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

fredag 23. juni 2017

From Derek Walcott's Midsummer


For the Vigil of Saint John the Baptist, which is when Norwegians and Danes celebrate midsummer with a great bonfire, I give you an extract from Derek Walcott's book-length poem, Midsummer, printed in 1984 and here taken from Collected Poems - 1948-1984, printed by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1986.


From Midsummer

XI

My double, tired of morning, closes the door
of the motel bathroom; then, wiping the steamed mirror,
refuses to acknowledge me staring back at him.
With the softest grunt, he stretches my throat for the function
of scraping it clean, his dispassionate care
like a barber's lathering a corpse - extreme unction.
The old ritual would have been as grim
if the small wisps that curled there in the basin
were not hairs but minuscular seraphim.
He clips our moustache with a snickering scissors,
then stops, reflecting, in midair. Certain sadnesses
are not immense, but fatal, like the sense of sin
while shaving. And empty cupboards where her dresses
shone. But why flushing a faucet, its vortex
swivelling with bits of hair, could make some men's
hands quietly put aside their razors,
and sense their veins as filth floating downriver
after the dolorous industries of sex,
is a question swans may raise with their white necks,
that the cockerel answers quietyl, treading his hens.

onsdag 14. juni 2017

The typology of decapitation - the case of Edmund Martyr and John the Baptist



When working on the cult and literature of saints, one of the most noteworthy aspects one comes across is the many ways in which one holy person is typologically connected with other holy men and women of Christian and biblical history. This means a saint is understood as the antitype, i.e. as a kind of later reconfiguration, of an earlier type, hence typology. All saints are expected to be an antitype to Christ, but one saint can be typologically connected to a number of saints, either by shared features, belonging to the same category of saints, by intertextuality, or by other means. Mapping these connections is sometimes the most fun part of working with saints.

These days I am returning to Edmund Martyr, the king of East Anglia who in 869 was killed by Danish Vikings and who was venerated as a saint from at least the late ninth century. The first biography of Saint Edmund was written by Abbo of Fleury c.985, and this was the foundation for the later texts that were produced at Bury St Edmunds, the centre of his cult.


Edmund tortured by Vikings
BL MS Harley 2278, John Lydgate's life of Edmund and Fremund, England, between 1434 and 1439
(Courtesy of British Library)


In Abbo of Fleury's Passio Eadmundi, we are told how Edmund was tied to a tree and pierced by arrows while the Danish chieftain Hingwar (usually identified as Ivar Boneless) tried to make him subdue to Danish overlordship. When Edmund refused, his head was chopped off and thrown into the bushes lest a veneration of the deceased monarch should emerge. The head was later found, guarded by a wolf, and when it had been interred in a simple wooden chapel, the head and body miraculously merged into an intact unit.
 

The finding of Edmund's head
BL MS Harley 2278, John Lydgate's life of Edmund and Fremund, between 1434-39
(Courtesy of British Library) 


 Passio Eadmundi was the fundamental text for the later composition of a liturgical office at Bury St Edmunds. This office is today recorded almost completely in Pierpont Morgan MS 736, which was written and put together c.1130. The office for Edmund's feast day - November 20 - consists of a collection of chants and readings to be performed at the hour of Matins on the night of his dies natalis, his heavenly birthday and his death-day on earth. This office forms the centrepiece of my chapter on Saint Edmund for my doctoral thesis.

One night I was playing with one of my most important research tools, the CANTUS database in which liturgical chants from the Middle Ages are catalogued. While doing so, I serendipitously discovered that one of the chants for Saint Edmund - the seventh antiphon, i.e. a chant sung before the seventh of the psalms during the night office - shared some features with an antiphon for the feast of the beheading of John the Baptist.


Decollation of John the Baptist
Amiens - BM - ms. 0195, f.133v, pontifical of Corbie, thirteenth century, Northern France
(Courtesy of enluminures.culture.fr)

According to Matthew 14, Mark 6, and Luke 9, John the Baptist was beheaded on the orders of King Herod Antipas. The reason for the beheading was that Herod's wife Herodias hated John the Baptist and told her daughter Salome that should Herod ask what she wanted as a gift, Salome would request the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. Salome then danced for the king, and Herod was overcome with delight and told his step-daughter to ask for anything she wanted as a reward for her dance. Salome then heeded her mother's words, and John the Baptist was duly beheaded.

