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

mandag 31. oktober 2016

Death and the fiddle - Böcklin, Tartini and a Norwegian traditional

I entertain a deep fascination with the many different ways in which humans meditate on their own relationship to death and mortality, and how they reflect on their own transience in the face of that immense entity of deafening permanence and stability: death. Because even within religious traditions where death is itself transitory, such as Christianity, there has long been a conscience that death marks something definite and, even if it should prove to be only a transition, that death is an endpoint that no one escapes.

The engagement with transient man versus the permanent erasure of death has been the subject of many great cultural expressions. Medieval imagery abounds with meditations on death, resulting in such gloriously morbid concepts and the dance macabre, or the transi tombs which display both the intact body and the rotting corpse in stone for all to see. These are of course connected to the idea of memento mori, that constant reminder of mortality that permeates so much of Christian culture. The memento mori furthermore highlights the anxiety about memory and death, which is a cornerstone in the logic behind impressive funerary monuments. One of the most beautiful meditations on the memorial aspect can be found in Sir Thomas Browne's Urne Buriall from 1658.

One of my favourite modern expressions of the relationship between death and man is the painting shown below, the self portrait with death playing the fiddle in the background by the Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin. I particularly like the way Böcklin has rendered his own face, caught in the realization that Death is standing behind him, playing one-knows-not-what tune, possibly as a reminder of the painter's own mortality.

Self portrait with death as a fiddler
Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901), 1872, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin
(Courtesy of Wikiart)

Böcklin's choice of giving Death the fiddle as an interesting one, and although I do not know what thought lies behind that choice, it is worth noting that the fiddle have at times been regarded as an instrument proper of the Devil. One of the most famous stories which connect the fiddle and the Devil is that of the Devil's Trill Sonata by Guiseppe Tartini (1692-1770). The story, given to us by Tartini himself, tells us that the composer had a dream in which the Devil was playing the fiddle, and upon waking Tartini tried to reproduce the music, which he stated "was but a shadow of what he had witnessed in the dream", to quote Britannica.

Guiseppe Tartini, The Devil's Trill Sonata (Violin Sonata in G minor)

Another musical piece which connects the Devil and the fiddle is the Norwegian traditional known as Fanitullen (the Devil's song, "Fan" or "Fanden" meaning "The Devil" in Norwegian and Danish). The piece is known from the nineteenth century, and was the subject of several reworkings. The story behind the song was written down, and edited, by Jørgen Moe (1813-82), a Norwegian priest and collector of fairy tales. According to the legend, the song had been played by the Devil at a wedding in Hallingdal in Norway. The song was played during a fistfight at the wedding, and the Devil played while he sat on a barrel of beer.

Fanitullen, Norwegian traditional
Performed by Christian Borlaug

As a final installment in this series of death and music, I also want to point to the song Self Portrait by Rainbow from their debut album in 1975. Here there is no fiddle, but the theme of personal damnation and its title brings us back to the opening of the blogpost which began with the self portrait with Death as a fiddler.

Self Portrait, Rainbow
From the album Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow (1975)

Similar blogposts

Dance Macabre

Three Meditations on Mortality

Et in Arcadia ego

The Vanity topos

torsdag 27. oktober 2016

Musical Mirror Images - the office of Saint Louis of France and Roman de Fauvel

In 1297, Pope Boniface VIII canonized King Louis IX of France (1214-70). This canonization was the result of an investigation into testimonials by witnesses and consultation of the various biographies that were written in order to testify to the dead king's holiness. Ever since Louis' death from dysentery in Tunis at the beginning of the Eighth Crusade, several interest groups had begun lobbying for a canonization of the king. Among the most important of these groups were the French king Philippe IV Le Bel (Louis' grandson), the Dominican Order, and the Franciscan Order. For the latter two groups, Louis IX had been an important patron, and he was also an ideal Christian king.

As mentioned, in order to provide solid, written evidence for Louis' holiness, an unusual large number of hagiographical accounts were produced prior to the canonization. When the pope had affirmed that Louis was indeed among God's holy, there were also composed liturgical offices in honour for his feast-day, his dies natalis, which was the day of his death, August 25.

Since Louis the king and saint was of great importance to several groups, there were composed many offices - some of which were merely different versions of the same basic template - and the Dominicans, the Franciscans and the Cistercians all had their own offices. To the mendicant orders, Louis was the ideal king to which all other French kings should be measured, and their textual production centred on Louis should also be understood in this regard, namely as attempts to influence the behaviour of the current king.

Also to Philippe IV his grandfather appeared as an ideal king, and also as an important facet in the mythology of French kingship which by that time was already expansive and complex, drawing on elements from Merovingian and Carolingian history as well as from the Capetian dynasty. In other words, Louis IX was an important pillar by which Philippe IV's own reign was supported.

