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

søndag 29. mars 2015

Scenes from a Norwegian Palm Sunday

Among the many peculiarities of the Norwegian Volksgeist is a strange, borderline unhealthy relationship with snow. When the first snowfall of the season comes we usually curse it very loudly and fall prey to the slippery roads caused by it, even though we have experienced the situation every past year and will continue to experience it in the years to come. It is as if we live in a state of perennial denial, refusing to believe in the dangerous qualities of snow until they cause us trouble. Then, when the snow has set on the ground and we are reconciled with the novelty of the situation, we celebrate snow by watching winter sports on TV and wishing for a white Christmas, even though that white Christmas often results in agonisingly slow traffic and risk of power failure. When all this wintry wondering has been going on for a while, when Easter is approaching and we sense that the now-familiar snow is about to disappear, we migrate en masse to the mountains to make sure that we stay in winter for one more week. It is this adoration of snow that made a Norwegian humorist to suggest that Norway was first inhabited by the tribe idiot who, when he saw the ice receding from Schleswig-Holstein or Britain, decided to follow the familiar element and keep close to the ice-rim at all times.

My family has fortunately not subscribed to these antics, but this Palm Sunday we nonetheless decided to take a short hike up the valley where we live, even though that meant leaving the bare fields behind in favour of snow-covered mires and ice-covered waters. Below are a few scenes from this trip, as a conclusion to the March series of blogposts, showing parts of my home village in all its late-March bleakness and beauty.

The shieling belonging to our ancestral farm and our neighbours

(foss = waterfall)

Downriver from the waterfall

(vatn = lake, but also water)

Back at the river, where people used to fish in the fifties

Traces from the old highway, its roadside stones still intact

A mouse's lodging unroofed by the thaw

tirsdag 24. mars 2015

Two fleas - Saint Macarius and John Donne

Since the past few days have entailed and will entail quite a lot of travelling for me, I will in this blogpost very briefly present two very different historical snippets, both concerning fleas.

The first flea can be found in Legenda Aurea by Jacobus de Voragine, as part of an anecdote about the great desert father Macarius of Egypt (c.300-90), founder of a monastery in Scetis in Egypt, whose feast-day is January 15. The best known accounts of Macarius are in the collections of stories known as Apothegmata Patrum or Sayings of the Desert Fathers, and Vitae Patrum or Lives of the Desert Fathers. However, it doesn't seem that Jacobus knew these collection sfrom first-hand experience, as there are several anecdotes in the themwhich are not included in the Legenda. For instance, in Vitae Patrum we are told how Macarius healed the blindness of a hyena's puppy, and how as a reward the hyena brought Macarius a sheepskin for him to sleep on.

A further indication that Jacobus did not draw on these collections is the anecdote of the flea, which is not found in either. In Legenda Aurea the story goes as follows:

Fresco of St Macarius, by Theophanes the Greek (1340-1410) from 1378
Church of the Transfiguration on Ilina Street, Veliky Novgorod
Courtesy of Wikimedia

Once a flea bit Macarius and he killed it with his hand, and a great deal of blood came out of it. As a punishment for having so avenged the injury done him he lived naked in the desert for six months and came out with bites and scabs all over his body. After that he fell asleep in the Lord, renowned for his many virtues.

- Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea (translated by William Granger-Ryan)

Excerpt from the Aberdeen Bestiary on "Lice, fleas and ticks"
Aberdeen University Library MS 24, f72v
, English bestiary, c.1200
Courtesy of Aberdeen University Library

The second flea is a poem composed by John Donne at the turn of the sixteenth century, and the text is taken from Bartleby. Donne's poem is in marked contrast to the anecdote of Macarius, because although both are concerned with the negative consequences of killing a flea, John Donne's poem is an erotic argument whose purpose would be horrifying to the lover of chastity Macarius. The poem is typical of Donne's clever verbal play in which metaphors for love and sex are drawn from objects, animals and even geographical abstractions. It was this quality that made Samuel Johnson baptise this style of poetry – very popular throughout the seventeenth century – “metaphysical poetry”.

MARK but this flea, and mark in this,

How little that which thou deniest me is;

It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee, 

And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.

Thou know’st that this  cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead;

  Yet this enjoys before it woo,

  And pamper’d swells with one blood made of two;

  And this, alas! is more than we would do.

O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.

This flea is you and I, and this

Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.

Though parents grudge, and you, we’re met,

And cloister’d in these living walls of jet.
  Though use make you apt to kill me,

  Let not to that self-murder added be,

  And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since

Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,

Except in that drop which it suck’d from thee?

Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou

Find’st not thyself nor me the weaker now.

  ’Tis true; then learn how false fears be;
  Just so much honour, when thou yield’st to me,

  Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.


Burrow, Colin (ed.), Metaphysical Poetry, Penguin Classics, 2013

Farmer, David, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004

Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, translated by William Granger-Ryan, Princeton University Press, 2012

Russell, Norman (ed. and transl.), Lives of the Desert Fathers, Cistercian Publications, 1980

Ward, Benedicta (ed. and transl.), Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Cistercian Publications, 1975

torsdag 12. mars 2015

Edward the Confessor and the Nightingales

 The nightingales in Haveringatte-Bower
Sang out their loves so loud, that Edward’s prayers
Were deafen’d and he pray’d them dumb
- Alfred Lord Tennyson, Harold, Act I, Scene II

Edward the Confessor occupies a big place in English history and folklore, both because of his office as king of England and because of his role as one of England’s royal saints. As a consequence, there are several legends about him that have been in circulation throughout the centuries. One story claims that he aided Harold Godwinsson in the Battle of Stamford, while another, and one of the most widely famous of these legends, states that he gave his ring to a beggar who turned out to be John the Evangelist . We will return to this latter legend later on, but the main focus of this blogpost is another and much more recent story.

Wooden statue of Edward the Confessor, uncertain date but possibly Victorian
Note the bird on the sceptre - possibly a nightingale

In his play Harold, Alfred Lord Tennyson presents a dramatised account of the Norman Conquest centred around the figure of Harold Godwinsson. In Act I, Harold meets with his sister Edith, Edward the Confessor’s wife, and as Harold enters the stage he recounts the brief anecdote quoted above. The story goes that Edward, who was more of a monk than a king according to the very first biography of him, Vita Ædwardi (c.1070), spent his night in prayer and meditation. One night he was at Havering, the nightingales sang so loudly that they disturbed his prayers and so he prayed that they would be quiet. Since Edward had God’s attention, the nightingales turned silent.

We don’t know how old this legend is, but evidence suggests that it is not very old as far as legends go, and the earliest recorded instance is said to date from the seventeenth century, according to AHistory of the County of Wessex. There is no trace of it in the Latin vitae of Edward that were written during the Middle Ages, and nor can it be found in the historiographical or vernacular material – at least to my knowledge.  The earliest account seems to stem from the early modern period. Historian Deb Martin notes that a local legend – recorded by Essex historian Philip Morant in 1768 – claimed that after this incident, the nightingales never dared to sing in Havering again. By the 19th century, this legend seems to have passed into historiographical tradition, as we see in David Hughson’s London from 1809. Here, Hughson notes that Havering Bower “was the seat of some of the Saxon kings; particularly of Edward the Confessor, who took great delight in it, as being woody, solitary, and fit for devotion” (Hughson 1809, vol. VI: 195). He then goes on to quote the legend, and repeats the story recorded by Montagu that since then the nightingales had stopped singing in that place.

The story of Edward and the nightingales is a curious one, and even though we can’t say for certain when the nightingales at Havering entered the legendary of the Confessor, we can see in this story the conflation of two motifs from medieval folklore.

The first motif is that of animals being silenced by a saint. Many saints are said to have had command over animals, and this motif is found already in Athanasius’ Life of Antony in which we read how Antony of Egypt ordered animals to stay out of his vegetable garden. This was the foundation for the later version of Antony’s life in which it was said that he had a pet-pig, who became his primary iconographical attribute. A later example of this motif can be found in the legend of St Francis of Assisi, who was said to not only command birds but even locusts. In Legenda Aurea, Jacobus de Voragine records the following incident (translated by William Granger-Ryan): “He preached to the birds and they listened to him; he taught them and they did not fly away without his permission. When swallows were chattering when he was preaching, he bade them be silent and they obeyed” (Jacobus de Voragine 2012: 611). Whether there is a connection between this story and that of St Edward and the nightingales is beyond conjecture, but it is nonetheless interesting to see this motif recur in two such different settings.

