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

fredag 28. november 2014

The sleder way - A fifteenth-century satirical carol on mortality

We are soon entering Advent, a season for songs and carols. I’m very fond of the musical traditions of Christmas and its songs, both those of my native Norway, the ones more typically found in Britain or the general songs, carols and hymns belonging to the Catholic repertoire of Western Europe. As a prologue to this season, I’m posting a carol from the fifteenth century which from the onset has very little to do with Christmas. I have taken it from R. L. Greene’s Early English Carols (Oxford 1977), where it is listed among the satirical carols, although thematically it could just as easily have been listed among the carols of mortality. The text comes from Bodleian Library. MS. Eng. Poet. e. I, and is written sometime in the fifteenth century. The lyrics of this carol belong – albeit loosely - to a very old tradition of Christian admonitory verse where the relationship between the soul and the body is scrutinized, sometimes in the form of a dialogue. In this particular case, however, the focus is less on the moral lesson, as it is a warning against fellow men, yet it contains elements typical of the cultural environment in the immediate centuries after the Black Death which I have elsewhere referred to as the cult of mortality. In order to emphasise this connection, I’ve chosen a rather macabre illustration.

In the following I have standardised the lettering as opposed to how it is printed in Greene 1977, but otherwise I have made no changes to the text.


Three living and three dead
MS Harley 2917, Book of Hours, Use of Rome, France, c.1480-c.1490
Courtesy of British Library

haue in mynd, in mynd, in mynd,
Secuters be oft onekynd.

Man, bewar, the way ys sleder;
Thy sowle sall go thou wottes not weder,
Body and sowle and all together;
Lytyll joye ys son done.

Haue thi sowle in thi mynd;
The secators be right onkynd;
Mane, be thi own freynd;
Lytyll joye ys son done.

In holy bok yt ys wreten
That sely sovle ys son forgeten,
And trev yt ys for to seken;
[Lytyll joye ys son done.]

Her ys a song for me;
Syng another for the;
God send vs love and charite;
[Lytyll joye ys son done.]

tirsdag 18. november 2014

Orlando the Beaver

Self-castrating beaver
Royal 2 B VII, English psalter, between 1310 and 1320
Courtesy of British Library

In a recent blogpost I wrote about a description of beavers found in Historia Norwegie, an anonymous Norwegian historiography from the twelfth century. This account repeated the ancient myth that beavers castrate themselves to escape hunters, a myth perpetuated throughout the medieval period and still alive in the sixteenth century when Ludovico Ariosto wrote his Orlando Furioso. In Ariosto's epic poem we find another reference to this zoological factoid, which I will present in this blogpost. 

Seemingly a less successful beaver
Royal 2 B VII, English psalter, between 1310 and 1320
Courtesy of British Library

To understand the employment of the beaver-myth, some background is necessary. The context is a series of challenges that disrupt the pagan camp during the siege of Paris, which is the dramaturgical nave around which the episodes in the poem revolve. Four pagan warriors are challenging each other to duels on account of various offences that go against the chivalric code, and the pagan king Agramante has arranged for the order of their duelling. As one of the first combattants, the Tartar king Mandricardo is armed and prepared, aided by Gradasso, king of Sercania (a region meant to be in modern-day China). As Gradasso is about to conclude his office as Mandricardo's page, he finds that the Tartar's sword is Durindana, which belonged to Orlando. Unbeknownst to Gradasso, Orlando left his sword in the wilderness along with his armour and his horse when he went mad after learning that the princess Angelica whom he loves has wed the Moorish footsoldier Medoro. The sword was found by the Scottish prince Zerbino whom Mandricardo killed in order to get hold of it.

In Orlando Innamorato by Matteo Boiardo, the precursor of Ariosto's work, we are told how Gradasso has set in many resources to acquire this sword, and Ariosto gives a quick summary of events, as quoted below. When Gradasso sees the sword he gets infuriated and demands to know how Mandricardo came by it. 

