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

fredag 29. november 2019

O magnum mysterium, by Tomás Luis de Victoria

This weekend sees the end of November and the beginning of Advent, and as a way to mark this transition, I present to you, in this brief blogpost, the responsorial chant O magnum mysterium, as it was arranged by the Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria (c.1548-1611).

onsdag 20. november 2019

Saint Edmund's sketchy wolf - a doodle in a twelfth-century English manuscript

Today is the feast of Saint Edmund Martyr (d.869/70), one of the saints about whom I have done the most research as a professional academic, and about whom I have written several blogposts already. (See for instance here, here, here, here, and here.) In this blogpost, I wish to present to you an encounter I had while researching the cult of Edmund for my PhD, namely a little doodle of an animal head in the margin of a twelfth-century manuscript.

Edmund's wolf?

The manuscript in question is the sumptuous Pierpont Morgan MS 736, currently held in New York but originally produced at the abbey of Bury St Edmunds in the period 1125-30. Among other things, the manuscript contains materials for the liturgical celebration for Edmund's feast, and for my thesis I was researching how this liturgical material presented the martyred king. Since the liturgical office of the manuscript is not edited I was dependent on the manuscript itself, and fortunately I was sent a file of a black and white scan of the relevant section of the manuscript from the librarians at Pierpont Morgan, a kindness that spared me much time and money. (You can get a high-quality scan of a manuscript page for 100 dollars.) This is also why the above picture is the way it is, it's a photograph of a scan.

In the summer of 2015, I taught myself how to transcribe twelfth-century script by using the scans of this manuscript, an exhilarating two-week endeavour that I have written about here. It was a very exciting exercise, especially because the script is relatively easy to read and the manuscript is clearly a product intended to be of the highest quality, something to which the spectacular illuminations readily attest. But precisely because of this high-class nature of the manuscript, it was all the more surprising and delightful to encounter this doodle of an animal head in the margin.

To this day, I am still not certain how to understand this doodle, and to my knowledge there have been offered no suggestions from the Pierpont Morgan library as to what it may mean. It is not included in their selection of publicly available images from the manuscript, and I have not seen it mentioned anywhere in the academic literature. I will therefore attempt an interpretation here.

The wolf guarding Edmund's head
Pierpont Morgan MS 736, f.16r

The wolf itself is an element from the legend as it was written down by Abbo of Fleury in Passio Sancti Eadmundi in the late 980s. When Edmund has been killed by decapitation, the Danes take the head with them into the woods and discard it there in order to prevent the locals from venerating the dead king. One local, however, observes what goes on, so when the Danes have left the area the locals all go into the woods in search of  Edmund's head. They find it when the head itself start calling out "her, her, her", i.e. "here, here, here", and when the locals approach the head they find that it is guarded by a wolf. Abbo of Fleury compares this wolf to the lions who did not touch Daniel in the den. The wolf then follows the people back to Beodricsworth, the later Bury St Edmunds, and when he sees that the head is cared for properly he disappears. This wolf has become one of the main signifiers of the legend of Edmund in later medieval art.

The animal head doodled in the margin of Pierpont Morgan MS 736 is placed right next to the opening of the eighth lesson of the liturgical office. This lesson is itself opened by a beautiful and rich illuminated initial, an S that contains a griffin and a lion. The lesson begins with the details of Edmund's death on twelfth kalends of December, i.e. November 20, and continues on the next folio with a description of how the text is brought into the woods. The wolf itself does not appear until lesson 9, four folios later, an appearance that itself is heralded by an initial that depicts the wolf guarding the severed head.

But I consider it nonetheless to be possible that the animal head on folio 187 might be intended to signify the wolf of the legend. Granted, it appears a bit early in the story, and, granted, it is not of a clearly lupine shape. Yet it invokes the image of a monk at Bury, at any point between around 1130 and the abbey's dissolution, who perhaps excitedly, perhaps in boredom, remembers the wolf as his reading eyes arrive at the lesson beginning with the aftermath of Edmund's decapitation. He knows the story from before, he has heard it read aloud on previous feast days, he has himself most likely sung this story by way of the liturgical chants also included in the manuscript, chants like the responsory immediately preceding the lesson in question. And this rememberance seems to have spurred him on to make this doodle. 

