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

søndag 30. januar 2011

Gluttons of Words

It may be time to write about what I actually learn here in York, considering that education is my prime reason for staying here. The following text is a presentation prepared for a seminar in one of my modules, Saving the Sinners. This module looks at the development of the Church in the High Middle Ages and its interaction with the society at large. Last Friday the topic was schools and scholars, and I thought it would be a good idea to take a closer look at the goliards and their place in the intellectual milieu of the High Middle Ages.

Thanne greued hym a Goliardeis, a gloton of wordes
- Piers Plowman, William Langland

She saw a scholar
Ensconced by a tree
"What do you do, sir,
Come and do me!"
- From Carmina Burana, transl. David Parlett

The term goliard has been passed down to us from the late twelfth-century. It does not denote an organised body of men - such as a gild or a monastic order - but is rather an identity or claim of adherence made by the goliards themselves as followers or disciples of Golias. The figure of Golias may stem from a pseudonym belonging to an existing person of the 12th century, but most likely he is just an invention of a group of rhymester clerks or students forging what appears like a mock-myth of origin. We can see some similarities between the goliards and the much later invention of Christian Rosenkreutz as head of the rosicrucian movement, with the exception that the rosicrucians never existed.

The goliards were students and clerics, poets and vagrants, using ecclesiastical and scriptural conventions in their humorous and strongly satirical poetry, especially mocking the clergy. They were considered blasphemous and other clerics launched verbal attacks against them well into the 13th century. In modern times the goliardic poetry was long considered "unmedieval", an anachronism not belonging to the Middle Ages. I for my part think the Goliards must be understood from the intellectual atmosphere of the 12th century.

In many respects the 12th century was a very vibrant age, particularly so in the intellectual world. Simultaneously with the Gregorian reform, Europe received many new impulses from the world beyond Western Christendom. This not only shows that the boundaries were permeable, but also that there was an interest in and a willingness to accept ideas and books from abroad. The four major exchange zones were Spain, Antioch, Sicily and Byzantium. From these areas numerous books were brought into Europe and translated from Greek and Arabic, and thus enhancing the intellectual spectrum of the 11th and the 12th centuries.

From the Arabic and Greek spheres Europe became acquainted with many old texts of Galen, Aristotle, Ptolemy and the like, but the 12th century was not merely an age of rediscovery and thinking, but rethinking and discovery. Along with the Greek texts came books on Arab astrology, medicine, alchemy and so forth, spurring intellectual debate and making its impact on the scholarly agenda. In this sense the 12th century was an age of both the traditional and the modern, and this became manifest in the willingness to confront custom. Particularly this became evident in the debate on the liberal arts; several scholars attacked the definition of the arts, such as William of Conches' assault on Priscian's grammar. New arts emerged - like ars dictaminis, the art of letter-writing - and Geoffrey of Vinsauf's treatise titled Poetria Nova from the turn of the century clearly indicates a consciousness of the new mood and the new age.

This is the first part of the backdrop against which one must consider the goliardi. The second part is the emergence of universities and their struggle for increased independence.

The universities were a product of the twelfth century, growing out of the urban cathedral schools into a new kind of institution. At the turn of the 11th century education of the laity was mainly a matter for monastic schools, although there never was a clerical monopoly on teaching, and although the liberal arts were a goal for the monasteries few of them had the resources to give proper education in all seven. The origin of the cathedral school harkened back to the reorganisation during the Carolingian era, and as the number of men of learning increased throughout the 11th and the 12th centuries there naturally developed organisations - or gilds - of scholars at intellectual centres, which in many cases grew into universities. Not all cathedral schools reached that far, however. With the increase of students and masters the episcopal control of learning probably gained in the course of the Gregorian reform was reduced, a trend that continued throughout the century.

Prior to the establishment of the universities students had sojourned at intellectual centres for the sake of a particular master famed for his teaching, as was the case of John of Salisbury who spent 12 peripatetic years becoming an erudite man. With the universities education became more organised; a curriculum was set down, fixed periods of study and degrees were established. However, despite the fact that the bishops lost some control over the matters of learning at the universities, Paris, for instance, became increasingly dependent on papal support and thus papal subordination.

Stephen of Tournai (1128-1203) once lamented that theology was debated too vigorously, causing holy matters such as the indivisibility of the Trinity to be subject to blasphemy and scandal. This would be a non-surprising consequence in a milieu of multiple scholars and new impulses, but it equally less surprising caused the universities to be subject to stricter papal control.