Somewhat more successful beaver
Sloane 3544, English bestiary, 13th century
Courtesy of British Library

Seeing the sword, Gradasso had no doubt
This was the weapon which Orlando won.
To claim it back Gradasso had set out
With a great fleet; and no more splendid one
Had ever left the East; he put to rout
The kingdom of Castile; he had then gone
To France and was victorious; and now
The Tartar has it and he knows not how.

He asked if by accord or by onslaught
He took it from the Count, and where and when;
And Mandricard replied that he had fought
A mighty battle for the sword and then
Orlando had feigned madness. 'Thus he sought
To hide his apprehension, for, to gain
His weapon Durindana, he well knew
The combat I would ceaselessly pursue.'

Just as the beaver, he went on to say,
Which sees the hunter drawing near, and knows
The reason, rips its genitals away,
A similar resource Orlando chose,
And left his swords. Gradasso did not stay
To hear the story out. 'I don't propose',
He said, ' to yield to you or anyone
What I by such expense have rightly won
- Orlando Furioso, Canto 27, verses 55-57 (translated by Barbara Reynolds)

Orlando's fury as depicted by Gustave Doré
Courtesy of WikiArt

As readers, or listeners, will know, this story is not true and Mandricardo fabricates events. The fictitious account is of course very insulting to Orlando or anyone, since he is likened to such an unchivalrous beast who is not only a prey for hunters, but who also commits such an unmanly deed as self-castration in order to preserve his life. This latter point is perhaps of greatest importance, since by leaving his sword behind Orlando has abandoned his primary chivalric attribute. Furthermore, since I hold Ariosto to be no less a shrewd metaphorician than Shakespeare, I feel safe to say that by comparing Orlando to the beaver, Mandricardo draws attention to the phallic symbolism of Durindana.

mandag 10. november 2014

Flores Historiarum, pt. V - Danish responses to the call for crusade

 The Scandinavian effort in the history of the Crusades is an aspect often overlooked in the more general overviews of this movement, which was such a central feature in medieval Christian thought. However, academics have recently paid much attention to the crusades launched by Danes, Swedes and Norwegians, and there is currently exciting research being done about the Swedish crusades in the Baltics, and the Norwegian king Sigurd Jorsalfare's (c.1090-1130) sojourn to Palestine from 1108-11. That Scandinavian monarchs and noblemen took part in the crusader movement is only to be expected, as this was an aspect of kingship virtually every Christian ruler had to take into consideration – whether to participate, to fund or to stay away from it.

Three knights, illustration picture
MS Royal 20 D II, Roman de Tristan, France, c.1300
Courtesy of British Library
In this blogpost, I wish to present two descriptions of how Danes responded to calls for crusade, as recorded by authors outside Denmark. The first description is taken from the short crusader narrative Profectio Danorum in Hierosolymam, “The leave-taking of the Danes for Jerusalem”. The book recounts a joint Danish-Norwegian crusader expedition prompted by a papal call for crusade following the loss of Jerusalem in 1187. The author of Profectio is now believed to have been a Norwegian Augustinian canon, and the work was likely written on the behest of a member of the Danish high clergy or nobleman some time after 1192.

As the title suggests, the book is predominantly concerned with the journey to the Holy Land, not the crusaders’ effort in the war against the Muslims. This is because the crusaders came too late and arrived in Palestine after the peace treaty had been signed and the Third Crusade was over. This may have caused some embarrassment to the surviving participants, and the author of Profectio goes to great lengths in depicting the hazards at sea and death by drowning as the crusaders’ imitatio Christi.

