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

onsdag 25. februar 2015

The Prince - by Derek Walcott

February is drawing to a close and since I will be practically offline for the remaining days, my final blogpost for this month is a short and very evocative poem by Derek Walcott, my favourite contemporary poet. I have on previous occasions posted other poems by him (here and here), and he is one of my go-to poets when I need something that's suitable for any occasion. 

Cosimo I de Medici in armour (c.1545)
By Agnolo Bronzino (1503-72)
Courtesy of Wikimedia

The Prince

Genderers of furies, crouching, slavering beasts
those paps that gave me suck! His dragonish scales
are velvet-sheated, even at those feasts
are coiling tongues. Lust has not soured
that milky stomach. Something more than love
myfather lacked which God will not approve:

a savage sundering sword, vile to the touch
breeding fidelity by its debauch.
Calm, she reclines on her maternal couch,
knitting revenge and lechery in my head.
I ease the sword, and, like her victim, quaking,
I, in my father, stalk my father's dread.

- Printed in The Castaway, 1969, Jonathan Cape ltd.

søndag 22. februar 2015

Santa Margherita da Cortona

Estasi di santa Margherita, Jacopo Alessandro Calvi (1740-1815)
(Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Today, February 22, is the feast-day of Margaret da Cortona (c.1247-97), and in this blogpost I wish to give a very brief overview of her life and posthumous reputation, which was caught up in the religious fervor of the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century vogue of sanctity, and she was at the same time a typical representative of this religiosity, and also in certain ways slightly at odds with the criteria of sainthood at that time.

Margaret’s life was shaped by her attempts to navigate between the many sorrows and misfortunes she became subject to. She was born to a family of farmers in Tuscany, and she lost her mother at a young age. Her father remarried, but Margaret was ill-treated by her stepmother, and it might have been this conflict which made her succumb to the seduction of Arsenio, a knight from Montepulciano whose mistress she was for nine years, and with whom she bore a son. The knight was in the end murdered and Margaret and her son returned to her father’s house, but since her stepmother convinced Margaret’s father not to take her back, she was forced to seek help among the Franciscans. She and her son were taken care of by two ladies apparently connected with the order, and in the next years Margaret undertook a long and harsh series of public penitence for her former life outside wedlock.

Margaret da Cortona making the devil weep
Gaspare Traversi (c.1722-70)

Typical of thirteenth-century ideals of holiness, Margaret performed several acts of mortification, but in abhorrence of her past – no doubt exacerbated by the emotional distress brought on by her family’s rejection – she even went so far as self-mutilation. She was also said to mistreat her son. After years in extreme penitence, Margaret was allowed into the Third Order of St. Francis and thus became a Franciscan tertiary, a typical feature of many of the saints of late medieval Italy. In her life as a tertiary, Margaret dedicated her time to nursing the poor, yet retained a life of austerity marked by a harsh diet, little sleep and mortification by a haircloth worn next to the skin. She founded the hospital of Santa Maria della Misericordia at Cortona, and in that city she also started preaching to call people to repentance after having had received a call to do so in one of her numerous visions. She appears to have been somewhat successful in her preaching, but despite her successes in her religious work, it appears she was the subject of much slander and opprobrium, which added to her distress.

Estasi di santa margherita da cortona, Giuseppe Maria Crespi (1665-1747)
Courtesy of Wikimedia

After her death, it was reported that cures were given at her tomb, and she is said to have “attracted visitors from other parts of Italy and even further afield” (Farmer 2004: 345). Her spiritual life was recorded in Legenda de vita et miraculis beatae Margharitae de Cortona, which was written by Giunta Bevignate, a friar minor and one of Margaret’s confessors, and this was commissioned by Giovanni da Castiglione, a friar minor who was also among her confessors and an inquisitor. In 1318 the commune of Cortona petitioned the Papal See for Margaret’s canonisation, but along with other religious women of the era – such as Angela di Foligno and Clare di Montefalco – the petitioned failed to gain approval. André Vauchez has suggested that this was because of Margaret’s connection to the Joachimite and vehement papal critic Ubertino da Casale (d.1330), who was exiled to a convent by Pope Benedict XI (Vauchez 2005: 76-77). However, it should be noted that the fact that she came from a humble origin and that she was not a virgin were also severe hindrances for her enrollment in the sanctorale, since these prerequisites were highly valued by the curia in this period.

