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

torsdag 31. januar 2013

Geoffrey Hill - a selection

I have made it a policy to keep the blog going with at least four blogposts a month, in order to ensure continued activity. However, since my time is greatly consumed by my work with Latin and also my job as a teaching assistant for the history freshmen and -women, not every blogpost can be equally meticulously researched or verbose. As a consequence, the last blogpost of this month is a selection of poetry from one of my favourite poets in the English language, Geoffrey Hill.

During my stay in York in the spring of 2011, I kept an edition of Geoffrey Hill's collected poems (published by Penguin in 1985) in my bag at all times. Consequently, many of his early poems - which to my mind are his best - evoke the particular atmosphere of York which I love so much, and even certain specific locations. In part, therefore, this blogpost is an expression of nostalgia, a nostalgia both for those days I have myself experienced, and a constructed nostalgia for the days evoked by Hill's verse. The copyright of the poems lies with Geoffrey Hill and Penguin publishing.

The Distant Fury of Battle

Grass resurrects to mask, to strangle,
Words glossed on stone, lopped stone-angel;
But the dead maintain their ground -
That there's no getting round -

Who in places vitally rest,
Named, anonymous; who test
Alike the endurance of yews,
Laurels, moonshine, stone, all tissued;

With whom, under licence and duress,
There are pacts made, if not peace.
Union with the stone-wearing dead
Claims the born leader, the prepared

Leader, the devourers and all lean men.
Some, finally, learn to begin.
Some keep to the arrangement of love
(Or similar trust) under whose auspices move

Most subjects, toward the profits of this
Combine of doves and witnesses.
Some, dug out of hot-beds, are brought bare,
Not past conceiving but past care.

The Guardians

The young, having risen early, had gone,
Some with excursions beyond the bay-mouth,
Some toward lakes, a fragile reflected sun.
Thunder-heads drift, awkwardly, from the south;

The old watch them. They have watched the safe
Packed harbours topple under sudden gales,
Great tides irrupt, yachts burn at the wharf
That on clean seas pitched their effective sails.

There are silences. These, too, they endure:
Soft comings-on; soft after-shocks of calm.
Quietly they wade the disturbed shore;
Gather the dead as the first dead scrape home.

After Cumae

The sun again unearthed, colours come up fresh,
The perennials; and the laurels'
Washable leaves, that seem never to perish,
Obscure the mouthy cave, the dumb grottoes.

From the beginning, in the known world, slide
Drawn echoing hulls, axes grate, and waves
Deposit in their shallow margins varied
Fragments of marine decay and waftage;

And the sometimes-abandoned gods confuse
With immortal essences men's brief lives,
Frequenting the exposed and pious: those
Who stray, as designed, under applied perils,

Whose doom is easy, venturing so far
Without need, other than to freeze or burn,
Their wake, on spread-out oceans, a healed scar
Fingered, themselves the curios of voyage.

søndag 27. januar 2013

St. Guthlac and St. Anthony

And lead us not into temptation. But deliver us from evil
- Matthew, 6:13

Yesterday I read a piece on the 7th-century saint Guthlac on one of my favourite blogs, where I was made aware of the illuminated life of the saint found in MS. Harley Roll Y.6. The oldest part of this manuscript is known as the Guthlac Roll, and it is illuminated with 18 small roundels containing scenes from the saints life. The MS. is of South-East English provenance and dates to the last quarter of the 12th century, or possibly the first quarter of the 13th century. The illuminations are beautifully rendered in vibrant lines, and I was struck by one in particular - roundel 6 - which depicts Guthlac fighting his demon tormentors who are armed with knotted whips. Aside from the lively facial expressions of the demons and the pleading gestures of Guthlac, there was one aspect in particular that caught my eye, namely how very similar this scene is to the 15th- and 16th-century portrayals of the temptations of St. Anthony.