The death of Saint John the Baptist is marked with its own feast in the Catholic liturgical calendar, and it is celebrated on August 29. Unlike most other saints, however, the death-day of John the Baptist is not his principal feast, which is his nativity on June 24. Nor is the day marking the day of his beheading, but instead it marks the finding of his head. This is why the day is known as the feast of the decollation, rather than the dies natalis.


Even the marginal hybrids turn their face away in sorrow 
Limoges - BM - ms. 0002, f.182v, gradual, Fontevrault, c.1250-c.1260
(Courtesy of enluminures.culture.fr)

Since both John the Baptist and Edmund Martyr were beheaded, it is no wonder that the venerators of Saint Edmund should think that the two saints were typologically connected, especially the hagiographers and liturgists at Bury whose job it was to emphasize such connections through musical borrowings, textual allusions, and iconographic similarities. To illustrate how this was done, I will here present you the antiphon of Edmund and that of the feast of the decollation to illustrate how this typological connection was made through liturgical borrowings.

The antiphon for Saint Edmund:

Misso spiculatore de crevit tyrannus
dei adletam eadmundus dum capite
detruncari sicque ymnum deo personuit
et animam celo gaudens intulit.

(The thrown stabs increased by the tyrant, the athlete of God, Edmund, when his head was cut off, and thus resounded with hymns for God and brought the soul rejoicing to Heaven)

The antiphon for the decollation of John the Baptist:

Misso Herodes spiculatore praecepit
amputare caput Joannis in carcere
quo audito discipuli ejus venerunt et
tulerunt corpus ejus et posuerunt
illud in monumento
(The thrown stabs ordered by Herod amputated the head of John while in prison. When his disciples heard this, they came and interred his body and placed it in a monument.)


Praecepit amputare caput Joannis in carcere
Cambrai - BM - ms. 0189, f.161v, Evangeliar, Use of Cambrai, c.1266, Cambrai
(Courtesy of enluminures.culture.fr)


As can be seen from the words put in bold, it is likely that the antiphon for the feast of the decollation served as the foundation for the antiphon of Edmund Martyr. This relationship is also strengthened by some of the words that are not identical but nonetheless carry the same meaning. While the Edmund antiphon uses "detruncari" and the decollation antiphon uses "amputare", it is nonetheless clear that they signify the same form of execution. Similarly, while the primary antagonist in the antiphon for the decollation is identified as Herod, the antagonist of the Emund antiphon is not named but instead referred to as "tyrannus", a term which in medieval liturgical chants is sometimes used about Herod (such as this hymn verse for the feast of the Holy Innocents).

These two antiphons, therefore, provide a good example of how the typological connection of two saints could be emphasized through liturgy. By borrowing key words and phrases from an antiphon for the decollation, the liturgists pointed to the fact that Edmund and John the Baptist both were beheaded, and that they therefore had a relationship in the collegium of saints. Such connections were important to bring out because that way the typological roster of Saint Edmund - i.e. the list of his features shared with other saints - could be mapped out more completely, and thus Saint Edmund's role in the history of Creation could be understood more clearly. This in turn would mean that he could be addressed more accurately, more flatteringly, which might bring about his help more effectively.

Although such a connection might seem arcane to us who do not perform medieval liturgy, we must remember that the monks at Bury St Edmunds would sing both these antiphons. And even though the antiphons were sung at different times in the year, they would nonetheless be performed by the same monks year after year, and thus be remembered. In this way, the monks who venerated Saint Edmund would be reminded that their patron also shared features with the forerunner of Jesus Christ.













onsdag 31. mai 2017

Learning to transcribe - a few personal notes on working with Saint Edmund Martyr




One of the recurring sensations in my time in academia is the feeling that there are things with which you never really finish. Today this feeling was brought on by a revision of a transcription of the office for Saint Edmund which I undertook back in 2015, and which forms one of the main pillars for the research of my doctoral thesis.

The offices for the vigil and feast of Saint Edmund Martyr are contained in a manuscript produced at Bury St Edmunds around 1130, together with the first saint-biography of Edmund, Abbo's Passio Eadmundi, and collections of miracles related to Saint Edmund. This manuscript contains the most complete version of the office for the feast of Saint Edmund that has survived, and also the only version of the office for the vigil. For my chapter on Saint Edmund, I have gone into great detail about the chants and readings for the office for the feast day, but now it was time to turn to the office for the vigil instead and get a better overview of what it contains.

