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

mandag 31. mai 2021

A multiplicity of Maximuses - methodological aspects of saint scholarship

Saturday, I collected a package at the local post office which contained a very useful tool for my current research, namely the latest edition of The Book of Saints, an encyclopedia that has grown out of generations of Benedictine scholarship on the cult of saints. Considering that my current job consists in part of entering names of saints from medieval calendars into a database, this book is immensely valuable for determining some of the many cases where a saint's identity is uncertain. And while I had known for quite a while that there are numerous instances where several saints share the same name, I had rarely had to deal with this in my own research. Previously, I have mostly worked on saints whose cults were extensive and whose figures were easily identifiable - if sometimes confused - and there have been very few cases where I have spent a lot of time trying to ascertain the identity of a specific saint. This situation was to change very rapidly as I started in my current job. 

The main part of my current work is centred on fragments of medieval calendars used in Sweden, many of which were either imported from England, or produced by copying an older English calendar, and together these fragments span the period c.1100 to c.1500. For the most part, identifying the saints in these calendars is easy enough to do, as the majority of saints are sufficiently well established in Latin Christendom, and sufficiently well known by scholarship. In some cases, the name is all that is necessary for determining which saint we are dealing with, or the date of the feast. And some saints are so well established that even in the cases where the name is misspelled or the feast is misplaced, it does not require a lot of effort to piece the puzzle together. 

However, in some cases there are saints whose inclusion in the calendar is essentially a vestige of a practice established a long time ago which has essentially fallen into oblivion, maintained only because the name can be found, even though the ministrants might have no clear idea of who this saint is or when and where the saint operated, or perhaps not even what patronage the saint is supposed to have. These are saints so minor in their fame and popularity that not even the shortest chapters of Jacobus de Voragine's Legenda Aurea from c.1260 - which arguably brought a lot of saints out of complete oblivion - have saved them from becoming skeleton cults, names serving as echoes of a lost past. It is when saints attain this level of near-forgottenness that they become problematic for the modern-day scholar. Saints such as these are often perfunctorily recorded in calendars because they are included in the older calendar used as a model - and sometimes they are misspelled, or misplaced, or simply confused with other saints of a similar name. 

In the course of my work on Swedish calendars - about which I will not go into great detail here - I have several times spent more time than I had anticipated, indeed hoped, in trying to establish which Victor, which Eusebius, or which Maximus is actually meant in a badly water-damaged calendar fragment. And in cases such as these, where the name is shared by a great number of individuals - many of which are of such an uncertain historicity that their legends have become confused with one another - it is extremely needful to have several tools such as The Book of Saints. Because even though they might not shed all the required light on the errors of a scribe centuries ago, they might help in the process of narrowing down the possible options. This is especially useful when encountering a Maximus - or a variant of that name - who is merely identified as a martyr, a confessor, and a priest, because there are, as the pages below demonstrate, a long, long list of possible candidates. There is, indeed, a multiplicity of Maximuses - and Eusebiuses, and Victors and others - that need to be carefully sifted through in order to arrive at some sort of conclusion. And even then it is entirely possible that that conclusion is wrong.     

lørdag 29. mai 2021

The ludic vision of America - or, Adventures in medievalism, part 2


About a month ago, I participated in an online conference on medievalism in twenty-first-century audiovisual media, which gave me an opportunity to delve into how modern culture has engaged with the historical contact between Norse seafarers and Indigenous people in what is modern-day Canada. The subject is immensely rich, as there have been comics, cartoons, films, TV-series and computer games that have dealt with this subject in various ways. Due to the richness of this material, my presentation on the subject served mainly as an inroad that opened up a wealth of questions and sources, and I will use this blog from time to time as a vehicle for thinking about and grappling with the material. The present blogpost is, therefore, the second instalment in a series called “Adventures in medievalism” (the first instalment can be found here).       

At the aforementioned conference, “Medievalisms on the screen”, I argued, among other things, that due to the cultural engagements with the topos of Norse contact with pre-Columbian America, the Norse have become part of the modern American vision of history. To put it in a different way, the Norse have become a staple of how Americans – and indeed many non-Americans – imagine and encounter American history. It is of little consequence that the Norse impact on the geography we now call America appears to have been rather limited (albeit more extensive than previously thought). What matters is that through the Norse landfalls at various points on the American landmass, there has been established a historical link between what has been thought of as the old world and the new. This means that to modern-day Americans of European heritage, the Norse contact has provided them with a kind of pre-history of USA and Canada that includes a European, and a Northern European, white, element. The details of this fascination are better fleshed out by E. R. Truitt in a 2016 article.            

