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

søndag 26. juni 2016

Brexit, Featherbeds and the Land of Cockaigne

I try not to be overly political on this blog, and I hesitate to use it as a platform for voicing my opinion on various political issues. This is mostly because my blog is intended to focus on research, academia, engagements with cultures of the past, and also to share the many beautiful and curious things I come across in my professional and also my personal life.

In this particular blogpost, however, I will be talking politics, and I will talk about the recent political farce which is commonly known as Brexit, the campaign that - successfully - urged for the UK to leave the European Union. The results were clear on Friday 24, the morning after the votes for the referendum had been cast, and I and several of my friends grieved tremendously for this result. Many of my friends are academics whose lives depend very much on the financial support from the European Union, and who are now facing a very uncertain future. Furthermore, the centre at which I work - the Centre for Medieval Literature - is a cooperation between the University of Southern Denmark and the University of York, a cooperation that has been possible because of the close ties between Denmark and the UK as members of the Union.

I will not go in great detail about why Brexit is a catastrophic farce. This has been done better elsewhere, such as here, here, here, here, and many other places. What angers me most in all this, is the way in which the British public has been manipulated and how they have been fed promises which leading Brexiteers then the very next day went back on. The result of the referendum came about in part through exploitation of fear and in part by way of promising a future which was claimed to be more financially secure. In a way, the Leave campaign painted a picture of this future in ways similar to what we find in Pieter Brueghel's painting below.

Het Luilekkerland, or the land of lazy-lucious
Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1567
Courtesy of Wikimedia

In the history of European culture, we find many expressions of a materialistic paradise, an impossible country which satisfies the stomach and which abounds in a never-ceasing supply of food and drink. This place is sometimes known as the Land of Cockaigne, or as Schluraffenland, the land of lazy apes. It is found in Boccaccio's Decameron, day 8, third story, in which the poor painter Calandrino is dazzled by prospects of a materialistic paradise whose wonders include a mountain of parmesan cheese. We might also see a remnant of this, and also a subversion of the topos, in the description of the witch's house in the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, which like the architecture typical to Cockaigne is edible.

A somewhat similar day-dreaming permeated the Leave campaign. Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and the rest of the  Brexiteers tapped into a pool of anxieties among the elderly, among the less well-educated and among people living in cities without many prospects for the future. They played on a rising and poorly suppressed xenophobia, they nurtured a Euro-scepticism that sometimes seem to have been turned to hate, and they were very careless about facts. One of the two main promises of the Leave campaign was that immigration would be severely reduced, a promise which pandered to xenophobia and racism, which has now unleashed a load of nasty attacks on British citizens and guest workers, and which was then severely modified by Daniel Hannan the day after the referendum.

Borish Johnson and the non-promise of the 350 million pounds
Copyright Getty Images
Courtesy of The Daily Mail

Nigel Farage goes back on his promise

The second main carrot applied by the Leave campaign was the suggestion, as seen in the picture above, that the membership contingent sent to the EU should rather be spent on the National Health Service. This contingent was presented systematically as numbering 350 million pounds weekly, a number which was from the very start incorrect since it didn't take into account the rebate, i.e. what Britain received back from the EU in subsidies and funding. The anatomy of this scam was wonderfully explained by John Oliver recently. The bottom line is that there never was a 350-million-a-week sum to be had in the first place, and yet this number became the very symbol of what financial glories would await should Britain leave the European Union.

The very morning of the referendum result, Friday 24th of June, Nigel Farage stated in an interview on Good Morning Britain, as seen above, that he could not guarantee that this sum would be spent on the NHS. To add insult to injury, he furthermore stated that it was a mistake to make that promise in the first place - and he said that he himself never did make it - and that it Leave voters should not have voted because of this. As pointed out by Susanna Reid in the interview, this sum might have been a strong motivator for many voters, and she brilliantly showcased just how mendacious the Leave campaign had been.

What is particularly distressing, however, is to see the look on Nigel Farage's face when he defends himself with the claim that there will be "a ten-billion-a-year, a three-hundred-and-fifty-million-a day featherbed" to spend on whatever the country pleased. It actually does seem that Farage believes in this foolish fantasy, and he appears to have glimpsed by this number a short view of this materialist paradise that is the Land of Cockaine.

The ship of fools sails to Narragonia
Woodcut from Das Narrenschyff, Sebastian Brant, 1494
Courtesy of Wikimedia

The fantasies of Nigel Farage and the whole Leave campaign brings to mind another version of the topos of the land of overflowing, namely the motif of the ship of fools. This motif received its name and its most brilliant formulation in Sebastian Brant's satirical book-length poem Das Narrenschyff from 1494. The main conceit of this book is that all the fools of the earth - each type described in detailed in the various episodes of the poem - are embarking on a ship bound for Narragonien, or Narragonia, a kingdom of fools.