New ideas and new impulses also spurred new conflicts and this intellectual evolution was marked by a number of them. Naturally there occurred disagreements within the various disciplines, but skirmishes also took place on a greater level. One of these was between scholars, represented by Peter Abelard, and mystics, represented by Bernard of Clairvaux, where Bernard admonished Abelard saying that the divine matters was not suitable for philosophers. Another conflict was between those scholars adhering to the traditional allegorical reading of the Bible and those preferring the literal interpretation. A third was between universities and the papacy, which was a disagreement over control and interference.

It is against this backdrop we must understand the emergence of the goliardi. In an expanding intellectual milieu marked by the aforementioned conflicts it is no surprise that students frustrated with papal intervention or the anti-intellectualism of certain clerics antagonised them and made them subjects for harsh satire, criticising the critics. It is not therefore to be claimed that the goliardi did not point out actual problems of their age and opposed actual abuse by clerics, but they ought to be considered as a product of certain conflicts which strip them from any objectivity in the matters at hand. Considering this the goliardic poets become just as Medieval as anything in the High Middle Ages, establishing them as a product of their time rather than the perceived anachronism believed in later ages, for they can be understood solely when seeing them against the intellectual milieu of the 12th century.

Illustration from Carmina Burana, a collection of Goliardic poetry from the High Middle Ages.

onsdag 26. januar 2011

Faces in Stone

                             (...) below the huge temple, he took in
All its details, marvelling at how that city had prospered,
Noting the artists' skill, the combined success of their labours.
- The Aeneid, Vergilius

While I was delighting myself with looking
At the images of such great humilities,
Which were dear to us for their maker's sake.
- Purgatorio, Dante Alighieri

A Medieval cathedral is a marvellous and awe-inspiring construction in many respects. York Minster is frequently - and quite rightly - praised for its spectacular glass paintings, which make a visit at daylight very rewarding. However, another aspect that is less emphasised at York Minster, but no less impressive, is the carved figures decorating various architectural features both on the inside and the outside. There is, to my knowledge, no leaflet offering any overview of the various figures in the Minster, as is the case regarding the glass paintings.

As nothing about art in the Middle Ages is coincidental carvings of figures and faces served a series of purposes, ranging from warding off evil spirits, as would be the case with water-spewers and gargoyles, to educational depictions of Heaven and Hell, as would be the case of tympana, corbels and column capitals. A Medieval cathedral was not solely a place of worship, but a place of educating the soul, learning to follow the way of God and also the keep away from the way of the Devil. The carvings would be just one element of the many-layered didactic comprised in the cathedral along with glass paintings, wall paintings, music, sermons and processions, all meant to lift the soul of literate and illiterate alike nearer God. In our day and age, daily and excessive exposition of images has rendered us blind to the awe felt by the Medieval man and woman entering the cathedral, but the work of Medieval craftsmen can nonetheless inspire a number of impressions even today.

Some figures are to the modern eye difficult to interpret, being either too arcane or void of that meaning it once conveyed to the Medieval spectators. It can be difficult enough to map the messages found in cathedrals still standing, far more difficult is it to understand the full depth of carvings from destroyed churches as these carvings are removed from their original context.

My knowledge of the topic is insufficient for a lecture, and I have not been able to tour York Minster extensively to experience the Medieval communication of the carvings there. This blogpost will therefore not revolve around the York Minster carvings solely, but give a few examples of stonework of the Middle Ages found in the Minster, Yorkshire Museum and Whitby Abbey.

York Minster

The first three pictures are taken during a tour of the Minster tower. Apart from the possible purpose of warding off demons I do not know whether any of these figures contain additional symbolism or depict figures common to the Medieval mythology and folklore, but I admire them nonetheless as works of craft. 


Whitby Abbey

These carvings are from the 12th and 13th century abbey whose ruins now can be admired at Whitby. They are kept in the Whitby Abbey Museum.


 These carvings - commonly called grotesques - were 12th century corbels supporting the roof timbers and would therefore have been situated on the inside of the building. Whether they were meant to ward of evil spirits who had entered the church or whether they had a different function is beyond my knowledge. Nor do I know what - if anything in particular - they are meant to portray.

The architectural function of these two carvings were not explicitly clear in the information given at Whitby Abbey Museum, but judging from features similar to the grotesques these may very well be corbels. The first is possibly depicting a knight, whereas the second may be an abbott. Their symbolic meaning is not clear. 