Because the Norse element in the history of the American landmass has been blown out of proportions in cultural expressions dealing with American history, the Norse – or rather, the Vikings – have become a topos of the historical understanding of America. Such topoi are important marks of how non-experts in history receive, understand and misunderstand the past of a given area or a given culture. In the case of America, and particularly in the case of the US, there are several such topoi that have become so deeply-rooted in the modern cultural imagination that they become part of what I call the ludic vision of America. It is this concept I will try to flesh out in somewhat greater detail in the present blogpost. 

Prince Valiant in the New World by Hal Foster
Collected comic strips from 1956 
Courtesy of

By the term “ludic vision”, I mean the kind of vision of something – or someone, or somewhere – that is conjured up or that informs a playful, ludic, engagement with it. In terms of American history, there is a ludic vision of this which is shared by people within and without the US, and this vision is comprised of specific terrains, specific types of people or characters, and specific events. For instance, Western films, books and comics, and lately also games, employ landscapes and topoi that simply and easily invoke the historical period that is being enacted, or, rather, that is being ludically re-imagined. Such Western topoi can include cowboys, bounty hunters, trappers, Native Americans, American soldiers, and also landscapes like canyons, deserts, prairies, etc. These combine to make a ludic vision of America, and due to modern culture’s fascination with American history, this ludic vision comprised of the aforementioned topoi are disseminated widely, and consequently also shared, and developed further, by creators and consumers of culture from many different backgrounds. Moreover, because these topoi are so widely shared, there is also a more widely unified ludic vision of America, which means that fewer individual topoi are needed to invoke the full-scale vision. One Native American warrior, for instance, is sufficient to invoke the totality of post-Columbian American history because modern culture has made the Native American warrior a topos, or perhaps rather an avatar or an emblem, of that part of American history. (Similarly, of course, the Native American warrior represents the pre-Columbian history, but this period has gained less traction in modern culture, despite the fascination with the historical contact between the Norse and the Indigenous, and it is therefore likely that a Native American warrior is employed to signify the post-Columbian era in modern cultural expression.)          

While the various topoi of the Western genre of cultural expressions comprise the perhaps most significant aspect of our contemporary ludic vision of American history, there are also others such topoi. For instance, the typical pirate employed in modern culture is, in terms of geography, an American pirate, set in the Caribbean and operating within a wider American geographical remit. This is so despite the fact that piracy has been a part of maritime history all across the inhabited globe, and it is a consequence of the widespread dissemination and popularity of the cultural imagination centred on the American pirates. Other such topoi are, for instance, conquistadors and, thanks to Arthur Conan Doyle, dinosaurs.   

Similarly, the Norse, or the Vikings, have also become part of the ludic vision of America. One of the perhaps most influential examples of this is Hal Foster’s comic strip Prince Valiant. The topos of Vikings in America has also been picked up by comic book creators from the US (such as Donald Duck stories by Carl Barks and Don Rosa), Spain (Capitán Trueno by Victor Mora), and Belgium (Jean van Hamme). In addition, this topos is also employed in films (such as Pathfinder), TV series (Vikings), and computer games (such as Age of Empires and Dead in Vinland). In other words, Vikings have become a very important part of how we playfully imagine America. 

Cover from "Ombre del passato" from 1981 by G. L. Bonelli and Guglielmo Letteri
Adapted for a collected volume in Norwegian translation, Egmont, 2016 

One important aspect of the ludic vision of America is the employment of achronology. This is a topic to which I aim to return in later blogpost, but the main point of is that by removing chronological boundaries and merging all historical periods into an atemporal here-and-now, topoi from across the chronological spectrum can be brought into play. Achronology can be employed in various ways, and very often it takes the form of relict societies – peoples who have continued their lives in the form of a particular historical period all the way to the present day. In some cases, this is how Vikings are introduced into a particular enactment of the ludic vision of America. In the Tex Willer story “Shadows from the past” by G. L. Bonetti and Guglielmo Letteri from 1981, for instance, the protagonists encounter a Viking society on a forbidding and secluded island on the north-western coast of Hudson Bay. Here we see an example of how Italian comic book creators also share in the same ludic vision of America as seen in the cases from the US, Spain and Belgium mentioned above.      

Another example of how the trope of relict societies facilitate the employment of Vikings is the original DuckTales series. In episode 61 of season 1, “Maid of the myth”, a gang of Vikings raid Duckburg and return to a secluded island somewhere in the Arctic – an island surrounded by solid ice but warmed by hot springs that allow for the growing of palm trees. Here, too, we see that the Vikings are part of a ludic vision of America – and that they are even turned into Americans, as two of these Vikings become fond of root beer in the course of the Viking raid. 

