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

mandag 29. desember 2014

Gerald of Wales and the Irish saints

 This seems to me a thing to be noticed that just as the men of this country are during this mortal life more prone to anger and revenge than any other race, so in eternal death the saints of this land that have been elevated by their merits are more vindictive than the saints of any other region.
- Gerald of Wales, The Topography of Ireland (transl. by John O'Meara)

A priest accosted by a werewolf
MS Royal 13 B VIII, Gerald's Topographia, England, c.1196-c.1223
Courtesy of British Library

In this blogpost I'm looking at Gerald of Wales' presentation of some Irish saints in his famous work Topographica Hiberniae which was composed in the latter half of the 1180s. The book is in part a recollection of things Gerald heard or witnessed during his trips to Ireland in the period 1183-85. On his second visit he was a part of King Henry II's retinue and was the tutor of his son John. When Gerald returned to Ireland in 1185, he was part of John's retinue. Gerald was also related to members of the Anglo-Norman invasion force, and was therefore doubly invested in the Anglo-Norman campaign to subdue Ireland.

It is in this context Gerald's comments on Ireland and its people must be understood, and in this blogpost I wish to see how Gerald's treatment of Ireland's saints can be explained by context of invasion and subjugation (I hesitate to use the term "colonial context").

The fish with three gold teeth
MS Royal 13 B VIII, Gerald's Topographia, England, c.1196-c.1223
Courtesy of British Library

Gerald's views on the Irish saints as expressed in the epigraph are found as the last chapter of part two of his Topographia hiberniae. In this chapter, Gerald records the wonders, the miracles and the holy men and women of Ireland. The chapter begins with natural wonders, such as a fish with three gold teeth, or the wonderful well of Munster whose water turned things put into it grey. After these natural wonders, Gerald moves on to wonders pertaining to men and beasts, and he records a boy of Wicklow who was a man in most physiognomical respects, but whose nose, eyes, hands and feet resembled those of an ox. This deformed boy was regularly given food at the court of Maurice fitzGerald, one of Gerald's relatives and one of the leaders of the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland.

The werewolves of St Natalis
MS Royal 13 B VIII, Gerald's Topographia, England, c.1196-c.1223
Courtesy of British Library

Saint Natalis and the Werewolves

As for the Irish saints, their vindictive nature becomes apparent already in the first story in Gerald's catalogue of animal wonders. The story tells of a priest who was travelling through a wood together with a young boy, and after they had lit up a fire for the night a wolf came up to them and started speaking. In order to calm them down, the wolf spoke about God - and said reasonable and Catholic things, Gerald notes - and then he explained what he wanted:

We are natives of Ossory. From there every seven years, because of the imprecation of a certain saint, namely the abbot Natalis, two persons, a man and a woman, are compelled to go into exile not only from their territory but also from their bodily shape. They put off the form of man compltely and put on the form of wolf. When the seven years are up, and if they have survived, two others take their place in the same way, and the first pair return to their former country and nature.
- Topography of Ireland, chapter 52 (translated by John O'Meara)

The wolf then goes on to explain that his "companion in this pilgrimage" is close to death, and he asks the priest to give her the solace of divine mercy at her life's end. The priest agrees and after some exhortation also gives the dying woman the last rites, including the communion. This story bears some echoes of an old Celtic tale where two brothers are punished by being sent into the woods as a he-wolf and a she-wolf. They later return in their human shape and with the children they have incestuously reared while bearing the shape of wolf. This is not to say that Gerald knew this story, or that it had any impact on the anecdote related above, but it suggests a deep-rooted belief in lycanthropy in Irish folklore. More interesting for my purpose here, is the detail that the fate of these wolves was ordained by St Natalis as a punishment, perhaps a particularly Irish punishment at that, which presents us right away with the vindictive nature of the Irish saints.
St Kevin and the blackbird
MS Royal 13 B VIII, Gerald's Topographia, England, c.1196-c.1223
Courtesy of British Library

The Curse of Saint Kevin

Another example of this vindictiveness is related in chapter 61, which tells about St Kevin, "a great confessor of the faith". Kevin is perhaps most famous for his patience exhibited when, during the saint's prayer, a blackbird started building a nest in his outstretched hand, which was the subject of a poem by Seamus Heaney. In kindness to the bird, Kevin did not move until the birds were hatched, and Gerald notes that because of this, the blackbird features in the iconographical representations of the saint. However, Gerald also tells us about Kevin's vengefulness to birds. We are told that on his feast days, the ravens of Glendalough are "prevented by a curse of Saint Kevin" from being on the ground and from eating, so the birds fly about the village and make "a great noise". The reason for this curse, Gerald speculates, might be that the ravens had caused one of Kevin's students to spill some milk.  

The teal of St Colman
MS Royal 13 B VIII, Gerald's Topographia, England, c.1196-c.1223
Courtesy of British Library

The Teal of Saint Colman

The next chapter records a story in which saintly vindictiveness is protecting rather than harming birds. Here Gerald tells of some teal inhabiting a lake in Leinster, who have resided there since the time of St Colman (it is not specified when that time was). These birds are tame enough to take food from people's hands, but

[w]henever any injury or molestation happens to the church, the clergy, or themselves, they go off to a lake at some distance, and do not return to their former abode until due satisfaction has been made. In the meantime during their absence the waters of the lake, which before were limpid and clear, become brackish and dirty, and cannot be use either for man or beast.
- Topography of Ireland, chapter 62 (translated by John O'Meara)

Gerald further records that once a teal was accidentally brought back from the lake with some cooking water, but although the water was cooking for a long time, the bird - thanks, no doubt, to the miraculous protection of St Colman - remained unhurt. Similarly, Gerald tells of a story happening "in our own times" when the Anglo-Norman invader Robert fitzStephen travelled through the area in the company of King Dermot of Leinster. An archer, ostensibly belonging to the retinue of King Dermot, shot one of the teal and tried to cook it for his king. When he showed King Dermot the miserable result of hours and hours of cooking, the king understood that this was a bird protected by Colman, and exclaimed "Alas form me! That this misfortune should ever have happened in my house". The archer perished miserably a short while after.

The anecdote is relatively sparing in contextual detail, but it is tempting to see King Dermot's fear of St Colman's vengeance in the light of his apparent alliance with the Anglo-Normans, dreading perhaps that his seemingly secure standing would change in the vicissitudes of occupation. Or perhaps this anecdote can be seen as Gerald's warning to the Anglo-Norman barons and their soldiers, that although the subjugation of Ireland is right - since they presented as a nation of bestial and uncivilised men - they should not suffer needless injuries, and nor should their churches be plundered. This should be seen in light of part three of the book, where Gerald gives praise to the Irish clergy, both monks and priests, although he reproves them for lack of discipline.
Minor incidents and lack of vermin

After the anecdote about the teal of St Colman, Gerald soon comes to some minor examples of the powers of Irish sanctity. The first of these is treated in chapter 64, where we are told of a village in Connacht which was "celebrated for a church of Saint Nannan". Once this village was badly infested with fleas, but St Nannan had them miraculously brought to a meadow close by, where the fleas were confined and made it inaccessible to men and beasts alike.

