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

mandag 30. mars 2020

Saints for the season - a reflection on plague saints

Tu de peste huiusmodi
Nos defende et custodi

- Motet for Saint Sebastian, Guillaume Dufay

In these times of a global pandemic, a lot of people seek out something topical on which to turn their attentions. Some find this topicality in books, in particular Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, but also Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year, and, in Norway, Sigrid Undset's trilogy about Kristin Lavrandsdatter. Interest in historical pandemics is rekindled as well, and this is particularly the case for the Black Death, which has resulted in an increased dissemination of the first volume of the journal The Medieval Globe, namely Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World edited by Monica Green (2014).

For me as a saint scholar, there is one particular outcome of this quest for topicality that has caught my interest, namely the attention given to the relatively obscure Saint Corona, a martyr of uncertain date who suffered along with Saint Victor (one of at least three soldier saints with that name, and the least well known among them). The interest in Saint Corona must in large part be ascribed to the likeness of her name with that of the corona virus of the ongoing pandemic, and this similarity has led to Corona being talked about as the patron saint of epidemics. This patronage, however, is the result of our tendency as human being to seek out patterns even where there are none, and the inaccuracy of this claim has been discussed by Dr. Patricia Cullum on Twitter (see this thread), and Dan Evon has addressed the matter on snopes. This renewed attention concerning Saint Corona has also resulted in her relics being brought out from storage at Aachen Cathedral, so as to make it available for pilgrims.

The case of Saint Corona is interesting for many reasons. First of all, it shows the constant relevance of saints, also in our modern times. Secondly, it is a good example of how saints evolve according to the needs of the living. The debate concerning the patronage of Saint Corona has mostly focussed on the fact that she is not historically considered as a patron against epidemics, and that the hope in her role as a plague saint is a modern one. However, while it is important to have a historically accurate understanding of the cult of Saint Corona, it is also necessary to keep in mind that the patronages and the cults of saints undergo changes whenever the need arises. Therefore, it is true that Saint Corona, historically, is is not the patron saint of epidemics. But we must also be aware that the designation of saintly patronage is not subject to any specific religious authority, and in many cases the attribution of  a particular patronage is the result of pressure from below. In other words, if enough people believe that Saint so-and-so can intervene against a particular sickness, people will start flocking to that saint for healing, and cures will be attributed to the intervention of Saint so-and-so. This means, in turn, that if the mere resemblance of the name of the saint with the name of the virus results in people turning to Saint Corona for cures, she will become one of the several saints whose catalogue of patronages includes epidemics. The attention given to Saint Corona reminds us that saints are not static. While their earthly lives might be given a more or less concrete time-frame, they are also believed to continue intervening in affairs of this world after their death.   

Saint Sebastian
Skive Church, Northern Jutland, Denmark, c.1500

There are several saints who have acquired new patronages at various points in the course of the history of their cults. One example is one of the most famous plague saints of all, namely Saint Sebastian. Sebastian is of uncertain historicity, but his death is usually dated to the reign of Diocletian, and a cult appears to have been in place by the second half of the fourth century. The early trajectory of his cult is obscure, but in his Historia Langobardorum of the late 700s, Paulus Diaconus recounts how a plague in the seventh century was averted in Pavia when an altar to Saint Sebastian was erected in the city. This anecdote was later repeated by Jacobus de Voragine in his Legenda Aurea from the 1260s, and it is likely due to the popularity of Legenda Aurea that Sebastian became an immensely famous plague saint in the course of the Black Death. Sebastian was often named among the Fourteen Holy Helpers, a group of saints whose members varied in different geographies. This group emerged in the Rhineland in the early stages of the Black Death, and it was a collective of saints who were called upon in crises, and Sebastian's frequent inclusion in this group testifies to his popularity.  

