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

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.