Profectio is in many ways an interesting book, and I hope to return to it in future blogposts. What concerns me here, however, is the author’s representation of the piety of the Danish nobles, and their response to the papal call to arms which they received at Odense during King Knud’s celebration of the Nativity. The following excerpt from chapter IV is a translation from the Norwegian by Astrid Salvesen:

Ship with a cross - has nothing to do with crusade in its literary context
MS Egerton 3028, Roman de Brut, 2nd quarter of the 14th Century
Courtesy of British Library
The king and all those who sat around him then started to weep and moan so that they could not speak a word, and so deep was this great sorrow that not one of them was able to give a reply. Finally they came to themselves, breathed more slowly and broke the silence – such often happens when one learns of grand and unexpected events. But they had to be encouraged and exhorted before they could agree on who should answer these messengers, who were as splendidly dressed as their message was tragic.

This kind of lachrymose piety is repeated a couple of times as some of the nobles renew their commitment to the crusade, and the author is careful to depict his protagonists as true Christians. As suggested above, this depiction was perhaps all the more needful in light of the crusaders’ ultimate failure to provide help.

Crusaders reaching the their destination, but not too late
MS Royal 19 D I, Historia de proeliis, translated into French, France, c.1340 (after 1333)
Courtesy of British Library
A rather different, more tongue-in-cheek depiction of the Danish response to a papal call for crusade, can be found in William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum, written in the 1120s and -30s. In the fourth book of his work, William is chiefly preoccupied with the first crusade and he commends the efficacy with which it was preached. As a measure of its effectiveness, he includes a short summary of the effects it had on the remotest corners of Latin Christendom.

Then the Welsh relinquished his woodland hunting, the Scot the intimacy of his fleas, the Dane his continuous drinking, and the Norwegian his raw fish.

- From Gesta Regum Anglorum, Book 4, chapter 348
, my translation

Indeed, for these inhabitants of Christendom’s peripheries
to give up their favourite pastimes and nourishment, the call for crusade must have been very powerful.

Crusaders, possibly as lost as our Danish-Norwegian protagonists from Profectio
MS Royal 16 G VI, Chroniques de France ou de St Denis, France, after 1332, before 1350
Courtesy of British Library

søndag 2. november 2014

Norwegian history as it never happened - or, A Lesson in Norwegian Particularism

I'm a medievalist, and I'm often reminded of why the study of history is important. To me it's about challenging grand narratives and comprehending human diversity, to unlock the vast complexity of human experience and to remind both myself and those around me that the past is not easily grasped and that we see history through a glass darkly. Historians are not here to bring comfort to those content with a simplistic view of times past and the historical progress. Historians are not here to sustain grand narratives, but to challenge them, to complicate them and, to the needful extent, to falsify them. That this is important is to me quite evident and I don't question this importance - nor do I need to, because I'm very often reminded why such constant revisionism is necessary.

To illustrate this necessity of historical studies in the manner of medieval didacticism, I want to present a very recent exemplum of historical misunderstanding. This took place on a Facebook page dedicated to my home place, a small village in the Western Norwegian fjords. There was an on-going discussion about the history of one of the place names, and during this discussion some very strange remarks about Norwegian history came to light, uttered by one of my fellow townspeople (henceforth called Mister G). His comprehension of the Middle Ages in Norway was wildly erroneous, and serves as a good example of the kind of historical misunderstanding that one can find when history is marked by a certain grand narrative. 

Olav Haraldsson's death at Stiklestad by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1831-92)
This is one of the most important events in the old Norwegian grand narrative
From Wikimedia

The purpose of this blogpost is to present the way in which Mister G misunderstood Norwegian history, and to illustrate how much it is possible to be wrong about a historical period. In order to do so, I will first give a brief overview of twelfth-century Norway with a focus on the key points of the discussion I had with Mister G. Then I will present his version of Norway in the Middle Ages. The discussion took place on a Norwegian public forum, but I don't wish to mention names or to quote at great length, especially because the man in question will probably not be aware of this blogpost and can therefore not answer. The few quotes I translate, will only serve to emphasise a point of importance. 

