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

søndag 29. mars 2020

Histories from home, part 1 - minor monuments

Time which antiquates antiquities, and hath an art to make dust of all things, hath yet spared these minor monuments
- Thomas Browne, Urne Buriall

In times of chaos and uncertainty, I often find comfort in looking for permanence and the slow changes in the world. In this blogpost, I combine this quest for slowness with a yearning for home, as it is unclear when I will be able to go back to the fjords again. This blogpost is the first in a series in which I will shed light on aspects from the history of my home village, Hyen, in Western Norway. Hyen is a small place in terms of its population. We are about 600 on a good day, and those inhabitants are scattered across a wide geographical area comprising numerous valleys, mountains, rivers and lakes. However, history is resilient, also in these small places, and several minor monuments that testify to the work and life of our older generations can still be found in the landscape, sometimes even in surprising places.

I begin these histories of home in one of the many uninhabited places of the village, namely a valley called Skordalen. The name translates to cleft or narrow gorge (skor - with a possible etymological link to the English "scaur") + valley (dal - cf. dale). It is a narrow but relatively deep valley that empties out into one of the two main valleys of the village. From mouth to end takes about a forty-five minutes walk along a track that is comprised of animal paths and man-made tracks.

To the best of my knowledge, the valley has never been inhabited. The winters are very harsh and the valley fills quickly with deep snow, making any kind of permanent living very difficult and indeed dangerous. Yet the valley has been in use for generations, and the farmers in that part of the village - which is the part where I come from - have gathered grass for fodder, cut timber, hunted, herded cattle and picked berries throughout the ages. Several buildings have been built to store hay for the winter months, and of these we can still see the stone foundations. Similarly, the track through the valley has been fortified by stonework, and various other remnants can be found as witnesses of the life that has been lived in the valley. This blogpost is about one of those remnants. 

The wilderness of Hyen is populated by a wide range of animals, some of which are more territorial than others and some of which have established their territories in Skordalen, such as stags, foxes and martens. Nowadays, the hunt is mostly for deer, but until very recently there was still some trapping for fur as well, and even as I was growing up we prepared traps for minks and martens.

The heyday of fur trapping, however, was in the early decades of the twentieth century. In this period, especially in the 1930s, the Norwegian government paid prize money for pelts of predators, in an attempt to minimise their populations. These prizes turned many people in the districts into trappers, as farmers were often poor. The main target was the mink, introduced into Norway from North America by fur farmers, with several individuals fleeing from the farms and establishing populations in the wild. In Skordalen, however, where there are no shores and lakes of the typical mink habitat, the animals that were hunted for their pelts were chiefly martens and, above all, stoats.

The Norwegian word for stoat is "røyskatt", which literally means scree-cat (røys=scree), a name it has earned because it often hides in the screes and stone walls. For this reason, the stoat traps were placed in the screes and amidst larger stones left by the retreating ice as it carved out the valley millions of years ago. The stoat traps were typically of two categories. Some consisted of a stick propping up a heavy stone, with food attached to the stick so that when the stoat came to grab the food the stones would kill it. The other kind of trap was aimed at catching the stoats alive. These were cages with an open door in one end, and this door was connected with some sort of thread ending in a hook with food attached. The stoat was led into the cage, and as it grabbed hold of the food the door would fall down behind it. These traps allowed the trappers to fatten the stoats before killing them.

The traps themselves were made of wood, often with one wall made out of chicken wire so that the trapper could see what they had caught. These traps were then covered by moss and branches to camouflage it. One challenge could often be, however, that in this condition the traps only appeared as open holes. While the stoat was familiar with navigating the dark holes of a scree, they might often be alerted a gaping blackness that didn't belong to the scree. It is most likely for that purpose that the trappers built stone gates that would lead the stoat into the trap by a seemingly natural entrance. Such a stone gate can be seen in the pictures below.

