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

fredag 28. april 2017

A Caribbean Werewolf Tale - from Derek Walcott's Tales of the Islands

I have recently been reading some articles touching on one of  perhaps most memorable anecdotes from Gerald of Wales' Topographia Hibernica (which I have written about more extensively here). The anecdote concerns an Irish priest who once was approached by a wolf who spoke to to him as if he were a human, and begged the priest to follow him. The priest went with the wolf who brought him to where another wolf was about to die, and the wolves asked the priest to adminster the last rites to the dying, for they were humans who had been cursed and therefore had been turned into wolves. The priest administered the rites.

This story is one of many werewolf stories found throughout the history of literature. The werewolf is a pervasive figure in folklore and continues to attract the fascination and attentions from scholars and non-scholars alike.

The priest and the wolf
BL MS Royal 13 B VIII, f.17v, Topograhpia Hiberniae, Gerald of Wales, England, c.1196-c.1223
Courtesy of British Library

One story depicting a werewolf can be found in Derek Walcott's poem Tales of the Islands, a sequence of ten sonnets depicting aspects of life in the Caribbean, often highlighting the multilingualism of that life by an elegant use of the Patois French native to Walcott's Saint Lucia. The story in question, which Walcott himself styles "A curious tale" in the opening of the poem, is detailed in the ninth sonnet, titled "Le Loupgarou", which is French for "werewolf". The sequence is included in Walcott's collection of poems In a Green Night from 1962.

From Tales of the Islands
Chapter IX/"Le Loupgarou"

A curious tale that threaded through the town
Through greying women sewing under eaves,
Was how his greed had brought ld Le Brun down,
Greeted by slowly shutting jalousies
When he approached them in white linen suit,
Pink glasses, Cork hat, and tap-tapping cane,
A dying man licensed to sell sick fruit,
Ruined by fiends with whom he'd made a bargain.
It seems one night, these Christian witches said,
He changed himself to an Alsatian hound,
A slavering lycanthrope hot on a scent,
But his own watchman dealt the thing a wound.
It howled and lugged its entrails, trailing wet
With blood, back to its doorstep, almost dead.

tirsdag 25. april 2017

Distractions along the thesis road - an antiphon for Saint Laurentius

As every academic knows, the road towards completing the PhD thesis is a long-winded one, and it is full of major and minor distractions. In this brief blogpost I want to present you with an example of just such a little distraction from my current research.

These days I am researching the liturgical office for Saint Knud the king, also known as Canute or Kanutus Rex, who died in Odense in 1086 following a rebellion that spread across the estates of eleventh-century Danish society, at least according to some of the earliest sources. The liturgical office - which occupies a prominent part in my thesis - contains the chants and readings for the feast of Knud's death (July 10). We do not know when the office was composed as the manuscript sources for it only survive in fragments, and few conclusions can be drawn with certainty. The office survives, however, in printed breviaries from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, and therefore I have for the past two days been immersed in the structure and the content of this office.

During my transcription of the office text, however, I was briefly distracted by a rubric breaking off the flow of the office itself, placed between the chants for Vesper and the chants for Matins. This rubric points to a chant for Saint Laurentius of Rome (3rd century) whose feast is celebrated August 10, i.e. one month after the feast of Knud. The text and the position of the chant can be seen in the picture below, which - don't worry - is not a photograph of the breviary itself but of a printout.

Antiphona Sancti Laurentii
Breviarium Othoniense 1497, f.262r (print-out with personal notes)
(Courtesy of Copenhagen Royal Library

The chant in question is an antiphon with a versicle belonging to the repertoire of chants for Saint Laurentius. The antiphon can be found on this website, while the versicle can be found here. An antiphon is a short text in verse chanted before and after a psalm. In the office of a saint, the antiphons were often composed specifically for the saint in question, as we see here. The text reads:


Laurentius ingressus est
martir et confessus est
nomine domini nostri ihesu cristi


Dispersit [dedit pauperibus justitia ejus manet in saeculum saeculi]

This can be translated (by me) as:
Laurentius martyr is entering, and the name of our Lord Jesus Christ is confessed.

He disperses and gives the poor, His [God's] justice endures in all eternity.

The text itself is typical of a generic chant for a saint and contains nothing special about Saint Laurentius of Rome. I was nonetheless distracted by it in part because it is a beautiful little poem, and because its placement in the office of Saint Knud was a bit puzzling to me. As mentioned, Knud is celebrated exactly one month before Laurentius, and therefore this rubric can not be a commemoratio, a chant celebrating the less important of two saints when the feasts of those two saints overlap. What I do know is that Saint Laurentius was the patron of the metropolitan see of Lund. Although the city of Lund now lies in Sweden, it was Danish in the Middle Ages and housed the archbishop of the Danish church. The patronage of Laurentius in Lund and the bishopric of Odense's subordination to the archbishop of Lund might go some way to explain this rubric. But at the current time, however, I have no satisfactory explanation to give.

I have paused to reflect a bit on this little piece simply because it is a distraction and because it is something I do not yet have a satisfactory answer to. It is a good example of those thousand little things that can lead to a wild goose chase in the academic writing process. Hopefully, with this current blogpost, I have managed to vent my curiosity and prevented the distraction from leading me too far astray .

søndag 23. april 2017

Spanish poetry for World Book Day

Today, April 23rd, is World Book Day, an international celebration of books that has taken its date from the death-day of Miguel de Cervantes, William Shakespeare, and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. The tradition of World Book Day began in 1926. In honour of this wonderful day, I will here present some of my favourite Spanish poetry to mark that this day is a Spanish invention, founded by the writer Vicente Clavel (1888-1967). The poems below are taken from The Penguin Book of Spanish Poetry, and the translations are made by the book's editor, J. M. Cohen.