Saint Margaret in penitence, Antonio Bresciani (1720-1817)
Courtesy of Wikimedia

Although Margaret never formally obtained an official papal confirmation of her sanctity, she seems to have been venerated in Cortona for centuries after her death. In 1515, the diocese of Cortona was allowed to celebrate her feast, but her formal canonization did not take place until 1728. Because of this, the 18th century saw a flourishing of art featuring Margaret, and she was rendered by several of Italy’s greatest artists. In much of her spiritual work Margaret fits well into the ideal of female religiosity of the thirteenth century, but in her excessive penitence and her troubled past which did not align with the ideals of life-long purity in late-medieval sainthood, she was also untypical of the many women venerated as saints in Italy at that time.

Saint Margaret of Cortona, Giovanni Battista Piazzetta (1682/83-1754)
Courtesy of Wikimedia

For other late-medieval Italian female saints, see the following blogposts:

Fina di San Gimignano

Verdiana di Castelfiorentino


Farmer, David, Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 2004

Vauchez, André, Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages, translated by Jean Birrell, Cambridge University Press, 2005

torsdag 12. februar 2015

Humilitas Christi - the washing of feet in medieval hagiography

Christ washing the feet of his disciples
Royal 2 B III, psalter, Netherlands, minatures from 2nd or 3rd quarter of 13th Century
Courtesy of British Library

Today I have been teaching on Sulpicius Severus’ Life of Martin, and we had a look at the ways in which Saint Martin imitated Christ. One of these ways was Martin’s performance of humility by washing the feet of his visitors, thus imitating Christ’s humility as he washed the feet of his disciples (cf. John 13:1-17). Martin performs this imitation Christi in two ways. The first episode we encounter is where he, while still an unbaptised soldier, reverses the hierarchy in the relationship between him and his slave, and Sulpicius Severus tells us that “it was usually Martin who pulled his slave’s boots off and cleaned them, and when they took their meals together it was often Martin who served at table” (II.5, translated by Carolinne White). Towards the end of the book, Sulpicius tells of his own meeting with the aged Martin, then bishop of Tours, and the link with Christ becomes clearer as we are told that Martin “himself brought water to was our hands. In the evening he washed our feet himself and we did not have the courage to resist or refuse” (XXV.3, translated by Carolinne White).
Christ washing the feet of his disciples
Egerton 1139, Psalter, Jerusalem, between 1131 and 1143
Courtesy of British Library

The washing of feet is in Christian thought seen as one of the ultimate signs of Christ’s humility. In medieval monasteries, it entered the liturgy during the Easter celebration. The liturgical calendar, strictly observed at all monasteries, is divided into the sanctorale, the celebration of saints, and the temporale, the commemoration of the life and times of Christ. These two liturgical layers run parallel, and the tempora Christi are re-enacted in the monastic liturgy. As part of this re-enactment it was customary to invite twelve beggars into church and feed them and to have the high clergy wash their feet.
Christ washing the feet of his disciples
Harley 1810, Eastern Mediterranean, last quarter of 12th century or first half of 13th Century
Courtesy of British Library

This ritual of imitation is sometimes also found in hagiography, where the washing of feet is used to illustrate the virtue of humility, a virtue expected of all Christians and all saints, but perhaps particularly from the more high-born, in keeping with the Gospel text from Luke stating that those who put themselves high shall be brought low and vice versa.

Christ washing the feet of his disciples
Lansdowne 420, psalter, England, 1st quarter of the 13th Century
Courtesy of British Library

One example of this episode in a hagiographic context can be found in Bede’s life of St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. In chapter five Bede recounts how Cuthbert performed his office as guestmaster at the monastery of Ripon, and how Cuthbert had been tested by God in the following way:

Going out in the early morning from the inner buildings of the monastery to the guests’ chamber, he found a certain youth sitting within, and, thinking that he was of the race of men, he speedily welcomed him with accustomed kindness. He gave him water to wash his hands; he washed his feet and wiped them with a towel and placed them in his bosom so as to chafe them humbly with his hands; and asked him to wait until the third hour of the day and be refreshed with food”
- Bede, Vita Sancti Cuthberti, translated by Bertram Colgrave (Colgrave 1969: 179)

Cuthbert washing the feet of an angel
Yates Thompson 26, Prose life of Cuthbert, Durham, last quarter of 12th Century
Courtesy of British Library

The guest turns out to be an angel of the Lord, and for his kindness in his imitation Christi, Cuthbert is rewarded with loaves of heavenly bread which “excel the lily in whiteness, the rose in fragrance, and honey in taste.”