These heads are drip-stones from the 13th century. Placed above doors and windows to steer away the raindrops they are weathered quite severely, and it is exceedingly difficult to determine what they depict and what message they convey. An uneducated guess from my side would be - judging from what is extant of their eyes - that they appear to be tormented souls whose office as drip-stones thus becomes a metaphor for eternal suffering.

This picture depicts a winged lion, possibly the emblem of Saint Mark. It was carved in the 13th century and served as a painted and gilded boss for the vaulted ceiling of the presbytery.

Saint Mary's Abbey

These carvings are exhibited at Yorkshire Museum and comes from Saint Mary's Abbey, destroyed in the dissolition of the monasteries in the 16th century. The museum offers no information or suggestions as to their architectural purposes or what they portray and the meaning thereof.

This fellow seems to emerge from his column. Judging from his slightly disfigured face and his disproportionately large head he may be a fool or a midget serving a comical purpose. A tragic idea but mentally challenged or physically different people often served such purposes in Medieval iconography. 

This figure appears to be a manticore, a legendary beast from Persian mythology with the body of a tiger, head of a man, three rows of teeth and the tail of a scorpion.

Tympanum carving depicting a soul being tortured in Hell. Considering something is being stuffed into his mouth he may be punished for gluttony.

torsdag 20. januar 2011

Pain as Erudition

Today is St. Sebastian's day and because I find his place in cultural history interesting, this blogpost is dedicated to him and what I consider to be the first stage of his martyrdom.

Sebastian is a saint whose life is sufficiently obscure to allow for creative biographies. Of the historical figure little is known or can be proven except that he was a martyr. A vita, or saint's biography, from the 5th century dates his death to 286, in the time of Emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians. According to this biography he was an officer in the imperial bodyguard and in secret performed charitable deeds to fellow Christians. Upon discovery he was placed before a group of Mauretanian archers and shot, but after the execution he was taken care of by the widow Irene - herself canonised - and restored back to strength. His final martyrdom happened at a later stage, when he was killed with a club.

The earliest depiction of St. Sebastian probably dates from the end of the 7th century and portrays a bearded man dressed as a courtier. The arrow-pierced - and naked - body appears in the Renaissance, perhaps because it was a subject which allowed the painters to portray what Renaissance artists considered the ultimate motif: the nude male, or what Michelangelo would term as ignudo.

Sebastian is in Renaissance art depicted not only as a naked or semi-naked man, but also as a young and muscular man. His iconography bears strong resemblance to that of Apollon and there has probably occurred some conflation along the way, either deliberate or not. The naked man was to the Renaissance artists an ideal way of testing their talents, as this motif would give them opportunity to portray a vibrant anatomy in various positions.

Three of the finest - and most disturbing - examples of St. Sebastian in art have been created by Andrea Mantegna (ca. 1431-1506) and are shown below, each accompanied by a poem written for the painting in question.

Triptych for Saint Sebastian

After Mantegna

Apollonian Archery

That fine Apollonian archery,
Piercing the faithful flesh
Makes not martyrdom manifest,
But suffering,
                    a suffering that in itself
Holds no catharsis, but suggests
Salvation for the plagued
By demonstrating that knowledge,
That intimate knowledge, of pain,
Promising comfort.
- December 25-29 2010

The Passion of Saint Sebastian
Words grow out of the speechless mouth, pain flows
In quiet cadence through the pierced veins; coiled
About a marble pillar, the saint writhes
In holy agony to ascertain
The soul's endurance in a heathen time
By fortitude that makes not merely soul
But also flesh immortal, as the hands
Of artists hence assail the dual challenge
To merge emotion and anatomy
According to the tastes of benefactors.
- December 25-29 2010

Tu de peste huiusmodi
Me deffende et custodi
- O Sancte Sebastiane, Guillaume Dufay

A Prayer to Saint Sebastian

In your fashion and according to your manner
Defend me, O Martyr, from Death's bitter bodkin
And as you were with me at Azincourt come forth
Again to aid me in my dire need, as blots
Black as sin appears upon my flesh to blight me,
Poor wretch, and make my living days a dream of death,
Tempting my hand to guide the arrow through my skin
That life may escape this breathing, black'ning carcasse.
Help me, O Martyr, that neither sin nor sickness
May coax me to damnation at this final hour,
But ease my tribulation that I may die and live.
- December 26 2010


Apollonian archery: Saint Sebastian is patron saint of archers and athletes, and was considered to be willing to assist in case of plague. His patronage of archers is obvious since his martyrdom - or rather its first stage - is connected to archers. Saints usually - and logically - becomes the patrons of their trespassers' crafts. His connection to Apollon may derive from the imagery of the Grecian god as a deliverer of plague, a delivery he would perform with his bow and arrows. Also his appearance as a muscular young man may have its root in depictions of Apollo.