Lupercio Leonardo de Argensola

Lupercio Leonardo de Argensola (1559-1613) was poet and historian, and this untitled poem was one of my first exposures to the Spanish sonnet. I learned of it through a reworking of the poem into English by Geoffrey Hill, and it remains one of my favourite poems.

Llevó tras sí los pámpanos otubre,
y con las grandes lluvias insolente,
no sufre Ibero márgenes ni puente,
mas antes los vecinos campos cubre.

Moncayo, como suele, ya descubre
coronada de nieve la alta frente,
y el sol apenas vemos en Oriente
cuando la opaca tierra nos lo encubre.

Sienten el mar y selvas ya la saña
del aquilón, y encierra su bramido
gente en el puerto y gente en la cabaña.

Y Fabio, en el umbral de Tais tendido,
con vergonzosos lágrimas lo baña,
debiéndolas al tiempo que ha perdido.

(October has taken the vine-leaves with it, and swollen with the great rains, Ebro will suffer neither banks nor bridges, but rather covers the neighbouring fields.
Moncayo, as usual, now reveals her tall brow crowned with snow, and no sooner do we see the sun in the East than the opaque earth conceals it from us.
Now the sea and the woods feel the north-wind's anger, and its roaring shuts people up in port and people in their cottages.
And Fabio, lying on Thais' threshold, wets it with shameful tears, his debt to the time that he has wasted.)

Lope de Vega Carpio

Lope de Vega (1562-1613) is one of the foremost writers of Spanish literature. He is predominantly remembered for his numerous plays, but his religious poetry has also achieved well-deserved fame. The following untitled poem is another verse to which I came through a reworking by Geoffrey Hill, and it is a hauntingly direct, unvarnished grappling with issues of personal faith.

Qué tengo yo que mi amistad procuras?
Qué interés se te sigue, Jesús mío,
que a mi puerta, cubierto de rocío,
pasas las noches del invierno escuras?

Oh, cuánto fueron mis entrañas duras
pues no te abrí! Qué extraño desvarío
si de mi ingratitud el hielo frío
secó las llagas de tus plantas puras!

Cuántas veces el ángel me decía:
"Alma, asómate agora a la ventana,
verás con cuanto amor llamar porfía!"

Y cuántas, hermosura soberana:
"Mañana te abriremos" - repondía,
para lo mismo responder mañana!

(What have I that you should sue for my friendship? What interest brings you, dear Jesus, to spend the dark winter nights at my door, covered in dew?
Oh how hard was my heart that I did not open to you! What strange madness was it if the cold frost of my ingratitude chapped the wounds on your pure feet?
How many times did the angel say to me: 'Now, soul, look out of your window, and you will see how lovingly he persists in knocking!'
And how many times, oh supreme beauty, did I reply: 'I will open tomorrow', only to make the same reply upon the morrow!)

Miguel de Guevara

This final poem is a religious sonnet is attributed to the sixteenth-century Mexican priest Miguel de Guevara (dates unknown), and it is one of the most moving religious poems that I know of.

A Cristo crucificado

No me mueve, mi Dios, para quererte,
el cielo que me tienes prometido,
ni me mueve el infierno tan temido
para dejar pos eso de ofenderte.

Tú me mueves, Señor; muéveme el verte
clavado en esa cru, y escarnecido;
muéveme el ver tu cuerpo tan herido,
muévenme tus afrentas, y tu muerte.

Muéveme, al fin, tu amor, y en tal manera,
que aunque no hubiera cielo, yo te amara,
y aunque no hubiera infierno te temiera.

No me tienes que dar porque te quiera;
pues aunque lo que espero no esperara,
lo mismo que te quiero te quisiera.

(To Christ Crucified
It is not heaven that You have promised me, my God, that moves me to love You, nor is it the hell I so fear that moves me to cease sinning against You.
You move me, Lord; it moves me to see You nailed to that cross and despised; it moves me to see Your body so wounded; the insults You suffered and Your death move me.
Finally, Your love moves m, and so much that even if there were no heaven, I should love You; and even in there were no hell, I should fear You.
You have not to give me anything to make me love You; for even if I did not hope for what I do hope for, I should love You just as I do.)

onsdag 19. april 2017

Writer's block - a poem by Emelihter Kihleng

This month is nearing its end and this is the first blogpost of the month. It has, in other words, been a very hectic month, but hectic in various ways. The first week passed by in a frantic writing process which saw the finishing of the first half of the thesis chapter on which I am currently working. The second week was spent in Norway during the Easter holiday. But now that I have returned from home and I am once again back at the office, I can turn my attention to this blog again, since my brain is neither too narrowly focussed, nor too relaxed to write new posts.

As a start for the April blogposts, I present to you a poem by Emelihter Kihleng, a poet from the Federation of Micronesia. I have a particular interest in geographical localities that are peripheral to my own cultural standing, and which are small - particularly so if they are islands, for reasons I do not entirely comprehend myself. Therefore, I was very happy to discover Emelihter Kihleng and her first collection of poems. The collection is titled My Urohs. An urohs is a long skirt worn by Micronesian women, and this is a recurring feature of identity marking in Kihleng's collection, a collection in which matters of identity are dealt with in several - and sometimes gripping - ways.

For this blogpost, however, I give you a poem which, as the title shows, deals with writer's block, a suitable way to mark the resuming of activity here on this blog.

Writer's block

I'm finally sitting down to write a poem
Is it the heat?
the quiet,
not a tree stirring,
a single leaf falls from the mahi

the house darkens
the tin roof holds its breath
rain pounds the cement
and everyone in Kolonia sighs
steam rising from the pavement

what is it about this place?

(Published in My Urohs, Kahuaomanoa Press, Honolulu, 2008)

fredag 31. mars 2017

Language and embrace - ruminations for March 31

In the medievalist section of social media, March 31 is International Hug A Medievalist Day, founded by Doctor Sarah Laseke, currently of Leiden University. This is the day when social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook explode with images of embraces from medieval manuscripts, using scenes of demons battling, furtive and illegal embraces, amorous encounters, scenes of the Visitatio Mariae, the kiss of Judas, and so on.

