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

torsdag 23. april 2020

Reading in the time of a pandemic

Today is World Book Day, instituted in 1926 and a lovely occasion to reflect on reading and the place of books in one’s own life. Since we are currently living through a global pandemic, which has both limited the options for accessing books and shaped the daily mood, I have decided to reflect on my own reading and my own appetite for reading in these strange circumstances.    

One of the key trends I have noted in people’s choice of reading is a desire to be topical. We are living through a pandemic, let us read books that deal with this topic, be it Boccaccio’s The Decameron, Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, Camus’ The Plague or any of the multiple other options, such as the ones listed by Keziah Weir in a Vanity Fair article
. This is a sentiment I understand. Fiction helps us make sense of the world, and books written in the past concerning circumstances similar to ours provide some sense of consolation: This has happened before, we will live through it. For some this is undoubtedly a good coping mechanism, which is one of the great purposes of literature in general. For others, however, one’s mental well-being might be impacted in a negative way by inviting horrors similar to those of the current world into one’s own mental world of reading. I am, of course, not saying that there is any one correct answer to the question of what one should read and what one should not read in any particular situation, but I for my part have no desire to be topical in my book choices during this pandemic. 

When the pandemic began spreading to Scandinavia, my reading was going slowly. I was working my way through several books at a time, something which is very common for me, but which was going abnormally slowly this time around, probably owing to the pressure of an article deadline which directed most of my reading. I had recently finished James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, which is a book I found immensely uplifting and which instilled in me a degree of tranquillity I rarely experience when putting down a book. This was before the situation grew increasingly serious in Scandinavia, and I would perhaps have benefitted more from reading the book during rather than before measures were taken to deal with the spread of the virus. 

Following on from Lost Horizon, I decided to finally read George Orwell’s 1984. This choice was unrelated to anything happening around me. I had ordered the book because I wanted to be able to use it in teaching. The previous term I had relied on some of the aspects of Orwell’s dystopian vision to teach about the relationship between language and source criticism, and it made me realise that I needed to imbibe the entire book in order to use it more effectively and more extensively in my teaching.     

It turned out, unfortunately, that 1984 is disquietingly topical for our current situation. While the book does not deal with a pandemic, its description of a closely monitored, restrictive society have too many similarities with the self-isolation needed to slow the spread of the new corona virus. For my own case, living in a small city in Sweden, the situation did not have that many parallels. Sweden was slow in implementing any significant measures, and aside from reduced activity in the shops and the streets there has been little to remind the casual onlooker that we are indeed living through a pandemic. In Denmark and Norway, however, the situation has been different, and since I have been frustrated with the tepid Swedish response I have been following the guidelines of my homeland instead. Consequently, I have been self-isolating in a small, cramped one-room apartment, which has in some small way evoked certain similarities between my world and the dystopia of Winston Smith. What has made 1984 so dreadfully topical, however, is not the self-isolation in Scandinavia – things are not dire here, at least not for most people. Instead, it is in countries with either a too strong or too weak a response that has highlighted the topicality of 1984: Needlessly severe curfews in Serbia, and, above all, the carelessness and tardiness of the UK and US governments followed by mendacious struggles against reality. A crisis like this pandemic has strongly demonstrated what we already knew: Any leader who undertakes a fight against facts is bound to cause a devastating amount of harm. This is also one of the core lessons of 1984.        

I did not choose 1984 because it was topical, because I have no wish to be topical in my reading during a time of crisis. While I soldiered through the novel in order to be done with it, I took refuge in fantasies instead. By the time I went into self-isolation, I had started reading a collection of stories by Salvadorian author Luís Salazar Arrué (1899-1975), whose pen name was Salarrué. The collection, titled O-Yarkandal, tells impossible and mythical stories from the now sunken empire of Dathdali, and they are recounted to an audience called soñadores, dreamers, by the narrator Saga. These stories combine elements of fairy tales, legends and myths with semiotic games and paradoxes reminiscent of the later works of Borges and Calvino. In one country, all writing is committed to the outside of urns and vases and must be read vertically. One story tells of how a false note sung by a bard has the capacity to kill. One story describes an island existing in one’s interior where fears and vices have physical manifestations that can undo one’s being when trying to traverse them. In a beautifully dreamlike language, Salarrué constructs these impossible worlds in the reader’s mind, and these worlds have more in common with humankind’s inner reality than the external one. I immersed myself in this Atlantis-like lost empire, and found it immensely soothing, especially as a contrast to the grating topicality of 1984.


Having finished O-Yarkandal, I was for a brief moment uncertain of what to pick next. I had bagged a small stack of books that had nothing to do with work when I visiting my office one last time before self-isolating, so my options were not extensive. Fortunately, I had been able to pick up from the library one of the volumes of the complete English translation of Shahnameh, the verse history of the Persian kings composed c.1120 by Abolaqsem Ferdowsi, translated by Arthur and Edmond Warner in the early 1900s. This exuberant narration of the heroes of Persian mythological history is an at times gruesome yet wonderfully vivid account of the stories and figures that have shaped Persian self-understanding for more than two millennia (since Ferdowsi recounted legends whose oldest traces go back to the time of the Hellenistic world and even beyond). This is the book I’m currently reading, to continue the lack of topicality. It is a hefty tome – and it is only the second out of nine volumes of the translation – so I also intersperse this reading with other things, but as the main reading of the pandemic, it serves me very well.         