Roundel 6 - Guthlac tormented by demons (courtesy of British Library)

Guthlac was a hermit saint born in 674 to the royal dynasty of Mercia, son of Penwalh and Tette. From he was fifteen to he was twenty-four he led a band of warriors, most likely fighting and plundering the Welsh, but also other Anglo-Saxons. After years of robbery, he was converted to Christianity and received the tonsure at the double monastery of Repton, under the aegis of Abbess Ælfthryth. After two years at Repton he moved into the fens of East Anglia in the year 700, where he settled on the island of Crowland and remained there for the last fifteen years of his life. Guthlac's life was recorded c.740 by a monk called Felix, and although this proximity in time lifts Guthlac above the muddy waters of myth, his biography is nonetheless so formulaic that it is hard to separate facts from legend. However, the most interesting aspect of this biography is that among its hagiographic models is the life of St. Anthony (251-356), written by Athanasius of Alexandria (c.296-373) and known in 7th-century England through the translation into Latin by Evaristus. The hagiography depicts Anthony's struggle against demons, and this feature gained immense popularity in medieval art. Felix included it in his Life of Guthlac, and wrote about demons who would one night be filthy humans speaking British (as opposed to the native English of Guthlac) and another night appear as terrible beasts. This became a trope of hermit hagiography, and seeing as both Guthlac and Anthony were hermit saints, it is very easy to understand why Felix drew on this particular hagiography for his life of Guthlac.

It appears, however, that it was not only Felix's hagiography that drew on existing models associated with Anthony. The iconographic continuity suggested by the similarities of roundel 6 and painters like Matthias Grünewald and Hieronimus Bosch, hints at a trope connected with Anthony - or at least hermit saints - which was cultivated in art throughout the Middle Ages, and this in turn means that the illuminator of the Guthlac Roll most likely drew on an existing repository pertaining to the tribulations of St. Anthony.

 Mid-15th century engraving by Martin Schongauer

Late-15th century painting by Michelangelo, based on Schongauer

Matthias Grünewald, c.1515, picture taken from this website

Niklas Manuel Deutsch, c.1520

As we see, the similarities are striking. However, due to the lack of the evidence - for instance, I know of now such depictions in the late 13th or 14th centuries - I cannot be too adamant when suggesting an iconographic continuity. It may of course be the case that the renaissance arists and the Guthlac illuminator drew from a common source which was revived in the 15th century, but this can not be asserted either way. It should also be noted, that while both Anthony and Guthlac are depicted being assaulted by demons, only Guthlac - at least to my knowledge - is allowed to subdue his adversary in the end.

Roundel 8 - Guthlac chastises a demon (courtesy of British Library)


Farmer, David, Oxford Dictionary of Saints

Mayr-Harting, Henry ‘Guthlac [St Guthlac] (674–715)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004

Zuffi, Stefano (ed.), Angels and demons in art

lørdag 19. januar 2013

Songs for St Sebastian

The martyrdom of Saint Sebastian by Carlo Crivelli, courtesy of wikipaintings

Today is St Sebastian's day, and I have for quite a while had a particular fascination for this rather apochryphal saint. I have written about him earlier, and more on the background for his legend can be found here. St Sebastian became a favourite motive for artists throughout history, and was subject to a very interesting transition sometime in the 15th century, when painters went from portraying him as a bearded soldier to a clean-shaven apollonian youth. His popularity greatly increased about this time because of the plagues harrying Europe, as it was believed St Sebastian was a particularly merciful intercessor for plague victims. It is also said that it was because of a plague that struck Ferrara in 1432 that composer Guillaume Dufay wrote the isorhythmic motet O Sancte Sebastiane, imploring the saint for his much needed aid. Dufay also wrote another motet, a cantilena motet this time, called O Beate Sebastiane. These two motets are among my favourite works of Dufay, and in honour of St Sebastian I present them here:

O Sancte Sebastiane

O Beate Sebastiane
(from c.4.00-c.7.00)

tirsdag 15. januar 2013

Edward the Confessor at Lyddington

Edward the Confessor features in a wide range of medieval texts encompassing the categories historiography, hagiography and liturgy. Also when it comes to art, the depictions of the Confessor are highly varied and present an interesting repository for how he was imagined in medieval times. It is, however, not quite as substantial as his literary legacy, nor has it survived equally well. This repository includes his personal sigil, the Bayeux tapestry, Abbot Richard Barkyng's hangings in Westminster Abbey (mid-13th-century), a stained glass series in Fécamp Abbey Church (early 14th century), the Wilton Diptych (1390s), a selection of manuscript illuminations from the mid-11th century onwards and a few odd pieces here and there whose fulness has yet to be established.

