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

onsdag 29. juli 2015

Saint Olaf and the literature of Nidaros Archbishopric c.1180 - c.1220

Yesterday, June 29th, was the dies natalis of Saint Olaf, patron saint of Norway. In Norwegian this day is known as "olsok", which comes from "olavsvaka", the wake of Olaf, and in Trondheim the day is celebrated as a part of the Olaf days, a fair held in honour of the saint-king. Saint Olaf is an interesting figure in Norwegian history, and although we have been a Protestant country since 1536/37 and are becoming increasingly secular, Olaf occupies an important place in our national consciousness.

For me, on the other hand, he is chiefly interesting from an academic point of view, since part of my PhD thesis will deal with the medieval cult of Saint Olaf. Therefore, I want to take this opportunity to write about some of the texts about Olaf from medieval Norway, or more precisely, the texts written within the milieu of Archbishop Eystein Erlendsson.

Eystein Erlendsson received the pallium in 1161 and began his office as archbishop of Norway which had been established only very recently after the archbishop of Lund was divided into three. In the course of his office, which he held until his death in 1188, Eystein did his best to establish Nidaros, modern-day Trondheim, as the ecclesiastical centre of Norway. In his first year as archbishop, he consecrated an altar to SS John the Baptist, Vincent and Silvester, and in the course of his career he was deeply embroiled in the political struggels of his time, even leading a brief exile in England in the early 1180s.

An important part of Eystein's effort was the cult of Saint Olaf, who became known in the twelfth century as rex perpetuus Norvegie, meaning that the kings of Norway were seen as vassals of the saint. As a consequence of Eystein's engagement with the cult, there grew up a significant body of literature within or connected to the archiepiscopal court at Nidaros, and furthermore a literature that was at times at odds with the literature steeped in non-ecclesiastical traditions. Books of the latter kind, such as the royal sagas of Snorri Sturlusson, are today most widely famous and widely referred to by the non-academic public. This means that the public debates often give the impression that before Snorri there was nothing, or at best there is a fleeting mention of Passio Olavi, the Latin vita of Olaf's deeds, death and miracles. In this blogpost, I want to present the ecclesiastical literature connected to the cult of Olaf before Snorri's Heimskringla.

The following is a brief introduction to various works written from c.1180 onwards, it is not an exhaustive list of twelfth-century Norwegian literature, and nor does it enter into a discussion about the literature of the Olaf cult prior to 1180, of which little is known with certainty.

The martyrdom of Olaf Haraldsson
Detail from an antependium from an unknown Norwegian church, c.1320-40

Historia Antiquitate Regum Norwagiensium

The History of the Old Kings of Norway was written around 1180 by a monk belonging to the retinue of Archbishop Eystein who gives his name as Theodoricus Monachus, most likely a latinised form of the Norwegian name Tore. The work is dedicated to Eystein, and although its prime focus is the kings of Norway, here and there we read chapters that treat other issues, such as the age of the world and the placement's of Homer's Scylla and Charybdis in the Norwegian waters. The work is also suffused with references to contemporary learning and recent writers, and it appears that Theodoricus – like his patron Eystein – had received his education in France, for instance in Paris or Chartres. This was not the first Latin historiography written in Norway, but for its effect it might be said to be the most significant: Theodoricus' use of French sources introduced the suggestion that Saint Olaf had been baptised in Rouen, not in Norway as was held by the vernacular tradition. This made its way into Olav's vita which was being compiled at the time and founded the Ecclesiastical tradition in the question of Olaf's baptism.

Passio et Miraculi Beati Olavi

This work has been compiled in several redactions, and the most recent scholarly suggestion is four, the final one being overseen by Archbishop Eystein, who himself dictated one of the chapters in which we learn of a miracle that healed the archbishop himself. This captivating passage – narrated in the first person and with great emotional intensity – led early scholars of the Olaf cult to the conclusion that Eystein had written the entire book himself, which we now know is far from the case. The book is comprised of a short passage of Olaf's passio, and this section might be the oldest and most well known. After that there follows a catalogue of Olaf's miracles which were performed mostly in Norway but also in Ireland, in Russia and as far away as Byzantium where the Varangian guard ensured Saint Olaf's presence also in Constantinople. Some of these miracles are probably from the eleventh century and are referred to in a poem written by the Icelandic cleric Einar Skulasson in 1153 for an assembly of ecclesiastical and secular magnates in Nidaros. The poem is a celebration of Saint Olaf, and is today referred to as Geisli, the Sun-ray, being one of Olaf's many names in the poems.

