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

lørdag 3. april 2021

A fragment for the eve of the Resurrection

Today, April 3, is the Easter eve, the day between Christ's death on the cross and His resurrection, and the middle point in the liturgical climax of the Christian year. Due to the importance of Easter in the liturgical celebration of the medieval churches, there survives a great amount of manuscripts containing the texts to be sung or read for that season. I have previously posted examples of such paschal fragments from my work in the special collections at Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek, for instance here. This Easter, I was reminded of the fragment RARA K 284, about which I have previously written here and here, which contains a part of the mass for the Easter vigil. The fragment comes from a missal, and despite its heavily worn lettering, it has been possible to identify the text as belonging to the Book of Jonah, chapter 3, verses 1-6.  

Syddansk Universitestsbibliotek, RARA K 284


Syddansk Universitestsbibliotek, RARA K 284

The text from the Book of Jonah points to an important aspect of the use of the Bible both in the Middle Ages and also today, namely the idea that episodes and events in the Old Testament were repeated in the New Testament. This pattern is also known as typology, whereby the anti-type - or the precursor - can be found in the Old Testament, and the type can be found in the New. In the Christian interpretation, therefore, the Book of Jonah contains an anti-type to the story of Christ's resurrection, because Jonah was swallowed by a whale and emerged from it afterwards, just as Christ came back to life. For this reason, the Book of Jonah provided a suitable reading for the liturgy leading up to Resurrection Sunday, and this is what we see in this now-tattered fragment.   

tirsdag 30. mars 2021

One month later

Towards the end of February, the ice on one of the lakes of the village was covered in what we call surface water, some of it rain, but most of it meltwater from the thawing bogs and mires, from which a sepia-coloured run-off gushed onto the lake and created a brown mirror of the world. Yet it was still safe to walk on the ice, and it was possible to go across to the other side of the lake. 

Today, however, one month and ten days later, the ice was in a much different state. The once-solid ice sheet has fragmented into smaller particles barely kept together, which dissolve as soon as it crushes into something, or as soon as you pick it up. A sheet of this ice still lies across parts of the lake, but great flakes are loosening from the main sheet and either run ashore or into the waterfall. The atmosphere is different, and it is a good measurement of how much change can be wrought in about one single month. 


mandag 29. mars 2021

Down the rabbit hole - or, Adventures in medievalism


Oh, historical, so was there a dragon?   
- Nick Miller, New Girl, S05E16

The Vikings probably went to the moon
- David Mitchell, QI, S17E14

Although most of my research is spent on primary sources from the Middle Ages, I have increasingly ventured into various labyrinthine passages of the field of medievalism - the study of the reception of the Middle Ages in the modern period. This topic is one that is close to my heart, as I suspect that it was precisely such playful engagements with modern ideas about the medieval, conveyed through Playmobil, Lego, comic books and cartoons, that subtly prepared the ground for my current work on medieval history. Such a link between the childhood encounters and the very serious grown-up fascination with medieval minutiae are not unique to my trajectory, and I am always delighted when friends and colleagues share the various factors that moved them towards acquiring an expertise in the history of the Middle Ages. It is precisely this awareness of a quietly influencing fascination that works in mysterious ways that makes me interested in medievalism as a field of serious study. In part, it might be explained as a kind of homage to my younger self, a kind of acknowledgement of the hours spent engaging with those cultural expressions that prepared the ground for future decisions that have since brought me such immense intellectual pleasure. In part, it might also be explained as a way of acquiring a better comprehension of why this fascination was allowed to grow, and what nerves and what chords of my historical understanding - indeed, our collective historical understanding - that were touched by the images of knights and princesses, castles, swords and other staples of our Platonic idea of the medieval. In seeking such a comprehension, there is an awareness that the medieval fascinates other than myself, that understanding how we interpret, play with, represent and misrepresent the past actually matters for events that unfold in the present. Just as my future has been shaped by my exposure to the medieval in popular culture, so have other events likewise been shaped by representations of the Middle Ages, and people have been moved to things good or bad by this fascination. Engaging scholarly, critically and seriously with the knowledge of such an impact on real events and the contemporary world is one of the cornerstones of medievalist research. 