Topicality has its virtues, of course, and keeping up to speed with the world of which we are a part is important. But the ways and means might vary, and while reality is lying heavily around us as an impenetrable fog that shows no signs of lifting in the near future, any reading that invites the fog into the house is something I wish to avoid.

søndag 12. april 2020

Fragments for the Resurrection

Today is Resurrection Sunday, the climax of the Easter celebration and the most important day of the Christian liturgical year. The importance of Easter had various ramifications for medieval life, for instance the early controversies concerning how Easter should be calculated. From the point of view of a manuscript research, the importance of Easter is evident in the vast manuscript material dedicated to its liturgical celebration. In this blogpost, therefore, I am sharing fragments with material for Resurrection Sunday from two separate manuscripts, belonging to the special collection at Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek (SDUB). I worked on these fragments during my stint as a research assistant at the library, and therefore I have a particular affection for them.

RARA Fragmenter pakke 1

The first example comes from a collection of loose fragments collectively referred to as RARA Fragmenter pakke 1, or parcel 1 of fragments from the RARA collection. This parcel contains four fragments from the same manuscript, a breviary of uncertain provenance and tentatively dated to the thirteenth or early fourteenth century. Two of the fragments are complete, albeit cropped, folios, while the other two both belong to a third folio. All of the fragments contain liturgy for the Easter celebration, some for the Easter week itself and others for the paschal octave (celebrated eight days after Resurrection Sunday) and the later Sundays that were named in relation to Easter.

The fragment I have chosen here contains among its items one antiphon that is sung during the office for Resurrection Sunday. In the liturgical context of this particular folio, however, it is performed on a later Sunday, ostensibly in the even that May 3, the feast of the finding of the cross, falls on a Sunday. The antiphon itself, however, comes from the repertoire of the Resurrection office.

Unnumbered fragment, Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek
(Photo by Jakob Povl Holck)

The antiphon in question is found in the lower left-hand corner of the folio. It is identified in the CANTUS database as number 001796. In the fragment, the text of antiphon runs accordingly (my transcription):

[Christu]s resurgens ex mortuis [ia]m non moritur mors illi [ultr]a non dominabatur quod en[im ui]uit uiuit deo alleluia alleluia

This is from Romans 6:9 (here in the Douay-Rheims translation):

Knowing that Christ rising again from the dead, dieth now no more, death shall no more have dominion over him

Antiphon for Vesper
Unnumbered fragment, Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek
(Photo by Jakob Povl Holck)

Herlufsholm 534.11

The second example of material for the feast of the Resurrection comes from the item known as Herlufsholm 534.11. This item is an edition from 1664 of a herbal by the German physician Jacobus Theodorus Tabernaemontanus, and it contains several strips of parchment cut from a German missal or sequentiary, tentatively dated to the thirteenth century.

Herlufsholm 534.11
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

Herlufsholm 534.11
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

As can be seen in the picture, the condition of the fragments have posed significant challenges for the research process, and I have written about some of these fragments here, here, and here. Four of these fragments have been cut vertically, and enough text has been preserved that it has now been possible to identify that one side of the folio of the original manuscript contains the sequence Laudes salvatori (CID g02530). This sequence was performed during the celebration of the mass for Resurrection Sunday.

Reconstruction of the text for Resurrection Sunday
Herlufsholm 534.11
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

fredag 10. april 2020

Good Friday in Sanderum Church

Yesterday I published a blogpost on a series of fifteenth-century wall-paintings from Bellinge Church in Denmark, depicting scenes from the passion narrative. Since today is Good Friday, I decided to present another cycle of wall-paintings on the subject of the passion of Christ, but these from Sanderum Church.

Sanderum Church is situated on the island of Fyn, a bit to the southwest of Odense, the island's largest city as well as its episcopal centre. The oldest parts of the church are datable to the twelfth century, which was a period in which several parish churches were built throughout the island. The current structure, however, is largely the result of rebuilding in the fifteenth century, when the structure was enlarged. As a part of this rebuilding campaign, the interior of the church was covered in a new cycle of wall-paintings, replacing an existing cycle to which I will return briefly at the end of the blogpost.   

The wall-paintings that are currently visible are only part of the original fifteenth-century programme, as several scenes are still hidden behind layers of white paint. As can be seen in the picture above, the central vault is covered by scenes of the Nativity and of Judgement Day, thus encompassing the beginning and the end of the sixth age of the medieval conception of time. The passion narrative, however - the climax of the Christian liturgical year, can be found in the vault above the choir, and would mainly be visible to the priest, and to the common churchgoer the scenes would presumably be visible during the eucharist, although we do not have any solid data about how the eucharist was carried out at Sanderum.

