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

fredag 7. januar 2022

Saint Knud Dux, Saint Hulpe, and the limits of saintly fame

Today, January 7, is the feast of Knud Lavard, son of the Danish king Erik Ejegod (r.1095-1103), who was murdered by his cousin Magnus, son of King Niels (r.1104-34). The murder took place at Haraldsted near Ringsted on Sjælland, and Ringsted became the centre of Knud’s cult. While the formal canonisation of Knud only came in 1169, the Benedictines of Ringsted Abbey began preparing the ground for his cult already in the 1130s. Knud is typically known as Knud Dux, in order to distinguish him from his sainted uncle Knud Rex, who was killed in Odense in 1086.   

The cult of Knud Dux was strongly promoted by Knud’s son Valdemar (sole king of Denmark 1157-82), apparently in direct competition with the cult of Knud Rex, whose centre was in Odense. Knud Dux became a patron saint of Valdemar’s new dynasty, but due to tumultuous periods of conflict between various pretenders to the Danish throne throughout the thirteenth and early fourteenth century, the cult of the sainted duke appears to have had limited, albeit notable, impact beyond Sjælland. One example of this limited but notable impact can be found in a book printed in Lübeck in 1492, and this blogpost aims to explain both how the inclusion of Knud Dux in this book shows both the significance as well as the limit of his cult in the later Middle Ages.

The book in question is the collection of saints’ lives Das Leuend der Hÿlghen, or Passionael, printed by Steffen Arndes. The first edition of this book appeared in 1488, and a second expanded edition came in 1492. In the second edition, Arndes included a number of Scandinavian saints, including both Knud Rex and Knud Dux. As both these saints were known in the cultural geography in which both Northern Germany and Denmark participated, the inclusion of these saints are not surprising. Moreover, Arndes had several customers in Denmark and Sweden, so the inclusion of these saints can also be seen as a kind of marketing.    

contains a number of beautiful woodcuts depicting the saints of the given chapters. In many cases, the woodcut was specifically made for the saint in question, such as the vignette for Knud Rex, which depicts him as a king and shows him holding a sword, which was his main attribute. At the opening of the chapter of Knud Dux (f.181r), the vignette shows a youngish man with hair to his shoulders and with his palms pressed against each other, ostensibly in prayer. His head resting on a cliff or a rock. Around his neck is a collar that possibly is meant to signify ermine, thereby pointing to his noble or royal background. Above him stands an executioner with a curved sword whose edge is planted firmly in the saint’s head.           

The legend of Knud Dux from Das Leuend der Hÿlghen, f.181r
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek RARA M 15

The vignette does in a way fit with the legend of Knud Dux in that the person in the picture is young and of highborn status. However, the death of Knud was brought about not by an executioner but by a group of his cousin Magnus’ men, not by an executioner who, in saint stories at least, is effectively an official representative of secular power. The legend of Knud Dux as it is narrated in Passionael follows its typical pattern, although its precise source has not yet been established, and therefore there is a distinct dissonance between the legend and the image. The explanation is simply that the image is recycled.            

The image of the young man appears again on f.400r, and although it appears later in the book, this chapter appears to have been part of the first edition from 1488. The chapter beginning on f.400r tells the legend of Saint Hulpe, the son of the king of Sicily at the time of a certain Emperor Anthony. Saint Hulpe is likely apocryphal, and the history of his cult is unknown to me at this stage. What is notable, however, is that Hulpe fits the vignette much better than does Knud Dux, and it seems certain that Arndes recycled the image for the Danish saint because of some overlaps between the two: youngish age, royal background, killed by the sword. 

