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

onsdag 16. januar 2019

Delight in transgression - notes from teaching the Middle Ages

Last year around Easter I was invited to the school of my village to talk about the Middle Ages. I took the opportunity to introduce some of my favourite subjects of medieval history to the pupils, while also trying to keep close to topics they had themselves covered – or were going to cover – in their own syllabi. To the high-school pupils I talked about the Latin literature of Norway, hoping to give them a sense of the depth and range of the literary and textual history of medieval Norway, and also to counteract the notion – which is very widespread in our own time – that there is little of interest before Snorri Sturlusson. I also gave them a brief introduction to palaeography, and had them attempt a transcription of a text from a manuscript produced in thirteenth-century Norway. Some of them did very well, but it was perhaps unavoidable that the ennui of teenagers made the pupils not very communicative.                      

It was a different situation when I talked to the middle-school pupils, as they were eager to ask questions and to respond to my own questions. To them I talked about ideas about nature which were prevalent in the Middle Ages, impressing upon them that people of the medieval period knew very well that the earth is round. Some of them were very surprised to hear this, especially as their own textbooks said differently. However, with the aid of a wide range of examples from medieval sculpture and illumination, I showed how both lay and learned could easily be exposed to the view of the earth as a sphere. The most enjoyable part of my time with the middle-schoolers, however, was when I brought out some scans from Richard Barber’s facsimile of the thirteenth-century bestiary of MS. Bodley 764.

 In order to engage the pupils a bit more, I read aloud to them the descriptions of animals of their choosing, and they seemed amused by listening to the now very alien ideas about familiar beasts such as the horse, the ape, or the lion. This exercise also came to highlight some of the differences in expectation between our modern frame of reference and that of the medieval period, as several pupils wanted to hear about animals that could not possibly be part of medieval knowledge, such as the American bison or the penguin.

Griffin capturing its prey
MS Bodley 764, bestiary, first half of thirteenth century

The main purpose of the bestiary, however, was to have the pupils themselves guess what was being depicted in the lavish illuminations of the book. They were divided into groups of three and four and together they discussed eagerly what the beasts could be. I had given them a blend of real and mythical beings, and I sought to introduce them to some imaginary animals that they might not have encountered before, such as the bonnacon, as well as the griffin shown above.         

After they had all had some time to discuss they gave me their answers, going through each of the animals in turn and keeping score of who had managed to guess correctly. When we got to the griffin and I asked them for their suggestions, one boy put his arm eagerly in the air and his whole face beamed with expectation. I pointed to him, looking forward to what he thought it might be, and as he was about to give his answer, he looked up at me with a sort of restrained joy. He said, partly in aborted self-censure, and no doubt inspired by the pointed end of the beast’s tail: “it’s a devil”. His whole demeanour and the half-hidden, relishing tone as his voice delivered the forbidden word “devil” showed very clearly the delight he took in the transgression that his suggestion constituted. Here he was, placed among his peers and in the presence of his superiors, subject to the verbal restrictions of the school law and quite likely imbued with a parental prohibition against cursing, and yet being able to take hold of a loop-hole and transgress by that simple word “devil”. His utter delight in this transgression was crystal clear also in the lack of care he showed when I told him that the answer was incorrect. He had managed to say a naughty word within the framework of a lesson, and he knew delightedly that he was beyond any reproach or censure for having said it, being allowed by the circumstance of my question.     

The whole exchange was over in just a few seconds, but the boy’s response and the familiar way in which he broke with the restrictions of his upbringing has stayed with me. In part, this is because I remember when I was his age, growing up in the same village and knowing full well that some words were bad to utter. Unlike this boy, however, I don’t remember any such liberating transgression against this restrictive upbringing, and I think it was in part because of this that I took delight in his opportunity to utter a word that he would not have been allowed to utter in any other context.