As a medievalist, I find these displays of virtual intimacy somewhat heart-warming, and it made me remember an often quoted passage from Derek Walcott's book-length poem Omeros, in which he states:

Because Rhyme remains the parentheses of palms
shielding a candle's tongue, it is the language's
desire to enclose the loved world in its arms

I have loved this verse ever since I first read it in the spring of 2008, which was the second term of my first year at university, and a time when I had just starting to explore unfamiliar literatures. It is a pleasing thought that language seeks to contain what is loved in its embrace, and the equation of language and love through this imagery is one that I find immensely moving.

The further I venture into the fields of medieval studies, and the more I explore the literatures of the medieval period, the more aware I become that Derek Walcott's description of language is a highly idealized one, and one that should be sought but one which often is discarded. Instead, the sad truth is this: Language is often used to destructive ends, even when it is cloaked in a semblance of love and goodness.

There is nothing uniquely medieval about this. In the modern world we see more than sufficient examples of how the choice of words marks up delineations between us and them. This is why, for instance, a Syrian child coming to the UK is termed a migrant, whereas a Brit settling down in Spain refers to himself as an expat.

Using words as tools of alienation appears to be a human constant, and is just as much a modern feature as it is a medieval feature. For me, however, the medieval use of words and language in this way has been very much on my mind recently, as research has brought me more closely into how medieval writers would talk about language to identify the cultural others, and how language was an important way to emphasize someone's degree of humanity.

I recently worked on an article where I noted the frequency of sources that would remark about this and that people that they spoke unintelligibly or like animals. One favourite example comes from Adam of Bremen's Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, in which he refers to the Northern Norwegians as not so much speaking as gnashing their teeth together, so that their neighbours can barely understand them. (It is worth noting that he probably received this information in Denmark.)

Another example that I have worked a lot on lately is the Gesta Swenomagni regis et filiorum eius et passione gloriosissimi Canuti regis et martyris. This work, a saint-biography of Knud IV of Denmark, also known as Saint Knud Rex, was written in the 1110s by the English monk Aelnoth of Canterbury, and records how Saint Knud was killed by an angry mob of Danish noblemen and commoners in Odense in 1086. In order to emphasize the uncivilised behaviour of the regicides, Aelnoth often depicts them as raging, and in one memorable instance states that they behaved "more porcorum", in the manner of swine.

This connection of language and beastly behaviour has deep roots in Christian literature. Among the most famous early examples is perhaps the encounter between Saint Antony of Egypt and a satyr, as told by Jerome in his Life of Paul of Thebes. Here, the satyr, and also the hippocentaur, are speaking in a manner that is difficult to understand. In this way, their lack of language, their semi-animal composition, and their uncivilised inhabitation all combine to emphasize their otherness. The trope is an often repeated one, and draws on the same old approach to language and civilization that once made the Ancient Greeks coin the term "barbar" for someone outside the Greek world, meaning someone speaking unintelligibly.

In light of all these instances where languages are employed as demarcators of us and them, as fences you set up to identify yourself as inhabiting a different space than your neighbour, it is comforting to sometimes embrace the notion of Walcott's verse that it is the language's desire to enclose the loved world in its arms.

And this is also what medievalists will be doing tomorrow, when we engage in the social media phenomenon of #Whanthataprille, an online celebration of medieval languages.

Sometimes, it is good for the soul to be a medievalist.

mandag 20. mars 2017

Little Lives - a modern hymn for Saint Cuthbert

Today, March 20, is the feast of Saint Cuthbert, bishop of Lindisfarne who died in 687, and whose body was later moved to Durham after Viking raids. Durham thus became the cult centre, and his body was ultimately translated to its present location in the Norman cathedral in 1104.

Cuthbert is the subject of many legends, and his importance and popularity have ensured him - and been ensured by - a range of biographical accounts. I hope to return to the subject of his legend in future blogposts. For the present post, however, I rather wish to present a poem of my own composition taking as its starting point one of the perhaps most beloved stories about Cuthbert in recent times. The story, recorded in a twelfth-century manuscript now in the British Library (MS Yates Thompson 26, folio 24r), tells of how Cuthbert was meditating by the sea and decided to go for a swim. When he returned, some otters came up to him and dried his feet with their warm breath. Several modern depictions of Saint Cuthbert have embraced this story.

Cuthbert and the otters, a story in three parts
MS. Yates Thompson 26, f.24r, prose life of Cuthbert, Durham, late 12th century
Courtesy of British Library

Little lives - a hymn for St. Cuthbert

After an illumination in BL MS. Yates Thompson 26, f. 24r

I thought of Cuthbert sitting by the water,
his head in Heaven and his feet on earth,
and how the little otters crept up to him
to keep him warm. He must have seen the worth
of little lives inhabiting Creation
whose time was praise for Him who gave them birth.
Perhaps he also felt this strange sensation:
that he was also small and still had worth.

- April 06 2014

søndag 19. mars 2017

Sea Grapes - a poem, and a reading, by Derek Walcott

Two days ago, on March 17 2017, Derek Walcott died in his home country Saint Lucia at the age of 87. I was deeply saddened by these unwelcome news. Derek Walcott is my favourite poet, not just in the English language but in any language. His verse has meant a great deal to me, both for my personal engagement with my own background and my own life, but also for my intellectual maturing and development.

When my head has cleared a bit from this initial sadness, I hope to put together a more coherent explanation of my relationship with Derek Walcott's verse and why I hold his poetry in such high esteem, a kind of epitaph as a tribute to a man to whom - despite his flaws - I feel indebted, and whose verse has marked my life in a way no other verse has done.