Antony and his pet-pigs
MS Royal 2 A XVIII, early-fifteenth-century prayerbook
Courtesy of British Library

The second motif at play comes singularly from the legendary of Edward the Confessor, namely his connection to Havering. In 1809, Hughson stated that Havering had been a royal residence and that Edward had spent time there. Whether the Confessor ever did spend much time at Havering can not be ascertained, even though Hughson quotes the Domesday Book as marking Havering as a feudum of the king. The earliest known record of Edward staying at Havering comes from John Hardyng’s chronicle of 1437, where he states that Havering was the setting for the legend of St Edward’s ring. Hardyng’s treatment of the episode goes as follows:

In his forest, as he pursued a dere,
In Essex, a palmer with hym met,
Askyng hym good, whome gladly he dyd here,
He claue his ryng and in sonder it bette,
The halfe of whiche he gaue without lette
To the palmer that went awaye anone,
That other good to geue [hym] there had [he] none

But after that full longe and many [a] daye,
Two pylgrames came vnto that noble kynge,
And sayde, saint Iohn thappostell in pore araye
Vs prayed, and bad straytly aboue all thing,
To you present and take this halfe golde rynge,
Which ye gaue hym of almesse and charyte,
And bade vs say that right sone ye should him se:

Whiche ryng he set together there anone,
And that ylke place he called ay after Hauerynge,
And that same place where they it braste alone
He called by after that ryme Claueryng,
In Essex be bothe fayre standynge,
Where that he made two churches of saint Iohn
Theuangelyst, and halowed were anon
- The Chronicle of Iohn Hardyng, edited by Henry Ellis, printed in London, 1812: 232

Edward holding his ring
Statue of uncertain date, St Albans
Couresy of this website

Hardyng’s account is interesting in many ways. First of all, he introduces the novel idea that Edward broke the ring in two rather than giving it unbroken to the beggar (which is how it happens in Aelred of Rievaulx’s Vita Sancti Ædwardi (1163), the earliest source to mention this). Secondly, Hardyng states that Edward was hunting when he first met the Evangelist. This is significant in that it is a feature absent from the Latin hagiographical tradition, but it is included in William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum, in which a hunting episode becomes an illustration of the king’s calm temper (William of Malmesbury 1998: 348-49).

In the chronicle of John Hardyng, no reference is made to nightingales, only his connection to Havering. We don’t know when the nightingales first enter the stage, or what was the origin of the legend. One likely source, however, is the Confessor’s coat of arms, which was a golden gross on a blue background surrounded by five gold martlets.

The supposed coat-of-arms of Edward the Confessor
Courtesy of Wikimedia

This coat of arms did not exist in the time of the Confessor, but was believed to have been his coat of arms in the fourteenth century. Therefore, when Richard II merged his own coat of arms with that believed to be the Confessor’s, the result was as follows.

Richard II's coat-of-arms, 1395-99
Courtesy of Wikimedia

The trajectory from Hardyng’s chronicle to the legend recorded by Montague, Hughson and Tennyson can not be recovered, but in the medieval texts and iconography we have seen here we might perceive at least the origin of this charming story.

For more on Edward the Confessor see these blogposts:

Overview of his cult

Edward in stained glass at Ickford

The celebration of his feast day


Primary Sources

Aelred of Rievaulx, The Life of Saint Edward, King and Confessor, translated by Jane Patricia Freeland, printed in Dutton, Marsha (ed.), Aelred of Rievaulx: The Historical Works, Cistercian Publications, 2005: 123-244

Evagrius, Life of Antony by Athanasius, translated by Carolinne White, printed in White, Carolinne (ed.), Early Christian Lives, Penguin Classics, 1998: 1-70

Hughson, David, London, Stratford, 1809

Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, translated by William Granger Ryan, Princeton University Press, 2012

John Hardyng, The Chronicle of Iohn Hardyng, edited by Henry Ellis, London, 1812

Tennyson, Alfred Lord, Harold

William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, translated by R. A. B. Mynors, Clarendon Press, 1998

Secondary sources

Baker, Arthur, A Tennyson Dictionary, Haskell House Publishers, 1916

'Parishes: Havering-atte-Bower', in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 7, ed. W R Powell (London, 1978), pp. 9-17 [accessed 9 March 2015].



mandag 2. mars 2015

Debating Jews and Pagans - Rhetorical prowess as Imitatio Christi

This spring I’m teaching a course on texts from the medieval cult of saints. I’ve designed the course myself, which has allowed me complete freedom in the selection of texts for the syllabus, and through this course I aim to acquaint my students with the variety of medieval literature, and the tropes of medieval hagiography. The most important of these tropes is the omnipresent imitatio Christi, the various ways in which the saint emulated the life and teachings of Christ. This is an old trope that had its origin already in Luke’s account of the martyrdom of Stephen in the Acts of the Apostles, and it was a compulsory feature in every hagiographical account – although it was rendered in various ways.