Olav Tryggvasson is made king of Norway by Peter Nicolai Arbo
Olav Tryggvasson is another iconic figure in the old Norwegian grand narrative
From Wikimedia

Overview of twelfth-century Norway

By the beginning of the twelfth century, Norway was a unified kingdom under its own kings. Ecclesiastically it was a part of the archbishopric of Lund together with Sweden and Denmark, which had been fairly recently separated from the archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen. This was the case until 1152/53 when the the churches of Norway and Sweden were loosened from the archbishopric of Lund and organised under their own archbishops, respectively situated in Nidaros (modern-day Trondheim) and Uppsala.

Up until this time we know very little of the literary production in Norway. Sagas of Norwegian kings were being written in Iceland, although these are now lost to us. These works were written in Old Norse, then commonly referred to as the Danish tongue, with the Latin alphabet brought to Scandinavia by missionaries at some uncertain time. Runes were also used for shorter messages, and these were common all over the Norse world, including parts of England where Norse influence was strong.

The first Norwegian literature has been conjecturally dated to the early 1150s, and the first work is believed to be a Latin hagiographical account of Olaf Haraldsson, the saint-king who died at Stiklestad and who was the patron saint of Norway. Shortly after, probably in the 1160s, the first Norwegian Latin chronicle was written, Historia Norwegie, and towards the end of the century we also find books in Old Norse written in Norway. One of these is a history of Norwegian kings called Ágrip or Extracts by modern scholars, which is likely composed c.1190. Another one - often referred to as our oldest book - is the Old Norwegian Homily Book, written c.1200, containing a number of homilies, most of which appear to be translations of Latin texts. Although these texts were written in the vernacular, there were only small differences - so-called Norwegianisms - that made them distinguishable from texts produced in Iceland or Denmark, for instance.

Much of Norway's history in the twelfth century was marked by civil strife as various pretenders to the royal throne fought each other. Towards the end of the century, Sverre Sigurdsson reigned the kingdom after the defeat of King Magnus Erlingsson in Nidaros. King Magnus had been supported by Archbishop Eystein Erlendsson (governed from 1161 to 1188), and because of this there were periods of conflicts between Sverre and the ecclesiastical powers. This resulted in Eystein's exile in England (1180-83) and the exile of his successor Eirik in Lund (1190-1202). For this policy, Sverre was excommunicated by the pope.

This very brief survey covers the main points about which Mister G harboured a severe misunderstanding. His own version of events follows suit.

King Sverre crossing the Voss mountains
Peter Nicolai Arbo
From Wikimedia

Norwegian history as it never happened

The underlying concern that sustained Mister G's version of Norwegian medieval history, was Norway's exceptional place in the history of Scandinavia. His first historical claim in the debate was that Norway had its own written language around 1120, "200 years before Sweden and Denmark". He went on to say that all people of knowledge - presumably about the written word - and all the writings disappeared during the Black Death.

This is, as we can see from the survey above, spectacularly wrong, and I challenged him on these points, pointing out that Norway shared a written language with the rest of Scandinavia, and that we had a Latin literature. I did not, however, press him on the particularism evident in his remark that Norway was two centuries ahead of our neighbouring countries.

His reply to my comment on the written language, was a slight but very minute modification of his claim. He said that "it was beyond doubt" that Norway had its own written language c.1150, and he added that this "was many years before Sweden and Denmark". The support for this claim was that under the reign of Sverre Norway parted ways with the Catholic church and its Latin mass. Instead, we "went over to" the English church which unlike the Catholic one held mass in the vernacular. He went on to say that this was a process that had been going on since 1066 when King Olav Kyrre made an agreement with William the Conqueror not to attack England. The impossibility of this agreement can be seen in the fact that Olav Kyrre became king in 1069. However, this impossible agreement resulted over hundred years later - if I understand his timeline correctly - that Norway joined the English church. He furthermore said that this was something Sweden and Denmark did not like to hear about after having ruled over Norway in various periods, and the underlying claim seems to be that Sweden and Denmark are envious of Norway's ecclesiastical liberation from Rome at a time when they themselves were still Catholic.