The legend of Saint Hulpe from Das Leuend der Hÿlghen, f.400r
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek RARA M 15

Such recycling of images is not uncommon in printing, so it is not surprising to see it done in Passionael. What is interesting about it, at least to me, is what it tells us about the impact of the cult of Knud Dux at the close of the fifteenth century. On the one hand, he was a figure sufficiently well known throughout the Western Baltic that he was included in a collection of saints’ lives produced in Lübeck. On the other hand, he appears to have not been sufficiently important to warrant the production of a specially made woodcuts, even though such woodcuts were made for most, perhaps even all, of the other saints whose chapters were added in the second edition of Passionael. Granted, we need to be careful about using the recycling of woodcuts and images as measures of popularity. There might have been other elements at play than Knud Dux’ fame or relative lack thereof, but the case nonetheless serves as an interesting reminder of the potential limits of a cult’s popularity, despite its relative broad dissemination beyond its cult centre. 

lørdag 1. januar 2022

Reading by lists

if you want to dream, keep those dreams massively achievable 

- Richard Ayoade, 8 out of 10 cats does countdown S20E03

In my previous blogpost, the last of 2021, I provided an overview of some highlights from my reading that year. These highlights constituted more than the individual books themselves, as part of what made them highlights had to do with aspects related to but extraneous from the act of reading itself. One such aspect is rooted in one of the cornerstones in how my reading through any year is selected and decided, namely the multiple lists that I aim to cross out every year. I briefly alluded to these lists in my previous blogpost, and thanks to a very positive response from friends I have decided that the first blogpost of the new year will be a presentation of these lists and why I employ them as guidelines.               

Why lists?      

Before getting into the lists themselves, however, it is perhaps relevant to note that a fundamental rationale behind my extensive use of lists has to do with my personality and its constellation of virtues and vices. On the plus side – I believe – I am a voracious and very curious reader, who will happily yet not indiscriminately venture into unknown literary fields. On the negative side, however, I am also a very slow reader, and the combination of my personal slowness with the general finiteness of human existence means that I am forced to make choices in my readings. After all, no one goes into a library and work their way through it from A to Z (or A to Å in Norwegian).

In addition to this more existential constraint, there are also two aspects that have an impact in my reading through any given year. On the one hand, there is the issue of my work requiring a lot of reading, which in turn affects how I choose my books. On the other hand, there is a part of me that easily tires of routine and constraint, and which therefore is prone to embark on a book simply because I want to read it. Since I am also driven by professionalism and frivolity – in addition to my concerns regarding finiteness – I am using more than one list simply for the sake of variation. My greatest fear as a reader is to get stuck and to tire of reading altogether.      

The lists         

My first reading list was compiled in the spring of 2008. It was my first year at university, and I was increasingly taking in the vast literary world to which I had access. Trips to the campus bookshop and the library were exhilarating excursions that left a deep imprint on me, but at times also simply overwhelmed me. It was in this period of careful forays into the wider world of literature that I wrote down two lists: One of books I had read, and one of books which I would like to read. The second one consisted of a relatively diverse array of well-known and lesser-known books, mainly fiction, yet this diversity was severely hampered by my general inexperience of the literary world’s infinite possibilities. Even so, the list was a product of my continuing desire to eventually be well-read, interesting and cultured, and I although I have removed some items from the list as they have fallen out of interest, I continue to believe that if I do manage to get through all these books, I will be much better for it. 

As I had compiled the second list, I quickly saw that this was going to be a life-long project, yet despite this revelation – or perhaps perversely because of it – I turned my attention to other titles instead. It was only in the course of 2009, if memory serves, that I started to let this list guide me more systematically. It was also then, I think, that I stopped putting new items on that list, even though the number of books that I wanted to read grew steadily for each new course I took.        

Several years later, as my list of books that I had read grew longer, and my list of books I wanted to read did not diminish as quickly as I had hoped, I was introduced to another system of lists thanks to my youngest sister. This system was comprised of triads: Three books in three or more categories that would guide the reading in the course of a year, and that would open up for some variety. As my desire for titles had gone way beyond the list from 2008 at that point, possibly in 2013, I embraced this system and set down four categories from which to choose my titles. I still use these categories to this very day.         

One category is my reading list from 2008. Even though I have picked up the pace, there are still, at the time of writing, 138 books to be crossed off, some of which are quite lengthy. For this reason, making sure that I at least go through a minimum of three each year will hopefully keep inspiring me to finish before I reach the age of 80.       