We will never know who the monk was who made this doodle. We will never be able to say with certainty whether it is indeed a representation of the wolf, or whether it is an image more or less divorced from the story unfolding on the vellum. But it does remind us that this manuscript, sumptuous though it be, was a manuscript in use. It was read, and readers engaged with it in different ways, one of which being this little drawing that remains a delightful and perpetual mystery.

tirsdag 19. november 2019

The vigil of Saint Edmund Martyr

Preuenientes festum ueneremur eadmundum et in eo adoremus regem regum

The feast of Edmund is arriving, let us venerate and in him we adore the king of kings
- Invitatory antiphon from the office of the vigil of Edmund Martyr (my translation)

Today is the vigil of the feast of Edmund Martyr, one of the most popular native saints of medieval England, and one of the saints about whom I wrote my PhD thesis. Due to my abiding interest in Edmund and his cult, I have written about him several times on this blog, and accordingly I will not go into great detail about his story, at least not the entire story. (For older blogposts about Edmund, see here, here, here, and here.) But since I have not yet written in detail about his vigil, I will say a little bit about it here. 

The vigilant Edmund Martyr

The vigil of a feast is the day before the feast itself, and serves as a precursor or a preparation for the main celebration of the saint. As Edmund's feast falls on November 20, the vigil is celebrated the day before. However, it is important to keep in mind that due to the daily cycle of liturgical services, it is easy to get confused about when a celebration actually begins. Any feast in the liturgical calendar begins with the hour of Vesper, which corresponds roughly with our six in the afternoon, though seasonal differences apply. This is the first of three big services in which the saint of the day is commemorated through chants and readings. In the case of Edmund, the most important celebration of his feast was held at his shrine at Bury St Edmunds, and the chants and readings were performed by the monks of the abbey.

As stated, there are three big services in the course of the daily liturgical round: Vesper (ca 18.00), Matins (ca 03.00) and Lauds (ca 06.00). The most important of these is Matins, during which the main part of the liturgical office is performed, and when most of the texts are read. However, since the feast begins with Vesper and Vesper is in the afternoon, this means that the office for the main feast of Edmund begins around six in the afternoon on November 19. This means, in turn, that the office for the vigil of Edmund begins around six in the afternoon on November 18, and the apex of the vigil is at around three in the morning of November 19.

The vigil is, as mentioned, a precursor to the main feast. This means that only the most important feast days were celebrated with their own office for the vigil, as well as for the main feast. For minor feast days, a brief acknowledgement of the vigil was sufficient. But Edmund's feast day was widely celebrated throughout England, and at Bury St Edmunds this was one of the most important liturgical days of the year, outranked only by the feasts commemorating the main events of the life of Christ, such as Resurrection Sunday. Consequently, we do possess a manuscript evidence to the office of the vigil as it was celebrated by the monks at Bury, and it contains the chants and the readings that were performed at Vesper, Matins and Lauds of the vigil. This is a significant testament to the importance of Edmund.

Edmund crowned as martyr in Heaven

The office for the vigil of Saint Edmund is transmitted in a lavish manuscript from Bury that was produced in the period 1125-30. The manuscript, Pierpont Morgan MS 736, contains not only the office for the vigil and for the main feast, but also Passio Sancti Eadmundi by Abbo of Fleury (the first vita of the martyr) and a collection of miracle stories associated with Edmund.

A liturgical office for a major feast day at a monastic community is an expansive affair. The service of Matins, for instance, consists of the performance of twelve psalms, each with their own antiphon recounting something from the saint's story, the reading of twelve lessons taken from the saint's life, each lesson being followed by its own chant recounting key elements of the lesson, and several other shorter liturgical pieces.

The liturgical office for the vigil of Saint Edmund, however, is not as grand. For the service of Vesper (which, as stated, begins at around six on November 18), only one chant was performed instead of the six of the main feast. For the service of Matins, the monks at Bury would sing one antiphon at the beginning (the one quoted above), then three more antiphons, and four lessons with one responsory each. Lauds consisted of four antiphons instead of the five of the main feast.