The exercise of humility was, as stated, a highly valued virtue in the saints. In the case of royal saints, the humility and the spurning of the world were emphasised with a typical monastic flair for irony. In the case of Louis IX of France (d.1270, can.1297), his humility was one of the primary virtues for which he was praised during the long canonisation proceedings. In his proper imitation of humilitas Christi, Louis washed the feet of three poor men. This episode can be found in one of the earliest hagiographies about Louis, written in the 1270s by the royal confessor Geoffrey of Beaulieu:

It was his practice on any given Saturday to wash the feet of the three of the poorer and older men who could be found, which he did on bended knee, humbly, piously, and in a most secret place. After washing, he dried their feet and humbly kissed them. In similar fashion he brought water to wash their hands, which he kissed in the same way. He then provided a certain sum of money to each, and he himself waited upon them as they ate.
- Geoffrey of Beaulieu, The Life and Saintly Comportment of Louis, Former King of the Franks, of Pious Memory, translated by Larry Field (Gaposchkin and S. Field 2014: 77

Louis serving the poor
Royal 16 G VI, Chroniques de France ou de St Denis, France, between 1332 and 1350
Courtesy of British Library

Geoffrey then adds another episode to the chapter:

[O]nce on a certain Sabbath, when he was at the Abbey of Clairvaux, he desired to take part in the washing of the feet of the monks, which they call the “mandate.” That is, according to the custom of their order, after Vespers, the monks wash each other’s feet with solemn devotion. The king himself, out of humility, many times wished to lay aside his cloak and humbly wash the feet of the servants of God with his own hands, on bended knees.
- Geoffrey of Beaulieu, The Life and Saintly Comportment of Louis, Former King of the Franks, of Pious Memory, translated by Larry Field (Gaposchkin and S. Field 2014: 78

Geoffrey here hammers home that Louis was a man of exceptional humility, and he concludes his chapter by saying “I do not know if there was another person of his station who was his equal in all the world.”

These episodes are just a few of the many examples of the importance of the foot-washing ritual in Christian hagiography, and the primacy of humility that was one of the many constants in medieval moral theology. The case of Louis IX also illustrates that to the persons of royal birth, it was necessary for them to subvert that hierarchy by which they were given the power to rule if they were to be worthy of a place in the sanctorale.

fredag 6. februar 2015

Saint Edmund the Ring-giver – SS Edmund and Edward in the later Middle Ages

I’m currently doing some reading in Legenda Aurea, the Dominican Jacobus de Voragine’s great compendium of saints’ legends and other liturgical feasts, designed to be a reference book for homilists. Jacobus compiled these stories in the 1260s and relied on a wide range of Christian authors, often citing contradicting views on certain matters as a summary of the views held by previous authors. Legenda Aurea is first and foremost a conservative compilation, since it contains only five saints from Jacobus’ own time or the preceding century. Four of these modern saints are connected with the vogue of mendicant sanctity that dominated the religious sentiments of the Latin Mediterranean in the thirteenth century. These are the mendicant founders Francis (d.1226) and Dominic (d.1221), the Dominican friar and martyr Peter of Verona (d.1252) and the Franciscan tertiary Elizabeth of Hungary (d.1231). The last of the modern saints is Thomas Becket (d.1170) whose martyrdom in Canterbury cathedral Jacobus erroneously dates to 1174, the year after his canonization by Pope Alexander III.

This incorrect date suggests that although Jacobus was extremely well-read and could draw references from a long and impressive list of sources, his knowledge of English material was quite sparse. Jacobus’ lack of familiarity with English hagiography becomes all the more apparent when you compare his original work with the adaptations from thirteenth- and fourteenth-century England such as the Gilte Legende, the South English Legendary and the Nova Legenda Anglie. Considering that Jacobus probably envisioned only a relatively local circulation of his work, his lack of English material is neither surprising nor something that merits rebuke, but it does result in the occasional misinformation, such as the year of Becket’s death.

Another piece of information is an interesting anecdote appended to his chapter on St John the Apostle. Jacobus writes (in William Granger Ryan’s American translation):

Saint Edmund [of East Anglia], king of England, never refused anyone who asked a favor in the name of Saint John the Evangelist. Thus it happened one day when the royal chamberlain was absent that a pilgrim importuned the king in the saint’s name for an alms [sic]. The king, having nothing else at hand, gave him the precious ring from his finger. Some time later an English soldier on overseas duty received the ring from the same pilgrim, to be restored to the king with the following message: “He for whose love you gave this ring sends it back to you.” Hence it was obvious that Saint John had appeared to him in the guise of a pilgrim.