A similar story follows in chapter 65, where we learn of the district of Ferneginan. Here lived Bishop Yvor, who was so plagued by rats eating his books that he cursed them, and the result was that they all were expelled from Ferneginan, and from that day on, it was impossible for rats to live in that district. If rats were to be brought in, they would die. This particular anecdote becomes even more interesting because of its similarities to the supposition noted by Gerald in chapters 21 and 22 that poisonous reptiles are not found in Ireland. This is an old story, and the legend states that it was St Patrick who drove the snakes and other reptiles from the island. Gerald records this belief as a "pleasant conjecture that Saint Patrick and other saints of the land purged the island of all harmful animals", but goes on to suggest that Ireland must have been without these creatures from the beginning of the island's existence.
However, this does not explain why reptiles brought into the island perish upon entering the the land, and in chapter 23 Gerald suggests that this has to do with qualities in the Irish soil rather than saintly protection. What is significant about this, is that in chapter 48 Gerald tells how the jurisdiction of the island of Man was granted to Britain rather than Ireland, because poisonous reptiles could live there. And already in chapter 25 Gerald has recorded the discovery of a live frog near Waterford - significantly where the Anglo-Norman invaders entered Ireland in 1174 - which was taken as a sign by King Duvendalus "of the coming of the English, and the imminent conquest and defeat of his people". Ireland allows for heretofore alien reptiles and prepares itself to allow the Anglo-Norman conquest. But the saints are not in the picture, they are not relinquishing patronage nor endorsing the invaders, it is the soil itself that changes - although presumably through divine machinations. Gerald does not pit Irish saints against English saints, but relies instead on what we might call scientific rumination to explain the relationship of reptiles to Ireland.  

The book-eating rats of Ferneginan
MS Royal 13 B VIII, Gerald's Topographia, England, c.1196-c.1223
Courtesy of British Library

Miracles of St Brigid

The next saint to be treated in Gerald's catalogue of wonders is "the glorious Brigid". Some miracles pertaining to St Brigid's fire are mentioned, and a longer account is given of a falcon in Kildare who was believed to have lived there since the time of Brigid (i.e. several generations). This bird is used by Gerald as an example "of honour to churchmen", because during its mating season it flew away from the hallowed precincts of the church where it resided and fornicated elsewhere. The bird "was killed by a rustic" at the time when John, son of King Henry, departed from Ireland the first time.

For my purpose here, however, the significant aspect of St Brigid's powers is her protection of a hedge which surrounds the perpetual fire which is kept burning by her devotees. Since only women are allowed to perform the office as fire-keepers, a man who crosses the hedge "does not escape the divine vengeance". The curse of St Brigid also prevents goats to "have young here".

St Brigid's hedge is described in chapter 69, and Gerald returns to it in chapter 77 where we learn of an archer belonging to the retinue of the Anglo-Norman earl Richard. The archer crossed the hedge and blew upon the saint's fire and immediately went mad. The chapter concludes with an anecdote about a man who had only gotten his shin across the hedge before he was pulled back, and consequently lost his leg. This kind of violent territorial protection is not a feature unique to the Irish saints. Several instances are found in hagiographical texts from all over the Latin West, perhaps most famously St Edmund's killing of Sweyn Forkbeard at Bury St Edmunds. However, when seen in the context of Anglo-Norman invasion and settlement, this anecdote seems to reinforce Gerald's preoccupation with the importance of respecting the Irish places of religion. It seems as if common decency can't prevent the invaders from violating the churches, perhaps a fear of the vengeance of saints might be of help.

Protection of the Land

Keeping in this vein, in the following chapters we find several anecdotes rehearsing the dangers of encroaching upon land belonging to the Irish saints. Chapter 78 contains an anecdote about a soldier who had unlawfully expropriated land belonging to St Finbar in Cork. The bishop of the place, in sadness and anger, asked God (rather Finbar himself) not to allow this land to bear fruit. God listened to the bishop and performed the requested miracle "through the merits of the holy man" (although we are left uncertain as to whether this is Finbar the saint or the bishop of Cork).

The next chapter records how two Anglo-Normans were punished for their lack of piety. The first was Philip of Worcester who forced tribute from the clergy of Armagh, the seat of St Patrick, during Lent. On his departure from Armagh, Philip "was stricken with an illness and scarcely survived". Then we are told of Hugh Tyrrell who stole a cooking-pot from the clergy of Armagh, and the night after he had returned to his lodgings in Louth a fire broke out that burned down a great part of the settlement, killing two horses that had carried the pot away from Armagh. Tyrrell himself was later cast into a civil strife between Anglo-Norman factions. Although it is not elaborated upon, the two aforementioned anecdotes are related to injuries committed against the clergy of Armagh, i.e. under the protection of Patrick, patron of Ireland.

After these vengeful miracles of St Patrick, we are presented with two revenges performed by St Fechin, who was very protective of a mill in Meath, which he had himself cut "out of the side of a rock". When a archer in the army of Hugh de Lacy raped a girl there, he "was stricked in his member with hell-fire in sudden vengeance and immediately began to burn throughout his whole body. He died the same night". Fechin's protection of his mill was not only concerned with violent injuries, but also with minor occurrances. In chapter 82, Gerald tells that two horses who had eaten stolen corn from the mill died afterwards.  

Bernard and the horn of St Brendan
MS Royal 13 B VIII, Gerald's Topographia, England, c.1196-c.1223
Courtesy of British Library

Confessors, not martyrs

Gerald's Topographia hiberniae is to a great degree a document intended to justify the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland, yet as we have seen it is apparent that Gerald is concerned with the proper conduct of the conquerors. Ireland is lawfully occupied by the Anglo-Normans because, as is suggested in part three, the Irish are uncivilised and maintain evil customs (ch. 100), not all of them have been baptised (ch. 103) and their kingship ritual contains element of bestiality (ch. 102). However, Ireland and its places are not completely up for grabs, for the Irish saints are protecting their clergy, their pastures and their holy places with a fearful vengeance and they must therefore be respected. Furthermore, despite some shortcomings in discipline and religious practice, the Irish clergy has many good qualities, and its people has a proper respect for saints and their relics. As an example of this, Gerald includes in chapter 108 an anecdote that happened in Wales, where an Irishman carried a horn which was a relic of St Brendan. The horn was held in such great reverence that nobody dared to blow it, and when a Welsh priest did this, he turned mad and had to learn the psalter from the start.

