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

søndag 30. juni 2019

Two views from the cabin

A little lowly Hermitage it was,
Downe in a dale, hard by a forests side
- Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene (Booke 1, Canto 1)

This weekend I've been spending some time in the old family cabin, something I always look forward to when I return home from a prolonged stay abroad. With some provisions and a book I moved in yesterday afternoon and came back today about 25 hours later, having enjoyed the weather yesterday that permitted me to take a few short excursions into the woods and along the river, and also the weather today that forced me to stay inside with a roaring fire in the stove and the sound of rain hammering on the roof. It is an old structure which used to serve as the sleeping quarters - similar to a Scottish shieling - for the milkmaids who stayed with the cows of our farm all summer to milk them. In the 1950s, the cabin received its present shape and position when it was moved and expanded with a kitchen and a bedroom. These cabins are common in Norway as most farms had their own, and at the very least were co-owners of one together with some neighbours. Now, however, there is no longer any need for milkmaids, and we do no longer have dairy cows on our farm. Consequently, the cabin has become a little refuge to which we retreat when we want to take a break and feel less involved in the world, quite like a little hermitage. 

torsdag 27. juni 2019

Ana Vidovic, Pierre Bensusan and a Norwegian mood

Even her wretched weather
was poetry- Derek Walcott, Exile

Norwegian summers are the best types of summers when they are comprised of a good balance between warm and chilly, wet and dry, and so I have been anticipating with great excitement the coming weeks which I will spend among the mountains back in the fjords. However, so far it has been a rather cold and wet summer, and in the days ahead we are likely to encounter more of the same. It is not what I had hoped for, and I'm already starting to feel tired of it. But at times I forget the duration of this weather and I catch myself becoming immersed in this particular pensive, dreaming mood that emerges late at night in the fjords and which feel out of time. Last night I experienced this mood as I sat with a cup of warm tea in the living room of my grandparents' house and saw the enveloping darkness without. And so I stepped out on the verandah and enjoyed this familiar darkness, while I listened to Ana Vidovic's performance of Pierre Bensusan's guitar piece Altiplanos, a song that for me evokes the highland plateaus of Morocco, which might - to a descendant of Jewish refugees fleeing Spain in 1492 - have appeared as a memento of those Spanish plateaus left behind generations ago. This instrumental, pregnant with a mood of longing and exile, felt to me very suitable for how I felt as I stood at home, having returned to my village after years living abroad in a voluntary - and immensely beneficial and pleasurable - academic exile in Denmark.

Ana Vidovic plays Pierre Bensusan's Altiplanos

onsdag 26. juni 2019

The round medieval earth - evidence from Sanderum Church

and the flat earth becomes a ball
- William Blake, The Mental Traveller

It is a perennial plight for a medievalist to engage in discussions about how people in the Middle Ages understood the shape of the earth. The correct answer to this question is that people in the Middle Ages of all walks of life and of all geographical locations knew that the world was round. There should be no debate about this, as the amount of evidence to support this is overwhelming. However, the idea that at least some people in the Middle Ages believed the earth to be flat is an extremely pernicious one. Consequently, once it is proved by reference to any of the medieval texts that mention  the sphericity of the earth, or any of the illuminations from medieval manuscripts depicting the world as round, or the reference to the hemisphere - which necessitates a spherical earth - the riposte is very often along the following lines: It is all well and good what the learned knew to be true, but what about the common people? This question comes in several guises, often suggesting that the knowledge of the round earth was hidden, either deliberately or incidentally, from the commoners by the Church, and often with a strong undertone of classism, as if refusing to accept that people not educated in the schools and at the universities could attain the knowledge that the earth was round. The answer to the question "what about the common people?" is that they, too, had full access to the idea of the earth being round. In this blogpost, I wish to present evidence for this assertion from Sanderum Church, a Romanesque church built in the latter half of the twelfth century and situated on the outskirts of modern-day Odense in Denmark.  

Sanderum Church

The apsis of Sanderum Church, a survival from the Romanesque period

As stated, one very common notion about the knowledge of the sphericity of the earth in the Middle Ages is that it was somehow kept out of sight of the commoners. The seed of this idea lies in the historiographical midden that is comprised of Protestant anti-Catholic sentiments, Enlightenment Era anti-clerical sentiments, and the fusion of the two former sentiments as found in Washington Irving's novelisation of the life of Christopher Columbus. What has grown from this idea is the thought that the Church prevented the spread of the knowledge that the earth was round. To this day, I am still unable to understand exactly what the motive for this should have been. The simple response to this idea, however, is that it is completely false. As I aim to demonstrate in this blogpost, not only did the Church not pursue an intellectual blockade of the knowledge that the earth was round, the Church actively disseminated the idea of the world as a sphere in its own houses, i.e. in the art of the churches themselves.

Two examples of the image of the round earth can be found in the decorations of Sanderum Church. As mentioned, the church itself dates to the latter half of the twelfth century, but the current ceiling, roof, and vaulting date from the latter half of the fifteenth century, and this was a period when many of Denmark's medieval churches were decorated with splendid frescoes depicting narratives of the Old Testament, the New Testament, the apocrypha, and the stories of the saitns. In the transept of Sanderum Church, for instance, we see the final judgement and scenes from the life of Christ in the four sections of the vault. As can be seen below, the first image greeting the churchgoers as they move up the nave is Christ in majesty.

