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

fredag 30. september 2016

Theodoricus Monk and the European Tradition - summary of a talk in Trondheim, 29.09.16

Yesterday I gave a talk as a part of the NTNU medieval seminar series in Trondheim, organized by the department for historical studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. The topic of my talk was a Latin chronicle from late twelfth-century Norway, and it was a great opportunity for me to explore an argument which I will later apply in my PhD thesis, albeit in a condensed form. In this blogpost, I give you a summary of my talk which I prepared for a visiting scholar from the UK. I hope to return to this subject in future blogposts, and I did touch on it to some degree in my previous blogpost.

The whirlpool Charybdis, placed in Northern Norway
Detail from Carta Marina (1539) by Olaus Magnus
Courtesy of Wikimedia

The Latin chronicle Historia antiquitate Regum Norwagiensum, the old history of the Norwegian kings, was written in the period 1177-87. Most likely, it was completed before archbishop Eystein Erlendsson went into exile in England in 1180. The book was composed by the monk Theodoricus - this is the name he gives himself in the prologue - and he dedicates the work to the archbishop. From this we can conclude that the author was part of the archbishop's household, and that he most likely was a Benedictine. Scholarly consensus now identifies him as Tore Gudmundsson, who had studied in the monastery of Saint-Victor in Paris, and who became archbishop of Nidaros in 1204.

The Historia was written in a time of great political turmoil, with the crowned king Magnus Erlingsson fighting against Sverre Sigurdsson who claimed that the throne of Norway was his by right, and who led his army into two important victories in the Trondheim area in 1179 and 1180. Theodoricus ends his account in the 1130s, saying that he deems it unfitting to recount such atrocities that are being performed in his own day.

The narrative of Historia antiquitate is interspersed with a total of 9 digressions which diverge from the story of the Norwegian kings. These digressions can be divided into three categories: 1) digressions contemporary with the narrative of the Historia (only one); 2) digressions connecting the Norwegian narrative with historical episodes from distant epochs (most of them); 3) digressions delving into natural history or natural philosophy (only 3).

The academic tradition has considered these digressions to be inexpert emulations of the European historiographical form. In this paper, however, I aim to show how the narrative appears when we take these digressions as serious and deliberate inclusions, and if we assume that Theodoricus knew very well what he was doing. From Theodoricus' own words, we can see that he understood the benefit of digressions as educational and entertaining, and that he was concerned with bringing Norway into the history of Christendom.

My claim is therefore that these digressions serve to do just that: To create thematic associations between Norwegian history and that history which is well known to a learned medieval audience, i.e. Roman history, biblical history, and even French and German history. In this way, Theodoricus carves out a place for Norway in the apocalyptic history of Christianity, progressing from Creation towards Judgement Day.

In my paper, I will only focus on the digressions which appear in the narrative of Olaf Haraldsson, the saint-king who was patron of the Norwegian kingdom and whose cult was a central aspect in Archbishop Eystein Erlendsson's strengthening of his archdiocese. In the narrative of Olaf, Theodoricus puts 4 of his 9 digressions, and it is here we find the only digressions that deal with natural history or natural philosophy. It is my claim that this is done to emphasize the typological connections between the saint-king and the history of the world, and to create a set of associations which an international clerical audience would be able to understand and appreciate. The purpose is, as stated, to bring Norway into its place in Christian history, and the natural focal point for such a purpose is Norway's primary saint, Olaf.

The digressions found in the Olaf narrative can be summarized as follows:

Chapter 13: In which we learn about where Olaf Haraldsson was baptized. Theodoricus admits that there are conflicting traditions concerning this question, and compares this with the similar disagreement concerning the baptism of Constantine the Great. Olaf becomes an antitype to Constanine, the emperor who legalized Christianity.

Chapter 17: A chapter solely concerned with a digression that touches on three elements, between which the only connection appears to be Theodoricus' association. First, he talks about the nature of the whirlpool Charybdis, situated in the Pentland Firth, and refers to Pliny, Genesis and Paulus Diaconus. Then, via Paulus, he talks about the Longobards, and from there he moves on to the Huns and how they slaughtered holy men and women on their rampage. This appears in chapter 17, while the death of Olaf by the hands of the pagan Norwegians appears in chapter 19.

Chapter 18: In which Olaf returns to Norway and marches on Stiklestad. After a description of the strength and powerful nature of his kinsmen, Theodoricus launches into a discussion about the decrease in the size of human bodies, comparing the kinsmen of Olaf to the men of Theodoricus' own time, and then with the Israelites crossing Jordan according to the Book of Joshua. The ensuing discussion is a complex engagement with Christian apocalyptic history and Neoplatonist ideas which were in the 12th century criticized by the School of Chartres. He finishes this chapter with a description of the relatively recent discovery of an inhumated body of giant stature in Rome, identified as Pallas, known from the Aeneid.

Chapter 20: After describing the martyrdom of Olaf in chapter 19, Theodericus dedicates chapter 20 to an overview of how different authorities have concluded in the question of how long ago the world was created. This exposition is followed by a summary of Olaf's reign in terms of how many years he was king, thus inserting the reign of Olaf in a grand historical context.

In sum, if we understand Theodoricus' digressions as deliberate tools for connecting the history of Norway with the history of the world, by creating associations between Norwegian historical episodes and episodes from the more global past, we understand Historia antiquitate Regum Norwagiensum not as the work of an amateur, but of a carefully constructed narrative which establishes a place for Norway in the Christian apocalyptic history. 

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