This is not to say that all Leave voters are fools. Although I think all of them made the completely wrong choice, I do not intend to insult their intelligence - at least not all of them. However, all, or at least most of the Leave voters were fooled. They were fooled by phantom numbers, by already-broken promises and by fear and greed. They were shown an imaginary featherbed of 350 million pounds a week to secure the health system - a prospect particularly appealing to the older segments of society, the majority of which voted Leave - and this featherbed will turn out to be non-existent.

The Leave campaign was a fraud from the very beginning, a ship of fools that is now driving the UK away from its ties with Europe, and which is making life difficult for millions of Brits and non-British residents in the UK. There are problems with the European Union, certainly, but the answer is not to defraud millions of people for misguided and imaginary gains.

Stultifera Navis, Jakob Locher's translation of Sebastian Brant's Das Narrenschyff,
Strassburg, 1497
Courtesy of Wikimedia


Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron, translated by G. H. McWilliam, Penguin Classics, 1971 (reissued in 2003)

Sebastian Brant, The Ship of Fools, translated by Edwin Zeydel, 1964

Umberto Eco, The Book of Legendary Lands, translated by Alastair McEwen, MacLehose Press, 2013

Similar blogposts

On the ship of fools in early modern culture

mandag 20. juni 2016

Blind Heretics Under Ground - Excerpts from the cultural history of the mole

I cannot choose: sometime he angers me
With telling of  the moldwarp and the ant
- William Shakespeare,
Henry IV, part 1, Act 3, Scene 1

Outside my office windows, the moles are waging war against the campus caretakers. It all started a few weeks ago, and when I got to the office in the morning I noticed that five-six mounds of modest size had appeared in the course of the night. I assumed right away that these were erected by moles, although it might well be gophers - they mostly work at night and I have not yet seen one. The mounds were levelled in a few days by one of the caretakers, but the very next day five-six more mounds had appeared, and these are the ones that can be seen on a picture far below in this blogpost. The second series of mounds were later levelled too, but they were replaced shortly thereafter by a total of about ten mounds, plus some smaller ones which I only noticed today closer to the office wall. All of these third-series mounds were levelled today, but only a few hours after that I noticed that a small mound had actually appeared in the same spot as a cluster of two-three mounds, and I wonder how many will be erected in the course of the night.  This ongoing conflict prompted me to write this blogpost.

De talpa - chapter heading for the mole
Valenciennes - BM - ms. 0320, f.080, Thomas Cantimpré, De Natura Rerum, c.1290
Courtesy of

In the Middle Ages, the learned world did in general not take kindly to the moles. Like all animals included in medieval bestiaries, the mole was endowed with a spiritual, allegorical meaning which made it serve as a model for mankind - in this case a model to be shunned, as we shall see.

Two of the oldest descriptions of the mole, one of which would influence descriptions in bestiaries centuries later, can be found in book twelve of Isidore of Seville's Etymologies. One description can be found in chapter 2, paragraph 39, where Isidore says that "The mole (furo) is named from 'dark' (furvus), whence also comes the word 'thief' (fur), for it digs dark and hidden tunnels and tosses out the prey that it finds" (Barney 2006: 254). There is good reason to be somewhat skeptical about Isidore's etymological connection here.

In the next chapter of book 12, or more precisely in chapter 3, paragraph 5, there is another description of the mole, and - as we can see from the chapter heading of Thomas Cantimpré's De Natura Rerum above - this was the descriptions transmitted by later commentators. Here, Isidore writes that "The mole (talpa) is so called because it is condemned to perpetual blindness in the dark (tenebrae), for, having no eyes, it always digs the dirt, and tosses out the soil, and devours the roots beneath vegetables" (Barney 2006: 254). I do not know how come there are two description translated as belonging to the same animal, but it might be that Isidore are describing both the gopher and the mole in this part of the book.

Mouse stealing the host, and an innocent mole
MS Royal 12 C XIX, bestiary, England, 1st quarter of the 13th century
Courtesy of the British Library

Commentators after Isidore also added an allegorical explanation, In one English thirteenth-century bestiary, MS. Bodley 764, for instance, the natural description of the mole follows the standard set by Isidore, and then finishes with the following exposition (translated by Richard Barber):

The mole, condemned to perpetual blindness, is the image of pagan idols, blind deaf and dumb; or even their worshippers, wandering in the eternal darkness of ignorance and folly. Isaiah writes of them: 'In that day a man shall cast his idols ... to the moles and to the bats' [2:20], that is, the blind shall worship the blind. The mole is also the symbol of heretics or false Christians who, like the eyeless mole which digs in the earth, heaping up the soil and eating the roots beneath the crops, lack the light of true knowledge and devote themselves to earthly deeds. They serve the desires of the flesh zealously, and succumb to the lure of pleasure, while they try in every way possible to gnaw at the roots of all that is good.

