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

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.