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

søndag 15. juli 2018

Summer reading

I'm currently enjoying a month's vacation at home in Norway. Consequently, my blogging will be quite sparse and my blogposts very brief this month. They will predominantly be snippets of summer life in the fjords, as exemplified by this little stack of books photographed at the family's cabin, containing my first batch of summer reading.

lørdag 30. juni 2018

Portrait - a poem by Ngwatilo Mawiyoo

As an end to this month's blogging, and as a sort of farewell as I leave Denmark for Norway for my summer holiday, I present to you a poem by Kenyan poet Ngwatilo Mawiyoo from her collection Dagoretti Corner (Akashic Books, 2016).


For Nairobi

And we are the dust that has no place,
that lines the walls and leaves.

Daily, almost daily, a woman -
a man - wipes a floor;
head down, bottom high.
Pivoting a swirling shuffle,
left right and back: the path
of a clean woman, a good woman,
man a faithful servant.
When the floor dries the white line

My grandfathers are in the ground,
they are bone and smoothed tree.
My last Susu has lost her sight.
When her mind went, she listened for it
in our voices. She's losing interest.

Tom Mboya Street defies rot.
The dust tells what we buried, calls
our memory to the good,
to grass, thorn trees, cool water.

onsdag 27. juni 2018

Tu es Petrus - chants for the feast of the apostles Peter and Paul

In two days, June 29, it is the feast of the apostles Peter and Paul, a feast which commemorates both their martyrdoms. This is their primary feast, and is of great importance in the liturgical year. I was reminded of this as I was listening to a mass composed by Palestrina called Missa Tu es Petrus, a mass specifically addressing the history of Peter and to be performed on June 29. Its incipit is taken from Matthew 16:18, where Christ says to Peter: You are Peter, and on this rock [petram] I will build my church. This passage has been of vital importance in the emergence of Rome's primacy in Western Christendom, as the traditional interpretation has been that the site of Peter's martyrdom signifies the location of the heart of the Christian church. This interpretation has not been uncontested, and it did take a long time before Rome ascended to the primary position it eventually came to possess within Latin Christianity.

Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek
Photo by Jakob Povl Holck

Although I have listened to Palestrina's mass several times, today I was reminded of how this mass connects with my own research. During my months as a research assistant at the university library of University of Southern Denmark, one of the medieval manuscript fragments I worked on, RARA M 28, contained texts for the mass for the apostles Peter and Paul, and among the few chants that could be read, though badly damaged by moisture, were two chants that both bear the incipit Tu es Petrus. The exact type of these chants is not yet ascertained, though one of them is most likely a versicle.

Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek
Photo by Jakob Povl Holck

Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek
Photo by Jakob Povl Holck

This is, in short, one of those occasions when pleasure and professional life overlap to some degree, which I think to be very common to most medievalists.

Missa Tu es Petrus, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c.1525-94)

lørdag 23. juni 2018

History as Poetry - a poem by Geoffrey Hill

Geoffrey Hill is one of my favourite poets in any language,and reading him takes my mind back to the spring of 2011 when I was reading his poems while beginning in earnest to establish myself as a medievalist in the second semester of my MA studies. Much has changed since then, including myself, and the England I explored while exploring his poems now seems like a lost dream, a broken promise, in part due to the political development, in part because I have become disenchanted with English academia, in part because of personal disappointmnts. I was a staunch anglophile once, and I'm still fond of many things English, not least the many medieval buildings I have not yet seen in the flesh - or in the stone, rather - but the youthful, all-encompassing excitement of those spring days of 2011 is now a thing of the past. Occasionally, however, when reading Geoffrey Hill's early poems, I find my way back to that excitement, I reconnect with those feelings of wonder and novelty that made me love England and that made me long for it, and thus, for a brief window of time, as my eyes scan the lines of the poem, I relive that love of England that I no longer can claim.

History as poetry

Poetry as salutation; taste
Of Pentecost's ashen feast. Blue wounds.
The tongue's atrocities. Poetry
Unearths from among the speechless dead

Lazarus mystified, common man
Of death. The lily rears its gouged face
From the provided loam. Fortunate
Auguries; whirrings;tarred golden dung:

'A resurgence' as they say. The old
Laurels wagging with the nw: Selah!
Thus laudable the trodden bone thus
Unanswerable the knack of tongues.

- From King Log (1968)

mandag 18. juni 2018

Working with liturgical manuscripts, part 12 – Many layers, many languages

One of the great joys of working with liturgical fragments in book bindings is that there is always room for surprise. To be sure, it need not be a big surprise, neither does it have to be all that uncommon, but sometimes you do encounter surprises that adjust your understanding of what you are working on, and remind you that history is a bit more complex than you had realised. In the following blogpost, I wish to present you with one such little surprise which I came across while trying my best to identify the texts of a liturgical fragment that was in a rather poor state, namely Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek, RARA K 284, a book whose cover I have written about here.

RARA K 284
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

The fragment was used as the binding for Zacharias Theobald’s Hussiten Krieg, an account in German about the Hussites in Bohemia and the life and death of Johannes Huss. This edition was printed in Nürnberg in 1621 by Simon Halbmayer. (I am grateful to Jakob Povl Holck at the University Library of University of Southern Denmark for these details.) In the prologue, we see the mixture of German and Latin and the mix of corresponding types that have been used in the printing.

RARA K 284
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

This blend of Latin and vernacular is something that is typical to encounter when working with these fragments. In this case, there is a blend of languages not only in the typeset and the text, but also in the content of the book versus the binding of the book, containing, as it does, the Latin of liturgical books.

