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

onsdag 30. januar 2019

The hagiographic function of liturgy - the case of a motet for Saint Sebastian

Our modern minds, so accustomed to neat categorisations and precise labels, are often struggling to understand the fluidity between medieval genres of text. This is especially apparent in the traditional approach to the term “hagiography”, widely used as a synonym to a saint’s life written in prose. However, because the cult of the saints was such a fundamental aspect of medieval life, formulations of a saint’s story – their life, passion, death, related miracles – could be found in many different renditions in medieval media. The art historian Cynthia Hahn has even argued, in her monograph Portrayed on the heart, that medieval art depicting the lives of saints should be understood as “pictorial hagiography”. I agree completely with this, as paintings, statues, textiles and carvings could display condensed representations of the legend of a saint, highlighting the most important scenes or iconographical details.         

Just as the hagiographic quality of medieval art is sometimes overlooked, it is similarly common to overlook that liturgy in the honour of a saint likewise serves to tell the saint’s story. The main venue for this liturgical retelling of a saint’s legend is in the office for the saint’s feast-day, in which chants and readings are combined in a cycle of performed text and music in which the most important aspects of the saint are highlighted and told. An important aspect of the liturgical office is that it teaches the performers, as well as those few non-performing listeners who comprehend Latin sufficiently well to understand what is being said, about the saint’s legend. Another, and just as crucial, aspect is that the liturgical office serves as a form of communication with the saint. In this communication with the saint, it appears to be very important to allude to the most important aspects of the legend and the iconography, most likely as a way to demonstrate to the saint that their story is known and venerated. In short, a liturgical performance aimed at thanking or placating the saint – who served as the community’s ambassador before the throne of God – must also demonstrate knowledge of the saint’s legend on the part of those who are beseeching the saint for their intercession.

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

As an example of the importance of displaying knowledge of the saint, I will here rely on a motet by Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474), who spent the 1420s and part of the 1430s in Italy, where he came into contact with the d’Este family who ruled the city state of Ferrara. The motet in question, O sancte Sebastiane, is traditionally held to have been composed for the city of Ferrara following an outbreak of plague, and it addresses Saint Sebastian who was considered one of the foremost patron saints to help against the plague. It is unclear whether the motet was composed with the purpose of calling for Sebastian’s help, or whether it is a motet of thanksgiving after the plague had left Ferrara.

While there is much to say about this motet, I will here limit myself to one point striking at the heart of what I’m addressing in this blogpost, namely the function of liturgy as a venue for presenting the legend of a saint. The text of the motet consists of three parts, one for each of the voices: triplum, motetus and contratenor. Of interest to us here is the text for the triplum voice, which consists of four strophes. The first strophe is an address to Sebastian, exhorting him to guard against the plague with lines such as “Me protege and conserva”, protect and preserve me. The second strophe continues, opening with “Tu de peste hujusmodi / Me defende et custodi”, defend and protect me against the plague in your manner, and continues the exhortation. In the third and four strophes, however, the content of the text shifts from the purely exhortative address to what is in effect a condensed rendition of the legend of Sebastian.

O sancte Sebastiane
Motet by Guillaume Dufay

The third strophe signals this shift by addressing Sebastian as “Tu Mediolanus civis”, you citizen of Milan, thus demonstrating to the saint that the singer is well acquainted with the legend. It is tempting to suggest that the version of the legend on which Dufay based his motet was that of Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea, in which the opening of the legend – after the customary etymological explanation of Sebastian’s name – states that Sebastian was a native of Narbonne and a citizen of Milan. After establishing the singer’s knowledge of Sebastian’s citizenship, the text continues the exhortation for the saint to rely on his meritum – i.e. the merit accumulated in the course of the saint’s earthly life – and beseech God for His help against the plague.                   

In the fourth strophe of the triplum voice, the text returns to the hagiographic description, referring to the first miracle God performed through Sebastian, namely the healing of the muteness of Zoe, the woman in whose house Sebastian preached Christianity during Diocletian’s persecutions. Then the second and third strophes allude to the healing of Zoe’s husband Nicostratus, while the rest of the triplum text addresses how Sebastian consoled others who were to be martyred, reminding them of the eternal life that lay ahead.         

What we see here in this cursory overview of the motet O sancta Sebastiane is that the legend of the saint is an important foundation for the singer’s pleading with the saint. While the first two strophes of the triplum voice attempt to persuade the saint through straightforward exhortation, the last two strophes demonstrate the singer’s knowledge of Sebastian’s story and thus shows part of the reason why the saint should come to the singer’s aid: This is not some idle request, this comes from someone who is intimately familiar with the saint’s legend and therefore turns to the saint out of veneration and knowledge.    