Saint Sebastian's plague patronage is similar to the modern attributions to Saint Corona as a patron saint of epidemics, in that it is a patronage that appears to have been acquired after several centuries. Moreover, while the idea that Saint Corona is a saint against epidemics due to her name, it is often believed that the patronage of Saint Sebastian against the plague can be ascribed to the imagery of him being perforated by arrows, as the imagery is believed to invoke the idea that the god Apollon sent plagues by shooting pestilent arrows to the earth. Whether the origin of Sebastian's plague patronage lies the Apollonian imagery or not, the fact that this association is sometimes made points to an important aspect of how patronages are attributed: Humans look for patterns.

Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian
Amiens - BM - ms. Lescalopier 017, f.250v, 1415-20, Champagne 
(Courtesy of

 In addition to Saint Sebastian, there are also several other saints who are believed to assist in times of plague. One particularly important late medieval example is the cult of Saint Roch (d.1327), the son of the governor of Montpellier who is said to have wandered from city to city to heal the plague-stricken, and who eventually died in prison. It is important to note that Roch, a historical person, died before the Black Death, which serves as a useful reminder that plague was a perennial problem in the Middle Ages. Saint Roch's patronage of plague victims was directly connected with his earthly life, and this catapulted him into fame at a relatively early point, and his relevance continued throughout the Middle Ages, as evidenced in the wall-painting below from Northern Denmark, dated to c.1500. Here we see the typical depiction of Roch indicating a plague sore on his inner thigh, attended to by an angel. In several cases, as seen in the illumination further down, Saint Roch is depicted together with a dog. It is interesting, though perhaps not indicative of an iconographical connection, that the angel and dog are elements from the biblical story in the now-apocryphal Book of Tobit, where Tobias goes in search for a cure for his father Tobit who has become blind.   

Saint Roch (on the right) showing his plague sore to the onlooker
Skive Church, Northern Jutland, c.1500

Saint Roch with angel and dog
Châlons-en-Champagne - BM - ms. 0337. f.144, book of hours, 1506 
(Courtesy of

Another plague saint who is more limited in her geographical reach but of immense popularity is Saint Rosalia of Palermo, a twelfth-century anchoress who became a plague saint in the seventeenth century, when a vision instructed the citizens of Palermo to collect her neglected relics and parade them around the city. As with Saint Corona today, the life of the saint and the attribution of a plague patronage happened late. And as with the recent surge in the interest in Saint Corona, Saint Rosalia also demonstrates the continued relevance of saints in times of crisis.

As in the cases mentioned here, and presumably in other cases as well, the idea of Saint Corona as a plague saint might very well become a reality, because that is often how such patronages are designated. Moreover, that there so far seems to be little more than the name of the saint and the name of the virus to connect the saint with the patronage, we see in the cases of plague saints that not much more is needed to create the necessary association that initiates a saint's career as a patron against epidemics.


Antonio Borrelli, "Santi Vittore e Corona",

Madeline Chambers and Gareth Jones, "German cathedral dusts off relics of St Corona, patron of epidemics", Reuters, March 25, 2020

Dan Evon, "Is Corona the Patron Saint of Plagues?", Snopes, March 24, 2020

David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 2011

Monica Green (ed.), Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death, volume 1 of The Medieval Globe, 2014

Lorenzo Tondo, "Palermo pins hopes on patron saint to rid Italy of coronavirus", The Guardian, March 13, 2020

søndag 29. mars 2020

Histories from home, part 1 - minor monuments

Time which antiquates antiquities, and hath an art to make dust of all things, hath yet spared these minor monuments
- Thomas Browne, Urne Buriall

In times of chaos and uncertainty, I often find comfort in looking for permanence and the slow changes in the world. In this blogpost, I combine this quest for slowness with a yearning for home, as it is unclear when I will be able to go back to the fjords again. This blogpost is the first in a series in which I will shed light on aspects from the history of my home village, Hyen, in Western Norway. Hyen is a small place in terms of its population. We are about 600 on a good day, and those inhabitants are scattered across a wide geographical area comprising numerous valleys, mountains, rivers and lakes. However, history is resilient, also in these small places, and several minor monuments that testify to the work and life of our older generations can still be found in the landscape, sometimes even in surprising places.