In this blogpost, however, as a kind of preface, I only wish to present one of his more famous poems, Sea Grapes, a poem which is in a way a foreshadowing of the book-length poem Omeros which he wrote in 1990, as Sea Grapes likewise presents a fusion of homeric and Caribbean imagery in an upheaval of chronology and a merging of history.

The text of the poem is taken from this website.

Sea Grapes

That sail which leans on light,
tired of islands,
a schooner beating up the Caribbean

for home, could be Odysseus,
home-bound on the Aegean;
that father and husband's

longing, under gnarled sour grapes, is
like the adulterer hearing Nausicaa's name
in every gull's outcry.

This brings nobody peace. The ancient war
between obsession and responsibility
will never finish and has been the same

for the sea-wanderer or the one on shore
now wriggling on his sandals to walk home,
since Troy sighed its last flame,

and the blind giant's boulder heaved the trough
from whose groundswell the great hexameters come
to the conclusions of exhausted surf.

The classics can console. But not enough. 

Derek Walcott reading Sea Grapes

For similar blogposts, see:

fredag 10. mars 2017

The Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius and the nations of the north

Recently, I finished writing an article in which I explored aspects of medieval otherness in texts concerned in one way or another with peripheral geographies. The article grew out of a paper I gave at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds in 2016, and allowed me to further develop the ideas I had been playing with then. The writing of this article brought me into contact with a wide range of texts which somehow engaged with geography and ideas of the monstrous, and especially texts wich contained some inclusion of the story of Gog and Magog. (I here refrain from using the term "legend", largely because to scholars in the Middle Ages, Gog and Magog were part of historical - and theological - reality.)

Gog and Magog entered the historical awareness of medieval scholars through the Bible, and have become synonymous with forces of destruction and evil. The names first appear in Ezekiel (38-39) where Gog, king of the land Magog, will be unleashed from the north as punishment for the iniquities of the Israelites. The situation of Magog to the north also tied this vision in with the prophecies of Jeremiah and Isaiah where the north is likewise presented as a house of evil forces. Although Gog and Magog are not featured in either Isaiah or Jeremiah, they nonetheless contribute to the same biblical typology of the north. In the Revelation of Saint John (19:11-21:8), however, Gog and Magog reappear, this time as two separate persons and allies of Satan in the battle at the end of days.

Jeremiah and the vision of the cauldron
Bourges - BM - ms. 0003, f.196v, Bible, last quarter of the twelfth century, Central France
Courtesy of

One of the several texts with which I became engaged in my research for this article was the Apocalypse of the so-called Pseudo-Methodius. This work of prophetic historiography was originally written in Syriac by an anonymous author situated somewhere northwest of Mosul, a location based on the Syriac preface where it says that Saint Methodius received the vision disseminated in the book on a mountain in this area (Garstad 2012: viii). The attribution of the Apocalypse to Methodius of Olympus is difficult to explain but of great significance in one respect, namely the book's function as a prophectic writ. Saint Methodius, reportedly bishop of Tyre, is said to have been martyred in 311 according to Jerome. That Methodius could have written the book is impossible, as it has been dated to around 690, and since it was written not far from Mosul in today's Iraq. Impossible though it be, the attribution of the authorship to such an important and historic figure as Methodius serves perhaps first of all to give weight to this book's value as a prophecy. After all, it purports to have been written almost four hundred years before the times of the book's first readers. For this reason, the anonymous author has been eternized as Pseudo-Methodius.

The Apocalypse was written in response to the political situation of the time. The area around Mosul had earlier in the century been conquered and was under Muslim overlordship by the time the book was written. By the beginning of the 690s, the Muslim government increased their taxation of the Christian communities, and this resulted in conversion to Islam, or apostasy from the Christian faith as was how the author would have seen it. Apostasy is one of the signs of the end times in biblical chiliastic typology, and throughout the Apocalypse this point is emphasized by references to 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 (Garstad 2012: ix). In short, the Apocalypse is a work of historical exegesis which presents the Muslims, referred to as Ishmaelites, as a sign of the beginning of the endtimes, and which chastises those who converted to Islam from Christianity as the apostates whose apostasy confirmed the role of the Ishmaelites as the heralds of the apocalypse.

Alexander enclosing the nations in the north
BL MS Harley 4979, f.47, prose Roman d'Alexandre, the Netherlands, 1st quarter of the 14th century
Courtesy of British Library

The Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius was translated into Greek and Latin within fifty years of its composition, and in those languages the book spread to Byzantium and Europe. Among the works it affected was the so-called Primary Chronicle of Novgorod, a monastic chronicle written at the monastery of Caves in the first quarter of the twelfth century. In this chronicle, an extract from the Apocalypse was included, having possibly made its way to Novgorod via an Old Slavonic translation. The extract included in the Primary Chronicle concerns the unclean nations to the north which, according to Pseudo-Methodius, had been enclosed behind a great wall by Alexander the Great when he beheld how filthy their habits were (Lunde and Stone 2012: 180-81). Among these nations were, unsurprisingly, Gog and Magog. This combination of the story of Alexander's Wall with the nations of the north so familiar to the Abrahamic religions is not a novel feature in the Apocalypse, it can already be glimpsed in the Quranic story of D'hul Quarnayn, but it has no doubt popularized the conflation and helped bringing its imagery to new audiences, as evidenced by the inclusion of the story in the Primary Chronicle.