Saint Sebastian comforting Marcus and Marcellinus in prison
Amiens - BM - ms.0108, f.219, Bible and legends of the saints, 1197, Pamplona
(Courtesy of

In this way, we see how knowledge of the life of a saint served an important function in what we might call the negotiating process, whose endpoint was to have the saint serve as the ambassador in Heaven and bring about help through the intervention of God. In other words, liturgy – even in such a brief form as the motet – served a hagiographic function, and it also served to convey history.

lørdag 26. januar 2019

A Pre-Raphaelite Notebook - poem by Geoffrey Hill

This is one of the most haunting and evocative poems by Geoffrey Hill, and I read it during my awakening to the importance of art as well as the convergence of art and poetry that opened up to me the richness of pre-modern art history. The poem is from the collection Tenebrae, printed in 1978.

A Pre-Raphaelite Notebook

Primroses; salutations; the miry skull
of a half-eaten ram; viscous wounds in earth
opening. What seraphs are afoot.

Gold seraph to gold worm in the pierced slime:
greetings. Advent of power-in-grace. The power
of flies distracts the working of our souls.

Earth's abundance. The God-ejected Word
resorts to flesh, procurescarrion, satisfies
its white hunger. Salvation's travesty

a deathless metaphor: the stale head
sauced in original blood; the little feast
foaming with cries of rapture and despair.

onsdag 16. januar 2019

Delight in transgression - notes from teaching the Middle Ages

Last year around Easter I was invited to the school of my village to talk about the Middle Ages. I took the opportunity to introduce some of my favourite subjects of medieval history to the pupils, while also trying to keep close to topics they had themselves covered – or were going to cover – in their own syllabi. To the high-school pupils I talked about the Latin literature of Norway, hoping to give them a sense of the depth and range of the literary and textual history of medieval Norway, and also to counteract the notion – which is very widespread in our own time – that there is little of interest before Snorri Sturlusson. I also gave them a brief introduction to palaeography, and had them attempt a transcription of a text from a manuscript produced in thirteenth-century Norway. Some of them did very well, but it was perhaps unavoidable that the ennui of teenagers made the pupils not very communicative.                      

It was a different situation when I talked to the middle-school pupils, as they were eager to ask questions and to respond to my own questions. To them I talked about ideas about nature which were prevalent in the Middle Ages, impressing upon them that people of the medieval period knew very well that the earth is round. Some of them were very surprised to hear this, especially as their own textbooks said differently. However, with the aid of a wide range of examples from medieval sculpture and illumination, I showed how both lay and learned could easily be exposed to the view of the earth as a sphere. The most enjoyable part of my time with the middle-schoolers, however, was when I brought out some scans from Richard Barber’s facsimile of the thirteenth-century bestiary of MS. Bodley 764.

 In order to engage the pupils a bit more, I read aloud to them the descriptions of animals of their choosing, and they seemed amused by listening to the now very alien ideas about familiar beasts such as the horse, the ape, or the lion. This exercise also came to highlight some of the differences in expectation between our modern frame of reference and that of the medieval period, as several pupils wanted to hear about animals that could not possibly be part of medieval knowledge, such as the American bison or the penguin.

Griffin capturing its prey
MS Bodley 764, bestiary, first half of thirteenth century

The main purpose of the bestiary, however, was to have the pupils themselves guess what was being depicted in the lavish illuminations of the book. They were divided into groups of three and four and together they discussed eagerly what the beasts could be. I had given them a blend of real and mythical beings, and I sought to introduce them to some imaginary animals that they might not have encountered before, such as the bonnacon, as well as the griffin shown above.         

After they had all had some time to discuss they gave me their answers, going through each of the animals in turn and keeping score of who had managed to guess correctly. When we got to the griffin and I asked them for their suggestions, one boy put his arm eagerly in the air and his whole face beamed with expectation. I pointed to him, looking forward to what he thought it might be, and as he was about to give his answer, he looked up at me with a sort of restrained joy. He said, partly in aborted self-censure, and no doubt inspired by the pointed end of the beast’s tail: “it’s a devil”. His whole demeanour and the half-hidden, relishing tone as his voice delivered the forbidden word “devil” showed very clearly the delight he took in the transgression that his suggestion constituted. Here he was, placed among his peers and in the presence of his superiors, subject to the verbal restrictions of the school law and quite likely imbued with a parental prohibition against cursing, and yet being able to take hold of a loop-hole and transgress by that simple word “devil”. His utter delight in this transgression was crystal clear also in the lack of care he showed when I told him that the answer was incorrect. He had managed to say a naughty word within the framework of a lesson, and he knew delightedly that he was beyond any reproach or censure for having said it, being allowed by the circumstance of my question.     