A second category consists of Nobel laureates in literature. This category is more of a mixed bag in my eyes. Whereas my list of 2008, at least in its current configuration, solely includes items that I think will either extend my literary horizon or at least fill in various embarrassing gaps, the selection of Nobel laureates is beyond my control and sometimes contrary to what I consider to be necessary reading. For instance, in 2016 I read Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming and disliked every second of it. Granted, there is value in having read it, and there are very few books that I will consider unworthy of reading, or that I will regret reading. But I think it is fair to say that I would not have finished The Homecoming had it not been for Pinter’s status as a Nobel laureate and the canonicity conferred upon him by that status. For this reason, I do not prioritise the Nobel list as highly as I do others.   

A third category is Norwegian books. As I had spent much of my early twenties reading anglophone literature, I came to the realisation that I had neglected the literary heritage of my native country, which is both rich and interesting. In a move to rectify my ignorance and inexperience, I decided to read a minimum of three books that can in some way or another be construed as Norwegian. This means that I do not limit myself to books written by Norwegian authors since the country’s established autonomy in 1814, or its independence in 1905, but in general books that have been produced within, or by people from, the cultural geography known as Norway at any given point in time.         

A fourth category is academic books. This category comes in part from the acknowledgement that my professional life presides over much of my reading in the course of a year, but rarely in the form of entire books. Very often, I will consume academic literature in the form of articles, perhaps chapters, and often in a rather squirrelsome way, meaning that I am looking for specific pieces of information from which I can build my own texts, my own arguments, or my own teaching. This category is a way to ensure that I also read some books in full. 

In addition to these two categories, there are two others that I eventually realised were necessary in order to make even more of my reading. The first of these two categories is books by women. Because I am a medievalist, a lot of my source material and a lot of the older academic texts that I still need to consult are written by men. Moreover, since many of the books I included in my list of 2008 are drawn from the Western cultural canon of before 1900, there is an overweight of male writers. Similarly, the list of Nobel laureates is heavily male-dominated, and continues to be so. I am, however, deeply convinced that a wide reading serves the purpose of gaining a wider understanding of the world and its reality, and for that understanding to be attained it is necessary to read a wide representation of humanity. One way of ensuring a wide representation is to consciously read more women, and that includes, of course, trans women. Additionally, and perhaps especially in relation to the next category, I have found that many female authors have access to or are conscious of social issues and spheres that many male authors have historically either neglected or badly misrepresented. Consequently, I find myself benefitting greatly from reading books by women – beyond the quality of the individual books.
The final category came into place in the autumn of 2017, and I have written about it on this blog at various times already. This category is to read one book from each of the world’s 197 countries (and also Western Sahara, which is not yet recognised by the UN). My project of travelling the world by page was inspired by the project A Year of Reading the World by British journalist Ann Morgan, and I picked it up after I had handed in my PhD thesis. So far, I have had a great range of experiences, and learned much more than I had anticipated – naturally – and it continues to be a project that pays enormous dividends. In combination with the previous category, reading women, I often seek out works by women from the new countries, and this, I believe, has provided an even more nuanced view of various countries of their cultures than I would otherwise have had.       

These six categories, then, are what guide my yearly reading. Often, they can be done in combination, fortunately, but in any case, they ensure that I do not tire of reading anytime soon. In addition to these categories, of course, I also pick up books that do not belong in any of them, breaking free of the guidelines and the lists completely. I have so far avoided calling this a seventh “sundries” category, although in effect that is exactly what it is.        

The lists in 2021       

As much as I enjoy talking about books and reading, I have long been very hesitant to enumerate things I have read. Such enumerations – or lists of finished reading, rather – often have or can be seen as having a competitive undertone. Personally, I am very fond of such overviews, because they often provide great recommendations. However, since reading is about quantity rather than quality, and since we all have different frameworks that open up or limit our reading, I will close this blogpost with one book from each of the six categories by which I have organised my reading in the previous year. All in all, 2021 was a very good year for reading, and I hope that 2022 will prove even better.        