tirsdag 15. januar 2019

Translating the lexicon of sainthood - rethinking virtus

Since 2010 I have been researching the cult of saints, and since 2011 I have been doing translation work of texts pertaining to saints, for the most part liturgical texts but also saints' lives. In the course of this research, most of my secondary literature, and most of the translated saints' lives I have read, have been in English, in great part because I have worked extensively on material from medieval England. Increasingly, however, I have become dissatisfied with how certain key terms pertaining to the cult of saints have been rendered into English, and I have often found - particularly in older scholarship - that the Latin terms have been inaccurately translated. Frequently, this inaccuracy owes to the fact that many Latin terms have become part of the standard English language, but have had their meaning altered in the course of the centuries. One particularly problematic word here is the Latin "virtus", which can be found in English as "virtue". But what does "virtue" actually mean, and what does it signify in the context of the cult of saints? Many translators of saints' lives from Latin into English tend to merely render "virtus" as "virtue" without adding any further nuance to the issue. This is highly unfortunate, given that both the Latin and the English words have several different meanings. Consequently, to translate "virtus" as "virtue" is not really a translation, because the meaning of the Latin term depends so very much on the context of the work, the passage, and indeed the sentence. In this blogpost, I wish to address one single instance of such a failed translation in order to demonstrate my point, and the need for careful consideration when choosing how to render "virtus" in modern English. This blogpost touches on merely one case, and I might address others later on.

The inspiration for this blogpost came from listening to the chant Orientis partibus is a song performed at the cathedral of Beauvais in the thirteenth century. The song was part of the liturgical ritual of the mass on January 14, a feast that commemorates the flight into Egypt, and which had elements of the feast of fools embedded into it, such as the procession of the ass (hence the term Festum asinorum, "feast of the ass", which is sometimes applied to this day). An ass, either a live animal or a figure, was brought into the cathedral to the mock-celebratory strophes of Orientis partibus, each strophe ending with the refrain in the vernacular "hez sire asne hez" (hail Sir Donkey, hail).

Orientis partibus

The Latin text of the song, with English translations, can be cobbled together from this and this website. The structure of the song is modelled on liturgical chants, but does itself not fit in any established, formal liturgical category, as it draws elements from different chant types and because it contains a vernacular refrain (chants for mass and offices were in Latin).

I will not here go into detail about the song, the ritual or the text, but I will instead focus on one of the strophes which runs like this.

Aurum de Arabia
Thus et myrrham de Saba
Tulit in ecclesia
Virtus asinaria

An incorrect translation of this strophe can be found here, in which the final verse is translated as "this gallant donkey". This translation presupposes that "virtus" is an adjective and a qualifier to subject of the sentence, and this is a common rendition of "virtus" in many scholarly translations into English (though I do not guarantee that this particular translation is scholarly).

The problem here, however, is that "virtus" cannot possibly be rendered as an adjective. Instead, it is "virtus" which is the subject and to which "asinaria" serves as a qualifier. This is also seen from the fact that the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh are rendered in the accusative and therefore are direct objects. In other words, "virtus" cannot simply be translated into a synonym for modern English virtuous, but must be understood from its Latin etymology, namely "strength" or "power".

In this particular case I favour "strength" because this reflects more accurately what is needed to bring, "tulit", the gifts of the three wise men into the church. Consequently, "asinaria" is thus the qualifying adjective to the strength, and the text should be rendered as follows.

The strength of the donkey
Carries in the church
Gold from Arabia,
Frankincense, and myrrh from Saba

In this way we see how different the results can be when translating a text containing the word "virtus". In this case, "virtus" is best understood as strength and as the subject of the sentence, but in other instances there might be other nuances that demand a different translation. In short, "virtus" is a very complicated word to translate, as shown by this single strophe from Orientis partibus.

mandag 31. desember 2018

A commemoration of Saint Thomas of Canterbury in the Nidaros liturgy

Today, December 31, is the feast of Pope Silvester I, famous for converting Constantine the Great to Christianity and for defeating a pestiferous dragon hiding in the caverns beneath Rome. However, this blogpost is not about the sainted pope, but about the sainted archbishop Thomas of Canterbury, popularly known as Thomas Becket, who was appointed by King Henry II to the see of Canterbury, was sent into exile in 1164, and was murdered by knights at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 within a year of having returned to England and been reconciled with the king. Thomas was canonised by Pope Alexander III in 1173, lives and liturgical offices were soon written in his honour, and his cult spread to the various corners of the Latin West.