The story of the enclosed nations is found in chapter eight of the Apocalypse, and is one of the longest chapters in the book. It begins by recording Alexander's heritage, being - according to Pseudo-Methodius - born of the Ethiopian princess Chouseth and King Philip of Macedonia. After Alexander's victory over Darius, he sojourned to the "Country of the Son" where he encountered the sons of Japheth, son of Noah. The nations descending from Japheth were found abominable by Alexander and he was repulsed by their unclean, cadaverous diet, and out of fear that they would "pollute the whole earth" and, most importantly, the Holy Land, he sought aid from God and then began to round up the sons of Japheth and drive them into the north. Pseudo-Methodius says:

And he drove tehm out of the land of th dawn and pursud close behind them, until they were brought into the lands beyond the North, and there is neither a way in nor a way out for them from east to west, through which one might come in to them or might go out. (Garstad 2012: 25)

Alexander then prays to God for help again, and God makes two mountains move closer together, so that the passage between them is small enough to be covered with a gate. This gate is made of brass and covered with a material, asyncite, seemingly Pseudo-Methodius' own invention (Garstad 2012: 339, n. 20),  that resists fire and iron. When the wall was finished:

So these accursed, false, and foul nations employed all kinds of magical intrigues, and in these things he [Alexander] rendered their sordid and inhuman, or to put it more strongly, godless sorcery ineffectual, so that they were not able by fire or iron or any other device to force open gates such as these and make their escape. (Garstad 2012: 27)

Among these nations are Gog and Magog, and by a reference to the prophecy of Ezekiel, Pseudo-Methodius states that they will break free from their enclosure at the end of times.

Alexander fighting dragons and firebreathing, horse-headed men
BL MS Royal 20 A V, f.73 Roman d'Alexandre, first quarter of 14th century, French
Courtesy of British Library

Among the nations of the north, there are both historical peoples such as the Sarmatians and the Alans, but also the mythical Dogheads. The Ishmaelites, however, are not found in this monstrous catalogue, and therefore serve a different role in the apocalyptic drama of the latter days than Gog and Magog. Pseudo-Methodius records that the Ishmaelites emerged from the desert of Yathrib, i.e. the Arabian peninsula, and this is of course in keeping with the first spread of Islam, and we are reminded that what the Apocalypse does is to weave historical events into a tapestry whose ending has been foretold in the Bible. Consequently, the role of the Ishmaelites is not to emerge onto the world at the endtimes, but to facilitate the emerging of Satan and the nations of the north and thus usher in the Apocalypse. This should be understood as a reference to the Muslim government, under whose rule many Christians converted to Islam and thus committed the apostasy of which Paul spoke in 2 Thessalonians. This also partly explains why the biblical intertextuality of the Apocalypse is as curiously selective as it is, with no reference to Revelation, and with an emphasis on the brief prophectic extract from 2 Thessalonians described above.

Nonethelss, the nations of the north will emerge in the end. Pseudo-Methodius describes how the oppression by the Ishmaelites will be overturned and things will resume their happy state once more. This happiness, however, will then be followed by this:

 Then the gates of the North will be opened up and out will come the powers of the nations which were enclosed within, and the whole earth will reel from their face and men will cry aloud and flee and hide themselves in the mountains and in the caves and among the gravestones. And they will be deadened with fear and many will perish and there will be none to bury their bodies. (Garstad 2012: 61-63)

Of course, in the end the nations of the north and Lucifer will alike be vanquished, and Pseudo-Methodius identifies the champion of Christianity as Rome. This is the Rome that descended from the kings of Ethiopia, according to a novel historical twist brought into the story by Pseudo-Methodius. As mentioned above, Alexander the Great was descended from the Ethiopian royal house by way of his mother Chouseth, the king's daughter. After Alexander's death, however, Chouseth married one of Alexander's general and bore him a daughter, Byzantia. Byzantia then became the mother of three sons, each of whom became the leader of an important city: Alexandria, Byzantium, and Rome. Therefore, the future leader of Rome will be a new Alexander, the antitype in the typology of history, and just as the half-Ethiopian conquerer enclosed the nations in the past, so will Rome, descendants of the Ethiopian kingdom, enclose the the nations at the end of the world. In this way, Pseudo-Methodius tells us, we see a fulfillment of Psalm 68:31, "Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God".

The Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius is a fascinating little work, and it is fascinating for many reasons. When I was working on my article, it provided me with a terrific, and horrific, example of how the typology of the north inherited both from the biblical and the Graeco-Roman cultures could be used in a specific context. I also came to better understand how that use could travel beyond its initial context and still carry meaning, all thanks to the spread of the typology handed down through the Bible and also the Graeco-Roman traditions that influenced the Alexander legends.


Anonymous, The Primary Chronicle, translated extract in Lunde, Paul, and Stone, Caroline, Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness - Arab Travellers in the Far North, Penguin Books, 2012: 180-81

Garstad, Benjamin, introduction to The Apocalypse fo Pseudo-Methodius, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 2012

Pseudo-Methodius, The Apocalypse, edited and translated from its Greek version by Benjamin Garstad, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 2012

tirsdag 28. februar 2017

Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings - a poem by Geoffrey Hill

For a quiet end to the month of February, here is a favourite sonnet of mine by the sorely missed Geoffrey Hill. Text from this website.

Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings
For whom the possessed sea littered, on both shores,
Ruinous arms; being fired, and for good,
To sound the constitution of just wars,
Men, in their eloquent fashion, understood.
Relieved of soul, the dropping-back of dust, 
Their usage, pride, admitted within doors;
At home, under caved chantries, set in trust, 
With well-dressed alabaster and proved spurs 
They lie; they lie; secure in the decay
Of blood, blood-marks, crowns hacked and coveted, 
Before the scouring fires of trial-day
Alight on men; before sleeked groin, gored head, 
Budge through the clay and gravel, and the sea 
Across daubed rock evacuates its dead.

søndag 26. februar 2017

A passage by Derek Walcott, or, a Fragment from The Schooner Flight

February has been a busy month with me trying my best to deal with the transition from writing to reading. After having spent several months producing text, I've now reached a point in my research where I have to read in order to produce more text, and it takes some time getting used to the change of pace this forces on me. As a way of distraction from the tranquility of reading, I'm sometimes transcribing manuscript fragments which is a way of producing text, albeit very differently from the writing of my thesis.