The office for the vigil was performed on the eve before the feast of Edmund (November 20), and contains one nocturn of four lessons with responsories in accordance with the monastic model. The chants and lessons all take their material from the miracle collection written down by Herman the Archdeacon around 1080-90. The selection of miracle stories is not wide, as they all focus on one of the most salient episodes in the history of the cult of Saint Edmund, namely the divine punishment of Svein Estrithsson.

The story which Herman wrote down tells of how the Danish king Svein Estrithsson (d.1074/76) invaded England and demanded tribute from the English. He also demanded tribute from the monks at Bury St Edmunds and sought to despoil the riches that had accumulated at the shrine of Saint Edmund Martyr. The monks turned to Edmund for help, and their heavenly ambassador brought divine wrath down upon the Danish king to such a degree that the king exempted Bury from paying tribute. At the time when Herman composed his collection of miracles this story had not been in circulation for many years, but it tied in with another punitive miracle that had been included in the Passio written by Abbo of Fleury in the 980s and so the punishment of the Danish king became one of the most iconic miracles attributed to the merits of Saint Edmund (but performed by God).



Opening of the office for the vigil of Saint Edmund
MS Pierpont Morgan 736, Bury St. Edmunds, c.1130 (photocopy)

I find the miracle story fascinating, especially in the way it cemented Saint Edmund Martyr's reputation as a guardian of his own shrine and ensured that this reputation would be a recurring feature in later writings at Bury St Edmunds, such as the chronicle of Jocelin of Brakelond from c.1200.

In the coming days I will immerse myself further into the miracles of Saint Edmund, which I left off in 2015 so that I could focus more single-mindedly on the office of the feast itself. To return to this text was a reminder that those things on which you work the most are sometimes the things most likely to stay with you. This feeling of return was perhaps also exacerbated by the fact that back in 2015, the office for the vigil of Saint Edmund was the first text I ever transcribed from a medieval manuscript - or rather, from a printed out photocopied version of the manuscript.

I remember very well the excitement of those summer days in June 2015 where I had a 27-page document to transcribe and make sense of - without any prior experience of transcription. Foolhardy and stupidly optimistic as I sometimes can be, I nonetheless thought that I would be able to do it. And sure enough, I did manage to tackle the text after two intense weeks of work, and I remember feeling overly proud of myself for getting this done.

Today, close to two years later, my experience with transcription is significantly greater, and armed with more experience - and much greater knowledge of the textual corpus in question - I set out to see how much of the transcription work of my 2015 self I had to correct.

It turned out that there was quite a lot to correct, both in terms of things I had misread, things I had failed to understand, things that were close to unintelligible, and also in terms of lack of standardized practices for how to deal with scribal inaccuracies. This was perhaps particularly noticeable in the office for the vigil, since this is the very beginning of the manuscript and the very first text with which I had to try my inexperienced brain.

On the one hand, correcting my mistakes from two years ago gave me a sense of how inexperienced I still am when it comes to manuscript work, even though I have gained a lot more since 2015, and many of the mistakes had the very dirty tinge of the dilettante about them. On the other hand, however, it made me realize just how much I had learned in the two years that had passed, and it also gave me an optimistic sense of all the things I have yet to learn and hopefully will learn as I continue to carve my path through the dense forest that is academia. It is a pleasing thought, and such thoughts are always welcome in the thesis process.




søndag 28. mai 2017

Saint George in Odense, part 2




One of the first blogposts I put together after I had moved to Odense in 2014 presented two separate depictions of Saint George which I had come across during my first travels around town. Since then, I have come to understand that Saint George occupies an important place among the saints who in various ways contribute to the urban landscape and memory of Odense. There are, for instance, both a public garden and a public park which are named Sankt Jørgens Haven and Sankt Jørgens Park respectively, both of which lie close to the street Sankt Jørgens Gade. Jørgen is the Scandinavian name for George.

Yesterday, I came across another depiction of Saint George, placed on the facade of Sankt Georgs Hjemmet, Saint George's Home. It is worth noting that in this case the name of the saint is given as George, not as Jørgen, and this is probably due to the fact that the house was erected with the financial help of the Guild of Saint George, which is a modern boyscout organization. I presume they have taken Saint George as their figurehead after inspiration from the English boyscouts.

