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

lørdag 28. desember 2019

Saint Thomas of Canterbury in Skive Church

Today is the feast of Saint Thomas of Canterbury, more commonly known as Thomas Becket, who was killed in Canterbury Cathedral on this day in 1170. The murder of the archbishop at the hand of knights in King Henry II's retinue was a scandal in its time, and even though the English king had not himself ordered the death of Thomas, he was widely blamed for the deed, especially in ecclesiastical circles.

The cult of Thomas spread quickly throughout Latin Christendom. This was in large part due to the network of ecclesiastical figures to which Thomas had belonged, and that shared his reformist views on the relationship between royal and ecclesiastical power that marked the political map of the twelfth century. The key figure in this network was Pope Alexander III (r.1159-81) who had supported Thomas' cause during the archbishop's exile in France from 1164 to 1170. It was Alexander who canonised Thomas in 1173.

Other important reformist figures were the Norwegian archbishop Eystein Erlendsson (r.1157-88) who is largely credited with bringing the cult of Thomas to Norway (see this blogpost), and the Danish archbishop Eskil Christiernson, or Eskil of Lund, who is considered to be responsible for bringing the cult of Thomas to Denmark, in no small part through the Cistercian order to whom both Eskil and Thomas were close. 

The cult of Thomas in medieval Denmark is still a subject that requires more work, and I hope to be able to contribute to this scholarly lacuna in the coming year. As a way to remind myself of the work to be done, I'm sharing with you one late medieval example of the veneration of Thomas in Denmark, namely a wall-painting from Skive Church in Northern Jutland.

Tomae de Cantuarienus [sic]
Wall-painting from Skive Church, Northern Jutland, c.1500

The example in question comes from the Church of Our Lady in the town of Skive in Northern Jutland. The church was built around 1200, and it is commonly known as Skive Old Church to distinguish it from the eighteenth-century church situated nearby, and which appears to be the hub of today's religious life in Skive.

The early history of Skive is uncertain, and the current scholarly consensus is that the town was most likely established around 1100. Its status as a market town - i.e. a town with particular mercantile privileges - was confirmed in a letter from 1326 (see this website), but the status might have been achieved earlier. Judging from the Church of Our Lady, Skive appears to have been an important town by the turn of the twelfth century, and its importance can be explained or measured by three main factors. First of all, Skive lies very close to Viborg, the episcopal see of Central Jutland which was established c.1060 and thus one of the main power centres in the area. Secondly, a royal manor, Skivegård, is mentioned in the survey of King Valdemar II (r.1201-41), the so-called Liber Census Daniae (see here), and points to the town's vicinity to royal power in addition to the episcopal power at Viborg. The third factor is the fish trade which is likely to have brought a lot of money to the town's wealthier inhabitants. These three factors must all be taken into account as possible explanations for the erection of the Church of Our Lady around 1200.

Vor Frue Kirke, Skive

Vor Frue Kirke, Skive, interior, towards the main altar

In the nineteenth century, the Church of Our Lady was about to be demolished, which was the fate of several redundant churches in Denmark at the time. Fortunately, an impressive programme of late medieval wall paintings was discovered in time, and the church was preserved. It is in this programme that we find the aforementioned late medieval depiction of Thomas of Canterbury. 

The interior of Skive Church is filled with a vast array of saints. These saints were painted c.1500, and it is thought that the workshop that executed these paintings was the same, or was at least connected to, the workshop that decorated Roskilde Cathedral (see here, and here). Among these many saints we find Thomas of Canterbury, situated in the vaulted roof between Peter Martyr of Verona (d.1252) and Sebastian. The question then is how we are to understand this as an expression of veneration of Thomas.

The painting of Thomas of Canterbury in Skive is interesting, both because it is one of very few known medieval Danish depictions of him, and also because of its wider pictorial context. Thomas is here one of many saints. On the one hand, these wall-paintings were commissioned by local donors who might have given very specific instructions about which saints to include. It is therefore tempting to see the inclusion of Thomas in light of the wider history of his cult in medieval Denmark. 