Because of all this, my blogging this month has been rather brief and must remain so in my attempt to have four blogposts done by the end of February. For the third post, therefore, I present you a fragment of Derek Walcott's poem The Schooner Flight, a poetic sequence which chronicles the voyage of a mariner onboard a schooner while he is missing his wife and reflecting on the wild nature around him. The poem can be found in its entirety here. It is written in imitation of the Caribbean patois which Derek Walcott has known from his earliest days, and which he often applies to his work when he wishes to place the text in the mouth of fictional Caribbeans.

After the Storm, from The Schooner Flight

There are so many islands!
As many islands as the stars at night
on that branched tree from which meteors are shaken
like falling fruit around the schooner Flight.
But things must fall, and so it always was,
on one hand Venus, on the other Mars;
fall, and are one, just as this earth is one
island in archipelagoes of stars.
My first friend was the sea. Now, is my last.
I stop talking now. I work, then I read,
cotching under a lantern hooked to the mast.
I try to forget what happiness was,
and when that don't work, I study the dtars.
Sometimes is just me, and the soft-scissored foam
as the deck turn white and the moon open
a cloud like a door, and the light over me
is a road in white moonlight taking me home.
Shabine sang to you from the depths of the sea.

mandag 20. februar 2017

Saint Christopher in Roskilde

In May 2016, a friend and I went on an excursion to Roskilde, one of Denmark's episcopal seats, and our primary target for the trip was its cathedral. The current building has undergone several bouts of extension and renovation throughout the centuries, but its oldest part is believed to date from the 1170s, and it is believed that the building was initiated by Bishop Absalon, who in 1177 became archbishop of Lund and thus metropolitan of Denmark. Absalon's stone cathedral replaced older churches on the spot, and it was dedicated to Saint Lucius who also had been the dedicatee of the previous church. Roskilde was an important religious centre in medieval Denmark, and in the 1140s a chronicle was written here, a chronicle now known as the Roskilde Chronicle, or Chronicon Roskildense.

The front of Roskilde Cathedral

The interior of Roskilde Cathedral is lavishly decorated with wall-paintings and sculptures, and most of them dating from the fifteenth-century onwards. There are many wonderful things to relate about these decorations, and in future blogposts I aim to return to several of them. In the present blogpost, however, I will merely give a taste of the splendour which is housed within the cathedral, and to do so I will give you two representations of Saint Christopher, one of the most common saints in medieval European art.

Saint Christopher carrying the Christ-child
Fresco from the chapel of the three holy kings, Roskilde Cathedral

The legend of Saint Christopher - Christophanes or Christ-bearer - tells of how a pagan soldier, often depicted as a giant and sometimes even as a dog-head, walked about the world in order to find the most powerful master so that he could submit to him. He met the Devil and sought to serve him, until he discovered that the Devil feared Christ. Intent to become a servant of Christ, Christopher sought instruction in the Christian faith, which he received from a hermit. As a form of service to Christ, Christopher stationed himself at a river to ferry people across. Since he was thought to be a giant, he is normally shown wading the river with his passenger sitting astraddle his neck. One day he was ferrying a little child across the river, and mid-stream the child became so heavy that Christopher barely could stand upright. The child then told him that he was Christ, and that the heaviness was the weight of the world which Christ carried. As proof of the child's testimony, he told Christopher to plant his staff in the ground and let it blossom the next day. When Christopher saw his staff blossoming - which is why the staff can be seen to bear leaves and fruits in the medieval depictions - he became a preacher for the Christian faith. He was later martyred for his missionary effort.

Detail from a wooden seat
Roskilde Cathedral

Saint Christopher's role as the patron of travellers ensured his popularity throughout the Middle Ages, and he was often included among the Fourteen Holy Helpers, a late-medieval saint collegium whose members varied throughout Europe. The depictions of Christopher at Roskilde Cathedral are typical examples of his most common iconography.


Farmer, David, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 2004

Roskilde Domkirke in Store Danske Leksikon, Gyldendal

mandag 6. februar 2017

Ultima Thule, a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I am currently putting the final touches on an article with which I have been preoccupied for the past month or so. In this article I have been pursuing a favourite fascination of mine, namely the descriptions of the peripheral and unfamiliar in medieval and pre-medieval writing. Consequently, my article has brought me into contact with descriptions of wild men and women inhabiting the most forbidding and inhospitable parts of the earth, and I have relished in the tales of these distant lands and their various inhabitants, different from the authors of the medieval texts in several respects.

One of the most famous symbols of geographical remoteness that has come down from us from the Graeco-Roman literature, which infused the medieval authors with a wide range of ideas about the geographical periphery, is the land of Thule or Tile. This island was first described by Pytheas of Massilia in 330 BC, and has since then been identified as a range of different locations in the North Atlantic, including Iceland, and Greenland.

The cultural history of Thule is longwinded and immensely fascinating, and one that I would love to return to at some point. For the time being, however, I will only present one of the many appearances Thule has made in cultural history, namely a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (Text taken from

I was pointed to this poem when I read a fascinating blogpost about the island of Kerguelen in the southern Indian Ocean, and it reminded me that Thule as a symbol of immense remoteness and the edge of the world is no longer limited to the northern hemisphere, but also carries a symbolic value for the geography of the southern part of the globe.

The island of Thule
As depicted in Olaus Magnus' Carta Marina from 1539
Courtesy of Wikimedia

Ultima Thule

With favouring winds, o'er sunlit seas,
We sailed for the Hesperides,
The land where golden apples grow;
But that, ah! that was long ago.

How far, since then, the ocean streams
Have swept us from that land of dreams,
That land of fiction and of truth,
The lost Atlantis of our youth!

