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

onsdag 31. juli 2013

Oh, to be in England

Due to technical difficulties, my blog is currently in a doldrum. Consequently, I found it proper to put up this lovely poem by Robert Browning in order to keep up the frequency of posts (four a month as a minimum). It is not April, Eliot's cruellest month, nor am I abroad pining for my native home, yet I have recently felt a growing desire to see England again, and since Browning wrote this in Italy, where I've spent a week myself this summer, I thought it a thematic fit.

Home thoughts, from abroad

Oh, to be in England
Now that April's there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England—now!

And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray's edge—
That's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children's dower
—Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!      

mandag 22. juli 2013

Travels in Tuscany, part 2 - Boccaccio's Birthplace

(...) if ever anyone required or appreciated comfort, or indeed derived pleasure therefrom, I was that person.
- The Decameron, preface, Giovanni Boccaccio (translated by G. H. Mcwilliam)

In the previous blogpost I gave a very brief summary of the Conference for Medieval and Renaissance Music held this year in Certaldo, July 4-7. Certaldo claims to be the birthplace of Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75), and I believe it was for this reason it was chosen as the host of this year's conference, seeing as this year is the 700th anniversary for Boccaccio's birth. In this blogpost, therefore, I aim to show you how great a star Boccaccio truly is in his alleged birthplace.

It is, of course, no wonder that the Certaldese have pressed Giovanni Boccaccio to their collective bosom. He is one of the major literary figures in Italian and also world history, and his most famous work, The Decameron, is one of the most important pieces of secular literature to have come out of the Middle Ages. Despite Boccaccio's great renown, however, there are some important details missing from his biography, and particularly his place of birth has been a matter of some contention. Previously, there circulated a theory that his mother was French and that he himself had been born in Paris. G. H. McWilliam, translator of the Penguin Classics edition of The Decameron, dismisses this idea in the introduction to his 1972 translation.

Paris being discarded, there are currently two major candidates to the title of Boccaccio's birthplace. One is Florence, the other is Certaldo, and although McWilliams favours the former, the latter has spared no enthusiasm in commemmorating their potential native son, as will soon be quite evident. It should also be noted, however, that although Certaldo may not be Boccaccio's birthplace, he did spend his last thirteen years in this city, so their enthusiasm is not completely misplaced should it turn out he was born in Florence.

Regardless of precisely where Boccaccio entered this world, he was born of a well-off family. His father was a Florentine merchant-banker from the Compagnia dei Bardi, and in the mid-1320s Boccaccio was sent to Naples to learn the basics of trade and commerce. His time in Naples, and his mercantile background, can be seen reflected in several of his stories, in particular the fifth story of the second day. Eventually, it became clear that the young Tuscan was not cut out for the banking business, and was turned to the study of canon law. This attempt ended the same way as his banking career, and soon he dedicated himself to literary pursuits. At this time, Naples was a significant intellectual centre thanks to the court of King Robert of Anjou, where Boccaccio gained entrance through his family connections. His time in Naples was, in the words of G. H. McWilliam, "crucial to the development of his artistic sensibility".

In 1341 Boccaccio returned to Florence where, according to his introduction to The Decameron, he witnessed the ravages of the plague. To what degree this is true remains uncertain, and it may very well be that Boccaccio had himself done what his literary figures would later do and fled the town. Later, he was sent on several minor diplomatic missions, representing the commune of Florence, and these missions took him both to the Papal court of Avignon and Naples. He later settled in Certaldo, where he is said to have contracted the plague and died.

Casa Boccaccio, Certaldo Alto

The Certaldese take immense pride in their claim to fame in Italy's literary history, and this is reflectd in the numerous venues named after the great writer. The two most important and significant places of interest for Boccaccio enthusiasts are located in the old city, Certaldo Alto or High Certaldo, overlooking the river valley from its plateau. Here, pilgrims will find the house in which Boccaccio lived, Casa Boccaccio, a favourite motif for the local postcard industry, which is now a museum open to the public, and where the book presentations during the MedRen conference were held. Secondly, there is the Church of Saints James and Philip, located by Via Boccaccio, the main street of the old city, where the writer lies buried not far from the local saint Blessed Giulia. To a medievalist like myself, this is of course the two most tantalising targets for a literary pilgrimage.