These first weeks we have lingered in the early centuries of Christian literature, and we have spent a lot of time on early virgin martyrs such as Agatha, Lucy and of course Catherine of Alexandria. In class I have challenged the students to identify the various forms of imitato Christi, and I’ve been very pleased with how quickly the students have adapted to this way of analysing texts. However, I recently became aware of one form of imitatio Christi which I had overlooked, and perhaps as expiation for this negligence, I intend to talk a bit about it here.

I realised my omission when I came across an illumination from a French book of hours. The illumination was tweeted by Professor Johan Oosterman, and, as seen below, it depicts Christ disputing with the elders in the temple.


Christ disputing in the temple
 BnF NAL3093, Très belles Heures de Notre-Dame, 1375-1400, f80
Courtesy of Gallica BnF

The illumination presents a story told to us in the Gospel of Luke 2:41-52, where Joseph and Mary lose track of their child during a visit to Jerusalem, and find him in the temple (NIV): After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers (Luke 2:46-47). This anecdote serves to illustrate the superiority of Christ’s teaching over the misguided teachings of the Jewish elders, and this is a recurring topic in the Gospels, perhaps most poignantly expressed in Matthew 7:28-29 (NIV): When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

Christ disputing
MS Royal 2 B VII, English psalter, between 1310 and 1320
Courtesy of British Library

To conquer those of a different faith through debate is a recurring topic in hagiography, and appears already in the Acts of the Apostles. From Acts 6:8-7:53 we are told how Stephen championed Christianity before the Jewish council after he had been turned in by a group of Jews. The episode is a conglomerate of Christ disputing with the elders in the temple and Christ before the Jewish Sanhedrin, the council, as recounted in the passion story. In this way, Stephen’s imitation Christi is twofold, and his imitation reaches a third and ultimate point in his martyrdom. This is not to say that the episode is fictitious or that it is doctored by Luke to correspond to the life of Christ, but to a medieval reader of hagiography, it is very likely that this amalgamation would have been evident. Stephen’s debate is also the centre point of Jacobus de Voragine’s account of him in Legenda Aurea.

Martyrdom of St Stephen, the most famous scene from the Acts of the Apostles
Paris - Bibl. Sainte-Geneviève - ms. 0102, f.312v, Sacramentarium, Use of Paris, c.1270
Courtesy of Enluminures

Another early Christian account of a debate between a saint and representatives of a different faith is found in Athanasius’ Life of Antony (mid-fourth-century), the first hagiography of Antony of Egypt, an account which was also widely disseminated in the Latin world thanks to Evagrius’ translation. In chapter 72 of Evagrius’ translation and onwards through chapter 80, Antony’s rhetorical prowess is demonstrated through various monologues against pagan philosophers who sought him out in his desert lodgings. The account opens with the following comment: “[Antony] was also remarkably wise: considering that he had no education it was amazing how very clever and shrewd he was” (White 1998: 53). Antony’s uneducated thwarting of pagan philosophy is a logical result of the promise of Christ found in Matthew 10:19-20, where it is stated that during persecutions the Holy Ghost will speak through the persecuted, and it is this divine aid that allows Antony to render the pagans “struck with wonder and amazement” (White 1998:59).

Antony, hopefully not debating his pet-pig
Aix-en-Provence - BM - ms. 0016, p.279, Book of Hours, Use of Paris, c.1480-1490
Courtesy of Enluminures

The debate against non-Christian is also an important feature of the legend of Pope Sylvester. Sylvester is most famous for his baptism of Constantine after the emperor had been cured of leprosy, and for his battle against a dragon deep in the recesses beneath Rome. In the account of his life in Legenda Aurea, however, the major feature is his debate against the Jews, a debate that brings about the conversion of Helena, Constantine’s mother. The debate is arranged as a duel, where the Christian doctors are set to debate with 161 of the most learned men of the Jews” (Jacobus de Voragine 2012: 65) under the auspices of pagan judges, and if one debater fails to counter the arguments of the other, he must step down and leave the scene for another on his team. Sylvester is the first Christian contender, and in due course he conquers the twelve most brilliant Jews – presumably a representative for each of the twelve Jewish tribes. The contest ends not with rhetorical defeat, but in a stand-down of miracles, in which Sylvester brings a bull back to life, which the Jewish master Zambri had caused to fall dead to the ground, allegedly by whispering the true name of God into its ear.