The vault of the transept of Sanderum Church
The paintings are from the fifteenth century

Christ in majesty is perhaps the most common motif from medieval church art, as this was the most important message of the New Testament: Christ conquered death and has thus made it possible for mortal humans to attain everliving happiness in Heaven. In these depictions of Christ, the spherical earth plays an important role, either as being held by Christ in his hand or situated by Christ's feet. The origin of this iconography is Isaiah 66:1 where God, speaking through the prophet, states that the earth is His footstool. This is echoed in Matthew 5:35, where Christ says that one should not swear by the earth, as it is God's footstool. This iconography is therefore the perfect vehicle for depicting the shape of the earth in medieval church art, and this is exactly what was done.

Christ in majesty

In the fifteenth-century judgement scene of Sanderum Church, the earth is placed by the wounded feet of Christ, and it shows the earth in accordance with medieval geographical learning: The three continents of the northern hemisphere is shown, divided into three by rivers and oceans. The largest continent is Asia, covering half the hemisphere and its easternmost end located on the top of the globe. In this case, a tree is growing out of it, and this is presumably the tree of life growing in Eden. Asia is separated from the rest of the hemisphere by the river Tanais going northwards and the river Nile going southwards. The other half of the hemisphere is covered by Europe and Africa, divided by the Mediterranean. This projection is typically called a T-O map because it resembles a T inside an O, and the centre of the map is Jerusalem. The southern hemisphere, the antipodes, is not depicted, but known to exist underneath the hemisphere depicted.  

The spherical earth and its northern hemisphere, with the tree of life growing out of Eden

What is important about the depiction of the earth in Sanderum Church is that this image of the round world was accessible to everyone entering into the church. It was a part of the most important scene in the entire pictorial programme of the church space, and it is anything but hidden from view. In this way, the authorities of the church in Sanderum actively displayed the earth in its spherical shape.

In addition to the earth depicted in the judgement scene, there is also another depiction of the earth in this church. This image, too, is easy to see for the churchgoers, although perhaps not as visible to everyone and certainly not occupying as central a position as the fresco of Christ in majesty. The image in question is found as part of a scene on the inside of the arc that connects the transept with the choir, as seen below.

Saint Christopher carrying the Christ Child

The image in question is the most famous scene from the life of Saint Christopher, showing him carrying the infant Christ on his shoulders across a river. Saint Christopher is an old inclusion in the Christian catalogue of saints, and in the later Middle Ages he became particularly popular in Northern Europe as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, a semi-fixed collegium of saints whose efficacy was believed to be particularly good in times of acute trouble. From the late fourteenth century onwards, there have survived a plethora of images in stained glass, wall paintings and carvings where the viewer can behold the carrying of the Christ Child.

What is interesting about the depiction of Christ in this scene from Sanderum is that it also shows Christ holding the spherical earth between his left hand and his left knee, almost like a child's ball. The representation of the earth is exactly as in judgement scene, with the one exception that instead of a tree growing out of Eden, Christ's hand is placed there instead. Saint Christopher, in what appears to be the moment of realisation when he understands the identity of his passenger, tilts his head and appears to be looking straight at Jerusalem. Whether or not this latter symbolism in Christopher's line of sight is deliberate or just a happy accident, the view of the earth is crystal clear: It is round, its northern hemisphere is divided into three parts, and it is a part of God's creation.

Christopher seeing the round earth

What I hope to be abundantly clear from seeing the two depictions of the earth in the pictorial programme of Sanderum Church is that these depictions were easily accessible to anyone entering the church, regardless of social standing and regardless of gender. The spherical earth was deliberately shown in the church art as a way of highlighting the omnipotence of God, showing the earth as His footstool and showing the earth in His hands, round and detailed in accordance with the established geographical knowledge of the time. It should, therefore, be no further arguments about the accessibility of the knowledge of the round earth in the Middle Ages, as it was knowledge placed in clear view right in the middle of the church.

tirsdag 25. juni 2019

Jonsok - the Wake of Saint John the Baptist

Yesterday was the feast of John the Baptist, which is one of few saints of the liturgical calendar whose main feast is the day of birth rather than the day of death. In Norway, this feast is traditionally called jonsok, which is a compression of jonsvaka, which means the wake of Saint John [the Baptist]. We celebrate this feast even today, and it is marked by a large bonfire on the evening before the feast itself, i.e. the evening of June 23. This bonfire is known in my part of the country as briseld - with some neighbouring communities using the variant priseld - which comes from the Old Norse bris (meaning shining or glimmering) and eld (meaning fire, still used in modern Norwegian). The tradition of lighting a bonfire is very old and can be found in variants throughout Western Europe. According to a medieval belief recorded by Jacobus de Voragine in Legenda Aurea (c.1260), these bonfires originated as a means to keep away dragons in order to prevent them from ejaculating their semen into wells and springs, thereby poisoning them. Whether this has ever been the rationale behind the practice is now impossible to say, as the roots of this tradition is lost in the mists of time. Regardless of its origin, however, I'm always happy to see the bonfire burning amidst mountains on one of the brighest nights of the calendar year. I therefore present to you some images from the day as it unfolded in my native village, Hyen.