After Philippe IV's death in 1314, however, the French monarchy descended into a state of chaos due to a series of short-lived young kings. Philippe IV was succeeded by Louis X who reigned for two years until his death. Louis was succeeded by Jean I who was born November 5 1316 and died five days later. Jean I was then succeeded by Philippe V, the second son of Philippe IV, who reigned until 1322.

In the midst of this turbulent period, there was composed a poem by Gerard du Bus which addressed the troubles of the French monarchy through an allegory. The poem is called Roman de Fauvel, and chronicles the rise of the donkey Fauvel from his insurrection against his master to his accession to the French throne. Fauvel marries one of Dame Fortune's handmaidens, Vainglory, and together they populate the garden of France with their unholy offspring, and it is revealed that Fauvel is indeed Antichrist.

Fauvel approaches Vainglory's bed
Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, fonds francaise 146, f.34, 1316
Courtesy of Wikimedia

The poem is an attack on corruption and abuses by political and religious men, and serves as a warning for the young king - presumably Philippe V - of the importance of a strong, virtuous ruler, and the necessity of not allowing little Fauvels to rise to positions of power. The poem survives in a manuscript from 1316, BnF fr.146, so it was composed in the midst of a very uncertain period of the French monarchy.

In BnF fr.146, the narrative of the Roman de Fauvel is interspersed with musically annotated songs, providing another dimension for its performance. And we should assume that the Roman has indeed been performed for the young king Philippe. One of the aspects of the Roman de Fauvel is that here, too, good kings are presented to the young king as ideals worthy of emulation. Unsurprisingly, Gerard du Bus makes use of Philippe V's own great-grandfather Louis IX as one such ideal king. As a consequence, despite the darkly satirical mode of Roman de Fauvel, also here we find Saint Louis serving as an edifying model, similar to one of his purposes in the hagiographic corpus (which naturally includes the liturgical offices).

In this way, the offices for Saint Louis and the Roman de Fauvel function as a kind of mirror images to each other. They both share a purpose, namely to shape the future of the French monarchy. Of course, this is not a purpose they both share to the same extent. The liturgical offices had as their primary goal to honour the saint in Heaven so that he would act as their ambassador in the court of God. Consequently, the liturgical attempt to shape the future of the monarchy was less direct in that it addressed the saint and exhorted him for divine intervention.

The Roman de Fauvel, on the other hand, is addressed directly to the king and seeks to influence its audience by holding forth a story of a possible future disaster - in modern parlance we might call it dystopian. Therefore, the similarities between the Roman and the offices should not be overemphasized or simplified, but in the end they both apply the figure of the holy king Louis as a key figure in their respective narratives, and they both seek to influence worldly events through the performance of their texts.

Louis IX, initial from the office Ludovicus decus
Paris - Bibl. Mazarine - ms. 0344, f.242, breviary, Use of Paris, c.1318
(Courtesy of

Ludovicus Rex: Extraits Des Offices de l'Adoration de Saint Louis
Choeur Grégorien de Paris, Jean-Noël Haddad, 1997

Roman de Fauvel, directed by Joël Cohen
Performed by Boston Camerata and Project Ars Nova


Dillon, Emma, Medieval Music-making and the 'Roman de Fauvel', Cambridge University Press, 2002

Gaposchkin, Cecilia, The Making of Saint Louis, Cornell University Press, 2010

Gervais du Bus, Le Roman de Fauvel, edited by Arthur Långfors, Paris, 1968

søndag 23. oktober 2016

Modern echoes of Ovid - from the works of Derek Walcott and Geoffrey Hill

I'm currently reading a collection of essays by Thea Selliaas Thorsen, classical scholar at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and Norway's foremost translator of Ovid. The collection contains fifty very short essays on selected pieces from literary history, with an emphasis on the classical heritage. Its title, Kom ikke uten begjær (come not without desire), is taken from an epigram by Paul Valéry. This book is an illuminating and entertaining collection, and to me as a medievalist not as well-versed in the classical literature, it is highly educational. And it also serves as a good reminder of how resilient past texts are even into our modern age.

This latter issue is something that has been on my mind ever since I took a course in Latin poetry in 2012, a course taught by Thea. During that term I started to reflect on the numerous allusions to Ovid - and other classical poets - in works by modern poets whom I had discovered at university and was by then consuming avidly. By reading Thea's essays, a great number of which feature Ovid in some capacity, I was again brought back to this topic, and I was reminded that I have wanted to write something about this for years now. So when I serendipitously opened one of Derek Walcott's early collections and found a sequence of poems titled Metamorphoses after Ovid's magnum opus, I wanted to share it here. In addition to an exctract from Walcott's sequence, I also present an extract from the similarly-titled sequence of poems by Geoffrey Hill.

From Metamorphoses, by Derek Walcott

I - Moon

Resisting poetry I am becoming a poem.
O lolling Orphic head silently howling,
my own head rises from its surf of cloud.

