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

torsdag 30. november 2017

The Tenderness Manifesto - a poem by Mbella Sonne Dipoko

As the month draws to its close and we are on the verge of the Advent period and - in academia - the hectic scramble of tying loose ends together before the Christmas break, I'm presenting to you this poem by anglophone Cameroonian poet Mbella Sonne Dipoko. The poem comes from his poetry collection Black and White in love, printed in Heinemann's African Writer Series. It is a powerful,  exhortation of love of humanity and love of culture, and can be appreciated both on its own but also in light of its age when several countries in Africa were in the process of shedding their colonial status, and when the political games between the ideologies of Capitalism and Communism played into the geopolitical scenes across the African continent. But most importantly, it is a powerful poetic manifesto which at its very core is as timeless as poetry itself.

tirsdag 28. november 2017

Working with liturgical fragments, part 3 - The tiniest fragment

As I'm continuing my work with the liturgical fragments at the library of University of Southern Denmark, I find myself learning more and more about the books from which the fragments come, as well as the texts that they contain. As these fragments mostly come from liturgical material, they contain texts that are common to all of Latin Christendom, and this makes it easier to track down the full text of what survives in perhaps only a line or a few scattered words. In some cases I have learned to expect certain chants to appear together, either one following the other or as part of the same feast. I have also learned just how much it is possible to glean from a very small amount of information. This is part of why working with fragments is at times immensely exciting and rewarding, and it is what sometimes makes you peruse long lists of possible matches in databases, because you know that there is a great possibility that it will pay off.

Other times, however, it becomes clear that there is very little that can be done due to the scarcity of information. One such case became apparent yesterday as I was photographing some of the fragments in the library reading room. I had been given a set of photos taken by a colleague, and once I had exhausted the information available from those pictures I wanted to have a closer look to see if there was anything missing. It turned out that there was indeed something missing, but much more than I had expected.

The fragment in question has the shelfmark RARA Musik L 43 and contains materials for mass, meaning that the original manuscript was likely a missal or a gradual, which are books containing chants for the mass. The book with which the fragment was bound, contained namely a sister volume which had once upon a time been bound in the same way and likely with a fragment from the same manuscript as in the first volume. Of this second fragment, however, only the tiniest shred remained - enough to indicate the type of notation, and that the halved letter was an initial in red and black - possibly a versicle or an antiphon, as can be seen below. Sometimes, although grudgingly, I have to admit that I most likely will never be able to work out which part of the original manuscript this fragment came from. How much information has been lost in this, can be seen when comparing the rich and clear textual material from the surviving fragment of its sister volume, as seen below.

RARA Musik L 43, Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

RARA Musik L 43, Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

søndag 19. november 2017

Working with liturgical fragments, part 2 - Initial thoughts

As mentioned in my previous blogpost, I'm currently working a lot with fragments of medieval manuscripts, focussing for the most part on liturgical material, in the rare book collection of the library of Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek. Last Friday I went to the reading room where we keep the books with fragments - the so-called fragment carriers - in order to have a closer look at the item called RARA Musik L 44. This is a collection of madrigals bound with a liturgical fragment where one of the folios contains an excerpt from the office for the feast of Visitatio Mariae (July 2).

RARA Musik L 44
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

By the time I went to scrutinise this fragment, I had already been working with pictures of it in order to transcribe the texts and identify them, trying to assess what type of book this is. The pictures had allowed me to identify much of the material, but I still needed to see the fragment in the flesh, and I also wanted to have a closer look at some very charming initials, which I wanted to share with you here. 

The first one is this cheerful little guy who hides in the initial I of the antiphon In montibus sanctis.

RARA Musik L 44
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

The second one is this splendid face protruding from the A initial of yet another antiphon, namely Annunciate salutare.

RARA Musik L 44
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

The third and final example has been tragically cut in half by the book-binder when the parchment was folded around the edge of the book. I quite like that his visible eye is looking down to examine that which has been lost. I owe this fellow a big thanks, however, because had it not been for the fact that he/she is so clearly hiding in an L, I would not have been able to identify the text of the antiphon Lux orta est, and in so doing made my identification of this office even more secure.

RARA Musik L 44
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

lørdag 11. november 2017

Working with liturgical fragments, part 1 - Texts for a commemoration

As stated in my previous blogpost, I am currently employed by the library of the University of Southern Denmark as a research assistant. Part of my job is to identify liturgical fragments, and this is a task I relish because it poses a particular set of challenges. Identifying any kind of medieval fragment is challenging, but in the case of the liturgical fragments the challenge is perhaps more balanced between those aspects that are very difficult and those aspects that are quite easy. In this little blogpost, I wish to provide an example of what I mean by this. (Before I continue I should also emphasise that I write this blogpost as a private individual, not as an employee. I have been given carte blanche to blog about my research from the heads of the fragment project, but I wish to emphasise that this blog is a personal endeavour, and does not represent the university or its library. All photos used are taken by me.)

Liturgical books in the Middle Ages were full of information, and in many cases this information had to be heavily abbreviated in order to provide directions for which texts and what type of texts were to be performed. In a cathedral or in a monastery, the performance of the liturgy was a ubiquitous aspect of the daily life, with masses and services of the daily cycle of hours in the celebration of a saint's feast. The songs to be performed for the various celebrations were written down in books, and - as stated - due to the sheer amount of information to be put into these books, much of that information was reduced to a single letter to denote the type of song to be performed, such as a red-lettered A for antiphon, a type of chant that was sung before and after a psalm. Moreover, in some cases the songs would be indicated only by their opening words, the so-called incipit, the beginning. This was most often the case with psalms, as they were well-known texts for the choristers and had their particular places in the established uses of the ecclesiastical institution, a use or usus meaning the way in which the psalms were organised to be sung in the course of the week, and the saints which were to be celebrated in that institution and the other institutions following that specific usus.