Chiesa di Santi Jacopo e Filippo

Me posing with Boccaccio at the Pretorian palace, Certaldo Alto
Image credits: Danette Brink

For those more attentive to their stomachs than their minds, there are alternate venues in which to commemmorate Giovanni Boccaccio, namely restaurants and cafés, such as Bar Boccaccio or Enacoteca Boccaccio.

More venues of this kind - heaped under the general umbrella of gusteria, or pleasure - can be found in the new city, Certaldo Basso. Here is a pizzeria and a gelateria named after the author, and also a theatre of some kind, and of course, a white statue right outside the church of St. Thomas the Apostle and close to the cable-car going up to Certaldo Alto.

It was very clear that the city was engaged in the seventh centennial of Boccaccio's birth. Everywhere there were posters advertising a new play based on the ten storytellers of The Decameron, and in a local pastry shop this baked beauty could be found:

And what's more: even in the tiniest minutiae of public life, a nod to the great author could be spotted, such as this environmental advertisement fastened to one of the public litter bins, ostensibly making a pun on the Italian word boccaccia, which means grimace:

All in all, it is very evident that the Certaldese take immense pride in their connection with Giovanni Boccaccio, and that they exploit this aspect of their history to full effect. In some respects there is something charming and lovingly about this embrace, such as the statue in Certaldo Basso and his monument in Chiesa di Sancti Jacopo e Filippo, yet other nods are more clearly designed to draw a crowd rather than being done out of any love for the author. This is of course understandable, but it becomes wearisome in the end, and is a good reason for spending most of the time in Certaldo Alto, where such references are widespread but more natural.

All information concerning Boccaccio's life is taken from

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

søndag 14. juli 2013

Travels in Tuscany, part 1 - The Conference in the Citadel

The whole company, ladies and gentlemen alike, were in favour of telling stories.
- The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio (translated by G. H. McWilliam)

Every year a large group of musicologists gather for the Conference of Medieval and Renaissance Music, both for the purpose of presenting new finds of their own and to learn of new finds by fellow researchers. This group encompasses both the very seasoned professors and the undergrad neophyte, and the range of subjects being treated is delightfully diverse. This year, for instance, there were papers on topics such as the office for Saint Catherine, the liturgical programme of Reconquista Spain, a song from the Cambridge Songs and late medieval English carols.

Via Boccaccio, from Palazzo Pretorio

The MedRen conference was this year held in the Tuscan town of Certaldo, allegedly the hometown of Giovanni Boccaccio, and my supervisor for my Master's thesis invited me along to participate in a session arranged by one of his colleagues. Naturally, I accepted the offer gladly, and for a few days in the beginning of July I sauntered among musicologists in the medieval old city of Certaldo Alto overlooking the Tuscan denes and hills and soaked up knowledge.

The reason why I - a mere historian - was invited to a conference for musicologists was as follows. For my thesis I had looked at various texts for Edward the Confessor, and in particular a set of liturgical texts contained in a manuscript from the turn of the 14th century which had until then been ignored by scholarship. In the course of my work I managed to date one of these liturgial texts - an hexameter couplet - securely to the timeframe 1161-66, and this was one of the major discoversies of my research. The item in question belonged to the liturgical repertoire of Matins - known as the historia or the part of the liturgy recounting biographical details of the saint - and since the session in Certaldo took the historia as its subject, I was asked to contribute.

The conference lasted four days was comprised of 52 sessions. Each session was about 90 minutes long, and four sessions ran parallel at their alloted hours, with intermingled coffee breaks, lunches, book presentations and concerts. I went to a number of these sessions, but I could only manage two sessions a day since in many cases the papers given dealt with details far too technical for me to grasp or follow at great length. I felt very much like a fish out of water, but then again, that was how evolution started, so I absorbed as much knowledge as I could master and I did indeed learn a great deal. When I was not listening to papers, I walked about the old medieval town in exploration of its museums, churches, streets and gelaterias, or socialised with fellow academics who, like me, had come to present their findings. I met a great number of interesting people, and I almost learned as much from these sociable chats as from the papers themselves, and although I acknowledged the gap between their mastery of the subject and my own feeble clutching at straws, I found it very inspiring to be in the presence of such a great number of brilliant people.