I was very kindly notified of one of these odd pieces by Margaret Hiley, who proofread my MA thesis back in the days, and I was immediately thrilled to learn of it. The oddity in question is a mural ostensibly depicting Edward the Confessor in St. Andrew's Church, Lyddington in Rutland, and it presumably dates from the 14th century as this is the date of the oldest sections of the church. We do not know for certain that it is Edward adorning the wall at Lyddington, but as the church was given to the jurisdiction of Westminster by Edward himself, it seems a plausible conjecture. In this blogpost I aim to see how well the conjecture holds up by looking closely at the few details available, and comparing this mural with other 14th-century depictions.

Image taken from this website. A better picture may be found here.

Historical background

Before embarking on a detailed investigation of the mural, it may be proper to give a brief account of Edward's general standing in 14th-century England. After Henry III, Edward's most enthusiastic devotee, there was a shift in devotional focus for the kings of England. Henry's son, King Edward I, showed his namesake saint due veneration and placed spoils from the Scottish campaign at the saint-king's tomb, but towards the end of the 13th-century the royal family became more interested in the cult of Thomas Becket. In addition, Edward hailed the legendary Arthur as a saint in order to bereave the Welsh of their hope of Arthur's return, although how much this affected his pious observances can not be stated with great certainty.

With the militant reign of Edward III there came an upsurge in devotion towards St. George, who eventually was pronounced the patron saint of England in 1351. In 1381, however, King Richard II embraced the cult of Edward and his veneration appears to have resulted in a widespread improvement in Edward's standing in the realm - at least among the upper echelons - and both Langland and Chaucer make references to St. Edward in their works. The historian Jean Froissart stated that Edward was generally venerated throughout all England, and particularly in Ireland. He further claims that Richard's veneration was a way of placating the Irish, but neither of these claims can be corroborated. It was Richard's enthusiasm which resulted in the Wilton Diptych in the mid-90s, which can be seen below.

In other words, it is not unlikely that the mural in question may be a rendition of Edward the Confessor given the historical circumstance. We must now turn to the details of the work for further investigation.

Image taken from this website


As we see from the images above, the man in the mural wears a reddish robe and an ermine-coated cape, both very expensive accoutrements. In art, expensive and fine clothing is of course a very effective way to convey high standing in society, and it is very likely that this depicts some royal saint. Another piece of evidence to suggest this is the fact that he wears gloves, possibly hunting gloves, which clearly demarcates a man of the upper echelons.

In the literature pertaining to Edward the Confessor, he is often portrayed as a man of fine clothing. In the first biography of the king, Vita Ædwardi qui apud Westmonasteriam recquiescit (1065-75), it is stated that Edward's wife Edith was very skilled with the needle and made him beautiful and richly adorned clothes, which he wore without pride. Edward's clothing becomes a way for the author, of whom little is known beyond his Flemish origins, to emphasise the disparity between the outer and the inward man: despite his regal appearance, Edward was a humble man on the inside who valued the law of God above all other things. This is a common topos in the depiction of medieval kings, and royal saints were usually portrayed in rich clothing. In 14th century painting, however, Edward appears to be dressed in more sumptuous clothes than previously were the case, as we can see both in the Lyddington Mural and the Wilton Diptych below. Whether this was a consistent trend we can not say given the scant evidence, but both the mural and the diptych are very different from illuminations of the same century.

The gloves are another issue. As we see in the picture above, Edward of the Wilton Diptych has bare hands. The gloves may suggest hunting, which of course was a popular pastime among royals, and one which was stated to be Edward's favourite - second to praying - in Vita Ædwardi and, drawing on this biography, in William of Malmebury's Gesta Regum Anglorum (1120s). However, in the mid-12th century John of Salisbury spoke very harshly of hunting as a pastime unfit for Christians, and this view - which appears to have been common in clerical circles - can be seen reflected in the more sedate renditions of Edward in the hagiographies. Whether John of Salisbury's condemnation carried any weight into the 14th century I do not know. Nor do I know how widespread this view was. In other words, although St Edward traditionally - as a saint - was not depicted as a huntsman, this is no impediment to the possibility of such a depiction in the 14th century.

 The Wilton Diptych


The face of the mural is to a great extent worn away, but we see outlines suggesting a bearded face. From 11th century and onwards Edward the Confessor has been described as a man of perpetual old age, having white beard at a time when he was only about thirty or forty. This is again a common topos of medieval literature, and a similar case can be seen in the depiction of Charlemagne in The Song of Roland. White beard conveyed the wisdom of old age, and emphasised the prophetic abilities of Edward the Confessor. Furthermore, in the mid-12th century, the swan-white beard - which was said to be as beautiful in the grave as in life - became a symbol of Edward's virginity, another of his prime characteristics. As we see in the Wilton Diptych, this was retained in the 14th century.


