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

tirsdag 31. desember 2013

Pope Sylvester and the Dragon

Today, the last day of the year, is the feast day of Pope Sylvester (d. 335), whose legendary afterlife had an important place in the Middle Ages. According to a later forgery, known as the Donation of Constantine, Pope Sylvester received all worldly power in the West from the emperor, presumably in gratitude for having cured him of leprosy (or so the legend goes), and this document was an important tool in the investiture struggle and the other skirmishes between Pope and Emperor that marked the High Middle Ages. This document was later proved to be a forgery by Lorenzo Valla (c.1407-57), and this critical refutation has by some been seen as the starting point of the literary aspect of the quattrocento humanist Renaissance.

Sylvester resuscitating the dragon's victim, Maso di Banco (d.1348)
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Sylvester binding the dragon, Battista da Vicenza (15th century)

Another legend concerning Pope Sylvester tells that a dragon once terrorised Rome with a noxious vapour which killed the citizens. In the Middle Ages, bad smell was a sign of wickedness, and this dragon was indeed a force of evil. Pope Sylvester then made his way to the dragon's lair, bound it in the name of God and brought its victims back to life. There are also other legends, some of which can be read about more thoroughly here.

It is in a way fitting that the last day of the year is the feast of a saint bringing the dead back to life, as the New Year mark our long way toward spring and the return of life. Best wishes for 2014.

lørdag 28. desember 2013

Upon the Infant Martyrs - a poem for Childermas

The orders issued by a Herod's hand
MS. Yates Thompson 45, French Book of Hours (Use of Paris), last quarter of 14th century
Courtesy of British Library

In the Catholic sanctorale, today is the feast of the Holy Innocents, commemorating the infants slaughtered upon King Herod's command as described in the Gospel of Matthew 2:16-18. This tragic incident is one of the most heart-wrenching parts of the Christmas story, and has given great force to the Christian imagination, resulting in several artistic renditions or literary meditations.

The historicity of the massacre, however, is a matter of dispute among historians, especially since Matthew remains our only source. It has also effected religious debate, and for some it has been difficult to reconcile that the sacrifice of these children was linked to the good tidings of the Incarnation of the Word. One of those who were troubled by this, was the English poet Richard Crashaw (1612-49), and this can be seen in one of his poem, which is presented in this blogpost. The text is taken from poetryfoundation.

The Flight to Egypt and Massacre of the Innocents
MS. Royal 1 D X, English psalter, 13th century (before 1220)
Courtesy of British Library

Upon the Infant Martyrs

To see both blended in one flood,
The mothers’ milk, the children’s blood,
Make me doubt if heaven will gather
Roses hence, or lilies rather.

Particularly heart-wrenching rendition, even the marginal hybrid seems disturbed
MS. Stowe 12, English breviary, Use of Sarum, 1322-25
Courtesy of British Libary

onsdag 25. desember 2013

The Burning Babe - a poem for Christmas Day

Since it's Christmas Day, I find it proper to post one of the perhaps most cherished religious poems from Elizabethan England, namely Robert Southwell's The Burning Babe, published in 1595 in his collection St. Peter's Complaint. Allegedly, Ben Jonson once stated that he would rather have been the author of this particular poem than the entirety of his own bibliography. I, for my part, have a great fondness for the poem, especially because of the religious intensity conveyed in the metrics and the rhyme-scheme. The text is taken from

Nativity with a particularly effulgent Christchild
MS. Egerton 2045, c.1460-c.1470, Central France, book of hours, Use of Rome
Courtesy of British Library

As I in hoary winter's night stood shivering in the snow,
Surprised I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow ;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty babe all burning bright did in the air appear ;
Who, scorchëd with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
Alas, quoth he, but newly born in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I !
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns ;
The fuel justice layeth on, and mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men's defilëd souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.
With this he vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I callëd unto mind that it was Christmas day.

fredag 20. desember 2013

Et in Arcadia ego

in Arcadia there were born
A shepherd
- The Faithful Shepherd, Giambattista Guarini (translated by Richard Fanshawe)

Les Bergers d'Arcadie, Nicholas Poussin (1637-38)
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In my previous blogpost I gave a brief introduction to the development of the vanitas motif in art, and this blogposts examines another step in this evolution, namely the motif of death in Arcadia, collectively known as Et in Arcadia ego. This artistic genre draws on a long legacy of bucolic writing reaching back into Greek and Roman literature, with Vergilius' Bucolica and Georgica, pastoral eclogues detailing the idyllic life of shepherds, as perhaps the most important works. They retained their popularity throughout the Middle Ages, and Vergilius' position in the eyes of the medieval learned is perfectly exemplified by his role as Dante's guide through Hell and Purgatory.

In the 16th century pastoral poetry gained increased momentum with the critical debates concerning Aristotle's Poetics, which had been translated into Latin late in the preceding century. Aristotle's rules of drama gave rise to the modern theatre, and also caused a lot of controversy among literary theorists who sought to reconcile the Poetics with Horatius' Ars Poetica, and some of the key points of tension were whether the satyr play and the shepherd play were the same, and whether either could be seen as a genre of its own on par with the tragedy and the comedy. As these definitions were tried and experimented with, a significant body of pastoral literature arose. This occurred primarily in Italy, but several important works were also written in England. These pastoral works were often composed for the court, and frequently contrasted the deceits of courtly life with the simplicity of the pastoral scene, often represented by Arcadia, a region in Greece that had become synonymous with The Pastoral Idyll.