Category 1, a book from my old reading list: Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus       

Category 2, a Nobel lauerate: Louise Glück, The Wild Iris 

Category 3, a Norwegian book: Helge Ingstad, Klondyke Bill        

Category 4, an academic book: Henry Bainton, History and the written word      

Category 5, a book by a woman: Elizabeth Lambourn, Abraham’s luggage         

Category 6, a book from a new country: Maïssa Bey, Do you hear in the mountains (Algeria; translated by Erin Lamm)               

Following these categories, I am pleased to say that I did manage to read more than the minimum requirement of eighteen different books, and so the system – in its crooked way – definitely works for me. I hope it will continue to do so in the coming months.

torsdag 30. desember 2021

A year in reading - 2021


I am an indifferent diarist, both because I lack the required stamina and because my life is not sufficiently interesting to warrant much page-space. There are, however, some ways by which I record the vicissitudes of the years, and one such way is by keeping track of my reading. Both as a scholar and as a private individual, much of my time is taken up by reading and also, to a lesser extent by writing, and when I am doing neither I am very often thinking about what I should be reading or what I should be writing. In essence, my life revolves around texts, as is the case of so many others of my various friends and colleagues.     

My reading through a calendar year is guided by various lists. These are goalposts I have set myself, and that have guided my reading for years – the first of these lists came into place in 2008, and since then new lists have emerged. In another blogpost, I might go into greater detail about this reading by lists, as it is a key aspect of how I choose my books and how my reading comes together in the course of a year. For the current blogpost, however, I merely mention this as an explanation of the seemingly sprawling nature of my literary choices, as I take the opportunity of the closing year to reflect on some of my highlights from a year of reading.          

Travelling by page    

Given the pandemic, as well as constrictions owing to money and work, my travelling this year has been rather limited. However, one way of creating some balance in an otherwise rather stationary daily life is to travel by page, and throughout the year I have visited several countries in this way. Some of these countries I have visited for the first time, such as the Marshall Islands, Qatar, Guinea Bissau and Libya. In other cases, the travels have been either revisits or parts of a longer travelogue from a time when the political map was very different from what it is now, meaning that the current names have little meaning when outlining the journeys. Examples of such books are the travelogues of Benjamin of Tudela and Odoric of Pordenone. 

Marshall Islands legends and stories, collected by Daniel A. Kelin II

The Corsair by Abdulaziz al-Mahmoud (translated by Amira Nowaira)

The Ultimate Tragedy by Abdulai Sila (translated by Jethro Soutar)

The Slave Yards by Najwa Bin Shatwan (translated by Nancy Roberts)

Improving languages

Reading is not only done for the purposes of vicarious travel, but also for maintaining my linguistic skills. This element is part of every kind of reading I do, no matter whether the text is in my native Norwegian or another language. This year, I have dedicated some time to improving my Spanish, a language I love dearly and which I should know more fluently than I currently do. Throughout the year, therefore, I have kept returning to various books in the Spanish language – books at various levels, ranging from the comic Mortadelo y Filemón by Francisco Ibáñez to the more complex baroque prose of Jorge Luis Borges or the poetic scenes of Raquel Lanseros and Maribel Llamero, two of my favourite poets in any language. Especially the books of poetry have been of great use in this endeavour, as I have brought them with me on various hikes and journeys, and in this way also used them to connect more strongly with my own native land – but this connection, however, is material for another blogpost

La lentitud del liberto by Maribel Llamero

Matria by Raquel Lanseros

The poem "La loca más cuerda" from Matria

New places for reading        

One important and pleasurable aspect of a reading life is to find new places in which to read, new vantage points from which to see the world, and, very often, new scenes that can provide contrasts between what is being read and where it is being read. For the first eight months of 2021, I was in one way quite constrained in my options for new places for reading, since I was staying in my native village in the Norwegian fjords where I grew up. However, even though the village itself is very small, the area throughout which the village is sprawled is quite vast and full of various nooks, crannies and overlooked places. Additionally, although I was staying in my late grandparents’ house, a house where I spent a large part of my childhood, this year I started using some new spaces in the house for work – and work usually entails at least a modicum of reading. So it was that from January through August, I installed myself in a temporary office indoors, then, when the temperatures permitted, I moved to the porch. Moreover, I spent several wonderful afternoons paddling along the shores of the lake behind the house, deliberately seeking out new spots for reading, and I found a few that served excellently well. These were places that I knew about, but which I had typically passed by when traversing the lake, be it on ice or by canoe, but upon closer inspection they proved to be ideal reading spots as well.

