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

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

søndag 12. oktober 2014

The Secret Life of Beavers

The beavers (castor) is so named from being castrated. Beavers are hunted for their testicles, which are good for medicine; when a hunter comes near they bite off their testicles to save themselves.
- Etymologies, Isidore of Seville
(quote from here)

[The beaver] puts more trust in paths through the water than through the earth
- Historia Norwegie (translated by Peter Fisher)

The myth of the self-castrating beaver is very old and can be found already in the fables of Aesop. Through the conduit of the ancient writers like Pliny the Elder and Cicero, this legend remained vibrant in the Middle Ages and were repeated by such various figures and the encyclopedically minded Isidore, the admonitory Bernard of Clairvaux and the journalistic Gerald of Wales – not to mention the numerous bestiaries. The latter has brought us one of the most expansive and detailed accounts of the life of the beaver in his Journey Through Wales. In this blogpost, however, I will present an account of the beaver as rendered in the anonymous 12th-century Historia Norwegie.

Beaver escaping the hunter
MS Royal 12 C XIX, 1st quarter of 13th century, English bestiary
Courtesy of British Library
The History of Norway, or Historia Norwegie, was written sometime in the 12th century. The Norwegian medievalist Inger Ekrem favours an early date, placing it in the first half of the 12th century, before the establishment of the Archbishopric of Nidaros (modern-day Trondheim) in 1152/53.(1) The most recent translator, Peter Fisher, favours instead the third quarter of the 12th century. (2) It falls beyond the scope of the present blogpost to engage in this discussion, but it is important to keep in mind that this work, which survives in an incomplete form, makes the claim to be the first Latin history of Norway. This claim, to my recollection, is not countered by Theodericus Monachus, who wrote his Historia de Antiquitate Regum Norwagiensium sometime in the period 1177-89. There are many fascinating things to say about Historia Norwegie, and in future blogposts I hope to do so. Presently, however, I will confine myself to the account of beavers given in chapter four of book 1, a chapter chiefly concerned with Finns. The translation is by Peter Fisher, printed in Inger Ekrem and Lars Boje Mortensen (eds.), Historia Norwegie, Museum Tusculanum Press, 2003.

BL MS Royal 12 F XIII, 2nd quarter of 13th century, English bestiary
Courtesy of British Library
This last creature is astonishingly wary and because it is often pursued by hunters with their hounds, it digs itself three underground tunnels leading to the water. As the water rises it keeps to the middle or the upper one, but as the level subsides and the dogs get near, it sets a slave at one entrance, leaving it to confront the pack, while it seeks the lowest lurking-place with its female and pups as if this were its home, since from that point there lies easier access to the water. It puts more trust in paths through the water than through the earth. When the beavers have sweated a good deal gathering their winter provisions, they saw round lofty elms with their teeth (they are particularly fond of chewing the bark of this tree), and load the wood on to one of their slaves, who lies on his back holding a log between his forepaws; in this way, using him as a cart, they drag home a large stack of timber, for by gripping the log with their jaws on each side, they help to drag their porter along. You see, there is a certain menial type of beaver, very poorly valued, whose fur is worn quite threadbare through the incessant repetition of this drudgery.
Besançon - BM - ms. 0551, 13th century, Miracles de Notre Dame by Gautier de Coinci
Courtesy of enluminures

This account is in certain ways similar to that of Gerald of Wales, and both draw on commonplace ideas of how beavers live. One of the perhaps most interesting distinctions, is that while Gerald invokes three sources for his knowledge – Cicero, Isidore of Seville and Bernard of Clairvaux – the anonymous author of Historia Norwegie does not mention any source to this knowledge. Furthermore, both these authors remarks that some beavers are used as vessels for timber, but while Gerald notes that these live vessels are “obeying the dictates of nature” when they give themselves up as rafts (quoted here). The anonymous author of Historia, however, calls them slaves and presents a hierarchy of labour in the world of the beavers, a hierarchy emphasised by the role of some beavers as dispensable when danger lurks. Most significantly, however, is that the anonymous author does not include the widely-circulated myth of the self-castrating beaver.