Because of this system of abbreviations, liturgical manuscripts pose a challenge to those who seek to extract its information as it is necessary to decode it. However, once you have learned those abbreviations, the decoding is fairly easy - depending on the state of the surviving fragments - and one can manage to extract quite a lot of information from a rather small fragment. In this blogpost, I wish to provide an example of that from the work that I have done recently on one of the four fragments that collectively comprise RARA Musik M 4. I will not say much about these fragments here, but I might return to that in a later blogpost.

RARA Musik M 4 - Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

This page is from the office for a confessor, i.e. one of the types of saints. It is still a bit unclear which type of confessor this particular office is celebrating, as there are several set sequences of chants and psalms that were common to all Latin Christendom in their celebration of saints belonging to this saint-type. Such sets of chants and psalms are called commune, common, because they were common to each ecclesiastical institution of Latin Christendom. Since the saint-type of confessor contains several commons - the common of one confessor, the common of one confessor who is not a bishop, the common of several confessors, and so on - it is not always easy to pinpoint exactly which common we are here dealing with. However, in this fragment, there is an added celebration in the office which is easier to pinpoint.

RARA Musik M 4 - Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

These three lines in minuscules are inserted into the sequence as a parenthesis in the performance. Such a parenthesis, so to speak, is a commemoration, a commemoratio, which is performed during a feast so as to ensure that those commemorated by this commemoratio are not forgotten. This little commemoration provides a very good example of just how much information can be found in a liturgical fragment.

As mentioned above, for the celebration contained in this part of the manuscript, it is unclear which office we are dealing with. For this little commemoratio, however, it is as simple as can be, since the information is given in the commemoratio's opening letters: De confessore non pontificus, or for a confessor who is not a pontiff. The time of the performance of the commemoratio is established in the following words, namely ad uesperas, for Vespers, an hour in the daily cycle of the office which was performed in the late afternoon, often around six (but depending on the time of the year as the hours followed the sun rather than a clock). In the office for a saint, the Vesper of the day before the feast itself is the first hour of the liturgical celebration of the saint.

Following the establishment of the time of the performance of the commemoratio, we are given the texts that are to be included in it. The first is a capitulum, a chapter, which is a passage from the Bible being read, in this case a verse from James 1:12, "blessed is the man who suffers temptation". This is a very appropriate text for a saint, especially for a confessor, since their main claim to sanctity was a holy and spotless living. Then comes the hymn Iste confessor, followed by what seems to be Psalm 1, Beatus uir, and then it is concluded with the antiphon Amauit eum dominus, a chant based on the book of Ecclesiasticus which states that the holy man is beloved of God who clothes him in a robe of glory.

In those three lines of the commemoratio can be found all that information: The type of saint being commemorated, the time of the day, and the four texts included in the commemoration. This compression of information allows for a lot of information to be found in even small liturgical fragments, or in small parts of larger fragments. This is one of the many reasons I thoroughly enjoy working with liturgical fragments, because there is so much to be found in a relatively small space, and because once the decoding has been learnt it is not too difficult to identify the various items included in the fragment.

tirsdag 31. oktober 2017

Old books, new beginnings

For the past three years I have been working as a PhD fellow at the Centre for Medieval Literature at University of Southern Denmark in Odense. This job ended with the submission of my PhD thesis on October 02, and I am therefore very pleased to announce that I will be starting in a new job tomorrow, November 01. This job is a four-month position as a research assistant, financed partly by the Centre for Medieval Literature and partly by the University Library, and my job will be to assist in the identification, cataloguing, digitisation and research of a collection of old books which the library purchased from an old boarding school back in the 1960s. This school was founded in the early seventeenth century, and this book collection contains not only a wide array of printed books from the fifteenth century onwards (including some interesting incunabulas), but also - within these printed books - a high, and rising, number of fragments from medieval manuscripts that are in the process of being identified. 

I have only a cursory idea of what the next four months will bring in terms of excitement, tasks, experiences and discoveries, but as I have already been engaged with some of this material during my PhD I do know what potential there is in some of the fragments and some of the incunabulas contained there. I have been very fortunate to be allowed this chance to broaden my horizon and to immerse myself in this treasure trove of old books, and I look forward to communicate these finds as often as I can.

søndag 29. oktober 2017

Night fishing - a poem by Derek Walcott

Night Fishing

Line trawl for each word
with the home-sick toss
of a black pirogue anchored
in stuttering phosphorus.

The crab-fishers' torches
keep to the surf's crooked line,
and a cloud's page scorches
with a smell of kerosene.

Thorny stars halo
the sybil's black cry:
"Apotheneis thelo
I am longing to die."

But, line, live in the sounds
that ignorant shallows use;
then throw the silvery nouns
to open-mouthed canoes.

- From The Arkansas Testament, Faber & Faber, 1987

torsdag 26. oktober 2017

Home office in autumn

These days I'm taking a vacation at home in my native village, Hyen, in Western Norway, as a way to wind down after the stressful conclusion to my PhD process and the submission of my thesis. The days have been filled with the kind of autumnal atmosphere that I was sorely missing in the more southerly Denmark, and I have relished in the yellow leaves and cold evenings. But even though I'm on vacation, I'm not completely free, and the other day I had to turn one of the rooms into a makeshift office for a meeting I was joining via Internet. It did feel good to have some academic impulses even in these days of rest, and especially when the view from my office was the one below.

tirsdag 10. oktober 2017

Consummatum est

Consummatum est - it is completed. This is the pious blasphemy with which I have quietly expressed to people that I have submitted my PhD thesis, and that I have finished the work of three years, two months and two days. It all happened on October 02 2017 with a simple e-mail containing a bouquet of attachments, and having clicked "send" I sensed a rush of calm and delight. This sensation lasted for about an hour, an hour in which I called my loved ones to spread the good news, but the elation was quickly punctured by an e-mail saying that I had handed in to the wrong faculty, a blunder which was the result of trying to locate the correct instructions for submission on the university's websites. This blunder did not cause any actual problems, the attachments were forwarded to the right person, and I also send the e-mail again to the right person, partly as a safety measure, partly - I suspect - as a way of denying to myself that I had cocked it up.