Palazzo Pretorio

The conference headquarter was in the old pretorian palace, the seat of civic power in the Middle Ages, and three of the four parallel sessions were held here. The remaining session took place in the nearby Church of Saints Thomas and Prospero, commonly referred to as the Chiesetta, or the little church, and it was here I presented my paper at about half past nine the fourth day of the conference. I was not particularly nervous about the presentation, partly because I had already aqcuired some conference experience in Oxford in May of this year, and partly because in the preceding three days I had become well acquainted with how these sessions worked.

Unfortunately, this was the last day of the session, so some people were already leaving town, while others were perhaps drawn more to the parallel sessions. Whatever the reasons, the turnout was not great and I would have liked a more numerous audience. Nonetheless, it was a good and attentive crowd - with the exception of two rude cretins who walked out in the middle of my paper (seriously, you don't do that) - and I very much enjoyed presenting my findings.

The Chiesetta, dedicated to Saints Thomas and Prospero

The conference experience was, in sum, a very encouraging experience, and it reinforced my belief in the necessity of interdisciplinarity in medieval studies, for although I am no musicologist I nonetheless found it extremely rewarding to exchange experiences and knowledge with the brilliant minds in the field of musicology, and I do hope that the musicologists, too, will see the benefits in such an exchange - which I'm confident that they will, because they are brilliant.

Coffee break in the courtyard of the pretorian palace

onsdag 3. juli 2013

The King's Beard - Richard II and the Wytham Roundel

[He was] tall and slim, wise, regal and his beard was white as milk, his skin roseate and his face appeared satisfied.
- The Life of Blessed Edward King and Confessor, Osbert of Clare (my translation)

The Wilton Diptych, from wikimedia commons

Recently, on one of my favourite blogs, I read a wonderful little piece in which Wytham Church of All Saints in Oxfordshire was presented. The current church was rebuilt to its present appearance in the period 1811-12. On the inside it is decorated with sculpture and stained glass from sundry epochs that have been gleaned from various other venues. I was particularly fascinated by two roundels with stained glass, and they led me to write this present piece. The images are most courteously lent by A Clerk of Oxford.

14th-century saint ostensibly modelled on Anne of Bohemia, courtesy of A Clerk of Oxford

14th century saint ostensibly modelled on Richard II, courtesy of A Clerk of Oxford

According to the church website and information made available at the church itself, these two roundels date from the late 14th century, and they are said to depict royal saints rather than contemporary historical figures. Despite this claim, however, it is acknowledged that the two faces in question bear resemblance to King Richard II and his wife Anne of Bohemia. In this blogpost I will take this claim seriously and compare this image of a saint looking like Richard II with other contemporary representations of him.

Richard II died in 1400, about 33 years old, and depictions of him portray him often as a young man. In the the Wilton Diptych, commissioned by the king and executed in the mid-to-late 1390s, his youth appears almost exaggerated considering he was nearing thirty by the time it was ordered. It may, however, be that the image is meant to capture the king's likeness in retrospect, depicting the accession to the throne as a boy of 10 in 1377. This hypothesis is strengthened when we compare the Wilton Diptych with the depiction of Richard in the Liber Regalis - the book of the coronation order - from c.1382, prepared for the accession of his wife Anne of Bohemia. Here we see Richard's face adorned by the two wisps of beard, similar to the face in the Wytham roundel.

Liber Regalis, c.1382, from wikimedia commons

By this time the king was about 15 years old. It is tempting to say that the illuminator of Liber Regalis has added some age to Richard's appareance - perhaps to give him greater gravity - and thus gone the opposite route of the makers of the later Wilton Diptych. This is, however, mere speculation.

Despite the king's aged countenance in Liber Regalis, several depictions from the 1390s portray Richard II as a young-faced monarch. First of all, we see this in one of the most famous images of the king, showing Richard seated on his throne in coronation regalia. This panel-painting - allegedly the earliest portrait of an English monarch - was made in the 1390s by an unknown master. Although the coronation regalia suggest that this depiction, like the Wilton Diptych, may be retrospective, it is interesting to note that two such portraits came about in the 1390s.

Anonymous master, Richard II, from wikimedia commons

Another depiction, however, suggests that the above image is not retrospective but contemporary. The depiction in question is an illumination from Philippe de Mézières' Epistre au roi Richart, the letter to king Richard, composed in Central France in 1395-1396. This book was given as a token of friendship from the French king and his people, and on the second folio we see an illumination showing Philippe de Mézières handing his book to Richard II. The king is here depicted as a young and clean-shaven man.