As stated, not all scenes of the original fifteenth-century programme survive. Some of the scenes of the passion narrative are among these, including the crucifixion and the resurrection. Consequently, what remains are four scenes in the vaulting of the choir, showing the passion of Christ from the mocking by the Roman soldiers to Christ being brought before Pilate.

The soldiers place the crown of thorns on Christ's head and mock him

Christ is stripped of his clothes

Christ is bound to a pillar and scourged

The scourging of Christ seen from a slightly different angle

Christ, robed in red to mockingly signify his kingship, before Pilate who washes his hands

It is likely that the original fifteenth-century cycle also included the scenes of Christ carrying the cross, the crucifixion, and also the resurrection. Exactly where these scenes were places is beyond our knowledge, but it is probable that one of them could once be found on the north wall of the choir. During the restoration work, however, the an older layer was discovered on this wall, depicting two scenes from a wall-painting programme executed in the thirteenth century, and presumably running along all the walls of the Romanesque church. The largest scene is interpreted as the story of Ruth and Boaz, while the detail in the middle tier of the wall is unmistakably the Israelite spies returning with the grapes of Canaan

In the thirteenth century, this section of the church was not the choir. Instead, the choir was located in the apse which was converted to a sacristy in the later Middle Ages. Consequently, the thirteenth-century wall-painting programme would likely have continued into the apse, and it is likely that it contained scenes from both the Old and the New Testament.

 The wall-paintings at Sanderum, like in so many other Danish churches, testify to the once vibrant visual culture of medieval Denmark. Sanderum is particularly interesting because it contains evidence of this culture from two distinct centuries, and two distinct cycles of wall-painting. The mere fact that there have been two cycles in the course of Sanderum's history also points to the church as a living, evolving building. Despite the impressive restoration work, only fragments of this history survives, and Good Friday is an excellent opportunity to highlight these surviving fragments as demonstrated by the passion narrative.

Similar blogposts

Wall-paintings at Stenløse Church

The Easter cycle at Bellinge Church

The spherical medieval earth at Sanderum

The motif of the grapes of Canaan

Saint Olaf in Danish wall-paintings

A depiction of Hell from Sanderum

onsdag 8. april 2020

The passion narrative at Bellinge Church

Today is Maundy Thursday, the first day of the passion story of Christ (with Palm Sunday serving as a contrasting prologue). This story has been re-enacted through the written word, the painted image and theatrical or meditative performance for centuries. Easter is the climax of the Christian liturgical year and the centre-point of the Christian interpretation of the relationship between the human and the divine. The scenes of the paschal narrative are widely common in medieval art in all of its myriad forms. For this year's Easter season, I will present the passion story as it is told in the wall-painting programme of Bellinge Church in Denmark.

Bellinge Church, Fyn

Bellinge is a parish church situated on the island of Fyn in Denmark. It belongs to the bishopric of Odense, which is Denmark's third largest city, and the parish is located to the south west of the city. The church itself has traces of Romanesque architecture, suggesting that it was built in the twelfth century, a period in which several new churches were erected in Odense diocese. The current structure, however, is predominantly the result of a comprehensive rebuilding that took place in the second half of the fifteenth century.

In 1496, when the rebuilding of the church was done, the interior was covered with an impressive wall-painting cycle, which almost exclusively consists of scenes from the Old and the New Testament. (One exception is a scene of the legend of Saint George, but that is another story.) The wall-paintings are executed in two tiers, and they seem to present a typological connection between the episodes of the two parts of the Christian bible. Such an order was common, as medieval Christian exegesis - be it in sermons, in chronicles, in theological tracts or in everyday life - was marked by the emphasis on parallels and echoes between the Old Testament and the New Testament, and also between the past and the present.

The nave of Bellinge Church seen from the choir

The passion scenes at Bellinge present a contemporary vision of Palestine in the time of Christ. This was common in medieval art: Costumes, weapons and other details were depicted according to the time in which they were executed. For this reason, the scenes at Bellinge provide an added insight into life in fifteenth-century Denmark. This also alerts us to an important part of the Easter story: It was an annual re-enactment, and an act of remembrance that reminded the parishioners of the perennial relevance of its message, namely the salvation of humankind.

We can only imagine how the parishioners at Bellinge were told the passion story each year, but it is clear that from the wall-paintings the priest would have an excellent framework for connecting the vernacular sermons with the scenes that literally surrounded the church-goers. The wall-painting cycle as it survives today remains impressive despite the faded colours. It is possible that it is an incomplete survival, as there are several scenes missing, such as Christ's entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and the Resurrection. In its current form, however, the cycle gives a very comprehensive overview of the Passion of Christ, which can be followed step by step.

The last supper

Christ praying in Gethsemane, asking God to let this chalice pass him by (Luke 22:42)

Christ is crowned by thorns

Christ before Pilate

The scourging of Christ

Christ carrying the cross to Golgata with the help of Simon of Cyrene
The text scroll reads "miserere nobis domine iheso christe", have mercy on us, Christ Our Lord

Leading the way before Christ: 
A knight wielding a club and a fool blowing the horn and shooting bullets

The crucifixion
The text scroll reads "popule meus", my people