This particular trap gate can be found in a small heap of rocks at about the halfway point of the valley. I do not know when it was set up, or by whom, but its purpose is unmistakable. And although most of the historical details about it are, and will remain, unknown to us, it nonetheless testifies to one of the aspects of human life in this uninhabited valley, and as such it is one of the minor monuments of a resilient history of little things. 

tirsdag 17. mars 2020

Working with liturgical fragments, part 16 - the clue is in the notation

I am currently reading articles dealing with some of the few but valuable medieval fragments that have survived from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Norway. For a place like Norway where the original wealth of medieval manuscript material has mostly been reduced to fragments, with some few manuscripts surviving more or less completely, the remaining fragments are all the more important for extracting as much evidence as possible. In the case of Norway, 6000 known fragments from about 1000 books survive (see Ommundsen 2010), and several of these have been the subject of recent studies. Some are even available online at the University of Bergen's fragment project website:

In Denmark the situation is somewhat different, as the number of both fragments and manuscripts is higher, although I do not know of any estimates of this number as of now. New fragments with a connection to medieval Denmark continue to come to light, and I was reminded of one such fragment whose Danish provenance has recently been hypothesised by a colleague and myself (see Holck and Hope 2019). The fragment in question is one which I have mentioned in two previous blogposts (here and here), namely Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek RARA L 31, an edition of Epistolarum Astronomicarum by Tyco Brahe.   

Beati qui, antiphon of the first nocturne
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek RARA L 31

As I was reading about the Norwegian fragments, I was reminded of how musical notation can provide excellent clues in the extraction of evidence from liturgical material. This has been described in a particularly excellent way by Gisela Attinger regarding one case where the study of notation enabled to connect several Norwegian fragments to one and the same scribe (see Attinger 2010).

In primo nocturno antiphonam
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek RARA L 31

On a lower scale, musical notation has also been important in the work on RARA L 31 by Jakob Povl Holck and myself. While most of our attention has been focussed on the cover fragment with its magnificent initials and well-preserved text and notation, this is not the only fragment contained in the fragment carrier. In addition to the cover, the bookbinder has also made use of smaller strips of parchment to strengthen the spine, which is a very common occurrence. Only one of these spine fragments is visible, but it is certain that other fragments like it were used to strengthen the rest of the spine as well.     

Spine fragment
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek RARA L 31

Owing to the size of the fragment and the limited amount of text, we have not been able to provide any hypothesis about its original manuscript context, other than its square notation. This square notation is an important step, as it shows that the fragment is most likely not of Germany provenance, but rather of either Scandinavian, English or (perhaps less likely) French provenance. Beyond this, however, it is unlikely that we will be able to much with any degree of certainty.

However, one question does present itself, and this question is important for understanding the book as a fragment carrier as well as the individual fragments. This question is whether the two fragments are from the same manuscript, or whether they belong to two separate manuscripts. Did the bookbinder cut strips for the strengthening of the spine and remove one folio to use as the books cover from one and the same liturgical manuscript? 

There are some details that point to a tentatively affirmative reply. First of all, both fragments contain liturgical material. Secondly, both fragments contain red lines for the musical notation. Thirdly, both fragments contain square notation. It is therefore tempting to imagine that the bookbinder has used different parts of the same manuscript for different purposes. Other details, however, provide us with counter-evidence, and based on this evidence I am certain that the fragments are from two separate liturgical books.

First of all, there is the notable difference in colour. However, this gives us nothing, as discoloration over time is bound to occur differently in a fragment hidden in the spine and a fragment exposed to light.

Secondly, it appears that the fragments come from books of different sizes. The cover fragment is 40x30 cm, and the folios of the original manuscripts would therefore be quite sizable and well-suited to be recycled as book covers. To cut such a voluminous folio into smaller strips for the strengthening of the spine is unlikely, as it would be rather wasteful. It is more difficult to assess the size of the spine fragment, but it does appear to come from a smaller book. The size, however, is not a conclusive piece of evidence, as the spine fragment could have been cut to serve as a spine-strengthener, unlikely though such a scenario might be.

A third clue can be found in the letters of the respective fragments. This, however, is complicated by the fact that we have so few letters from the spine fragment with which to compare. Only the letters D and I can be securely identified, whereas the third letter could be either C, E, D or even O. This means that we can only compare with the Ds and the Is of the cover fragment. Such a comparison seems to strengthen the hypothesis that the two fragments belong to different manuscripts, but this is also not conclusive.

