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

fredag 26. november 2021

Achronology and exoticism - the past as a muddled country


My thinking was: very olden days; almost mythical; so 1628

- Philippa Perry, Richard Osman's House of Games S05E59

Earlier this week I stopped by the campus bookshop, and was met by the array of books for sale shown in the picture below. At first I was naturally drawn to the selection of titles – each of these books covers a subject that I know very little about, and I did end up with a book on the Phoenicians. But once the initial excitement had subsided a bit, I found myself immensely annoyed at several aspects of this series. For now, however, let us leave aside the issue concerning the decision to dedicate one book to “The Barbarians”. Let us also leave aside the troubling word choices that underpin the rationale of the series, namely “lost” and “civilisation”, choices that could fill essays of invective. Instead, I will here say a little bit about why the selection of cases for this book series is, in my view, very problematic.         

As can be seen in the picture, the selection favours what we consider ancient history, with Sumer setting the starting point quite far back in time. This selection is representative of the entire series, where the only other post-ancient cultures represented are from the Americas (the Maya, the Inca, and the Aztecs), with the exception of the Goths. Focussing on the table that I encountered in the bookshop, the problem with this selection becomes even more acute: The Aztecs – or rather, the Nahua – are lumped together with cultures that are much more distant from the Nahuas themselves than our twenty-first-century contemporaneity is to the Nahuas. In other words, the inclusion of the Nahua in a collage of the past that contains elements unmistakably ancient means that the non-expert onlooker is fed the impression that the Nahua, too, are immensely ancient.   

While I am no expert on the Nahua culture, I am deeply concerned about any kind of exoticising of the past, and one way to present something as exotic is to place it in a deep, distant, remote, unimaginable past. By emphasising the chronological distance, historical cultures appear incomprehensible and alien, perhaps even barbaric, depending on how you view history and humanity. The main problem here is, as mentioned, that what we tend to call the Aztec empire, or the Aztec culture, flourished in a brief period of time beginning in the fourteenth century and ending in the sixteenth – not by loss but by destruction. Moreover, while the polity of the Aztecs was conquered by the Spanish and their native allies, the people, the Nahua, continue to live in Mexico to this day. The idea of the Aztecs as a lost civilisation, therefore, not only buries the culture in a distant, cut-off past, but also blinds us to what continuity there actually was in the wake of the Aztec polity’s demise. A series that advertises “lost civilisations” and places the Aztecs on the same plane of chronological remoteness as the Sumerians, the Phoenicians and the Etruscans fortifies the alienation that a general lack of knowledge about the Nahua has already established.          

As a historian, I am frequently alerted to the fact that my vision of history is very different from that of people who are not experts in history. Even though my particular area of expertise is very limited – I mainly work on Latin Christendom in the period 1000-1300, with a particular focus on Northern Europe – I still need to understand my slice of time within a wider geographical and chronological context. I might not know much about what happens, say, in Eastern Europe in the course of the sixteenth century, or about the evolution of the Graeco-Bactrian culture of Central Asia, but if someone tells me that an event took place in 1649 or in 543 BC, I can place the event in question in a rather different way than people who see everything before a certain date to be uniformly remote. An example of such thinking – of the distant past as an achronological chronotope – is shown in the epigraph for this blogpost. To me, 1628 is not very olden days. Neither do I consider the Aztec empire, for want of a better term, to be ancient.           

I do not, however, judge non-historians for thinking in this way. It is quite natural, and the only reason I think differently is that I am trained to do so in my profession. The problem is when the kind of muddled achronology that contributes and prepares the ground for an exotic outlook on the past is aided and abetted by a serious publisher whose books are put together by experts. As much as I welcome the opportunity to get a crash-course in the history of the Aztecs, I also have to recognise that this publisher, Reaktion Books, is also making my job as a teacher much more difficult.  

lørdag 20. november 2021

Jetmundkyrkja - The church of Saint Edmund in Åheim, Norway

Today is the feast of Edmund of East Anglia, a king who was killed by Danish raiders in 869, and who shortly afterwards became the subject of a cult. I wrote about Edmund in my PhD thesis (which can be accessed here), and I have written several blogposts about aspects of his cult throughout the medieval period (for instance here, here, and here). My interest in Edmund continues, and I am always on the look-out for evidence of his veneration. This blogpost is about one such piece of evidence from Western Norway. 