However, despite the vindictiveness "in which the saints of this country seem to be very interested", the saints of Ireland appear to have accepted the coming of the Anglo-Normans. An explanation for this is offered by Gerald in chapter 105, in which he provides further comments on the nature of the Irish saints. For he states that

all the saints of this country are confessors, and there is no martyr. It would be difficult to find such a state of things in any other Christian kingdom. There was found no one in thise parts to cement the foundations of the growing church with the shedding of his blood. There was no one to do this service; not a single one.
- Topography of Ireland, chapter 105 (translated by John O'Meara)

These lines are very important for several reason. Although Gerald emphasises the sanctity of the Irish holy men and women, it appears that he suggests there is no protector of Ireland as a whole, not even the venerable Patrick. Gerald blames the Irish prelates for this state of affairs, because none of them have stood up for their church, or shed blood or suffered exile for its cause. Since this is written less than twenty years after the martyrdom of Thomas Becket (d.1170), for which King Henry II was punished and for which he sought reparation, it is tempting to suggest that Gerald has the model of Becket in mind when he chastises the Irish clergy. He then recounts a comment made by the Archbishop of Cashel:

'It is true,' he said, 'that although our people are very barbarous, uncivilized, and savage, nevertheless they have always paid great honour and reverence to churchmen, and they have never put out their hands against the saints of God. But now a people has come to the kingdom which knows how, and is accustomed, to make martyrs. From now on Ireland will have its martyrs, just as other countries.'

The archbishop's words are chilling and seem prophetic in such a short time after the battle at Waterford, and the canonisation of Becket (1169/70 and 1173 respectively). However, Gerald states that the archbishop's comment, although hard-hitting, does not invalidate Gerald's opinion on the Irish prelates.

Saints and the conquest of Ireland

A final point is worth noting in Gerald's treatment of the Irish saints. As stated, the holiness of the Irish saints remains undisputed and their vengeful patronage are held up as a perennial warning against misconduct against the Irish churches. In chapter 97, Gerald records how the Anglo-Normans themselves showed their due respect for the native saints of Ireland:

Saint Columba and Saint Brigid were contemporaries of Patrick. Their three bodies were buried in Ulster in the same city, namely, Down. They were found there in our times, in the year, that is, that Lord John first came to Ireland, in a cave that had three sections. Patrick was lying in the middle, and the others were lying one on either side. John de Courci, who was in command there, took charge when these three noble treasures were, through divine revelation, found and translated.
- The Topography of Ireland, chapter 97 (translated by John O'Meara)

In other words, through the revelatory will of God, the Anglo-Norman conquerors have become devotees of Ireland's three major saints, and the patrons of Ireland are now the patrons of the Anglo-Normans. The episode is reminiscent of the legend of the seven sleepers at Ephesus recorded at length by Osbert of Clare in his hagiography of Edward the Confessor (c.1138). It is also interesting for its resemblance to similar aspects of Plantagenet appropriation of popular belief. In 1198 the remains of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere were reported to have been found in Glastonbury, thus proving to the Celtic world that Arthur was not resting at Avalon or anywhere else, but was dead and buried. In the late 1200s, King Edward I, during his Welsh campaign, had Arthur's remains translated and perhaps even canonised (although informally so since it was never accepted by the papal church). The purpose was the same at both these instances: to expropriate local history, and display the dynasty's reverence of and protection from these legendary figures.

It is tempting to suggest that this strategy had also been used by the Anglo-Norman conquerors in Ireland, and although Gerald does not elaborate on the importance of this revelation in any great degree, it might explain why Gerald's concern is to warn about local patronage and vindictiveness rather than worrying about the revenge of the great patrons of Ireland.

The making of an Irish king
MS Royal 13 B VIII, Gerald's Topographia, England, c.1196-c.1223
Courtesy of British Library

torsdag 25. desember 2014

Mary in the Wood of Thorns - a German folksong for Christmas

One of my favourite aspects of Christmas is the singing of carols and hymns in commemoration of the birth of Christ, and - perhaps on account of me being a historian - I usually prefer the older songs. Here in Norway, we have a rich tradition of Christmas songs in both our official variants of Norwegian (bokmål and nynorsk), and some of these are translation of songs from other languages, most notably German, Danish and Latin, with a few from English as well.

In previous blogposts I've posted links to some of my favourite English carols, such as the Herefordshire Carol or God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. In this blogpost I wish to present a favourite from the German tradition, Maria durch ein Dornwald ging. This was originally not a Christmas song, but a song of pilgrimage which came about in Thüringen and the bishopric of Paderborn during the 19th century. The oldest printed source can be dated to 1850, and this edition contained seven strophes. In the early 20th century, a new edition with three strophes became the standard edition and this is currently the rendition most frequently performed. The author or authors of this song are unknown to us and so are the composers of the music, and it is perhaps chiefly this trait which allows us to label this song a folksong. (Information is taken from this website.) The text is found below taken from Edition B, and an English translation follows at the end.

Thomaner Chor, Leipzig

Maria durch ein Dornwald ging

Maria durch ein'n Dornwald ging
Kyrie eleison
Maria durch ein'n Dornwald ging
der hat in sieben Jahr'n kein Laub getrag'n
Jesus und Maria

Was trug Maria unter ihrem Herzen?
Kyrie eleison
Ein kleines Kindlein ohne Schmerzen
das trug Maria unter ihrem Herzen,
Jesus und Maria

Da haben die Dornen Rosen getrag'n
Kyrie Eleison
Als das Kindlein durch den Wald getrag'n
da haben die Dornen Rosen getrag'n
Jesus und Maria

Sandro Botticelli, Madonna with child and singing angels
c.1477, currently in Gemäldegalerie, Berlin
Courtesy of Wikimedia

Mary through the thornwood walked

(My translation)

Mary through the thornwood walked
Kyrie Eleison
Mary through the thornwood walked
Which had not borne for seven years a leaf
Jesus and Maria

What bore Mary underneath her heart?
Kyrie Eleison
A little child withouten pain
that's what Mary bore underneath her heart
Jesus and Maria

Then the thorns were bearing roses
Kyrie Eleison
As the little child through the wood did walk
Then the thorns were bearing roses
Jesus and Maria

fredag 12. desember 2014

The Psalter of Quendrada - a miracle of St Kenelm

Kenelm holding a virginal lily
From the Digby Chantry, St Augustine's Church Ramsgate, John Hardman Powell, mid-19th century
Courtesy of this website

The elusively historical Kenelm of Mercia was the head of the Mercian kingdom for some time at the turn of the 8th century, at least according to his legend. Little is known about his life, and what appears in later texts is the stuff of saint-biographical legend, cultivated especially at Winchcombe Abbey, which was the centre of his cult. From documents and charters we know that a royal person by this name existed in this period, but little can be suggested beyond this. The first tokens of a liturgical cult can be found almost two centuries after his death, a time when many royal figures were the subject of new cults, such as Ethelreda, Edward Martyr and Sexburga, to mention only a few.