The whole exchange was over in just a few seconds, but the boy’s response and the familiar way in which he broke with the restrictions of his upbringing has stayed with me. In part, this is because I remember when I was his age, growing up in the same village and knowing full well that some words were bad to utter. Unlike this boy, however, I don’t remember any such liberating transgression against this restrictive upbringing, and I think it was in part because of this that I took delight in his opportunity to utter a word that he would not have been allowed to utter in any other context.

tirsdag 15. januar 2019

Translating the lexicon of sainthood - rethinking virtus

Since 2010 I have been researching the cult of saints, and since 2011 I have been doing translation work of texts pertaining to saints, for the most part liturgical texts but also saints' lives. In the course of this research, most of my secondary literature, and most of the translated saints' lives I have read, have been in English, in great part because I have worked extensively on material from medieval England. Increasingly, however, I have become dissatisfied with how certain key terms pertaining to the cult of saints have been rendered into English, and I have often found - particularly in older scholarship - that the Latin terms have been inaccurately translated. Frequently, this inaccuracy owes to the fact that many Latin terms have become part of the standard English language, but have had their meaning altered in the course of the centuries. One particularly problematic word here is the Latin "virtus", which can be found in English as "virtue". But what does "virtue" actually mean, and what does it signify in the context of the cult of saints? Many translators of saints' lives from Latin into English tend to merely render "virtus" as "virtue" without adding any further nuance to the issue. This is highly unfortunate, given that both the Latin and the English words have several different meanings. Consequently, to translate "virtus" as "virtue" is not really a translation, because the meaning of the Latin term depends so very much on the context of the work, the passage, and indeed the sentence. In this blogpost, I wish to address one single instance of such a failed translation in order to demonstrate my point, and the need for careful consideration when choosing how to render "virtus" in modern English. This blogpost touches on merely one case, and I might address others later on.

The inspiration for this blogpost came from listening to the chant Orientis partibus is a song performed at the cathedral of Beauvais in the thirteenth century. The song was part of the liturgical ritual of the mass on January 14, a feast that commemorates the flight into Egypt, and which had elements of the feast of fools embedded into it, such as the procession of the ass (hence the term Festum asinorum, "feast of the ass", which is sometimes applied to this day). An ass, either a live animal or a figure, was brought into the cathedral to the mock-celebratory strophes of Orientis partibus, each strophe ending with the refrain in the vernacular "hez sire asne hez" (hail Sir Donkey, hail).

Orientis partibus

The Latin text of the song, with English translations, can be cobbled together from this and this website. The structure of the song is modelled on liturgical chants, but does itself not fit in any established, formal liturgical category, as it draws elements from different chant types and because it contains a vernacular refrain (chants for mass and offices were in Latin).

I will not here go into detail about the song, the ritual or the text, but I will instead focus on one of the strophes which runs like this.

Aurum de Arabia
Thus et myrrham de Saba
Tulit in ecclesia
Virtus asinaria

An incorrect translation of this strophe can be found here, in which the final verse is translated as "this gallant donkey". This translation presupposes that "virtus" is an adjective and a qualifier to subject of the sentence, and this is a common rendition of "virtus" in many scholarly translations into English (though I do not guarantee that this particular translation is scholarly).

The problem here, however, is that "virtus" cannot possibly be rendered as an adjective. Instead, it is "virtus" which is the subject and to which "asinaria" serves as a qualifier. This is also seen from the fact that the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh are rendered in the accusative and therefore are direct objects. In other words, "virtus" cannot simply be translated into a synonym for modern English virtuous, but must be understood from its Latin etymology, namely "strength" or "power".

In this particular case I favour "strength" because this reflects more accurately what is needed to bring, "tulit", the gifts of the three wise men into the church. Consequently, "asinaria" is thus the qualifying adjective to the strength, and the text should be rendered as follows.

The strength of the donkey
Carries in the church
Gold from Arabia,
Frankincense, and myrrh from Saba

In this way we see how different the results can be when translating a text containing the word "virtus". In this case, "virtus" is best understood as strength and as the subject of the sentence, but in other instances there might be other nuances that demand a different translation. In short, "virtus" is a very complicated word to translate, as shown by this single strophe from Orientis partibus.