Underway to the celebration, c. 7 in the evening

Shortly after the bonfire has been lit, c. 8 in the evening

The remains of the fire can faintly be seen in the distance.
The smoke is visible against the forested mountainside
Around midnight.

Around midnight.

Around one in the morning.

fredag 31. mai 2019

Stenløse Church

One of the great things about being a medievalist in Denmark is the plethora of medieval churches that are open to the public. Last week my parents came to visit me in Odense, and so we took the time to explore some of the many churches situated in the vicinity. This blogpost is a brief introduction to one of them, namely Stenløse Church.  

The oldest part of the church, which is comprised of the nave, the choir and the apsis, is built in the Romanesque style and dates to the 1120s or 1130s, while the roof and the tower are of late medieval origin. The dating of the oldest part of the church is interesting in light of its location on the island of Funen as well as its vicinity to Odense. By the time the church was built, the entire island was part of the bishopric of Odense - which is still the case - and the centre of this bishopric was the Benedictine abbey church of Saint Knud in the city. This was the cult centre of Saint Knud Rex who had been killed in Odense in 1086 and the cult was maintained by a community of Benedictine monks who were attached to episcopal church. The time in which this church was built was towards the end of the period in which the cult of Saint Knud Rex enjoyed its greatest popularity in all of Denmark, and it is possible that the building of the church should be understood in light of either the cult activity or the income generated for the Benedictine community in Odense. It should, however, be pointed out that the church appears to have been dedicated to Saint Clement (it was noted as such in 1291), and as such it is not directly linked with the veneration of the martyred king in Odense. However, the time of its construction and its proximity to Odense allow us to speculate about whether the cult had an impact on the building of the church. What we do know about the relationship between Stenløse Church and the Benedictines at Saint Knud's Church is that in the thirteenth century, the Benedictines appear to have had some control over the church's income. We can guess as much from a letter - Diplomatarium Danicum II, 2, no.289 - according to which the monks at Saint Knud's Church attempted to have the income from this church allotted to stipends for Odense monks studying in Paris. Stenløse Church was, however, not formally annexed by the abbey church until 1316. These details concerning the relationship between the episcopal abbey church and Stenløse Church are also interesting for the brief insights they give into the community of monks in Odense.     

While the foundation of the church and its earliest layer is early twelfth century, the vaulting and the roof are both late medieval. In the early sixteenth century, the vaults were likely covered in wall-paintings, but only a few fragments of these have been discovered and restored. However, from these fragments we can surmise that the church was once richly decorated, both because the fragments appear to be details in a grander whole and because such extensive iconographical programmes were relatively common in late-medieval Danish parish churches. The best preserved fragments are the ones shown above from the vault just immediately before the choir, one showing the resurrection of Christ and His defeat of the devil, and the other showing the doubting of Thomas. Underneath these scenes are coat of arms belonging to the local noble family who were the patrons of the church.

Like so many medieval parish churches of Denmark, Stenløse Church houses a lot of minor treasures from various parts of its long history. Below are two of my favourite details as we were explore the church. The first is a Romanesque baptismal font with vegetal decoration, now standing on a new plinth. Fonts like this one were common in medieval Denmark, and although the decoration is worn and difficult to make out, it gives a good indiciation of the craftsmanship that went into making it. The second detail is the pulpit, made in oak in 1584 and containing a brief encomium for the donors and beautifully carved details. What is particularly interesting about this pulpit is that its text is in Latin, even though it was made forty-eight years after the Reformation was implemented in Denmark-Norway. However, while it is interesting it is neither strange nor peculiar, because Latin was still widely in use by this time, especially on tombstones, but it is does date from a transitional period that would, in the seventeenth century, give way entirely to Danish as the language of obsequies and commemorations.

Stenløse Church is a beautiful building and contains several treasures, even though the modern-era whitewashing of the wall is still the dominating feature of its interior. Even so, when one carefully explores the church space, one finds a number of very pleasing details that provide some notion of past times.

tirsdag 28. mai 2019

Achronicity and the lives of saints - the case of Saint Martin of Tours at Skive Church

Last week I visited Skive Church in Northern Jutland, a beautiful stone church built around 1200 and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. What brought me there were the early sixteenth-century wall paintings covering the vaults of the nave and the choir, which is an impressive catalogue of saints similar in selection and execution to the wall paintings of Roskilde Cathedral, which likely were painted by the same workshop of artists. There are many beautiful details in the iconographic programme of Skive Church, but here I want to touch on one particular issue that really struck me as I was examining the various figures, namely how medieval art often employs achronicity to convey a saint's life in a single image. This use of achronicity is a very effective way of telling a saint's story through an assemblage of key aspects of that story. In so doing, the medieval artists fused various times, or perhaps rather various temporal moments, into one unit. The result is similar to what we often find in liturgical offices, where past and present commingles in a way that effectively - to use a beautiful phrase by Henry Parkes in a 2014 article - collapses time. In Skive Church I saw this particularly clearly in the depiction of Saint Martin of Tours.

