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

mandag 18. august 2014

The Humility of Snails, part 3 - Houses of the Humble

Snail wheeled by a fox (?)
Cambrai, MS 102, c.1290
With thanks to Damien Kempf
Last year, inspired by a blogpost by Sarah J. Biggs at British Library's medieval blog, I wrote a two-part essay about snails in medieval marginalia (here and here). These fantastic gastropods have captured the imagination of modern scholars for generations, and many suggestions have been proffered in the attempt to explain what they meant to their audience. I was dissatisfied with a lot of the suggestions as they sometimes seemed to be too geographically specific to explain a widely disseminated phenomenon, and sometimes seemed to be presented without any solid foundation in research. 

I mean, how the hell do you explain this?
MS Neuchâtel A28, Flemish book of hours, Bruges, c.1500
With thanks to Sjoerd Levelt
As a thought experiment, I offered a scholarly new explanation for what these snails represented, namely that they were symbols of humility, reminding the reader through different situations what was expected from a good Christian. I furthermore tied this symbolism into the mendicant sanctity that came into vogue in the 13th century and continued through the 14th, a model of sanctity based on good works, self-abnegation, and humility, to name some of the key virtues of this saint-paradigm. Through an examination of the snails in a handful of medieval manuscripts, I came to the inconclusive conclusion that the idea of the snail as a symbol of humility made very much sense in a number of religious or religiously informed books from the period 1290-1430.

St Lawrence, and a marginal snail
MS Neuchâtel A28, Flemish book of hours, Bruges, c.1500
With thanks to Johan Oosterman
I was content with such a result. In the field of medieval history, the scarcity of material allows very seldom for conclusive proof, and very often the best we can hope for is a plausible conjecture that can stand the test of time. I was therefore greatly and pleasantly surprised, when I was notified of a 15th-century poem that proved that snails did serve as a symbol of humility in the Middle Ages.

The poem in question is a long political meditation by John Lydgate (1371-1451) called The Truce of 1444. It was brought to my attention by Jenni Nuttall (who has a great blog), and can be found together with a number of other poems from the period collected and edited by Thomas Wright in Political Poems and Songs relating to English History (also thanks to Jenni Nuttall for this link). Lydgate wrote this poem as a political meditation following the truce between France and England of May 1444, which stipulated a two-year armistice, which later was extended to five years, and saw the bethrotal between Margaret of Anjou and King Henry V. Although the title given to the poem - at least in Wright's edition - refers to the truce, the poem itself is more a meditation on politics in general, seemingly an exhortation for people outside the court not to meddle in the politics of the court. Lydgate himself was no stranger to politics. As a monk of Bury St Edmunds, he had prepared his Livesof SS Edmund and Fremund for the young King Henry VI's visits at the monastery in 1333-34. Lydgate had furthermore written extensively on kingship and chivalry in other texts.

However, the tone of the poem suggests a more politically withdrawn monk who has become wary of the world of courtly politics. The text is interspersed with several moralistic animal fables and similes, and referring to the prudence of ancient men like Cato and Socrates, and advicing the lowly to be still lest they face the wrath of princes. One of these animal fables is of particular interest to us as it treats a lobster's attack on a snail:

I sauh a krevys, with his clawes longe,
Pursewe a snayl, poore and impotent;
Hows of this snayl, the wallys wer nat stronge,
A slender shelle, the sydes al torent.
Whoo hath no goold, his tresour soone spent;
The snaylis castel but a sklendir coote;
Whoo seith trouthe, offte he shalle be shent;
A good be stille is offte wel wourth a groote.