The office for the vigil that we find in Pierpont Morgan MS 736 serves, as stated, as a preparation for the main feast. Consequently, the chants and readings of this office do not recount episodes of Edmund's vita, i.e. how we was martyred. This is a story for the main feast. Instead, the monks would gather in the abbey church and listen to the readings, and themselves perform the chants, in which were told some of the miracles that God had performed in order to prove the holiness of Saint Edmund. These stories were taken from the collection of miracles gathered in the 1090s by the monk Hermannus.

For the vigil, two miracle stories were selected. One recounted how the Danish king Svend Forkbeard had oppressed the abbey with taxation and had been punished by death by Edmund himself. The other recounted how the faithful monk Aelwine had freighted Edmund's shrine on a cart to protect it from the ravages of the Danes. One day they came to a river whose bridge looked a bit too narrow for the cart, but Aelwine drove on, trusting in the aid of Saint Edmund, and the cart crossed the river with one wheel driving on the bridge, the other driving on the river itself.

The miraculous crossing of the river

These stories were important to the community of monks at Bury St Edmunds. Not only did the stories educate the monks about their patron saint whose body lay in the shrine in that selfsame church. But the stories also educated the monks about their own institution, their own abbey, about its history and about how it was protected from oppressors by the patronage of Saint Edmund and by God. Listening to these stories, and performing these stories through chants, on a set day of the year, in the very abbey featured in the stories, instilled into the monks at Bury a sense of their own institutional identity, and this was passed down from generation to generation. In this way, we see how liturgy served a didactic purpose, and at Bury St Edmunds, this didacticism was centred on the figure of Edmund himself.

As a sort of conclusion to this blogpost, and for the occasion of the vigil, I also present to you the two chants of Lauds in which the story of the river-crossing is narrated. The transcription of the Latin and the translation of the text is my own, and can be found in the appendices of my PhD thesis

Antiphon 4:

Dum peruenit sanctus et auriga eius ad aque transitum fit ibi dubium quomodo sancti gleba transierit in hreda [rheda] sed facit uirtus diuina pro sancto laudabilia

While the saint and his charioteer [4 Kings 2:12] arrived at the water-crossing, this [charioteer] became doubtful as to in what way he could cross on that turf in the wagon, but it is done by praiseworthy divine power for the saint.

Antiphon 5:

O sanctissimi meritum eadmundi per quem benedicitur filius dei cuius rote uehiculi dantes certa uestigii super flumen cucurrit dextra eque super pontem sinistra more petri calcantis equor nutu domini benedictus deus per omnia.

O merit of most holy Edmund, by whom the son of God is praised. Whose wheels produced sure tracks, the right moving over the river, just as the left did over the bridge, in the manner of Peter treading the level sea on God’s command. God is praised by all.

lørdag 16. november 2019

A decade of reading

This decade is soon over, and this has prompted a trend on Twitter that encourages people to list their accomplishments of the past ten years. In response to this, Professor Diane Watt suggested instead to make a list of things people have read in the past decade. Perhaps needless to say, I much prefer such lists, as I am often more excited about discussing books than discussing the ups and downs of my personal life - or even my professional life. I responded to this challenge on Twitter, but due to the medium's constraints I only presented a very few highlights of my own personal reading. Consequently, I am writing this blogpost as a way to expand a bit on the list, and to actually talk a bit more about the reading itself. So in the following, I'll present some of my personal highlights in the past decade of reading.

A main point I want to emphasise about the past decade is that I have become more ambitious in my reading. And I meant that in several ways. First of all, I have become more omnivorous as a reader, trying to sample a wide range of the world's available literature, and trying not to stick solely to my comfort zone. Granted, my reading is still to a great extent guided by my own personal aesthetic - there are themes, authors, genres and literary tools I prefer over others and that still constitute the majority of my book consumption. But I have increasingly come to see the value of reading books whose genres, themes or authors I might not explore in greater depth, but that at least provide me with a small window into a new world. I maintain a very firm belief that such knowledge of worlds outside your own, however small, holds a value in itself.

In this past decade I have also become more ambitious in the sense that I have gained greater confidence in my own ability to finish larger reading projects. This has drawn me out of the comfort that limited my reading in the first three years at university and plunged me into reading projects that will keep me busy for decades to come. However, this is not to say that I was unambitious before, but that previously my ambition was mostly formulated through ideas of future projects, things that I might pick up or might finish once I had become brighter, more experienced. I was waiting for some obscure moment when I would find myself ready to embark on all those projects I had jotted down on lists. But there was no such moment, and fortunately I emerged from that laziness and trusted in myself more.