In my late grandfather's room, reading Benjamin of Tudela's Itinerary (translated by A. Asher)

Reading the poem "El sueño de la razón produce monstruos" by Maribel Llamero

This ledge in the cliff was made accessible due to a drought

The opportunities for finding new places for reading opened up even further when I started a new job in Oslo in September. Despite pandemic restrictions and a general caution on my part, I found that the library café of the humanities campus of the University of Oslo provided a splendid vista for early morning reading on the way to the office, or as a workspace for writing notes for articles. 

I also sought out new haunts in the city centre, and I was enchanted by the café Kaffistova (literally, the coffee room), which used to be a meeting place for students and academics from Western Norway about a century ago. While it is now a popular spot for a much wider clientele, there is something of the romantic in me that takes pleasure in reading in a place where other Western Norwegians in academic exiles gathered for a bit to eat and, presumably, to feel a little closer to home. In this place, I have so far mostly read classics from the Oslo literature – books that are set in Oslo and that provide very fascinating details to the city as it was in a bygone age. The first of these was Bondestudentar (Farmer Students) by Arne Garborg, (1851-1924 who also was a Western Norwegian studying and working in Oslo. 

Bondestudentar (Farmer Students) by Arne Garborg

Sult (Hunger) by Knut Hamsun

Another aspect of finding new places is that these places open up for new contrasts between the reading and the place of reading. This aspect also ties in with travelling by page, and since I have mostly done my reading in Norway this year – and exclusively in the northern half of Europe – there can sometimes be quite notable contrasts between where my body is located and where my mind is wandering, guided by the words penned by authors from other parts of the world. So it was that in the Norwegian urban autumn of Central Oslo I read short stories from Morocco by Leila Abouzeid, and while the first significant snowfall still covered the pavements, I read Norbert Zongo’s dictator novel The Parachute Drop, set in the sweltering heat of a fictional West African republic. 

The Year of the Elephant by Leila Abouzeid

The Parachute drop by Norbert Zongo (translated by Christopher Wise)

Sundry highlights     

In addition to these three categories, there were also other highlights that are not as easily categorised, but which nonetheless were key points in making my reading year both memorable and pleasurable. For instance, my family and I visited the Norwegian book town (Den norske bokbyen) in the village of Fjærland, a couple of fjords to the south of my own native village. It is always a joy to wander among the numerous book stalls and shops surrounded by a spectacular scenery, and it was great to be back for the first time in several years. Another, and very unexpected highlight, came when I attended a seminar organised by colleagues in Oslo, where they were celebrating that the thirteenth-century manuscript Codex Hardenbergianus containing the law code of King Magnus Lagabøte (r.1263-80), the Law-mender, had been returned to Norway from Denmark. For the occasion they had commissioned a cake containing a picture of the first folio of the manuscript, and I was fortunate enough to have a slice of it. 

A cake featuring the first folio of Codex Hardenbergianus

Other highlights came during a trip to Odense, where I had been invited to speak at a workshop on medieval manuscript fragments. This allowed me to visit a city that is one of my homes away from home, and where I had not been since the autumn of 2019. I sought out one of my favourite cafés and sat down with a cup of tea and Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized while enjoying the familiar scenery and the familiar sounds. The workshop also brought me back to the researcher’s reading room at the University Library of Southern Denmark, where I spent much of 2018 and the spring of 2019 researching the fragments of the university library’s special collections. It was also there that I gave my presentation, addressing several of the fragments that a friend and colleague and brought out for the occasion. The workshop culminated with my first trip to the National Archives in Copenhagen, where we were shown some of the many treasures kept there. 

The Colonizer and the Colonized by Albert Memmi (translated by Howard Greenfeld)

One of the final highlights of the year came when I returned home for Christmas, and was met with an author’s copy of a journal issue to which I had contributed. The text itself was written in 2015, so it is not new as such, but back then it was only published digitally, so it was a great pleasure to see it in the paper.