The blunder did not cause any actual problems, but it came at the tail end of several weeks in which I had been tossed between different emotional states, back and forth between confident and worried, patient and impatient, calm and stressed. This period included me having to ask for a two-week extension, which was then followed by a weekend's extension, and it also contained a confusing and sometimes contradictory quest for the needed details about length, size, page-limit, character count, and structure of the thesis itself.

Because the blunder came on top of this, my elation was soon exchanged for a sense of incompetence, and it no longer felt like the great fulfillment of three of the happiest years of my life. Instead, it felt like a somewhat bathos-filled, anti-climactic finale to some strange tragicomedy I didn't really comprehend. I also think this feeling was exacerbated by the fact that I had submitted electronically - I had submitted a virtual, unbound and unprinted copy of my thesis, not a physical manifestation of my intellectual labour but a digital copy that remained untangible no matter how often I would upload it to Dropbox or e-mail it to myself to make sure I would have a back-up of it. It was all done by the clicking of a few icons on a slow computer in a lonely office on an autumn day whose general meterological conditions I no longer remember.

It has now been nine days since I handed in my thesis, and in the interim I have come to realise that the post-submission fatigue has been greater than I thought and much stronger than myself. I have spent part of the time relaxing, reading poetry, preparing for travels, and going back to the office to clean out books, to socialise with friends and colleagues, and to take care of various minor things. It has been nine days, and this is the first time I have been able to write anything, or to even attempt to put my thoughts into a coherent whole again. These days have been long and quiet, and also difficult, because for the first time in three years there is no major on-going project that I need to tend to, that I need to finish within a looming deadline, and I simply don't know what to do. I had thought these days would be spent reading, or going out to eat and to stroll around flaneur-like about town. But no, I have been unable to do so, and I think it is because I have not yet come to terms with the fact that I have submitted, that I am done, that I only have a distant defence to worry about and that's it. I ascribe this feeling to the contrast between the scramble of the past two months and the unceremonious completion of the thesis, the almost doubtful reality of my submission.

Since I submitted, I have been able to see a printed version of my thesis, the one sent to my secondary advisor for perusal before the defence, and it did feel great to see my words on a physical page, to see how the structure and order of the work plays out in print, and to be able to do the very tangible and familar act of browsing with pages that I had myself filled with words and ideas. It did feel great, but I didn't push away what the final weeks of the process had imprinted upon me, and I still find that the energy I thought I would have for books and exploration is something that is on its way back, slowly.

But I can at least await its return with the knowledge that as far as my thesis goes, it is completed. 

lørdag 30. september 2017

Countryman - a poem by George Mackay Brown


Come soon. Break from the pure ring of silence,
A swaddled wail

You venture
With jotter and book and pencil to school

An ox man, you turn
Black pages on the hill

Whisper a vow
To the long white sweetness under blessing and bell

A full harvest,
Utterings of gold at the mill

Old yarns, old malt, beside the hearth,
A breaking of ice at the well

Be silent, story, soon.
You did not take long to tell

- From Voyages, Chatto & Windus, 1983

fredag 29. september 2017

Intermesso in the last weeks of the PhD thesis, part 5 - second time around

A week ago, I lived in the hope that today, Friday 29th of September 2017 would be the day I handed in the thesis that I have been working on for the past three years and one month. Unfortunately, this was not to be since it turned out that much more time was required to get the technical aspects of the document in place, the format, the pagination, and so on. Fortunately, I have received help from my closest friend in this process, otherwise I would probably not be able to hand in any foreseeable future. As it stands now, however, I have spent the day implementing those changes to my thesis that I had noted in the course of my second reading of the entire thing. It took most of the day to get it sorted, and the three coffee cups in the background of the picture should give an accurate indication of how I am currently feeling about all this. Only a few more days to go.

mandag 25. september 2017

Intermesso in the last weeks of the PhD thesis, part 4 - here comes the sun

I'm still working on the finishing touches on my thesis, and as often is the case in such situations there came several delays towards what should have been the end. I'm fortunately getting closer by the day, and as we are now having an Indian summer here in Odense I could bring my notebook and coffee out in one of our courtyard - a bigger one than the one I usually frequent - and enjoy some sun while sketching out the outline of my conclusions.

onsdag 20. september 2017

First draft

My thesis process is still unfolding, and most of my energy and focus these days are directed towards the completion of all those small steps that will lead me through to the end, and which will allow me - eventually - to lay my head down and think of all the things I will be doing next. Today I took an important step towards completion: I printed the first draft of the thesis. It feels strange but good to have a tangible, physical copy of what I have been working on for the past three years. It is thicker than I thought it would be for the 128 sheets of paper of the six chapters that comprise my research and my analysis, and the final product will be even bigger with appendices and other kinds of paratext. I'm dedicating the next few days to reading through all these pages, looking for errors, typos, inconsistencies and broken promises, and then I am a big step closer to handing in.

torsdag 31. august 2017

Blackberry-picking, a poem by Seamus Heaney

As a brief farewell to August, here is a seasonal poem by Seamus Heaney which was published in his debut poetry collection, Death of a naturalist in 1966. It is a beautiful and atmospheric invocation of one of the hallmarks of a childhood in the district, berry-picking, and one of the typical features of summer. (Text is taken from this website.)

