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

torsdag 29. mars 2012

A Dream of Vaults and Vellum

Last week I was skimming through a book on Gothic art and architecture and I came across a beautiful 13th-century illumination depicting a unicorn killed by an armed soldier. Later I discovered that this particular illumination comes from the Royal 12 F. xiii manuscript, currently a part of the British Library collection. The manuscript is a bestiary once belonging to the Benedictine cathedral priory of St Andrew in Rochester, and its illuminations were performed by a peripatetic lay professional.

Bestiaries were, as the name suggests, books about the animals of the world, some of which were real, some of which were not and others which were inaccurate depictions of actual creatures. To the Medieval mind they were all part of Creation, and they could all be used for didactic purposes since by their behaviour they provided mankind examples or counterexamples of proper Christian living. Several animals were also used as metaphor for God the Father, Christ the Son or any of the virtues and vices. Christ was called "the spiritual unicorn" according to the bestiary of the MS Bodley 764, drawing on passages from Song of Songs and Psalm 92, to mention just a few.

The unicorn could also be called rhinoceros or monoceros. It was believed to be too swift for any hunter to catch, but if it were to encounter a virgin it would fall asleep in its lap and could be caught there. This is exactly what happens in the Rochester bestiary.

Mesmerised by the simple yet very beautiful illumination I started imagining how the artwork had come about, conjuring up its genesis in a scriptorium under the aegis of the senior clergy, carried out by a man - whom I at that time wrongly imagined to be a monk - rather wishing to be a part of the somewhere he was creating than the stone walled world he actually did inhabit. The result was the poem below, and the illumination is taken from the British Library website.

A Dream of Vaults and Vellum

After an illumination from MS Royal 12 F XIII f.10 v (13th century)

The artist, having made a unicorn
With features reminiscent of his own,
Smiles as he finds himself in dreams forlorn,
His head a crown, the maiden's lap his throne.

In dreams forlorn he makes these walls of stone
A forest in a distant Anywhere,
Removed from disapproving eyes. Alone
He wanders with that maiden fair.

Still lost in dreams a knight approaches near,
His tonsured head hid' underneath the hood
Of chain mail armour. Thrusting forth his spear
He wakes the dreamer and uproots the wood.

The unicorn, now dying, is confined
To vellum and a dreamer's pensive mind.
- March 20-28 2012

søndag 25. mars 2012

Annunciation Canticles

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, one of the feast-days ascribed to the Virgin Mary in the Roman sanctorale. This feast commemorates the archangel Gabriel's visit to the Virgin as told in Luke 1, and this event has resulted in numerous pieces of art and music throughout Christian culture. Being a non-denominational Christian I usually do not celebrate the Annunciation, but in the course of my Medieval scholarship I have become more fascinated with the phenomenon and decided to attend an Annunciation concert in the cathedral of Trondheim. The concert was a wonderful experience and as I sat there I was trying to compose a poem for this particular occasion. As a finishing touch to this Annunciation I present the result below.

The Cestello Annunciation by Sandro Botticelli

And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord
- Luke 1:48

Annunciation Canticles

Prelude: The Kingdom of March

Now March, the kingdom of contrite concessions
Draws to its end.
Clouds in their mute procession
Filters the light for angels to descend.

Now I, a sinner, this annunciation
Offer my light.
Such is my celebration
For that one light that burns throughout my night.

Beata Viscera

After Perotin

As notes descend and rise a light is born,
A light in darkness peering through the glass
Dividing earth and Heaven. The orient corn
Burgeons gently through the withered grass.

March has its end, its numbered days will pass;
The mourning tapers dwindle in the sand
While Mary bearing Mankind's looking-glass,
Accepts the lily from the angel's hand.

Ave Maria

Bearer of Christ, Hail Mary,
Bright as a burning wick!
Love is the light you carry;
Mine is a candlestick.
- Trondheim, March 25, 2012


 Beata Viscera: This monophonic musical piece attributed to Pérotin (fl. c.1200) is a celebration of the blessed womb of the Virgin Mary. The poem is an incomplete Spenserian sonnet whose opening lines came to me while the choir performed Beata Viscera.

Orient corn: This is a reference to Thomas Traherne's Centuries of Meditation. The phrase "oriental and immortal wheat" has connotations of a childhood remembered - at least the way it is used by Derek Walcott - and is here an elaborate metaphor for rememberance of childhood.