Passio Olavi was probably compiled from old stories and miracle-reports written down at the shrine in Nidaros cathedral (as suggested by Lars Boje Mortensen). That Archbishop Eystein inserts himself in the narrative shows how deeply invested he was in the project, and it also suggests that many of the other miracles have been reported in Eystein's lifetime. Since Eystein was such a key figure in this compilation, the terminus ante quem for Passio Olavi should be set at 1188, or possibly a few years after, but its end result appears to have been envisioned and orchestrated by Eystein, who may or may not have lived to see it completed.

Officium Olavi

The Passio Olavi was the foundational text for the new liturgical office for Saint Olaf. This was not the first liturgical text to celebrate Olaf – that one is found in an eleventh-century English document known as The Leofric Collectar – but it was an important part of the renewed cult under Eystein. We don't know exactly when the office was written, but surviving fragments tell us that it was in relatively wide circulation around 1220, and given the intensity of veneration under Eystein it is likely that the office was at least begun during his archiepiscopacy. The text is a more or less verbatim rendition of the Passio and the music – as shown by Roman Hankeln – is taken from the office of Saint Augustine, which points to a strong connection to the order of Augustine friars with whom Eystein had come into close contact during his student days in Paris.

Saint Olaf the king
Wooden sculpture from Överselö Church in Sweden, date unknown
Courtesy of Wikimedia

Ágrip af Noregs konungasogum

Extracts from the Sagas of the Norwegian Kings is the modern, academic name given to a vernacular history written c.1190. Little is known of its author or where it was written, but it is possible that it was written in Denmark by a monk belonging to the retinue of Archbishop Eirik Ivarsson, Eystein's successor, who was driven into exile after a quarrel with King Sverre of Norway. The book is a short vernacular account, but it owes its debt to the Latin literature and although it does not go into the specifics of Olaf's baptism, it does belong within the ecclesiastical literature rooted in the archbishop's see at Nidaros.

The Old Norwegian Homily Book

The last example here is like Ágrip only part of the Nidaros literature by extension as it was written in Bergen around 1200, possibly connected to the Augustinian monastery. The book is a collection of sermons or exempla for sermons, and there is still no consensus about whether it was compiled as a guidebook on homiletics or whether the sermons included were actually preached to the lay public. The homily book is written in the vernacular, and it also includes a selection from Alcuin of York's De Virtutibus et Vitiis. For its sermon on July 29 it borrows from Passio Olavi and next to the extract from Alcuin it is the longest text in the collection. This text, too, follows the ecclesiastical tradition by placing Olaf's baptism in Rouen, and from its dependence on Passio it belongs to the wider Nidaros literature.

The Fall of King Olaf ("Kong Olafs fald")
Drawing by Halfdan Egidius for the 1899 translation of Snorri's Heimskringla
Courtesy of Wikimedia

 Concluding remarks

As we see, the literature that grew up around the cult of Saint Olaf at the turn of the twelfth century is quite wide-ranging and numerous, especially considering that Norway was a country whose Latinity very much was in its early stage and where there had only been an archiepiscopal power structure for a few decades. I have here emphasised how various texts have treated the baptism of Olaf Haraldsson, since this is the feature which allows us to see that these texts are connected and form part of the ecclesiastical tradition which in this respect differs from the older, vernacular tradition which is supported by for instance Snorri Sturlusson. This list is also a way of showing that there is much more to Norwegian medieval literature than the sagas of Snorri. 

For similar blogposts, see:

A nineteenth-century hymn for Saint Olaf

A brief history of the twentieth-century church of Saint Olaf in Trondheim

søndag 26. juli 2015

The Chill of the Hunt - hunting tips from the classical and medieval peripheries

In a previous blogpost I talked about the appearances of bearded women on the peripheries of the medieval world, and I lingered a bit on their mention in the encyclopedia De Natura Rerum, compiled by Thomas de Cantimpré (d.1272). This encyclopedia is a treasure-trove of medieval knowledge, and a great window into how the world was understood by the learned of the Christian west. One recurring feature in the learned litereature of the Middle Ages is of course the weirdness of the world's peripheries, the monsters and hominids of the far north and far east, perhaps best known to modern readers through Marco Polo's Il Millione or The Travels of John Mandeville. This weird world in earth's remote corners - figuratively speaking, because as we know, people in the Middle Ages did NOT believe the world was flat (see here, and here) - was a source of wonder to lay and learned alike, and make great reading even today.