 Blackberry picking

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.


tirsdag 29. august 2017

Intermesso in the last weeks of the PhD thesis, part 3 - out of doors

The thesis is still progressing and I have not lost my optimism yet. In order to keep things that way, I tend to escape from the office walls for shorter periods and make use of the little courtyard we have beside the common room. It is a good way to get some fresh air, some sun, and most importantly a change of scenery.

In the past weeks there has been a lot of writing going on, either writing things from scratch or editing things that I wrote months ago, or reformulating things I wrote months ago by writing sections from scratch. I'm now at the point where I need to write a chapter that ties the case studies together, and this will be the last major step towards finishing. Today, however, I found that I was so tired of writing on a computer that I decided instead to put things on paper, writing coherent prose by pen rather than by keyboard. It was a welcome change, and a good reminder of the need for such change lest the final stages just wither away into stagnant routine.

søndag 27. august 2017

Intermesso in the last weeks of of the PhD thesis, part 2 - dismantling the office library

Ever since beginning my work as a PhD candidate at the University of Southern Denmark, I have surrounded myself with books. The office shelves have consistently been filled with volumes that I have read, and even more volumes that I have not and probably will never read. To me it is a matter of comfort to have books on hand for a quick reference, and to feel that if I need to read up on something I won't have to have the book brought to my pigeon-hole, I can simply turn around and fetch what I need. In many cases, the books I have kept in my office on and off these past three years have not provided me with any references, but I have nonetheless been happy to have them nearby just in case.

I had envisioned that when the thesis was handed in, I would deliver all the books that I had borrowed and then have a fresh start for the period between handing in the thesis and defending it. Not so. Recently, I received a rather serious not from one of the poor librarians whose patience I have tested repeatedly in my time here, and I came to realize that I would have to hand in some of the books already or pay for the consequences. As another window into the final days of the thesis process, therefore, I send you this snapshot from out common room. The red box is the one allotted to us from the library, and this is the one in which our books are brought. Its capacity is vastly insufficient for the present status. It should be noted, however, that not all of the books in these stacks are from my office, I am not the only one to dismantle their office library. But in this particular haul, I take responsibility for about eigthy percent of it.

fredag 25. august 2017

Intermesso in the last weeks of the PhD thesis

So these are the spires in which he does his dreaming
- Inspector Robert Lewis, Lewis, Pilot Episode, 2006

My days as a PhD candidate are running out, and they are running out fast. I have only mere weeks left before I am supposed to hand in my thesis, and the days are filled with writing, editing, reading, and thinking about how I want my work to come together. Because of all these things that have to be done, I have little time and little strength for writing beyond what is necessary for the thesis. So in the coming days, my blogging will consist mostly of things like the image below, small intermessoes amidst a scramble towards the finish line. This time around, a snapshot of how my office has looked in the recent bouts of editing, a kingdom of precarious towers that have now largely been built down in an effort to cleanse the mind a bit.

And that sweet City with her dreaming spires
- Matthew Arnold, Thyrsis

mandag 31. juli 2017

Coral, by Derek Walcott

To end the month of July, I give you a short and beautiful poem of Derek Walcott, a poet whose verse always makes me think of the summer months back home in Norway.


This coral's shape echoes the hand
It hollowed. Its

Immediate absence is heavy. As pumice,
As your breast in my cupped palm.

Sea-cold, its nipple rasps like sand,
Its pores, like yours, shone with salt sweat.

Bodies in absence displace their weight,
And your smooth body, like none other,

Creates an exact absence like this stone
Set on a table with a whitening rack

Of souveniers. It dares my hand
To claim what lovers' hands have never known:

The nature of the body of another.

lørdag 29. juli 2017

Saint Olaf in Rome

Today is the feast of Saint Olaf of Norway, a day which in Norway is known as Olsok, coming for Old Norse "Olavsvaka", meaning the wake or vigil of Saint Olaf. To mark the day, I give you one of the more curious manifestations of the importance of Saint Olaf to the Norwegian imagination and the Norwegian identity, namely the painting of the altar of Saint Olaf in Rome.

This altar is found in the church San Carlo al Corso, dedicated to Saint Carlo Borromeo (d.1584). It was dedicated April 9, 1893, and the altar painting was carried out by the Polish painter Pius Welonski (d.1931). The altar itself was established on the initiative of Norwegian Catholics and was intended to mark that it was fifty years since Pope Leo XIII had been ordained as a bishop (although he would only become pope in 1878).

Olav, King of Norway
Painting in the church of San Carlo al Corso, by Pius Welonski
Courtesy of this website

The painting depicts Olaf with his axe and his royal orb, standing on a defeated dragon in a very Norwegian landscape. As such it fits in a tradition in the depictions of Olaf from the late fourteenth-century onwards, in which Olaf is positioned on top of a beast, often interpreted as a dragon. It is clear that Welonski had some very good directions for how Olaf should be depicted according to how late-ninteenth-century Norwegian Catholics expected to see him.