Woodcut from second eclogue of Spenser's Shepheardes Calender, 1579
Courtesy of this website

Among the most important literary works to shape the late medieval and early modern pastoral were the plays Aminta (1573) by Torquato Tasso and The Faithful Shepherd (1590) by Giambattista Guarini. These were not only texts to be performed, but statements in the ongoing debate on genre, where the views of the playwright were put to paper and then executed on stage. The Arcadian scene was already a long-standing feature in Italian literature, from Jacopo Sannazzaro's very influential poem Arcadia from 1504 and onwards. This tradition also influenced English writers of the times, and among the foremost are Edmund Spenser, who wrote his Shepheardes Calender in 1579 in imitation of Vergilius, and Sir Philip Sidney, whose The Duchess of Pembroke's Arcadia drew on Sannazzaro's poem, among others.

In the 17th century, this pastoral tradition was merged with the contemporary vanitas motif in art, and resulted in some beautiful and deeply unsettling paintings, where the pastoral idyll was disrupted by the discovery of death's presence, even in the blissful Arcadia. The first example of this sub-genre, that I know of, is a painting by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri executed in the the period 1618-22. Barbieri, also known as Guercino, or the Squinter, here depicts two shepherds discovering a human skull, the proof that death also lurks in the blessed Arcadia. This sinister composition is given extra gravity when compared with another of Guercino's paintings, Apollo and Marsyas, where the same shepherds are witness to Marsyas' penalty, as seen below.

Et in Arcadia Ego, Guercino (1618-22)
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Apollon and Marsyas, Guercino (1618)
Courtesy of Wikigallery

The most famous rendition of death in Arcadia was painted by Nicholas Poussin in 1637-38 and titled Les Bergers d'Arcadie, The Shepherds of Arcadia, as seen above. This iconic painting of shepherds examining a tomb was, however, a later variation of the theme, and the first painting was finished in 1627 with a slightly different composition as seen below.

Les Bergers d'Arcadie, Nicholas Poussin (1627)

These doleful meditations on death's omnipresence are a very beautiful confluence of the vanitas motif and the literary pastoral, evoking the mythological register of Arcadia while playing on the symbolism of the vanitas in a manner worthy of the rising Baroque of the first half of the 17th century, giving a contemporary touch to elements of a rich and long-standing history.


Hagen, Margareth,
1500 - poetikk, intertekst og sjanger i italiensk 1500-tallslitteratur, 2013

Hayward, Malcolm, introduction to Torquato Tasso's
Aminta, 1997:

Penman, Bruce, Five Italian Renaissance Comedies, Penguin Classics, 1978

lørdag 14. desember 2013

Vanity of vanities

vanity of vanitites; all is vanity
- Ecclesiastes 1:2

No state in erd here standis siccar;
As with the wind wavis the wicker,
So wavis this warldis vanitie
- Lament for the makaris, William Dunbar

Why then doth Flesh, a Bubble-glass of Breath,
Hunt after Honour and Advauncement vain,
And rear a Trophee for devouring Death,
With so great Labour and long-lasting Pain,
As if his Days for ever should remain?
Sith all that in this World is great or gay,
Doth as a Vapour vanish and decay.
- The Ruines of Time, Edmund Spenser

One of the most prevalent and, to my mind, fascinating themes in 16th- and 17th-century culture is the vanitas, the meditation on human transience and the inherent futility in any human endeavour when faced with the brevity of life. This theme relies of course on the great philosophical heritage of the Judeo-Christian tradition (with Ecclesiastes as the most immediate and influential source) and also the Latin tradition as exemplified by the stoicism of Seneca. However, that this should burgeon into a category of its own in art and poetry in the 16th century, can only be explained by various meditations on death in late-medieval culture that appeared after the Black Plague, and in a way one might consider the vanitas to be the natural conclusion to and the apex of a cultural current that began in the 14th century, where the potential imminence of death and its ubiquity served as a reminder that one should keep one's life in order and not stray from the narrow path, a memento mori keeping the fickle nature of mankind in check in the expectation of God's final judgement. This evolved into the cultural expression of vado mori, I go to die, which had as its core the idea that as you lived, so would you also die, and the trick was to live a good, Christian life lest one should fare very badly.

From the Hours of Eleonora Gonzaga della Rovere
MS Yates Thompson 7, Central Italy, c.1480
Courtesy of British Library

From the Hours of Rene d'Anjou
MS Egerton 1070, France, c.1410
Courtesy of British Library

In the 16th century this mode of thought grew into a coherent, pronounced theme which was called vanitas, which often was presented through a collection of symbols with connotations of transience and brevity, such as the flickering or extinguished candle or lamp, the skull, the fading flower, the empty glass and so on. In some cases also the cultural or political pursuits of mankind were represented, either through musical instruments, a globe or political paraphernalia. Very frequently this was expressed in still lives, but could also be executed in more dramatic paintings, as seen below in Juan de Valdés Leal's (1622–1690) In ictu oculi from 1672. The title comes from 1 Corinthians 15:52 and means "in the blink of an eye".

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Pieter Claesz, 1630
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The vanitas genre also had a sub-genre known collectively as homo bulla est, man is a bubble, where one single metaphor was expressed in various ways, often with a putto blowing bubbles, showing painfully well the fragile nature of life. One of the most well-known and emblematic renditions of this sub-genre can be seen below, made by Hendrik Goltzius around 1594.