There were several other memorable moments of reading this year, moments that remind me how much I gain from reading in the way I do, and moments that inspire me to press onward and explore new literary horizons in the coming years. I am already excited about what reading I have ahead of me in 2022, and while I know some of the titles to add to my list of read books – the closest I’ll come to a diary, I suspect – there are others that are as of yet unknown to me. 

Similar blogposts 

For other blogposts touching on my encounters with books in 2021, please see the following. 

The joy of aimless reading, on reading without a particular purpose beyond learning. 

Remembered readings, on recalling circumstances from past encounters with books. 

Travelling by page, elaborating a little on this aspect mentioned in the present blogpost. 

A return to the roots, on going back to a book once frequently used. 

Read at the right time, a reflection on the feeling of immersing oneself in a book at a serendipitous point in time. 

Back to the old haunt, a reflection on the fragment workshop in Odense.

søndag 26. desember 2021

San Esteban in Segovia

Today is the feast of Stephen Protomartyr, whose death by stoning is recorded in Acts 7 and came to be a ubiquitous scene in pictorial programmes of Christian art in the Latin West. The figure of Stephen was an important point of orientation in the Christian cult of saints, and since he belonged to the biblical saints his cult spread early, quickly, and widely. Consequently, his feast was celebrated with a high liturgical rank, and churches were dedicated to him throughout the Christian world.

One of these churches is the beautiful Romanesque structure of San Esteban in Segovia, situated within the medieval city and dating to the decades around 1200. Its tower, typical of Spanish churches of the period, is a characteristic feature in the cityscape, and can be seen from quite some distance despite the clustered buildings of the medieval centre. Of all the many landmarks in Segovia, this is by far my favourite, even more so than the impressive late medieval cathedral.   

I have passed by this church a number of times, but never found it open. I keep hoping that next time I visit this wonderful city, I will be able to find my way in.

onsdag 15. desember 2021

Rediscovering work done in a pandemic

This autumn, the main purpose of my paid job is to do research and write articles. It is a phenomenal luxury to do so, and while it keeps me very busy I am also savouring the feeling of being able to focus most of my energy to my two favourite aspects of academic life - two aspects that I have not been paid to prioritise since the autumn of 2017. 

As I'm settling into this new job, I am adjusting to a new rhythm, and as part of this adjustment I am now able to take stock of what I have been doing in the course of the past two years. These two years were very hectic, marked by short term contracts, a lot of teaching and supervision (which was rewarding but very demanding), and innumerable minor but time-consuming administrative tasks. Most of this work was carried out in the early stages of the pandemic, and the added stress of reorganising and accommodating the tight teaching and supervision schedule to an online format required a lot of focus and energy. That stress was further enhanced by the slow response to the pandemic in Sweden, which led to long bouts of self-isolation and worry - but that is an entirely different story. 

The point of this jeremiad is not so much to complain about work - I was fortunate to have it and much of it was very interesting. However, because whatever work I did was marked by the constrictions and limitations imposed by the practical issues of the pandemic, the everyday work schedule became shuffled, altered, and at times rather topsy-turvy, so that it became very difficult to get a good sense of the particulars of that work. As a consequence of this very blurred perception of time, by the end of 2020 I was left with a feeling that I had done nothing to further my academic credentials beyond teaching. And as valuable as teaching is, an academic career depends on the old adage "publish or perish", which meant that I was increasingly left with the feeling that once these short term contracts were done and could no longer be renewed, I did not have very much to show for. I could not remember doing much in terms of writing, except for one short encyclopedia entry and a couple of book reviews. Moreover, archive work was out of the question, and the opportunities for research on primary sources were very limited, especially due to lack of time. By the end of 2020, in other words, I was left with the feeling that I had achieved very little, and my ability to be noted in a very competitive job market had not been improved.  

