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

mandag 20. september 2021

A blogpost about my work in spring 2021, part II


One month ago, I posted a link to a blogpost I wrote for Mapping Lived Religion, the project for which I worked as a research assistant in the spring. That blogpost was the first of a two-parter in which I wrote a bit about various challenges that might be encountered when working on fragments of medieval calendars. 

Last week, the last of my two blogposts was published, which can be read here.

In this second blogpost, I explain some of the difficulties with examples from one of the most challenging fragments that the project deals with, as you can see from the image below. It was a lot of fun, but at times also a lot of frustration trying to fill the blanks.

Fr 25608, Sveriges Riksarkiv, MPO

lørdag 18. september 2021

New office, new view, new beginning


As I wrote in a short blogpost back in June, this autumn I am beginning a new job as a postdoctoral researcher at the university of Oslo. Since August 15 I have officially been an employee, but it was not until the second week of September I physically moved to my new place of work, and the past two weeks have in large part been spent getting started and have the various practical details sorted. Since a lot of these practical details take time and need to be completed in stages, there is as yet no rhythm to speak of, and there are still many new things to learn, to get used to, and to get around to. But this week I was able to access my new office, and to enjoy the new view that will serve as a backdrop for much of my coming workdays. It is mundane in a way, but to me it is all terribly exciting.   

søndag 29. august 2021

The price of books in twelfth-century Denmark

In a recent blogpost, I wrote about an episode from the Danish town of Ribe which occurred in the twelfth century. The episode is recorded in the Chronicon Ripense, or the Ribe Chronicle, from c.1230. This brief chronicle is a treasure trove of information about medieval Denmark, and although a lot of its details should be accepted only with great caution, it does shed light on several interesting aspects of its time. One such aspect is the value of books. 

Chronicon Ripense is known in modern Danish as "Ribe bispekrønike", i.e., the chronicle of the bishops of Ribe. As is often the case with texts composed in the Middle Ages, we cannot be sure how they were referred to by their authors or by others in their time, and even the Latin title is a modern appellation. The Danish title is perhaps the most accurate, as the book is predominantly concerned with the reigns of the various bishops of Ribe. 

One of these bishops was Homer, who was ordained in 1186. It was customary for newly-appointed bishops to bestow gifts on their new churches, and Bishop Homer turned out to be a lavish gift-giver. The chronicler records a chalice made of gold, a censer or a thurible made of silver, various vessels or bottles made of silver, and a collection of books in six volumes. It is not specified which books these were, but it is likely that they were books of the Bible, as one-volume bibles were rare at this time and the individual biblical books were often bound together according to their connection with one another. It was common, for instance, to group the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. It is possible that this book collection also contained liturgical books, such as breviaries and psalters, but it would be more probable, and more practical, for these books to be bound in single volumes since they were used more frequently during the divine services. 

The chronicler adds that the preparation of this six-volume collection required sixty marks in gold. Thanks to a number of other sums recorded throughout the chronicle, we are able to better understand just how much money this was in medieval Denmark. For instance, it is also recorded that the same Bishop Homer donated one mark in gold for the adornment of the altar of the parish church of Hellevad.

In another section, the chronicler records that after the burning of Itzehoe in Holstein, King Valdemar II (r.1202-41) donated thirty marks - it is not specified whether it was in gold or in silver - to the rebuilding of the Church of Saint Lawrence. In the same period, 700 marks in silver was the ransom demanded for Bishop Tuvo. 

A mark is a notoriously imprecise unit of currency, as it depends on the material and also the measurement, since various cities, city-states or kingdoms could have different definitions of marks. This becomes clear when the chronicler records how King Valdemar II was taken captive together with his son, and ransomed for 60 000 Lübeck marks of silver.  

Together, these instances provide some points of orientation for understanding the price of books in twelfth-century Denmark. Granted, these points are vague and imprecise, but the chronicle does offer an interesting insight into the cost of binding books, and the value of such books as gifts bestowed by a newly-ordained Danish bishop. 

fredag 20. august 2021

A blogpost about my work in spring 2021

In the period March to the middle of June this year I worked as a research assistant for the project Mapping Lived Religion at Linnaeus University. My work consisted mainly of transcribing calendar fragments and inserting them into the project database, and it provided me with a great opportunity to learn more about Swedish medieval manuscript fragments.  