Vor Frue Kirke, Skive, c.1200

Martin and Roch
Skive Church, Northern Jutland, early fifteenth century

The story of Saint Martin was widely known in the Middle Ages, as he was one of the oldest of the major non-biblical saints in the calendar, and as his cult was disseminated throughout all of Latin Christendom. In short, Martin was a Roman soldier of Pannonian origin who converted to Christianity, abandoned the army and settled as a hermit in some old ruins outside of Tours. When the bishopric of Tours became vacant, Martin was approached to become the next bishop, a position he very unwillingly accepted. His unwillingness later became the foundation for a story about how he hid among geese so as not to be found, but the geese made such a fuss about it that he was found. This story is neither in the first life of Martin by Sulpicius Severus (before 397) nor in any of the miracle accounts recorded in the sixth century by Gregory of Tours, Martin's successor and most efficient promoter. The most famous story from Severus' Life of Martin is arguably the story of how he divided his cloak while he was a soldier in order to give half of it to a beggar. This scene - usually featuring an equestrian soldier cutting his cloak with a sword - is found in many media of art throughout the medieval period. This scene is also used in the depiction of Saint Martin at Skive Church.

What struck me about Saint Martin at Skive, however, was that it was not the soldier on horseback who divided his cloak with his sword, but the bishop in full regalia who performed this act of charity. In terms of the legend of Saint Martin, this is a historical impossibility since Martin only became a bishop at a much later stage in his life. But in the narrative, achronic logic of medieval art, it makes perfect sense. The people attending services in the church who knew the story of Saint Martin - and such people were most likely in an overwhelming majority to those who did not - would easily recognise Martin from his particular act of charity, and they would know that he is to be remembered as a man of the church rather than a soldier saint. Because even though Saint Martin was a soldier, his story is only concerned with this aspect of his life to a minor degree. His most iconic act took place in this period, but it was also this act which prompted Martin to leave the army, as he afterwards had a vision of Christ praising him for his Christian charity. To put it in a different way, the deeds of Martin were carried out mainly as a bishop and his Christian acts were predominantly enacted as a man of the church. This is unlike soldier saints such as Mauritius and the Theban Legion who were martyred as soldiers and therefore enacted their sainthood as soldiers. This means that in the painting at Skive Church, Martin's role as an ecclesiastical saint is emphasised, and his saintliness is not given a militaristic tinge, so as to make clear his saint-type as a bishop and confessor, not a soldier and martyr.

In this way, we see how achronicity serves to summarise the key points of a saint's story - in this case by fusing one specific act with the profession he held at a later point - and at the same time provide the correct typology for the saint in question. Various temporal points in Saint Martin's life are merged into a symbolic, achronic here-and-now. It is, however, not timeless - at least not in the way liturgical narrative is often timeless by fusing past with the present and sometimes even with an apocalyptic future through references to Judgement Day - because both of the aspects represented in this image are of the historic, past Martin. However, there is still a sense of timelessness in what we see here as well, because this achronic representation of a historical person is also there to serve as a reminder that he, the saint, is always present and ready to receive the supplications of the faithful. In other words, while the image itself represents two separate stages of the past, it also contains in itself the promise of aid in the present as well as in the future, forever and ever, in saecula saeculorum.

This is, in short, a reminder of how wonderfully complex and sophisticated medieval art could be.    

Bishop Martin dividing his soldier's cloak
Skive Church, Northern Jutland, ealry fifteenth century

onsdag 15. mai 2019

Whose Utopia is it anyway? – some brief reflections on the inherent vice of the ideal society

Screenshot from the Disney short Plutopia (1951), presumably showing the country's coat of arms

For several years I have been fascinated with the various forms of Utopian societies and how they have been imagined by writers through the centuries. As a general rule, I hold that a Utopian narrative is interesting mainly for what it can reveal about its author, and not so much for what it can offer for the sundry societal ills of our own time. Indeed, the majority of the Utopian societies I have read about are practically dictatorships where one person’s preferences and pet peeves have a disproportionate impact on people of different tastes and views. Such an impact becomes all the more problematic in those cases where the Utopian society in question is described in minute detail, something which inevitably makes the whole narrative a catalogue of the author’s obsessions and blind spots. In most cases, these blind spots highlight that the creators of these Utopian societies predominantly are not women – with some notable exceptions such as Margaret Cavendish – and so there are several problems affecting mainly or only women that are either not dealt with or that are dealt with immensely poorly. For instance, I do not recall having read any Utopian narrative that addresses problems such as domestic violence or rape, or admit to the possibility that such crimes might occur in any given society. This is just one of the elements which show to what extent Utopian narratives are predominantly about the critique and lampooning of a select bundle of issues, and not a literary genre that can provide much practical guidance. It is also one of the elements which suggest that an author of a Utopian narrative very rarely ought to be in a position of power. Quite the opposite, I argue that one way to keep people away from power would be to ask them to describe their own idea of a Utopian society, and then have the atrocious ones disbarred from any future participation in the government.