Another aspect that has also presided over much of my reading in this past decade is a growing awareness of the limitations of my previous reading. This ties in with the issue of personal aesthetics that I mentioned above, but it goes in a slightly different direction. While I became more willing to go beyond my immediate preferences, I also realised that I should read more from various different voices. Those other voices were sometimes found outside my personal aesthetic, but sometimes also within it. This meant, for instance, that I began actively seeking out more texts by women. It also meant that I began exploring the literature of new countries, something to which I will return below.

I want to emphasise, however, that the following is not intended as a way of showing off. There is nothing particularly impressive about my reading or about the selection presented here. I am a slow reader, and sometimes an overly pensive reader, and it means that I probably read fewer books a year than a lot of my friends and colleagues. Rather, this is just an excuse for me to talk about some of the things I read, and I always take any excuse I can to do so, because talking books is one of my favourite things in the world.

With this as a backdrop, here are some of my personal highlights from the past decade of my reading.

The Making of Saint Louis (Cecilia Gaposchkin)

The Making of Saint Louis is an academic monograph that details the development of the cult of Saint Louis (Louis IX of France, d.1270), especially through the liturgical sources that were produced in the wake of his canonisation in 1297. The study is immensely well written and accessible, and it deals with a source material that makes for a wonderfully detailed presentation of the subject matter. I was notified of this book by my supervisor in the second year of my MA, and it became a key text for how I understood my own topic and how I framed my own questions and employed my methodology. To read this book was like entering through a succession of doors that lead you to one revelation after the other, and I am deeply indebted to this book for how I have developed as an academic. 

Don Quijote (Miguel Cervantes)

My reading of Don Quijote highlights what I mentioned above with regards to finally embarking on those projects I had left for future me to deal with. In my first year at university, 2007/08, I bought a copy of Arne Worren's Norwegian translation, and later on that year I compiled a long list of all the books I should read in the course of my lifetime. That list naturally included Don Quijote, and as I had already purchased a copy I would have been able to cross that off my list relatively soon. But something held me back. I suspect it was laziness and some vague sense of not being ready, not having done enough of the preparatory reading that would enable me to appreciate it. In 2014, however, as I was writing applications for a PhD and trying to find out what I would do next, I came to the realisation that I would probably not have as much free time for reading as I had that spring, at least not for a very long time. And so I started reading the exploits of the hidalgo of La Mancha, and I absolutely loved it. So much so that it remains my favourite novel to this day. As happy as I am to have read it, however, I am glad I waited for as long as I did. Back in 2007, I did not have the frame of reference required for understanding so many of the elements of the novel, but after my MA in medieval history I had a much greater appreciation for the playful intertextuality of Cervantes. I should also say that it took about half a year for me to get through it. I didn't read continuously, but also picked up several other books along the way, so the spring of 2014 was a good time to begin, and it also made me able to shelve Don Quijote in my mental reference library in time for my PhD.

Finishing the Aubrey/Maturin series

I first began reading Patrick O'Brian's masterful series of historical nautical novels in 2006/07 and I devoured the first thirteen or so within the first years at university. But after finishing The Far Side of the World, I left the series be for several years because I started my MA thesis, and I was worried that if I continued reading the series, I would be so consumed by the books that I would neglect the reading I would have to do for my MA. It was a tough choice to make because it is a literary world I had come to love and in which I felt at home due to Patrick O'Brian's ability to imbue his characters, even the most minor of all the characters, with a depth and humanity that makes them seem like old, and sometimes extremely detestable and annoying, acquaintances. I resumed my reading of the series in 2015, in the course of my PhD, and it turned out that I had made the right choice those five years prior, because I very quickly immersed myself in that world and did sometimes let it affect how I spent time I should have spent differently.