The Vulgate does indeed speak of bats and moles as symbols of the wasteland, and the imagery is a typical biblical topos where one or two types of wild animals become a synechdoche for the antithesis of civilization. With the desolate imagery of Isaiah in mind, it is easy to see how the mole came to have such an unfavourable standing in the reading of the book of the universe, and how the mole came to be a counter-example to proper Christians.

Mole and company

MS Royal 13 B VIII, Gerald of Wales, Topographia Hiberniae, England, c.1196-c.1223
Courtesy of British Library

On the next stop in this itinerary of cultural history, we come to early modern Norway, where the mole seems to have held a very different position in the popular imagination than that offered by the exegetical parts of medieval bestiaries. In Norwegian, the mole is called "muldvarp", a name that is etymologically linked to the moldwarp of Shakespeare's time, and which comes from German "Maulwürfe", or mold-thrower (werfen = to throw).

In the popular Norwegian imagination, the mole was seen as a bringer of fortune - much to the misfortune of the animal itself, if we are to believe a collection of magic formulas and remedies gathered by Dr. A. Christian Bang in Norske Hexeformularer og Magiske Opskrifter (Norwegian witch formulas and magical remedies). There are two remedies by which moles are believed to improve a person's luck at cards, and both of them have dire consequences for the mole.

According to one of these remedies, recorded about 1770, (Bang 1901-02: 222-23) one must take a living mole and kill it by striking a big pen-knife to its neck. Once this is done, the mole must be placed in a clean pot or other type of clean vessel, and the body of the dead animal must then be burned to powder. No liquid is to be added. This powder is then to be sprinkled into the right shoe of the player, and this will ensure his fortunes at the table. The remedy concludes with the words "one dare not doubt upon this", which suggests that the rhetoric of conviction has not changed all that much these past centuries.

Another remedy, recorded in 1790, is perhaps even more cruel to the poor animals. Again, the mole in question must be alive when it is caught, and the person wishing for luck in games must then bite off the right foot and then release the animal. The foot of the mole is then to be kept in a piece of paper, and it must not touch the earth lest its luck-bringing power goes away. Nor must it be revealed to any other person, presumably for the same reason. To such an extent must the mole-foot be kept a secret talisman, that if the player is in a game which requires a partner, then the mole-foot must be given to the partner's pocket without the knowledge of the partner.

Fortunately, moles are quite rare in Norway and not easy to come by.

Towers of the mole empire
SDU Campus, Odense

In modern popular culture, the moles have largely been depicted in more favourable terms. In fact, modern literature and film is rife with friendly and more or less anthropomorphic moles. For instance, we have the Mole, the protagonist in Zdenek Miler animated children's tv-show from Cold War Czechoslovakia. In British literature we have the kind Mole of Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, or the companion of Badger in Colin Dann's The Animals of Farthing Wood, not to mention the moles of Brian Jacques' Redwall novels, who all speak in a dialect very similar to that of the West Country. Indeed, there is even a series of fantasy novels centered entirely on the moles, namely William Horwood's Duncton Woods.

As a final installment in this eclectic mix of cultural history, I also want to mention one piece of popular culture which appears to have had some resonance, namely the 1956 science fiction movie The Mole People, where a people of humanoid mole men are enslaved in a subterranean kingdom ruled by albino descendants of the old Sumerians.

Courtesy of Wikimedia


A. Christian Bang, Norske Hexeformularer og Magiske Opskrifter,  A. W. Bröggers Bogtrykkeri, Kristiania, 1901-1902

Richard Barber (editor and translator), Bestiary, The Folio Society, 1992 (this is an abridgement)

Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, edited and translated by Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, Oliver Berghof, Cambridge University Press, 2006

T. H. White (editor and translator), The Book of Beasts, Dover Publications, 1984

Similar blogposts

Christ the unicorn

Excerpts from the cultural history of whales

Beavers in medieval Norway

The miracle of the fox

lørdag 18. juni 2016

Mary the Maiden, Christ the Unicorn

Many a time did the older hands mutter something about virginity, maidenhead; and this, with a melancholy shake of the head conveyed all that was to be conveyed
- Patrick O'Brian, The Hundred Days

As every medievalist knows, back in the Middle Ages unicorns were fierce beasts. They were too swift for hunters and could easily outrun any man. For this reason, there was only one way of catching them: A maiden must go to the unicorn's territory and sit down and wait for it to discover her. When the unicorn sees the maiden, he will immedately come to her, embrace her and place his head in her lap.