Title woodcut from a sixteenth-century edition of Thomas More's Utopia
Courtesy of Wikimedia

It is both impractical, unrealistic and, to be frank, completely undesirable to make use of Utopian narratives as wholesale guidebooks to how a society should be organised, above all because of how the faulty ideas of the creators tend to bleed into the very structures and foundations of these imagined perfect societies. As an example, Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) relies on slave labour, and even though these are criminals and soldiers from other countries taken prisoners in war, the very existence of a slave class shows that even the prototype of all later Utopias has something very rotten at its core. Granted, More does say at the end of his book that he does not agree with all aspects of Utopian society, but I find little reason to think that the use of slave labour is one of those aspects.

Another example can be found in Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun (1602), where the Utopian state practices extensive eugenics and consequently does not operate with the concept of love and infatuation. It therefore is of little use that both More and Campanella criticise very severe problems of the respective societies in which they themselves lived, because they have allowed other types of problems to be an integral part of their imagined ideal societies. In other words, Utopian narratives can provide excellent vehicles for identifying individual societal problems and even identify the main causes, but because these narratives are the products of individual authors it is no wonder that the Utopias usually fall short of providing any real solutions. Hence the question in the title of this blogpost: Whose Utopia is it anyway?   

Utopias are not always political, however, and often the name Utopia takes on the meaning of a kind of paradisiacal society where it is the sensual rather than the logical which serves as the linchpin. Such imaginary societies predate the publication of More’s Utopia by centuries, and they are an important part of medieval satirical culture. One of the most famous of these societies is the Land of Cockaigne, where everything is made of food and the very raison d’etre appears to be gastronomical excess. Then there is the land of Cornucopia mentioned in Boccaccio’s Decameron (c.1353) (day 8, third story), which can count among its distinctive geological features a mountain made of parmesan cheese. Stories such as these are often interpreted as a kind of earthly counterpart to Paradise, where it is the stomach rather than the soul which is rewarded, but they can also be employed to lampoon the base and myopic desires of those who are more concerned with earthly gain than spiritual gain, and are unable to see beyond the diameter of their own stomachs. An example of this is the island of Narragonia, situated just beyond Spain, which is the destination of the eponymous vessel in Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools (1494).

Enter Plutopia
Screenshot from the Disney short Plutopia (1951)

These two different types of societies – the political Utopia and the sensual paradise – are often overlapping or mixed together in modern popular culture, where the name Utopia can easily be used as a shorthand for a paradise not in Heaven. One such case from the twentieth century is the Disney short Plutopia from 1951, as seen in the illustration above, and it was this cartoon that prompted me to reflect on the inherent vice of ideal societies, namely that– with few exceptions such as Potu in Ludvig Holberg’s Niels Klim’s Journey Under Ground (1741) – they rarely benefit every individual and rarely function without the suffering of others. While the cartoon is not, and does not set out to be, a political commentary, it nonetheless serves as an example of this fundamental flaw of Utopias where the well-being of some depends on others paying a significant price for that well-being.  

The cartoon relies on the paradisiacal connotations of Utopia, rather than the social connotations. In other words, the name of More’s ideal society is here used as a shorthand for a land devoid of trouble and problems. This is demonstrated very clearly throughout the cartoon, as Mickey and Pluto travel to Camp Utopia, the sportman’s paradise. Already here we see that this particular kind of paradise necessitates the potential suffering of others – a trait mainly of the political Utopia – while we also see that the focus is on the gastronomical pleasures of the sensual paradise of medieval literature. When Mickey and Pluto arrive, Pluto picks a fight with a cat, but when the cabin rules dictate that Pluto be kept on a leash and given a muzzle, the cat enacts his revenge by eating the dog’s food and sleeping in his place. This leads Pluto to wander off into his dreams, in which he is brought to Plutopia, and although the cartoon does not at all suggest it, I consider this to serve, in effect, as a subversion of the medieval dream vision whereby the heavenly Paradise has been accessed. This, I suspect, is an occupational injury that comes with being a medievalist.

Welcome to Camp Utopia
Screenshot from the Disney short Plutopia (1951)

Plutopia is a dog’s sensual paradise, symbolised by the plethora of fire hydrants and bones, and because it is a paradise serving the needs and desires of dogs, it also contains a cat servant, who in this case happens to be the cat who ate Pluto’s food at Camp Utopia. This feline fellow is excessively servile, and demands to be bitten as punishment for tripping and losing a delicious bowl of cream. Although Pluto at first hesitates, he soon becomes accepting of this punishment, because in return for these bites the cat gives him food in overabundance, feeding him by the bedside in exchange for a painful nibble on the tail. Eventually, Pluto wakes up, Mickey finds the two animals sleeping together on the porch, and so he remarks that this is truly is a Utopia, with a nod to the image of Paradise as a place where the lamb and the lion, sworn enemies, lie down together.