Although the author of Historia Norwegie presents an image of the beaver similar to much of what has been handed down by tradition, he also adds some traits whose sources are not clear. That he does not talk of the etymology of the beast and does not refer to its legendary self-castration, could suggest that his sources are not written as he neither confirms nor counters this belief. However, the many similarities between his account and that of Gerald of Wales is a strong argument against this. Whether he relies on oral accounts and eye-witnesses is probable, but can not be ascertained. Nonetheless, that this is included in an account of the many weird and wonderful things of the Northern part of Norway, gives us an interesting window into the minds of a twelfth-century writer.

Self-castrating disguised, as it seems, like a deer
 BL MS Sloane 4016, c.1440, Italian herbal
Courtesy of British Library

tirsdag 7. oktober 2014

Boccaccio's Sicily

On the road from the airport to Palermo

The hundred stories that comprise Bocaccio's Decameron take place in a wide variety of geographies, some of which are more frequently employed than others. Florence is featured in 25 stories which makes it the location most often used. This is only natural given the story-tellers have escaped from Florence and are themselves imbrued in the politics of the city (we learn in the seventh story of day 10 that one of the ladies is a ghibelline). Among the other locations most often referred to we find Paris, Genoa, Alexandria in Egypt and, naturally, Naples, where Boccaccio himself spent his youth attached to the court as a poet. Sicily features in eight of the stories, and is also referenced in a ninth, but not in a way that affects the story in any significant way. In these eight stories, Sicily is included in different ways, sometimes merely by an inclusion of a character of Sicilian origin, and other times it serves at the geographical setting. In this paper I argue that these eight stories can be categorised into to two overarching themes which show us how Boccaccio presents Italy to his audience. These themes are perhaps informed by Boccaccio's own experiences, he might have been informed by the prejudices of his time, or he might have been aware of the expectations his - largely Tuscan - audience had of Sicily.

The first grand theme I will present is the capricious nature of Sicilians, whom Boccaccio - drawing perhaps on established cultural stereotypes - seems not to have valued very highly. This theme informs five of the eight stories featuring Sicily, and it meets us already in the first story where Sicily mentioned in the Decameron, namely the fifth story of the second day. The subject for this day is people who meet with unexpected fortunes following a series of hardships and unfortunate events. The story in question is set in Naples and follows the misfortunes of Andreuccio, from his fall into a latrine until the delightful conclusion to his adventurers as a grave-robber. However, the catalyst of these misfortunes is a young Sicilian woman, described as very pretty and willing to be genteel towards anyone who would offer a small montary recompense. She, aided by an elderly Sicilian woman, pretends to be Andreuccio's half-sister in order to rob him for his money.

A very similar expression of the capriciousness of Sicilians can be found in the last story of day eight, a day whose subject is the tricks humans play on each other. The trickster is here another Sicilian woman, described by the narrator as just like the other Sicilian ladies, who can hardly be called friends of virtue. This woman robs a merchant of his wares and casts him into calamity, only to be fooled by him in return.  

From the monastery of St John in the Desert, Palermo

However, the capricious nature of Sicilians is also expressed in other ways than pure con-artistry. On the sixth story of the fifth day - a day whose subject is lovers who undergo hardships before attaining happiness - we are told of a Neapolitan girl who is abducted by a group of Sicilian merchants. Because they cannot decide which of them should have her as mistress, and because they fear the jealousy of each other, they give the girl to King Frederick II. This is more of a romance than a picaresque story, but the catalyst is once more the capriciousness of Sicilians. A similar kind of capriciousness is crucial to one of the most iconic tragedies in the Decameron, namely the fifth story of day four, a day whose subject is unhappiness in love. This is the story of the girl who keeps the head of her lover in a pot of basil, a story set in Messina. Her lover has been brutally murdered by the girl's brothers, and she waters the basil with her tears every day. 

Isabella, or The Pot of Basil
William Holman Hunt after Keats, inspired by Boccaccio
Courtesy of Wikimedia

The fifth story to portray the capricious nature of Sicilians is one which combines the two grand themes concerning Sicily in the Decameron. This is the sixth story of day two and thus follows the story of Andreuccio. The historical background of the story is the end of the Hohenstaufen reign of Sicily by the defeat of King Manfred, the son of Frederick II. The story's protagonist is Beritola, the wife of King Manfred's viceregent in Sicily. Upon learning the news of King Manfred's defeat, Beritola's husband prepares to flee the island because he does not trust the dubious faithfulness of the Sicilians. His fears are well-founded, and this sets off a chain of events cast in the tradition of romance, and the story bears resemblance to such examples of the genre as Apollonius of Tyre and the Middle English romance Octavian. Beritola herself becomes a castaway, and in this way we meet with the second grand theme concerning Sicily in the Decameron. This second grand theme is Sicily as a frontier zone - both culturally and geographically - between Latin Christendom, the Muslim world and the Levant. This theme informs informs four of the eight stories, all of which - like the story of Beritola - are heavily indebted to the romance tradition.