From the lower half of the left-hand side of the frame and to the lower half of the right-hand side of the frame, one can read the legend "S. Olavus Martyr Norvegiae Rex et Patronus", Saint Olaf Martyr, king and patron of Norway. This is perfectly in keeping with how Olaf was understood in the contemporary mindset. However, when seen from the angle of the medieval Olaf iconography and its development, it is noteworthy that the image fuses two separate stages in this development. On the one hand we see Olaf as patron and king of Norway, a presentation and interpretation of Olaf which appeared in the mid-twelfth century under the auspices of Archbishop Eystein Erlendsson (reigned 1161-88). On the other hand, we see Olaf situated on top of a beast, which is a tradition that only emerged later in the Middle Ages, and possibly outside Norway, meaning that it might have its conception in stories of popular origin or stories which were generated outside the control of the Norwegian medieval church. This fusion of Olaf the patron and Olaf the dragon-stander had by the nineteenth-century become perfectly canonical to the Norwegian mind, and this is the version presented to the Catholics of the world who enter the San Carlo church. But this fusion hides a complex and long-winded evolution which has merged elements originating in very different milieus and at very different times, and made it the modern idea of the medieval Olaf.


Kari-Anne Bye, Å drepe dragen, MA thesis, NTNU, Trondheim, 2011

onsdag 26. juli 2017

The Summer Office

Academic summers are not like other summers, and for me who am now at the tail-end of my PhD work this summer has been particularly marked by the need to get thesis work done. I have eschewed conferences to gain more time, although I have allowed myself time off in the first two weeks of July. Now, however, I have had to resume my work, and since I am currently living in the house of my late grandparents, I'm making use of my grandfather's room as my office. I am very happy for this temporary office, as the room is bright and the desk - which I bought during my university days for my student apartment - is situated so that I can see the mountains descending into the fjord, the lake by the side of the house, and the ripening cherries which are just out of reach for anyone but the thrushes who feast on them.

mandag 17. juli 2017

To a tyrant - a poem by Joseph Brodsky

I am in my native village of Hyen for the month of July, and when I am home I have a selection of poets whose verse I especially enjoy as I think them particularly suitable to be enjoyed in this setting. One of these poets is Joseph Brodsky, whom I only read in Norwegian or English translations. Among those of his poems which have stayed with me the most strongly, is the poem "To a tyrant" from his collection A Part of Speech, and it is this poem I wish to present to you here. Although I first read this poem in a beautiful Norwegian rendition - and therefore always read it in this rendition - I here give you the translation into English as published in Collected poems in English, published by Carcanet in 2001. It is not specified which of the various translators of the volume who wrought the translation of "To a tyrant", or whether it was Brodsky himself who did all of it.

To a tyrant

He used to come here til he donned gold braid,
a good topcoat on, self-controlled, stoop-shouldered.
Arresting these café habitués -
he started snuffing out world culture somewhat later -
seemed sweet revenge (on Time, that is, not them)
for all the lack of cash, the sneers and insults,
the lousy coffee, boredom, and the battles
at vingt-et-un he lost time and again.

And time has had to stomach that revenge.
The place is now quite crowded; bursts of laughter,
records boom out. But just before you sit
you seem to feel an urge to turn your head around.
Plastic and chrome are everywhere - not right;
the pastries have an aftertaste of bromide.
Sometimes before the place shuts down he'll enter
straight from a theater, anonymous, no fuss.

When he comes in, the lot of them stand up.
Some out of duty, the rest in unfeigned joy.
Limp-wristed, with a languid sweep of palm,
he gives the evening back its cozy feel.
He drinks his coffee - better, nowadays -
and bites a roll, while perching on his chair,
so tasty that the very dead would cry
"Oh, yes!" if only they could rise and be there.

torsdag 29. juni 2017

The apochryphal saint-king and the king who never was

When researching the cult and literature of saints, one is very often dealing with figures whose historicity is doubtful, and sometimes even figures that clearly have not existed. In some cases, the non-existent figures were not the saints themselves, but instead people featuring in the stories about them. These secondary figures of historical non-existence very often contribute to obscuring that kernel of the saint's legend which does seem to have some historical basis. This is the case with Saint Richard and King Otto of England.

In my research I recently came across the story of Saint Richard in an incunabula housed at the university library of the University of Southern Denmark (Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek). According to the front matter of the book, replicated by hand after the original printed front matter was somehow lost, the book is a collection of saints' lives in German called Das Leuend der Hÿlghen, or The Lives of the Saints, printed in Lübeck in 1492.

Saint Richard, son of King Otto of England
Das leuend der hÿlghen, a collection of stories about saints, Lübeck, 1492
Incunabula RARA M 15, Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

I was quite intrigued to see this story of Saint Richard. I had never heard of him, and since I have been working quite a bit with English saints I was excited to learn of one more. As the vignette to the story indicates, Richard was noted as a pilgrim, shown by the pilgrim's hat and the pilgrim's badges of the scallop, which is the symbol of Santiago in Compostela, but which is also seems to be used as a shorthand for denoting the pilgrim in medieval iconography. I was, however, very surprised to read that he was the son of King Otto of England, because there has never been any such king in the history of the kings of England.

As for the historical nature of Saint Richard, this is, according to David Farmer, a name that is given to the father of Saint Willibald, Saint Winnibald, and Saint Walburga, three figures whose historicity is certain, and who were Anglo-Saxons pilgrims who became important ecclesiastical figures in Germany. The story of their pilgrimage were written down by the nun Huneberc of Heidenheim (fl.780) in the book Hodoeporican, and Reginald of Eichstatt (d.991) appears to be the one responsible for introducing Richard as their father. According to the legend, Richard died at Lucca where his relics were venerated "at least from the twelfth century" (Farmer 2004: 454).

Accordingly, Saint Richard is a figure of dubious historicity, woven around the possible fate of the historical father of the three Anglo-Saxons who became saints in their turn. It seems clear, however, that Richard was not at any point a king. What then, of the mystical King Otto of England?