A dog's paradise
Screenshot from the Disney short Plutopia (1951)

We've struck bones!
Screenshot from the Disney short Plutopia (1951)

Screenshot from the Disney short Plutopia (1951)

Screenshot from the Disney short Plutopia (1951)

The royal hall of Plutopia
Screenshot from the Disney short Plutopia (1951)

What fascinates me about this cartoon is precisely how it manages – despite even trying to do so – to showcase one of the most important faults in any ideal society, the existence of potentially violently exacted hierarchies. The nature of such hierarchies differs from case to case, and the sadistic demarcation line between the classes is rarely, if ever, a feature of Utopian societies – rather, they appear in dystopian fantasies of forgotten and debauched civilisations. However, Pluto’s punishment of the cat for his own gastronomical benefits – which is hardly a punishment since nothing is actually being punished – does serve as a reminder that ideal societies tend to be impossible not only because of how radically they reimagine reality, but also, and primarily, because they are ideal societies to a minority of one, i.e. their creator. This inherent vice is something shared by most Utopias, whether they are imagined as a critical mirror of sixteenth-century England or just the vengeful dreams of a hungry dog.

A second or third breakfast in bed
Screenshot from the Disney short Plutopia (1951)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Het Luilekkerland (1567), Alte Pinakothek, München
Courtesy of Wikimedia

tirsdag 14. mai 2019

Terribilis est locus iste - a fascination revisited

In preparation for a talk I'll be giving next week, I have spent some time revisiting some of my favourite fragments from the special collection at the library of the University of Southern Denmark. The talk will be a general presentation of some of the liturgical fragments that I have been researching, and I was reading through my notes and looking through my pictures in order to find a good angle for presenting the wealth of material contained in the fragments in question. It is always challenging - albeit in a good way - to present liturgical fragments to people who are unfamiliar with liturgy, its vocabulary, its structure, and its abbreviations. Accordingly, I was trying to find some element that would allow me to gather a lot of the main points under one heading. As I did so, I was reminded of my fascination with the office for the dedication of a church. This was a liturgical celebrationcommon to all Latin Christendom which was held on the anniversary of the consecration of the church in question. Consequently, the feast had no fixed position in the liturgical calendar. However, the feast served one common purpose, namely to connect the newly consecrated church typologically with the Temple of Solomon and further back to the first consecration of a location in the Bible, namely the site where Jacob wrestled with the angel. I have written about the typology of Jacob in an earlier blogpost, so I will not say more about this here.

The typological connection between any given medieval church and the Temple of Solomon, however, was expressed in many ways throughout the series of chants and readings that comprised the office for the dedication. One such example is the antiphon "Tu domine universorum", whose initial is pictured below. The text of this antiphon is a paraphrase of 2 Machabees 14: 35-36, in which the temple is described, and thus the antiphon invoked the typological connection between the church in which the chant was being sung and the temple built by King Solomon. Such a connection emphasised how the newly consecrated church was a part of the same historical branch reaching back through the centuries.   

Initial for the antiphon Tu domine universorum (CID: 005199)
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek RARA Musik M 4

As I was reading through the chants contained in one of the fragments of Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek RARA Musik M 4, I kept recalling a detail from Paul Gauguin's painting Vision after the sermon which shows the scene of Jacob and the angel. I learned of this painting through the poetry of Geoffrey Hill, both because it is used as the cover image for the edition of his collected poems from 1985. The reason for this cover image is a reference to it in one of his poems from the collection Tenebrae (1978), and to which my mind was transported after a quick immersion into the medieval typology of churches.

Terribilis Est Locus Iste

Gauguin and the Pont-Aven School

Briefly they are amazed. The marigold-fields
mell and shudder and the travellers,
in sudden exile burdened with remote
hieratic gestures, journey to no end

beyond the vivid severance of each day,
strangeness at doors, a different solitude
between the mirror and the window, marked
visible absences, colours of the mind,

marginal angels lightning-sketched in red
chalk on the month's account or marigolds
in paint runnily embossed, or the renounced
self-portrait with a seraph and a storm.

And with this poem - one I enjoy tremendously - the fascination with the story of Jacob is brought to our modern times, showing again how gripping this story is, and how it has continued to have an impact on cultural expressions through the ages.

tirsdag 30. april 2019

New article - Reformulating the sanctity of Olaf Haraldsson

Last week I received the happy news that a book to which I have contributed was published, when I found the physical copy waiting for me on my desk. The book is Heiligkeiten - Konstruktionen, Funktionen und Transfer von Heiligkeitskonzepten im europäischen Früh- und Hochmittelalter, edited by Andreas Bihrer and Fiona Fritz and published by Franz Steiner Verlag. It is a collection of articles touching on the shaping, application and uses of sanctity in the Middle Ages, and contains contributions in English and in German. My own contribution deals with the way Saint Olaf of Norway was reformulated from the eleventh to the twelfth century under the auspices of Archbishop Eystein Erlendsson of the newly established Norwegian metropolitan see of Nidaros.

I do unfortunately not have the pdf to share, but here are the details of the volume to show what the volume can offer, and my general recommendation is to buy it and enjoy the scholarship.

mandag 29. april 2019

Talking about the Middle Ages - some thoughts on The Day of Research In Odense

This Saturday I attended a public outreach event at the University of Southern Denmark, called "Forskningens døgn", the day of research. This is an annual festival overseen by the ministry of education and research, and carried out at various institutions across Denmark in the course of seven days, each institution participating on one day only. The festival consists of various talks, lectures, demonstrations and stations where the general public can try their hands at various activities and talk with various researchers. Several of these activities are aimed at kids, and there were a lot of families exploring the various venues.