We must therefore turn to the notation, and it is here we find evidence that suggest quite definitely that we are here dealing with two separate fragments. In the case of the cover fragment, we can note - pun intended - that the scribe has a tendency to write the squares of his notation with an upward rounded spike in the top right corner. This might be due to the pen, or it might be because of a movement in the scribe's hand that finishes the making of the square. Whether it is the movement, the pen, or some other factor, we see that this is a feature that recurs in almost every note of the fragment. As we do not have any other works by this scribe with which compare, we cannot definitely say that this feature can be regarded as one of the scribe's hallmark - and most scribes had such hallmarks - but it is very likely.

Regardless of whether or not the upward spike is a hallmark of the scribe of the cover fragment, it si a feature that is likely to have been found throughout the entire original manuscript. What do we see, however, when we compare with the squares of the spine fragment? Here, we only have a handful of notes, three of which can be seen below. While this is not a high number of comparative material, it is enough to establish that the squares of the spine fragment have even sides, and although they are not perfectly flat, they do not have an upward spike in the top right corner. This suggests in the strongest terms that the two fragments are from two separate manuscripts. 

Spine fragment (left) and cover fragment (right).
The spine fragment has notably even squares, while
the squares of the cover fragments have a rounded spike
in the top right corner.


Attinger, Gisela, “Musikknotasjonen i antifonariefragmenter I Riksarkivet” in Haugen, Odd Einar and Ommundsen, Åslaug (eds.), Vår eldste bok – Skrift, miljø og biletbruk i den norske homilieboka, Novus forlag, Oslo, 2010: 151-64

Holck, Jakob Povl and Hope, Steffen, “Hvad gamle bogbind kan fortælle”, in Bogvennen – tidsskrift for Forening for Boghaandværk, 2019: 72-97

Ommundsen, Åslaug, “Homilieboka og dei liturgiske fragmenta” in Haugen, Odd Einar and Ommundsen, Åslaug (eds.), Vår eldste bok – Skrift, miljø og biletbruk i den norske homilieboka, Novus forlag, Oslo, 2010: 131-50

mandag 2. mars 2020

The death of Charles I of Flanders, and sources to Danish history - a quick note on the Legendarium Flandrense

Today is the feast of Charles I, count of Flanders (1084-1127), who was murdered in the Church of Saint Donatian in Bruges on March 2, which that year was Ash Wednesday. The murder was the culmination of a plot against him that was set in motion by the Erembald family, who held key positions of power in Bruges and who feared that Charles would take that power away from them. The conflict between Charles and the Erembalds was recorded by Galbert of Bruges, who was the notary of Count Charles. This account is now available in an English translation by Jeff Rider, entitled The Murder, Betrayal and Slaughter of the Glorious Charles, Count of Flanders.

The murder of Charles was met with outrage, and the count was eventually venerated as a saint by the local populace. His cult was aided by Galbert's account, as well as by Walter of Thérouanne's Vita Karoli Comitis Flandrie, which both provided a textual foundation for the legends and the rituals of the cult.

Charles was never formally canonised by the pope. Since he died in 1127, such a canonisation was not strictly necessary for any given saint to be accepted as genuine, it was sufficient that a synod of bishops declared the sanctity of the dead individual. However, Charles death came in a time of transition concerning the role of papal canonisation. In the course of the first decades of the twelfth century, it had become more common to also seek for additional ratification of a saint's cult from the pope. This had been the case for Charles' father, the Danish king Knud IV who had been murdered in Odense in 1086, whereupon Charles' mother Adela had fled to her family in Flanders. Knud had been proclaimed a saint by a synod of the Danish bishops in 1095, but on the urging of Knud's brother and eventual successor Erik Ejegod, a delegation had been sent to Rome to obtain the pope's acknowledgement of the Danish king's holiness in 1100 or 1101. That such an acknowledgement was not obtained for Charles did not affect his standing as a saint in Flanders, as papal canonisation had not yet become obligatory, but it might have limited his cult to a regional importance.

Legendarium Flandrense
Bruges Public Library ms. 403, 75v-76r

The death of Charles resulted, then, in his cult and veneration in Bruges, and it resulted in a production of history-writing. Charles' cult also had an important consequence for the survival of Danish history-writing, and it is because of the veneration of Charles that we today have retained two twelfth-century copies of one of the most important sources to the history of Knud IV of Denmark and his dynasty. The source in question is now known by the title Gesta Swenomagni Regis et Filiorum eius et Passio gloriosissimi Canuti Regis et Martyris, the Deeds of King Svend Magnus, his Sons, and the Passion of the glorious Knud, King and Martyr. Svend Magnus was the full name of King Svend Estridsen, Knud IV's father.