I begin these histories of home in one of the many uninhabited places of the village, namely a valley called Skordalen. The name translates to cleft or narrow gorge (skor - with a possible etymological link to the English "scaur") + valley (dal - cf. dale). It is a narrow but relatively deep valley that empties out into one of the two main valleys of the village. From mouth to end takes about a forty-five minutes walk along a track that is comprised of animal paths and man-made tracks.

To the best of my knowledge, the valley has never been inhabited. The winters are very harsh and the valley fills quickly with deep snow, making any kind of permanent living very difficult and indeed dangerous. Yet the valley has been in use for generations, and the farmers in that part of the village - which is the part where I come from - have gathered grass for fodder, cut timber, hunted, herded cattle and picked berries throughout the ages. Several buildings have been built to store hay for the winter months, and of these we can still see the stone foundations. Similarly, the track through the valley has been fortified by stonework, and various other remnants can be found as witnesses of the life that has been lived in the valley. This blogpost is about one of those remnants. 

The wilderness of Hyen is populated by a wide range of animals, some of which are more territorial than others and some of which have established their territories in Skordalen, such as stags, foxes and martens. Nowadays, the hunt is mostly for deer, but until very recently there was still some trapping for fur as well, and even as I was growing up we prepared traps for minks and martens.

The heyday of fur trapping, however, was in the early decades of the twentieth century. In this period, especially in the 1930s, the Norwegian government paid prize money for pelts of predators, in an attempt to minimise their populations. These prizes turned many people in the districts into trappers, as farmers were often poor. The main target was the mink, introduced into Norway from North America by fur farmers, with several individuals fleeing from the farms and establishing populations in the wild. In Skordalen, however, where there are no shores and lakes of the typical mink habitat, the animals that were hunted for their pelts were chiefly martens and, above all, stoats.

The Norwegian word for stoat is "røyskatt", which literally means scree-cat (røys=scree), a name it has earned because it often hides in the screes and stone walls. For this reason, the stoat traps were placed in the screes and amidst larger stones left by the retreating ice as it carved out the valley millions of years ago. The stoat traps were typically of two categories. Some consisted of a stick propping up a heavy stone, with food attached to the stick so that when the stoat came to grab the food the stones would kill it. The other kind of trap was aimed at catching the stoats alive. These were cages with an open door in one end, and this door was connected with some sort of thread ending in a hook with food attached. The stoat was led into the cage, and as it grabbed hold of the food the door would fall down behind it. These traps allowed the trappers to fatten the stoats before killing them.

The traps themselves were made of wood, often with one wall made out of chicken wire so that the trapper could see what they had caught. These traps were then covered by moss and branches to camouflage it. One challenge could often be, however, that in this condition the traps only appeared as open holes. While the stoat was familiar with navigating the dark holes of a scree, they might often be alerted a gaping blackness that didn't belong to the scree. It is most likely for that purpose that the trappers built stone gates that would lead the stoat into the trap by a seemingly natural entrance. Such a stone gate can be seen in the pictures below.

This particular trap gate can be found in a small heap of rocks at about the halfway point of the valley. I do not know when it was set up, or by whom, but its purpose is unmistakable. And although most of the historical details about it are, and will remain, unknown to us, it nonetheless testifies to one of the aspects of human life in this uninhabited valley, and as such it is one of the minor monuments of a resilient history of little things. 

tirsdag 17. mars 2020

Working with liturgical fragments, part 16 - the clue is in the notation

I am currently reading articles dealing with some of the few but valuable medieval fragments that have survived from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Norway. For a place like Norway where the original wealth of medieval manuscript material has mostly been reduced to fragments, with some few manuscripts surviving more or less completely, the remaining fragments are all the more important for extracting as much evidence as possible. In the case of Norway, 6000 known fragments from about 1000 books survive (see Ommundsen 2010), and several of these have been the subject of recent studies. Some are even available online at the University of Bergen's fragment project website:

In Denmark the situation is somewhat different, as the number of both fragments and manuscripts is higher, although I do not know of any estimates of this number as of now. New fragments with a connection to medieval Denmark continue to come to light, and I was reminded of one such fragment whose Danish provenance has recently been hypothesised by a colleague and myself (see Holck and Hope 2019). The fragment in question is one which I have mentioned in two previous blogposts (here and here), namely Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek RARA L 31, an edition of Epistolarum Astronomicarum by Tyco Brahe.   