Because ideas about the Middle Ages have flourished in so many different ways, and within a vast range of cultural frameworks, it is impossible to gain a complete overview of the phenomenon. Modern polities have their own cultural traditions in which visions of the medieval are conveyed through various forms of art, and these traditions require that the scholar engaging with them is familiar with the culture in question, and familiar with the language. By learning a new language, therefore, a new culture opens up, and a new trove of medievalism can be examined. Such troves easily become veritable rabbit holes from which it is difficult to emerge. 

Recently, as my Spanish has improved sufficiently for me to explore cultural expressions that are less well known outside the Spanish-speaking world, I have encountered a few such expressions that engage with the Middle Ages, and I am looking forward to spending years familiarising myself with this subject and, in doing so, enjoying the fruits of the labour of the numerous scholars already working on it. At the present stage, however, my forays are few, short and amateurish, and they are limited to specific topics that I have worked on within other cultural frameworks. One such topic is the modern fascination with the historical contact between the Norse and the Native Americans. This is a topic that has resulted in a number of cultural expressions, and as I am now preparing a talk on this subject for a conference in April, I am taking a deep dive into its manifold manifestations. 

It was in the course of this research that I remembered one of the Spanish cultural products that engage with the medieval, namely the comic book hero El Capitán Trueno, Captain Thunder, a twelfth-century knight created by writer Victor Mora Pujadas in 1956, and predominantly illustrated by Miguel Ambrosio Zaragoza. I only learned of this comic book series a few years ago, and although I wrote about its engagement with the topos of Atlantis in four blogposts (here, here, here, and here), I can still not claim to be an expert on the subject, far from it. However, since I remembered that Capitán Trueno is a wide-wandered gentleman, I decided to see if he had also travelled to the American landmass. It turned out that he had, and that the results drew me further and further down the rabbit hole. 

I came across a website presenting the covers of the first three hundred bi-weekly comic books, and when scrolling through these I realised that Capitán Trueno had met several Native American cultures, from the Inuit to what appears to be the predecessors of the Aztecs, and even battled dinosaurs - thus connecting the trope of medieval contact with America with the trope of the relict dinosaur inspired by The Lost World. I spent longer than I care to admit, getting a first impression of these stories, solely based on their cover art and their title, and it made me realise that this is something I will eventually have to spend even more time on, and getting further down the rabbit hole for the sake of science. It is thrilling realisation, and it is a good reminder that scholarly research opens up far more passages than can easily be envisioned at the beginning of one's career.     

Capitán Trueno, Acosados, vol. 56, 1957 

Capitán Trueno, La voz de Zankú, vol. 86, 1958 

torsdag 25. mars 2021

A fondness for small things – minor saints and the value of impossible questions

As I mentioned in my previous blogpost, I am currently working as a member of a research project which, among other things, involves identifying which saints have been celebrated in medieval calendars. While this might sound straightforward and fairly simple, it is very often anything but. Certainly, a lot of saints are easily identifiable because they were widely venerated, because they were famous, because they came into being late enough for us to have a good understanding of their cult, or because they have names that are not easily confused with the names of other saints. But there are also others: Saints whose cults began in obscure circumstances, or who never attained great popularity, or whose names are shared by a wide number of saints – some of whom perhaps more famous – and whose identities can therefore be difficult to ascertain, especially in the modern world where material has been lost to the Protestant Reformation, or where cults of doubtful authenticity have either been removed from catalogues by church councils, or relegated to the status of curiosities. Luckily, there are plenty of resources for scholars who try to make sense of obscure saints, but even these resources might sometimes not be sufficient (as I learned the hard way earlier today).          
For all my frustrations about the time spent chasing down details that can carry the definitive proof in an identification, and for all my teeth-grinding annoyance about the number of saints called Maximus or Felix, my exposure to the minutiae of medieval liturgical calendars have reminded me that I do actually have a deep fondness for these minor saints, and that I find them utterly fascinating. In part, I believe this fondness stems from a kind of sympathy with neglected materials – things that have been either discarded or overlooked because they would only yield limited results research-wise, or because researchers sometimes are drawn to more shiny things. I know from my own experience that it can be much more tempting to engage with a breadth of material that keeps you occupied for years on end, especially when a saint’s cult has had a tangible impact on historical events and inspired, or been the centrepiece of, tomes of writing, impressive architectural projects, or art of an outstanding and impressive quality.   