The text was written by Aelnoth of Canterbury, an English priest who served in Odense around the time Knud was murdered in 1086. Its original title, to the extent medieval texts were equipped with titles, is lost to us, and the title commonly used nowadays does obscure the fact that this is first of all a saint-biography, and only secondly does it serve as a dynastic history of the reigning Danish dynasty.

The question, then, is what this text has to do with Charles of Flanders, and how its survival is due to his cult. The answer is simply that because of the veneration of Charles, there was in Flanders an interest in his wider family, and the sanctity of the father was evidently seen as embellishing the sanctity of the son. At some point in the twelfth century, scribes at Flanders obtained a copy of Aelnoth's saint-biography, and they incorporated it in the Legendarium Flandrense, a collection of saints' lives typical of the medieval literary world. There are two late-twelfth-century copies of the Legendarium, and these are the oldest, and to my knowledge, only sources of Aelnoth's text. All Danish copies have been lost. It is from these Flemish manuscripts, then, that the modern editions and translations of Knud's saint-biography have been created, one of the most important sources to Danish history, and widely - albeit incorrectly - regarded as the first history to be written in Denmark. (This honour should in actuality go to the slightly older anonymous saint-biography Passio Kanuti.) 

Incipit prologus in passione gloriossisimi karoli flandrie comitis et martiris
Here begins the prologue of the passion of the glorious Cahrles of Flanders, count and martyr

One of the manuscripts of Legendarium Flandrense, Bruges Public Library ms. 403, was in 2017 displayed at the Odense City Museums, as part of the exhibition Life and Cult of Cnut the Holy, and I got a chance to see the book with my own eyes. It is a wonderfully well-preserved document, and the twelfth-century script is a pleasure to read. It is also a clear testament to the fact that it was because of the veneration of Charles that Aelnoth's text made its way to Flanders. This is seen in the layout of the book itself. Legendarium Flandrense follows, as is typical of collections of this type, the liturgical year. Since the feast of Charles is on March 2, the text for his feast is naturally in the volume of the Legendarium that covers the spring months. The opening of this text, which appears to be the vita by Walter of Thérouanne, can be seen in the rubric in the photograph above.

The rubric follows the text of Aelnoth's account, and in this we see that the main concern for the Flemish scribes was to provide material for the history of their sainted count Charles, rather than the Danish king. Because if they had been interested in the saint-biography of Knud for its own sake, they would have placed it in a different volume, one that covered the summer months, since the feast of Knud is on July 10. That the account of Knud is, instead, placed in March is a clear statement as to why some unknown individuals in twelfth-century Flanders sent for a copy of Aelnoth's text: By collecting the account of Knud, the father, they evidently felt better prepared to provide readings for the feast of Charles, and presumably also further evidence to his sanctity, as they would be able to point to his father and claim - as was often done in the Middle Ages - that sanctity ran in the family.


The Legendarium Flandrense version of Aelnoth's text survives in two manuscripts:

Bruges Public Library ms. 403, 74r-83r

Saint-Omer Bibliothèque municipale 716, tomus II, 60r-71r

The exhibition Life and Cult of Cnut the Holy resulted in a recently-published article collection, in which several of the contributions touch on the text of Aelnoth's account. This volume can be found here:

See also:

Galbert of Bruges, The Murder, Betrayal and Slaughter of the Glorious Charles, Count of Flanders, translated by Jeff Rider, Yale University Press, 2013

Walter of Thérouanne, Vita Karoli comitis flandrie et Vita domni Ioannis Morinensis episcopi, ed. by Jeff Rider, Turnhout, 2006

