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

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.


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