Sylvester baptising Emperor Constantine
Paris - Bibl. Sainte-Geneviève - ms. 0102, f.312v, Sacramentarium, Use of Paris, c.1270
Courtesy of Enluminures

Catherine and the philosophers
Limoges - BM - ms. 0002, f.208v, Graduale, Use of Notre Dame de Fontevrault, c.1250-1260
Courtesy of Enluminures

The most famous of these debaters of the faith is of course Catherine of Alexandria. The story of the young Christian girl debating fifty great pagan philosophers was well-known throughout the entire Middle Ages, and her life was translated into several European vernaculars, including Anglo-Norman and Middle Welsh. Catherine is often depicted with a book to symbolise her wisdom, sometimes together with the instruments of her passion, such as the big wheel or the sword that ultimately killed her. The most expansive account of this story with which I am familiar is not the Legenda Aurea, where Jacobus’ chief interest seems to be an orderly and summarily categorisation of Catherine’s virtues and knowledge. A fuller rendition of Catherine’s contest can be found in the Life of St. Catherine by Clemence of Barking, written in the mid-twelfth century. Clemence’s portrayal of Catherine’s debate is an evocative and emotive, and often contains brief digressions and expositions on truth and folly. The pagan philosophers are depicted as arrogant and jealous, being foolish for trusting more in their philosophy than the pure faith of Catherine.

Katherine and the instruments of her passion
MS Yates Thompson 3, French book of hours, Roman Use, c.1440-c.1450
Courtesy of British Library

The story begins with Catherine defying Maxentius of Alexandria’s persecution of Christians, imploring him to cease the sacrifices to the pagan gods. Maxentius the tyrant starts debating with her, but finds himself at a loss for words and decides to bring in the fifty finest philosophers of pagandom, who will be debating against Catherine. At the onset of the debate, a self-appointed spokesman for the group rises to his feet, and before he starts speaking he is psychologically dissected by Clemence, who – notwithstanding the theological commonplaces against philosophy – shows a keen discernment in her portrayal of the human mind. After a short exposition of the nature of arrogant men, Clemence lets the philosopher exclaim sarcastically:

Emperor, I am utterly astonished that you have taken such wretched  advice and promised us such a great reward for vanquishing a woman skilled in debate. We have travelled far and it was well worth it on her account! How gloriously our names will be remembered after such a victory! If one wretched clerk had defeated her, that would have been quite enough effort expended, and yet on her account the finest clerks on earth are gathered here! Philosophers and grammarians, especially rhetoricians and good dialecticians, have come here for a truly important matter. She will certainly be able to oppose them, to lay out her arguments and demolish theirs! Whoever she is, summon her, and we shall make her concede and confess that she has never seen or heard men as wise as those she has found here.
- Clemence of Barking, Life of Catherine (translated by Jocelyn Wogan-Browne), 1996: 10

Catherine and the outraged philosophers
Rouen - BM - ms. 0221, f.256, Diurnale, Domincans at Poissy, 13th-14th centuries
Courtesy of Enluminures

The debate then ensues and Catherine emerges victorious, causing the tyrant Maxentius to exclaim: “Lords, what has happened to you? Have you all lost your wits? Why are you struck dumb and dismayed on account of a woman?” (Wogan-Browne 1996: 19). Catherine’s rhetorical prowess also converts a number of the philosophers, and leaves Maxentius with no other alternative than to sentence Catherine to her death. Then we are told the famous passion story, where the wheel on which she is about to be racked is broken by divine intervention, and where she is ultimately beheaded.
The converted and martyred philosophers
Valenciennes - BM - ms. 0838, f.124, Martyrology obituary, Douai, last quarter of 13th century (from Courtesy of Enluminures

The examples above are just a handful of cases where the saint’s imitatio Christi takes the form of the theological debate against non-Christians. On a minor scale, this feature can be found in most accounts where the saint is brought before a pagan king, as often was the case in the stories of the early martyrs, but the martyrdoms mentioned above have the rhetorical contest as one of the primary forms of imitatio Christi. The topos grew out of a climate in which Christians saw themselves attacked by the intellectual establishment comprised of grammarians and pagans well-versed in the works of Greek and Roman philosophers. Even after Christianity had become the intellectual and spiritual establishment, the topos continued to attract the minds of the faithful, and that the contest between philosophy and spiritualism never entirely went out of fashion can be seen in the famous case of Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux.

Catherine and the philosophers
Mans (Le) - BM - ms. 0688, f.034v, Book of Hours, c.1435-1440
Courtesy of Enluminures


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

White, Carolinne, Early Christian Lives, Penguin Classics, 1998

Wogan-Browne, Jocelyn, Virgin Lives and Holy Deaths, Everyman, 1996