This year, I was invited by a senior colleague at the Centre for Medieval Literature at University of Southern Denmark where I earned my PhD, and we put together a station whose theme was medieval literature. We had three focal points: 1) how texts travelled in the Middle Ages; 2) multilingualism in the Middle Ages; and medieval writing. For the first point we had a poster showing how the story of Barlaam and Iosaphat travelled to the west and how the content of the Danish medieval chronicle Annales Colbazenses can be traced from the Cistercian monastery of Colbaz and back to the writings of Isidore and Bede. The second point was illustrated by the example of Sicily and the translations that were carried out there in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The third point was demonstrated through some images of text and book production from medieval manuscripts, and a writing desk where people could try their hands at transcribing a text from a medieval liturgical fragment. This fragment comes from the university library's special collection and I have myself researched it extensively since 2017.

I selected this particular fragment, Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek RARA Musik M 4, because I knew it well and because I had used it before in teaching palaeography to students. The fragment in question contains, among other texts, the first lesson from the feast of Saint Matthew the Evangelist (September 21) and recounts the apocryphal legend of how he travelled to Ethiopia and spread Christianity. I thought this story might appeal to a wider audience, both because of the familiarity of the figure of Saint Matthew, but also because of his two main antagonists, the magicians Zaroes and Arfaxat.  

Our station at Forskningens døgn

My colleague and I stood at the station for six hours, and in that time we met a wide variety of people, all of whom were interested in different things, or were interested in the same things but for different reasons, and together these people demonstrated as clearly as could be that there is a deep and wide-reaching interest in the Middle Ages, something that was not at all surprising but immensely gratifying to witness.

I am always happy to talk about the Middle Ages to a general public, and I am particularly interested in seeing what details the different individuals latch on to and what details make them light up, either in surprise or in some kind of recognition. In many cases, my encounter with a particular family would begin with asking the children whether they wanted to learn how to transcribe, and while they were trying to identify the various letters I would talk about the text and the fragment, which often caught the attention of the parents and moved the conversation to topics such as the evolution of letters, the technical aspect of writing, the handling of manuscripts, and so on. I always told them where the fragment came from and that it was kept in the library. This latter detail sometimes sparked what seemed like a feeling of ownership, or at least closeness, and for some there was something pleasing about having a vestige of the Middle Ages of this kind in close proximity. I also made sure to emphasise that in the handling of this fragment we did not use gloves, and this detail never failed to surprise them, but when they were told the reason it all made sense to them.  

Another detail that caught people's attention was the fact that the story of the text was set in Ethiopia, as they had not expected Ethiopia to be part of the geographical knowledge of medieval Europe. One mother in particular, while her son was writing his name in letters from the script of the fragment, positively beamed with fascination as I told about the apocryphal legend and the knowledge - or perhaps rather ideas - about Ethiopia, other parts of Africa and the Indian Ocean that was available in medieval Western Europe. She was also fascinated to note how widespread this knowledge was, especially when I pointed out that this episode of Ethiopian history would be read aloud to monks and nuns and other latinate audiences every year on the feast of Saint Matthew, which demonstrated that a significant number of people would be able to pick up these details about Ethiopian geography and history, however apocryphal and legendary and inaccurate the story.

We had also provided a key with some of the abbreviations and contractions explained

I was also interested to note how various children approached the task of transcribing the text. Here, too, there was a significant variety in interest and focus. Some children wanted to write their names in the letters of the script, while others were eagerly trying to decipher the letters themselves. In some cases, the child began reading the letters right away, while in other cases the child had to be guided along in the beginning but then began to pick up the pace remarkably soon. One boy in particular was completely absorbed by the task, and I sat beside him while he was quickly working his way through the sentences, stopping only when the letters were written in an unfamiliar way, illegible or contracted and abbreviated, and also sometimes to let me recap the story so he wouldn't lose this thread. His eyes were beaming as he solved letter after letter and advanced remarkably quickly through the text, and I noted with great happiness the pride in his father's face as he noted his son's fascination. The gratitude of the various children was one of the most beautiful aspects of the entire exercise, with faces lighting up in happiness and anticipation as they were told that they were allowed to bring the text and the answer key with them home to practice further. One kid even high-fived me as he had finished writing his name in the script of the fragment, and the sheer sense of achievement was a wonder to behold.