Root beer-drinking Vikings
Screenshots from DuckTales S01E61, "Maid of the Myth"

The ludic vision of America is complex, and can be further divided into several categories. Moreover, while the general ludic vision is shared by people from many different backgrounds – as exemplified above – the ways in which the ludic vision is enacted can vary significantly, and the ludic vision is of course also constantly developing. But despite changes and variations, it is important, I believe, to recognise that there is such a shared vision of America and American history that furnishes, facilitates and influences how we engage with American history in modern culture. The reason why this is important is that modern culture influences our understanding, or, perhaps more often, our misunderstanding. In order to understand how we understand or misunderstand, we must know how this ludic vision functions, and which elements it is comprised of. In this blogpost, I have tried to sketch the general outlines and pinpoint some of its characteristic, defining features, but I will need to develop the idea further.

tirsdag 25. mai 2021

Read at the right time - or, Further notes from a personal history of reading


When I was in my second term at university I was still quite euphoric about the wealth of available literature that had opened up to me as a student. Frequently, I would scour the shelves of the campus bookshop and the university library, and I spent a significant part of my rather modest student loan on books. That spring I started to get a better understanding of how much was actually out there, and how much it would take for me to read in order to feel well-read - or at least sufficiently well-read. Spurred on by this bibliophilic delirium, I compiled a list of all the books I decided I should read in the course of a lifetime. It became quite a long list, comprised in large part of various classics with a few untypical choices thrown in for balance, and to satisfy my wish to read broadly, widely and every now and again obscurely. This list was ambitious, but also marked by my still very limited experience and knowledge. Already in the next couple of years my horizon expanded immensely, but I decided not to add anything to the original list because I would then be adding quicker than I would subtract, and while I do enjoy lists - even impossible lists - I do not appreciate lists that become Sisyphus-like.

Now, more than ten years later, I still have a long way to go on the list. My advancement has been slowed down for many reasons, the most important of which is the sense I felt when I had compiled it, namely that because I had listed all these books now, I should focus on books that were not on the list, and which I imagined would be more difficult to come by. To this day I cannot quite explain my reasoning. 

Other books I deliberately left off because I felt insufficiently mature. I worried I would take too long getting through them, and that they would be less rewarding as a consequence, or that I would not have the time needed to enjoy them because of my studies. This was one of the reasons, for instance, that I did not start Don Quijote until after I had finished my MA.  

As in the case of Don Quijote, there were some books that I decided to postpone reading because I felt the time was not right. And I am very thankful to my younger self for making this decision, especially now that I have both gained more experience in general, and have read more of those books that I did not know existed when I putting together my ambitious list. This past year, in particular, has really made it clear to me how some books are to be read at the right time, and that I have been very fortunate in some of my choices, and that I have done well in waiting. 

Last week, I finished reading the last of the five novels in the story of Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais. The first four novels were put on the list in my second term (while the fifth was left out because young me was stupidly bothered by it not being written by Rabelais, only put together from his notes by an unknown author). I had, in other words, been wanting to read them for a long time, and I purchased the older Penguin Classics translation by J. M. Cohen in 2016, intending to finally picking it up. Yet I delayed my reading, and although this was probably not a deliberate postponement, I am very glad that this was how it turned out. When I finally started reading the first novel earlier this year, I realised quite soon that so many of the references to various figures, events and concepts familiar to Rabelais and his own time had only become known to me at later intervals and through exploring corners of my field of interest that I had not anticipated back in my second term at university. Some of these references I could remember right away where I had picked them up, as in the case of the fourteenth-century jurist Bartolus de Saxoferrato, whom I know a little about solely thanks to a brief attempt at putting together a PhD project that I thankfully abandoned. 

I should emphasise, for the sake of humility and accuracy, that there are still numerous references in Rabelais' novels that are lost on me, and there are plenty of jokes that I did not get and names that I did not know about at the time of reading, and if I ever re-read these novels I will hopefully be able to understand just how much I have now not understood. Yet because I know more about the period than I did before, because I have taught and read and discussed with friends about topics touched upon in these books, I was better prepared than ever before, and I was able to enjoy them more than I would have done at any point between now and back then when I compiled my list.   