Yet despite the limited amount of knowledge that can be ascertained about the cults of minor saints, they do offer some valuable methodological challenges, and for this reason, my fondness for small things becomes entwined with some of the most fundamental aspects of being a historian. For instance, how do we use these minor saints to understand the general history of the cult of saints? How do these half-forgotten, confusing, obscure holy figures teach us something about the way that the cult of saints was disseminated in the early history of a newly-Christianised region? What does it tell us that some names are shared by calendars followed in Italy, Spain, Ireland, Norway, Poland, yet appear to be equally unknown in all these places? It is because of these questions, as well as others, that the minor saints can be important tools in assembling a better understanding of the historical development of medieval religion.  

Some of these questions might appear easy enough at first. For instance, the popularity of saints often tends to wax and wane over longer periods, and a failure to regain lost popularity might be explained by a lack of miracles, the appearance of a new cult that eclipses an older cult, or the absence of written material sometimes needed to keep the momentum of trust going when dealing with a saint whose role as intercessor and advocate appears to have become less efficacious in later years. That such ebbs and tides are typical of the cult of saints is well established, as exemplified by bouts of textual production, the main aim of which is to reignite the popularity of an old but seemingly dormant saint. After all, such reignition, or perhaps rediscovery, became a topos of hagiographical writing in its own right already in the fourth century. The idea that saints could be recovered from oblivion – perhaps of their own volition or in response to their own hints – is the very starting point of the cult of Gervasius and Protasius in Milan (for more on this cult, see this blogpost). We know from one of Ambrose of Milan’s letters to his sister, Marcellina, that the archbishop actively started digging in the ground in search for saints when he needed relics for the consecration of his new church. The basis for this was some vague stories he had heard, and which he decided to put to the test, and the result was the unearthing of two skeletons who were named after the protagonists of one such vague, half-forgotten story.       

In other words, we know something of the broader mechanics of how popularity ebbs and surges in the cult of saints. Yet the finer mechanics might bring us closer to questions about specific historical moments, or transitions of cult material from one region to the next, or remind us that the less-celebrated names of a calendar once commanded great devotion and received the attention of hosts of faithful flocking to a cult site in hope or in thanksgiving. And while much about the histories of these minor saints and their cults remain obscure to us, we are reminded that we cannot remain content with the broader understanding. Yes, we do know the circumstances by which the cult of Gervasius and Protasius underwent a resurgence at the turn of the fourth century. And yes, we do know, for instance, why Saint Sebastian’s association with plague caused a great boost for his cult in the course of the fourteenth century. But there are other cults whose endurance remain puzzling.        

For instance, we have the case of Abdon and Sennen (see this blogpost). These two saints are of particular curiosity to me, since their feast day, July 30, is the day after the feast of Saint Olaf of Norway, on whom I have worked a lot since starting my PhD back in 2014. In the calendars of medieval Norway, Abdon and Sennen were included, and a commemoration of them was most likely performed following the grander liturgical celebrations of Norway’s patron saint, which, in the case of the metropolitan see, was one of the liturgical high points of the year. We do not know whether the legend of Abdon and Sennen was known to the Norwegian clergy, or whether their feast was simply a collateral detail when the cult of saints was introduced to Norway and materials from England and Germany served as the basic start-up kit for the Norwegian churches. And to cast a wider perspective: We do now know exactly why it was that these two saints of uncertain historicity came to occupy such a secure place in the collective memory of Latin Christendom that their names continued to be celebrated – however perfunctorily – more than a thousand years after their supposed existence, and in geographies more or less completely unknown to those who first put their names into writing.   