Mankind's looking-glass: The idea here is that Christ, as a perfect human being, represents a mirror image of the inherently faulty humanity. Christ becomes here the looking-glass in which we may look to find our imperfections reflected by His perfection.

fredag 16. mars 2012

Flores Historiarum, pt. 4 - The Ethics of Historiography

In short, they are often deceived and deceive by their guesses, though these are quite sophisticated, but by means of trickery in their predictions they lay claim amongst naive people to a foreknowledge of the future which they do not at all possess.
- Prologue to Book 1 of Historia Rerum Anglicarum, William of Newburgh

I was first introduced to the Augustinian canon and historian William of Newburgh (b. 1135/6, d. in or after 1198) in a course on literature in the Anglo-Saxon world I took at the University of York. The course, England in Europe, aimed to explore the literary influences and connections between England and the continent from the early Anglo-Saxon period until the Anglo-Norman era of the 12th century. William's History of English Affairs marks the tail-end of the period covered by this course as it was, probably, begun in 1196 and apparently never completed due to his death two years later. Historia Rerum Anglicarum, which I have already mentioned in part two of this series, is famous for its commitment to truth and the ethics of historiography. In his prologue to book 1 - the only part of the book covered on the course - these ethics surface in William's vicious attack on Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. To me it is a great delight to read these attacks because through his indignation and ferocity William serves a scholarly - albeit severely ungenerous - critique of what he considers imagined history, a critique that is as valid today as it was in the 12th century and - in some cases - equally necessary. In this blogpost I will present some of the highlights from William's prefatory attack on poor historiographical scholarship.

William dedicates most of his prologue to castigate Geoffrey of Monmouth's dishonesty, a dishonesty mirrored by the excellence of the historians Bede and Gildas whom William praises for their research and truthful account. Gildas, William claims, "does not hesitate to write as a Briton about Britons that they were neither brave in war nor trustworthy in peace." This is one of the cruxes of William's antipathy for Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain is very much concerned with how great the old Britons were and, as we shall see, especially King Arthur. This is how William describes his fellow historian:

But in our own day a writer of the opposite tendency [of Gildas and Bede] has emerged. To atone for these faults of the Britons he weaves a laughable web of fiction about them, with shameless vainglory extolling them far above the virtue of the Macedonians and the Romans. This man is called Geoffrey and bears the soubriquet Arthur, because he has taken up the stories about Arthur from the old fictitious accounts of the Britons, has added to them himself, and by embellishing them in the Latin tongue he has cloaked them with the honourable title of history.

Aside from the ethical problems of Geoffrey's rendition of history, William also accuses him of blasphemy or at least irreligion. One of the perhaps most famous passages of History of the Kings of Britain is the prophecies of Merlin, the offspring of a woman - some say a nun - and an incubus. It is Merlin's demonic heritage that allows him to see into the future and to William this is highly troublesome:

In fact we are instructed by both true reasoning and the sacred writings that demons are shut out from God's light, and are wholly unable to have prior knowledge of the future by mentally observing it, though they apprehend certain future events by guesswork rather than knowledge, through signs better known to them than to us.

To a modern mind this might appear petty and pedantic, and I recall two of my fellow students at York being quite amused by this emphasis. To William of Newburgh, however, demons of various kinds - incubi, succubi and the like - were parts of reality and evil parts at that. No wonder, then, that William found Geoffrey's claim preposterous. Geoffrey, he maintains, "has not learnt the truth about events, and so without discrimination he gives space to fables without substance."

Merlin reading his prophecies to King Vortigern

William also finds it hard to swallow Geoffrey's unabashed representation of the British kings as heroes mightier than those of Antiquity. To William this is a perverse distortion of the truth found in the historical accounts he treasures greatly and he does not hold back:

But even a person of dim mental vision can observe how much the unadulterated historical truth preempts the falsehood which has been compiled at this point. Geoffrey makes Arthur himself outstanding and remarkable above all others; he seeks to present him in his achievements according to the free rein of his fancy.

"[T]his is doubtless", William complains, "to make this Briton's [i.e. Arthur] little finger appear thicker than the mighty Caesar's loins." Our Augustinian canon goes further and points out not merely wild heroic fantasies but also grave historical inaccuracies by pointing out that at a feast in praise of Arthur "[t]hree British archbishops, of London, Caerleon and York, are present, and this at a time when the Britons never had even a single archbishop, for Augustine was the first to receive the pallium from the Roman pontiff and to become archbishop in Britain."

After listing a range of Geoffrey's unbridled exaggerations and fantasies William deals his adversary the following blow:

Is he dreaming of another world containing kingdoms without number, in which the events took place which are mentioned by him earlier? Certainly in our world nothing of this kind took place; for how could the historians of old, who took immense pains to omit from their writings nothing worthy of mention, and who are known to have recorded even modest events, have passed over in silence this man beyond compare and his achievements so notable beyond measure?

It is this precise refutation and the ones above, which make me greatly appreciate William of Newburgh as an historiographer. He shows in this prologue commitment to truth, to a work-ethos and to Orthodoxy that to my mind appears staggeringly precocious in comparison with Geoffrey's more far-fetched imagined past. This is not to say, however, that William himself is singular in his ethics and nor does it mean he was precocious to his age - although it may appear thus to modern historians thoroughly familiar with the advent of the humanist ad fontes approach of Lorenzo Valla. Medieval historians, it is true, did not have the benefit of methodological tools burgeoning from centuries of academic evolution, but - as we can see in the case of William of Newburgh - they were far from indifferent or careless in their commitment to the transmission of history.

søndag 11. mars 2012

Flores Historiarum, pt. 3 - Jocelin's Chronicle

Such one king Edmond, but was rent for gaine
- The Ruines of Time, Edmund Spenser

Jocelin of Brakelond (fl.1173-c.1215) was a monk at the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk and his chronicle is an interesting work, motley in the best sense of the word and a must-read for any anglophile medievalist. Unlike so many chronicles or gestae of the Middle Ages the scope of Jocelin's opus is unambitious and succinct, focussing primarily on the career of Abbot Samson (1135-1211) rather than attempting a broad historical narrative of either a geographical area, an institution or even a person's life, which were common scopes of Medieval histories. Throughout his chronicle Jocelin describes events and individuals with striking intimacy and a keen alertness to human nature, and as such it can be appreciated as History's own version of Ken Follett's modern classic Pillars of the Earth.