It is possible that Otto is here the result of an intended German translation of Offa. This is a name of two historical kings, the eldest being a king of the East Saxons who was active around 709, the youngest being the more famous king Offa of Mercia (d.796). Chronologically speaking, if Otto is indeed Offa, it is likely to be Offa of the East Saxons. But even if this is the intended identity of Richard's father, it is safe to say that Richard himself does not appear to have ever been the son of Offa, and that this is rather a product of later legends accrued around the cult of Saint Richard who was venerated not only in Lucca but also in Eichstatt where Reginald wrote his legend.


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

Huneberc's Hodoeporican:

Das leuend der hÿlghen, a collection of stories about saints, Lübeck, 1492 (Incunabula RARA M 15, Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek)

tirsdag 27. juni 2017

Music for writing a thesis

I am nearing the end of my PhD thesis, at least that is what the calendar tells me. For the next few months I will be shoulder-deep in writing and editing, trying to tie together the loose ends and bringing three years of research to an orderly and legible conclusion. I also want to combine this with continuous blogging, which has provided me with a great outlet for thinking of and reflecting on my work and various things related to my work. But how to write blogposts when you're so tired of writing, and when you don't want to write about the things you really want to write about out of fear that it will take too much time? For this reason, I'm now cheating a bit and present to you two albums which have been of great relish to me in the past few weeks during my thesis writing.

The first one is a collection of twelfth-century chants, some of which are taken from Santiago de Compostela and are composed in honour of Saint James the Greater, also known as Santiago, while some are taken from the monastery of Saint-Martial in Limoges.

The second album is a collection of chants for the office of Saint Louis IX of France (d.1270) who was canonized in 1297 and who became a saint of major importance in fourteenth-century France.

These albums have brought me much happiness and much calm in the past weeks, so I leave it to my faithful readers to explore their wonders on their own.

The martyrdom of Saint James the Greater
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek, RARA M 15
German translation of Legenda Aurea with additions, Lübeck, 1492

Chants from Santiago de Compostela, and Saint-Martial in Limoges

Chants for the office of Saint Louis IX

fredag 23. juni 2017

From Derek Walcott's Midsummer

For the Vigil of Saint John the Baptist, which is when Norwegians and Danes celebrate midsummer with a great bonfire, I give you an extract from Derek Walcott's book-length poem, Midsummer, printed in 1984 and here taken from Collected Poems - 1948-1984, printed by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1986.

From Midsummer


My double, tired of morning, closes the door
of the motel bathroom; then, wiping the steamed mirror,
refuses to acknowledge me staring back at him.
With the softest grunt, he stretches my throat for the function
of scraping it clean, his dispassionate care
like a barber's lathering a corpse - extreme unction.
The old ritual would have been as grim
if the small wisps that curled there in the basin
were not hairs but minuscular seraphim.
He clips our moustache with a snickering scissors,
then stops, reflecting, in midair. Certain sadnesses
are not immense, but fatal, like the sense of sin
while shaving. And empty cupboards where her dresses
shone. But why flushing a faucet, its vortex
swivelling with bits of hair, could make some men's
hands quietly put aside their razors,
and sense their veins as filth floating downriver
after the dolorous industries of sex,
is a question swans may raise with their white necks,
that the cockerel answers quietyl, treading his hens.

onsdag 14. juni 2017

The typology of decapitation - the case of Edmund Martyr and John the Baptist

When working on the cult and literature of saints, one of the most noteworthy aspects one comes across is the many ways in which one holy person is typologically connected with other holy men and women of Christian and biblical history. This means a saint is understood as the antitype, i.e. as a kind of later reconfiguration, of an earlier type, hence typology. All saints are expected to be an antitype to Christ, but one saint can be typologically connected to a number of saints, either by shared features, belonging to the same category of saints, by intertextuality, or by other means. Mapping these connections is sometimes the most fun part of working with saints.

These days I am returning to Edmund Martyr, the king of East Anglia who in 869 was killed by Danish Vikings and who was venerated as a saint from at least the late ninth century. The first biography of Saint Edmund was written by Abbo of Fleury c.985, and this was the foundation for the later texts that were produced at Bury St Edmunds, the centre of his cult.

Edmund tortured by Vikings
BL MS Harley 2278, John Lydgate's life of Edmund and Fremund, England, between 1434 and 1439
(Courtesy of British Library)

In Abbo of Fleury's Passio Eadmundi, we are told how Edmund was tied to a tree and pierced by arrows while the Danish chieftain Hingwar (usually identified as Ivar Boneless) tried to make him subdue to Danish overlordship. When Edmund refused, his head was chopped off and thrown into the bushes lest a veneration of the deceased monarch should emerge. The head was later found, guarded by a wolf, and when it had been interred in a simple wooden chapel, the head and body miraculously merged into an intact unit.

The finding of Edmund's head
BL MS Harley 2278, John Lydgate's life of Edmund and Fremund, between 1434-39
(Courtesy of British Library) 

 Passio Eadmundi was the fundamental text for the later composition of a liturgical office at Bury St Edmunds. This office is today recorded almost completely in Pierpont Morgan MS 736, which was written and put together c.1130. The office for Edmund's feast day - November 20 - consists of a collection of chants and readings to be performed at the hour of Matins on the night of his dies natalis, his heavenly birthday and his death-day on earth. This office forms the centrepiece of my chapter on Saint Edmund for my doctoral thesis.

One night I was playing with one of my most important research tools, the CANTUS database in which liturgical chants from the Middle Ages are catalogued. While doing so, I serendipitously discovered that one of the chants for Saint Edmund - the seventh antiphon, i.e. a chant sung before the seventh of the psalms during the night office - shared some features with an antiphon for the feast of the beheading of John the Baptist.