Abdon and Sennen, here represented by a woodcut used for several saints throughout the book
Das Leuend der Hÿlghen, Steffen Arndes, Lübeck, 1492
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek, RARA M 15, f.91r

Minor saints, such as Abdon and Sennen, and also such as Gervasius and Protasius, or Felix and Adauctus, or Maximus the abbot whose identity I still have not ascertained, are important figures when researching the cult of saints, because they pose impossible but productive questions. They provide insights into the mechanics of canon formation, about the balance between endurance and oblivion, about the strength of memory despite a very meagre foundation. They also force us to speculate about the reception of such seemingly empty names in newly Christianised regions, and their continuity centuries thence. It is perhaps especially useful to be exposed to the place of these minor saints in the religious life of Latin Christendom when otherwise spending most research time delving into the better known, larger cults. We are reminded that the cult of saints was a framework of many pieces great and small, and that the small pieces could have functions that we do not yet quite understand, and that they could prove important to our understanding of the structure as a whole.    

mandag 22. mars 2021

A return to the roots

Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape
- Derek Walcott, "The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory" 

This month, I started in a new short-term position, about which I might elaborate in future blogposts. It is a very welcome job, both because it gives a respite from unemployment and because it allows me to expand my knowledge and experience in my field of expertise, while also becoming better acquainted with new material. In the course of my work, I am cataloguing the appearance of saints in various sources from medieval Sweden. So far it's mostly calendars, which are fascinating and often challenging artefacts, because while they might contain a lot of information, there is also much that is either being implied or that was sufficiently understood by the intended audience of these materials that details did not need to be spelled out, much to the chagrin of modern-day researchers. Consequently, a lot of my time is now taken up with trying to ascertain just which saints are meant, and whether seemingly incongruous or unexpected details are due to scribal errors, unknown or poorly known traditions and practices, or simply because we have lost important clues with the passing of history.  

As I said, I might blog about this in more detail at a future stage, and some of these rather rambling points might make more sense in that context. For now, however, I want to focus on one very delightful and cherished consequence of my current employment, which constitutes a return to my academic roots, as it were. These roots take the form of the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, edited by David Farmer. When I first began my MA studies in the autumn of 2010, knowing that I would be writing on the cult of saints, I bought a copy of the fourth edition, published in 2004. When the fifth edition came in 2011, I had already become so fond of the fourth edition that I decided to stick with that, and it became a valuable reference tool when navigating a subject that was still very new to me, and whose subtleties I was trying to navigate to the best of my abilities. 

Since 2010, I have continued working on the cult of saints in the Middle Ages, and the Dictionary has often proved a useful (if at times frustratingly Anglocentric) reference work, and I have often made good use of it. In the course of my PhD, I set out to try to read it in its entirety, although not from start to finish, and this ambitious project is still left unfinished. The Dictionary has rarely been far from my physical or digital reach when doing my research, but as I have become more experienced in the field and become familiar with other reference works and amassed a more expansive library, I do not have recourse to it as often as I used to, to a large extent because much of the more detailed and elaborate information about certain saints must be sought elsewhere. For this reason, there was something almost nostalgic about the way I found myself returning to the now-tattered pages in the line of my present work. I was reminded that another reason why I no longer use it as frequently is that I have simply read it to pieces. And I was also faced with my previous botched attempts at repairing it, which have certainly taken their toll on the physical book, but also added to the attachment I feel to it, seeing how much effort - if poorly executed effort - I have put into keeping this particular copy in a sufficiently good condition for me to keep using it without having to buy a new one. 


The reason for sticking with this badly worn book, the colours of its spine bleached by sunlight, is not only a sense of nostalgia and gratitude for its service. It also has to do with the function and status which the physical copy has accrued in the course of more than a decade. It is not simply a work of reference, it is partly an archive of my own notes and observations, my own interests bracketed or highlighted by marginalia, in which I can see glimpses from my own evolution as a scholar. To put it differently, the sum total of details and information contained in this physical copy is now larger than what it was when I first bought it. This is one of the many reasons why physical books are such valuable tools to a scholar, and it is delightful to be reminded of this in the form of a tattered and poorly-repaired copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Saints.

lørdag 27. februar 2021

Travelling by page

One of my mother's uncles was known, at least in the family, for saying that he travelled on the map. He was a knowledgeable man who spent very little time outside his native Norway, yet who knew more about the world than most of his neighbours by virtue of having perused maps and atlases. The more common expression, of course, is armchair travel, but I usually tend to prefer the former expression, perhaps because it sounds more grandiose, or perhaps because its conceit imitates more closely the act of travelling. 