Wither, ah, wither? Are not these
The tempest-haunted Orcades,
Where the sea-gulls scream, and breakers roar,
And wreck and sea-weed line the shore?

Ultima Thule! Utmost Isle!
Here in thy harbors for a while
We lower our sails; a while we rest
From the unending, endless quest.

mandag 30. januar 2017

Songs for the new semester

The new semester is well underway, and for me it has already been a very busy semester with a lot of writing already past me and even more writing ahead of me. This year is the last of PhD thesis, and even though I feel on top of things as of now, I also know that there is a significant amount of work waiting in the months to come. Although I enjoy this kind of work, although I enjoy doing the necessary research, the writing, and the thinking that is required when putting together a coherent academic text, I also need some stimuli to ward off that sense of emptiness which can engulf you when you work on one and the same thing for a longer period of time. For me, one such stimulus is music.

Since I work on materials mostly pertaining to medieval history and the history of the church, I find it very suitable - and soothing - to listen to liturgical pieces from the medieval and the early modern period. I have presented some favourites in previous blogposts (such as here and here). In this blogpost, I offer you a selection of musical pieces which I have been particularly enjoying these past weeks, and which have dominated the soundtrack for my research so far this year.

Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85)

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-94)
Missa Papae Marcelli

Duarte Lobo (c.1565-1646)
Missa Vox Clamantis

Manuel Cardoso (1566-1650)
Missa Pro Defunctis

fredag 27. januar 2017

Borges and the Barometz - or, Excerpts from a personal history of reading

As we all know, there is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition
- Jorge Luis Borges, preface to the 1969 English translation by Norman Thomas di Giovanni

It is an old adage that a good book is like a good friend, and as a staunch bibliophile I subscribe fully to this. Therefore, it was a great pleasure to receive a package in my pigeonhole containing a translated edition of Jorge Luis Borges' wonderful little Book of Imaginary Beings (Libro de los Seres Imaginarios). This little book is in many ways typical of Borges in that it contains a wide-ranging display of knowledge drawn from a great variety of literary works and selected from several different cultures. The book is in effect a kind of bestiary compiled from the long and long-winded history of mythical - and sometimes fictional - beasts. For someone whose love of Borges comes in part from his eclecticism, the Book of Imaginary Beings is an utter delight to read.

I bought my first copy of its English translation during my second term at university, i.e. in the spring of 2008. I remember very clearly how I spent part of that summer reading through the book, and my reading was inspired by me having read somewhere that the intention of Borges had been that this book should not be read from beginning to end, but rather by picking chapters here and there more or less at random. For a budding medievalist, convinced of the usefulness of such cultural historical knowledge, the reading was a sheer delight.

One or two years later, I gave my copy of the Book of Imaginary Beings to a very dear friend for his birthday. Part of me always regretted it. Even though I was somewhat sad to part from such a treasury of often-arcane knowledge, I did nothing about it until this year (for reasons I still fail to understand). What inspired the purchase, however, was that I had allowed myself to become immersed in the cultural history of the monsters from the Graeco-Roman and the medieval tradition, and after having spent weeks researching and writing about Blemmyae, Panotii, Cynocephali and other fixtures of the medieval ideas of the extremeties of the world, I was inspired to buy Borges' modern and updated bestiary. After its arrival, I have spent some time relishing its chapter in a kind of academic nostalgia. To share that delight, I will present one of the chapters below, and hopefully this will whet the appetites of readers as yet unfamiliar with this work to either obtain or borrow a copy of their own.

The Barometz

The vegetable Lamb of Tartary, also named Barometz and Lycopodium barometz and Chinese lycopodium, is a plant whose shape is that of a lamb bearing a golden fleece. It stands on four or five root stalks. Sir Thomas Browne gives this description of it in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646):

Much wonder is made of the Barometz, that strange plant-animal or vegetable Lamb of Tartary, which Wolves delight to feed on, which hath the shape of a Lamb, affordeth a bloody juyce upon breaking, and live while the plants be consumed about it.

Other monsters are made up by combining various kinds of animals; the Barometz is a union of animal and vegetable kingdoms.

This brings to mind the mandrake, which cries out like a man when it is ripped from the eath; and in one of the circles of the Inferno, the sad forests of the suicides, from whose torn limbs blood and words drip at the same time; and that tree dreamed by Chesterton, which devoured the birds nesting in its branches, and when spring came put out feathers instead of leaves.
- Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings (translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni), Vintage Books, 2002: 28

Although Borges does not mention it, the vegetable lamb is first described in medieval travel accounts of the Far East, and its first mention is often ascribed to Odoric de Pordenone (1286-1331), a Franciscan friar who travelled extensively in the East and who wrote an account of his journeys. The Barometz is believed to be a misunderstanding of the cotton plant, and its description gained enduring popularity.

This popularity might indeed be partly due to its inclusion in John Mandeville's Travels, written in the second half of the fourteenth century. In chapter 21, the narrator describes this beast in the following way:

Therefore, should one go from Cathay to northern or Southern India, one will go through a kingdom called Caldilhe. This is a very large country, where a kind of fruit grows like a gourd. When it is ripe people cut it open and they find inside an animal, a thing of flesh and blood and bone, it's like a little lamb without wool. People eat the animal and the fruit too, and that is mavellous indeed.
- John Mandeville, The Book of Marvels and Travels (translated by Anthony Bale), Oxford World Classics, 2012: 104

The vegetable lamb of Tartary
Woodcut from an unspecified edition of John Mandeville's Travels
Printed by Henry Lee in The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary 
(Courtesy of Wikimedia)

fredag 20. januar 2017

Geoffrey Hill's "The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian"

Today is the feast of Saint Sebastian, who, according to tradition, was a Christian soldier in the Roman army during the reign of Diocletian. Since Christianity was forbidden, Sebastian was arrested when his Christianity was found out, and he is said to have suffered martyrdom around 300. This martyrdom is often depicted as Sebastian being tied to a tree and pierced by arrows, but this was only the first part of his passion story. According to legend, Sebastian was later taken care of by a woman called Irene, later known as Irene of Rome, and he recovered from his wounds. His martyrdom was later consummated when Diocletian had his soldiers beat him to death with clubs when Sebastian confronted the emperor.