Philippe de Mézières presenting his book to Richard, MS. Royal 20 B VI, courtesy of British Library

The last portrait of Richard II from his own lifetime to be presented here, is the effigy made for his tomb in Westminster Abbey. Here we find once more the king's characteristic wisps of beard issuing from either side of his chin, though less profusely than in Liber Regalis. The king's youth is hard to detect in this effigy, but whether this is because age has been added for gravity or whether he had aged significantly during the times of civil unrest remains an open question. It may also, however, have been that the artist making the effigy added years because he did not expect the young king to depart very soon.

Richard II's tomb, copyright Westminster Abbey

Richard II's effigy, copyright Wesminster Abbey

King Richard II was deposed by Henry Bolingbroke in 1399 and died the year after. Shortly after his death, the Book of the Capture and Death of King Richard II - La Prinse et mort du roy Richart - was prepared in Central France. The book came about in the timespan c.1401-c.1405 and was written by Jean Creton. Here we see a number of illuminations of Richard II, in all of which his wisps of beard are depicted clearly, but these representations appears to add some age to his features, though it is difficult to assess whether this is actually the case, or - if it really is the case - whether this is deliberate or not.

Richard II at Conway, MS. Harley 1319, courtesy of British Library

Richard II and the Duke of Northumberland, MS. Harley 1319, courtesy of British Library

Richard II disguised as a priest, MS. Harley 1319, courtesy of British Library

Richard the II and Bolingbroke, MS. Harley 1319, courtesy of British Library

Now let us return to the Wytham roundels. From the images we have seen depicting Richard II,we see there is a clear resemblance betweent these and the face of Wytham, characterised first of all by the easily recognisable beard. However, if we are to accept the claim that this is not Richard but a saint made to resemble him, a very interesting question naturally arises: which saint is this?

To my mind, the most probable answer is St. Edward the Confessor (d. 1066, c. 1161), whom Richard II adopted as his particular saint. Richard's embrace of Edward the Confessor manifested itself in 1381 when the king started to visit his tomb in times of trouble for solace and counsel. Gradually, Richard's devotion to the Confessor became more acute, and in 1390 he attended Prime, Vespers, Compline and Matins on Edward's translatio, and during Mass that day he wore his crown. Richard II also began more and more to identify with, or at least emulate, Edward the Confessor, and in the Wilton Diptych we see Richard presented to the virgin by Edward, Edmund and John the Baptist. Furthermore, Richard impaled his coat of arms with the arms of the Confessor, and although this was not done publicly until 1397, we see this new heraldic conflation on silverware items from before that year.

Katherine J. Lewis has also suggested that following the death of Anne of Bohemia in 1394, and prompted by his childlessness, Richard began to emulate the Confessor's virginal virtue by presenting himself as a virgin king.

If the Wytham roundel is meant to depict St. Edward the Confessor, it is therefore only natural that the depiction should be modelled on the king who was his most eager devotee. This idea is particularly tantalising when we consider that the glass was donated by the Golafre family, who had served at Richard's court and must have been familiar with his devotional tastes.

The case for Edward the Confessor therefore fits well with both the times and the religious climate at court. It is further supported by the conflation of appearances executed in the roundel. The face has Richard's characteristic beard, but it is given the whiteness of old, sagacious age so common to the representations of Edward the Confessor.

Edward the Confessor, MS. Royal 20 A II, courtesy of British Library

Whether the roundel at Wytham does depict Edward the Confessor or not, may probably never be properly answered. Nonetheless, the evidence in favour of this proposition is considerable. It may be further strengthened by the fact that a boss inside the church depict the arms of the Confessor, but this may be a coincidence given the compilatory nature of the decorations, or it may refer to the University College of Oxford, which in modern times has adopted the legendary arms of Edward the Confessor as its emblem. In any case, it makes perfect sense if the donors of the glass modelled Edward the Confessor's likeness on that of Richard II, resulting in perhaps the most overt conflation of devoted and devotee in the history of English royalty.

Arms of Edward the Confessor, courtesy of A Clerk of Oxford



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

Bloch, Marc (ed.), “La Vie de S. Edouard le Confesseur par Osbert de Clare,”
Analecta Bollandiana 41, 1923

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

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

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

Tuck, Anthony,
‘Richard II (1367–1400)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2009 [, accessed 3 July 2013]