February this year, my parents and I went for a roadtrip to the coast of Selja municipality, a dangerous area on the sea route from Bergen to Trondheim, known for its often harsh seas and stormy conditions. In the medieval period, Selja was an important node in the traffic between Trondheim - one of the main trade hubs and ecclesiastical centres of the kingdom - and the rest of the world. Of particular importance to the topic of this blogpost was Selja's connection to England. The currents of the North Sea made Selja a natural stopover for pilgrims, merchants and travellers of any other kind, as is suggested by the idea that Olaf Haraldsson, the later Saint Olaf, went ashore here on his return to Norway from England in 1016, at least according to the twelfth-century chronicler Theodoricus Monk. A more concrete testament to the English connection can be found in the Benedictine abbey of Selja, which was founded around 1100 and dedicated to Saint Alban, the protomartyr of England, ruins of which still stand today. Not far from this abbey, in a fjord a little to the north, lies the Church of Saint Edmund, known in Norwegian as Sankt Jetmund-kyrkja, as Jetmund is the Norse variant of Edmund.   

The Church of Saint Edmund, Åheim, looking east

The commonly accepted scholarly interpretation is that the church was built around the middle of the twelfth century, although the exact date is unknown, and that it was connected with the abbey at Selja, possibly as a tithe church established to generate funds to the Benedictine community. The dedication of the church to Saint Edmund supports the connection to the English monks, although the general influence from England on the cult of saints in Norway was significant. 

Little is known about the church throughout the medieval period, and to my knowledge it has not left any traces in the surviving written material. The best clue to the medieval church is the building itself, or at least what can be reasonably dated to the medieval period. Unfortunately, as the building was abandoned as a parish church for the village of Åheim in 1863, much of the stone was repurposed. This was a consequence of a law from 1851, which stated that all churches needed to have sufficient room to house 30 percent of the congregation within its walls, and the small medieval structure failed to meet these demands.  

The church was subject to a restoration project that began in the 1930s, discontinued in the course of the 1940s due to the war, and completed in 1957. In many ways, the reconstructed building represents a reasonable hypothesis about the shape of the church, as it follows the design of typical Norwegian twelfth-century church with a square basic structure, pointed roofs, and a free-standing church tower in wood. Some elements, however, appear to have survived the dismantling of the church, such as the decorated capitels of arch separating the choir from the nave. Similarly, a segment of the wall that rises about one metre from the ground appears to have been remained by the time the restoration began, and this original section can be seen below a horizontal line visible on the inside of the wall, separating the older and the newer layer (cf. photograph below).

A piece of the original church decorations

The layer that separates the medieval, undisturbed section and the later restoration

The choir
Note the horizontal line that separates the original and the restored layer

The Church of Saint Edmund as it stands today in its restored fashion is a beautiful piece of architecture, and although we will never know exactly how well it corresponds with the building used in the Middle Ages, we are nonetheless able to get some sense of the importance of the church in the local landscape. Due to the topography in the fjords, which in many places has remained unchanged in its basic elements through millennia, we have a very good sense of how the church must have appeared to travellers coming by boat into the Vanylven Fjord, either from the coast or one of the neighbouring fjords. Lying on the alluvial plain where Åheim River runs into Vanylven Fjord, the church would have been easy to see from afar, and it would have stood out in the deceptively open landscape. And this visibility can still be appreciated and noticed by a modern traveller.

