2021

A fragment for the eve of the Resurrection

Today, April 3, is the Easter eve, the day between Christ's death on the cross and His resurrection, and the middle point in the liturgical climax of the Christian year. Due to the importance of Easter in the liturgical celebration of the medieval churches, there survives a great amount of manuscripts containing the texts to be sung or read for that season. I have previously posted examples of such paschal fragments from my work in the special collections at Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek, for instance here. This Easter, I was reminded of the fragment RARA K 284, about which I have previously written here and here, which contains a part of the mass for the Easter vigil. The fragment comes from a missal, and despite its heavily worn lettering, it has been possible to identify the text as belonging to the Book of Jonah, chapter 3, verses 1-6.  

Syddansk Universitestsbibliotek, RARA K 284


Syddansk Universitestsbibliotek, RARA K 284

The text from the Book of Jonah points to an important aspect of the use of the Bible both in the Middle Ages and also today, namely the idea that episodes and events in the Old Testament were repeated in the New Testament. This pattern is also known as typology, whereby the anti-type - or the precursor - can be found in the Old Testament, and the type can be found in the New. In the Christian interpretation, therefore, the Book of Jonah contains an anti-type to the story of Christ's resurrection, because Jonah was swallowed by a whale and emerged from it afterwards, just as Christ came back to life. For this reason, the Book of Jonah provided a suitable reading for the liturgy leading up to Resurrection Sunday, and this is what we see in this now-tattered fragment.   

tirsdag 30. mars 2021

One month later

Towards the end of February, the ice on one of the lakes of the village was covered in what we call surface water, some of it rain, but most of it meltwater from the thawing bogs and mires, from which a sepia-coloured run-off gushed onto the lake and created a brown mirror of the world. Yet it was still safe to walk on the ice, and it was possible to go across to the other side of the lake. 

Today, however, one month and ten days later, the ice was in a much different state. The once-solid ice sheet has fragmented into smaller particles barely kept together, which dissolve as soon as it crushes into something, or as soon as you pick it up. A sheet of this ice still lies across parts of the lake, but great flakes are loosening from the main sheet and either run ashore or into the waterfall. The atmosphere is different, and it is a good measurement of how much change can be wrought in about one single month. 


mandag 29. mars 2021

Down the rabbit hole - or, Adventures in medievalism


Oh, historical, so was there a dragon?   
- Nick Miller, New Girl, S05E16

The Vikings probably went to the moon
- David Mitchell, QI, S17E14

Although most of my research is spent on primary sources from the Middle Ages, I have increasingly ventured into various labyrinthine passages of the field of medievalism - the study of the reception of the Middle Ages in the modern period. This topic is one that is close to my heart, as I suspect that it was precisely such playful engagements with modern ideas about the medieval, conveyed through Playmobil, Lego, comic books and cartoons, that subtly prepared the ground for my current work on medieval history. Such a link between the childhood encounters and the very serious grown-up fascination with medieval minutiae are not unique to my trajectory, and I am always delighted when friends and colleagues share the various factors that moved them towards acquiring an expertise in the history of the Middle Ages. It is precisely this awareness of a quietly influencing fascination that works in mysterious ways that makes me interested in medievalism as a field of serious study. In part, it might be explained as a kind of homage to my younger self, a kind of acknowledgement of the hours spent engaging with those cultural expressions that prepared the ground for future decisions that have since brought me such immense intellectual pleasure. In part, it might also be explained as a way of acquiring a better comprehension of why this fascination was allowed to grow, and what nerves and what chords of my historical understanding - indeed, our collective historical understanding - that were touched by the images of knights and princesses, castles, swords and other staples of our Platonic idea of the medieval. In seeking such a comprehension, there is an awareness that the medieval fascinates other than myself, that understanding how we interpret, play with, represent and misrepresent the past actually matters for events that unfold in the present. Just as my future has been shaped by my exposure to the medieval in popular culture, so have other events likewise been shaped by representations of the Middle Ages, and people have been moved to things good or bad by this fascination. Engaging scholarly, critically and seriously with the knowledge of such an impact on real events and the contemporary world is one of the cornerstones of medievalist research. 