Courtesy of this website

These paintings are just a few examples of this wide-spread and long-lasting genre of art, and there are many other beautiful renditions of the theme to be found. I find it very interesting that this mode of thought should be expressed through a medium that is of itself a symbol of man's transience and futility along with so many other human pursuits like music or poetry. The painters must have been aware of this, and this reflection can also be found in literature as well. Remember that this is the time when Edmund Spenser had his Colin Clout break his pipe and Shakespeare made Prospero bury his books "deeper than did ever plummet sound", both of which have been interpreted as renunciations of the poetic pursuit.

This is, as stated, merely an introduction to this cultural phenomenon, and maybe I'll put up a few more in time. In any case, in a year when the word "selfie" as become Oxford Dictionary's word of the year, and when exhibitionism appears to be more or less unbridled, it is sometimes nice or at least useful to cast one's eyes a bit wider than the immediate moment.

søndag 8. desember 2013

Mermaid and merman

These days I'm preparing for my exam in a course on Victorian medievalisms and my mind is often in the 19th century. This course has covered a wide number of aspects from Victorian culture, two of which were the Pre-Raphaelites and Alfred Lord Tennyson. Since I like to keep a regular posting of four blogposts a month, I thought it proper to share some 19th-century culture, namely two poems by Tennyson and John William Waterhouse's paintings which appear to be based on these poems. The subject is not specifically medieval, but very, very Victorian.

I was inspired to put up these works after listening to a programme on BBC Radio 3 produced by medievalist Sarah Peverley. The programme is no longer available, but the playlists can be found here.

The poems are taken from

The Mermaid, John William Waterhouse
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Mermaid

Alfred Lord Tennyson


Who would be
A mermaid fair,
Singing alone,
Combing her hair
Under the sea,
In a golden curl
With a comb of pearl,
On a throne?


I would be a mermaid fair;
I would sing to myself the whole of the day;
With a comb of pearl I would comb my hair;
And still as I comb'd I would sing and say,
Who is it loves me? who loves not me?
I would comb my hair till my ringlets would fall
Low adown, low adown,
From under my starry sea-bud crown
Low adown and around,
And I should look like a fountain of gold
Springing alone
With a shrill inner sound,
Over the throne
In the midst of the hall;
Till that great sea-snake under the sea
From his coiled sleeps in the central deeps
Would slowly trail himself sevenfold
Round the hall where I sate, and look in at the gate
With his large calm eyes for the love of me.
And all the mermen under the sea
Would feel their immortality
Die in their hearts for the love of me.


But at night I would wander away, away,
I would fling on each side my low-flowing locks,
And lightly vault from the throne and play
With the mermen in and out of the rocks;
We would run to and fro, and hide and seek,
On the broad sea-wolds in the crimson shells,
Whose silvery spikes are nighest the sea.
But if any came near I would call, and shriek,
And adown the steep like a wave I would leap
From the diamond-ledges that jut from the dells;
For I would not be kiss'd by all who would list,
Of the bold merry mermen under the sea;
They would sue me, and woo me, and flatter me,
In the purple twilights under the sea;
But the king of them all would carry me,
Woo me, and win me, and marry me,
In the branching jaspers under the sea;
Then all the dry pied things that be
In the hueless mosses under the sea
Would curl round my silver feet silently,
All looking up for the love of me.
And if I should carol aloud, from aloft
All things that are forked, and horned, and soft
Would lean out from the hollow sphere of the sea,
All looking down for the love of me.

The Merman, John William Waterhouse
Courtesy of this website

The Merman

Alfred Lord Tennyson


Who would be
A merman bold,
Sitting alone,
Singing alone
Under the sea,
With a crown of gold,
On a throne?


I would be a merman bold,
I would sit and sing the whole of the day;
I would fill the sea-halls with a voice of power;
But at night I would roam abroad and play
With the mermaids in and out of the rocks,
Dressing their hair with the white sea-flower;
And holding them back by their flowing locks
I would kiss them often under the sea,
And kiss them again till they kiss'd me
Laughingly, laughingly;
And then we would wander away, away
To the pale-green sea-groves straight and high,
Chasing each other merrily.


There would be neither moon nor star;
But the wave would make music above us afar --
Low thunder and light in the magic night --
Neither moon nor star.
We would call aloud in the dreamy dells,
Call to each other and whoop and cry
All night, merrily, merrily;
They would pelt me with starry spangles and shells,
Laughing and clapping their hands between,
All night, merrily, merrily:
But I would throw to them back in mine
Turkis and agate and almondine:
Then leaping out upon them unseen
I would kiss them often under the sea,
And kiss them again till they kiss'd me
Laughingly, laughingly.
Oh! what a happy life were mine
Under the hollow-hung ocean green!
Soft are the moss-beds under the sea;
We would live merrily, merrily.

fredag 29. november 2013

Santa Verdiana of Castelfiorentino

A few weeks back I published a blogpost on the blessed Fina of San Gimignano, a virgin recluse who eventually was appointed patron saint for her native city, despite not being recognised by the Papal church. In this blogpost I will give a brief introduction to the life and legacy of another saint from the similar category, namely Verdiana of Castelfiorentino.