This flourishing of English royal saints has been treated in great detail by Susan J. Ridyard in her Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England, where she distinguishes between king-saints and royal women who became saints by virtue of their monastic pursuits. Ridyard's study was published in 1988, and was a counterargument against the beliefs that royal women in the convent abandoned their roles as royal patrons (hagiography shows this not to be the case), and that these saints were cultivated to protect weak royal houses. In fact, the royal houses benefitting from these cults were all very strong at this time.

Kenelm's role as a saint, therefore, fits into a larger historical canvas, and like the other royal saints boosted by the Benedictine reform movement, his cult enjoyed a perhaps surprising longevity, as can be seen by his inclusion in the 13th-century South English Legendary, and even in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Traditions belonging to the cult of Kenelm have endured for a long time, as suggested by a certain piece of folklore expounded by Eleanor Parker in this blogpost I have given some details about his cult and iconography in an earlier blogpost, so I will avoid undue repetition. In this blogpost, however, I will present a miracle of Kenelm which is reported by Gerald of Wales in his Journey through Wales, a work completed at the turn of the 1180s. This miracle is one among many reported by Gerald in chapter 2 of Book 1. The text quoted is taken from Lewis Thorpe's translation published in Penguin Classics (reprinted in 1984).

Kenelm's dream by H. A. Payne
From The Artistic Crafts Series of Technical Handbooks edited by W. R. Lethaby, plate 71
Courtesy of Project Gutenberg

Before presenting the miracle, however, a brief summary of Kenelm's legend might be appropriate. Kenelm was a child-king of Mercia c.800, and he had a wicked sister Cwenthryth, or Quendrada, who plotted against him. She ordered a huntsman to slay him during the child-king's hunt, and although forewarned by a vision given to his nurse, the boy accepted his death with the stoicism so typical of martyrs. After he had died, his body was discovered by the aid of a cow who began to feed at its burial-place, while the pope had been alerted of Kenelm's death by a dove. Kenelm's body was exhumed and taken back to the royal palace, and upon seeing his brother return, Quendrada's eyes fell out of her head and onto the psalter she was reading (backwards, because she was so very evil). The miracle reported by Gerald concerns this psalter:

In our days another great miracle has caused quite a stir. This had to do with the psalter of Quendrada, the sister of Saint Kenelm, at whose instigation he was murdered. In Winchcombe, on the vigil of Saint Kenelm, when, at the invitation of the monks, a great crowd of women from the neighbourhood had congregated for the celebrations, as their custom was, the assistant cellarer had intercourse with on of them inside the precincts of the monastery. The next day he had the audacity to carry this psalter in the procession of the relics of the saints. When the solemn procession was over, he made his way back to the choir. The psalter stuck to his hands and he could not put it down. He was greatly astonished and confounded by what had happened. Then he remembered the crime which he had committed the previous eveing. He confessed his sin and did penance. His repentance was sincere enough, and he was helped by the prayers of his fellow-monks. In the end, by divine intervention, he was able to free himself from the psalter and so was liberated. The book in question is held in great veneration in the monastery, for, when the dead body of Kenelm carried out and the crowd shouted: 'He is God's martyr! There is no doubt about it! He is the martyr of God!' Quendrada, who was guilty of her brother's murder and had it very much on her conscience, replied: 'He is indeed God's martyr, as truly as my eyes are resting on this psalter!' By chance she was reading the psalter at the moment. Thereupon, by divine intervention, her two eys were torn from her head and fell plop on the open book, where you can still see the marks of her blood to this day.
- Thorpe 1984: 85-86

Carving of St Kenelm at the gateway to Romsley Church
Photograph by Pollyanna Jones

There are several interesting iconographical details to pick up on in this anecdote. First, it should be mentioned that although a seemingly novel grisly detail, the loss of eyes is also found in the legend of St Alban, protomartyr of Britain together with his companion Amphibalus. Like the wicked Quendrada, Alban's murderer lost his eyes after killing him, as depicted in gory detail by Matthew Paris in the St Alban's Psalter (as seen below). On the obverse side of the coin we find a story - mentioned by Benedicta Ward in her book on medieval miracles - in the legends of St Cuthbert (if I remember correctly) where a man who had lost his eyesight and was healed by the saint, told a miraculous tale of how birds had carried his eyes away, but that they were returned after he had prayed for healing.

The prototype of British eye-losses: St Alban's beheader
Royal 2 B VI, English psalter, c.1246-c.1260

Another interesting feature is the immediate recognition by the populace of Kenelm's status as martyr. Although we have no information about the death of the historical Kenelm and how his subjects reacted, Gerald's description - perhaps drawn from William of Malmesbury's record, or the anonymous 11th-century vita - invokes a trait typical of Northern European royal cults, namely the immediate canonisation by the vox populi following the trauma of the death of a leader-figure. André Vauchez, in his study of saints' cults, has marked this as an aspect common to several English leaders in the Middle Ages, for instance Simon Montfort and Edward II.

A final aspect I want to draw your attention to in this case, is the punitive nature of Kenelm's miracle. By way of an overly adhesive psalter, Kenelm makes the assistant cellarer's guilt obvious to everyone and forces him thus to repent his crime. Punitive miracles could take many forms, either in a mundane manner or more severely through disfigurement, disablement or death. The assistant cellarer might be grateful that his punishment was not more severe than this.