One of the many delightful entries in Thomas de Cantimpré's De Natura Rerum deals with how the elephant is hunted, as shown by the illumination below. It was believed in the Middle Ages that the elephant had no knees and could therefore not bend down or lie down when sleeping. To make up for this defect, it was said, elephants spend their nights leaning against a tree where they slept. To hunt the elephant, therefore, you had only to chop down the tree, either before the elephant went to bed or while he was sleeping (although in the illumination below he seems to be wide awake). When the tree was sawed in two, the elephant would have no support, lose balance and fall helplessly to ground where he could be killed. 

Elephants hunted by saw
Valenciennes - BM - ms. 0320, f.051v, De Rerum Natura, Thomas Cantimpre, c.1290
Courtesy of

This belief in the jointless animal sleeping against a tree is a very old one, and the perhaps most famous instance is perhaps the description of the moose in Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars, which is also said to be hunted by the same method: Hunters follow the tracks to the moose's sleeping-tree, and when this has been found they undermine the roots or cut into the tree so that it can't support the weight of the mighty moose.

The two motifs are most likely connected, but how I do not know. Both these texts, however, have that in common that their respective authors are writing about their peripheries. Caesar wrote about the Gaul and Germania, a transalpine world which he had visited and in which he had held battle, but about whose nature and history he was ignorant and had to rely on local stories and tales, some no doubt exaggerated or invented, perhaps knowingly pulling the Roman imperator's leg while laughing behind his back.

When Thomas de Cantimpré applies this motif to his encyclopedia, he becomes part of a long tradition, repeating only what is well known about elephants in learned circles, supported by classical authority and the conviction of repetition rather than any eye-witness stories. Few learned men in the Middle Ages had ever seen an elephant, but of Thomas had seen one, he might have changed his mind about its appearance, as did his contemporary Matthew Paris, when he saw the elephant of Henry III in the Tower of London.

fredag 24. juli 2015

Edmund Spenser's cruel panther

This month has been a very busy month, which is reflected in the lack of posts for July. I have made a point to keep up a minimum of four posts each month, so in such busy times I turn to a never-failing source for material: poetry. As regulars will have noted, I usually go to a handfull of my favourite poets for these filler-pieces, mostly because I know these poets well, but sometimes because I find works unfamiliar to me which compel me to share them.

In this case, I have chosen one of the possibly lesser-known sonnets from Edmund Spenser's cycle Amoretti, little love songs. This sequence comprises 89 sonnets in the Spenserian stanza - a scheme far superior to the Elizabethan sonnet in my opinion - and they portray Spenser's courtship of his bride-to-be Elizabeth Boyle in the course of 1594. The sonnets shift in tone throughout and give the impression of being written day by day in the course of the courtship, as if it were a lover's diary, although this might be a mere fiction constructed by Spenser.

Like many of the poems, Sonnet LIII employs animal imagery to describe Elizabeth Boyle's responses to Spenser's courship, and in many cases - such as here - Elizabeth seems indeed to be the active, courting part, while the courted poet finds himself subject to forces beyond his mastery. The idea of the panther as a beast capable of attracting animals goes back long into the Middle Ages, whose bestiaries explained the panther as an allegory of Christ. Like Christ, the panther's sweet voice drew animals from the desert, as can be seen in the illumination below. Spenser's panther is different - some might say more modern, although that should be said carefully - and a seducer with evil intention. Moreover, in Sonnet LIII, the attraction of the panther is its spotted hide, not its mellifluous voice.

The text is taken from this website.

Amoretti LIII

The panther, knowing that his spotted hyde
Doth please all beasts, but that his looks them fray,
Within a bush his dreadful head doth hide,
To let them gaze, whylst he on them may pray.
Right so my cruell fayre with me doth play;
For with the goodly semblance of her hew
She doth allure me to mine owne decay,
And then no mercy will unto me shew.
Great shame it is, thing so divine in view,
Made for to be the worlds most ornament,
To make the bayte her gazers to embrew:
Good shames to be to ill an instrument!
But mercy doth with beautie best agree,
As in theyr Maker ye them best may see.