Verdiana shares a number of traits with the blessed Fina. She was born in 1182 into an aristocratic family, but later forsook her riches and pursued a life of spirituality inspired by the teachings of Francis of Assisi, whom she allegedly once met. This led her on a pilgrimage to Santiago da Compostela, and upon returning home she became a recluse in her native town. Immured in her cell she lived a life of poverty, asceticism, forsaking of the flesh and contemplative devotion towards God. Thus she reportedly lived in Castelfiorentino for thirty-four years until her death in 1242. Towards the end of her life, it is traditionally believed that two snakes entered her cell and began eating her flesh. Being committed to the suffering of the body she allowed them to feed and lived in intense pain for the brief remainder of her life. This episode is often represented in art, as seen above.
Verdiana feeding the snakes, Benozzo Gozzoli, 1492
Courtesy of the this website

After her death, Verdiana became the subject of local devotion, and her first vita was written towards the end of the 13th century by an unknown author. This was a time when Franciscan and Dominican monks condemned this kind of popular, unauthorised devotion, as exemplified by Salimbene da Adam, a Franciscan chronicler. A few decades later, however, the Church was in disarray and mendicant orders sought therefore to employ these local cults to bolster a religiosity in tune with their own spirituality. At the turn of the 13th century, the anonymous vita, known as the Vita Antiquor, the old life, was collected in a hagiographical anthology by a monk called Blasio. This vita was the basis for a later rendition authored by Giacomini, a Dominican bishop, in 1420, a testament to the longevity of Verdiana's cult.

Another testament to the popularity of Verdiana's cult, and that she was famous beyond the reaches of Castelfiorentino, is a reference found in Boccaccio's Decamerone, day V, story x. In this tale, Boccaccio tells of a young woman who wishes to take a lover, and in order to procure one she seeks out the advice of "an acquaintance of an old bawd who to all outward appearances was as innocent as Saint Verdiana feeding the sepents, for she made a point of attending all the religious servics clutching her rosary" (translation by G. H. McWilliam), while in reality being a hypocrite whom Boccaccio effectively makes the young woman's pimp.

The cult of Verdiana also resulted in production of art. In 1490, the painter Benozzo Gozzoli, whose talents were also commissioned by the devotees of Fina of San Gimignano, painted the above fresco of Verdiana, and this was produced on the order of Castelfiorentino's podestà Jacopo di Antonio Peri.

Verdiana and the snakes, anonymous painting from the 15th century
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


Boccaccio, Giovanni, The Decameron, translated by G. H. McWilliam, Penguin Classics, 1972

Vauchez, André, Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages, 2005,_Museo_di_Santa_Verdiana.jpg

fredag 22. november 2013

Edward the Confessor in the North

Ever since completing my MA thesis I have had a potentially unhealthy obsession with Edward the Confessor. This is why I tend to use him as a point of reference when exploring the medieval catalogue of saints, and this is also why I keep a lookout for his iconography, and I'm always excited to learn of new images and new renditions of him. For this reason I was very happy to find a stained glass window in York, which to my mind most likely depicted Edward the Confessor, and this blogpost gives an introduction to Edward's standing in the North.

The above stained glass can be found in St. Helen's Church, York, and dates to the later Middle Ages. The church is situated in the centre of York and was the parish church of glass-painters who resided in Stonegate, and their emblem can be found among the extant stained glass paintings.

The window portraying Edward the Confessor is placed in a group comprised of - from left to right - William of York, the Virgin Mary and St. Helen. Edward is the rightmost figure, and as seen above he holds an object which looks like the ring he reportedly received from John the Baptist, and which was one of his major attributes in medieval renditions of him. The story was told by Aelred of Rievaulx and gained immense popularity. In the information leaflet provided in the church, it is suggested that this figure is Emperor Constantine, but this is highly unlikely since he was not considered a saint in medieval times - at least not officially. In a book on stained glass in York which I stupidly forgot to note, but which can be bought at Waterstones in the city, it is stated that the glass does indeed depict the Confessor, though no evidence is cited for this. I, however, believe this to be the only likely explanation for iconographic reasons.

William of York (d.1154, can.1227)

Virgin Mary

Interestingly, this painting situated below that of the Virgin Mary, may also depict the Confessor, possibly together with St. John the Evangelist, to whom Edward was especially devoted

St. Helen

After this find I went to visit York Minster's undercroft where I happened to note a roof painting from the York Minster chapter house depicting St. Edmund of East Anglia. The painting in question dated from c.1290. I was quite excited to see this, since I have a major fascination for the cult of St. Edmund as well as that of St. Edward, and these two saints often appear together in later medieval art (and also sometimes in literature). This was the second depiction of St. Edmund I had found in York, the first being a carving from St. Mary's Abbey, which was refurbished in the 13th century. The figure can be found at Yorkshire Museum together with St. Cuthbert.

Edmund holding his arrows

Cuthbert, holding the head of St. Oswald

After having found St. Edmund, I went to ask one of the curators whether there were any depictions of Edward the Confessor in the Minster, and he told me there was none to be found to my initial surprise, seeing as the Confessor had in his time been generously munificient towards the Minster. The curator was wrong, however, as there is a 14th-century depiction of Edward in the lady chapel, but this I learned later. As I talked about the subject with the curator, however, I remembered a few important details from my MA research which made it all abundantly clear why Edward should ostensibly - yet incorrectly - not be present in the York Minster art programme.

St. Edmund and his arrows, painting from York Minster's chapter house, c.1290

Edward's lack of widespread support in the North is a result of the long-standing conflict between the North and the South, and in particular between the Archbishopric of York and the Archbishopric of Canterbury, at that time locked in a continuous squabble over whose archbishop was the primate of England.