The view from the church, as would have been visible to medieval churchgoers

onsdag 3. november 2021

Conference: The Cult of Saints and Legitimization of Elite Power in East Central Europe and Scandinavia until 1300

Next week, from Monday November 8 to Tuesday November 9, I am co-organising a conference as a part of the project where I am currently employed. The project, ELITES: Symbolic Resources and Political Structures on the Periphery: Legitimization of the Elites in Poland and Norway, c. 1000-1300, is a collaboration between the University of Warsaw and the University of Oslo. The conference will be held in Warsaw. 

The title of the conference is 'The Cult of Saints and Legitimization of Elite Power in East Central Europe and Scandinavia until 1300', and can non-participating audiences can follow this conference by livestream from the University of Warsaw's YouTube channel:

All are welcome!

søndag 31. oktober 2021

In another country - or, a Norwegian in Oslo

so I've got, ehm, a beard, and, eh, Viking horns 

- Rachel Riley, 8 out of 10 cats does countdown S17E02

It is common for people who come from outside Oslo to say that Oslo is not really Norway. It is also common, I was told my a colleague before beginning my new job, that to people in Oslo, everything outside the city is abroad. Such a dynamic is, I believe, quite typical between capitals and the rest of the country. Perhaps the dynamic is particularly strong in Norway because we do not have great cities, and because so many parts of the country remain districts despite the ongoing urbanisation. 

Considering this dynamic, it is always a curious experience to saunter about in the cityscape, and to explore the various attempts at metropolitanism that can be found in the city, and also to see the many examples of why those of us who do come from the district struggle to see Oslo as part of our country. For instance, there are the neo-classical facades of public buildings, the neo-romanticism of the villas in the city's posher quarters, or the cutting-edge modern of the opera house, and the various shops and restaurants that allow the residents to sample different corners of the world in their everyday life. These are all good things, each in their own way, and there are aspects about the city that I have very much come to enjoy even after only two months of residence. But every once in a while I am reminded that Oslo tries to be more Norway than the rest of Norway - that when communicating to tourists and exploiting the various preconceptions that non-Norwegians have about the country, things tend to go a bit awry. 

Contemporary medievalism

This Thursday I was in town in the late afternoon to get something to eat. As I made my way through some of the more crowded streets close to various sights and popular tourist spots, I noticed that one of the shops was offering a selection of stereotypical Viking helmets, the ones that you often see either used by football fans at the stadium, or by children dressing up. Even though I do not specialise in Viking history, I am, as I believe most medievalists are, often plagued by this recurring trope of medievalism, as it is both widespread and impossible to root out, no matter how often experts will say that the Vikings did not have horns on their helmets. But the tourist industry knows very well that this is what foreigners expect to find in Norway, and this is what they are given.   

On my way home from dinner, I passed by another souvenir shop. Although I had passed it before, this was the first time I had seen it lit up in the twilight in this way, and the lighting made some of its aspects stand out more strongly against the surroundings. One such aspect was, of course, the polar bear. I also could not help noticing the reindeer on the first floor. Both these animals are quintessentially Norwegian according to the canon established by the tourist industry. It does not matter that polar bears do not live in mainland Norway, or that reindeer are nowhere to be found in the hinterland of Oslo, they are both avatars of archetypal Norwegianness, and therefore they are to be found in the heart of Oslo. 

As much as I see the logic behind such displays, and as much as I know that this catering to prejudice and expectation has little to do with, and cannot be countered by, facts and reality, there is something slightly carnivalesque about such shops and such assemblages of elements that have nothing to do with Oslo. And this carnivalesque sensation is exactly one of those reasons why I, as a Norwegian in Oslo, feel like I am in another country altogether. 

fredag 29. oktober 2021

Balthasar the wise king in fifteenth-century Norway

One of the many phenomenal treasures housed by the Oslo Museum of Cultural history is this section from a fifteenth-century altar. The scene is a fascinating, although not unusual, compression of various elements from the Nativity story, where all the actors are gathered but still on their way to the scene, as it were: Mary and Joseph are travelling to Bethlehem, the shepherds have not yet been accosted by the angels, and the three magi and their retinues have not yet arrived at their destination.