Panther leading the animals 
Chalon-sur-Saône - BM - ms. 0014, f.088v, bestiary, Northern France, c.1280 
Courtesy of Enluminures

mandag 13. juli 2015

Where the Wild Women Are - bearded women in medieval geography

To the human mind, faraway places have always held a vague promise of wonder. In the Middle Ages, these places were predominantly located in the east and the north, places were few of their own had gone and places of which the ancient authorities spoke of with enchanting but incredible certainty. Writers of natural history from Herodotus to Pliny the Elder included in their works great narratives of the marvels of the east and the north, the homes of wild peoples and monstrous races. The fictitious Letter To Aristotle, purportedly written by Alexander to his old tutor, and other accounts of the Macedonian conqueror captivated the medieval imagination and achieved a wide dissemination in languages as diverse as Georgian, Greek, Old Norse, Old English and Old French.

Several writers throughout the medieval centuries dealt with the marvels of the world's periphery, and it was not only the east but also the north which served as the setting for tales about strange and weird creatures and phenomena. When these stories were set in the north, they often received an additional dimension by reference to the passage in Jeremiah 1:14 where the Lord says to His prophet that from the North, evil will break out. In a future blogpost I hope to expand more on this.

For the time being, however, I simply want to address the appearance of bearded women in the medieval periphery as described by two medieval writers, Thomas de Cantimpré (1201-72) and Adam of Bremen (fl. c.1070). 

Bearded women in conversation
Valenciennes - BM - ms. 0320, f.045, Opus de Natura Rerum, Thomas Cantimpre, c.1290
Courtesy of
Among the many wonders of the east, we find a selection of wondrous and often monstrous women. The most famous are probably the amazons whose masculine ferocity had troubled male minds since the time of Homer. There were also others, and first I will present some which are found in Thomas de Cantimpré's magnificent encyclopedia Opus de Natura Rerum.

Thomas de Cantimpré was born in modern-day Belgium and received his education at Liége and later at Cantimpré. He entered the Dominican order in 1232 at Louvain and the next year he went to Cologne where he went to study under Albertus Magnus. After a while in Cologne, he went to Paris. Thomas was a very learned man, and he wrote a big encyclopedia of the known world which was called Opus de Natura Rerum. One section of this work - in which the marvels of Creation are expounded - is dedicated to the monstrous races of the east. It is in this section we find the mention of the bearded women, among a number of other typical marvels of the eastern periphery, such as women with infected glands and women giving birth to toads.

Women with inflamed glands
Valenciennes - BM - ms. 0320, f.045, Opus de Natura Rerum, Thomas Cantimpre, c.1290
Courtesy of

Woman giving birth to a toad
Valenciennes - BM - ms. 0320, f.045, Opus de Natura Rerum, Thomas Cantimpre, c.1290
Courtesy of
The appearance of these weird and, perhaps most importantly, subversive women are part of a monstrous kaleidoscope through which the east is seen as a kind of mirror of the west, and its peoples are held up as a way of emphasising the normalcy of the Christian world. The east is a world of heathendom, of monstrosity and of women who transgress the natural order by growing beards or giving birth to amphibious creatures.

We also see women inhabiting the same role in Adam of Bremen's Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, written in the 1070s. The fourth part of this history deals with the faraway north, a description of the northern islands, i.e. Scandinavia, Greenland and Iceland. Adam himself was never north of Denmark, but received his information at the court of the Danish king Svein Estridsson. However, although Adam might have heard a great deal of fantastical tales about Norway in Denmark, parts of his description probably owes to commonplace descriptions of the wild periphery.

This can be seen for instance in his presentation of the women of Norway, chapter 30 (my translation):

In the wildest mountains which are there [in Northern Norway] we hear about women who are bearded, and men who hide in the forest and rarely are seen. 

This is part of a lengthy exposition of the weirdness of the north, which includes references to anthropophagi, oxen that live in the sea, white bears and islands inhabited by cyclops, several of which we also find in Thomas de Cantrimpré's Opus de Natura Rerum. Small wonder, since these are features of the imagined periphery, a place of contrariness whose topography rests on centuries of writings of natural history.

Anthropophagi and cyclops
Valenciennes - BM - ms. 0320, f.045, Opus de Natura Rerum, Thomas Cantimpre, c.1290
Courtesy of