Decollation of John the Baptist
Amiens - BM - ms. 0195, f.133v, pontifical of Corbie, thirteenth century, Northern France
(Courtesy of

According to Matthew 14, Mark 6, and Luke 9, John the Baptist was beheaded on the orders of King Herod Antipas. The reason for the beheading was that Herod's wife Herodias hated John the Baptist and told her daughter Salome that should Herod ask what she wanted as a gift, Salome would request the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. Salome then danced for the king, and Herod was overcome with delight and told his step-daughter to ask for anything she wanted as a reward for her dance. Salome then heeded her mother's words, and John the Baptist was duly beheaded.

The death of Saint John the Baptist is marked with its own feast in the Catholic liturgical calendar, and it is celebrated on August 29. Unlike most other saints, however, the death-day of John the Baptist is not his principal feast, which is his nativity on June 24. Nor is the day marking the day of his beheading, but instead it marks the finding of his head. This is why the day is known as the feast of the decollation, rather than the dies natalis.

Even the marginal hybrids turn their face away in sorrow 
Limoges - BM - ms. 0002, f.182v, gradual, Fontevrault, c.1250-c.1260
(Courtesy of

Since both John the Baptist and Edmund Martyr were beheaded, it is no wonder that the venerators of Saint Edmund should think that the two saints were typologically connected, especially the hagiographers and liturgists at Bury whose job it was to emphasize such connections through musical borrowings, textual allusions, and iconographic similarities. To illustrate how this was done, I will here present you the antiphon of Edmund and that of the feast of the decollation to illustrate how this typological connection was made through liturgical borrowings.

The antiphon for Saint Edmund:

Misso spiculatore de crevit tyrannus
dei adletam eadmundus dum capite
detruncari sicque ymnum deo personuit
et animam celo gaudens intulit.

(The thrown stabs increased by the tyrant, the athlete of God, Edmund, when his head was cut off, and thus resounded with hymns for God and brought the soul rejoicing to Heaven)

The antiphon for the decollation of John the Baptist:

Misso Herodes spiculatore praecepit
amputare caput Joannis in carcere
quo audito discipuli ejus venerunt et
tulerunt corpus ejus et posuerunt
illud in monumento
(The thrown stabs ordered by Herod amputated the head of John while in prison. When his disciples heard this, they came and interred his body and placed it in a monument.)

Praecepit amputare caput Joannis in carcere
Cambrai - BM - ms. 0189, f.161v, Evangeliar, Use of Cambrai, c.1266, Cambrai
(Courtesy of

As can be seen from the words put in bold, it is likely that the antiphon for the feast of the decollation served as the foundation for the antiphon of Edmund Martyr. This relationship is also strengthened by some of the words that are not identical but nonetheless carry the same meaning. While the Edmund antiphon uses "detruncari" and the decollation antiphon uses "amputare", it is nonetheless clear that they signify the same form of execution. Similarly, while the primary antagonist in the antiphon for the decollation is identified as Herod, the antagonist of the Emund antiphon is not named but instead referred to as "tyrannus", a term which in medieval liturgical chants is sometimes used about Herod (such as this hymn verse for the feast of the Holy Innocents).

These two antiphons, therefore, provide a good example of how the typological connection of two saints could be emphasized through liturgy. By borrowing key words and phrases from an antiphon for the decollation, the liturgists pointed to the fact that Edmund and John the Baptist both were beheaded, and that they therefore had a relationship in the collegium of saints. Such connections were important to bring out because that way the typological roster of Saint Edmund - i.e. the list of his features shared with other saints - could be mapped out more completely, and thus Saint Edmund's role in the history of Creation could be understood more clearly. This in turn would mean that he could be addressed more accurately, more flatteringly, which might bring about his help more effectively.

Although such a connection might seem arcane to us who do not perform medieval liturgy, we must remember that the monks at Bury St Edmunds would sing both these antiphons. And even though the antiphons were sung at different times in the year, they would nonetheless be performed by the same monks year after year, and thus be remembered. In this way, the monks who venerated Saint Edmund would be reminded that their patron also shared features with the forerunner of Jesus Christ.

onsdag 31. mai 2017

Learning to transcribe - a few personal notes on working with Saint Edmund Martyr

One of the recurring sensations in my time in academia is the feeling that there are things with which you never really finish. Today this feeling was brought on by a revision of a transcription of the office for Saint Edmund which I undertook back in 2015, and which forms one of the main pillars for the research of my doctoral thesis.

The offices for the vigil and feast of Saint Edmund Martyr are contained in a manuscript produced at Bury St Edmunds around 1130, together with the first saint-biography of Edmund, Abbo's Passio Eadmundi, and collections of miracles related to Saint Edmund. This manuscript contains the most complete version of the office for the feast of Saint Edmund that has survived, and also the only version of the office for the vigil. For my chapter on Saint Edmund, I have gone into great detail about the chants and readings for the office for the feast day, but now it was time to turn to the office for the vigil instead and get a better overview of what it contains.

The office for the vigil was performed on the eve before the feast of Edmund (November 20), and contains one nocturn of four lessons with responsories in accordance with the monastic model. The chants and lessons all take their material from the miracle collection written down by Herman the Archdeacon around 1080-90. The selection of miracle stories is not wide, as they all focus on one of the most salient episodes in the history of the cult of Saint Edmund, namely the divine punishment of Svein Estrithsson.

The story which Herman wrote down tells of how the Danish king Svein Estrithsson (d.1074/76) invaded England and demanded tribute from the English. He also demanded tribute from the monks at Bury St Edmunds and sought to despoil the riches that had accumulated at the shrine of Saint Edmund Martyr. The monks turned to Edmund for help, and their heavenly ambassador brought divine wrath down upon the Danish king to such a degree that the king exempted Bury from paying tribute. At the time when Herman composed his collection of miracles this story had not been in circulation for many years, but it tied in with another punitive miracle that had been included in the Passio written by Abbo of Fleury in the 980s and so the punishment of the Danish king became one of the most iconic miracles attributed to the merits of Saint Edmund (but performed by God).