On the other hand, we might understand this as just an expression of his general popularity in Latin Christendom at the time. The saints of Skive Church are for the most part universally venerated in the Latin Church and by the time of the programme's execution these universal saints had been venerated for a very long time. Even the youngest of the saints included, Peter Martyr and Roch (whose traditional, but not uncontested, year of death is 1327), became widely celebrated within a relatively short timespan and are therefore unsurprising to see among more veteran saints. Even those saints that are not universally venerated outside the Nordic countries are nonetheless of regional importance, such as Knud Rex (d.1086) and Knud Dux (d.1131) whose cults were established throughout all of Denmark, and Saint Olaf of Norway (d.1030) whose cult was immensely popular throughout the Nordic world. The inclusion of Thomas in this saintly collegium is, therefore, a testament to the contemporary trends within the cult of saints, rather than a stage in a continuum in the veneration of Saint Thomas in medieval Denmark.

Even so, while the depiction of Thomas in Skive Church might not yield much information about his Danish cult, it nonetheless provides evidence of the endurance of his cult in Latin Christendom, and we see both that he was one of the trendy saints even in Northern Europe around 1500, and that he was one of the many ways in which the donors of Skive's wall-paintings sought to express their participation in the religious trends of Latin Christendom.

Similar blogposts

Saint Olaf in medieval Denmark

Thomas of Canterbury in medieval Norway

On the early cult of Thomas of Canterbury

A song for Thomas of Canterbury

Martin of Tours in Skive Church

fredag 27. desember 2019

The chalice of John the Evangelist

Today is the feast of John the Evangelist, and for this occasion I decided to dig deep in my archives in search of a memory from when I was an MA student and spent quite a lot of time in York. I was reminded of the many beautiful pieces of surviving medieval stained glass in the city's many churches, and I had some hazy recollections of John the Evangelist featuring in some of them. In particular, I was convinced that the Church of St Denys on Walmgate had at least one memorable depiction of John, and it turned out that I was right, in a fashion. The images I found were not quite what I had envisioned, but what I found was well worth sharing, especially because one of the images teaches a very good lesson about the importance of iconography. But I'm getting ahead of myself. 

John the Evangelist, holding his attribute, the eagle

The above picture was one I had forgotten, but which shows one of the typical representations of John: A young, beardless man holding the eagle, his attribute which points back to the tetramorph of the vision of Ezekiel. In his other hand he holds what looks like the palm leaf, commonly attributed to martyrs, which is puzzling considering that John was not martyred but rather died of old age. It is possible that it is a lily signifying his virginity, but this is uncertain. The glass is fourteenth century. 

Saint Denys

Saint Denys, tower and repaired Norman doorway

The Church of Saint Denys is a treasure trove of medieval vestiges pointing to its long history. The doorway beside the tower, for instance, points to its early twelfth-century origin, as it is a Romanesque Norman arch with mason work typical of the period. Although the stonework and the gateway itself is, to the best of my judgement, original, its placement is a result of the continuous changes of the medieval church space. The main church building with its central nave and two flanking aisles dates from the fourteenth and fifteenth century, the period when the oldest surviving stained glass windows were constructed. The nave was badly damaged during the English Civil War, presumably in particular during the Siege of York in 1644, and therefore significantly shorter and more quadratic than it was originally. Consequently, while the Norman doorway once was the main entrance into the nave, it presently stands in its rebuilt form as a side entrance. 

Saint Denys, interior

Because the church has undergone many accidents and tumultuous changes in the course of its long history, a lot of what survives today is not in its original place - as demonstrated by the case of the Norman doorway. This is particularly evident in much of the stained glass. Some of the figures remain in their original positions, either by being put back in place or simply by serendipitously surviving the many changes in the subsequent centuries. Much of the medieval glass, however, survives only in fragments. These fragments have been put into whichever empty lead frame that fit them, resulting in an incongruous mix of displaced details that together provide an imperfect but powerful glimpse of the once complete programme of stories, episodes and figures that filtered the light for the churchgoers in the late Middle Ages. To the medievalist, these assemblages of fragments provide a veritable treasure hunt by which a picture, a narrative or a figure might be teased out from the chaos. One of these figures is John the Evangelist. 

In the picture above we see some of the many details that once were part of complete stories in glass. We see trumpeters that might hint at a doomsday window since the gonfanon is decorated by horned devils and ominous black birds that could be owls. We see the crowned head of the crucified Christ that might have been a free-standing crucifix or part of a larger crucifixion scene. And we see a chalice with a serpent. This chalice is the chalice of John the Evangelist, and can be found in a story recounted by Jacobus de Voragine in Legenda Aurea. According to this story, John was given a cup of poisoned wine by a pagan priest, but John drank the wine and survived, thus proving the power of God.

