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

torsdag 28. januar 2016

Wendy Cope's Manifesto

As you might know, I'm currently spending some research time in York, and if you've been reading this blog for some time you also know I have a very close relationship with that city. In several previous blogposts (here, here, and here) I've talked about my habit of buying books whenever I'm in York, and this is largely because York is home to many amazing little bookshops. True to form and tradition, the first day I arrived, while I was waiting for my appointment with the letting agency to sign my contract for the apartment I'm renting, I spent a long a carefully deliberating time at The Little Apple Bookshop on High Petergate, exploring their selection of novels and poetry. I left with two books of verse.

One of the books I bought was a collection by Wendy Cope, titled Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (Faber & Faber 1997). I had been thinking of buying that book for some time already, as part of my aim of reading more books written by women. This particular collection contains several delightful poems, many of which showcase Wendy Cope's sharp sense for rhythm and rhyme, and her impressive ability to satirize other poets, a point perhaps made most expressly clear in the poem "Waste Land Limericks", which sums up T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" in a matter of two pages.

For this blogpost, I'm presenting one of the poems from Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, called "Manifesto".


I'll work, for there's new purpose in my art -
I'll must all my talent, all my wit
And write the poems that will win your heart.

Pierced by a rusty allegoric dart,
What can I do but make the best of it?
I'll work, for there's new purpose in my art.

You're always on my mind when we're apart -
I can't afford to daydream, so I'll sit
And write the poems that will win your heart.

I am no beauty but I'm pretty smart
And I intend to be your favourite -
I'll work, for there's new purpose in my art.

And if some bloodless literary fart
Says that it's all too personal, I'll spit
And write the poems that will win your heart.

I feel terrific now I've made a start -
I'll have another book before I quiet.
I'll work, for there's new purpose in my art,
And write the poems that will win your heart.

tirsdag 26. januar 2016

Back to the beginning, in a way

Five years ago this month I arrived in York as an exchange student to spend a term at the University of York as part of my MA degree. I was very excited about this, both because by that time I was already deeply in love with York, but also because the road there had passed through a lengthy and detailed bureaucratic process in which there were enough uncertainties to make me think at some point whether it was all worth the trouble. Fortunately, the two administrative secretaries at the York Centre for Medieval Studies were very capable ladies and guided me through the process successfully.

This year I'm back in York as an exchange student, spending a term at the University of York as part of my PhD thesis. I have been looking forward to this for quite some time, especially since this possibility was partly why I decided to do my PhD at the Centre for Medieval Literature, which is a cooperative enterprise by the University of York and the University of Southern Denmark. I'm excited to be back, and although I've spent most of my time at the work space I've been allotted on campus, I've spent enough time walking about the town to see what has change and to appreciate what is pretty much as it was back when I first came to study.

With this short blogpost I'm going back to the beginning of things, in a way. I started this blog five years ago this month, and when I started my posts were mainly updates of what I was doing and things I had seen on my many wanderings in town or on short trips to various places, such as Whitby, Edinburgh and Durham. My emphasis back then was to share with my friends those things great or small which interested me, fascinated me or which simply were there, like some snowdrops in churchyards. I thought of this blog as a way to share things that were relevant to my time in England, and this is reflected both in the name, in the brief description of the blog and the quotations in the margins which I still have kept. The blog has come a long way since then, and so have I. To some extent, there is still a strong presence of the kind of everyday minutiae which draw my attention from time to time, but my emphasis now is on the academic side of things. Most of my blogposts now are concerned with my work, and I spend more time doing research for the things I post now than I did five years ago, although even back then I had embraced the importance of research.

In the present blogpost I return to the beginning of things since I now allow myself the kind of personal reflection which marked some of my earlier writings, and in a way it feels right to do so five years later. I do this kind of thing less now, in part because I think there are much more interesting things to talk about than myself, but also because I have gained a much wider audience in these five years, an audience which is here predominantly for the academic stuff.

I'm very happy to have this blog as an outlet for my many fascinations and my sundry experiences in research and in life outside it (if such a thing can exist for a medievalist). I try to maintain a balance between academic and accessible, and also between academic and non-academic material, such as poetry, music or nature, and this allows me to tie together elements in my spectrum of interests which lie relatively far apart. All this, of course, hopefully without becoming too careless about the question of audience.