Beati qui, antiphon of the first nocturne
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek RARA L 31

As I was reading about the Norwegian fragments, I was reminded of how musical notation can provide excellent clues in the extraction of evidence from liturgical material. This has been described in a particularly excellent way by Gisela Attinger regarding one case where the study of notation enabled to connect several Norwegian fragments to one and the same scribe (see Attinger 2010).

In primo nocturno antiphonam
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek RARA L 31

On a lower scale, musical notation has also been important in the work on RARA L 31 by Jakob Povl Holck and myself. While most of our attention has been focussed on the cover fragment with its magnificent initials and well-preserved text and notation, this is not the only fragment contained in the fragment carrier. In addition to the cover, the bookbinder has also made use of smaller strips of parchment to strengthen the spine, which is a very common occurrence. Only one of these spine fragments is visible, but it is certain that other fragments like it were used to strengthen the rest of the spine as well.     

Spine fragment
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek RARA L 31

Owing to the size of the fragment and the limited amount of text, we have not been able to provide any hypothesis about its original manuscript context, other than its square notation. This square notation is an important step, as it shows that the fragment is most likely not of Germany provenance, but rather of either Scandinavian, English or (perhaps less likely) French provenance. Beyond this, however, it is unlikely that we will be able to much with any degree of certainty.

However, one question does present itself, and this question is important for understanding the book as a fragment carrier as well as the individual fragments. This question is whether the two fragments are from the same manuscript, or whether they belong to two separate manuscripts. Did the bookbinder cut strips for the strengthening of the spine and remove one folio to use as the books cover from one and the same liturgical manuscript? 

There are some details that point to a tentatively affirmative reply. First of all, both fragments contain liturgical material. Secondly, both fragments contain red lines for the musical notation. Thirdly, both fragments contain square notation. It is therefore tempting to imagine that the bookbinder has used different parts of the same manuscript for different purposes. Other details, however, provide us with counter-evidence, and based on this evidence I am certain that the fragments are from two separate liturgical books.

First of all, there is the notable difference in colour. However, this gives us nothing, as discoloration over time is bound to occur differently in a fragment hidden in the spine and a fragment exposed to light.

Secondly, it appears that the fragments come from books of different sizes. The cover fragment is 40x30 cm, and the folios of the original manuscripts would therefore be quite sizable and well-suited to be recycled as book covers. To cut such a voluminous folio into smaller strips for the strengthening of the spine is unlikely, as it would be rather wasteful. It is more difficult to assess the size of the spine fragment, but it does appear to come from a smaller book. The size, however, is not a conclusive piece of evidence, as the spine fragment could have been cut to serve as a spine-strengthener, unlikely though such a scenario might be.

A third clue can be found in the letters of the respective fragments. This, however, is complicated by the fact that we have so few letters from the spine fragment with which to compare. Only the letters D and I can be securely identified, whereas the third letter could be either C, E, D or even O. This means that we can only compare with the Ds and the Is of the cover fragment. Such a comparison seems to strengthen the hypothesis that the two fragments belong to different manuscripts, but this is also not conclusive.

We must therefore turn to the notation, and it is here we find evidence that suggest quite definitely that we are here dealing with two separate fragments. In the case of the cover fragment, we can note - pun intended - that the scribe has a tendency to write the squares of his notation with an upward rounded spike in the top right corner. This might be due to the pen, or it might be because of a movement in the scribe's hand that finishes the making of the square. Whether it is the movement, the pen, or some other factor, we see that this is a feature that recurs in almost every note of the fragment. As we do not have any other works by this scribe with which compare, we cannot definitely say that this feature can be regarded as one of the scribe's hallmark - and most scribes had such hallmarks - but it is very likely.