This division in the English medieval church runs deep, and when Osbert of Clare failed in his petition to have Edward canonised by the Papacy around 1138, lack of wide ecclesiastical support was probably one of the main reasons why he failed, together with King Stephen's meddling in the Church's affairs. After the Anarchy, however, Alexander III granted the request for canonisation due to the wide clerical support Osbert that had been lacking earlier, and the 12 surviving petition letters do indeed represent a wide clerical spectrum, including the Archbishop of York. However, this unity proved deceptive and when Edward the Confessor was translated to a new tomb at Westminster on October 13 1163, only the diocese of Canterbury was represented.

The lack of devotional paraphernalia pertaining to Edward the Confessor in York suggests that this strife between the two archbishoprics were long-standing and that to the northerners, Edward the Confessor remained a southern saint. It should also be noted, however, that Edward never achieved any wide popularity beyond Westminster and the royal court, so this is not very surprising after all. However, not even Henry III's presence in York - he refurbished Clifford's Tower as his royal manor - was sufficient to move York towards greater appreciation of Edward, and instead the citizens and the clergy focussed on local saints and, as it seems, St. Edmund, whose fame rivalled that of Edward for most of the 12th and 13th centuries in the country at large. Interestingly, this goes contrary to the claim made in the liturgy for Edward the Confessor, composed at Westminster in the 12th century, where it is stated that the entire country rejoices in his sanctity.

I do not know who commissioned the stained glass windows of St. Helen's and York Minster's lady chapel, or what moved the former to place Edward alongside an important local saint such as William of York. Nonetheless, this is an interesting anomaly in York's devotional landscape, and it shows the disparity between the overarching devotional trends and personal preference.

It is of course important to note that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and it may be that Edward had a more prominent role among York's medieval citizenry than has been known or is suggested by the surviving material. Yet ecclesio-political considerations suggest that there is not much to find in this department, and it is perhaps emblematic that the only church around York dedicated to Edward that I know of, is the 19th-century church at Dringhouses.


Dutton, Marsha (ed.) and Freeland, Jane Patricia (transl.), Aelred of Rievaulx: The Historical Works, Cistercian Publications Inc., 2005

Farmer, David, Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford, 2004

Hope, Steffen, The King's Three Images - The representation of St. Edward the Confessor in historiography, hagiography and liturgy, Trondheim, 2012

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

Scholz, Bernhard W., "The Canonization of Edward the Confessor", printed in Speculum, Vol. 36, No. 1, 1961

Williamson, E. W. (ed.), The Letters of Osbert of Clare Prior of Westminster, Oxford University Press, 1998

søndag 10. november 2013

November Poetry - part IV

Last year I posted a few November poems in order to keep a regular posting schedule while in the depths of ennui. This time around I've not sunken completely back into those depths, so this poem is one I would just like to share, namely one of Folgòre da San Gimignano's sonnets of the months.

Folgòre da San Gimignano (fl. 1309-1317) was born Giacomo da Michele but was given his nom de plume on account of his splendid way of life in his native San Gimignano, which is said to be reflected in his poems. He wrote on the pleasures of life, and the poem posted below is from his sonetti dei mesi, the sonnets of the months, which he, according to this website, was dedicated to a band of Siense nobles who took a rather hedonistic approach to life. The poem will be first given in the Italian, and below you will find a translation made by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The Italian text is taken from wikisource, while Rossetti's translation comes from this website.

Scorpio, from MS. Harley 4940
Breviari d'amor, Matfres Eymengau de Beziers, French, 1st half of the 14th century
Courtesy of British Library


E di novembre Petriuolo, il bagno,

con trenta muli carchi di moneta:
la ruga sia tutta coverta a seta;
coppe d’argento, bottacci di stagno:

e dar a tutt’ i stazzonier guadagno;
torchi doppier, che vegnan di Chiareta;
confetti con cedrata di Gaeta:
e béa ciascun e conforti ’l compagno.

E lo freddo sia grande e ’l fuoco spesso;
fagiani, starne, colombi mortiti,
lèvori, cavrioli rosto e lesso:

e sempre aver acconci gli appetiti;
la notte ’l vento e piover a ciel messo:
e siate ne le letta ben forniti.

A piazza in San Gimignano

Let baths and wine-butts be November's due,
With thirty mule-loads of broad gold-pieces;
And canopy with silk the streets that freeze;
And keep your drink-horns steadily in view.

Let every trader have his gain of you:
Clareta shall your lamps and torches send,—
Caëta, citron-candies without end;
And each shall drink, and help his neighbour to.

And let the cold be great, and the fire grand:
And still for fowls, and pastries sweetly wrought,
For hares and kids, for roast and boiled, be sure

You always have your appetites at hand;
And then let night howl and heaven fall, so nought
Be missed that makes a man's bed-furniture.

fredag 8. november 2013

Harold Godwinson's Posthumous Reputation, 1066-c.1160

The following is based on a lecture I gave to the student organisation for history students at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology earlier this autumn. The translations of passages are all from the editors of the works cited, and the pictures are all from wikimedia.