A year later, however, things have changed sufficiently much that I am able to look back at 2020 and 2021 and evaluate things more calmly more carefully. On the one hand, it is true that my research output has been very limited. On the other hand, however, I did manage to schedule several bouts of source work, in which I did quite a lot of transcription. This work has provided me with material for conference presentations and articles that are currently being written, and this output would have been significantly delayed, perhaps downright impossible, had it not been for the work that I had done in the course of the first year of the pandemic. I had forgotten about this work because the pandemic eclipsed so much of my memory, but now that the rhythm of my working life is different, more secure, I am able to rediscover the work that stress and worry had pushed into oblivion. 

I suspect that this kind of rediscovery, or reminding if you prefer, is waiting to happen for a lot of my fellow academics. Despite my complaints, I have been very lucky and gone through the first two years of the pandemic relatively unscathed, so it has been easier to rediscover the work that I did in-between the recurring online sessions for teaching, supervision, meetings and discussions. This rediscovery is a reminder of how memory can be manipulated and messed up - how time can be squeezed into an achronic ball that lets you remember only muddled collages of moments, and that makes you lose sense of progression and what you have actually achieved. Fortunately, I have been able to straighten that once achronic mess, and I hope that one by one my fellow academics will be able to do the same, because the feeling of not having achieved anything - a feeling not commensurate with historical reality - can really put a dent in both self-esteem and motivation, and essentially lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.   

tirsdag 14. desember 2021

The Middle Ages as a litmus test

The other day, I was shown an excerpt from a recently published book that aimed to provide a reinterpretation of human history, and as a medievalist I was immediately both exasperated and dissuaded from reading the book in question. I am not providing the title of the book because I have not yet read it myself, and because the point of this brief blogpost is not that particular book but rather the problem that the exasperating excerpt represents. 

In short, the brief snippet from the book's introduction made some very general and sweeping statements concerning the Middle Ages, essentially treating the whole millennium-long period as a unified homogenous whole that can easily be represented by a handful of details from one very limited section of that timescape, in this case Latin Christendom. The reason why this is so frustrating to a medievalist, and why this is such a tremendously bad sign for the overall content of any book, is that it is reductive, and also a litmus test that has just been failed. 

Of all the periods into which we have divided historical time - a consequence both of convenience and of limited knowledge or understanding of historical time in general - no period is as weighed down by a negative reputation as what we call the Middle Ages. For the past five hundred years, a very popular narrative has been perpetuated in the West that with the end of the medieval period, humanity entered into a new and better world that had shed itself of its problematic past like a snake sheds its skin. This narrative is problematic in a number of ways, but there are two main issues that cast very long and important shadows. First of all, this narrative sets the trajectory of Western Europe as the standard against which the histories of all other cultures must be measured, which prevents an understanding of those cultures and therefore provide the construction of reductive myths that have little to do with reality. Secondly, the narrative sets up the Middle Ages as a foil for the modern period by which any negative aspects of the modern period are by default overshadowed by the negative aspects of the medieval period. As has been voiced by many medievalists, perhaps most succinctly by Mateusz Fafinski, such a narrative of progress exonerates the modern period for its sins, and makes us blind to the negative aspects that are uniquely modern and that can only be solved by an acknowledgement of the modern nature of those aspects. In addition, a sharp divide between the medieval and the modern periods also prevents us from understanding how many of aspects of modernity actually have their roots in the medieval period, and thus have exerted influence on the historical trajectory for far longer than we tend to think. 

The common view of the Middle Ages is that it was a period of unbridled violence, superstition, regression and ignorance. This view is neatly summarised in the term "the Dark Ages", which is commonly used to signify the entire medieval period, whenever that was according to those who use this expression. Fortunately, there are many brilliant scholars who are working hard to counter and dispel this myth, and I sometimes attempt to do so myself. Unfortunately, however, this effort is made extra difficult not only because this myth is perpetuated by non-experts outside of academia, but also by non-experts within academia. And as any scholar might tell you, when myths are perpetuated by non-experts within academia, that expertise - even though it is completely irrelevant to the subject at hand - gains an enormous weight and roots it even more deeply in the common consciousness. And now we get to the problem about the book mentioned in the beginning of this blogpost. 