Regardless of whether or not the upward spike is a hallmark of the scribe of the cover fragment, it si a feature that is likely to have been found throughout the entire original manuscript. What do we see, however, when we compare with the squares of the spine fragment? Here, we only have a handful of notes, three of which can be seen below. While this is not a high number of comparative material, it is enough to establish that the squares of the spine fragment have even sides, and although they are not perfectly flat, they do not have an upward spike in the top right corner. This suggests in the strongest terms that the two fragments are from two separate manuscripts. 

Spine fragment (left) and cover fragment (right).
The spine fragment has notably even squares, while
the squares of the cover fragments have a rounded spike
in the top right corner.


Attinger, Gisela, “Musikknotasjonen i antifonariefragmenter I Riksarkivet” in Haugen, Odd Einar and Ommundsen, Åslaug (eds.), Vår eldste bok – Skrift, miljø og biletbruk i den norske homilieboka, Novus forlag, Oslo, 2010: 151-64

Holck, Jakob Povl and Hope, Steffen, “Hvad gamle bogbind kan fortælle”, in Bogvennen – tidsskrift for Forening for Boghaandværk, 2019: 72-97

Ommundsen, Åslaug, “Homilieboka og dei liturgiske fragmenta” in Haugen, Odd Einar and Ommundsen, Åslaug (eds.), Vår eldste bok – Skrift, miljø og biletbruk i den norske homilieboka, Novus forlag, Oslo, 2010: 131-50

mandag 2. mars 2020

The death of Charles I of Flanders, and sources to Danish history - a quick note on the Legendarium Flandrense

Today is the feast of Charles I, count of Flanders (1084-1127), who was murdered in the Church of Saint Donatian in Bruges on March 2, which that year was Ash Wednesday. The murder was the culmination of a plot against him that was set in motion by the Erembald family, who held key positions of power in Bruges and who feared that Charles would take that power away from them. The conflict between Charles and the Erembalds was recorded by Galbert of Bruges, who was the notary of Count Charles. This account is now available in an English translation by Jeff Rider, entitled The Murder, Betrayal and Slaughter of the Glorious Charles, Count of Flanders.

The murder of Charles was met with outrage, and the count was eventually venerated as a saint by the local populace. His cult was aided by Galbert's account, as well as by Walter of Thérouanne's Vita Karoli Comitis Flandrie, which both provided a textual foundation for the legends and the rituals of the cult.

Charles was never formally canonised by the pope. Since he died in 1127, such a canonisation was not strictly necessary for any given saint to be accepted as genuine, it was sufficient that a synod of bishops declared the sanctity of the dead individual. However, Charles death came in a time of transition concerning the role of papal canonisation. In the course of the first decades of the twelfth century, it had become more common to also seek for additional ratification of a saint's cult from the pope. This had been the case for Charles' father, the Danish king Knud IV who had been murdered in Odense in 1086, whereupon Charles' mother Adela had fled to her family in Flanders. Knud had been proclaimed a saint by a synod of the Danish bishops in 1095, but on the urging of Knud's brother and eventual successor Erik Ejegod, a delegation had been sent to Rome to obtain the pope's acknowledgement of the Danish king's holiness in 1100 or 1101. That such an acknowledgement was not obtained for Charles did not affect his standing as a saint in Flanders, as papal canonisation had not yet become obligatory, but it might have limited his cult to a regional importance.

Legendarium Flandrense
Bruges Public Library ms. 403, 75v-76r

The death of Charles resulted, then, in his cult and veneration in Bruges, and it resulted in a production of history-writing. Charles' cult also had an important consequence for the survival of Danish history-writing, and it is because of the veneration of Charles that we today have retained two twelfth-century copies of one of the most important sources to the history of Knud IV of Denmark and his dynasty. The source in question is now known by the title Gesta Swenomagni Regis et Filiorum eius et Passio gloriosissimi Canuti Regis et Martyris, the Deeds of King Svend Magnus, his Sons, and the Passion of the glorious Knud, King and Martyr. Svend Magnus was the full name of King Svend Estridsen, Knud IV's father.