When William Bastard, duke of Normandy, invaded England in 1066 he was very concerned that this would have the bearings of an enterprise that was legitimate according to contemporary norms. After William had been crowned at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Eve that same year, he made severe efforts to persuade the surviving high-born members of Anglo-Saxon society that he truly was the king of England, and that he was the true deserving subject of their loyalty. As a part in this campaign the writing of history was an important tool, and various Norman and Anglo-Norman chronicles were to argue that William's invasion was not a usurpation, but, quite the contrary, an expedition to rid England of the usurper Harold Godwinson. This text will show in which ways Harold's posthumous reputation was constructed to cement the Norman claim to legitimacy and how this legacy lasted well beyond William the Conqueror's death.

Harold Godwinson in the Bayeux Tapestry
Note the moustaches

Background - Harold Godwinson

Harold Godwinson was born early in the 1020s. His father was one of the most powerful nobles of the Danish empire, and his mother belonged to another Danish house of nobles. During the reign of King Edward the Confessor, the house of Godwin was among the greatest political dynasties in Anglo-Saxon England, and Godwin gave his daughter Edith as the king's wife.

In 1051 England was heading towards a civil war beteween the forces of the Godwin family on one side and those of King Edward on the other. One of the key reasons for this was that King Edward had brought bishops and nobles from the continent, presumably owing to his childhood exile in Fécamp in Normandy. This was met with protestations from the native nobles, and it was a particularly grave matter that the Norman Robert of Jumièges was appointed to the See of Canterbury. Robert had already served as bishop of London and during his rule he had established a hostile relationship with the Godwin family. In the early days of the unrest Robert set out a rumour that Godwin had authored the death of King Edward's brother, Alfred, several years earlier. This made matters worse for the Godwin family and they had to flee into exile. They returned, however, already in 1052 and made peace with the king. The following year Godwin himself died from a stroke during the Easter meal of the royal celebration at Windsor, and this was to have great ramifications of Harold Godwinson's posthumous reputation, as we shall see.

When his father died, Earl Harold was the most powerful noble of the kingdom, and his landed revenue even exceeded that of the king. It is therefore no wonder that the childless King Edward were to appoint Harold Godwinson has his successor on his deathbed in January 1066. Harold's own reign lasted only 10 months, and in October that same year he died at the Battle of Hastings, allegedly by an arrow through the eye.

Contemporary likeness of Harold the King

Norman historiography

William of Jumièges

Christmas Eve 1066 Duke William became king of a country he had no family bonds to, and he was well aware of the necessity in establishing his legitimate right as rule of the English. The key to this problem was King Edward. In his youth, Edward has been in exile in Normandy and in the new reign of William it was now purported that Edward, in gratitude for his Norman lodgings, had promised the throne of England to the family of Duke William. This claim was first put forth by the Norman chronicler William of Jumièges in his Gesta Normannorum Ducum, which was completed around 1070.

According to William's chronicle, King Edward had sent the archbishop of Canterbury, the anti-Godwinist Robert, to William Bastard with the purpose of appointing him as Edward's heir (1). This claim was also put forth in the poem Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, and the poet even exceeds the chronicler. In the poet it is stated that not only had King Edward appointed William, but he had done so with the support of the entire English people. Furthermore, in the poem Edward - with Robert as his vessel - hands William his ring and his sword, an investiture episode whose symbolic strength and importance can not be overestimated (2).

However, it was an indisputable fact that King Edward had also appointed Earl Harold as his successor, as testified by a number of contemporary witnesses, William of Jumièges solved the problem accordingly: Edward, we are told, asked Harold to swear fealty to William as his next lord and king. Harold promises to do so and leaves for Normandy to perform the oath before William the Bastard. On the way he is captured by a local count, but he is later released from captivity by Duke William. In other words, not only is Duke William the man appointed as Harold's future king, he is also his saviour (3). Consequently, it becomes an even graver matter when Harold later seizes the throne upon Edward's death. He is both an oath-breaker and a usurper, and this is why Harold is depicted as dying from an arrow piercing his eye, for according to contemporary ideas, this was how oath-breakers died (4). Despite this, however, it is interesting to note that Harold is in fact labelled as rex in the Bayeux tapestry.

Harold dies early in the Battle of Hastings, according to William of Jumiéges, and many Englishmen were also slaughtered. This was considered God's punishment for the murder on Alfred, King Edward's brother. William does indeed go so far as to call Harold "a traitor like Judas" (5).

Harold swears his oath to William

William of Poitiers

The next historiography to be written in the aftermath of the conquest was the Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitier, also composed around 1070. The narrative follows the pattern presented in Gesta Normannorum Ducum, but William of Poitiers adds a few more details. In his version, Harold admits to swearing fealty to Duke WIlliam, but that King Edward passed the lordship of England over to him on Edward's deathbed, and that Duke William's claim is against English custom. Duke William is of course offended by this, but he says that he will let the English people decide, not wishing the English to die as enemies on account of this disagreement (6). Earl Harold, on the other hand, ignores this peace offer and leads his army towards Hastings. Thus, Harold's betrayal becomes even more severe and it is he who is responsible for sending the English into their death.

It is nonetheless interesting to note that William of Poitiers treats Harold with a certain amount of respect. He compares Harold's prowess in battle with heroes from classical poetry - which in turn serves to elevate Duke William's own prowess and courage - and the chronicler states that "we do not revile you, Harold; but we grieve and mourn for you with the pious victor who weeps over your ruin. You have reaped the reward that you deserved, and have fallen bathed in your own blood; you lie in a tumulus on the seashore and will be an abomintion to future generations of English no less than Normans" (7). Harold is placed in a tumulus, a grave for the common folk, in the manner of Pompey as described in Statius' Thebaid. Harold thus becomes an epic antagonist who leads his people into destruction and therefore gets his deserved revenge.