The next story of this kind is told as the fourth story of day four and precedes the tragic tale of the head in the basil pot. We are here told of a Sicilian prince and a Tunisian princess who fall in love with each other through rumour, but without ever having met. This story is a tragedy, and the tragedy is facilitated by the fact that the Sicilian prince, in order to find his beloved, breaks a peace treaty with the kingdom of Tunis which his grandfather the king of Sicily has accepted. In this way, the theme of Sicily as a frontier zone is of crucial importance to the story, because it allows the prince and the princess to learn about each other, fall in love with each other and ultimately it brings about their deaths.

The monastery of St John in the Desert, Palermo

The next story of this kind is told as the fourth story of day four and precedes the tragic tale of the head in the basil pot. We are here told of a Sicilian prince and a Tunisian princess who fall in love with each other through rumour, but without ever having met. This story is a tragedy, and the tragedy is facilitated by the fact that the Sicilian prince, in order to find his beloved, breaks a peace treaty with the kingdom of Tunis which his grandfather the king of Sicily has accepted. In this way, the theme of Sicily as a frontier zone is of crucial importance to the story, because it allows the prince and the princess to learn about each other, fall in love with each other and ultimately it brings about their deaths.

The last story in which Sicily as a frontier zone is of importance, is the seventh story of the fifth day. This story tells about an Armenian boy who impregnates the daughter of his master and is sentenced to hang, only to be recognised by his father and saved. The crucial twist to this story is this topos of the reunion of estranged parent and child - one often employed by Boccaccio - and this twist is facilitated by Sicily's role as a trade centre. The Armenian boy is enslaved by Genoese pirates and sold to master Amerigo, a testament to Sicily's position on the frontier between east and west. 

From the Norman palatine chapel in Palermo

To conclude, although the eight stories in which Sicily is a crucial part are very diverse - containing immense tragedy, fantastic serendipity and human trickery - they nonetheless can be catalogued under these two main themes: the capricious nature of Sicilians and the place of Sicily as a frontier zone. The importance of these themes in the stories I've mentioned, suggest that it is no accident that Boccaccio employs Sicily in these ways. Rather, I suggest that these two themes allow us to understand Sicily's place in Boccaccio's worldview, or at least in the worldview of his Tuscan audience. To Boccaccio, Sicily was an exotic place, a frontierland where cultures met and sometimes clashed, but also a place where pirates docked and a place whose people - be they abducting merchants, homicidal brothers or untrustworthy women - could not be relied upon. These features, or themes, make Sicily a good backdrop for a story, but on the other hand there is little in these stories to recommend Sicily as a place for a holiday.

The Mediterranean seen from Cefalú

onsdag 1. oktober 2014

Notes on productive procrastination

Nick, this is not life experience, this is procrastination at the zoo.
- Winston Bishop, New Girl S02E09

One day, probably in 2012 while I was in my last year of my MA studies I overheard a student telling another student about the word procrastinate, except she called it "procrastrinate", and this novel information was received with what seemed to be amusement and perhaps also recognition. I consider this to be one of the most emblematic encounters I have had with student culture and its early 2010s zeitgeist. This is not to say that I consider my fellow students not to work hard - in fact most students probably work harder than I did during my MA - but at this time "procrastination" had become an emblem of academia, a household term, as it were. This was in no small part thanks to the popularity of PhD Comics, which despite being set in the sciences also resonated with the everyday life of students in the humanities. I remember several print-outs from this comic strip taped to the doors of the cubicles designated for MA students, and Facebook was full of links and updates. In a sense, procrastination appeared to be not only accepted but also expected of someone who wished to take part in the life of higher education. To me, at least, an ambitious MA student with hopes of advancing in the system, it seemed that I was obliged to spend time not being productive, and this was adopted into my MA studies quite early on. For me this was quite easy as both some of my friends and myself had often spent time socialising while we ought to have been working on our dissertation. The first term of the MA in particular, the autumn of 2010, we usually had two-hour breaks with short bouts of research thrown in between. We were already good at procrastination, although it was not until 2011, I believe, that we started to fully embrace the concept or to put the precise word to our way of not working. Around this time, when we adopted the culture of procrastination, it seemed as if many people did the same. This is only natural, as most people will probably have experienced that when you learn a new word you find significant, you suddenly start noticing this word all around you, as if the whole world was also having the same discovery.  

