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

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