I have not yet written much about this work, except some general remarks about methodology in this blogpost. Today, however, the first of two blogposts about my work for Mapping Lived Religion was published on the project blog. In this blogpost, I provide an overview of how my work routine has been and what challenging aspects in the sources that have dictated such a routine. For those who are interested, the first blogpost can be found here.

torsdag 19. august 2021

To take the dragon by the nose - the iconography of dragonslaying by Paolo Uccello and Francisco Ibáñez

One of the great joys of being a medievalist is to explore how aspects from the Middle Ages - such as ideas, literary topoi or iconography - continues to work in culture long after the end of the medieval period (even by the most liberal estimate). This longevity of cultural aspect is of course unsurprising given the continuity in cultural transmission, or the occasional rediscovery which brings something back to the cultural consciousness after a period of oblivion. Moreover, this continuity is yet another example of how periodisations are fictions of practicality rather than natural entities, and continuity thus reminds us how cautious we should be in dividing time too neatly into compartments. 

Leaving aside the definition of the Middle Ages, and its problems as a scholarly construct, it is very clear that because there exists an idea of the medieval, that idea can be used aesthetically to connect with the period meant to be covered by that term. This connection can be serious or playful, or a mix of both, and it can serve a number of different purposes, all depending on the combination of author/sender/transmitter and audience.  

One medieval iconographical topos that has had a substantial impact on modern popular culture is that of the dragonslayer, which can be found in a range of media, from commercial fantasy to church art. I have touched on the development of this topos in earlier blogposts (here, here, and here), and I recently came across one scene that reminded me again how this ties into the cultural output of the medieval period. What the scene in question reminded me of was the famous depiction of Saint George and the dragon by Paolo Uccello, completed around 1470. In the contemporary imagination, this is perhaps one of the best known and most resonant renditions of the motif, and I was struck by the similarities between this and the scene by which I was reminded of Uccello's painting

Paolo Uccello, Saint George and the dragon (c.1470)
National Gallery, London, NG6294
Courtesy of Wikimedia

The scene in question is part of a dream sequence in the comic book El estropicio meteorológico (The meteorological fracas), which was serially published in 1987. The comic book is an instalment in the classical series Mortadelo y Filemón by Francisco Ibáñez, a series in which several famous works of art and literature have been parodied through the characters of this fictional universe. The similarities between the scene in the dream of Mortadelo and that of Uccello's dragonslaying are notable, especially the lance piercing the dragon's nose. Naturally, I cannot claim that it is Uccello who has provided Ibáñez with the model for the scene in El estropicio meteorológico - the scene might be inspired by any number of Saint George renditions, so we should be cautious in pinpointing influences too exactly. Even if the connection between the painting from c.1470 and the drawing from 1987 might be indirect at best, the scene with Mortadelo as the typical dragonslayer points to the impact of the medieval imagination on the modern, and we are reminded that so much of our modern cultural output is in some way part of a continuity that goes back centuries into the past.   

Francisco Ibáñez, Mortadelo y Filemón no. 17, El estropicio meteorológico (1987)

tirsdag 10. august 2021

An interdict from Saint Lawrence's day - ecclesiastical conflict in twelfth-century Ribe

Today, August 10, is the feast of Saint Lawrence, an early Christian saint made famous, in part, through his inclusion in the hagiographic poem Liber Peristephanon, book of the martyrs, by Prudentius. Lawrence, or Laurentius, was one of the major universal saints of Latin Christendom, and his feast was celebrated in all calendars. The present blogpost, however, is not so much about Saint Lawrence, interesting though he is, but rather about an event in which Lawrence's feast-day figures as a temporal marker. The event unfolded in the Danish episcopal see of Ribe, and it is recorded in the anonymous Chronicon Ripense, Chronicle of Ribe, believed to have been written c.1230. The chronicle has been edited by Ellen Jørgensen, and there exists a Danish translation by Helge Søgaard.