Thomas of Canterbury going into exile
BL MS Royal 2 B VII, psalter, between 1310 and 1320

One of the corners in which the cult of Thomas of Canterbury achieved great popularity was the Norwegian metropolitan see of Trondheim, the centre of the Nidaros Archbishopric which - by the turn of the twelfth century - covered mainland Norway, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Orkney, Shetland, and the South Islands (Hebrides and Man). The popularity of Thomas in Norway was owed in large part to the circle around Archbishop Eystein Erlendsson (r.1161-88) and his successors, who belonged to the same school of ecclesiastical thought as did Thomas of Canterbury, and also Pope Alexander III. These high-ranking ecclesiastics all embraced the reformist ideals that had been formulated in the course of the Gregorian Reform Movement in the eleventh century also throughout the twelfth century.

We do not know exactly how and when  the liturgical celebration of Thomas of Canterbury arrived in Norway, or who brought the liturgical texts that were used, but there were many points of contact between the Norwegian and the English churches in the twelfth century. Moreover, the metropolitan see in Trondheim were probably eager recipients of the cult of Thomas as this gave them another saintly patron in their efforts to establish a Gregorian ideal kingdom in which the king was subject to the church and not the other way around. These efforts were cut short, however, when the pretender Sverre made claims to the throne and emerged victorious in the civil war that raged from 1177 to 1184. Despite this victory, King Sverre and the Norwegian clergy continued to quarrel about the relationship between king and church, and this conflict is likely to have strengthened the importance of Thomas of Canterbury in the Norwegian church province.

There is much to be said about the liturgical celebration of Thomas of Canterbury in Norway, but for the time being I will restrict myself to one single commemoration to exemplify his importance. The commemoration in question is found in the Ordo Nidrosiensis Ecclesiae, a collation of manuscripts from the Nidaros province in which there are found rubrics and notes regarding the details of the liturgical celebrations of the Nidaros churches. It was edited in 1968 by the Norwegian medievalist Lilli Gjerløw.

In the details for the feast of Saint Silvester on December 31, under the heading of the office of Lauds (around daybreak), a number of antiphons are listed that are to be performed in commemoration of important saints of the Christmas season. Among these were Stephen Protomartyr whose feast was on the 26th of December, the child martyrs of Bethlehem whose feast was on the 28th of December, and Thomas of Canterbury whose feast was on the 29th of December.

While the liturgical office, typically attributed to Benedict of Peterborough, was used for the celebration of Thomas' feast in Nidaros, the antiphon used for his commemoration is not from this repertoire but instead from the common of one martyr. These texts from the common of a type of saints comprised a shared repertoire of liturgical chants that were accessible to all of Latin Christendom. When a chant from this common material was used in the celebration of a specific saint, and especially a saint who had been added to the liturgical calendar in recent times, the individual saint's place among his saintly colleagues was emphasised. In the case of Thomas of Canterbury in Nidaros, the chant from the common of martyrs emphasised that he belonged in the collegium of martyrs who had been martyred alone - as opposed to the martyrs who had died as a group (although links between various types could be established through chant as well).

The antiphon by which Thomas of Canterbury was commemorated, was Nisi granum frumentum (CID 003883). The text of this chant is as follows:

Nisi granum frumenti cadens
in terra mortuum fuerit ipsum solum manet

The antiphon applies the imagery of the grain that is being threshed and in that process is being refined. In the liturgy of martyrs, as well as other saints, it was very common to apply imagery that invoked various labours of refinement. This is also seen in the office composed specifically for Thomas of Canterbury, where one responsory describes the exile of Thomas as a gem that is being hammered for six years, meaning that this hardship was part of what proved Thomas' sanctity.