Myking, Synnøve Midtby, "Ter Doest, Lund, and the Legendarium Flandrense: Danish-Flemish Connections in the Late Twelfth Century", printed in The Journal of Medieval Latin, vol. 28, 2019: 115-40

lørdag 29. februar 2020

SS Protus and Hyacinth in Cornwall - a speculative blogpost

Yesterday, I saw a tweet from the Church of St Protus and Hyacinth in Blisland, North Cornwall. The image showed a lovely chancel ceiling which appeared to be late medieval, and it was a good reminder that it is about time I pay my first visit to Cornwall. What particularly struck me, however, was the dedication of the church, as the names of these two saints were familiar, but very unexpected in the context of a church dedication. Since I have not seen the church with my own eyes, and since I am no expert on the history of Cornwall, I have a lot of unanswered question about the church at Blisland. These questions kept churning in my mind, and I decided to write up some of my thoughts on why this dedication was such a surprise to me, and what the implications of the dedications might possibly be. The reader should note, however, that this is a speculative text, in which I draw on my wider knowledge of medieval history and the cult of saints, trying to understand this particular church in light of that knowledge. Everything I know about this church is drawn from this website, and this website.

St Protus and Hyacinth, Blisland
(courtesy of Wikimedia)

The reason why the dedication of this church caught me by surprise is that the two saints in question, Protus and Hyacinth, are old but not very popular or famous saints. While their antiquity ensured that they were included in the liturgical repertoires of the new church provinces of the expanding Latin Church, their legend does not appear to have been widely known prior to its inclusion in Legenda Aurea by Jacobus de Voragine in the 1260s. A church dedication is therefore a mark of importance that is rarely associated with these saints.

The earliest source to their existence, as far as I'm aware, is one of the epigrammes of Pope Damasus I (r.366-84), a series of inscriptions he had engraved on monuments pertaining to the saints of Rome. In epigramme 49, Damasus refers to the two as brothers. Later on, the pair became associated with the story of Saint Eugenia, another Roman martyr, and these three saints can often be found depicted together. The most common timeframe for the martyrdom of the two brothers is the reign of Valerian (253-60), and their feast-day is September 11. Their historicity, however, is questionable. This is mainly because the epigrammes of Pope Damasus I had a propagandist purpose: It was a series of inscriptions mapping the sacred geography of Rome. These were written at a time when the Roman church was not only a legal religious entity, but also the leading religious entity in a Rome whose non-Christian elite was increasingly either converting or withdrawing to the countryside. This was a consequence of the city having lost much of its administrative importance in the course of the past hundred years. Through his epigrammes, Damasus sought to reclaim the Roman past for the Christian triumphalist narrative, and while these epigrammes are good and trustworthy indicators of actual cult sites and actual beliefs in the mid-fourth-century, they are not necessarily good sources to the historicity of the saints in question.     

Protus and Hyacinth
Châteauroux - BM - ms. 0002, f.327, breviary, Use of Paris, c.1414 
(courtesy of

Since there appears to have been no saint-biography outlining the story of Protus and Hyacinth, it is likely that the core of the disseminated legend was quite short. To my knowledge, these two saints have not attracted much interest, neither from medieval saint-biographers nor from modern scholars, and little is known about the dissemination prior to the 1260s. This changed with the writing of Legenda Aurea, since their inclusion guaranteed that their story was disseminated along with the legend collection, and almost all medieval depictions of the brothers that I have found have been late-medieval. This, however, does not mean that their legend or their cult became more popular after 1260.

Saint Protus and Hyacinth, Blisland

Considering the scarcity of source material to their cult, a church dedication to Protus and Hyacinth in Cornwall was indeed unexpected, and it made me speculate as to how this dedication could have come about. This mystery deepens when we consider that the oldest surviving sections of the church at Blisland are Romanesque and thus from the Norman period, i.e. late eleventh or twelfth century. Such a late date does not explain the dedication, far from it. Since Protus and Hyacinth were saints of antiquity but not popularity, and since there is little to suggest that their cult was strong in either Normandy or England at the time, it is even more surprising that such obscure and almost obsolete saints should be granted the honour of a church dedication at a point in time, and in a historical framework, when many other saints would be more relevant.

One possible solution to this mystery is quite simply that the dedication is misidentified. The church itself is commonly called Saint Pratt's, which has been taken to be a local corruption of Protus, an identification that has been accepted by such authorities as David Farmer in his Oxford Dictionary of Saints. It is a reasonable identification, but not certain, and it might be that there is another saint who gave their name to the church at Blisland. Such a solution, however, does not explain why this dedication should have come about at such a late date.