Through Diana Greenway and Jane Sayers' well-wrought translation and explanatory notes the reader is allowed a clear - but limited - view of the complex worlds of Medieval monasticism, jurisprudence and history, following Jocelin's account of the various battles lost and won by Samson in his various struggles with king and fellow ecclesiastics. Since Jocelin wrote for an audience familiar with the various details of Medieval life - details that to us are strange and arcane - the reader him- or herself is introduced to a multitude of quotidien and extraordinary aspects as ingrained in a larger narrative. The consequence is that the reader will eventually become used to these details and absorb them - aided, of course, by the very comprehensive notes - and thus learn them more easily than would otherwise be the case.

The greatest asset of the Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, however, is Jocelin's frankness when depicting himself and fellow monks, a feature that makes this book all the more accessible even to the modern reader. Eager to see the best in people Jocelin is sometimes forced to admit and portray the darker side of humanity, and even Abbot Samson - the "protagonist" - is allotted a chapter recounting his sundry faults. Perhaps the most poignant example of this can be found when Jocelin describes the state of the abbey in the reign of Samson's predecessor, the old and easily manipulated Abbot Hugh:

This is the hour of darkness. This is the hour in which flatterers prevail and are believed: their might is increased and we can do nothing against it. For the time being we must ignore these things. Let the Lord look down and judge.
- Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, Jocelin of Brakelond (translated by Diana Greenway and Jane Sayers)

A similar comment can be found concerning the division of the monks during the election of a new abbott in 1182. Jocelin states "Many opposed him [i.e. Samson] in those days, though later they became his flatterers."

The appeal of Jocelin's account lies, as stated, to a great extent in the various details - sometimes of a very intimate and even personal nature - that appear throughout the pages. Sometimes we may even catch a glimpse of various prejudices, either held by Jocelin or the people he describes:

He [i.e. Samson] confirmed only one manor by charter: that was Thorpe, held by an Englishman, a free man, though tied to the soil, of whose loyalty he was confident, because he was a good farmer and could not speak French.

Or better still, we are treated to an anecdote told by Samson about how, when he travelled to Rome and back during the schism of Alexander III and Victor IV, he avoided being mistaken for an Englishman:

But I pretended to be a Scotsman, wearing Scottish dress and behaving like a Scot. To drive off those who jeered at me, I brandished my stick as if it were a type of spear known as a "gaveloc" [javelina], and used threatening language as Scotsmen do.

On other occasions these personal details are of a more sombre nature. Particularly striking is a passage where Samson, obviously weary of the way of the world,

(...) swore that if he could have foreseen the nature and scope of the abbot's duties, rather than be abbot and lord, he would have been master of the aumbry and librarian, which was the office he had wanted above all others.

A similar weariness can be found in Jocelin himself in this very lamentable and poetic passage:

But the good fortune that had smiled on him [i.e. Henry of Essex, constable-turned-monk] in these and similar activities now intervened to bring him unending tribulation, and behind the illusion of a happy beginning worked out a sorrofwul end for him. Fortune has a habit of smiling as a prelude to becoming enraged, of caressing only to deceive, and of praising in order to disparage.

The tale of Henry of Essex also highlights Jocelin's approach to history, namely to provide examples for posterity to emulate or avoid, an approach that informs much of Medieval historiography and hagiography:

It is essential to have an understanding of evil in order to avoid it, and for that reason it is worth recording the actions and aberrations of Henry and Essex, not as a model, but as a cautionary tale. To persuade by example is a helpful and painless way of correcting faults.
Jocelin's alertness to human nature together with a sometimes very terse, almost resigned prose often result in very beautiful passages. One example is a dispute between Samson and his prior:

(...) the abbot said several things that should not have been said, and swore that he would be master as long as he lived. But with the evening approaching, he spoke more mildly with the prior.

Jocelin also shows resignation over monastic politics and after having discussed an election he utters this passage, a particular favourite of mine:

Spare your praises of the new man, because high office changes a man's character, or rather demonstrates its true nature. First take note of which advisers he has, and what they are like and in whom he trusts, because like naturally attracts like.

Jocelin's chronicle reads partly as a contemporary history of Bury St Edmunds, partly as a biography of Abbot Samson and partly as a cautionary tale where Samson's virtues and faults are highlighted for the sake of edification. This is a common and almost ubiquitous feature of Medieval historiography, but rarely is it given such an intimate tinge as that of Jocelin's account.