Because ideas about the Middle Ages have flourished in so many different ways, and within a vast range of cultural frameworks, it is impossible to gain a complete overview of the phenomenon. Modern polities have their own cultural traditions in which visions of the medieval are conveyed through various forms of art, and these traditions require that the scholar engaging with them is familiar with the culture in question, and familiar with the language. By learning a new language, therefore, a new culture opens up, and a new trove of medievalism can be examined. Such troves easily become veritable rabbit holes from which it is difficult to emerge. 

Recently, as my Spanish has improved sufficiently for me to explore cultural expressions that are less well known outside the Spanish-speaking world, I have encountered a few such expressions that engage with the Middle Ages, and I am looking forward to spending years familiarising myself with this subject and, in doing so, enjoying the fruits of the labour of the numerous scholars already working on it. At the present stage, however, my forays are few, short and amateurish, and they are limited to specific topics that I have worked on within other cultural frameworks. One such topic is the modern fascination with the historical contact between the Norse and the Native Americans. This is a topic that has resulted in a number of cultural expressions, and as I am now preparing a talk on this subject for a conference in April, I am taking a deep dive into its manifold manifestations. 

It was in the course of this research that I remembered one of the Spanish cultural products that engage with the medieval, namely the comic book hero El Capitán Trueno, Captain Thunder, a twelfth-century knight created by writer Victor Mora Pujadas in 1956, and predominantly illustrated by Miguel Ambrosio Zaragoza. I only learned of this comic book series a few years ago, and although I wrote about its engagement with the topos of Atlantis in four blogposts (here, here, here, and here), I can still not claim to be an expert on the subject, far from it. However, since I remembered that Capitán Trueno is a wide-wandered gentleman, I decided to see if he had also travelled to the American landmass. It turned out that he had, and that the results drew me further and further down the rabbit hole. 

I came across a website presenting the covers of the first three hundred bi-weekly comic books, and when scrolling through these I realised that Capitán Trueno had met several Native American cultures, from the Inuit to what appears to be the predecessors of the Aztecs, and even battled dinosaurs - thus connecting the trope of medieval contact with America with the trope of the relict dinosaur inspired by The Lost World. I spent longer than I care to admit, getting a first impression of these stories, solely based on their cover art and their title, and it made me realise that this is something I will eventually have to spend even more time on, and getting further down the rabbit hole for the sake of science. It is thrilling realisation, and it is a good reminder that scholarly research opens up far more passages than can easily be envisioned at the beginning of one's career.     

Capitán Trueno, Acosados, vol. 56, 1957 

Capitán Trueno, La voz de Zankú, vol. 86, 1958 

torsdag 25. mars 2021

A fondness for small things – minor saints and the value of impossible questions

As I mentioned in my previous blogpost, I am currently working as a member of a research project which, among other things, involves identifying which saints have been celebrated in medieval calendars. While this might sound straightforward and fairly simple, it is very often anything but. Certainly, a lot of saints are easily identifiable because they were widely venerated, because they were famous, because they came into being late enough for us to have a good understanding of their cult, or because they have names that are not easily confused with the names of other saints. But there are also others: Saints whose cults began in obscure circumstances, or who never attained great popularity, or whose names are shared by a wide number of saints – some of whom perhaps more famous – and whose identities can therefore be difficult to ascertain, especially in the modern world where material has been lost to the Protestant Reformation, or where cults of doubtful authenticity have either been removed from catalogues by church councils, or relegated to the status of curiosities. Luckily, there are plenty of resources for scholars who try to make sense of obscure saints, but even these resources might sometimes not be sufficient (as I learned the hard way earlier today).          
For all my frustrations about the time spent chasing down details that can carry the definitive proof in an identification, and for all my teeth-grinding annoyance about the number of saints called Maximus or Felix, my exposure to the minutiae of medieval liturgical calendars have reminded me that I do actually have a deep fondness for these minor saints, and that I find them utterly fascinating. In part, I believe this fondness stems from a kind of sympathy with neglected materials – things that have been either discarded or overlooked because they would only yield limited results research-wise, or because researchers sometimes are drawn to more shiny things. I know from my own experience that it can be much more tempting to engage with a breadth of material that keeps you occupied for years on end, especially when a saint’s cult has had a tangible impact on historical events and inspired, or been the centrepiece of, tomes of writing, impressive architectural projects, or art of an outstanding and impressive quality.   