So, in short: In the 1100s, Norway got its own written language, and this took place two hundred years before Sweden and Denmark. By the end of the century, Norway split with the Catholic church and went to the English instead, as a result of a process that had been going on since 1066, following an agreement between William the Conqueror and a king who would not be king for three years. This particular position was something of which both Sweden and Denmark are very envious.

The Battle of Stamford Bridge by Peter Nicolai Arbo
Three years before Olav Kyrre became king of Norway
From Wikimedia

There is very much at play here. The most glaring issue is perhaps the repeated insistence on Norwegian particularism, that our history is so widely different - and even centuries ahead - to the histories of Denmark and Sweden. This is an idea that burgeons from a deep-rooted current of historical interpretation in Norway, and it comes from the fact that for centuries - ever since 1397 - Norway has been ruled by kings from Sweden or Denmark. This lack of historical independence put its mark on Norwegian historiography in the 19th century. This was a century during most of which we were governed by the Swedish king after having been handed over from Denmark in 1814 following the outcome of the Napoleonic wars. Norway's secondary role in the politics of the kingdom led some historians to seek comfort in the past, and the perhaps most spectacular result of this was the claim by Ernst Sars that Sweden and Denmark had been populated from Norway in prehistoric times. Mister G draws from this ideological current in his insistence on Norway's exceptional role in the twelfth century, and although the political milieu that gave force to this current in the 1800s now is gone, Mister G is swayed by the very same little-brother-complex that haunted some of Norway's historians in the 19th century.

There is also another current feeding the ideas of Mister G, namely the Protestant distaste of anything that smacks of Papism. After Norway's reformation in 1536/37, Norwegian Lutherans eventually adopted the historical interpretation moulded and sustained by Protestant anti-papist propaganda. This interpretation of history was very strong and ubiquitous in Protestant countries, and perhaps most accessibly found in the great English epics of Edmund Spenser and John Milton. This current remained strong through centuries, and in the first draft of the Norwegian constitution in 1814, Jesuits were, along with the Jews, denied access to the kingdom. These restrictions were revoked later, and from the 1860s and onwards Catholic missionary work no longer needed to be clandestine, resulting in the first modern Catholic churches to be built at the turn of the 19th century. Nonetheless, despite the gradual acceptance of Catholics, the historical understanding on which Mister G relies has marked Catholicism as something negative. This is why Mister G is so adamant in his insistence on Norway not being Catholic after the twelfth century, and which is why he claims Sweden and Denmark appears to be ashamed of their prolonged Catholic past. 

Håkon the Good and the farmers at the yuletide offerings at Mære
Peter Nicolai Arbo
From Wikimedia

The Cost of Historical Blindness

In the grand scheme of things, Mister G's excessively erroneous interpretation of Norwegian history is fairly innocuous. His belief in Norwegian particularism is unlikely to cause harm to anyone, and it has not found a violent incarnation in him. However, the belief itself is thoroughly disturbing and potentially damaging if it is adopted by younger people, or people who exert some kind of influence in political or social matters. I don't for a second believe that it will have nationwide ramifications on a grand scale, the Norwegian public consciousness is too tolerant for that to happen. But it might instil in some people a sense of entitlement, a sense of pride that can lead them on to a path towards increased nationalism and make them dismiss the needs of those from other countries. In a globalised world where millions of people are in dire need of help, and where Western countries have a moral duty to receive refugees, it is necessary to counter ideas of particularism and to fight chauvinism that might prevent people from obtaining a life in safety on the grounds that they don't belong to a country's particular, exceptional historical journey towards the fulfillment of its destiny. The kind of historical misunderstanding embraced by Mister G, is the same kind of historical interpretation that creates a gap between one country and the rest of the world, and in a time of perverse consumerism and increased selfishness throughout the west, we can't morally afford that kind of particularism. No country is alone in the world, and a historical understanding that leads people to think this is the case, is a historical understanding that must be challenged, countered and falsified.