The altar is also interesting, although still not unusual, for its depiction of Balthasar the king, who was a black man according to the medieval tradition. In this way, the altar is a good reminder that people in medieval Norway knew very well that there were people of different skin colours than their own in the world. For anyone familiar with medieval Norwegian history, this comes as no surprise at all, and it is indeed incredibly banal to point it out. However, because we are in a political climate where the Middle Ages are re-imagined by right-wing forces as a place in time where ethnicities did not mix and that Europeans were pure-blooded and white-skinned, even such a banal reminder of reality serves a purpose. (Granted, this anachronistic racist vision of medieval Europe is not new, but it has gained greater political currency in the past few years.) 

Piece of an altar from Borre Church, Vestfold, Norway
Produced in the fifteenth century, probably Northern Germany 
Oslo Museum of Cultural History, C6131

Within scholarly circles, the idea that the Middle Ages - however you want to define that term in space and time - was a multicultural period, i.e., a period in which several cultures met, interacted, inhabited the same areas, and influenced each other. This is not to say that these cultural interactions were necessarily peaceful or marked by mutual respect - very often they were the opposite. But that the world was multicultural was not solely a fact, but also something that was well known even in a geographical periphery as Norway. Granted, in the second half of the fifteenth century, when this altar was made, it is most likely that most Norwegians had never seen a black person. It is even possible, although to a significantly lesser degree, that the woodworkers who carved this altar - probably somewhere in Northern Germany, such as Lübeck - might never have seen a black person in their lives. Even so, knowledge about other cultures circulated as part of the cultural impressions conveyed through art, literature and stories, and informed the worldview of Northern Europeans. This worldview included people very different to themselves. And even though this rendition of Balthasar, once featured in Borre Church in Vestfold, was not produced in Norway, the altar, and the figures in it, conveyed an image of the wider world to the Norwegian congregation. And it is not a hazardous guess to suspect that they had already heard about this black king long before the altar was brought to Norway.

torsdag 21. oktober 2021

Surrounded by simulacra - my first encounter with Warsaw

This week I spent two days in Warsaw for a work trip. Since we – my colleagues and I – had a short timeframe for discussing professional matters, most of the time I spent in Warsaw was taken up with discussions, later followed by talks and even later by chats. It was invigorating, inspiring and pleasant, as good work trips are in academia, but one consequence of this tight schedule was that my encounter with the city itself was relatively brief. However, thanks to the generosity of some of my Polish colleagues, those of us who had travelled to Warsaw from Norway were given a guided tour from the outskirts of what was once the early modern city to the interior what was once the medieval city. It was a crash course in the city’s history. It was very interesting. It was also profoundly moving.

Warsaw is in many ways a complex city, as it blends elements from late medieval cityscapes, the vulgar Baroque of the eighteenth century, the seemingly French-inspired neoclassicism of the nineteenth century, the vestiges of the Communist past, and the scattered skyscrapers of a modern city. But this complexity is in its way deceptive. Or perhaps I should rather say that this complexity is deepened by the illusory sense of history that envelops the flaneur as they make their way through the broad streets of the early modern city into the squares and alleys of the medieval city. This illusory sense of history is then shattered whenever one remembers that all of this – or at least almost all of it – is simulacra.

The medieval town, Warsaw

The great watershed in Warsaw’s history is the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, a sixty-three-day struggle in which Polish resistant fighters tried to take Warsaw from German control. The uprising failed, and on orders by Hitler almost all of the old town was levelled to the ground. The city was later rebuilt, and from photographs and paintings the individual buildings were replaced with replicas of astounding likeness to their originals. The effort was so successful that when walking through these streets, it would be impossible – at least for the non-expert in, say, architectural history – to see that what surrounds the viewer in as good as every direction is a collection of simulacra. 