Even though I have travelled a bit, I have covered the greatest distances by pages, either in atlases or in texts, and I have loved this kind of travel ever since I learned to read. I have, however, noticed that now my opportunities for travel are very restricted and I am unlikely to go far this side of summer, at the very least, I seem to have gravitated towards travelogues of different kinds since the beginning of December. This appetite for vicarious travel has resulted in the following little selection, which includes historical sources, a monograph about a historical source, and a novel. What I find particularly fitting about this selection is that the historical travelogues - namely the accounts of Ibn Fadlan, Benjamin of Tudela and Odoric of Pordenone - were from their very beginning aimed at providing readers who themselves had not and probably could not travel these routs themselves a way to get a sense of the marvels and the sights in far-away places. That these books continue to serve this purpose about a millennium later is a testament to, among other things, the enduring pleasure we take, as human beings, in travelling by all means possible, be it by ship, by horseback, by airplane, or by page. While I have a different view of the world that the first readers of these historical accounts, as well as their authors, I feel an unmistakable kinship with those who moved through these lines and pages in order to live or relive journeys to distant and exciting places. It is clear to me that some things do not change, even in the course of a thousand years.   


fredag 26. februar 2021

Histories from home, part 2 - a bridge at a shift in time


Whenever I am home in my native village for an extended period, I gravitate towards the various historical remains that lie scattered throughout the landscape. These are not remains of great age or of any spectacularly unique importance, but vestiges of a past lifestyle that is receding ever more quickly from our own lived experiences. Because so much of what has been built in the fjords has been made out of wood, so little of it survive beyond a hundred years, with the occasional exception in the case of houses or barns. But the testaments to the old agrarian life, or the old patterns of working and living off the land, are often lost after a few generations, typically because they fall into disuse. 

An important stage in this process occurred in the period c.1950-c.1980, when Norwegian farming became increasingly mechanised, to the point where horses became obsolete. This change in equipment, so to speak, had wide-reaching consequences. The heavy machines required flat surfaces, so while previous generations had favoured slopes for harvesting grass for hay - since the grass could be rolled rather than carried - this kind of landscape now became impractical. Likewise, the old infrastructure became outdated, roads broad enough for horse and sled became too narrow for tractors, and bridges that could carry the weight of a full sled of, say, hay or timber were not strong enough as tractors began to gain weight and size. With the change towards a more mechanised agrarian life, scores of buildings, bridges, various solutions from the life before the shift turned into relics of a bygone past. 

This February, I visited one of these old relics, as my parents and I went hiking up a stretch of a frozen river. The stretch of the river is located where there used to be a summer farm until about 1950-60, which we now use as holiday houses. I do not know when the place was first used as a summer farm, but the starting point goes a long way back, and both sides of the river were used (as is only to be expected). We no longer know when the first river crossing was made across this stretch of the river, and I think it is fair to say that it has been long lost to time. For the farmers currently needing to cross the river, there is a new bridge in stone, concrete and supporting beams of metal, made sometime in the 1980s in order to accommodate new tractors and heavier loads. Before this one, however, there was another one mostly built in wood and stone, but with some concrete reinforcements from a repair job in the 1970s.

This old bridge crossed the river at a wider part of the river, divided into sections and crossing small islands on its way to the other bank. As it fell into disuse, it also fell into disrepair, and stones from its piers were taken away and used for other purposes. Today, only three piers remain - the least accessible ones - two of which are covered by a log with boards that still cling together in spite of time and weather. We rarely approach his historical relic any longer, mostly because now that the river is crossed elsewhere, there is little to attract someone to that particular part of the river. However, now that the river had frozen and we were passing right beside it on our journey upstream, we did get an excellent chance of seeing it up close, to get a sense of its materiality, the building techniques, and the vestiges of the repair job in the 1970s. It was a lovely opportunity, and a reminder of how low-key, yet no less wondrous, our historical monuments tend to be in the agrarian fjords, and how the vicissitudes of time have turned them into hidden or tucked-away little gems that require some efforts to find. 

(This is the second instalment of an ongoing series. For the first part, see here.)