Reading Spanish

In senior high, when I was seventeen, I began learning Spanish. However, in my interminable stupidity, I did not keep it up and retained only a very limited vocabulary and sense of its grammar throughout my university days. When I started on my PhD, however, I became friends with several Spaniards who incentivised me to return to Spanish, and who introduced me to various aspects of the literature of Spain. Gradually I improved my skills in the language, and I began reading the albums of Mortadelo y Filemón, one of the great classics of Spanish comics. Most of the titles from the Spanish-speaking world, however, I read in translation, because I did not trust my own level of Spanish to be sufficient for such endeavours. But eventually I became more ambitious, and the great breakthrough came in 2018 when I read the poetry collection Salamandra by Octavio Paz. This was the first Spanish text, aside from the comics, that I had read primarily in Spanish, only using translations for checking unfamiliar words, and it felt like a great victory. It taught me that with some patience and a good dictionary I am able to get to grips with longer texts in Spanish, and it enabled me to read texts from new countries, texts unavailable in translation into English or Norwegian, such as the achingly beautiful poems of Uruguayan poet Juana de Ibarbourou.

Utopian literature/hollow earth fiction

For reasons I do not quite understand, I found myself drawn to Utopian novels in the course of my PhD. Perhaps as a sort of misguided escapism - misguided because Utopian societies serve mainly to emphasise the prejudices of their creators rather than instilling any sense of humanity's potential into the reader. I suspect it began with Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth (in William Butcher's translation), which presented a number of threads that in turn led me to other works of hollow earth fiction, a genre that is in its genesis connected to Utopian literature. This is perhaps most clearly seen in my personal favourite of these storiers, namely Niels Klims reise til den underjordiske verden (Niels Klim's Journey Under Ground) by Danish-Norwegian writer Ludvig Holberg. The novel was written in Latin and published in 1741, and I read the Norwegian translation by Kjell Heggelund. The novel describes a fantastical world on a planet in the centre of the earth, and in the novel Holberg outlines his ideal society with a learning and humour that makes for a very entertaining read. And it also provides excellent reasons for why we should have complete gender equality in our society, an issue that is still unresolved in our own time.

The Dark is Rising Sequence (Susan Cooper)

When I finished my PhD in the autumn of 2017, I began a voracious reading regimen to properly celebrate that what I had worked on for three years was now done and I could change my pace and let my mind breathe, as it were. One of the books I started reading that autumn was Over Sea, Under Stone, the first book in Susan Cooper's fantastic series of children's novels collectively known as The Dark is Rising Sequence. I read the first book when I was back in Norway on a short holiday in October, a reward to myself for finishing the thesis, and the second book I read during Christmas, and so it continued until I had read them all. It was a series that resonated with me as a medievalist who has been dealing a lot with English history, and it provided me with a literary world that I could easily immerse myself into.

Travelling the world through books

As a final instalment in this verbose yet restrained list, I will include another example of my increased ambition as a reader. This also began in the autumn of 2017 when I had finished my PhD. After having had my head in the Middle Ages for the better part of the past three years, I decided I needed to do something different, to start expanding my literary horizon. The solution became a project that was inspired by British journalist Ann Morgan, who in 2012 set out to read one novel from every country of the world, detailed in her blog A year of reading the world. This prompted me to try something similar, albeit far less ambitious. I decided that I should read one book - be it poetry, drama, short fiction, novels or non-fiction - from every country of the world. Unlike Morgan, I have not set the start for this list in 2017, so I those countries I have already read will not have to be read again for the sake of the list. Two years into this project, I am only at 88 countries and so not even half way. But in the course of this project I have encountered a lot of wonderful stories and learned a lot about a myriad of countries and cultures that have given me a much greater appreciation of the literary depth of the world. This is also a case where I have been guided by my intention to read more women's voices, and, consequently, when selecting a book that will represent a new country, I usually select one by a woman. I have come to believe that women often give a more thorough representation of their societies than men do.

When I started this project I had access to the interlibrary loan system of the University of Southern Denmark, so this allowed me to seek out books from very distant corners of the world. Among the highlights of the project so far are Colonised People by Grace Mera Molisa (Vanuatu), The Land Without Shadows by Abdourahman Waberi, translated by Jeanne Garane (Djibouti), The fortunes of Wangrin by Amadou Hampaté Bâ, translated by Aina Pavolini Taylor (Mali), and Aibebelau by Ucheliou (Palau).

These are just some of the many aspects of my personal reading this past decade. And as the decade dies and a new is on its way, I'm looking forward to what new books I will be reading in the next ten years.