The text was written by Aelnoth of Canterbury, an English priest who served in Odense around the time Knud was murdered in 1086. Its original title, to the extent medieval texts were equipped with titles, is lost to us, and the title commonly used nowadays does obscure the fact that this is first of all a saint-biography, and only secondly does it serve as a dynastic history of the reigning Danish dynasty.

The question, then, is what this text has to do with Charles of Flanders, and how its survival is due to his cult. The answer is simply that because of the veneration of Charles, there was in Flanders an interest in his wider family, and the sanctity of the father was evidently seen as embellishing the sanctity of the son. At some point in the twelfth century, scribes at Flanders obtained a copy of Aelnoth's saint-biography, and they incorporated it in the Legendarium Flandrense, a collection of saints' lives typical of the medieval literary world. There are two late-twelfth-century copies of the Legendarium, and these are the oldest, and to my knowledge, only sources of Aelnoth's text. All Danish copies have been lost. It is from these Flemish manuscripts, then, that the modern editions and translations of Knud's saint-biography have been created, one of the most important sources to Danish history, and widely - albeit incorrectly - regarded as the first history to be written in Denmark. (This honour should in actuality go to the slightly older anonymous saint-biography Passio Kanuti.) 

Incipit prologus in passione gloriossisimi karoli flandrie comitis et martiris
Here begins the prologue of the passion of the glorious Cahrles of Flanders, count and martyr

One of the manuscripts of Legendarium Flandrense, Bruges Public Library ms. 403, was in 2017 displayed at the Odense City Museums, as part of the exhibition Life and Cult of Cnut the Holy, and I got a chance to see the book with my own eyes. It is a wonderfully well-preserved document, and the twelfth-century script is a pleasure to read. It is also a clear testament to the fact that it was because of the veneration of Charles that Aelnoth's text made its way to Flanders. This is seen in the layout of the book itself. Legendarium Flandrense follows, as is typical of collections of this type, the liturgical year. Since the feast of Charles is on March 2, the text for his feast is naturally in the volume of the Legendarium that covers the spring months. The opening of this text, which appears to be the vita by Walter of Thérouanne, can be seen in the rubric in the photograph above.

The rubric follows the text of Aelnoth's account, and in this we see that the main concern for the Flemish scribes was to provide material for the history of their sainted count Charles, rather than the Danish king. Because if they had been interested in the saint-biography of Knud for its own sake, they would have placed it in a different volume, one that covered the summer months, since the feast of Knud is on July 10. That the account of Knud is, instead, placed in March is a clear statement as to why some unknown individuals in twelfth-century Flanders sent for a copy of Aelnoth's text: By collecting the account of Knud, the father, they evidently felt better prepared to provide readings for the feast of Charles, and presumably also further evidence to his sanctity, as they would be able to point to his father and claim - as was often done in the Middle Ages - that sanctity ran in the family.


The Legendarium Flandrense version of Aelnoth's text survives in two manuscripts:

Bruges Public Library ms. 403, 74r-83r

Saint-Omer Bibliothèque municipale 716, tomus II, 60r-71r

The exhibition Life and Cult of Cnut the Holy resulted in a recently-published article collection, in which several of the contributions touch on the text of Aelnoth's account. This volume can be found here:

See also:

Galbert of Bruges, The Murder, Betrayal and Slaughter of the Glorious Charles, Count of Flanders, translated by Jeff Rider, Yale University Press, 2013

Walter of Thérouanne, Vita Karoli comitis flandrie et Vita domni Ioannis Morinensis episcopi, ed. by Jeff Rider, Turnhout, 2006

Myking, Synnøve Midtby, "Ter Doest, Lund, and the Legendarium Flandrense: Danish-Flemish Connections in the Late Twelfth Century", printed in The Journal of Medieval Latin, vol. 28, 2019: 115-40