This short fable - concluded with one of the repeated lines in the work - is a tale of oppression and abuse of power by the mighty, while the snail represents the lower estates, the poor, and quite likely the humble. Although the word humble is not used, the poor and powerless snail stands in contrast with the long-clawed lobster in a way much similar to the humble snail and the powerful knight in so many marginal illuminations. This is not to say that Lydgate's lobster is a symbol specifically of chivalry, it is more likely representing all kinds of secular power. Nor is it to say that Lydgate draws on the marginal snail for his inspiration, we don't know if Lydgate even knew this (though it is very likely that he did). The reason this use of the snail is interesting to my case, is that the snail is here used as a symbol of those who suffer from abuse of power, the lowly, those who do not belong in the secular court. In short, the snail is the opposite of military might. We do not know whether such a representation of the snail was widespread in medieval Europe, or whether it was in any way connected to the tradition of marginal snails - we simply lack the decisive evidence for such claims. However, Lydgate's use of the snail is symbolically in tune with the snail as a representation of humility as hypothesised by myself in the two previous blogposts. It is therefore reasonable to claim that within the symbolic range of the snail in the Middle Ages, could be found the snail as representative of humility. 

Humility (perhaps) under attack
MS. W.45, The Fieschi Psalter, Flemish, 13th century
With thanks to  @bxknits, courtesy of Walters Art Museum


Edwards, A. S. G., "John Lydgate's Lives of Ss Edmund and Fremund: Politics, Hagiography and Literature", printed in Bale, Anthony, Saint Edmund King and Martyr: Changing Images of a Medieval Saint

Wagner, John A., Encyclopedia of the Hundred Years War

Wright, Thomas (ed.), Political Poems and Songs Relating to English History

University of Alberta's Lydgate project:

University of Michigan's Middle English Dictionary:

Post Scriptum: A big thank you to all who have helped me with suitable images, insights, feedback and help in the process of these blogposts. 

fredag 15. august 2014

That Catholic Round World - flat earth as counter-medievalism

JESPER BAILIFF: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, let us talk of something else. That is some disturbed nonsense, it can make you Catholic in the head
- Ludvig Holberg, Erasmus Montanus (Act 3, Scene 2) (my translation)

Ludvig Holberg, c.1747 by Johan Roselius
Courtesy of this website
One of the most pernicious myths about the Middle Ages remains the idea that medieval people held the earth to be flat. This myth was perhaps most famously propagated in a 19th-century novel about Columbus, where the belief in a flat earth was deployed as a foil to enhance Columbus' intrepid greatness as an explorer and trailblazer. The belief in the medieval belief in a flat earth has stuck resiliently to the collective consciousness, and even today it lingers more strongly than medievalists would like to think.

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of the flat earth myth. In a previous blogpost I offered a possible source for the idea that this was a medieval conviction, but the trajectory is difficult to map. However, in this blogpost, I want to present a very curious case from the 18th century, in which the idea that the earth is flat is presented as a firmly Protestant idea, and in which the idea of a round earth is frowningly labelled Catholic (and as such practically medieval), and also Atheist. (The tendency to conflate Atheism and Catholicism in Protestant countries reaches back to the 16th century.) The case in question is fictional, as it comes from the comedy Erasmus Montanus, written by the Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg in 1722-23. However, despite the fictionality of the story, the way the roundness of the earth is treated is a funny and unusual affair, and one that I as a medievalist find very pleasing. The translations of the quotes from Danish are all mine.

Scene from Erasmus Montanus
Wilhelm Marstrand (1810-73)
Courtesy of this website
The plot of the comedy is the homecoming of Rasmus Berg who has been studying in Copenhagen and there taken the Latinised name Erasmus Montanus. Upon his return, he starts exercising his prowess as a debater and both proves and disproves that his mother is a stone. It all goes wrong when he claims that the earth is round, because his fellow villagers can all see that the earth is "as flat as a pancake", and to claim otherwise is "disturbed nonsense" which "can make one Catholic in the head" (act 3, scene 2). It is further remarked that to believe in a round earth "is nothing else than turn all religion on the head and lead people away from faith. A heathen can not preach worse" (act 3, scene 4). By defending his words and beliefs for the glory of philosophy, Erasmus Montanus antagonises his father-in-law-to-be and various other persons of note. When Erasmus tries to prove the roundness of the earth by various scientific observations, he is met with scorn bred from common sense, and the bailiff comments that Erasmus "is quite close to become an Atheist" (act 3, scene 5). The debate enrages his father-in-law-to-be so much that he ends the bethrotal between his daughter and Erasmus on the grounds that his family has always been good Christian people. In the end Erasmus is tricked into enrolment in the army by a local lieutenant, and to escape from this predicament he rescinds his opinions and professes loudly and desperately that the earth "is as flat as a pancake".