A prayer to Saint Sebastian: The epigraph is taken from Guillaume Dufay's (1397?-1474) motet O Sancte Sebastiane which may have been composed during an outbreak of plague in Ferrara. The excerpt loosely translates as "In your fashion guard and defend me from the plague". 

Azincourt: Also spelled Agincourt. In the battle of 1415 the English forces vanquished the French. There were archers on both sides, so the nationality of the praying persona is unsettled. 

blots black as sin: A symptom of the bubonic plague.

that I may die and live: To despair is considered a deadly sin by Catholics since this emotion is considered to question God's omnipotence. To despair on one's death bed would be even more disastrous since desperation then would be final and irredeemable, and if this despair were to lead to suicide redemption would be considered hopeless to attain.

onsdag 19. januar 2011

When you walk through the garden

Society is all but rude,
To this delicious solitude.
- The Garden, Andrew Marvell

When you walk through the garden
you gotta watch your back
well I beg your pardon
walk the straight and narrow track
- Way down in the hole, Tom Waits

Today started with a seminar in England in Europe, a module examining the relationship between Anglo-Saxon and Continental literature from the 10th century up to and including the 12th. This was followed by a session of reading about manuscripts from 14th-century England and onwards for my second module, Fictions of Audacity which revolves around Middle English romances. It should therefore not be a surprise that I found it necessary to take a break after these labourings and I decided to take a walk in the museum garden which lies within close proximity of King's Manor. The air was mild and moist and the sun was shining very pleasantly, so from the greensward and wet stones there exuded a vernal fragrance lightening my spirits in its unique way and it turned out to be a fine day for sauntering the garden.

Although he seems watchful and alert he was in fact merely curious about the noises I made.

To tell the beawtie of my buildings fayre,
Adornd with purest golde, and precious stone;
To tell my riches, and endowments rare
That by my foes are now all spent and gone:
To tell my forces matchable to none,
Were but lost labour, that few would beleeue,
And with rehearsing would me more agreeue.
- The Ruines of Time, Edmund Spenser

Death, which fastens us to the earth, remains pastoral or brutish, because no single corpse contributes to some tiered concept of a past.
- What the Twilight Says, Derek Walcott

                             So it was done:
I in their delicate fellowship was one
- The Hound of Heaven, Francis Thompson

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness:
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade.
- The Garden, Andrew Marvell

The Ouse had recently flooded its banks and covered them with silt. It is not void of aesthetic value, but it is difficult to get off your shoes.

 This is Mrs. Blackbird showing courage while her husband hides in the bushes.

And here he is.

While our sports shall be seen
On the Echoing Green.
- The Echoing Green, William Blake

Whitby Letters - Caedmon

Now let me praise the keeper of Heaven's kingdom,
the might of the Creator, and his thought
- Caedmon's Hymn

Caedmon was a stable boy at the monastery at Streoneshal - the Anglo-Saxon predecessor of Whitby Abbey - in the 7th century. He was unskilled in music and could therefore not contribute to any musical diversion at the monastery. According to Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People he was much ashamed of this and on one occasion he retreated to the stable. There he was inspired by God and could the following day recite the hymn we now call Caedmon's Hymn. Bede never met Caedmon in person since Caedmon died somewhere between 670 and 680, whereas Bede was born in modern-day Sunderland in 673. However, Bede must have encountered monks or nuns familiar with Caedmon and Caedmon's position as a historical person is therefore quite certain, or at least as certain as one can be in matters such as these.

Caedmon is still today honoured at Saint Mary's Church situated close to the abbey ruins.

Caedmon's Hymn

Nu scylun hergan hefaenricaes uard
metudæs maecti end his modgidanc
uerc uuldurfadur sue he uundra gihuaes
eci dryctin or astelidæ
he aerist scop aelda barnum
heben til hrofe haleg scepen.
tha middungeard moncynnæs uard
eci dryctin æfter tiadæ
firum foldu frea allmectig

Now let me praise the keeper of Heaven's kingdom,
the might of the Creator, and his thought,
the work of the Father of glory, how each of wonders
the Eternal Lord established in the beginning.
He first created for the sons of men
Heaven as a roof, the holy Creator,
then Middle-earth the keeper of mankind,
the Eternal Lord, afterwards made,
the earth for men, the Almighty Lord.