This was the first stage of the history writing which established Harold Godwinson's reputation as the great historical antagonist in the game of England. How many of the English who actually believed in these historigraphical constructions is impossible to ascertain, but due to the contemporary understanding of history - where mankind was subject to the assaults of the Devil in a grand narrative presided over by God - it was necessary to find an antagonist who could bear the blame in order to make sense of the punishments meted out by the Divine on account of the evils of kings and clergy. For instance, in the text Vita Ædwardi, King Edward's first biography, it was the clergy and particularly Archbishop Stigand, who bore the blame for the troubles wrought upon the English, while the Norman sources move the blame over to Harold.

Later generations of historiographers also used Harold as the grand antagonist in the scheme of English history, and if nothing else, Harold was at least an expedient figure for this matter. Regardless what the individual chroniclers themselves believed, it was necessary to explain why God had allowed Duke William - whom many probably considered a wicked tyrant - to invade and conquer the English. King Edward's reign was lauded as a golden age of peace contrasted with the harsh rule of William, and Edward was honoured by both English and Norman historiographers. Harold, on the other hand, suited both sides as a historical villain, as shall be seen, both those who saw things from the Norman perspective and those of the other side.
English historiography

Eadmer of Canterbury

One of the voices from the other side was the historian Eadmer of Canterbury, born shortly after the battle of Hastings and strongly nostalgic towards the English. In his Historia Novorum in Anglia he presents a new twist to the Norman historical fiction. In Eadmer's rendition Harold is forced by William to yield his lordship by Duke William during Harold's stay in Normandy, and King Edward later scolds Harold for thus having brought England into disaster. Eadmer adds that the Normans claim Harold died because of this broken oath (8).

The next important historiographer is William of Malmesbury, who wrote his Gesta Regum Anglorum in the 1120s. He occupies a special place in the historiographical landscape since he was himself of both Norman and English heritage. Nonetheless, he unquestionably belongs to the English historians since he exhibits clear sympathies for the English and laments that the English culture is losing ground to the culture of the Normans. William is also interesting because he has a more nuanced view of King Edward than found in the works of earlier historians.

William points out that there are various view on how Harold acceded to the English throne. In his own opus, William seized the crown and uses here the verb arripere which may have connotations to thievery or otherwise illegal action (9). The English, William states, claims that Harold was given the crown from King Edward, and it is possible that William here also includes Eadmer of Canterbury, whom he refers to in his introduction. Despite uncertainty regarding the details, William, too, states that Harold had promised to give the crown to Duke William and that he thereby was guilty of oath-breaking. In his summary of the Battle of Hastings, William points out that Harold deserved his death because of his faithlessness.

Harold crowned as king. Note the vilified Stigand on his left

Henry Huntingdon

The final historiographer in this overview is Henry Huntingdon, who completed his Historia Anglorum in the 1150s. Henry is perhaps that historiographer who passes the most severe judgement on Harold Godwinsson, and this suggests that his sources - including his English material - carries a strongly anti-Godwinist tone.

In his description of Harold's accession to the throne, Henry applies the word inuadere, which points to an aggressive, though not necessarily violent, action (10). The meaning is nonetheless clear: Harold was a usurper who came to the throne by means of force rather than law, and this was one of three reasons Duke William invaded England. The other two reasons also pertained to the Godwin family.
Henry's antipathy towards the Godwin family is not, however, most clearly expressed in his depiction of Harold, but the portrayal of Harold's father, Godwin. As stated in the introduction, Godwin died from a stroke during the Easter celebration at Windsor in 1053, and Henry fused this tradition with William of Jumièges' description of Godwin as a Judas in a powerful condemnation of Godwin and his family. Henry was not the first to do this, but it shows how powerful this legacy was even about a century following Godwin's death.

Henry tells us that Godwin was anxious to persuade King Edward that he had nothing to do with the murder of his brother Alfred. During the Easter meal in 1053, therefore, Godwin says to King Edward that "if the God of heaven is true and just, may He grant that this little pice of bread shall not pass my throat if I have ever thought of betraying you". Henry furthermore states that God heard Godwin's false words and shortly afterwards Godwin chokes on the piece of bread and thus "tasted endless death" (11).

This episode is heavy with symbolism. It is set at Easter, the holiest time of the Christian year, it takes the form as a Last Supper scene and Godwin furthermore swears an oath despite Christ's commandment not to swear. Godwin is thus expressly portrayed as a Judas, and Harold Godwinson is thereby the son of a Judas which adds further shame to his own broken oath roughly 13 years later.

The death of Harold


Harold Godwinson's posthumous reputation was one of the historiographical legacies of the Norman invasion of 1066 and maintained a strong position long into later centuries. Harold becomes an antagonist in a cosmic game which caused the English to be subjected to the Norman yoke. This is a testamtent to the duration and longevity of literary legacies and a testamtent to the force of medieval historiography.

1) Van Houts 2003: vol. II, 158-59

2) Barlow 1999: 18. Traditionally, this poem has been attributed to Bishop Guy de Amiens and dated to c.1067, but later research suggests it may have been composed as late as c.1125. See Riggs 2006: 16-17.