Kenelm guarding his well-head
From the chapel at the Well-Head of St Kenelm's Well, by J. D. Wyatt, 1887
Courtesy of this website


Gerald of Wales, The Journey Through Wales, (trl. by Lewis Thorpe), Penguin Classics, 1984

Love, Rosalind, Three Anglo-Saxon Saints' Lives, Clarendon Press, 1996

Ridyard, Susan J., Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England, Cambridge University Press, 1988

Vauchez, André, Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages, (trl. by Jean Birrell), 2005

Ward, Benedicta, Miracles and the medieval mind, 1982

torsdag 4. desember 2014

Saint Sabinus the Warrior

In the medieval historical understanding, the early fourth century after the birth of Christ was a period that produced a great number of saints, many of whom enjoyed a significant longevity, either locally or throughout the entirety of Christendom. Historically, this era was the time of persecutions of Christians carried out under the auspices of Diocletian and Maximinian, so it was perfectly natural to situate these saints, whose historicity was uncertain and in most cases probably non-existent, in an age where martyrdoms were common. Most of the virgin martyrs, for instance, belong to this period, such as Barbara, Agnes, Catherine and Lucy. Also Sebastian and Cyprian of Antioch were situated in this time, and so was Sabinus of Spoleto, also known as Sabinus of Assisi. Whether he was a historical figure is highly uncertain, but he was known to his devotees as bishop and martyr, and he was claimed by several Italian cities as their bishops. There is conflicting information concerning his feast day, but it is commonly set to December, with December 7 as the earliest alternative. Although it is a few days left until the seventh, I here present to you an anecdote concerning St Sabianus which is found in Paulus Diaconus' Historia Langobardorum, written in the late eighth century. The following excerpt is my rendition into English of a Norwegian translation of the original Latin text, and the Norwegian translation was done by Anne Katrine Frihagen and Bjørg Tosterud. Their edition of Historia Langobardorum was issued in 2003 as part of the Norwegian series "Thorleif Dahls kulturbibliotek".

Passion of SS Sabinus and Cyprian
Fresco from Abbey Church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempte, c.1100
Courtesy of Wikimedia

In the following year [i.e. 602] duke Ariulf died, who had succeeded Farvald in Spoleto. When this Ariulf waged war against the Romans at Camerino and had won a victory, he asked his men who the man was whom he had seen fight so bravely in this war. When his men replied that they had seen no one there who fought more bravely than the duke himself, the duke said: “Yes, I saw another there who was much better than me in every way, a brave man who always protected me with his shield every time an enemy tried to cut me down.” But when the duke came to Spoleto, where the church of the holy martyr Bishop Sabinus rests, and where his glorious body rests, he asked to whom this splendid building was consecrated. By the pious men he was told that it was the martyr Sabinus who rested there. To him the Christians used to call for aid every time they entered battle against their enemies. Ariulf, who still was a heathen, replied: “Can it be possible that a dead man can provide any form of help to the living?” When he had said this, he stepped down from his horse and entered the church to inspect it. While the others were praying, he began to admire the images in the church. When he saw a painting that showed the holy martyr Sabinus, he immediately swore that the man who had protected him in the war had looked exactly like that. Then it was understood that it was the holy martyr Sabinus who had given him aid in the battle.
- Paulus Diaconus,
Historia Langobardorum, Book 4, Chapter 16

SS Sabinus and Venustatus
From the Maestà by Duccio, Siena, 1308
Courtesy of Wikimedia

There are several interesting things about this little anecdote. One noteworthy aspect is the central role given to a pictorial rendition of the saints at this early time in the Middle Ages. We know from other sources that this was common - as seen in the sixth-century mosaics of San Vitale in Ravenna - but it is nonetheless fascinating to see this referred to in a historical chronicle. What is more, it appears that these renditions commonly were sufficiently individual in their depictions as to allow for recognition. We should not take this anecdote at face value, of course, but to Paulus, writing almost two centuries after Ariulf's reign, seems to have found this entirely plausible.

A second interesting aspect which I would like to emphasise here, is the portrayal of Sabinus - a bishop and martyr - as a militant saint. In the medieval sanctorale there are several saints who were known to give aid in battle and protect one of the sides in a conflict. The most famous example is perhaps St James the Greater, the alleged apostle of Spain, who became known as Santiago Matamoros - Killer of Moors - in the late medieval Spanish grand narrative. Other examples are Thomas Becket, who purportedly ensured Henry II the victory over the Scots in 1172, and Olav Haraldsson of Norway who guarded his Varangian devotees in a battle recorded in the twelfth-century Passio et Miracula Beati Olavi. Even Edward the Confessor, whose reign was known as a golden age of Solomonic peace, was reported to appear before Harold Godwinson in a vision and helping him win the Battle of Stamford Bridge. These examples are all from the Central Middle Ages and pertain to Northern European cults. Thus, the perhaps most significant aspect of Paulus' anecdote is that the saint-type of the militant protector goes back several centuries prior to these examples, but also that it is a saint-type not singularly located in the Northern European devotional landscape.

Martyrdom of Saint Sabinus
Carlo Cogrossi, Duomo Ivrea, 18th century
Courtesy of Wikimedia

fredag 28. november 2014

The sleder way - A fifteenth-century satirical carol on mortality

We are soon entering Advent, a season for songs and carols. I’m very fond of the musical traditions of Christmas and its songs, both those of my native Norway, the ones more typically found in Britain or the general songs, carols and hymns belonging to the Catholic repertoire of Western Europe. As a prologue to this season, I’m posting a carol from the fifteenth century which from the onset has very little to do with Christmas. I have taken it from R. L. Greene’s Early English Carols (Oxford 1977), where it is listed among the satirical carols, although thematically it could just as easily have been listed among the carols of mortality. The text comes from Bodleian Library. MS. Eng. Poet. e. I, and is written sometime in the fifteenth century. The lyrics of this carol belong – albeit loosely - to a very old tradition of Christian admonitory verse where the relationship between the soul and the body is scrutinized, sometimes in the form of a dialogue. In this particular case, however, the focus is less on the moral lesson, as it is a warning against fellow men, yet it contains elements typical of the cultural environment in the immediate centuries after the Black Death which I have elsewhere referred to as the cult of mortality. In order to emphasise this connection, I’ve chosen a rather macabre illustration.

In the following I have standardised the lettering as opposed to how it is printed in Greene 1977, but otherwise I have made no changes to the text.


Three living and three dead
MS Harley 2917, Book of Hours, Use of Rome, France, c.1480-c.1490
Courtesy of British Library

haue in mynd, in mynd, in mynd,
Secuters be oft onekynd.

Man, bewar, the way ys sleder;
Thy sowle sall go thou wottes not weder,
Body and sowle and all together;
Lytyll joye ys son done.

Haue thi sowle in thi mynd;
The secators be right onkynd;
Mane, be thi own freynd;
Lytyll joye ys son done.

In holy bok yt ys wreten
That sely sovle ys son forgeten,
And trev yt ys for to seken;
[Lytyll joye ys son done.]

Her ys a song for me;
Syng another for the;
God send vs love and charite;
[Lytyll joye ys son done.]

tirsdag 18. november 2014

Orlando the Beaver

Self-castrating beaver
Royal 2 B VII, English psalter, between 1310 and 1320
Courtesy of British Library

In a recent blogpost I wrote about a description of beavers found in Historia Norwegie, an anonymous Norwegian historiography from the twelfth century. This account repeated the ancient myth that beavers castrate themselves to escape hunters, a myth perpetuated throughout the medieval period and still alive in the sixteenth century when Ludovico Ariosto wrote his Orlando Furioso. In Ariosto's epic poem we find another reference to this zoological factoid, which I will present in this blogpost. 