Similarly, when I picked up my next novel to read, I recognised very early on that it was a good thing I had not started when I first bought it a couple of years ago. The novel, The Corsair, by Abdulaziz al-Mahmoud, translated by Amira Nowaira, is set along the coasts of the Arabian peninsula in the early nineteenth century. It plays out against a backdrop of centuries of colliding imperial ambitions in which Ottoman, Portugese, Persian, Omani and British interests shaped the unfolding events of the region. I bought this book as a part of my still-ongoing project - inspired by journalist Ann Morgan - to read one book from each country of the world, and The Corsair is the representative of Qatar. At the time I bought it, I knew very little about the region in general, and I had only the faintest understanding of the region's history in that period. However, this autumn I taught a module on the early modern world, and in an attempt to move away from Europe, and make the students familiar with other parts of the world, I included a lecture on the political clashes in the Indian Ocean in between 1500 and 1800. As a consequence of this preparation, the political backdrop of Abdulaziz al-Mahmoud's novel is much easier to grasp than it otherwise would have been. And while I should point out that I am by no means an expert, neither on the region nor on the period in question, the teaching preparation also prepared me for a greater appreciation of the wider vista of the plot and characters of the novel.    

These two books are among several examples of books that I read at the right time, or at least after I had arrived at a point of knowledge at which it became more rewarding to read them than if I had read them earlier. This is of course mostly chance, helped and assisted by a solid dose of personal inertia - perhaps typical of the unrepentant bibliophile - but the main point remains the same: Some books are simply worth waiting for, because when read at the right time they yield an even greater reward. 

søndag 16. mai 2021

New publication: Thirteenth-century Ivory Crozier from Greenland from the Perspective of Economic History

Last year, I submitted a proposal for an article to the online Encyclopedia of the Global Middle Ages published by ARC Humanitites and Bloomsbury. I offered to write an entry on a crozier of walrus ivory that was discovered in Igaliku, Greenland, the site of the medieval bishopric of Garðar, and so I spent much of the summer of 2020 researching medieval Greenland and its connections to the trade routes on the European continent. The main purpose of this encyclopedia entry is to highlight Greenland's place in the network of trade and exchange that stretched across medieval Europe and beyond. 

As this is an online encyclopedia, and entries are published in batches, I was unaware that my article had been made available until earlier this week, and I am terribly excited to be one of many contributors to this expanding reference work. Access to the encyclopedia can be bought here, and my particular article is located here. I hope to be using this encyclopedia in future teaching, and it is a great resource for getting a more global perspective on the framework of what we call the medieval.

Crozier and ring from Garðar, Greenland
Courtesy of Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen, D11154; D11155

torsdag 29. april 2021

Sources for a conference presentation (30.04.21)

As I mentioned in my previous blogpost, I am giving two conference presentations this week. The first of these is tomorrow, where I will be speaking on the third and last day of the Becket conference, the belated 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of Thomas of Canterbury in 1170 (as well as the 800th anniversary of the translation of his relics in 1220). 

In my presentation, I talk about the veneration of Saint Thomas in medieval Norway, as evidenced by materials for the liturgical office for his feast-day on December 29. While there are many interesting sources to the cult of Saint Thomas in medieval Norway, my focus is only on the materials from the feast-day office, and not about his translation feast or the materials for the mass. 

The presentation is pre-recorded, and to access it you need to register for the conference. If you have not done so, you might still find this blogpost useful, as the purpose of the post is to provide links to some of the sources that I have used in my research. 

AM 679 4to, f.10r

The first source is AM 679 4to, a thirteenth-century Icelandic manuscript which contains a version of the so-called Ordo Nidrosiense, i.e. a book containing the liturgical feasts celebrated in the Norwegian archiepiscopal province, which included Iceland, Greenland, Shetland, the Orkneys, the Faroes, the Hebrides and Man. This source is invaluable for understanding the yearly cycle of liturgical performance in the churches throughout the Norwegian archdiocese.

The second source is Breviarium Nidrosiense, a breviary containing the materials for the office for the feasts celebrated throughout the liturgical year in the Norwegian church province. The breviary was printed in Paris in 1519, commissioned by Archbishop Erik Valkendorf. The content was most likely drawn - at least in part - from a manuscript of the Ordo, or some similar manuscript used at Trondheim, the metropolitan see of Norway. This means that despite the use of new technology, the content was old and therefore a valuable source to liturgical observance in earlier centuries. 

A digitised edition of Breviarium Nidrosiense can be found on the website of the Norwegian National Library.

A searchable, transcribed edition of the content of the Breviarium can be found on the website Bokselskap. This version is edited by Ingrid Sperber, and it includes an introduction by Espen Karlsen and Sigurd Hardeide, and it is a phenomenally useful tool for any researcher or enthusiast. The edition was published by the National Library for the 500-year-anniversary of the printing of what are known as the first Norwegian (printed) books, and which was celebrated by a series of events throughout Norway in The Norwegian Year of the Book in 2019. 