Opening of the office for the vigil of Saint Edmund
MS Pierpont Morgan 736, Bury St. Edmunds, c.1130 (photocopy)

I find the miracle story fascinating, especially in the way it cemented Saint Edmund Martyr's reputation as a guardian of his own shrine and ensured that this reputation would be a recurring feature in later writings at Bury St Edmunds, such as the chronicle of Jocelin of Brakelond from c.1200.

In the coming days I will immerse myself further into the miracles of Saint Edmund, which I left off in 2015 so that I could focus more single-mindedly on the office of the feast itself. To return to this text was a reminder that those things on which you work the most are sometimes the things most likely to stay with you. This feeling of return was perhaps also exacerbated by the fact that back in 2015, the office for the vigil of Saint Edmund was the first text I ever transcribed from a medieval manuscript - or rather, from a printed out photocopied version of the manuscript.

I remember very well the excitement of those summer days in June 2015 where I had a 27-page document to transcribe and make sense of - without any prior experience of transcription. Foolhardy and stupidly optimistic as I sometimes can be, I nonetheless thought that I would be able to do it. And sure enough, I did manage to tackle the text after two intense weeks of work, and I remember feeling overly proud of myself for getting this done.

Today, close to two years later, my experience with transcription is significantly greater, and armed with more experience - and much greater knowledge of the textual corpus in question - I set out to see how much of the transcription work of my 2015 self I had to correct.

It turned out that there was quite a lot to correct, both in terms of things I had misread, things I had failed to understand, things that were close to unintelligible, and also in terms of lack of standardized practices for how to deal with scribal inaccuracies. This was perhaps particularly noticeable in the office for the vigil, since this is the very beginning of the manuscript and the very first text with which I had to try my inexperienced brain.

On the one hand, correcting my mistakes from two years ago gave me a sense of how inexperienced I still am when it comes to manuscript work, even though I have gained a lot more since 2015, and many of the mistakes had the very dirty tinge of the dilettante about them. On the other hand, however, it made me realize just how much I had learned in the two years that had passed, and it also gave me an optimistic sense of all the things I have yet to learn and hopefully will learn as I continue to carve my path through the dense forest that is academia. It is a pleasing thought, and such thoughts are always welcome in the thesis process.

søndag 28. mai 2017

Saint George in Odense, part 2

One of the first blogposts I put together after I had moved to Odense in 2014 presented two separate depictions of Saint George which I had come across during my first travels around town. Since then, I have come to understand that Saint George occupies an important place among the saints who in various ways contribute to the urban landscape and memory of Odense. There are, for instance, both a public garden and a public park which are named Sankt Jørgens Haven and Sankt Jørgens Park respectively, both of which lie close to the street Sankt Jørgens Gade. Jørgen is the Scandinavian name for George.

Yesterday, I came across another depiction of Saint George, placed on the facade of Sankt Georgs Hjemmet, Saint George's Home. It is worth noting that in this case the name of the saint is given as George, not as Jørgen, and this is probably due to the fact that the house was erected with the financial help of the Guild of Saint George, which is a modern boyscout organization. I presume they have taken Saint George as their figurehead after inspiration from the English boyscouts.

Even though it is a small detail in the Odense cityscape, it is nonetheless a nice reminder that aspects of the medieval cult of saints are still present in our postmedieval world, having been sifted through centuries of cultural interpretation.

mandag 22. mai 2017

The tooth of time - a little nugget from Ribe

As mentioned in the previous blogpost, the beginning of last week was spent in the southwestern Danish town of Ribe, an important medieval bishopric and now a quaint, lovely, old-fashioned, seemingly timelocked settlement near the Jutland coast. There are several gems to be found around the town, some of which are big and striking like the medieval cathedral, some of which are small and easy to overlook like the many beautifully and creatively painted doors.

One such little gem is a bronze sculpture situated outside Ribe Viking Museum. The sculpture was created by the Danish artist John Olesen (b. 1938) in 1995, and now welcomes visitors who seek to get closer to ages past by exploring the many treasures of the museum. The idea of "the tooth of time", which is "tidens tand" in Danish and "tidens tann/tidas tann" in Norwegian (Bokmål and Nynorsk respectively), is a Scandinavian expression to denote the passing of time left visibly on objects. We say that something has been marked by the tooth of time, an image of quiet nibbling that I find very pleasing and immensely poetic. A very fitting concept to be reminded of before stepping into a museum to behold items that have been gnawed away by the tooth of time.

fredag 19. mai 2017

Saint George in Ribe

Earler this week, my colleages and I went to Ribe for our annual gathering, the one time of the year when our two branches of the Centre for Medieval Literature meet to discuss academic matters, catch up on each others' research, and to socialise in a place with medieval connections. Ribe is a small town in the southwest of Jutland. It is colloquially known as Denmark's oldest town, as it was one of Scandinavia's most important trading sites during the pre-conversion period. After the conversion of Denmark, Ribe became a bishopric and its cathedral has still layers from the twelfth and the thirteenth century.

I hope to return to a more general description of the church itself later, but for now I present you with one of my favourite details from the church space, found at the western end of the northern side naves, namely a glorious depiction of Saint George fighting the dragon. I'm tempted to think that the female figure placed above the two combatants is princess Alexandra, the maiden saved by Saint George - and in older calendars she was also venerated as a saint - but it might also be a different figure altogether, possibly the Virgin Mary.

I have not found any information about when this set of wooden sculptures were made, but I hazard to guess early sixteenth century. It is certainly not modern, and it is a wonderful depiction of one of my favourite scenes from hagiographic art.