Seemingly a less successful beaver
Royal 2 B VII, English psalter, between 1310 and 1320
Courtesy of British Library

To understand the employment of the beaver-myth, some background is necessary. The context is a series of challenges that disrupt the pagan camp during the siege of Paris, which is the dramaturgical nave around which the episodes in the poem revolve. Four pagan warriors are challenging each other to duels on account of various offences that go against the chivalric code, and the pagan king Agramante has arranged for the order of their duelling. As one of the first combattants, the Tartar king Mandricardo is armed and prepared, aided by Gradasso, king of Sercania (a region meant to be in modern-day China). As Gradasso is about to conclude his office as Mandricardo's page, he finds that the Tartar's sword is Durindana, which belonged to Orlando. Unbeknownst to Gradasso, Orlando left his sword in the wilderness along with his armour and his horse when he went mad after learning that the princess Angelica whom he loves has wed the Moorish footsoldier Medoro. The sword was found by the Scottish prince Zerbino whom Mandricardo killed in order to get hold of it.

In Orlando Innamorato by Matteo Boiardo, the precursor of Ariosto's work, we are told how Gradasso has set in many resources to acquire this sword, and Ariosto gives a quick summary of events, as quoted below. When Gradasso sees the sword he gets infuriated and demands to know how Mandricardo came by it. 

Somewhat more successful beaver
Sloane 3544, English bestiary, 13th century
Courtesy of British Library

Seeing the sword, Gradasso had no doubt
This was the weapon which Orlando won.
To claim it back Gradasso had set out
With a great fleet; and no more splendid one
Had ever left the East; he put to rout
The kingdom of Castile; he had then gone
To France and was victorious; and now
The Tartar has it and he knows not how.

He asked if by accord or by onslaught
He took it from the Count, and where and when;
And Mandricard replied that he had fought
A mighty battle for the sword and then
Orlando had feigned madness. 'Thus he sought
To hide his apprehension, for, to gain
His weapon Durindana, he well knew
The combat I would ceaselessly pursue.'

Just as the beaver, he went on to say,
Which sees the hunter drawing near, and knows
The reason, rips its genitals away,
A similar resource Orlando chose,
And left his swords. Gradasso did not stay
To hear the story out. 'I don't propose',
He said, ' to yield to you or anyone
What I by such expense have rightly won
- Orlando Furioso, Canto 27, verses 55-57 (translated by Barbara Reynolds)

Orlando's fury as depicted by Gustave Doré
Courtesy of WikiArt

As readers, or listeners, will know, this story is not true and Mandricardo fabricates events. The fictitious account is of course very insulting to Orlando or anyone, since he is likened to such an unchivalrous beast who is not only a prey for hunters, but who also commits such an unmanly deed as self-castration in order to preserve his life. This latter point is perhaps of greatest importance, since by leaving his sword behind Orlando has abandoned his primary chivalric attribute. Furthermore, since I hold Ariosto to be no less a shrewd metaphorician than Shakespeare, I feel safe to say that by comparing Orlando to the beaver, Mandricardo draws attention to the phallic symbolism of Durindana.

mandag 10. november 2014

Flores Historiarum, pt. V - Danish responses to the call for crusade

 The Scandinavian effort in the history of the Crusades is an aspect often overlooked in the more general overviews of this movement, which was such a central feature in medieval Christian thought. However, academics have recently paid much attention to the crusades launched by Danes, Swedes and Norwegians, and there is currently exciting research being done about the Swedish crusades in the Baltics, and the Norwegian king Sigurd Jorsalfare's (c.1090-1130) sojourn to Palestine from 1108-11. That Scandinavian monarchs and noblemen took part in the crusader movement is only to be expected, as this was an aspect of kingship virtually every Christian ruler had to take into consideration – whether to participate, to fund or to stay away from it.

Three knights, illustration picture
MS Royal 20 D II, Roman de Tristan, France, c.1300
Courtesy of British Library
In this blogpost, I wish to present two descriptions of how Danes responded to calls for crusade, as recorded by authors outside Denmark. The first description is taken from the short crusader narrative Profectio Danorum in Hierosolymam, “The leave-taking of the Danes for Jerusalem”. The book recounts a joint Danish-Norwegian crusader expedition prompted by a papal call for crusade following the loss of Jerusalem in 1187. The author of Profectio is now believed to have been a Norwegian Augustinian canon, and the work was likely written on the behest of a member of the Danish high clergy or nobleman some time after 1192.

As the title suggests, the book is predominantly concerned with the journey to the Holy Land, not the crusaders’ effort in the war against the Muslims. This is because the crusaders came too late and arrived in Palestine after the peace treaty had been signed and the Third Crusade was over. This may have caused some embarrassment to the surviving participants, and the author of Profectio goes to great lengths in depicting the hazards at sea and death by drowning as the crusaders’ imitatio Christi.

Profectio is in many ways an interesting book, and I hope to return to it in future blogposts. What concerns me here, however, is the author’s representation of the piety of the Danish nobles, and their response to the papal call to arms which they received at Odense during King Knud’s celebration of the Nativity. The following excerpt from chapter IV is a translation from the Norwegian by Astrid Salvesen:

Ship with a cross - has nothing to do with crusade in its literary context
MS Egerton 3028, Roman de Brut, 2nd quarter of the 14th Century
Courtesy of British Library
The king and all those who sat around him then started to weep and moan so that they could not speak a word, and so deep was this great sorrow that not one of them was able to give a reply. Finally they came to themselves, breathed more slowly and broke the silence – such often happens when one learns of grand and unexpected events. But they had to be encouraged and exhorted before they could agree on who should answer these messengers, who were as splendidly dressed as their message was tragic.

This kind of lachrymose piety is repeated a couple of times as some of the nobles renew their commitment to the crusade, and the author is careful to depict his protagonists as true Christians. As suggested above, this depiction was perhaps all the more needful in light of the crusaders’ ultimate failure to provide help.

Crusaders reaching the their destination, but not too late
MS Royal 19 D I, Historia de proeliis, translated into French, France, c.1340 (after 1333)
Courtesy of British Library
A rather different, more tongue-in-cheek depiction of the Danish response to a papal call for crusade, can be found in William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum, written in the 1120s and -30s. In the fourth book of his work, William is chiefly preoccupied with the first crusade and he commends the efficacy with which it was preached. As a measure of its effectiveness, he includes a short summary of the effects it had on the remotest corners of Latin Christendom.