Yet despite the limited amount of knowledge that can be ascertained about the cults of minor saints, they do offer some valuable methodological challenges, and for this reason, my fondness for small things becomes entwined with some of the most fundamental aspects of being a historian. For instance, how do we use these minor saints to understand the general history of the cult of saints? How do these half-forgotten, confusing, obscure holy figures teach us something about the way that the cult of saints was disseminated in the early history of a newly-Christianised region? What does it tell us that some names are shared by calendars followed in Italy, Spain, Ireland, Norway, Poland, yet appear to be equally unknown in all these places? It is because of these questions, as well as others, that the minor saints can be important tools in assembling a better understanding of the historical development of medieval religion.  

Some of these questions might appear easy enough at first. For instance, the popularity of saints often tends to wax and wane over longer periods, and a failure to regain lost popularity might be explained by a lack of miracles, the appearance of a new cult that eclipses an older cult, or the absence of written material sometimes needed to keep the momentum of trust going when dealing with a saint whose role as intercessor and advocate appears to have become less efficacious in later years. That such ebbs and tides are typical of the cult of saints is well established, as exemplified by bouts of textual production, the main aim of which is to reignite the popularity of an old but seemingly dormant saint. After all, such reignition, or perhaps rediscovery, became a topos of hagiographical writing in its own right already in the fourth century. The idea that saints could be recovered from oblivion – perhaps of their own volition or in response to their own hints – is the very starting point of the cult of Gervasius and Protasius in Milan (for more on this cult, see this blogpost). We know from one of Ambrose of Milan’s letters to his sister, Marcellina, that the archbishop actively started digging in the ground in search for saints when he needed relics for the consecration of his new church. The basis for this was some vague stories he had heard, and which he decided to put to the test, and the result was the unearthing of two skeletons who were named after the protagonists of one such vague, half-forgotten story.       

In other words, we know something of the broader mechanics of how popularity ebbs and surges in the cult of saints. Yet the finer mechanics might bring us closer to questions about specific historical moments, or transitions of cult material from one region to the next, or remind us that the less-celebrated names of a calendar once commanded great devotion and received the attention of hosts of faithful flocking to a cult site in hope or in thanksgiving. And while much about the histories of these minor saints and their cults remain obscure to us, we are reminded that we cannot remain content with the broader understanding. Yes, we do know the circumstances by which the cult of Gervasius and Protasius underwent a resurgence at the turn of the fourth century. And yes, we do know, for instance, why Saint Sebastian’s association with plague caused a great boost for his cult in the course of the fourteenth century. But there are other cults whose endurance remain puzzling.        

For instance, we have the case of Abdon and Sennen (see this blogpost). These two saints are of particular curiosity to me, since their feast day, July 30, is the day after the feast of Saint Olaf of Norway, on whom I have worked a lot since starting my PhD back in 2014. In the calendars of medieval Norway, Abdon and Sennen were included, and a commemoration of them was most likely performed following the grander liturgical celebrations of Norway’s patron saint, which, in the case of the metropolitan see, was one of the liturgical high points of the year. We do not know whether the legend of Abdon and Sennen was known to the Norwegian clergy, or whether their feast was simply a collateral detail when the cult of saints was introduced to Norway and materials from England and Germany served as the basic start-up kit for the Norwegian churches. And to cast a wider perspective: We do now know exactly why it was that these two saints of uncertain historicity came to occupy such a secure place in the collective memory of Latin Christendom that their names continued to be celebrated – however perfunctorily – more than a thousand years after their supposed existence, and in geographies more or less completely unknown to those who first put their names into writing.   

Abdon and Sennen, here represented by a woodcut used for several saints throughout the book
Das Leuend der Hÿlghen, Steffen Arndes, Lübeck, 1492
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek, RARA M 15, f.91r

Minor saints, such as Abdon and Sennen, and also such as Gervasius and Protasius, or Felix and Adauctus, or Maximus the abbot whose identity I still have not ascertained, are important figures when researching the cult of saints, because they pose impossible but productive questions. They provide insights into the mechanics of canon formation, about the balance between endurance and oblivion, about the strength of memory despite a very meagre foundation. They also force us to speculate about the reception of such seemingly empty names in newly Christianised regions, and their continuity centuries thence. It is perhaps especially useful to be exposed to the place of these minor saints in the religious life of Latin Christendom when otherwise spending most research time delving into the better known, larger cults. We are reminded that the cult of saints was a framework of many pieces great and small, and that the small pieces could have functions that we do not yet quite understand, and that they could prove important to our understanding of the structure as a whole.