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

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.