What is particular interesting about this disembodied attribute is exactly that it is recognisable even outside its original context. Once this stained glass fragment flanked a figure of John the Evangelist and reminded the onlookers of the story of the poisoned wine, which the priest might have recounted in sermons on precisely this day, December 27. They would have been reminded of this story whenever they went to church, looked up and saw this chalice and the now-lost figure of the evangelist. And even now, centuries later, with the figure of John irretrievably lost to the accidents of history, this single chalice, displaced from its original context, is still identifiable precisely because the stories survive, and precisely because the stained glass is a reminder of that stories, a shorthand for a larger narrative. In this way, fragments of a now-lost vitreous splendour is sufficient for us to, at least mentally, piece together what was once a familiar sight to the parishioners of Saint Denys, Walmgate, York.

torsdag 19. desember 2019

New publication: Life and Cult of Cnut the Holy - The first royal saint of Denmark

In November 2017 I attended the seminar Life and Cult of Cnut the Holy, arranged in collaboration between the research group Centrum at Odense Bys Museer (Odense City Museums), senior researcher Anne Hedeager Krag, and the University of Southern Denmark (my then employer). This seminar had grown out of recent archaeological excavations in Odense that had begun in 2015. These excavations had shed new and much needed light on the city's medieval past, and the wealth of new information allowed for a reappraisal on several aspects of Odense's history. The seminar was centred on Knud Svendsson, king of Denmark, who reigned from 1080 until his death in Odense in 1086 following a kingdom-wide rebellion, and who was declared a saint at an synod of Danish bishops in 1095. The seminar brought together a range of experts from many different background and from several disciplines, and the papers dealt with aspects of Danish medieval history as well as comparative cases from other parts of Latin Christendom. 

The proceedings from this seminar is now finally available as an open access e-book, downloadable from this address:

The volume, Life and Cult of Cnut the Holy - The first royal saint of Denmark, is co-edited by Mikael Manøe Bjerregaard, Mads Runge, Anne Hedeager Krag and myself, and it is published by Odense Bys Museers as volume 4 in the series Archaeological and Historical Studies in Centrality.

lørdag 7. desember 2019

Sanctity in Milan, part 5 - Nabor and Felix

Victor Nabor Felix pii
Mediolani martyres
- Ambrosius, Hymn 10

Today, December 7, is the feast-day of Ambrose (d.397), bishop of Milan. At this time, Milan was one of the most important cities in the western part of the Roman Empire, along with Trier and Ravenna, while Rome was predominantly important as the symbolic heart of the empire, and as a bishopric. This was also a period where the bishops had become increasingly important political figures, as the old aristocracy had in many cases left the city for their villas and manors, and as the emperor was often preoccupied with military threats from the Sasanians in the East and the Germanic and Slavic tribes along the northern border. This situation would continue into the fifth century. Aside from the problems coming from outside of the empire, the stability within the empire was also shaken by the rivalries between Catholic and Arian factions. Such rivalries also bled into the political sphere, since both camps could count important political figures among their members. In an important imperial city as Milan, this was particularly destabilising because both factions were more numerous there than elsewhere, and because there was still a considerable pagan faction. Ambrose was actively involved in these controversies, and much of his writing and much of his work as bishop must be understood in light of this religio-political context. And it is the backdrop of the present blogpost.

Despite its opening paragraph, this blogpost is not primarily about Ambrose but about two saints that were important to him, namely Nabor and Felix. According to their legend, they were soldiers serving in the Roman army at the beginning of the fourth century, while Maximian was co-augustus of the western part of the empire, and while Diocletian was the main augustus. As Christians, Nabor and Felix were among the victims of the Diocletian persecution, and they were martyred in Milan, the traditional year of their death being set to 304. Nabor and Felix were then venerated as saints in Milan, and by the time Ambrose had accepted the position as bishop, the two soldier-saints were an established part of the tapestry of Catholic religion in the city. Accordingly, Ambrose actively supported and expanded their cult, and he even wrote a hymn in their honour, the opening part of which serves as this blogpost's epigraph. This hymn is the foundation for what I want to talk about here.

The hymn in honour of Nabor and Felix begins with a greeting to the saints, which also provides the main biographical details provided by their story. The first verse runs accordingly:

Victor Nabor Felix pii
Mediolani martyres,
solo hospites, Mauri genus
terrisque nostris aduenae

Victory, pious Nabor and Felix,
martyrs of Milan,
lonely guests of the land of the Mauritanian people
and you came to us

(The translation is open to other renditions; "Victor" might be a third saint excluded in later renditions of the legend.)

