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.