Slowly my body grows a single sound,
slowly I become
a bell,
an oval, disembodied vowel,
I grow, an owl,
an aureole, white fire.

I watch the moonstruck image of the moon burn,
a candle mesmerized by its own aura,
and turn
my hot congealing face, towards that forked mountain
which wedges the drowned singer.

That frozen glare,
that morsured, classic petrification.
Haven't you sworn off such poems for this year,
and no more on the moon?

Why are you gripped by demons of inaction?
Whose silence shrieks so soon?

- From The Gulf, 1969

Apollo and Daphne, from Ovid's Metamorphoses
Antonio del Pollaiolo, probably 1470-80, National Gallery, London
(Courtesy of Wikimedia)

From Metamorphoses, by Geoffrey Hill

3 The re-birth of Venus

And now the sea-scoured temptress, having failed
To scoop out of horizons what birds herald:
Tufts of fresh soil: shakes off an entire sea,
Though not as the dove, harried. Rather, she,

A shark hurricaned to estuary-water,
(The lesser hunter almost by a greater
Devoured) but unflurried, lies, approaches all
Stayers, and searches of the fanged pool.

4 Drake's drum

Those varied dead. The undiscerning sea
Shelves and dissolves their flesh as it burns spray

Who do not shriek like gulls nor dolphins ride
Crouched under spume to England's erect side

Though there a soaked sleeve lolls or shoe patrols
Tide-padded thick shallows, squats in choked pools

Neither our designed wreaths nor used words
Sink to their melted ears and melted hearts.

- From For the Unfallen, 1959

onsdag 12. oktober 2016

Edward the Confessor, according to William Wordsworth

Today is the feast of the translation of Edward the Confessor. This day celebrates the anniversary of when his dead body was placed in its shrine at Westminster Abbey in recognition of his sainthood, and this took place on October 13, 1163, only two years after his sainthood had been formally acknowledged by Pope Alexander III. A translation, or translatio, is the moving of a saint's remains to a new site, often a shrine placed in such a way that the faithful could see it when they were in the church. October 13 became, in the course of the thirteenth century during the reign of Henry III, the principal feast-day for the Confessor, although this had previously been his death-day, January 5. (For the development of the liturgical feast-days, see this blogpost.)

I have written several blogposts about Edward the Confessor, since his cult was the subject of my MA thesis, and several of these give a thorough account of the development of his cult. This time around, however, I will commemorate the translatio Edwardi by presenting to you a poem by William Wordsworth, "The Norman Conquest" which was the thirty-first of his ecclesiastical sonnets, composed in the period 1821-22. (The text is taken from this website.)

Wordsworth's sonnet only treats Edward very briefly, and rather condescendingly, and it is a clear testimony to how Edward's role in the Norman Conquest was perceived at least by the poet, if not by a wider segment of the British literati. The role of Edward in the prelude to the invasion in 1066 has been a contested issue ever since William the Conqueror laid claim to being Edward's chosen successor (for more on this controversy, see this blogpost).

For William Wordsworth, however, the verdict is clear: It is Edward who is to blame for what he sees as the "evanescence of the Saxon line", presumably meaning the line of Saxon kings which the ecclesiastical sonnets have in part followed up to this point. This testiness towards the changes brought on by the Norman Conquest is probably not that uncommon Wordsworth's own time. At the very least, it is close to the sentiment of Edward Augustus Freeman (1823-97), who wrote in his six-volume The History of the Norman Conquest of England (published between 1867 to 1879). Here, Freeman launches the conviction that the Norman Conquest eradicated English culture to such an extent that it was only the later sainthood of Edward that helped his name survive the Middle Ages.

Whatever the prevalence of Wordsworth's approach to the dramatis personae of the Conquest, the sonnet is a suitable reminder that attitudes are not constant and that Edward who was revered as a saint and patron in the Middle Ages, by the nineteenth century had found himself cast in a very different role

The sigil of Edward the Confessor, as Anglorum basilei, king of the English
Courtesy of Wikimedia

Ecclesiastical Sonnets, XXI - The Norman Conquest

The woman-hearted Confessor prepares
The evanescence of the Saxon line.
Hark! 'tis the tolling Curfew!--the stars shine;
But of the lights that cherish household cares
And festive gladness, burns not one that dares
To twinkle after that dull stroke of thine,
Emblem and instrument, from Thames to Tyne,
Of force that daunts, and cunning that ensnares!
Yet as the terrors of the lordly bell,
That quench, from hut to palace, lamps and fires,           
Touch not the tapers of the sacred quires;
Even so a thraldom, studious to expel
Old laws, and ancient customs to derange,
To Creed or Ritual brings no fatal change.

Similar blogposts

A trip to Westminster Abbey

The cult of Edward the Confessor

Edward the Confessor and Thomas Becket

A poem for Harold Godwinson

Edward the Confessor and the nightingales