Nabor and Felix 
Avignon - BM - ms. 0136, f.254v, Roman missal, c.1370, Bologna 
(Courtesy of

The biographical information provided in the beginning serves, as I have argued elsewhere, to demonstrate to the saints that the singer of the hymn is familiar with the saints and therefore worthy of receiving their help. What I want to emphasise in this biographical information is the fact that Ambrose addresses Nabor and Felix as being from the land of the Mauretanian people. This means the Roman province of Mauretania, and not the modern country. (I use "Mauretanian people rather than the outdated and problematic "Moor".) This trait of soldier-saints originating in Africa is a common feature of several saints' legends, most famously that of Saint Mauritius and the Theban legion, who have provided patron saints for countless religious houses, villages and cities throughout the Alps.

Ambrose states that Nabor and Felix were guests in the land of the Milanese, thus emphasising their origin in a different part of the world from the foothills of the Alps. Yet they are also Milanese martyrs, and by their death in that very city, it is in that city they reside as saints and it is there that they perform their patronage. They are foreigners becoming Milanese, they are Mauritanian and Milanese at one and the same time.

There are two main points I want to make here. First of all, we see in the legend of Nabor and Felix yet another example of the multicultural world of Late Antiquity, where people from all over the Roman Empire moved and were moved throughout its breadth and width. This multicultural world is accessible through a variety of sources, and the cult of saints is a particularly good one. Secondly, Ambrose was a participant in this multicultural world, and to him there was no contradiction in coming as a stranger from the Mauritanian people and becoming a saint for the Milanese. They were Christian martyrs who had a special bond with the city of Milan, and accordingly he was their venerator, and so were the Catholics of Milan.

To Ambrose, Nabor and Felix were important parts of the Catholic civic identity that he sought to strengthen throughout his tenure as bishop, in part as a bulwark against Arianism. As a part of this construction of a Milanese Catholic civic identity, Ambrose composed hymns and established the liturgical standard known as the Ambrosian liturgy, and he also promoted the cults of other saints. And it should be mentioned that although Nabor and Felix were undoubtedly Milanese, they were not natives to the city, and so Ambrose sought to establish cults of native saints as well. This quest would eventually result in the suspiciously fortuitous discovery of the skeletons of SS Gervasius and Protasius, which I have written about here. Ambrose's biographer, Paulinus, also records the finding of another pair of saints, Nazarius and Celsus, about whom I have written here. This shows that despite venerating the two Mauretanian Milanese, he also sought to provide the city with saints who were born in it - possibly as a way to emphasise the Catholic nature of Milan as a counter-argument to the Arian faction.   

Chambéry - BM - ms. 0004, f.535v, Franciscan breviary, Milan, c.1430 
(Courtesy of

Nabor and Felix, likely drawn from an illuminator's generic model rather than the legend
Chambéry - BM - ms. 0004, f.535v, Franciscan breviary, Milan, c.1430 
(Courtesy of

Nabor and Felix remained important to Milan, and their importance spread elsewhere too. Frederick Barbarossa brought their relics back to Köln when he had sacked Milan, while a monastery in Bologna was named after the two Mauretanian Milanese, a monastery in which the jurist Gratian was a monk. So in addition to their importance in Milan, Nabor and Felix also were important in other parts of Christendom, but that is a story to which I might return some other day.

For similar blogposts, see:

Gervasius and Protasius

Nazarius and Celsus

Thomas of Canterbury in Chiaravalle

Bartholomew in Il Duomo

fredag 29. november 2019

O magnum mysterium, by Tomás Luis de Victoria

This weekend sees the end of November and the beginning of Advent, and as a way to mark this transition, I present to you, in this brief blogpost, the responsorial chant O magnum mysterium, as it was arranged by the Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria (c.1548-1611).

onsdag 20. november 2019

Saint Edmund's sketchy wolf - a doodle in a twelfth-century English manuscript

Today is the feast of Saint Edmund Martyr (d.869/70), one of the saints about whom I have done the most research as a professional academic, and about whom I have written several blogposts already. (See for instance here, here, here, here, and here.) In this blogpost, I wish to present to you an encounter I had while researching the cult of Edmund for my PhD, namely a little doodle of an animal head in the margin of a twelfth-century manuscript.

Edmund's wolf?