That the antiphon Nisi granum was used in the Nidaros Archdiocese to commemorate Thomas of Canterbury on Saint Silvester's day, is just one of the many examples of Thomas' importance to the Norwegian clergy. It is as yet unclear whether such a commemoration, and this antiphon in particular, was established in the Norwegian liturgy by the metropolitan clergy, or whether it was a practice that was brought from overseas. The latter is more likely, because in the context of the reform movement the clerics sought unity and adaptation of existing practices, not originality or uniqueness. Together with other commemorations throughout the Christmas season in the Nidaros liturgy, the antiphon Nisi granum demonstrates that the cult of Thomas of Canterbury was of great importance in the Norwegian church province.  

onsdag 26. desember 2018

Eg synger jolekvad - a Christmas hymn in translation

For the Christmas season, I wish to present to you one of the musical staples of Norwegian Christmas in my part of the country.The song in question is a Christmas hymn - not a carol, mind you - that goes back to the fourteenth century, namely In Dulci Jubilo. The song was retained in the Protestant liturgical repertoire, and it was translated into Danish already in 1569. The first translation into Norwegian was executed in 1861 by the priest M. B. Landstad (1802-80), into what was the first draft of a Norwegian hymnal that was supposed to be a renovation of the old and by then somewhat old-fashioned liturgy. After heavy linguistic revisions, Landstad's translation was accepted and published in 1869. The title of the hymn was then Jeg synger julekvad (I sing Christmas songs).

The hymn was later translated into Nynorsk by the Norwegian theologian Bernt Støylen (1858-1937), and it was included in a Nynorsk hymnal presented to the public in 1925. The title had retained Landstad's rendition, but with the Nynorsk vocabulary, making it Eg synger jolekvad. The clip I include in this blogpost is a performance of Støylen's translation, as this is the one with which I have grown up in the Norwegian fjords.

Merry Christmas.

søndag 16. desember 2018

Call for academic help - a liturgical prose text from Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek RARA Musik M 4

For a year and a half I have been working with a set of fragments from a collection of old books housed at Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek. My work has been covered in various previous blogposts, and it has consisted of identifying and transcribing the text, and in so doing find out as much as possible about the fragment, the book from which the fragment came, and the historical origin and context of that book.

One set of four fragments with which I have been working particularly much goes by the collective shelf-mark Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek RARA Musik M 4. Three of these fragments are from the same manuscript, which appears to be a thirteenth or fourteenth century breviary from Northern Germany, as seen from both the musical notation and the place of the fragment-carrier's printing, which is in the Northern German town of Wolfenbüttel.

Most of the text of these fragment has been identified and transcribed, but there is still one prose text that remains difficult to solve. The prose text is shown below. It precedes, or belongs to, the chants for the feast of Saint Matthew (September 21). Unfortunately, the spine of the fragment-carrier runs along the fragment straight through the prose text, and consequently some of the crucial letters have been worn away. Although several of the words - such as "pastores", "in [a]edificationem ecclesi[a]e", "corporis" and "ihesu christi domini nostri" - can be read, these words in themselves are not enough to identify the text in question, primarily because they are too common in liturgical prose texts, as well as biblical passages, to allow for any specification.

This blogpost is, therefore, a call for help, hoping that someone will recognise the text from the surviving clues, or be a more skilled palaeographer and/or latinist than myself. If you do have any input on the prose text in the picture below, please let me know.

Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek, RARA Musik M 4, fragment X (detail)

Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek, RARA Musik M 4, fragment X

fredag 7. desember 2018

The Church of SS Dominic and Mary Magdalene in Trogir

Earlier this year I was on a work trip to Croatia organised by the Centre for Medieval Literature at University of Southern Denmark. This trip was a wonderful occasion to learn about the medieval history of a country about which I knew rather little, particularly about its medieval period. It was therefore quite the revelation to me as we toured some of the beautiful cities on the Dalmatian coast and saw things I had not expected seeing. One such highlight was the episcopal city of Trogir, whose cathedral has been mentioned in two earlier blogposts (here and here).