Tomorrow, tomorrow! the crows cry
Woodcut illustration from Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools, attributed to Albrecht Dürer
Courtesy of University of Houston
The central place of procrastination in academia is only natural. Much of the day of an MA or PhD student is spent in a small room perusing books or writing stuff on a computer. There is a certain monotony in this that invites escapism of sundry sorts, and if the day happens to be a bit unstructured, or if the progress is hampered by things like faulty or quarrelsome technology or books that are not as helpful as you had hoped, it is easy to fall into procrastination mode. There are various ways to go about this procrastination, and it is frightfully easy to find reasons to do so. In some cases, faux reasoning does not even get a chance to play its part, as it is also easy to merely descend into ennui while staring at your computer screen, blindly giving in to postponement and letting time pass you buy. Other times, you get a helping hand from fellow procrastinators who pick you up into its fold, and with whom you pick up others to form what Jorge Cham has termed the Vortex of Unproductivity.

Courtesy of Jorge Cham
Although it is terribly easy to give in to the sweet allures of procrastination, there are also ways to avoid it, or at the very least procrastinate in a way that is not entirely unproductive. One of the easiest ways to do this if you procrastinate with others is to turn your bacchanalia of not-working into an academic discussion of some kind. Most likely it will not be entirely relevant to your current research, but since it is always good for academics to root around a bit beyond their immediate concerns, such a discussion can be a good way to engage critically with something. If you are procrastinating in your office and left to your own devices, it can seem slightly more difficult to avoid the clutches of non-productivity, but only apparently. One of the tools to escape this is Twitter, either by entering into a discussion with members of its growing academic community, or by tweeting about your latest research that you are currently not doing. As a medievalist it is particularly easy to choose this route, as the medievalist section of Twitter is full of bright and interesting people and also has an interested lay audience, both of whom might be receptive to your reflections on some medieval topic. I for my part spent some of my procrastination time today tweeting about Saint Remigius, the apostle of the Franks, whose feast day is October 1st. This led me to rediscover parts of his legend that are somewhat relevant to my work, and it also allowed me to track down a few great medieval illuminations to attach to my tweets. While Remigius is both temporally and geographically far removed from my own focus on 12th-century Northern European cult of royal saints, he is nonetheless an important figure in the religious history of high-medieval France and its mythology of kingship. Remigius therefore makes for a good point of reference in the construction of sacred kingship, and my bout of procrastination became surprisingly akin to actual research.

An even better way - and I would argue the best way - to be productive while procrastinating is simply to read. This is not to say that any reading is productive procrastination, far from it, but for a medievalist - especially - there is a vast range of literature that can in some ways qualify as research. Academics are required to read widely in order to increase their horizon, and for scholars immersing themselves in the worldview of a culture separated from ours by centuries, it is particularly important to be aware of the complexity and the cultural heritage of that period. Furthermore, a medievalist should be interdisciplinary, so if you are tired of your own part of the field of medieval studies, it is easy enough to pick up an article or a blogpost that touches on medieval history but in a way different from your own. And if this seems too similar to actual work, it's easy enough to find a medieval text that might be far beyond your immediate research interest, but that still might give you some interesting knowledge that you might be able to employ later. Today, for instance, I indulged in Jerome's highly interesting account of Paul of Thebes. Since this is one of the oldest saint biographies, and one which concerns such a central figure in medieval history as Anthony of Egypt, it is a text with which I was required to be familiar. Carolinne White's excellent translation combined with its blissful brevity made it a quick read that also opened up for some reflections of themes such as the monastic renunciation of the world, or the various forms of suffering found in Christian martyrdoms. In other words: what started out as procrastination turned out to be some kind of productivity, and I came away with a clearer conscience.  

Anthony meeting the centaur
Francesco Guarino, 17th century
Courtesy of this website