The manuscript in question is the sumptuous Pierpont Morgan MS 736, currently held in New York but originally produced at the abbey of Bury St Edmunds in the period 1125-30. Among other things, the manuscript contains materials for the liturgical celebration for Edmund's feast, and for my thesis I was researching how this liturgical material presented the martyred king. Since the liturgical office of the manuscript is not edited I was dependent on the manuscript itself, and fortunately I was sent a file of a black and white scan of the relevant section of the manuscript from the librarians at Pierpont Morgan, a kindness that spared me much time and money. (You can get a high-quality scan of a manuscript page for 100 dollars.) This is also why the above picture is the way it is, it's a photograph of a scan.

In the summer of 2015, I taught myself how to transcribe twelfth-century script by using the scans of this manuscript, an exhilarating two-week endeavour that I have written about here. It was a very exciting exercise, especially because the script is relatively easy to read and the manuscript is clearly a product intended to be of the highest quality, something to which the spectacular illuminations readily attest. But precisely because of this high-class nature of the manuscript, it was all the more surprising and delightful to encounter this doodle of an animal head in the margin.

To this day, I am still not certain how to understand this doodle, and to my knowledge there have been offered no suggestions from the Pierpont Morgan library as to what it may mean. It is not included in their selection of publicly available images from the manuscript, and I have not seen it mentioned anywhere in the academic literature. I will therefore attempt an interpretation here.

The wolf guarding Edmund's head
Pierpont Morgan MS 736, f.16r

The wolf itself is an element from the legend as it was written down by Abbo of Fleury in Passio Sancti Eadmundi in the late 980s. When Edmund has been killed by decapitation, the Danes take the head with them into the woods and discard it there in order to prevent the locals from venerating the dead king. One local, however, observes what goes on, so when the Danes have left the area the locals all go into the woods in search of  Edmund's head. They find it when the head itself start calling out "her, her, her", i.e. "here, here, here", and when the locals approach the head they find that it is guarded by a wolf. Abbo of Fleury compares this wolf to the lions who did not touch Daniel in the den. The wolf then follows the people back to Beodricsworth, the later Bury St Edmunds, and when he sees that the head is cared for properly he disappears. This wolf has become one of the main signifiers of the legend of Edmund in later medieval art.

The animal head doodled in the margin of Pierpont Morgan MS 736 is placed right next to the opening of the eighth lesson of the liturgical office. This lesson is itself opened by a beautiful and rich illuminated initial, an S that contains a griffin and a lion. The lesson begins with the details of Edmund's death on twelfth kalends of December, i.e. November 20, and continues on the next folio with a description of how the text is brought into the woods. The wolf itself does not appear until lesson 9, four folios later, an appearance that itself is heralded by an initial that depicts the wolf guarding the severed head.

But I consider it nonetheless to be possible that the animal head on folio 187 might be intended to signify the wolf of the legend. Granted, it appears a bit early in the story, and, granted, it is not of a clearly lupine shape. Yet it invokes the image of a monk at Bury, at any point between around 1130 and the abbey's dissolution, who perhaps excitedly, perhaps in boredom, remembers the wolf as his reading eyes arrive at the lesson beginning with the aftermath of Edmund's decapitation. He knows the story from before, he has heard it read aloud on previous feast days, he has himself most likely sung this story by way of the liturgical chants also included in the manuscript, chants like the responsory immediately preceding the lesson in question. And this rememberance seems to have spurred him on to make this doodle. 

We will never know who the monk was who made this doodle. We will never be able to say with certainty whether it is indeed a representation of the wolf, or whether it is an image more or less divorced from the story unfolding on the vellum. But it does remind us that this manuscript, sumptuous though it be, was a manuscript in use. It was read, and readers engaged with it in different ways, one of which being this little drawing that remains a delightful and perpetual mystery.

tirsdag 19. november 2019

The vigil of Saint Edmund Martyr

Preuenientes festum ueneremur eadmundum et in eo adoremus regem regum

The feast of Edmund is arriving, let us venerate and in him we adore the king of kings
- Invitatory antiphon from the office of the vigil of Edmund Martyr (my translation)

Today is the vigil of the feast of Edmund Martyr, one of the most popular native saints of medieval England, and one of the saints about whom I wrote my PhD thesis. Due to my abiding interest in Edmund and his cult, I have written about him several times on this blog, and accordingly I will not go into great detail about his story, at least not the entire story. (For older blogposts about Edmund, see here, here, here, and here.) But since I have not yet written in detail about his vigil, I will say a little bit about it here. 