This description of its behaviour appears to be universally agreed upon in all medieval bestiaries, and there have survived numerous depictions of this scene. Most of these depictions are like the ones shown towards the end of this blogpost: scenes in which the smiling unicorn in the maiden's lap is given the death-blow by a hunter or a knight. The imagery of these renditions and the very symbolism of the unicorn legend has a distinct erotic quality, although this quality is not acknowledged in medieval expositions of the unicorn - at least not to my knowledge.

Instead, the writer of a bestiary was concerned with another symbolic dimension, and this one was made overtly clear in all cases: The unicorn was a symbol of Jesus Christ. Or, as it is more aptly stated in one bestiary: "Our Lord Jesus Christ is the spiritual unicorn" (quoted from Richard Barber's incomplete translation of MS. Bodley 764). This same bestiary,also connects the unicorn imagery to biblical typology by a refrence to Song of Songs 2:9, where it says, in the Vulgate, "Similis est dilectus meus capreae, hinnuloque cervorum", which in the New International Version of the Bible is translated "My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag". As you will notice, neither the Vulgate nor the modern rendition mentions unicorns, so the medieval authors looking for a typological connection between Christ and the unicorn, interpreted the gazelle of the Song of Songs as a reference to Christ the spiritual unicorn. The Christic symbolism of the unicorn was well-known in the Middle Ages and various renditions of this symbolism can be found in medieval art.

A few weeks ago, a good friend and I were at the Danish National Museum in Copenhagen, which is a wonderful museum housing a number of interesting collections - we spent about four hours there, but only had time to get through the medieval and the pre-historic sections. One of the first items exhibited in the medieval section was the altar piece seen below, and I was very surprised by its motif, or rather its conflation of two typical and usually distinct medieval motifs.

In this altar front, the Annunciation (Luke 1) where Gabriel announces to Mary that she will bear the world's saviour, is rendered as a typical depiction of a unicorn hunt. The scene itself is ubiquitously identified by the text on the top of frame, where it is written a well-known passage from the passage in Luke: Ave gratia plena Dominus tecum (Hail [Mary] full of gifts, God be with you. (I have here translated "gratia" not as "grace" but as "gifts" since that is closer to the meaning of "gratia".)

The altar front is item number D1257 of the Danish National Museum, and it is assumed to be a Dutch-inspired work from Northern Germany. c.1525. It belonged to Gyrstinge Church in Sjælland, Denmark. The frame is painted to resemble textile.

As an Annunciation scene, this one seemed to me highly unusual since it applies such a traditionally violent motif as an allegorical vehicle. Gabriel is the hunter whose dogs - identified by the curators as Mercy and Peace - chase the unicorn into the lap, or rather in this case into the womb of the maiden. This is a curious reversal of the traditional unicorn legend: Here it is not the maiden who lures the wily unicorn to its lap so that the hunter can kill it. Instead, it is the hunter - horn in hand and dogs in a leash - who drives the unicorn towards the maiden, while God beholds everything from above in his papal tiara. Because of the reversal of the traditional scene, there is no death but rather a conception, there is no violence and no death, and the erotic imagery common to the unicorn motif has disappeared.

Mary receives the unicorn

Gabriel with his dogs

[Edit:] Since first writing this blogpost, I was alerted to the fact that this conflation is "a standard iconography of Gabriel on the mystical hunt", to quote Henrike Lähnemann. She very helpfully directed me to a lectern cloth whose rendition of this scene is very similar to the one depicted above, which comes from Ebstorf Abbey in Northern Germany. The cloth can be seen here.
As a contrast to this highly religious rendition of the motif, here are two scenes from English bestiaries, both from the thirteenth century. As can be seen, there are many similarities between the these illuminations and the altar fronts, but also some differences - which makes sense given the different message of the altar front.