Another possible explanation is the date of the dedication itself. If this was done on September 11, Protus and Hyacinth might have been chosen because it was their feast-day. Such an explanation, however, is unsatisfying, because the date of a dedication can be chosen by the patrons of the church, be it a cleric or a layman. Consequently, if the date of the dedication was September 11, this date had been chosen in advance and thus reflected the patron's original choice of dedicatees. We are, in other words, back to the same question: Why Protus and Hyacinth.

A third explanation is that the dedication is older than the church, and that it might point to a structure pre-dating the Norman church. The history of Christianity in Cornwall goes back to around the fifth and sixth centuries, at least, and it was part of a network of dissemination of ideas, iconography and cult that also encompassed Bretagne and Ireland. If the dedication at Blisland really does belong to Protus and Hyacinth, and if this does indeed point to an older, now unknown, structure, the dedication to an obscure pair of Roman saints might be a bit more comprehensible.

It might be that the story of Protus and Hyacinth was disseminated into France and Bretagne at a relatively early stage, i.e. during the third or fourth centuries, while the knowledge of the martyred brothers was still relatively fresh in the collective memory of the expanding Christian community of the Western Roman Empire. They might have had a greater importance than they were to have in subsequent centuries. However, we know little about which stories were disseminated at this time, so this remains speculation. Nonetheless, if the legend of Protus and Hyacinth came into Cornwall in the early stage of its Christianisation, it might be that the saints came to be associated with the Christianisation process in a way that ensured them greater popularity and importance than they enjoyed elsewhere. Such a local importance granted to otherwise relatively unimportant saints is not an uncommon phenomenon in newly Christianised geographies. Such a hypothesis thus suggests that the two saints were at one point sufficiently important to have an impact on the Christian year in Cornwall. This, however, remains speculation, but such speculation is at times important when the source material is so scant, and when what survives presents us with such a vast array of unanswerable questions. 

Protus and Hyacinth
Avignon - BM - ms. 0136, f.269, Roman Missal, c.1370
(courtesy of


Butler, Alban, Lives of Saints, the James Duffy edition, 1866 (from bartleby)

Farmer, David, Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 2004 (4th edition)

Ihm, Maximilian, Damasi Epigrammata, 1895

Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, translated by William Granger Ryan, Princeton University Press, 2012

Sághy, Marianne, "Pope Damasus and the Beginnings of Roman Hagiography", printed in Gecser,, Promoting the Saints, CEU Press, 2011: 1-17


Cornish Churches

Cornwall Historic Churches Trust

tirsdag 25. februar 2020

Minor pleasures - an initial from a twelfth-century manuscript

This week is an incredibly busy week, and my mind is compartmentalising my sundry tasks to such an extent that I pretty much have a tunnel vision. This leaves very little energy for other tasks, so as a way to unwind it's pleasant to idly ruminate on some of the minor treasures I have accumulated in my files throughout an as-yet continuing academic career.

One such treasure is the initial below, belonging to Epitoma historiarum Philippicarum Pompei Trogi by the second-century Roman historian Justinus. An epitome in this sense is a summary, or a shortened version of a longer work, a kind of digest that extracted the elements of key importance and adapted it according to the new author. I encountered this initial by chance and was mesmerised by it. To me, the O appeared as a miniature model of the universe, the earth placed in the middle per the geocentric cosmological view. I have since been reliably informed by a friend and colleague who is an art historian that this is not the case, but the initial remains a wonder of medieval quillwork.   

Justinus, Epitoma historiarum Philippicarum Pompei Trogi
(courtesy of

lørdag 22. februar 2020

Saint Peter's Chair - a feast of papal identity

Peter seated
Cambrai - BM - ms. 0528, f.141, homiliary, C12 
(courtesy of

Today, February 22, is the feast of Saint Peter's Chair. This feast commemorates the founding of the bishopric of Antioch. According to early tradition, and based on the historical meeting of Peter and Paul in Antioch as recorded in Galatians 2:11-14, Peter established Antioch as a centre of preaching and served as its leader for a number of years. The name bishopric is a later projection onto the incipient infrastructure, and also conveys a succession and connection to later bishops of Antioch that is historically doubtful. This feast of Saint Peter's Chair is one of two such feasts from the medieval tradition. On January 18 another feast was celebrated, this time commemorating Peter's supposed founding of the see of Rome. This feast is now no longer included in modern Catholic calendars.