3) Van Houts 2003: vol. II, 160-61

4) Fleming 2004

5) Van Houts 2003: vol. II, 106-07

6) Davis and Chibnall 1998: 122-23

7) Davis and Chibnall 1998: 140-41

8) Bosanquet 1964: 6-9

9) Mynors 1998: 416-17

10) Greenway 2007: 384-85

11) Greenway 2007: 378-79. Interestingly, Wace's Roman de Rou comes closest to ascribing Edward any direct agency. In Godwin's trial by morsel Edward makes the sign of the cross over it, thus in effect bringing about Godwin's death (Burgess 2004: line 5456)


Barlow, Frank (ed. and transl.), The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio of Guy Bishop of Amiens, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1999

Bosanquet, Geoffrey (ed. and transl.), Eadmer's History of Recent Events in England, The Cresset Press, London, 1964

Burgess, Glyn S. (ed. and transl.), The History of the Norman People - Wace's Roman de Rou, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2004

Davis, R. H. C. and Chibnall, Marjorie (eds. and transl.), The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1998

Fleming, Robin ‘Harold II (1022/3?–1066)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sept 2010 [, accessed 6 Sept 2013]

Greenway, Diana (ed. and transl.), Henry, Archdeacon of Huntindon - Historia Anglorum, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2007

Mynors, R. A. B., Thomson, R. M., Winterbottom, M., William of Malmesbury: Gesta Regum Anglorum, The History of the English Kings, Clarendon Press, 1998

Van Houts, Elizabeth M. C. (ed.), The Gesta Normannorum Ducum of William of Jumièges, Orderic Vitalis, and Robert of Torigni, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2003

onsdag 30. oktober 2013

Edward the Confessor at Ickford

There's no hiding that ever since beginning my MA thesis I have been cultivating a minor obsession with Edward the Confessor (d. 1066, can. 1161), as may be evidenced by the number of blogposts wherein he features. One of my fascinations is to see how he has been represented throughout the ages, and how people at various times in history have formulated and envisioned him. On the whole, most of the depictions are similar, and this is of course to be expected as part of the point of such a depiction is to make it easily recognised by on-lookers. However, looking around on the Internet for images of Edward, I came across a stained glass window which was very unusual.

This stained glass window can be found at the Church of St. Nicholas in Ickford, Buckinghamshire. It was executed by Sir John Ninian Comper (1864-1960) in the 1920s, and is available on thanks to Allan Barton, who has uploaded this image to his flickr account and provided the basic information.

It is an unusual picture. First there's his dress - which looks like a floreate leotard with buttons - whose pattern brings to mind the background vines of late medieval stained glass, and to my (albeit minor) experience this pattern is rarely given so much prominence. Nor does it add a regal look to one of England's most important royal saints. Secondly, Edward has no beard. This is the most interesting deviation from the norm, for ever since the first expansive sources depicting Edward, his beard has been mentioned and given some significance. This has been treated to some extent in an earlier blogpost. It has also been a major feature in portraiture depicting Edward throughout the Middle Ages and into the modern era. Some examples can be seen here.  A later depiction can for instance be found on this excellent blog.

Edward the Confessor as a beardless youth is therefore an unusual occurrence, and it has led me to think that the identification with the Confessor might be incorrect. If the stained glass window does depict Saint Edward, this might be Saint Edward the Martyr who died in 978 at around the age of fifteen. The confusion of these two saints is not uncommon.

Until I have been able to make further inquiries myself I cannot dismiss the identification, but I do remain somewhat skeptical. 

torsdag 24. oktober 2013

He was an errant knight

Mylde answer made: he was an errant knight
- The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser

A few days back I was roaming the Internet for Pre-Raphaelite paintings, when I happened to come across this beautiful piece by John Everett Millais (1829-96) from 1870 titled "Painting the Knight Errant". The title is a little misleading since, at least to the modern mind, it implies a meta-dimension, but this is not the case. The painting is a lovely composition and showcases the enthusiastic and fertile medievalism embraced by the Pre-Raphaelites.

Millais has chosen has his subject the errant knight, an important figure from medieval romance and renaissance epic. The most famous examples from English literature are found in Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, modelled to a significant extent on the great 16th-century Italian epics like Orlando Furioso by Ariosto (1474-1533) and Gerusalemme Liberata by Torquato Tasso (1544-95). Spenser's well-wrought allegory features several of these knights errants, who were armed soldiers roaming the world for quests and challenges, but not all of them are honourable or protagonists. What defines a good errant knight appears to be the nobility of the quests he agrees to undertake, and sometimes the grand, overarching quest which leads him through the world, such as The Redcrosse Knight's quest to liberate the Faerie Queene from a monstrous dragon.

The notion that the errant knight could have a potential for evil was also picked up by Alfred Lord Tennyson in his Idylls of the King, where he notes that before Arthur gained proper control of the land, many an errant knight could be found throughout it, and Tennyson uses them as one of the symbols of anarchy and chaos preceding the golden age of Arthur. The errant knights of Idylls of the King are markedly different from Arthur's knight in that they leave Camelot first when they have a quest, rather than sauntering throughout the world on the prowl for one. It is also emblematic that Geraint, after he has fallen prey of jealousy and succumbed to the intrinsic darkness, takes his wife Enid and wanders aimlessly about just like an errant knight.

In medieval romance and in renaissance epics, the trope of the errant knight is a brilliant pretext for action and an excellent way of making the adventure move from one location to another, and this was exuberantly taken advantage of by the epic poets of the 16th cenutry.