The third source that I mention, although I do not engage with it, is Missale Nidrosiense, the sister-volume of the Breviarium containing the materials for the mass celebrations in the Norwegian archdiocese. 

A digitised edition can be found at the Norwegian National Library. 

And as with the Breviarium, the National Library has also published a transcribed edition made by Ingrid Sperber, including an introduction by Espen Karlsen and Sigurd Hardeide. And as with the edition of the Breviarium, this edition is an extremely helpful and valuable tool for anyone interested in the medieval liturgy of Norway.

These sources will be mentioned in the course of my talk, and in the event that my presentation, or just the reading of this blogpost, inspires you to explore these sources, here they are gathered on one single plate. Enjoy.

mandag 26. april 2021

Two online conferences

This week, I am participating in two online conferences, where I will be presenting my research. Since these conferences are available for anyone who registers, and because these conferences have a great number of interesting speakers, I am including the links for the events here, and I hope that you will have the time and the interest to join. 

Thomas Becket - Life, death and legacy (28-30.04)

This conference is a belated commemoration of the 850-year-anniversary of the death of Thomas Becket, one of the most famous ecclesiastics of his time, and subsequently one of the most famous saints of Latin Christendom. I will be presenting on the liturgical veneration of Saint Thomas in the Norwegian archdiocese, and there are also a number of other interesting topics covering a wide geographical remit. The conference is organised by Canterbury Cathedral and the University of Kent.

The event can be found here:

Medievalisms on the Screen: The Representation of the Middle Ages in Audiovisual Media in the 21st Century (29.04-01.05)   

This conference brings together scholars of medievalism in order to explore the various ways that the medieval past is imagined, represented, used and abused in contemporary audiovisual media. As has become abundantly clear these past twenty years, the Middle Ages exert a tremendous influence on popular imagination, popular culture, politics and identity-formation. While the influence of the medieval past is not a new discovery, the recent developments in audiovisual culture has allowed that influence to become even stronger, and therefore in greater need of being understood. I will be presenting on how the historical encounter between Norse and indigenous American cultures has been utilised and developed in popular culture, and how this should be understood in light of contemporary politics. There is also a great array of other interesting topics, all immensely relevant to how we understand our current political and cultural climates.

The event can be found here: 

søndag 25. april 2021

A lion from Skibet Church, Denmark


Today is the feast of Saint Mark the Evangelist, whose main attribute is the lion, and on whose feast was performed the great litany, letania maior, a catalogue of saints invoked in the performance of the mass. As an evangelist, Mark belongs to the oldest register of saints, and therefore one of the truly universal saints of the medieval kalendars. 

This year, I had hoped to put together a blogpost on Saint Mark, but as I have been preoccupied with various commitments, I have decided to leave Saint Mark for later, having now convinced my readers that there is a lot to return to. Instead, I will make use of his leonine attribute to share my encounter with one of several glorious medieval lions that can be found throughout the medieval church spaces of Denmark. I encountered this lion in May 2019, my last spring in Denmark, when I joined some colleagues on a trip to Skibet Church near Vejle in Jutland.  

The church was built around 1200, and originally had a broader nave. The main feature of interest in the church is a spectacular restored fresco from the early thirteenth century, which covers the Eastern end of the nave. Unfortunately, as the nave has been narrowed at a later point, there are several details missing, and the general scene and its meaning remains a matter of contention. Despite the unresolved questions, the scene is an absolute delight to behold, and a forceful testament to quality of church art in medieval Denmark. And as always is the case with medieval art - be it wall-paintings, sculptures, illuminations or any other medium - there are several details in which one can get lost when perusing the scenery. One such detail is a lion.

The lion might not appear very leonine to our modern eyes, but it follows the established conventions of how lions commonly were depicted in the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries in Latin Christendom. It appears to serve a mainly decorative function, as an architectural feature, a corbel uniting the pillar with the vaulting in the timeless architectural backdrop depicted in the scene. There might be additional layers to how we understand it, as medieval images could carry several meanings at one and the same time, but because the scene remains somewhat obscure to us, it is unclear how we should interpret this lion. As it is now, it serves as a reminder that the iconographical conventions of Latin Christendom also were in place in medieval Denmark, and that although very few Danes could be expected to have ever seen a lion, it was such an established part of the semiotics of the Middle Ages that it is ubiquitous in the sacred spaces even as far as the Nordic world.

There is also another lion from roughly the same period hiding in the architecture of Skibet Church, but that is another blogpost.