It was a very eerie experience walking through these replicated layers of history – layers that were in one sense coeval with one another, but which alluded to different epochs and created an impression of layers that once existed. It was on the one hand marvellous, because the recreation was done so immensely well – I could definitely sense something of the same atmosphere that I have sensed in cities where such layered history is preserved and strongly visible, cities like Rome, York, Salamanca, Split. Yet once I noticed that feeling of giddy joy that overtakes the enthusiast, that feeling was immediately followed by a strong note of sadness. The sadness came from the realisation that this was, despite an incredible effort, not real. There was something not quite genuine, something that was not quite guaranteed about the verisimilitude of this assortment of simulacra: buildings, streets, horizons, nooks and crannies. 

It is not that cities like those mentioned above are not also grappling with some of the same issues. Wherever history is preserved in layers, there is a degree of uncertainty connected to it. There is always some restoration that has gone into the work, there is always a selection and discarding that has been done in order to decide what to preserve and what to give up to the changes that must happen in a cityscape. The preservation efforts are also hostage to the whims of human judgement, and it can be difficult to assess whether a restoration is actually a restoration or a creation: whether the past is presented on its own terms – whatever they might be in any given situation – or whether what we see is in actuality the fantasy image of the past as envisioned by an individual or several. Such uncertainties abound, even in the most historical of cities, however we want to understand that term. But in Warsaw, that uncertainty is different. Because on the one hand, we are certain that this is a reconstruction, and on the other, we cannot be certain about the number of liberties taken, or the number of gaps of knowledge that had to be filled by educated guesswork. This uncertainty is in a different configuration as that of other cities with a long history, and it makes for a very different experience when brought face to face with the city as it stands now.

The royal palace, Warsaw

The Trinity Church, Warsaw

There is no doubt that the reconstruction of Warsaw is impressive and based on materials that can be checked and compared with, and this post is in no way intended to denigrate that effort. Quite the contrary, I wholeheartedly applaud the effort, and it has given visitors to Warsaw an immensely beautiful scene. But it does come with a feeling I have never felt before, because never has the unreality of my surroundings been so clear, so well-known, so overt. These simulacra entice emotions that are similar to when I visit other cities as those mentioned above, but there is that constant and ever-returning knowledge that these emotions are based on replicas. (I studiously avoid the term “fake”, because that is not what these buildings are.) These feelings, brought on as they are by reconstructions, make me wonder what the difference is between the original and the reconstructed in terms providing that kind of emotional connection with a place and its past that people often encounter – willingly or unwillingly – in certain locations. These feelings also remind me that there is a very complex discussion to be had about the reality of the past, and about expectations, and about the value of simulacra in the absence of the original – and whether such differences matter all that much in certain situations.

My encounter with Warsaw often caused me to become stunned at various moments as I reflected on this resuscitated reality and the sadness that lingered in the very fact that what I saw around me on every side was an attempt to preserve what had been irrevocably lost, at least from the material point of view. 

The Church of the Holy Spirit, Warsaw

onsdag 13. oktober 2021

Link: The King’s Three Images: The representation of St. Edward the Confessor in historiography, hagiography and liturgy

I am writing this just past midnight of October 14, but the post itself pertains to October 13, which is the feast of the translation of the relics of Saint Edward the Confessor. 

Long-time readers of my blog might know that I wrote my MA dissertation on the development of his cult in the period 1066-1400. The dissertation was finished in the autumn of 2012, and the work that went into the dissertation is still to this day shaping a lot of my research.  

Since I was reminded of my dissertation today, I was also reminded that I never provided a clear and easy to find weblink to the document itself. The dissertation, "The King’s Three Images: The representation of St. Edward the Confessor in historiography, hagiography and liturgy", is still available on the Internet, and a Pdf file can be downloaded from my alma mater, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. The link is here: