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

søndag 30. desember 2012

Saintly Rivals - a brief comparison of the cults of Thomas Becket and Edward the Confessor

Yesterday, December 29, was the feastday of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was killed in 1170 when four knights entered the cathedral and slew him. This transgression caused an uproar throughout Christendom and only three years later Thomas was canonised by Pope Alexander III. The cult of Thomas Becket grew rapidly in popularity and soon eclipsed other cults, including that of St Edward the Confessor, who had been canonised only twelve years earlier in 1161 by the same pope. The trajectories of these two cults make for an interesting comparison because their origins are close to each other in space and time, but also because of the many differences between them. In this blogpost I aim to look at a few of these differences. The images are all taken from the British Library online catalogue.

 Martyrdom of Thomas Becket from MS Harley 5102, first quarter of 13th century

The Canonisations

The two cults came about within the reign of the same pope, Alexander III (1159-81). By the time of Edward the Confessor's canonisation (1161), there was a papal schism which divided Latin Christendom between Alexander and his rival, antipope Victor IV, and each of the contestans vied for the loyalty of Europe's secular princes. It was then the English clergy and King Henry II decided to re-apply for the canonisation of Edward the Confessor (an attempt of 1138 had fallen through on grounds of insufficient ecclesiastical support), and the request was granted. This was possibly due to Henry II's support of Alexander, but it may also have been because the English clergy was now united behind this claim and thus provided the support that had been lacking in 1138.

Edward the Confessor (d. 1066) provided Henry II with a sainted forebear that could legitimise his own rule, which was still a matter of contention in the 1160s. However, there is nothing to suggest that Henry expressed any personal devotion to Edward, he was more interested in the political aspect of the saint - this claim is supported by the enthusiasm Henry dedicated to the genesis of Wace's Roman de Rou. In ecclesiastical circles, however, Edward did not achieve any wide popularity, and it was primarily at Westminster - where the king lay buried - that any significant devotion could be found. This can be seen clearly by the fact that Archbishop Thomas Becket himself applied to Pope Alexander at the Council of Tours in May 1163 for the canonisation of his predecessor Anselm (1109) - quite possibly to counter the English monarchy's brand new saint. Although Pope Alexander expressed sympathy for the cause and allowed veneration, he refused to canonise the famous archbishop and theologian. Becket's petition is suggestive of the growing hostility between him and the king, an hostility that was to reach new heights at the council of Westminster in October that year. Edward's lack of wide ecclesiastical support can also be seen in the fact that at Edward's translation, October 13 1163, only the archdiocese of Canterbury was represented, not the archdiocese of York.

At the time of Thomas Becket's canonisation the papal schism was still ongoing, but the murder of an English archbishop within the confines of a cathedral enraged both lay and cleric, and both Becket's ecclesiastical supporters (many of whom were French clerics who had entertained him during his exile in the period 1164-65) and the lay populace expressed their horror. In 1173 Pope Alexander canonised Becket (without much ado, as had been the case with the Confessor) and the following year Henry II performed a public penance for his role in the murder. Henry was also forced to make certain concessions to the pope regarding royal interference in ecclesiastical matters, which had been one of Becket's major causes. Through his martyrdom, in other words, Thomas Becket provided the English church with exactly the kind of saintly figurehead he had sought in Anselm seven years prior to his death. However, although Becket remained popular even after the immediate surge of piety had lost its momentum, he did not alter significantly much with regards to the relationship between Church and Monarchy, and the most significant long-term beneficial consequences are probably the boost in the revenue of Christ Church at Canterbury, which hosted his shrine. Nonetheless, the cult enjoyed an impressive longevity.

Edward the Confessor with book and sceptre from MS Royal 20A II, c.1307-1327

The Textual Traditions

Another interesting difference between Thomas Becket and Edward the Confessor is the development of their respective textual traditions. Edward the Confessor had been dead for nearly a century by the time he was canonised, and because of his position as the last - or penultimate, depending on your views - Anglo-Saxon king he was immediately revered by the Normans in a successful attempt to legitimise their new reign. It was the childless Confessor who had appointed William, Duke of Normandy, as his successor - or at least that was what the Norman historian William of Jumièges claimed already in the 1060s and -70s. Following Edward's death, therefore, he made important appearances in historiographical works of various kinds, the most significant of which being Vita Edwardi qui apud Westmonasteriam recquiescit, a biography written to secure his widow Edith's position at the new Norman court. This work was the chief source for Osbert of Clare, prior at Westminster who attempted to have Edward canonised in 1138 and who wrote the first Edward hagiography to support his petition. Although initially unsuccessful, this was the basis for Aelred of Rievaulx's hagiography of 1163, written for Edward's translation. In other words, at the time of Edward's canonisation there was a rich textual tradition to glean from for the liturgical material - the earliest of which came about sometime in the period 1161-66 - and later histories and hagiographies.

For Thomas Becket things were vastly different. Between his death and his canonisation there were three years and consequently no tradition to build from. However, the sensational character of his death - and the fact that there were clerical eye-witnesses who could disseminate their knowledge firsthand - resulted in an impressively swift production of purely hagiographical material, which did not spring from any preceding historiographical tradition. The earliest text was the Vita sancti Thomae (first recension c.1171-72) of Edward Grim, the man who had attempted to shield Becket with his arm and nearly lost it as a result. This text was the foundation of a metrical French life authored by Guernes de Pont-Ste-Maxence in 1172-74 and was also used by William Fitz Stephen in the second recension of his Vita sancti Thomae. In addition there was a Passio beati Thomae in dissemination from the 12th century onwards. These texts were in turn the foundation for the office for Thomas Becket, which came about very quickly following his canonisation.

 Martyrdom of Thomas Becket, MS Royal 2 BVII, c.1310-20


The most significant differences between Thomas Becket and Edward, however, are typological, and this may in turn account for the different degrees of successfulness the two saints could claim. Edward was, as his sobriquet tells us, hallowed for his virtuous life, his virginity, his peaceful reign, his mild-mannered behaviour and his ability to heal the lame, the blind and - in one memorable instance - the scrofulous. However, despite his commendable deeds, he was still a rather tame saint and he paled in comparison to the virgin martyrs who had given their life for Christ, facing an often excessively brutal end, or in comparison to the apostolic martyrs who had died gruesomely by the hands of heathens in their attempts to spread the Gospel. He was also a rather tame king, for although his reign was of a relative peace, it was rather boring compared to the mighty men-of-arms like Charlemagne or Stephen of Hungary. In other words, Edward fell short in two categories, and this can be seen by the rivalry he met from the cult of a man who was listed both as a martyr, a king and - if I remember correctly - a virgin, namely Edmund the Martyr, 9th-century king of East Anglia. This is not to say that the virtues and iconography of Edward rendered him completely impotent as a saint, far from it, but as a humble and chaste king who - reportedly - submitted to the superiority of the Church, he was more attractive to ecclesiasticals, who found in him the perfect model of a Christian king - this was especially the case in the Cistercian climate of the 12th century - and who occasionally portrayed him resembling a bishop rather than a king.

Thomas Becket, however, was a different saint type, the martyr. As André Vauchez has pointed out the brutal death of a contemporary will often result in a surge of enthused piety from the populace, and this was indeed the case with Thomas Becket. His social position, his steadfastness in a brutal martyrdom and his network of supporters on the continent helped to rapidly disseminate his cult, and although the Confessor had enjoyed a certain popularity beyond England, it was little compared to that of the martyred archbishop. Furthermore, the hagiographers of Thomas were indignantly opposed to the king and framed the saint's characerisation in a manner that could appeal to all Christians, and that also gave a certain edge to the Church. Thomas Becket was portrayed as a new man, a reformed sinner who had transformed himself upon taking his office as archbishop in a manner reminiscent of Paul's letter to the Ephesians. He was furthermore described as a good shepherd, a christic image which appealed to the laity who thus considered him a patron willing to aid them in their plights, and also to the clergy who saw him as a stout defender of the Church. Last, but far from least, he was of course a miracle-worker, which was mandatory for any saint, and which is what attracts a large following among both lay and learned. It is in these miraculous cures, however, that we find one of the most interesting differences between Thomas and Edward, and we can imagine that this had severe ramification for Edward's standing - although this particular link has not been conclusively proved.

As a miracle-worker Edward the Confessor had been described in very christic terms: he, both while still alive and when dead, healed the blind and the lame in the same way that Christ had done, and this christomimesis was evidence of his virtuous life. Thomas Becket, however, showed his virtue posthumously, but his catalogue of cures and helps exceeded the repertoire of Edward and included feeding the hungry and healing a long list of diseases and ailings. In an age when medicine was largely painful and ineffectual, and when a plethora of illnesses were very common, this was a major point of attraction for the pious laity.

 Edward the Confessor healing the crippled Gillemichel, MS Egerton 745, 14th century


To sum up, then, the cults of Thomas Becket and Edward the Confessor co-existed throughout the High Middle Ages and make for an interesting comparison. I have here focussed on the differences, but the matter is so complex and requires a book-length study of its own in order to satisfy the attention demanded by the material. They were typologically very different and their propagators approached the mandatory christomimesis in different ways. Ultimately, however, Thomas Becket proved most successful in that regard, as he had died an actual martyr's death, while the first biographer of Edward the Confessor could only vaguely suggest a Christlike end.


Barlow, Frank, "Thomas Becket" in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004

Duggan, Anne, "Edward Grim" in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004

Morris, Colin, The Papal Monarchy - The Western Church from 1050-1250, 1989

Rex, Peter, King & Saint: The Life of Edward the Confessor, 2008

Slocum, Kay Brainerd, Liturgies in Honour of Thomas Becket, 2004

Somerville, Robert, Pope Alexander and the Council of Tours (1163), 1977

Vauchez, Andrè, Sainthood in the later Middle Ages, 2005

Warren, W. L., Henry II, 1973

mandag 24. desember 2012

Hymn on the Morning of Christ's Nativity

A second Christmas gift to all my readers: John Milton's Hymn
on the Morning of Christ's Nativity. This epic rendition of the
Christmas gospel is a celebration of the triumph of Christianity
over the pagan gods, and a poetic remodelling of one of the
most treasured and most important stories of the world.
The text is taken from


THIS is the month, and this the happy morn,
Wherein the Son of Heaven’s eternal King,
Of wedded maid and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring;
For so the holy sages once did sing,
  That he our deadly forfeit should release,
And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.


That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable,
And that far-beaming blaze of majesty,
Wherewith he wont at Heaven’s high council-table
To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,
He laid aside, and, here with us to be,
  Forsook the Courts of everlasting Day,
And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.


Say, Heavenly Muse, shall not thy sacred vein

Afford a present to the Infant God?
Hast thou no verse, no hymn, or solemn strain,
To welcome him to this his new abode,
Now while the heaven, by the Sun’s team untrod,
  Hath took no print of the approaching light,
And all the spangled host keep watch in squadrons bright?


See how from far upon the Eastern road
The star-led Wisards haste with odours sweet!
Oh! run; prevent them with thy humble ode,
And lay it lowly at his blessèd feet;
Have thou the honour first thy Lord to greet,
  And join thy voice unto the Angel Quire,
From out his secret altar touched with hallowed fire.

The Hymn


    It was the winter wild,
    While the heaven-born child
  All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;
    Nature, in awe to him,
    Had doffed her gaudy trim,
  With her great Master so to sympathize:
It was no season then for her
To wanton with the Sun, her lusty Paramour.


    Only with speeches fair
    She woos the gentle air
  To hide her guilty front with innocent snow,
    And on her naked shame,
    Pollute with sinful blame,
  The saintly veil of maiden white to throw;
Confounded, that her Maker’s eyes
Should look so near upon her foul deformities.


    But he, her fears to cease,

    Sent down the meek-eyed Peace:
  She, crowned with olive green, came softly sliding
    Down through the turning sphere,
    His ready Harbinger,
  With turtle wing the amorous clouds dividing;
And, waving wide her myrtle wand,
She strikes a universal peace through sea and land.


    No war, or battail’s sound,
    Was heard the world around;
  The idle spear and shield were high uphung;
    The hookèd chariot stood,
    Unstained with hostile blood;
  The trumpet spake not to the armèd throng;
And Kings sat still with awful eye,
As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by.


    But peaceful was the night
    Wherein the Prince of Light
  His reign of peace upon the earth began.
    The winds, with wonder whist,
    Smoothly the waters kissed,
  Whispering new joys to the mild Ocean,
Who now hath quite forgot to rave,
While birds of calm sit brooding on the charmed wave.


    The stars, with deep amaze,
    Stand fixed in steadfast gaze,
  Bending one way their precious influence,
    And will not take their flight,
    For all the morning light,
  Or Lucifer that often warned them thence;
But in their glimmering orbs did glow,
Until their Lord himself bespake, and bid them go.


    And, though the shady gloom
    Had given day her room,
  The Sun himself withheld his wonted speed,
    And hid his head of shame,
    As his inferior flame
  The new-enlightened world no more should need:
He saw a greater Sun appear
Than his bright Throne or burning axletree could bear.


    The Shepherds on the lawn,

    Or ere the point of dawn,
  Sat simply chatting in a rustic row;
    Full little thought they than
    That the mighty Pan
  Was kindly come to live with them below:
Perhaps their loves, or else their sheep,
Was all that did their silly thoughts so busy keep.


    When such music sweet
    Their hearts and ears did greet
  As never was by mortal finger strook,
    Divinely-warbled voice
    Answering the stringèd noise,
  As all their souls in blissful rapture took:
The air, such pleasure loth to lose,
With thousand echoes still prolongs each heavenly close.


    Nature, that heard such sound
    Beneath the hollow round
  Of Cynthia’s seat the airy Region thrilling,
    Now was almost won
    To think her part was done,
  And that her reign had here its last fulfilling:
She knew such harmony alone
Could hold all Heaven and Earth in happier union.


    At last surrounds their sight
    A globe of circular light,
  That with long beams the shamefaced Night arrayed;
    The helmèd Cherubim
    And sworded Seraphim
  Are seen in glittering ranks with wings displayed,
Harping in loud and solemn quire,
With unexpressive notes, to Heaven’s newborn Heir.


    Such music (as ’tis said)
    Before was never made,
  But when of old the Sons of Morning sung,
    While the Creator great
    His constellations set,
  And the well-balanced World on hinges hung,
And cast the dark foundations deep,
And bid the weltering waves their oozy channel keep.


    Ring out, ye crystal spheres!

    Once bless our human ears,
  If ye have power to touch our senses so;
    And let your silver chime
    Move in melodious time;
  And let the bass of heaven’s deep organ blow;
And with your ninefold harmony
Make up full consort of the angelic symphony.


    For, if such holy song
    Enwrap our fancy long,
  Time will run back and fetch the Age of Gold;
    And speckled Vanity
    Will sicken soon and die,
  And leprous Sin will melt from earthly mould;
And Hell itself will pass away,
And leave her dolorous mansions of the peering day.


    Yes, Truth and Justice then
    Will down return to men,
  The enamelled arras of the rainbow wearing;
    And Mercy set between,
    Throned in celestial sheen,
  With radiant feet the tissued clouds down steering;
And Heaven, as at some festival,
Will open wide the gates of her high palace-hall.


    But wisest Fate says No,
    This must not yet be so;
  The Babe lies yet in smiling infancy
    That on the bitter cross
    Must redeem our loss,
  So both himself and us to glorify:
Yet first, to those chained in sleep,
The wakeful trump of doom must thunder through the deep,


    With such a horrid clang
    As on Mount Sinai rang,
  While the red fire and smouldering clouds outbrake:
    The aged Earth, aghast
    With terror of that blast,
  Shall from the surface to the centre shake,
When, at the world’s last sessiön,
The dreadful Judge in middle air shall spread his throne.


    And then at last our bliss
    Full and perfect is,
  But now begins; for from this happy day
    The Old Dragon under ground,
    In straiter limits bound,
  Not half so far casts his usurpèd sway,
And, wroth to see his Kingdom fail,
Swindges the scaly horror of his folded tail.


    The Oracles are dumb;
    No voice or hideous hum
  Runs through the archèd roof in words deceiving.
    Apollo from his shrine
    Can no more divine,
  Will hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving.
No nightly trance, or breathèd spell,
Inspires the pale-eyed Priest from the prophetic cell.


    The lonely mountains o’er,
    And the resounding shore,
  A voice of weeping heard and loud lament;
    Edgèd with poplar pale,
    From haunted spring, and dale
  The parting Genius is with sighing sent;
With flower-inwoven tresses torn
The Nymphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.


    In consecrated earth,
    And on the holy hearth,
  The Lars and Lemures moan with midnight plaint;
    In urns, and altars round,
    A drear and dying sound
  Affrights the Flamens at their service quaint;
And the chill marble seems to sweat,
While each peculiar power forgoes his wonted seat.


    Peor and Baälim
    Forsake their temples dim,
  With that twice-battered god of Palestine;
    And moonèd Ashtaroth,
    Heaven’s Queen and Mother both,
  Now sits not girt with tapers’ holy shine:
The Libyc Hammon shrinks his horn;
In vain the Tyrian maids their wounded Thammuz mourn.


    And sullen Moloch, fled,

    Hath left in shadows dread
  His burning idol all of blackest hue;
    In vain with cymbals’ ring
    They call the grisly king,
  In dismal dance about the furnace blue;
The brutish gods of Nile as fast,
Isis, and Orus, and the dog Anubis, haste.


    Nor is Osiris seen
    In Memphian grove or green,
  Trampling the unshowered grass with lowings loud;
    Nor can he be at rest
    Within his sacred chest;
  Nought but profoundest Hell can be his shroud;
In vain, with timbreled anthems dark,
The sable-stolèd Sorcerers bear his worshiped ark.


    He feels from Juda’s land
    The dreaded Infant’s hand;
  The rays of Bethlehem blind his dusky eyn;
    Nor all the gods beside
    Longer dare abide,
  Not Typhon huge ending in snaky twine:
Our Babe, to show his Godhead true,
Can in his swaddling bands control the damnèd crew.


    So, when the Sun in bed,
    Curtained with cloudy red,
  Pillows his chin upon an orient wave,
    The flocking shadows pale
    Troop to the infernal jail,
  Each fettered ghost slips to his several grave,
And the yellow-skirted Fays
Fly after the night-steeds, leaving their moon-loved maze.


    But see! the Virgin blest
    Hath laid her Babe to rest,
  Time is our tedious song should here have ending:
    Heaven’s youngest-teemèd star
    Hath fixed her polished car,
  Her sleeping Lord with handmaid lamp attending;
And all about the courtly stable
Bright-harnessed Angels sit in order serviceable.

Merry Christmas to all!

søndag 23. desember 2012

God rest ye merry gentlemen

The last few years I have become increasingly fond of English Christmas carols and Christmas hymns, owing no doubt in part to the exposure to English church music I had when living in England. One of my favourite hymns is God rest ye merry gentlemen, and for the occasion I would like to post one of the many versions for you to enjoy. Merry Christmas!

torsdag 20. desember 2012

Coming to a close - the final days of my thesis

I had hoped I would be able to resuscitate this blog after I had handed in the printed copies of my MA thesis in Mid-November, that I could finally take some time off academic work and that I could finally write all those pieces I've had planned for months. As it turned out, I did manage to take time off academic work, but unfortunately, my mind counted even blogposts academic work and refused to take part in it, descending into ennui, which prohibited anything resembling what I'd been doing the past few months. Even completing Robertson Davies' excellent novel The Rebel Angels took longer than I had expected, and although it was a splendid read I had to summon more willpower to complete it than normally would be the case. Completing my MA thesis had, in other words, drained me of more energy than I could possibly have foreseen back in August, when everything seemed to be coming to a close very neatly and swiftly, and when I still considered my Latin courses to be a pleasant diversion from editing my own texts.

By October reality came gradually creeping up on me and suddenly smacked me in the face with the numerous rounds of editing I had to undertake, joined of course by the still-unwritten chapter 1 which in turn very soon took on massive proportions. As a consequence I was editing my text almost right up to the very end, and Tuesday November 13 I counted myself done and decided to send in the text. However, before I could do so I had to go a few rounds with the pdf document as well, making sure that the pages were in the right place, that the chapters and the five appendices all began on the recto side and that the list of content corresponded with reality - which took a while to persuade it to do. Finally, everything was shipped off and I could afford myself one day of much-needed rest while waiting for the thesis to be printed on Thursday. It was a joy past all the care in the world - to paraphrase Geoffrey Hill - to carry a box containing copies of my thesis to the cubicle and to dole out signed copies to friends and fellow-students.

The following weekend was a busy one and I went out with friends every night from Friday to Tuesday, and I believe this, too, drained me more than I had anticipated. The week following the completion of my thesis, I was supposed to start refreshing my Latin and prepare for two exams at the end of the term. I also meant to prepare for the thesis defence sometime in Mid-December, and I had some great plans for how that should be done. Unfortunately, I managed nothing more than to sit in my flat for days - only occasionally venturing off to see other people - and watch tv series and read comics. I was completely void of any will to get things done and all the prospects I had planned sifted away into a state of suspended action. This sensation was so overpowering that even after I had learned the date for my defence - December 13 - it took me several days before I even began to try reading through my thesis, and even that cost me more strength than I would at first have believed.

On the day of the defence I spent more of that energy I didn't really have on sheer dread and anxiety. I woke up at about five in the morning after what I suspect was nothing more than two hours of sleep, and at about 10 a.m. I went down to campus to hang out with my friends, feeling very well the weight of five and a half years of work resting heavily on my shoulders and pecking at my skull. At that point four of my closest friends had already defended their theses - two graduating in history, two in art history - and they had all achieved great results. On my day of trial I was not alone as I had two friends who were defending before me, and as the moment of truth came closer, soo too came the realisation that the bar was set really high. 12 a.m. - one hour before my friends were defending - their grades were put up, and again the results were very good, adding, of course, to the pressure upon my shoulders. It was therefore a very long journey from the cubicle to the department at 1 p.m. when my grade was to be put up, and when I came in precisely on time it turned out I had come too early: the grade was not yet put up. Consequently I had to go back to my cubicle and undertake the journey once more. When I finally saw the grade, however, the weight of my world dispersed rather quickly as it turned out I could be very happy with my grade and the following hour passed in far less agony than the almost eight hours preceding it.

When the defence was done and five and half years' worth of academic labours had come to a close, I felt so very relieved and so very much on top of the world that I could hardly contain my joy. Unfortunately, that joy and the anxiety and fear leading up to that joy, drained my resources even further, and I was completely unable to care about my Latin exams of the week following, and I completed two of the worst exams I have ever conducted in my time at the University.

Now, however, I have returned home for the Christmas holidays and I can finally relax. I hope this will give me strength enough to resume my academic writing and my blogging, but I do fear also this month will be dedicated to brief pieces and self-promoting poetry.

fredag 30. november 2012

November Poetry - part III

While still labouring in the talons of post-thesis ennui I have been unable to summon sufficient strength of will to embark on a lengthy and scholarly blogpost, and as a consequence I present now the third installment in the series of November poetry. This time I give you an excerpt from Edmund Spenser's The Shepheardes Calender, which was his debut in the literary world. This cycle of twelve poems, one for each month, is modelled after Virgil's Eclogues and is exquisitely pastoral, each poem being a conversation between shepherds on subjects such as love, worldiness and death. The Shepheardes Calender is remarkable for its poetic range, encompassing a number of various rhyme scheme and verse forms.

The protagonist of the cycle is Colin Clout, a character taken from a poem by John Skelton (c.1460-1529), and he is widely agreed to serve as Edmund Spenser's persona. He also makes an appearance in the epic The Faerie Queene. In the 11th eclogue, the subject for Colin's mourning is a woman called Dido, and the eclogue itself is fashioned after a poem by Jean Marot (c.1450-c.1526). Since the poem is rather long, a present here only an excerpt from Colin's lament for Dido.

Shepheards, that by your flocks on Kentish downes abyde,
Waile ye this wofull waste of natures warke:
Wail we the wight, whose presence was our pryde:
Waile we the wight, whose absence is our carke.
The sonnne of all the world is dimme and darke:
The earth now lacks her wonted light,
And all we dwell in deadly night,
O heauie herse.
Breake we our pypes, that shrild as lowde as Larke,
O carefull verse.

søndag 25. november 2012

The Road to Ripon

During my stay in York this August a friend and I decided to take a trip to Ripon, a village a little northwest of York. I was excited to go there and see the cathedral, and I had entertained a certain fascination for Ripon ever since my student days in York, when one of my professors told that occasionally, when the populace of York was sufficiently hostile, the archbishop would retreat to Ripon. As a consequence the village grew in importance throughout the Middle Ages, and naturally a cathedral was erected.

Before coming to Ripon we drove by bus through a late-summer Yorkshire landscape of golden fields, meandering rivers, narrow roads and small hamlets. In time I intend to get back to the subject of Ripon on this blog, but for the time being - since post-thesis ennui has rendered me unable to compose long posts - I will here present a minor poem that grew out of a fond recollection of that archetypal English countryside.

The stone-built villages of England.
- Stone Villages, Joseph Brodsky

The Road to Ripon

There were hedgerows, open fields, and the narrow road
quarreling with the stone houses for its thoroughfare,
heading for Ripon in a quiet pilgrimage.
The houses were as I expected them to be,
the churches, too, and one by one each hamlet
flaunted their sleepy charm and was gone,
nameless to a stranger as if they were coyly shy
and sought by namelessness to be inviting.
Time ceased to pass on the country road;
the northern nooks, the mute river and the alleys
of chestnut or willow seemed not to know
there was a world outside, but rather found their peace
cradled in the orient corn of August,
whose light breeze whispered lullabies from when the North was young.
- November 05 2012

fredag 23. november 2012

November Poetry - part II

Today's November poem is a strophe from Spenser's alleged unfinished book of The Faerie Queene commonly known as The Cantos of Mvtabilitie, in which there is a pageant of the months riding, bearing or accompanied by emblems of the zodiac. November is described accordingly:

Next was Nouember, he full grosse and fat,
As fed with lard, and that right well might seeme;
For, he had been a fatting hogs of late,
That yet his browes with sweat, did reek and steem,
And yet the season was full sharp and breem;
In planting eeke he took no small delight:
Whereon he rode, not easie was to deeme;
For it a dreadfull Centaure was in sight,
The seed of Saturne, and faire Nais, Chiron hight

The Faerie Queene can be found here.

torsdag 22. november 2012

November Poetry - part I

For the past month this blog has been dormant as a consequence of my thesis work. I have now handed in the thesis to the Department and await the defence in medio December. I'm nonetheless trying to keep up four posts a month, and to achieve this I'm going the easy route: poetry posts. The first one is Geoffrey Hill's second sonnet from his cycle An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England, printed in Tenebrae, 1978.

II) Damon's Lament for his Clorinda, Yorkshire 1654

November rips gold foil from the oak ridges.   
Dour folk huddle in High Hoyland, Penistone.   
The tributaries of the Sheaf and Don
bulge their dull spate, cramming the poor bridges.

The North Sea batters our shepherds’ cottages   
from sixty miles. No sooner has the sun   
swung clear above earth’s rim than it is gone.   
We live like gleaners of its vestiges

knowing we flourish, though each year a child   
with the set face of a tomb-weeper is put down   
for ever and ever. Why does the air grow cold

in the region of mirrors? And who is this clown   
doffing his mask at the masked threshold   
to selfless raptures that are all his own?

onsdag 31. oktober 2012

Here dead clay used to lie

As a Norwegian I did not grow up with Halloween as anything noteworthy. Occasionally, there was a service at my local church for All Hallows, and of course there was the infrequent exposure to the American way of celebrating Halloween. We did have a similar tradition when I grew up, but that was on New Year's Eve, and it was shielded from the commercialisation Halloween has succumbed to. Because of this, I'm not very big on the whole Halloween hullaballoo, and it is with sadness I watch the spectacle rising to American standards here in Norway.

However, since I'm too busy to write blogposts of any length, and since I try to keep this thing updated at least four times a month, I will here present a poem of my own making, whose subject is not inappropriate on this day.

Memento te Moriturum Esse

Yorkshire Museum Gardens

Now here the caskets lie above
The earth where they belong
And now a pigeon, not a dove,
Performs its choral song.

Mute are the bells, the walls are torn,
Long gone that mortal clay,
Likewise the world where it was born
Is long dispersed away.

Here crafted stone still gaping yawn,
Here dead clay used to lie
And from these mouths there comes at dawn
A whisper: man must die.

tirsdag 23. oktober 2012

The Goodramgate Church

Last August I spent some days in York and most of the time I either spent in company with good friends or roaming about the city in search of history. One of my many favourite places in York is the Church of the Holy Trinity in Goodramgate and when I had tired of the tourist-thronged streets I sometimes retired to the churchyard to have some time alone. Unfortunately, due to the tourist season, I was never truly alone as people would walk in and out of the church while talking loudly, or sitting down to eat lunch. I have a hard time appreciating crowds - even when small - and I couldn't help becoming increasingly annoyed at their very touristy behaviour. Surely, some of this annoyance stemmed from my prejudice of tourists and my irritation may have been unwarranted to some extent. It did, however, result in this little poem, written mostly in situ, which I'd like to share. The italicised text in the opening line is an actual quote from one of the female tourists.

The Goodramgate Church

She said: It looks, like, so old in there,
her American twang and blonde hair
capering to prejudice. She seemed amazed
by the sheer antiquity of that place.

Others, less reverent, but calm
tend to their vacant stomachs. Their balm
is not of mind or spirit but the maw.
I half expect them to leave with a brisk caw.

Some are plain tourists come to glance and glare,
not like a huntsman entering a beast's lair
but casual, like whatever, going in and out
in swift succession, pondering neither faith, the place, nor doubt.

And I having sought in vain my solitude
observe from a distance the bale brood,
falling prey to loathing and the dark distaste
the scholar has for gawpers and the world's haste.
- August 12 2012

mandag 15. oktober 2012

Framing the King's Three Images - Methodological Introduction

In the previous blogpost I presented a brief overview of the cult of Edward the Confessor, the historical framework for my MA thesis. In this blogpost I will continue on the subject of Edward and present an introduction to the methodological issues I have faced in my work on the king's three images, i.e. how the king and has been depicted in three categories of literature: historiography, hagiography and liturgy. The purpose of my thesis is to examine how these three categories relate and influence each other. The liturgical excerpts are taken from MS Rawlinson liturg. g. 10 and have been translated by me, with invaluable assistance from my supervisor.

Edward the Confessor and Edward Martyr (MS Royal 2B VI, 13thC), courtesy of British Library

And so as the king moved forward little by little, burdened by this noble burden, the tendons that the longstanding illness had contracted were suddenly extended, the passage of blood that his stiffened veins had restricted resumed, his bones became firm, and his withered flesh became warm again. His joints emerged out of his flesh, and his feet were separated from his buttocks. The man stretched out his lower legs from the knees, which were now flexible and flowing with healthy blood. The royal clothing was adorned rather than defiled.
- The Life of Saint Edward, Aelred of Rievaulx (translated by Jane Patricia Freeland)

The Representation of St. Edward

The heart of the issue is as follows: how was Edward the Confessor represented in the various Medieval texts, and how do the various categories relate?

To answer this we must first look at what texts we are dealing with. I have divided the literature about Edward into three categories - or genres - and I have made this division based on the conventions and purposes that guide the respective types of texts. First of all we have historiography and hagiography which both are historical narratives with an expressed didactic purpose. I have chosen to treat these two separately because while they both fall under the aegis of history, the genre of hagiography has a very unique structure in that it is centred around repetition and moulded after the Gospels' presentation of Christ. A hagiography is a sacred biography focussed on one particular person and his or her saintly and virtuous life, death and miracles. For this reason the hagiographic texts of Edward the Confessor are treated as a category of their own. The third type of text is the liturgical, and this is a category set to music, aimed at celebrating a saint in a particular setting - i.e. the Church space - on days assigned to the saint in question. Liturgy is a form of communication between the supplicating choir and the recipient saint - unlike the two other genres it is not designed to be intelligible for an audience beyond this. When examining the various textual sources for St. Edward they must all be approached on their own accord, keeping in mind the guiding conventions in order to understand how they function within the cult.


Historiographical works occupy the largest share of the Edward literature. The most important work is Vita Ædwardi - abbreviated Vita I - which was executed by an anonymous Flemish monk at the behest of Edward's widow Edith. The text was completed shortly after Edward's death and - although this is an issue of some contention - had as its purpose to ensure Edith a favourable position in the Norman regime. This text is very important in that it established Edward's virtues and typology, and provided later writers - both historiographers and hagiographers - with material with which they developed Edward's character. Not every characteristic was included in later texts, and some characteristics were added later. The characteristics that did make it into the standard repertoire and became canonical virtues, so to speak, were Edward the Solomonic peacemaker, the chaste king, the man of visions - likened to the prophet Jonah who foretold the fall of Niniveh - and the pious monarch who preferred to discuss theology with monks rather than to immerse himself in the world of the court - a sort of monkish king with traditions all the way back to Merovingian times. These virtues were also to some extent included in Norman historiographies written shortly after the Conquest.

The next significant historiographical text, however, was William of Malmesbury's Deeds of the English Kings written in the mid-1120s. In this book William presents Edward as an almost dual figure: on the one hand Edward was a very saintly king - although not regarded by William as a saint - whose piety, charity, chastity, temperance and humility ensured him a favourable standing in the eyes of God. Edward's rule was pre-ordained by the Almighty, William stated, and this could be seen in Edward's ability to heal the sick and foretell the future. However, William was adamant that this was due to Edward's personal piety, not his office as king. In his book William of Malmesbury in fact uses Edward as a foil against the idea that sanctity came inherently with kingship, a claim that was on the rise in France. In this light it is also interesting to note that the second representation of Edward is that of a man too simple of mind to be a good king. In fact, claims William, had it not been for God's personal intercession England would have fallen into destitution during Edward's reign because of his inability to rule.

These two historiographical texts were very formative for the later tradition. Hagiographies were based on these works, and in the case of William of Malmesbury he was copied more or less verbatim into later works of history - which was a common practice in the Middle Ages. The perhaps most interesting aspect of the historiographical tradition is that historians would include Edward's less saintly characteristics - as found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and to some extent in pre-canonisation histories - such as his confiscation of his mother's possession and the king's participation in war. These elements were included even after Edward had been established as a saint.


The first proper hagiography written for Edward the Confessor - i.e. the first that unequivocally follows the conventions established for hagiographic texts - is Vita Beati Regis Edwardi (or Vita II for short) written c.1138 by Osbert of Clare, prior of Westminster Abbey. This text was a part of a conscious effort to have Edward canonised, although - as we have seen - that effort ultimately failed. In Vita II Osbert gleaned material from Vita I, William of Malmesbury and a handful of other sources and arranged them in a hagiographic structure. This meant, chiefly, to remove the political narrative of Vita I, include more miracles and pays more attention to Edward's virtues. These virtues are the same that has already been established: Edward was a Solomonic man of peace, a prophet, a chaste man, a temperate and pious man pre-ordained to rule by God. Osbert's emphasis, however, is Edward's visions and his healing - both while living and posthumously - and this is of course natural since Osbert aimed to propagate Edward's sainthood. There were, however, some novelties aside from the new miracles and the new visions. Osbert wrote for a well-educated Papacy heavily influenced by Cistercian devotion to the Virgin Mary, and he therefore included Edward's invocation of the Holy Virgin and compared Edward with antitypes from the Classical lexicon: His charity was compared to the covetous Midas and his mildness was contrasted with the tyranny of Dionysious of Siracuse.

When Edward had been canonised in 1161 the Abbot of Westminster saw the need for a new hagiography, ostensibly one that was better suited for a royal audience than Vita II and one through which they could hope to mould the king according to their own tastes. The Abbot commissioned Aelred of Rievaulx and on the translation of Edward's relics October 13 1163, Aelred presented his Vita Sancti Edwardi - henceforth Vita III - to the king at Westminster and held a sermon based on the passage from Luke where Christ says nobody hides their light under a bushel. Vita III became the official vita and it engendered a wide array of adaptations in prose and verse, Anglo-Norman and Middle-English. Aelred's was the last proper vita written for Edward, and although there were later Latin adaptations too, these were abbreviations. Since Aelred wrote for a royal audience he made some changes accordingly: he left out the Classical antitypes of Vita II and compared Edward instead with a larger catalogue of Biblical figures - some of them women. He also added a few more miracles, some of which were meant to show that Edward could work wonders beyond the walls of Westminster. When it comes to virtues Aelred presents essentially the same list as Osbert, but he gives them more space: while Osbert dedicates 9 pages to Edward's chastity, Aelred spends more than 20; while Osbert refers to Edward's temperance a couple of times within five pages, Aelred returns to it on at least four very separate occasions. Additionally Aelred emphasises the Christlike aspects of Edward to a greater degree. Another interesting difference is that while Osbert explicitly says that all kings should take heed from this story, Aelred specifically turns to Henry II - which was probably part of the reason why a new vita was needed.


Liturgy is a tricky category in this regard since it stands out in certain ways. One the one hand liturgy has an historical dimension in that parts of the liturgical repertoire presents episodes from the saint's life and miracles - especially the lessons at Matins, which were read as opposed to the chants which were sung. The lessons at Matins were also called historia since it was from the saint's historia they took much of their material - material that clearly belongs to the established historical narrative. On the other hand these episodes are interspersed with scriptural readings and chants sometimes taken from a common repertoire, and several of the liturgical items were sung, not read. We have, in other words, a category far more complex than the simple narratives of historiography and hagiography. Because of the difference in form, liturgists had to present the material in a different, more compressed way than the ordinary hagiographer. In other words, what Osbert and Aelred could dedicate several chapters to, the liturgist had to compress into one or two chants comprising only from about four to fourteen lines, give or take. In addition the material was sometimes rendered in verse, which added certain constraints to the manner of expression, and we see this in an episode recounted in both vitae regarding an Irish cripple: where the hagiographers dedicate a chapter to the matter, the liturgist expresses the case accordingly:

Who exerts power over riches and mundane

delights, observe in awe the grace and glory of

King Edward who [although] a mighty

and noble king is [nonetheless] so humble

that someone so miserably ugly and crippled

he supported [him and] carrying [him] 

made the one carried healthy again.

This is from a lesson, read at Matins, and treats the same episode as depicted in the epigraph. The compression of meaning becomes even more acute in the chants - which sometimes deal with biographical details - which are much shorter. One such chant is the responsory, which was performed after the lesson, and had a particular division: the main division is between the choral respond and the verse. The respond is in turn divided into responsum and repetenda, and the repetenda is repeated after the verse. In this way, the heart of the message - what needs to be emphasised - is placed in the repetenda, which thus contains the key to the responsory. I will now show you some examples taken from the material for Matins, which was the first service of the day, held a few hours after sunset. The Matins was the longest of the services and it is here we find the narrative material.

This can be seen here:
[R] The man was called back to his fatherland

from exile by the intercession of Saint Peter

to rule the entire kingdom

.he was elevated to his ancestral throne

[v] Although he was married

he led a celibate life.

[r] he was elevated to the ancestral throne.

As we see, the important part of the message is that Edward was elevated - or in this sense probably pre-ordained - to the English throne. The compression of material is further illustrated in another lesson from Matins:

The merits of the holy king 

are pleasing to God;

this simple meaning [truth?]

a threefold vision demonstrates.

First: the Seven Sleepers turned around.

Second: The Danish king

who was enclosed in the seas.

Third: Miraculously appeared

Christ [unto] Edward visibly

when he participated in Mass.

Through his holy prayers

we shall be saved in Heaven.
As we see from these examples the form of liturgy contains very different guidelines for the liturgist than the hagiographer, and although both categories deal with the same material, it is presented very differently. There is also another great difference to keep in mind: while hagiographies could be dedicated to either a courtly or a clerical audience, the liturgical image was not meant to be beheld by anyone but those who performed the liturgy and the one for whom it was performed: the saint. This means that when we behold the king's liturgical image we see him the way his devotees saw him. We see emphasised those virtues, characteristics and topics most important to those who through their prayers and liturgical performance upheld the cult and constituted the very heart of it. By unveiling the liturgical image we come almost face to face with the most central part of the cult.