Ribe Cathedral 

The anonymous account provides an overview of the episcopacy of Radulph, an Englishman who had been the chancellor of King Valdemar I (r.1157-82) and who became bishop of Ribe around 1160. The chronicle's dating is imprecise, and Helge Søgaard suggests that Radulph began as bishop in 1162, whereas the surviving text of the chronicle has 1152 instead. Radulph was a controversial man, and his inauguration as bishop was delayed four years pending charges of murder and apostasy, but eventually he began his office as bishop of Ribe.  

The episcopacy of Radulph was a dynamic period, perhaps in part due to the ongoing rift between the Danish archbishop, Eskil of Lund, and King Valdemar I. One episode, the one that I will focus on here, provides a view of one of the rifts between the bishop and the clerics at the cathedral. According to Chronicon Ripense, Bishop Radulph sought to appoint his chaplain, a certain Vincent, as a cathedral canon. The other canons were deeply averse to this, and the reason appears to be that a canon should be elected by the other canons, and not appointed by the bishop. The hierarchical structure of the church community was clearly delineated, and the election of its members was one of the prerogatives of the chapter of canons. 

The matter of Vincent's appointment was so contentious that it came to blows, and the anonymous Ribe chronicler describes how the bishop's clothes were torn, and how the head of the cathedral school, a certain Boniface, was beaten up in the chapter house. Judging from the location, this must have been during one of the regular community meetings, that in most, if not all, ecclesiastic and monastic communities took place in chapter. The conflict led to an interdict being placed on Ribe, and this interdict - during which all church services in the diocese were null and void - began on August 10, Saint Lawrence's day, and lasted until Maundy Thursday. The right of the canons to elect their members was then confirmed. 

The story of the tumult in Ribe cathedral might at first seem odd, or perhaps amusing, but most importantly it is a window into the complex world of medieval ecclesiastic and monastic communities. These communities were comprised of people of diverse personalities, and often with diverse aims and opinions about how to achieve those aims. They were communities in which life was balanced by rights and duties, privileges and demands, and where life was guided by custom and institutional identity. For the canons at Ribe, the appointment of someone by the bishop was a breach of that balance by which the community sustained itself. Consequently, that the controversy resulted in a fist fight is not necessarily indicative of the ease with which medieval ecclesiastics resorted to violence - although that was by no means rare - but it should perhaps primarily be seen as an indicator of how serious this matrix of rights and duties were to the canons. We are reminded, in other words, that the medieval world was, as all human worlds are, infinitely complex and often surprising. 

lørdag 31. juli 2021

Norup Church

These days I am reading up on Danish church history for a couple of papers that I need to write in the course of the autumn, and this has brought back a lot of pleasant memories from my time in Denmark. To a foreigner such as myself, Denmark at first seemed like a country too small to host much in terms of treasures and wonders - small as a nose was what my grandparents would often say - but staying in Denmark for four years upended that notion. There are still numerous sites that I have yet to visit, and which I will hopefully get around to eventually, but until then I am reliving, from time to time, some of those places I got to visit during my Danish sojourn. One such place was Norup Church on Fyn.

Norup Church is situated a few kilometers to the north of Odense, to whose bishopric Norup belongs. In its current form, the church is a product of late medieval and modern changes to its architecture. One such change is the tower, very typical of Danish parish churches, which was added in the later Middle Ages, but at an uncertain date. The church is not well attested in the medieval source material, and the earliest reference to Norup Church is an indirect reference to the parish, although not the building itself. From later antiquarian sources, the church is called the Church of Our Lady, and this dedication was most likely in place already in the Middle Ages.

Norup Church in predominantly a rather unassuming church, and I came upon it by coincidence as my parents and I were driving in the area. Due to changes in later centuries, much of its medieval history is less eye-catching than in several other Danish parish churches. However, as I learned afterwards, there are several fragments from the Romanesque stone church which is likely to have been erected in the twelfth century, a period which saw the construction of a several parish churches in Odense diocese. Unfortunately, as the visit to Norup was unplanned, my parents and I missed the scattered vestiges of the Romanesque phase of the church which can be found in the walls of the church, but which I have since learned about. In this way, Norup is emblematic for the minor Danish parish churches, because even though the smallest and least known may house very exciting and valuable treasures that shed some light on our understanding of the Danish medieval past.  

Altarpiece from 1598

Source: Danmarks kirker, Norup kirke