First lesson for the feast of Saint Matthew (September 21)
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek RARA Musik M 4

If proof were needed that we medievalists should not underestimate the interest and capability of the general audience, this was it. People of all ages, from children who had barely learned to write their own names to retirees, they all found something in our display that provoked their interest and that served as gateways to quite extensive conversations about sundry aspects of medieval life. It was clear that these conversations served to demystify the Middle Ages to a lot of people and through the various details - for instance the abbreviation of texts, the practice of writing, the similarity between their script and ours - the Middle Ages became a little less strange and a little more familiar, the medieval world becoming both larger and at the same time less alien as more details were filled in. 

torsdag 25. april 2019

Saint Matthew's executioner - a possible case of intertextuality from the Nuremberg Chronicle

Every now and then I spend some time in the reading room of the library of University of Southern Denmark, leafing through some of the incunabulas in its collection and photographing details, sometimes with a specific purpose, other times just to explore the books and get lost in the beautiful woodcuts. One of the books to which I often return is the university library's copy of The Nuremberg Chronicle, a name commonly applied to the world history by Hartman Schedel which was printed in Nürnberg in 1493 and illustrated with woodcuts by Michael Wolgemut. The work is extant in both a Latin and a German edition, and the university library has copy of the Latin one. This incunabula came to the university library from the school of Herlufsholm in Næstved in Sjælland, a school that was established in 1565 and most of whose library was sold to the university in 1968. It is a work I will return to many times, and most likely in several future blogpost.

In the present blogpost, however, I want to point to a small detail, whose significance is probably not notable but which nonetheless caught my attention because it touched on something that I have put a lot of thought into during my PhD. The detail comes from the account of the martyrdom of Matthew the evangelist, an account drawn from the apocryphal legend of Matthew's missionary activities in Ethiopia.  

The martyrdom of Matthew in The Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek RARA M 38

The detail in question comes from the description of how the Ethiopian king sent his executioner (or possibly executioners depending on whether the plural -ae is spelled -e as is the case in many medieval manuscripts). It says in the text "rege spiculatore misso", the king sent his executioners. What interests me about this phrasing is that it is a very common and well-established phrase from the martyrdom of John the Baptist as it is described in Mark 6:27: sed misso speculatore praecepit afferri caput ejus in disco. This is translated in the Douay-Rheims Bible as "But sending an executioner, he commanded that his head should be brought in a dish". The phrase "misso spiculatore", and indeed the crucial word "speculatore", cannot be found anywhere else in the Bible and can therefore very easily evoke the story of John the Baptist. Furthermore, it is even likely, and also to be expected, that anyone reading this phrase and even this word would be reminded of the death of John the Baptist. I have elsewhere - in a previous blogpost and in a recently published article - written about how this phrase was used to typologically connect John the Baptist and Saint Edmund Martyr of East Anglia.   

As for the occurrence of "misso spiculatore" in The Nuremberg Chronicle, I don't know how to interpret it. The inevitable question is of course whether this phrase is meant to establish a connection between Matthew and John the Baptist in the mind of the reader, as I have argued was the case in the cult of Saint Edmund. In order to approach an answer to this question, a lot of other details need to be established and so far I have not got around to do so. I should very much like to know whether the phrase "misso spiculatore" can be found in the apocryphal story of Saint Matthew, whether it appears in later medieval versions such as the readings for the liturgical office or in Legenda Aurea, or whether it is a phrase first used in the context of Saint Matthew by Hartman Schedel. If it is the latter, I don't know how that should be understood, whether Schedel sought to link John the Baptist and Matthew, or whether - and this is currently my favoured interpretation - it was simply a phrase that, due to its long history and its specificity, came to Schedel's mind very easily as he was writing his chronicle. 

This is a set of questions to which I yet have no answers beyond the speculations mentioned in this blogpost, but I would like to hear the opinions of my readers as I'm fascinated by the problem.   

søndag 21. april 2019

A look back - my brief encounter with Notre Dame

For a medievalist like myself, the past few days have been strongly marked by the reports and updates from the fire at Notre Dame in Paris and its aftermath. Even for someone whose main field of expertise is not French medieval history, the cathedral of Notre Dame has such a towering presence in one's cultural knowledge that it is difficult to witness the unfolding horror and not be moved. I followed the updates from the scene in Paris as they came in, and I read the responses from medievalists on Twitter, scholars whose relationship with, and knowledge of, Notre Dame of Paris far surpasses my own. I was torn between the protective desire of not wanting to see any updates and wanting to know just when the damage had been halted sufficiently for the status quo to be certain. And most of all, I felt a heaviness in my heart when it was reported that the three rose windows from the thirteenth century - however much restored - had been irreparably lost in the firestorm. It was an intensely heavy loss to wrap my head around, and when the extent of the damage was surveyed the following day, I refused myself to give in to relief when the first reports of the survival of at least one of the rose windows started to emerge. I feared it would be wishful thinking. Consequently, when the first photographs from the inside of the damaged cathedral was circulated and showed that at least one of the rose windows had survived, I wept in relief.

Unfortunately, I was not able to visit Notre Dame when I was in Paris for a conference in December 2017, my first and hitherto only visit to the city of lights. I cannot lay as strong an emotional claim to the building as those who have seen it from the inside, who have studied its history, and who have lived in its surroundings. This blogpost is therefore not a personal elegy or a memoir of a shared sense of loss, because others have a greater claim to this, and have expressed it more vividly, more genuinely, more deservedly than I have the right to do. Instead, I wish to share the few pictures of the building I took as I was hurrying through a cold December morning in Paris on my way to a meeting with a friend, yet taking the time to pause at the facade and take pictures.