RARA K 284
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

Across the spine: Herlufsholm, the name of the library where this book was last kept
RARA K 284
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

As stated, the cover fragment – and indeed the binding itself – was in a poor state, and in these pictures the poor degree of legibility is not only a matter of the camera’s focus or the light in the room – although these also play a part – but predominantly a matter of how worn the letters and the colours of the manuscript fragment itself are. As we see, even the cover itself is coming apart. Consequently, I had to be very careful, but at the same time I needed to turn and open this book to catch any possible angle in order to uncover even the tiniest strip that could assist me in the identification of the text. Sometimes, one tiny strip showing only one single letter can be the defining factor that allows me just enough to go on when trying to transcribe the text.

RARA K 284
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

As I was examining the book, however, I became aware of the many layers of the binding itself. It is easy to forget that the fragment(s) used for the cover of the book is only the most visible, and that there are several other fragments that have been used inside the cover, along the spine, or in any other of the many nooks and crannies of a book. There was, however, one reminder of this multi-layered nature of book-bindings, namely a small flap covered in residual glue and torn paper, peeping out on between the cover and the page, protruding from the bottom of the spine.

RARA K 284
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

On the other end of the page, however, I discovered something I had not anticipated, my little surprise that added a significant amount of excitement to my examination, and one that – in hindsight – quite probably made my eyes bulge in astonishment. I found a little scrap of what looked like paper, containing Hebrew script.

RARA K 284
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

RARA K 284
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

At first I was dumbfounded, as this was the first time I had encountered Hebrew letters in any of the fragments and bindings I had been examining. As I gathered my wits, however, I realised that this was not as unusual as I at first had thought. After all, early modern printers used a wide array of materials when binding their books, and not only medieval vellum. The vellum seems to have been favoured for the spine and the cover, as vellum is quite strong and can better withstand the pressures and the general wear to which the book is exposed. However, for the inside of the cover, used as a thickener, as it were, it was more common to use paper. This paper often originated from books that had been discarded, such as test printings, botched printings, or books that simply were not selling. The latter is a point to which John Dryden draws our attention when, in the satirical poem “Mack Flecknoe”, he describes the unsold books of what he calls neglected authors as being “Martyrs of pies, and relics of the bum”, referring to how paper was reused as wrapping paper for food, and toilet paper. In short, it is not surprising to find printed paper tucked into the binding to strengthen it. 

What did surprise me, however, was the Hebrew script, and I contacted by colleague Martin Borysek who was then at University of York as a member of the Centre for Medieval Literature. Martin has worked on Hebrew texts, and I turned to him hoping that he could translate what little text I had found. He was very kind welcoming, and told me to send him whatever I had. In the next few days, however, I decided to go back to the book and see if I could unearth a bit more of the text.              

I decided to be a bit less careful in my handling of the book, and I tried to see how the paper covering the inside of the book cover actually was. It turned out to be quite loose.

RARA K 284
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

RARA K 284
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

RARA K 284
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

 Fortunately, the text available was sufficient to provide something tangible, and Martin wrote back to me, saying that that this was some kind of register, list or index. The combination of Latin and Hebrew, along with numerals and references to tomes and folios, suggested to Martin that this was an example of Christian Hebraism, a text in Hebrew intended for a Christian audience, most likely for educational purposes.  

As it stands now, the multi-layered, multi-lingual binding of RARA K 284 has not been fully transcribed, translated or even identified, but it serves as a good reminder of how these treasure troves can yield a relatively wide variety of languages as well as content. It is also a good reminder of how necessary it is to have colleagues expert in fields relatively far removed from your own expertise, and how necessary it is that those colleagues are kind and welcoming.

mandag 28. mai 2018

Time - a poem by Edward Kamau Brathwaite

This week is a busy week as the conference I have been organising for the past month is fast approaching, and there are countless little details to keep track of and to sort out in the few remaining days. In such a flurry of details and hours, it is good to be reminded of the bigger picture and to read Edward Kamau Brathwaite's poetry.


Time is the grey wood
streaked with grain
tears carve a trail down its grave pain

the eyes are in heaven
where the clouds are closed
darkness darkness darkness

breathes through the blind leaves
akee pods crack pollen explodes
the mango fruit falls with its wound

(Printed in Third World Poems, Longman, 1983)

søndag 27. mai 2018

The Dormitory - a poem by Derek Walcott

I have imbibed the poetry of Derek Walcott since my first year at university and I have read and re-read so many of his poems that they are embedded in me. But even after ten years of enthusiastic reading, there are still poems I haven't read, either because they are difficult to come by or because I am deliberately waiting so that I will still have things by him to read. Today I encountered one of Walcott's earliest poems, published in a collection titled Poems from 1957 and now out of print. The poem in question can be found in Glyn Maxwell's selection of Walcott's poetry, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux as The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948-2013.

The Dormitory

Time is the guide that brings all to a crux,
Who hans his map will move
Out of the mere geology of books,
To see his valley's palm wrinkled with loves.

These sleep like islands, and I watch sleep lick
Their arms' flung promontories, remove
With individual erasure all their love
Of muscle. Now towards the sea there, I wlook

Where rippling signatures of water break
Over the sighing dormitories of
The drowned whom soft winds move,
Here these inquiet mouths like rivers speak.

Or from these boys, who in the uncertain luck
Of sleep, except to live,
The breath curls from their separated lips like
Mists of time that over valleys grieve.