I have changed a great deal in these past five years, and things have changed a great deal for me in many ways, and this blog, too, has undergone some changes although these changes have been primarily additions rather than alterations. It's nice to look back at those five years, thinking of what I've done, what I've achieved, what I have yet to achieve, and of course there are many things I wish I would have known back then which I know now. Many things have changed, but at the core this blog remains a mixture of personal and academic journalism, and although the balance between those two has shifted, I'm happy to think that the blog is only improved, not markedly altered since I first began writing it five years ago.

onsdag 13. januar 2016

Long road into York

I have arrived in York. I have arrived in York where I will be doing my work for the next two months, as a part of an exchange deal between the universities of York and Southern Denmark, the two hosts for the Centre of the Medieval Literature. I arrived in York early Monday morning after a thirty-hour journey about which I've complained to many of my colleagues already, and I'm still in the long process of settling in. I'll return with posts more pertinent to my doings here, and with reports from one of my favourite cities in the world, but for the time being I'm still heavily encumbered by travel fatigue and from all the details that need to be sorted, so I'll let T. S. Eliot's poem Journey of the Magi represent my mental state at present.

Adoration of the magi
MS Egerton 2781, f.13v, book of hours, use of Sarum, 2nd quarter of the 14th century
Courtesy of British Library

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Text courtesy of this website

onsdag 6. januar 2016

Wine for the Epiphany - a miracle of Saint Martin's

Today is the feast of the Epiphany, marking the day when the three kings or the three magi came to visit the Christ-child in Bethlehem. In the medieval calendars, Epiphany was a feast of great importance and was celebrated with due liturgical rites.

In this blogpost, I wish to present a story about a miracle wrought through Bishop Martin of Tours on the feast of the Epiphany. The story comes from the third book of the Miracles of Bishop Martin, written by Gregory of Tours who held Martin as his particular patron saint.

Bishop Martin of Tours and a crippled man
MS Egerton 3018, f.117, missal, use of Cologne, 1st quarter of the 15th century
Courtesy of British Library

Adoration of the magi
MS Egerton 2125, f.182v, prayer book, Ghent, c.1519
Courtesy of British Library

It is common in stories about saints that their deeds in life, or the miracles wrought through them either while living or posthumously, are in some way meant to be in imitation of deeds performed by Christ in the gospels. In this case, as will be seen, the imitation is of the miracle at Cana, where Christ made water into wine at the wedding feast.

As will also be seen, the connection to the miracle at Cana is circuitous at best, yet Gregory himself makes this overt connection in the first paragraph, saying:

There was also that extraordinary miracle on Epiphany, when, at the request of the blessed bishop Martin, the Lord produced Falernian wine from water and made wine come forth from the riverbed for a poor man, just as he had once transformed water into wine.
- Gregory of Tours, The Miracles of Bishop Martin, book 2, chapter 16 (translated by Giselle de Nie)

The specification of Falernian wine might seem a bit odd at first, a detail somewhat on the acribic side even for God, but I'm tempted to ascribe this to Gregory's sense of humour, The miracle itself is placed within the frame narrative of a fishing trip on the Loire river which was undertaken by Gregory himself. Together with some companions he inquires a local boatman where there are good places for fishing, and the boatman points out one spot, adding that they should invoke the aid of Saint Martin in order to secure a catch. Gregory's companions show some skepticism to this, saying that "no one had ever seen a fish caught in his name". The boatman then goes on to correct this misapprehension.

For I shall tell you what happened to me this year, how through the invocation of his name and with the Lord's help I deserved to get what I wished. In effect, it was the day of Epiphany and when I entered my storeroom I found nothing in it to drink. When I had left it I prayed, saying: 'Most holy Martin, send me some wine in this sacred solemnity lest, when the others are drinking, I remain deprived.'
- Gregory of Tours, The Miracles of Bishop Martin (translated by Giselle de Nie)

As he is praying, the boatman is called to the other shore of the river to help a traveller across, and as he is rowing "suddenly a huge fish sprang from the water and fell into the boat". The boatman continues:

Having immediately killed it and ferried the men, I returned home, sold the fish for a couple of gallons of wine, and dined along with the others. You will therefore know how quickly, if he is asked in faith, Martin will appear to help in situations in which he is invoked.
- Gregory of Tours, The Miracles of Bishop Martin (translated by Giselle de Nie)

This is arguably not the most impressive way of turning water into wine, and the story sounds more like a folktale in which help comes in unexpected ways and where wishes are granted after having been filtered through a great deal of interpretative liberty. However, Gregory makes the connection overtly and it is clear that in the taxonomy of miracles, the circuitous route to the wine belongs to the same category as the miracle at Cana.

The wedding feast at Cana
MS Egerton 2781, f.15v, book of hours, use of Sarum, 2nd quarter of the 14th century
Courtesy of British Library

The wedding at Cana
MS Arundel 157, f.6v, St. Albans, c.1240, possibly by Matthew Paris
Courtesy of British Library