Even though it is a small detail in the Odense cityscape, it is nonetheless a nice reminder that aspects of the medieval cult of saints are still present in our postmedieval world, having been sifted through centuries of cultural interpretation.


















mandag 22. mai 2017

The tooth of time - a little nugget from Ribe




As mentioned in the previous blogpost, the beginning of last week was spent in the southwestern Danish town of Ribe, an important medieval bishopric and now a quaint, lovely, old-fashioned, seemingly timelocked settlement near the Jutland coast. There are several gems to be found around the town, some of which are big and striking like the medieval cathedral, some of which are small and easy to overlook like the many beautifully and creatively painted doors.

One such little gem is a bronze sculpture situated outside Ribe Viking Museum. The sculpture was created by the Danish artist John Olesen (b. 1938) in 1995, and now welcomes visitors who seek to get closer to ages past by exploring the many treasures of the museum. The idea of "the tooth of time", which is "tidens tand" in Danish and "tidens tann/tidas tann" in Norwegian (Bokmål and Nynorsk respectively), is a Scandinavian expression to denote the passing of time left visibly on objects. We say that something has been marked by the tooth of time, an image of quiet nibbling that I find very pleasing and immensely poetic. A very fitting concept to be reminded of before stepping into a museum to behold items that have been gnawed away by the tooth of time.














fredag 19. mai 2017

Saint George in Ribe





Earler this week, my colleages and I went to Ribe for our annual gathering, the one time of the year when our two branches of the Centre for Medieval Literature meet to discuss academic matters, catch up on each others' research, and to socialise in a place with medieval connections. Ribe is a small town in the southwest of Jutland. It is colloquially known as Denmark's oldest town, as it was one of Scandinavia's most important trading sites during the pre-conversion period. After the conversion of Denmark, Ribe became a bishopric and its cathedral has still layers from the twelfth and the thirteenth century.

I hope to return to a more general description of the church itself later, but for now I present you with one of my favourite details from the church space, found at the western end of the northern side naves, namely a glorious depiction of Saint George fighting the dragon. I'm tempted to think that the female figure placed above the two combatants is princess Alexandra, the maiden saved by Saint George - and in older calendars she was also venerated as a saint - but it might also be a different figure altogether, possibly the Virgin Mary.

I have not found any information about when this set of wooden sculptures were made, but I hazard to guess early sixteenth century. It is certainly not modern, and it is a wonderful depiction of one of my favourite scenes from hagiographic art.




























fredag 28. april 2017

A Caribbean Werewolf Tale - from Derek Walcott's Tales of the Islands


I have recently been reading some articles touching on one of  perhaps most memorable anecdotes from Gerald of Wales' Topographia Hibernica (which I have written about more extensively here). The anecdote concerns an Irish priest who once was approached by a wolf who spoke to to him as if he were a human, and begged the priest to follow him. The priest went with the wolf who brought him to where another wolf was about to die, and the wolves asked the priest to adminster the last rites to the dying, for they were humans who had been cursed and therefore had been turned into wolves. The priest administered the rites.

This story is one of many werewolf stories found throughout the history of literature. The werewolf is a pervasive figure in folklore and continues to attract the fascination and attentions from scholars and non-scholars alike.



The priest and the wolf
BL MS Royal 13 B VIII, f.17v, Topograhpia Hiberniae, Gerald of Wales, England, c.1196-c.1223
Courtesy of British Library


One story depicting a werewolf can be found in Derek Walcott's poem Tales of the Islands, a sequence of ten sonnets depicting aspects of life in the Caribbean, often highlighting the multilingualism of that life by an elegant use of the Patois French native to Walcott's Saint Lucia. The story in question, which Walcott himself styles "A curious tale" in the opening of the poem, is detailed in the ninth sonnet, titled "Le Loupgarou", which is French for "werewolf". The sequence is included in Walcott's collection of poems In a Green Night from 1962.



From Tales of the Islands
Chapter IX/"Le Loupgarou"

A curious tale that threaded through the town
Through greying women sewing under eaves,
Was how his greed had brought ld Le Brun down,
Greeted by slowly shutting jalousies
When he approached them in white linen suit,
Pink glasses, Cork hat, and tap-tapping cane,
A dying man licensed to sell sick fruit,
Ruined by fiends with whom he'd made a bargain.
It seems one night, these Christian witches said,
He changed himself to an Alsatian hound,
A slavering lycanthrope hot on a scent,
But his own watchman dealt the thing a wound.
It howled and lugged its entrails, trailing wet
With blood, back to its doorstep, almost dead.