Erasmus Montanus disputing with a local parson
Wilhelm Marstrand, 1843
Courtesy of this website
In 1722 when Holberg wrote Erasmus Montanus, Denmark had been Protestant for almost two centuries. It is therefore difficult to tell whether Catholicism was still seen as something of the old order, something of the very distant past, or something whose presence in Denmark was seen as newfangled and novel. Traditionally in Protestant countries around this period, Catholicism is seen as a vestige of an old world, an ancient superstition, an echo from a dark age. This view is made very clear, for instance, in John Milton's Paradise Lost, where the fallen Adam witnesses the future history of mankind up to the point of salvation and the second coming. We can't tell whether this was also how Holberg's fictional farmers, bailiffs and lieutenants would have seen things, and therefore we don't know whether the round earth is considered an ancient superstition, or a newfangled invention of the universities. Nonetheless, it is interesting to see a feature so widely regarded as belonging to the Catholic Middle Ages as the flat earth presented as a Protestant tenet, and as such counter-medieval (although of course Holberg himself does not suggest this). It is a useful reference for people who still believe that men and women in the Middle Ages held the world to be flat as a pancake.

The steadfastness of Erasmus Montanus
Wilhelm Marstrand, before 1869
Courtesy of this website

torsdag 7. august 2014

Methodology of negatives

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn't there
- Antigonish, Hughes Mearns

To a young scholar in training, there are certain things for which he or she can not fully prepare but rather has to experience when the time comes. One of these things is to deal with negative results in the humanities, which can become something of a problem when one line of inquiry yields almost more negative results than positive ones. For me this problem first arose in my research for the paper to IMC Leeds this year, in which I looked at sources for the cult of Edward the Confessor in France and Normandy. The following is a reflection/complaint/whining on some of the problems I faced when trying to make a case from more negative results than I had expected.

The purpose of my paper at Leeds 2014 was to look at three case-studies for devotion to the cult of Edward the Confessor as suggested by three types of source material in the period 1161-1480. These sources were a set of 12th-13th-century liturgical books from the archbishopric of Rouen and the Abbey of the Holy Trinity of Fécamp, a series of stained glass window from the same abbey dated to c.1307, and finally an antiphon found in a book compiled by a German Carthusian around 1480. From this material, scattered among several centuries, I tried first to compile a concise overview of the cult of Edward the Confessor in France following his canonisation in 1161. This were to prove very difficult, and it was here I was faced time and again with a number of negative inquiries.  

The Abbey of the Holy Trinity, Fécamp
Courtesy of Wikimedia

During my MA studies, I had often heard the dictum of one of the history professors at NTNU: Negative results are also results. This is of course well and true, but I was also aware that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and therefore it can be very difficult to extract a picture of historical development when there are gaping holes in the timeline. Given the unknown and unfortunately high number of medieval sources lost to us, we are not permitted to make bold claims when we face a lack of material, and at best we can make an educated guess about the possible scenarios such a dearth of evidence may signify.

To give an example: In order to attempt mapping the cult of Edward the Confessor in France, I sought to find out how he was represented in sources beyond hagiography and liturgy. I therefore had a look through one of the greatest works of historiograhpy from medieval France, namely Vincent of Beauvais' Speculum Historiale written in the 1240s and -50s, a vast encyclopedia drawing on a number of sources and covering a big range of historical events. Since Vincent's work was completed about eight or nine decades after Edward the Confessor's canonisation, I assumed that the monk of Beauvais would have been able to get hold of one of the hagiographies about Edward. At the very least I presumed Vincent would have read Aelred of Rievaulx's popular and influential Vita Sancti Edwardi. I was excited to find this out, because Vincent's source for Edward could tell a lot about the dissemination of hagiographies for the Confessor. 