Aside from the cathedral, Trogir is a city rich in churches. One of these is the monastic church of SS Dominic and Mary Magdalene. A brief sketch of its history by Stepjan Krasić, in English, can be found here. The details of this blogposts are taken from this text. (See also here.) The church was established when the Dominicans reached Trogir from their monastery in Split around 1243, and it was given monastic status in the 1260s.


Lunette of SS Dominic and Mary Magdalene

While the church of the Dominican house was built in the mid-thirteenth century - roughly in the time when Master Radovan was working on his magnificent portal of the cathedral church - the church building was enlarged around 1325 and later extended in 1375 thanks to donations from local noble families. It was as a part of the enlargement of the church that Master Niccolò Dente of Venice made the lunette in which can be seen the Virgin Mary and the Christ-child seated, flanked by the local saint Augustin and one of the two patrons of the monastic church, Mary Magdalene.

Saint Augustin Kažotić (1260-1323) can be seen in episcopal regalia including a crozier and a mitre. This points to his brief career as bishop of Lucera in Italy, a position he accepted in 1322. Augustin was a member of the monastic community of SS Dominic and Mary Magdalene, and a modern statue can be seen next to the door of the church today. Next to Augustin is a female figure, and above here there is an inscription which Rudolf Eitelberger (d.1885) has interpreted as meaning Domina[?] Bitcula, Soror Huius Sancti Augustini (see Krasić s.80), meaning Lady Bitcula, Saint Augustin's sister. While I do not know when Lady Bitcula died, it is unlikely that she was herself alive at the time of Master Niccolò's making of the lunette in 1372. That the lunette came about thanks to the donation of her family, or her inheritance, however, is a possible explanation.    

On the right-hand side of the portal we find Mary Magdalene and an inscription stating that Master Niccolò called Cervo from Venice made this work. This depiction of Mary Magdalene is of particular interest in that it depicts her as covered in her own hair and praying, instead of clothed and carrying a jar of alabaster as is typical. The body covered in hair is instead a typical feature of Mary of Egypt (fifth century) who quit a life of prostitution to live as a hermit in the desert, and whose hair started growing to cover her naked body once her clothes had disintegrated from long use.

I can think of two possible solution to this uncommon rendition. One possibility is that there exists a tradition, either local to Venice or Dalmatia or possibly more widespread, in which the two Maries are conflated. After all, since Pope Gregory the Great (d.601) promoted the idea that Mary Magdalen was the same figure as the repentant prostitute who washed Christ's feet in Luke 7, it was commonly thought in at least parts of medieval Christendom that Mary Magdalen had given up a life of debauchery for Christ. Since this is also the story of Mary of Egypt, it is very easy to understand how these saints might be confused. After all, similar conflations across centuries were not uncommon - we see this for instance in Saint Denis in France.

Another, and far simpler yet possibly not more plausible, explanation is that Niccolò simply made a mistake and had the two Maries confused. While the possibility exists, however, I hesitate to embrace this as it suggests Niccolò and the monks at Trogir came from such diverse linguistic backgrounds as to not being able to properly community. This is unlikely, considering the strong ties between Dalmatia and Italy in the Middle Ages. What confusion there were in the making of this lunette, therefore, was probably one shared by master mason and monastic community alike.

tirsdag 27. november 2018

An order of service - a poem by Geoffrey Hill

As I'm heading north for a conference this week, I think it is a suitable way to end the blogging of the month of November with a poem by Geoffrey Hill, whose imagery plays with the frozen landscapes that might be awaiting.

An order of service

(From King Log, 1968)

He was the surveyor of his own ice-world,
Meticulous at the chosen extreme,
Though what he surveyed may have been nothing.

Let a man sacrifice himself, concede
His morality and be done with it;
There is no end to that sublime appeal.

In such a light dismiss the unappealing
Blank of his gaze, hopelessly vigilant,
Dazzled by renunciation's glare.