Then the Welsh relinquished his woodland hunting, the Scot the intimacy of his fleas, the Dane his continuous drinking, and the Norwegian his raw fish.

- From Gesta Regum Anglorum, Book 4, chapter 348
, my translation

Indeed, for these inhabitants of Christendom’s peripheries
to give up their favourite pastimes and nourishment, the call for crusade must have been very powerful.

Crusaders, possibly as lost as our Danish-Norwegian protagonists from Profectio
MS Royal 16 G VI, Chroniques de France ou de St Denis, France, after 1332, before 1350
Courtesy of British Library

søndag 2. november 2014

Norwegian history as it never happened - or, A Lesson in Norwegian Particularism

I'm a medievalist, and I'm often reminded of why the study of history is important. To me it's about challenging grand narratives and comprehending human diversity, to unlock the vast complexity of human experience and to remind both myself and those around me that the past is not easily grasped and that we see history through a glass darkly. Historians are not here to bring comfort to those content with a simplistic view of times past and the historical progress. Historians are not here to sustain grand narratives, but to challenge them, to complicate them and, to the needful extent, to falsify them. That this is important is to me quite evident and I don't question this importance - nor do I need to, because I'm very often reminded why such constant revisionism is necessary.

To illustrate this necessity of historical studies in the manner of medieval didacticism, I want to present a very recent exemplum of historical misunderstanding. This took place on a Facebook page dedicated to my home place, a small village in the Western Norwegian fjords. There was an on-going discussion about the history of one of the place names, and during this discussion some very strange remarks about Norwegian history came to light, uttered by one of my fellow townspeople (henceforth called Mister G). His comprehension of the Middle Ages in Norway was wildly erroneous, and serves as a good example of the kind of historical misunderstanding that one can find when history is marked by a certain grand narrative. 

Olav Haraldsson's death at Stiklestad by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831-92)
This is one of the most important events in the old Norwegian grand narrative
From Wikimedia

The purpose of this blogpost is to present the way in which Mister G misunderstood Norwegian history, and to illustrate how much it is possible to be wrong about a historical period. In order to do so, I will first give a brief overview of twelfth-century Norway with a focus on the key points of the discussion I had with Mister G. Then I will present his version of Norway in the Middle Ages. The discussion took place on a Norwegian public forum, but I don't wish to mention names or to quote at great length, especially because the man in question will probably not be aware of this blogpost and can therefore not answer. The few quotes I translate, will only serve to emphasise a point of importance. 

Olav Tryggvasson is made king of Norway by Peter Nicolai Arbo
Olav Tryggvasson is another iconic figure in the old Norwegian grand narrative
From Wikimedia

Overview of twelfth-century Norway

By the beginning of the twelfth century, Norway was a unified kingdom under its own kings. Ecclesiastically it was a part of the archbishopric of Lund together with Sweden and Denmark, which had been fairly recently separated from the archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen. This was the case until 1152/53 when the the churches of Norway and Sweden were loosened from the archbishopric of Lund and organised under their own archbishops, respectively situated in Nidaros (modern-day Trondheim) and Uppsala.

Up until this time we know very little of the literary production in Norway. Sagas of Norwegian kings were being written in Iceland, although these are now lost to us. These works were written in Old Norse, then commonly referred to as the Danish tongue, with the Latin alphabet brought to Scandinavia by missionaries at some uncertain time. Runes were also used for shorter messages, and these were common all over the Norse world, including parts of England where Norse influence was strong.

The first Norwegian literature has been conjecturally dated to the early 1150s, and the first work is believed to be a Latin hagiographical account of Olaf Haraldsson, the saint-king who died at Stiklestad and who was the patron saint of Norway. Shortly after, probably in the 1160s, the first Norwegian Latin chronicle was written, Historia Norwegie, and towards the end of the century we also find books in Old Norse written in Norway. One of these is a history of Norwegian kings called Ágrip or Extracts by modern scholars, which is likely composed c.1190. Another one - often referred to as our oldest book - is the Old Norwegian Homily Book, written c.1200, containing a number of homilies, most of which appear to be translations of Latin texts. Although these texts were written in the vernacular, there were only small differences - so-called Norwegianisms - that made them distinguishable from texts produced in Iceland or Denmark, for instance.

Much of Norway's history in the twelfth century was marked by civil strife as various pretenders to the royal throne fought each other. Towards the end of the century, Sverre Sigurdsson reigned the kingdom after the defeat of King Magnus Erlingsson in Nidaros. King Magnus had been supported by Archbishop Eystein Erlendsson (governed from 1161 to 1188), and because of this there were periods of conflicts between Sverre and the ecclesiastical powers. This resulted in Eystein's exile in England (1180-83) and the exile of his successor Eirik in Lund (1190-1202). For this policy, Sverre was excommunicated by the pope.

This very brief survey covers the main points about which Mister G harboured a severe misunderstanding. His own version of events follows suit.

King Sverre crossing the Voss mountains
Peter Nicolai Arbo
From Wikimedia

Norwegian history as it never happened

The underlying concern that sustained Mister G's version of Norwegian medieval history, was Norway's exceptional place in the history of Scandinavia. His first historical claim in the debate was that Norway had its own written language around 1120, "200 years before Sweden and Denmark". He went on to say that all people of knowledge - presumably about the written word - and all the writings disappeared during the Black Death.

This is, as we can see from the survey above, spectacularly wrong, and I challenged him on these points, pointing out that Norway shared a written language with the rest of Scandinavia, and that we had a Latin literature. I did not, however, press him on the particularism evident in his remark that Norway was two centuries ahead of our neighbouring countries.

His reply to my comment on the written language, was a slight but very minute modification of his claim. He said that "it was beyond doubt" that Norway had its own written language c.1150, and he added that this "was many years before Sweden and Denmark". The support for this claim was that under the reign of Sverre Norway parted ways with the Catholic church and its Latin mass. Instead, we "went over to" the English church which unlike the Catholic one held mass in the vernacular. He went on to say that this was a process that had been going on since 1066 when King Olav Kyrre made an agreement with William the Conqueror not to attack England. The impossibility of this agreement can be seen in the fact that Olav Kyrre became king in 1069. However, this impossible agreement resulted over hundred years later - if I understand his timeline correctly - that Norway joined the English church. He furthermore said that this was something Sweden and Denmark did not like to hear about after having ruled over Norway in various periods, and the underlying claim seems to be that Sweden and Denmark are envious of Norway's ecclesiastical liberation from Rome at a time when they themselves were still Catholic.

So, in short: In the 1100s, Norway got its own written language, and this took place two hundred years before Sweden and Denmark. By the end of the century, Norway split with the Catholic church and went to the English instead, as a result of a process that had been going on since 1066, following an agreement between William the Conqueror and a king who would not be king for three years. This particular position was something of which both Sweden and Denmark are very envious.