From what remains of the mural there are two items of royal paraphernalia suggested by the heavily worn outlines. In his left hand the saint-king is holding what appears to be some circular object, possibly the royal orb or the ring he allegedly received from John the Baptist - his particular saint according to hagiography - which can also be seen in the Wilton Diptych.

The other item appears to be a sword, suggested by the yellow-golden hilt at the figure's left flank. This is the most unusual aspect of this mural in the traditional depictions of Edward the Confessor, as this is the only representation I've come across where the saint-king is armed. In the catalogue of artistic portrayals, the sceptre, the orb and the crown are all common items and emphasising the peaceful aspect of monarchy for which Edward was famous. The sword is, in other words, unprecedented, and this may be due to its 14th-century provenance, which, as we have seen, was a period when martial saints were more popular - and more expedient, if we can talk so cynically about religion - than a solomonic peacemaker like Edward.

The Emblem

The final aspect of this investigation is slightly tenuous, but it is crucial to the matter at hand. Just beside the hilt of the saint's sword we can see what appears to be the pattern of the cape. It is impossible to make out the pattern properly, but from the pictures it looks very much like the cape is coloured in gold and azure. If this indeed is the case, there is a strong possibility that the cape is decorated with the arms of Edward the Confessor - invented long after he had passed away - which were adopted into the arms of Richard II sometime in the 1390s. The arms of Edward the Confessor, as seen below, is a golden cross surrounded by five golden martlets on an azure background, strongly reminiscent of the palate seen in the cape at Lyddington. If this really is the case - which may never be subject to certainty - it can be proved beyond reasonable doubt that this really is a representation of Edward the Confessor.


To sum up, there are several pieces of evidence which suggest the mural depicts Edward the Confessor. It fits with the traditional representations of him in both art and literature, although some aspects are unusual, but that definitive proof mentioned at the end is still solely a matter of conjecture. Nonetheless, I feel comfortable including this mural in the existing canon of medieval portrayals, and if it really is the case, the art history pertaining to the Confessor has been more diverse than hitherto believed. Now it only remains for me to visit St Andrew's, Lyddington and behold this mural with my own blue eyes.


Barlow, Frank, The Life of King Edward the Confessor, Clarendon Press, 1992

Berners, Sir John Bourchier Lord (transl.), The Chronicle of Froissart, AMS Press, Inc., 1967

Binski, Paul, "Abbot Berkyng's Tapestries and Matthew Paris's Life of St Edward the Confessor", printed in Archaeologia or Miscellaneous Tracts relating to Antiquity published by the Society of Antiquaries of London, Vol. CIX, Devonshire Press, Torqay, 1991

Binski, Paul, Westminster Abbey and the Plantagenets: kingship and the representation of power, 1200-1400, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1995

Campbell, Marian, "White Harts and Coronets: The Jewellery and Plate of Richard II", printed in Gordon, Dillian, Monnas, Lisa and Elam, Caroline, The Regal Image of Richard II and the Wilton Diptych, Harvey Miller Publishers, London, 1997

Harrison, Madeline, "A Life of St. Edward the Confessor in Early Fourteenth-Century Stained Glass at Fecamp, in Normandy", printed in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 26, no. 1/2, 1963

Hector, L. C., and Harvey, Barbara F. (eds. and transl.), The Westminster Chronicle 1391-1394, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1983

Lewis, Katherine, "Becoming a Virgin King: Richard II and Edward the Confessor ", printed in Riches, Samantha J. E. and Salih, Sarah (eds.), Gender and Holiness - Men, women and saints in late medieval Europe, Routledge, 2002 Luscombe, David, ‘Salisbury, John of (late 1110s–1180)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Bi-ography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2011

Mitchell, Shelagh, "Richard II: Kingship and the Cult of Saints", printed in Gordon, Dillian, Monnas, Lisa and Elam, Caroline, The Regal Image of Richard II and the Wilton Diptych, Harvey Miller Pub-lishers, London, 1997

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

Riches, Samantha, St George - Hero, Martyr and Myth, Sutton Publishing, Stroud, 2000

Saul, Nigel, Richard II, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1997