'Cy seynt Edward dona un anel a Iohan le ewangelist'
Yates Thompson 13, English book of hours, 2nd quarter of the 14th Century
Courtesy of British Library

'Cy sein Johan le ewangelist vient a seint edward p[ur] demaund[er] acun bien pur lam[ur] de deu'
Yates Thompson 13, English book of hours, 2nd quarter of the 14th Century
Courtesy of British Library

This anecdote is significant for several reasons. First of all because it shows an interesting confluence of two of high-medieval England’s most important saints: Edmund of East Anglia and Edward the Confessor. The story of the king giving his ring to Saint John in disguise belongs to the legend of Edward the Confessor and is perhaps one of the most famous miracles from his hagiographies. It first appears in Aelred of Rievaulx’s Vita Sancti Edwardi Regis, a work written for the translation of Edward’s body in 1163, and which was commissioned by Lawrence, abbot of Westminster. The ring became Edward’s main attribute and remained so throughout the Middle Ages, as seen below from a calendar page from the early 1400s.

Edward the Confessor holding his ring, oddly placed at March 18
Harley 2332, Almanac with astrological miscellany, England, 15th century (before 1412)
Courtesy of British Library

Jacobus’ attribution of this episode to the legend of St Edmund is also significant because it allows us a glimpse of the close relationship between those cults from the twelfth century onwards. Edmund had been venerated as a saint since the late ninth century, and his cult centre had been at Bury St Edmunds from the start. In the second half of the eleventh century and onwards, the cult of St Edmund experienced an increased literary output of hagiographical and liturgical material. A new, proper, liturgical office was composed between 1065 and 1087, and Herman the Archdeacon wrote De Miracula Sancti Edmundi c.1100. In the literature of Bury’s long twelfth century, King Edward the Confessor – universally respected in English history – was invoked as one of Edmund’s devotees, and as a just king who granted the abbey many valuable charters. The generosity of Edward was a recurring feature, appearing both in Herman’s De Miracula and Jocelin’s late-twelfth-century Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds.

Edward the Confessor was not canonised until 1161 and his cult was a product of Westminster Abbey and the political interests of King Henry II. Edward’s cult had a brief but intense first period of popularity which rapidly diminished at the explosive growth of the cult of Thomas Becket in the 1170s. Becket’s cult did not affect the cult of Edmund in the same way, much thanks to Bury being a thriving literary centre, and brief anecdotes in late-twelfth-century historiographies – such as Benedict of Peterborough’s Gesta Henrici II and Ralph Coggeshall’s Chronicon Anglicanum – suggests that Edmund enjoyed a much wider and more stable veneration than did Edward.

Martyrdom of St Edmund
Yates Thompson 13, English book of hours, 2nd quarter of the 14th Century
Courtesy of British Library

From the thirteenth century onwards, the two royal saints began to appear together in both art and literature. We don’t know which is the earliest example of this. Edward and Edmund – along with two others – are both listed among England’s peaceable kings in the anonymous Anglo-Norman Le Estoire de Seint Aedward le Rei from the 1240s, and in the late 1300s William Langland states in Piers Plowman that Edmund and Edward were both followed by the personification of Charity. To name some of the examples of these two appearing together in art, we have a glass cycle in Amiens from c.1280, and perhaps the most famous instance of them all, the Wilton Diptych where they appear together with John the Baptist as patron for the young Richard II.

The Wilton Diptych
Edmund and Edward both displaying their most well-known attributes
Courtesy of Wikimedia

In all these instances mentioned above the pairing of Edmund of Edward have been done deliberately, while in Jacobus’ Legenda Aurea the two saints have blended together by mistake. The interesting question is whether this mistake was owing to Jacobus’ own faulty memory, having heard the story from one of the many English pilgrims in Italy and then confused the characters, or whether the story was transmitted to Jacobus in the way he recorded it. In any case, the faulty attribution of the miracle of the ring to Edmund of East Anglia, suggests that by the latter half of the thirteenth century, the two royal patrons of England may already have begun to be paired together, not only in art and literature but also in the common imagination.


Anonymous, Le Estoire de Seint Aedward le Rei, translated by Thelma Fenster and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, ACMRS Press, 2008

Aelred of Rievaulx, The Life of Saint Edward, King and Confessor, translated by Jane Patricia Freeland and published in Dutton, Marsha (ed.), Aelred of Rievaulx: The Historical Works, Cistercian Publications, 2005

Herman the Archdeacon, The Miracles of St Edmund, translated by Tom Licence, Clarendon Press, 2014

Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea, translated by William Granger Ryan, Princeton University Press, 2012

Jocelin of Brakelond, Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, translated by Diana Greenway and Jane Sayers, Oxford World Classics, 2008

Langland, William, The Vision of Piers Plowman, translated by Schmidt, Everyman, 1995