Because the Middle Ages are so weighed down by a negative reputation, the medieval period serves as a litmus test for a non-expert's understanding of their knowledge and for that non-expert's understanding of the limits of that knowledge. In academic outreach and popularised presentations of historical issues, we often encounter statements about a period that have been made by someone who is not an expert in that period. An expert in twentieth-century diplomatic history who is talking about the eighteenth century, for instance, will necessarily have a poorer understanding of that period than someone who has dedicated their working life to gain a greater familiarity with that particular period. However, as long as the person acknowledges the limits of their knowledge and manages to emphasise the necessary caveats and to refer to experts who are better placed than they are, this problem is minimised. At the very least, the twentieth-century historian will have some understanding of the basic methodological issues at play, and can therefore better map out their ignorance in the field. If the non-expert talking about a historical period is not trained in history, or in the humanities in general, the risk for making mistakes increases significantly. 

Because the Middle Ages are so weighed down by a negative reputation, the risk of misrepresentation by non-experts becomes particularly high. For this reason, treatment of the Middle Ages by non-experts is a litmus test for how well someone understands their own scientific limitations. In the case alluded to in the beginning, the excerpt was so damning that it suggested a very poor understanding of those limitations, and this problem has implications beyond the book's treatment of the medieval period. To put it bluntly: If a writer is careless about the complexity about the Middle Ages, which other periods or cultures are misrepresented? In the case of the Middle Ages, there exists a sufficiently large corpus of scholarship that can rectify misrepresentations, even though that is often a Sisyphean task. In the case of other historical periods or cultures, however, existing scholarship is perhaps not as large or not as accessible to effectively contradict mistakes, misrepresentations, or myths. In other words, if we are able to catch mistakes concerning the Middle Ages, are there perhaps mistakes that we are unable to catch because those mistakes pertain to fields even less familiar to us than medieval history?  

The Middle Ages are a litmus test because the period occupies a very strange space that combines familiarity and ignorance. On the one hand, non-experts are familiar with the period because they encounter the Middle Ages at school and in popular culture. On the other hand, those encounters at school or in popular culture are often deeply erroneous. The familiarity will therefore create an exaggerated view of someone's knowledge of the period, while the errors inherent in that familiarity will prevent any real understanding. How a non-medievalist talks about the Middle Ages tells you a lot about how that person understands their own knowledge. In other words, the Middle Ages are a litmus test of scholarly humility. And if that litmus test fails, it has implications that reach far beyond issues concerning medieval history.  


tirsdag 30. november 2021

Back to the old haunt - a brief note about a workshop in Odense


A little over a week ago, I was able to travel back to Odense in order to participate in a workshop on fragments of medieval manuscripts. The occasion was immensely joyous to me for several reasons. Most importantly, I got to meet up with old friends, and I was able to revisit some of the places I used to frequent when I was living there. The workshop was also a great opportunity to present some of the material I started working on during the last year of my PhD, and which I have been dealing with on and off ever since then. In particular, it was a true delight to give my presentation in the research reading room of the university library, where I had conducted quite a lot of my research and where I had gathered most of the material for my work on fragments. Another very pleasant detail was that my colleague and friend - with whom I had worked together on a pilot project right after completing my thesis - had put out a few of the books that had fragments in their bindings, some of which I mentioned in my talk. It was great to see those fragments in the vellum again, and it was very much a nostalgia trip. In one sense the workshop was the culmination of research that has been going on for five years, and it was wonderful to share my findings with colleagues who were able to both appreciate and add to the work that had been done. Additionally, however, the workshop was also a reminder that this work is not yet complete - that there are conclusions that need to be questions, hypotheses that need to be calibrated, and an ever-increasing stream of new fragments that come to light in the library's special collection. In other words, the workshop was a reminder of the long processes in academia - the good type of long processes, the ones that mature thoughts into substance and make things come out in a clearer light. I have been very fortunate to have been able to keep up this kind of long-term work despite the vicissitudes of my professional life in the past five years, and for that I remain very grateful, especially to my friends and colleagues who enable me to conduct this work in the middle of everything else.  

Unfortunately, in all the excitement and the discussions with friends and colleagues, I was sidetracked from the photographing I had hoped to do, so I only have a few pictures to commemorate the event - including the library's strict prohibition against dancing on the tables.