The story of Sebastian has enjoyed varied but immense popularity through the Middle Ages, and the arresting quality of his iconography - owing in part to its likeness with Christ's crucifixion - has inspired later legends as well as later art.

The image of Saint Sebastian has been used as the starting  point of a poem by Geoffrey Hill in his sequence Of Commerce and Society from his first poetry collection. The poem itself is a social commentary and has little to do with the story of Sebastian itself, and even his cause of death is incorrectly stated as being the arrows. Nonetheless, it is a beautiful poem whose reliance on the haunting imagery of Sebastian's passion story heightens the sense of drama and adds drama to the social commentary.

From Of Commerce and Society

6 The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian

Homage to Henry James
'But then face to face'

Naked, as if for swimming, the martyr
Catches his death in a little flutter
Of plain arrows. A grotesque situation,
But priceless, and harmless to the nation.

Consider such pains 'crystalline': then fine art
Persists where most crystals accumulate.
History can be scraped clean of its old price.
Engrossed in the cold blood of sacrifice

The provident and self-healing gods
Destroy only to save. Well-stocked with foods,
Englarged and deep-oiled, America
Detects music, apprehends the day-star

Where, sensitive and half-under a cloud,
Europe muddles her dreaming, is loud
And criticial beneath the varied domes
Resonant with tribute and with commerce.
- Published in For the Unfallen (1959)

Martyrdom of Sebastian
Aix-en-Provence - BM - ms. 0016, f.278, Book of Hours, Use of Paris, between 1480-90
(Courtesy of

For other blogposts on Saint Sebastian:

Poems on Saint Sebastian

On Sebastian and hedgehog iconography in the legend of Saint Edmund Martyr

Guillaume Dufay's two motets for Saint Sebastian

On Sebastian depicted with a beard

Two Tuscan depictions of Sebastian's martyrdom

tirsdag 17. januar 2017

Excerpts from the cultural history of the toad

In the middle of the thirteenth century, Thomas de Cantimpré (1201-72) composed an encyclopedic work titled Liber de Natura Rerum, in which he provided an overview of animals, trees, stones, and parts of the human body, to mention only a few. The third book of his work, only four pages long in the 1973 edition, Thomas dedicated to the monstrous humans of the east, "De monstruosis hominibus orientis". For much of this material he draws on Pliny, although his debt to multiple sources is indicated by the work's subtitle "secundum diversos philosophos", or "according to several philosophers".

One of these monstrous nations of the east is very briefly, but fascinatingly described by Thomas and disturbingly depicted in the illumination below. The name of this nation is not provided, and all Thomas states is the following:

In quadam regione, ut dicit Iacobus, cum bufonibus nascuntur pueri. Si quis autem sine bufone nascatur, mater eius tanquam adultera iudicatur et, que ab alienigena conceperit, a marito suo repudiatur.

In which region [the mountains of India], so says Jacobus, children are born together with a toad. But if it is born without a toad, its mother is judged to be an adulteress and, as she has conceived with another, is repudiated by her husband.

(My translation.)

Woman giving birth to a toad and a baby 
Valenciennes - BM - ms. 0320, f.45v, Thomas de Cantimpré, De Natura Rerum, c.1290, Paris (Courtesy of

In the medieval imagination there were many nations on the peripheries of the world who were deemed monstrous, either by physical attributes or by differing from the beholders - European Catholic Christians - through cultural practices. The case of the women of the Indian mountain giving birth to toads, we are here dealing with a case straddling both those form of monstrosity, which shows that the distinction between cultural and physical monstrosity might be more academic than medieval, and not very accurate.

In any case, the fact that the women of this anonymous nation were believed to engender toads illustrate their monstrosity in two ways. In part this has to do with the fact that we are dealing with a birth that goes against nature. However, part of the monstrosity might also be said to come from the animal being born, namely the toad. Thomas de Cantimpré elaborates on this animal himself in book 9, on vermin, where the toad is described as venomous, and having a pestilential appearance.

Another instance of the toad being associated with evil comes from a Norwegian altar front dated to c.1300, currently on permanent exhibition in Bergen Museum. The altar front comes from Nedstryn in Western Norway, and depicts the recapture of the Holy Cross by Heraclius from the Persians in 628. The story appears to have been popular in Western Europe, and was widely transmitted through its place in Legenda Aurea by Jacobus de Voragine, but was also popular before this. The recapture of the Holy Cross was the occasion for the feast-day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, celebrated 14th of September.

The main antagonist of the drama, as it was portrayed in the various Christian renditions, was the Persian king Chosroes who had himself worshipped as a god, and whose evil power was confronted by Emperor Heraclius. In the altar front from Nedstryn, the Persian army is recognizable from the Christians by their coat-of-arms. The Christians led by Heraclius carry the cross on their shields, while the Persians carry the black toad, strongly resembling the toad being born of the woman in the Indian mountains depicted above. The use of the toad as the Persian coat-of-arms highlights the evil connotations of the toad, since it became the symbol for those who desecrated the cross of Christ by carrying it to Persia. Consequently, the victory of the Christians is also shown by the sword of Heraclius cleaving the toad in two during the fight against the Persian champion.

The Persians capture the Holy Cross
Detail from the Nedstryn altar front
Courtesy of, photograph by Frode Inge Helland

Heraclius defeats the Persian champion
Detail from the Nedstryn altar front
Courtesy of, photograph by Frode Inge Helland