The idea of Peter as a founding bishop was, and remains, the linchpin of the institutional identity of the papal see. The pope is seen as the apostolic successor of Saint Peter, and the supporters of this view points to Matthew 16:18, where Christ says to Peter that he is the rock (petra - rock in Greek) upon which Christ's church was to be built. This verse is inscribed on the inside of the base of the main cupola in Saint Peter's basilica in Rome, for instance.

The notion that Rome is the centre of institutional Christianity came about in the Early Middle Ages. Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) was one of the most vocal promoters of the primacy of Rome, but for the first seven centuries of Christian history Rome was just one bishopric among many, and a bishopric that was entangled in various local conflicts on the Italian peninsula. Granted, Rome had a symbolic importance, as it was accepted that both Peter and Paul were executed and buried there, but in terms of power, it was not until the alliance between the Carolingian dynasty and the papal see that things began to slowly turn in a different direction. Even so, it would take centuries before the Roman pontiff became a powerful figure on the political scene beyond Italy.

Saint Peter as pope
Besançon - BM - ms. 0007, f.240v, Bible, C13 
(courtesy of

Papal power in the Middle Ages rested in large part on the symbolism of the city and of its connection to Peter. Consequently, Peter became an important figure in the establishment of a papal institutional identity. There are numerous pieces of evidence to showcase how reliant papal identity was, and remains, on the figure of Saint Peter. Churches, liturgical feasts, iconography, history-writing, all contribute to establish, formulate and perpetuate the idea that Peter was the first pope. Among other things, this can be seen in the plethora of medieval illuminations in which Peter is presented in papal regalia, holding one or two keys - the keys to Heaven and Earth which comprise the papal coat of arms - and often sitting on a cathedra, the bishop's seat. In this blogpost, I have collected a few examples from the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that point to the papal iconography with which these images of Saint Peter are imbued. Three of these four pictures are made in France, and this points to the universality of the idea of Peter as pope in medieval Latin Christendom. 

Saint Peter holding one of his two keys
Dijon - BM - ms. 0021, f.031, Glossed bible, c.1270-80, Paris
(courtesy of

The most recent example I have chosen to include is not made in France, but it ended up in France by historical necessity, as it were. The example in question is a missal containing the Use of Rome, i.e. the list of feasts and their classification that was based on the liturgical performance in the bishopric of Rome. This missal is a sumptuous book produced in Bologna around 1370, a point in time when the leader of the see of Rome was not in Rome but in Avignon in Southern France. While we do not know exactly when the missal was made, it is believed that it was made for Pope Urban V, who returned to Rome in 1367 (but stayed only for a brief period). As Urban died in 1370, the missal passed on to his successors, and it remained in the papal residence at Avignon, even with the return of the pope to Rome in 1376. Consequently, when a series of popes elected by the French cardinals but not acknowledged by the Italian cardinals, these popes - antipopes or Avignon popes - returned to Avignon. The first of these Avignon popes was Robert of Geneva, who took the name Clement (VII), who reigned from 1378 to 1394. Thus, he became the new owner of the missal.

The Bolognese makers of the missal, however, could in no way anticipate how things would turn out. They made the missal for a pope who might at that time have returned to Rome, or might still be in Avignon. But regardless of the pope's geographical location, the pope remained the bishop of Rome, and consequently the missal had to follow the Roman liturgy, and contemporary Roman iconography. This is seen in the various episcopal figures among the saints illuminated in the initials, and among these we find Peter, rendered in the sumptuous garbs of the fourteenth-century Roman pontiff, holding the two keys and wearing the tiara of the papal authority. Despite the ongoing controversy over the fact that the bishop of Rome had resided outside of Rome for decades, the papal identity remained rooted in the idea that Peter was the first of the popes and that the popes were his apostolic successors. The feast of Saint Peter's Chair is one of the feasts that commemorate this papal identity, even though this particular feast was originally celebrated in commemoration of his establishment of the See of Antioch.

Peter as pope 
Avignon - BM - ms. 0136, f.232, Roman missal, Bologna, c.1370
(courtesy of

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.