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

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 wikimedia.org 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.

tirsdag 22. oktober 2013

A Silent Wood - poem by Elizabeth Siddal



Elizabeth Siddal, self-portrait
From wikimedia commons

Days are currently quite busy and I've little energy left for blogging, but in order to maintain a semblance of frequency, I'll put up more poetry now and then. Since I'm currently taking a course on medievalism in Victorian England, I found it fitting to present a poem by one of the key figures of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Elizabeth Siddal (1829-62), a woman of considerable and versatile talents. She has probably gained most fame as a model for some of the most iconic paintings by the Pre-Raphaelites, but she was also herself a painter - as witnessed above - and a poet. Below is one of her poems, A Silent Wood, dated with some uncertainty to 1855-57 by William Michael Rossetti. The text is taken from The Pre-Raphaelites From Rossetti to Ruskin, edited by Dinah Roe and issued in the Penguin Classics series in 2010.


A Silent Wood

O silent wood, I enter thee
With a heart so full of misery -
For all the voices from the trees
And the ferns that cling about my knees.

In thy darkest shadow let me sit
When the grey owls about thee flit:
There I will ask of thee a boon,
That I may not faint or die or swoon.

Gazing through the gloom like one
Whose life and hopes are also done,
Frozen like a thing of stone,
I sit in thy shadow - but not alone.

Can God bring back the day when we two stood
Beneath the clinging trees in that dark wood?


Beata Beatrix (1864-70), Dante Gabriel Rossetti
One of the most famous paintings to which Elizabeth Siddal sat model

fredag 18. oktober 2013

The Humility of Snails, part 2 - The snail and the knight


For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
- Luke 14: 11


In my previous blogpost I launched the suggestion that snails in medieval marginalia might be read as symbols of humility, often depicted in contrast to the prideful life of knights and warriors. Furthermore, I suggested that this symbolism was influenced by the paradigm of sanctity that emerged with the foundation of mendicant orders, in which humility was now associated with good works, self-abnegation and a reclusive lifestyle. This is a change from the 12th-century, in which humility and warfare were often twin virtues, inspired by the legends of St. Alexis of Odessa and exemplified with the emergence of the orders of warrior monks such as the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers. This is of course not to say that the mendicant orders were in opposition to the crusades. On the contrary, the Franciscan liturgy for St. Louis - composed towards the turn of the 13th century - praises him for his crusades and viewed them as an imitatio Christi. However, warfare became frequently disassociated with sanctity in the 13th century, and Louis is therefore more a deviation proving the point than anything else.

This two-part exploration was triggered by a recent blogpost from the ever-so-lovely British Library's medieval blog, and the piece in question was written by Sarah J. Biggs. In this second part, I will provide examples from several manuscripts from the time of this paradigm of sanctity and into the 15th century, looking at how well they fit with the idea that the snail is a symbol for humility. For the pictures from MS. Yates Thomspon 27 I am gratefully indebted to Robert Miller. Almost all pictures courtesy of the British Library.


The Marginal Snail


The Gorleston Psalter


The Gorleston Psalter, found in Add. MS. 49622, is an English psalter made in the timeframe 1310-24, and contains two depictions of the snail that fit very well with the idea of the snail as a symbol of humility. The first example can be seen above, where a knight has planted his sword in the ground and lifts his hands, pressed together, at the snail as if in devotion. If the slug represents humility and the peaceful life, this scene may show a warrior, a man of pride, casting aside the weapon of his trade in devotion to the virtue which stands in starkest contrast to his own way of life. We might even imagine there has been some sort of combat or debate in advance of this scene, and the knight is now defeated and yield to the humble victor. This idea is strengthened by the second example, as seen below.

Monkey business of the worst kind

Here we see combat depicted, an arrow launched by an ape is flying towards the snail. Apes (distinguished from the monkeys by their lack of tails) were frequently associated with evil and vices in medieval imagination. Bestiaries claimed that they took their name from the fact that they aped after humans, and as such came to represent a mirror-image to the human world, where apes and other simia were doing the devil's work or at least turned the ideals of the Christian world upside down. This ape is clearly at war with humility, and from the look of it he seems to be winning, reminding perhaps the viewer that the devil can overcome mankind's humility.