The Battle of Stamford Bridge by Peter Nicolai Arbo
Three years before Olav Kyrre became king of Norway
From Wikimedia

There is very much at play here. The most glaring issue is perhaps the repeated insistence on Norwegian particularism, that our history is so widely different - and even centuries ahead - to the histories of Denmark and Sweden. This is an idea that burgeons from a deep-rooted current of historical interpretation in Norway, and it comes from the fact that for centuries - ever since 1397 - Norway has been ruled by kings from Sweden or Denmark. This lack of historical independence put its mark on Norwegian historiography in the 19th century. This was a century during most of which we were governed by the Swedish king after having been handed over from Denmark in 1814 following the outcome of the Napoleonic wars. Norway's secondary role in the politics of the kingdom led some historians to seek comfort in the past, and the perhaps most spectacular result of this was the claim by Ernst Sars that Sweden and Denmark had been populated from Norway in prehistoric times. Mister G draws from this ideological current in his insistence on Norway's exceptional role in the twelfth century, and although the political milieu that gave force to this current in the 1800s now is gone, Mister G is swayed by the very same little-brother-complex that haunted some of Norway's historians in the 19th century.

There is also another current feeding the ideas of Mister G, namely the Protestant distaste of anything that smacks of Papism. After Norway's reformation in 1536/37, Norwegian Lutherans eventually adopted the historical interpretation moulded and sustained by Protestant anti-papist propaganda. This interpretation of history was very strong and ubiquitous in Protestant countries, and perhaps most accessibly found in the great English epics of Edmund Spenser and John Milton. This current remained strong through centuries, and in the first draft of the Norwegian constitution in 1814, Jesuits were, along with the Jews, denied access to the kingdom. These restrictions were revoked later, and from the 1860s and onwards Catholic missionary work no longer needed to be clandestine, resulting in the first modern Catholic churches to be built at the turn of the 19th century. Nonetheless, despite the gradual acceptance of Catholics, the historical understanding on which Mister G relies has marked Catholicism as something negative. This is why Mister G is so adamant in his insistence on Norway not being Catholic after the twelfth century, and which is why he claims Sweden and Denmark appears to be ashamed of their prolonged Catholic past. 

Håkon the Good and the farmers at the yuletide offerings at Mære
Peter Nicolai Arbo
From Wikimedia

The Cost of Historical Blindness

In the grand scheme of things, Mister G's excessively erroneous interpretation of Norwegian history is fairly innocuous. His belief in Norwegian particularism is unlikely to cause harm to anyone, and it has not found a violent incarnation in him. However, the belief itself is thoroughly disturbing and potentially damaging if it is adopted by younger people, or people who exert some kind of influence in political or social matters. I don't for a second believe that it will have nationwide ramifications on a grand scale, the Norwegian public consciousness is too tolerant for that to happen. But it might instil in some people a sense of entitlement, a sense of pride that can lead them on to a path towards increased nationalism and make them dismiss the needs of those from other countries. In a globalised world where millions of people are in dire need of help, and where Western countries have a moral duty to receive refugees, it is necessary to counter ideas of particularism and to fight chauvinism that might prevent people from obtaining a life in safety on the grounds that they don't belong to a country's particular, exceptional historical journey towards the fulfillment of its destiny. The kind of historical misunderstanding embraced by Mister G, is the same kind of historical interpretation that creates a gap between one country and the rest of the world, and in a time of perverse consumerism and increased selfishness throughout the west, we can't morally afford that kind of particularism. No country is alone in the world, and a historical understanding that leads people to think this is the case, is a historical understanding that must be challenged, countered and falsified.

fredag 31. oktober 2014

Harald Fairhair and his dead queen

Halloween is traditionally a time for gory tales, and even though this is not a deep-rooted phenomenon in my native Norway, I will this year cater to my Anglophone friends who seem to appreciate a certain morbidity at this time of the year.  The story in question comes from a Norwegian chronicle of kings written in Trondheim, most likely around 1190 according to scholarly consensus. We don’t know the original title of this work, and it is not handed down to us in a complete state. Modern scholars have christened it Àgrip af Nóregskonungasogum, which means Excerpt of the sagas of the Norwegian kings.

The story concerns one of the wives of King Harald Fairhair who according to medieval historiography gathered all of Norway under his rule – though it is also admitted that he had his sons as viceroys in many of these parts. The story is found in the third and fourth chapters of Ágrip, and I here use the translation into English executed by Matthew James Driscoll in 1995 for the 10th volume of the Viking Society for Northern Research Text Series (pp. 5-7). Before reading any further, I strongly warn those of my readers who are easily disturbed by gory tales, because this one is very, very, very gory.  

III. On the eve of Yule, as Haraldr [Fairhair] sat at table, Svási came to the door and sent word in to the king that he should come out to him. This request angered the king, and the same man bore his anger out as had borne the message in. Svási asked him nevertheless a second time and also gave him a beaver skin and said that he was that Lapp whom the king had allowed to set up his hut on the other side of the hill at Þhoptyn, where the king then was. The king went out and he agreed to go to Svási’s hut, egged on by some of his men, though others tried to dissuade him.

There Snjófriðr stood up, Svási’s daughter the most beautiful of women and offered the king a cup full of mead. He took it and with it her hand, and suddenly it was as if a fiery heat entered into his flesh and he wished to have her that same night. But Svási said that this should not be so – except against his will – unless the king betrothed himself to her and then wedded her according to the law. And he betrothed himself to her and wedded her and loved her so witlessly that he neglected his kingdom and all that beseemed his kingly honour, and he stayed by her almost night and day while they both lived and for three years after she died. He mourned for her, dead, but the people all mourned for him, bewitched.

IV. But Þorleifr spaki came to cure him and put an end to this enchantment, and he did it wisely and with blandishments in this way: ‘It is not strange, king, that you should remember so beautiful and noble a woman and honour her thus on down and velvet, as she asked you. And yet your honour is less than is fitting – and hers – for she has lain too long in the same clothes. It would be much seemlier if she were moved.’ And when she was moved there issued from the body a rank and fulsome stench and foul odours of every sort. A pyre was hastily prepared and she was burned, but before that the body blackened and there bubbled out worms and vipers, frogs and toads and multitudes of vermin. She sank thus into ash, but the king rose to wisdom and abandoned his folly; he from then on took control of his kingdom and strengthened it; he was gladdened by his subjects and they by him and the kingdom by them both, and he ruled Norway as absolute king for sixty years, after having won all of it in ten.

Something rotten in the kingdom
MS Egerton 1070, Book of Hours, Use of Paris, c.1410
Courtesy of British Library