BL MS Harley 3244, f.38, Peraldus, theological miscellany, 2nd or 3rd quarter of 13th century
Courtesy of British Library

BL MS Royal 12 F XIII, f.10v, bestiary, England, 2nd quarter of the 13th century
Courtesy of British Library


Richard Barber (editor and translator), Bestiary, The Folio Society, 1992 (this is an abridgement)

T. H. White (editor and translator), The Book of Beasts, Dover Publications, 1984

For similar blogposts, see:

A poem based on BL MS Royal 12 F XIII

An artist's conflation of Saint George and Saint Ladislas

On the lynx in the medieval imagination

On Saint Edmund as a hedgehog

On the Annunciation and the Passion falling on the same day

Poems on the Annunciation

tirsdag 7. juni 2016

Detours of academic research - Saint Edmund and his reintegrated body

Academic research does not progress in a straight line. This is knowledge than any academic will accumulate in the course of their career, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. At this point I'm halfway through my PhD, and in those years I have been active as a researcher there have been several detours from my main research trajectory. In some cases, such detours have led me to very fruitful results, as when I tried to map the occurrences of the word "decus" in royal hagiography. Other times, these detours have been a complete waste of time, for instance when I spent an entire workday trying to find the origin of a Latin proverb only marginally relevant to my work, without any success at all. In the following blogpost, I want to share a minor detour which in the end put me on the right track, from my current research.

These past days I've been working extensively on the liturgical material for the feast of Edmund Martyr. His cult and the literature of that cult is one of the three case studies for my PhD thesis, and that means examining and translating a lot of material. At this point, I'm working my way through the chants for Matins in the office for Edmund, as transmitted in MS Pierpont Morgan 736, a manuscript from Bury St Edmunds dated to c.1130. This manuscript has, to my knowledge, not been edited, and I have therefore had to transcribe the entire thing myself, which has been something of a baptism by fire in paleography. The process has been very educational, and it has taken a long time. It has also needed a lot of revising, and sometimes my transcriptions have not been correct in the first place. Trying to find out what the original handwriting actually says, is precisely something that precipitates detours.

Antiphons of the second nocturne of the office for Saint Edmund
Photograph of a photocopy
MS Pierpont Morgan 736, f.94r

Today, my challenge was an antiphon from the second nocturne in the office for Saint Edmund. Antiphons are brief chants performed after each psalm during Matins. Each psalm can have its own individual antiphon. In some cases, the antiphons are taken from a common repository known as the commune sanctorum, the common of saints. In other cases, such as in the office for Edmund, the antiphons are composed specifically for that saint.

Since antiphons are musical pieces and sometimes have notation, as seen above, it is sometimes challenging to decide whether the space between strings of letters indicate a change to a new word, or whether it indicates a liturgical elongation, i.e. a word made longer through song (as when you sing "can't" as "caaaan't" and write it "ca an't"). This problem tricked me many times during my first round of transcribing, because I was not used to this phenomenon.

The antiphon I'm talking of here is the one marked as #57 in the picture above. Its text tells about the translation of the body of Edmund which was incorrupt and entire, despite Edmund being beheaded by the Danes. The text goes like this:

Translato thesauro signum divinum incorrupti et redintegrati corporis enituit vena tantum resplenduit sanguinea quo daret indicium illo sanctum pertulisse martyrium

[In the translation of this treasure, as a divine sign the incorrupt and reintegrated body shone and a bloody vein radiated so much as to give an indication of this holy one who had suffered martyrdom. (My rough translation)]

Translation of Edmund's corpse, guarded by the wolf
MS Harley 2278, John Lydgate's life of Edmund and Fremund, England, between 1434 and 1439
Courtesy of British Library

The problem for me was that I had not been careful enough when transcribing, and I had been fooled by the space which is set between "redinte" and "grati", making one word seem like two. When I was sitting down to translate this I hit one major obstacle, namely the fact that "redinte" is not a word in the Latin lexicon, at least not according the comprehensive but incomplete database of William Whitaker's Words. "Grati" was not a problem as such, since it is a possible form of "gratia", which can be translated as "favour", "goodwill" or "gift", but it did not help at all when "redinte" could not be translated.

After racking my brain a bit and still not realizing that the two words were actually one, I googled the line "redinte grati corpori", hoping that there would be some text or other that contained the same combination of words. The search did not yield any direct hits, but it did send me to a digitized version of Augustine's De genesi ad literam, a commentary on the book of Genesis. This particular version which I was lead to, is the third volume of an edition of Augustine's works, edited in Lyons in 1586. The phrase which led me to this particular book was "redintegratus corporibus", the renewal or revival of the bodies. This made me finally realize what was going on in the liturgical manuscript.

Augustine's use of this phrase has most likely no connection at all to the use of "redintegrati corporis" in the office for Saint Edmund. It is of course possible that the composer or composers of these chants was/were familiar with Augustine's commentary on Genesis, and it is even possible that they had that particular book in mind when putting this antiphon together. But without any more tangible proof of such a connection, I hesitate to make any such conclusions. Instead, the fact that a similar phrase to the one in the antiphon is found in Augustine, is a useful reminder that such detours in research can end in surprising and at the same time helpful results.