MS. Yates Thompson 19


Next up is MS. Yates Thompson 19, containing Li Livres dou Trésour, an encyclopedia written in 1264 by Brunetto Latini, the master of Dante Alighieri. The manuscript was made in the timeframe 1315-25 in Northern France. As an encyclopedia it was not exclusively - nor perhaps even primarily - a work of devotion, but we might presume that Christian devotion is not absent from the work.



In the manuscript, as seen above, we find another combat scene featuring a snail, here standing against a charge by an armoured knight. We don't know the outcome, but here we might imagine the haughtiness of war about to do battle with the virtue of humility. This scene is particularly interesting because of another, similar, combat scene, in which the knight's target is not a snail, but a gryllus, otherwise known as a hybrid.


The meaning of such hybrids is still a matter that remains unsolved, but the snail and the gryllus can easily be contrasted as representatives of two different worlds, the virtuous and the viceful, the good and the evil. If this is the case, the scenes above can be said to depict examples of bad and good chivalry respectively, for it was customary in medieval didactic writing to educate through good and bad examples alike, a tradition reaching all the way back to Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica and beyond.
The Luttrell Psalter

This psalter, found in MS. Add 42130, was made in the timeframe 1325-40 on the orders of Geoffrey Luttrell III (1276-1345), a Lincolnshire landowner. The work was carried out in stages and its illumination programme was left unfinished for reasons unknown. The snail found in this psalter is different from the rest here presented, in that it does not seem to interact with anyone, so that it does not invite comparison with a representative of either vices or virtues. It is simply a bas-de-page illumination, yet it might be intented to serve as a mnemonic helper for the psalm text. The text is from Psalm 89 and the snail is just below the verse "Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence". If this snail, too, represents humility or meekness, it certainly fits well with the psalm text in question.

Picture courtesy of this website


The Hours of Yolande of Flanders

This book of hours, following the Use of Paris and found in MS. Yates Thompson 27, was made in the timeframe 1353-63 for Yolande of Flanders. This wonderfully weird book contains three snails, all of which can be successfully read as symbols of humility. It is of course particularly interesting to note that as a female member of high society, Yolande was a representative of that echelon from which the Roman Catholic sanctorale drew many of its new members in the 14th century.




In the selection above we find again the motif of snails and knights. The first seems frightened and awestruck by his encounter with the gastropod, possibly in the realisation that he has erred in his ways, or something in that vein. The second might be considered a continuation of the first scene, and this knight - or the same knight - has succumbed to the mastery of the snail, yielded his pride of arms, perhaps, to the humility so emblematic of 14th-century sainthood.


There is also another fascinating example in this MS., as seen above. What this naked man represents is difficult to say, though if the snail is a symbol of humility this might very well be pride sitting astraddle the animal, chastising it with a club.


Spiegel der Weisheit

The last example in this blogpost takes us out of the 14th-century and the mendicant paradigm of sainthood, and also away from the psalters and books of hours. Like Latini's Books of Treasure, this is an anomaly, but intended as a continuation of the collection so far considered. This book is Ulrich von Pottenstein's Spiegel der Weisheit, here found in MS. Egerton 1121, an Austrian MS. from 1430. Here, as seen below, a snail is standing face to face with a black cat, which, as we know, has accrued a particularly negative reputation. If the snail here, too, is meant as a representative of humility, it is presumably mirroring the wickedness commonly ascribed to the cat. Their symbolic difference may perhaps be exacerbated by the fact that the snail is here rendered in white - though that might also owe to the fact that Southern European snails do have white shells.



Summary remarks

The array of books presented in this two-part blogpost spans a wide variety of literature, about two centuries and several countries. Each has contained some depiction of a snail or a snail-like hybrid. Reading these images as symbols of humility, in tune with the Christian virtues and the emphasis of contemporary sanctity, gives meaning and makes sense of the snails and their companions and environment on the page, both as protagonists facing a viceful foe or as mnemonic devices accompanying the page's text.

This in its turn proves nothing. We have too little information about the extent and the frequency of snail imagery in devotional books - and non-devotional for that matter - to make any broad statements. This has merely been a thought-experiment in which the snail has been interpreted in a particular manner. As I hope to have successfully shown, it is indeed a possible conjecture which fits both with the contemporary currents and the purpose of the books in which most of them are found. Much remains to be done here, and in the future it will be necessary to carefully consider each illumination together with accompanying text and the illumination programmes of their respective books. However, I hope this demonstration has established one possible way of making sense of these images, which might be considered just as plausible as the suggestions put forth by past scholarship.