Image allegedly of Vincent of Beauvais
Courtesy of Wikimedia

However, when I opened the big, heavy, yellow 1964 reprint of a Douai edition from 1624 - a book as big as my torso but not as thick - and finally found Vincent's chapter on Edward, I was much disappointed. In short, Vincent draws chiefly - and perhaps exclusively - on the Gesta Regum Anglorum of William of Malmesbury, completed in the 1130s, several decades prior to the canonisation of Edward the Confessor. As a consequence, Vincent of Beauvais writes something about the miracles and dreams of Edward - indeed he allots a surprising length to his dream of the seven sleepers - but the Confessor is not referred to as a saint for obvious reasons. I was a bit disappointed with this discovery. Although it did suggest that the hagiographies of Edward indeed were not widely disseminated in France, I couldn't suggest that this was the case unless it was corroborated by several other inquiries, which I didn't have the time to undertake.

After my dead-end-foray into Speculum Historiale, I turned my attention to sources more directly relevant for the cult of St Edward, namely liturgical books. The antiphon handed down to us by the 15th-century Carthusian from Cologne is an adaptation of an antiphon composed for St Louis around 1300. (For more on this antiphon, see here.) In order to see whether this adaptation did suggest exchange of cult material between the cult centres of the two confessor kings, Louis and Edward, I looked through the Westminster Missal and the liturgical material from Saint-Denis as treated by Anne Walters Robertson. What I had envisioned would be a time-consuming investigation into primary sources, was concluded in about fifteen minutes, most of which were spent taking the book from spot A to spot B. I still remember the slightly dejected sensation when I realised that Abbot Lytlyngton's Westminster Missal of c.1380 did not contain a single reference to Louis IX. 

Angels receiving the soul of Louis IX
Paris - Bibl. Sainte-Geneviève - ms. 0783, Grande Chroniques deFrance, 13th-14th centuries
Courtesy of

Of course, the negative results from the liturgical books were of a different nature than that of Speculum historiale. The fact that Louis was not celebrated at Westminster, nor Edward at Saint-Denis, pointed to a deliberate omission, since the contact between France and England was strong enough to ensure that both these monastic institutions knew of the other's patron saint. Consequently, this allowed me to build towards a conclusion in my paper, but - as in the case of Vincent of Beauvais - it was of course slightly frustrating to have to relegate so much research into footnotes that could not be included in my talk at Leeds.

In the end, I believe the paper itself went rather well and I managed to keep some coherence in my argument, but it was a long and arduous road to get there - and one that is not easily traced in the footnotes or in the text itself. This was something for which I was not prepared, despite having heard anecdotes and despite my experience from my MA dissertation. As stated above, it is the kind of experience you have to tackle head-on when it arises, and sometimes it can be very frustrating. It helps, of course, that there are several kinds of negative results. Vincent of Beauvais' reliance on William of Malmesbury was an omission of later material that may not have been deliberate but caused by limited available material. The fact that Louis IX did not appear in the Westminster Missal, composed more than eight decades after his canonisation, suggests a deliberate omission and can yield some ground for positive claims - i.e. that Louis' cult was not adopted at Westminster. A third kind of negative result is the lacunic absence of evidence which may be due to a loss of material or that the material sought was lacking form the start. This is the most frustrating kind, for this leaves only tentative conjectures.  

fredag 1. august 2014

Call for papers - Renewal in the Cult of Saints, 1050-1300

Renewal in the Cults of Saints, 1050-1300
Leeds IMC, 2015

We are seeking proposals for papers on the topic of renewal, reinvention and reinterpretation in the cults of saints in the period 1050-1300. Possible topics might include, but are not limited to:

The reinvention of saints across cultural, national, or linguistic borders
The impact of church reform on the cults of saints
Reinterpretation of a saint's cult within cult practice, saints' texts, liturgy and art
How a saint's cult might be renewed or revitalised for a new audience

Papers dealing with renewal in the cults of Anglo-Saxon or British saints in this period will be particularly welcomed. 

Proposals for papers of 15-20 minutes should be sent to or by August 25.

Dunstan pinching the devil's nose
Courtesy of British Library