The vigilant Edmund Martyr

The vigil of a feast is the day before the feast itself, and serves as a precursor or a preparation for the main celebration of the saint. As Edmund's feast falls on November 20, the vigil is celebrated the day before. However, it is important to keep in mind that due to the daily cycle of liturgical services, it is easy to get confused about when a celebration actually begins. Any feast in the liturgical calendar begins with the hour of Vesper, which corresponds roughly with our six in the afternoon, though seasonal differences apply. This is the first of three big services in which the saint of the day is commemorated through chants and readings. In the case of Edmund, the most important celebration of his feast was held at his shrine at Bury St Edmunds, and the chants and readings were performed by the monks of the abbey.

As stated, there are three big services in the course of the daily liturgical round: Vesper (ca 18.00), Matins (ca 03.00) and Lauds (ca 06.00). The most important of these is Matins, during which the main part of the liturgical office is performed, and when most of the texts are read. However, since the feast begins with Vesper and Vesper is in the afternoon, this means that the office for the main feast of Edmund begins around six in the afternoon on November 19. This means, in turn, that the office for the vigil of Edmund begins around six in the afternoon on November 18, and the apex of the vigil is at around three in the morning of November 19.

The vigil is, as mentioned, a precursor to the main feast. This means that only the most important feast days were celebrated with their own office for the vigil, as well as for the main feast. For minor feast days, a brief acknowledgement of the vigil was sufficient. But Edmund's feast day was widely celebrated throughout England, and at Bury St Edmunds this was one of the most important liturgical days of the year, outranked only by the feasts commemorating the main events of the life of Christ, such as Resurrection Sunday. Consequently, we do possess a manuscript evidence to the office of the vigil as it was celebrated by the monks at Bury, and it contains the chants and the readings that were performed at Vesper, Matins and Lauds of the vigil. This is a significant testament to the importance of Edmund.

Edmund crowned as martyr in Heaven

The office for the vigil of Saint Edmund is transmitted in a lavish manuscript from Bury that was produced in the period 1125-30. The manuscript, Pierpont Morgan MS 736, contains not only the office for the vigil and for the main feast, but also Passio Sancti Eadmundi by Abbo of Fleury (the first vita of the martyr) and a collection of miracle stories associated with Edmund.

A liturgical office for a major feast day at a monastic community is an expansive affair. The service of Matins, for instance, consists of the performance of twelve psalms, each with their own antiphon recounting something from the saint's story, the reading of twelve lessons taken from the saint's life, each lesson being followed by its own chant recounting key elements of the lesson, and several other shorter liturgical pieces.

The liturgical office for the vigil of Saint Edmund, however, is not as grand. For the service of Vesper (which, as stated, begins at around six on November 18), only one chant was performed instead of the six of the main feast. For the service of Matins, the monks at Bury would sing one antiphon at the beginning (the one quoted above), then three more antiphons, and four lessons with one responsory each. Lauds consisted of four antiphons instead of the five of the main feast.

The office for the vigil that we find in Pierpont Morgan MS 736 serves, as stated, as a preparation for the main feast. Consequently, the chants and readings of this office do not recount episodes of Edmund's vita, i.e. how we was martyred. This is a story for the main feast. Instead, the monks would gather in the abbey church and listen to the readings, and themselves perform the chants, in which were told some of the miracles that God had performed in order to prove the holiness of Saint Edmund. These stories were taken from the collection of miracles gathered in the 1090s by the monk Hermannus.

For the vigil, two miracle stories were selected. One recounted how the Danish king Svend Forkbeard had oppressed the abbey with taxation and had been punished by death by Edmund himself. The other recounted how the faithful monk Aelwine had freighted Edmund's shrine on a cart to protect it from the ravages of the Danes. One day they came to a river whose bridge looked a bit too narrow for the cart, but Aelwine drove on, trusting in the aid of Saint Edmund, and the cart crossed the river with one wheel driving on the bridge, the other driving on the river itself.

The miraculous crossing of the river

These stories were important to the community of monks at Bury St Edmunds. Not only did the stories educate the monks about their patron saint whose body lay in the shrine in that selfsame church. But the stories also educated the monks about their own institution, their own abbey, about its history and about how it was protected from oppressors by the patronage of Saint Edmund and by God. Listening to these stories, and performing these stories through chants, on a set day of the year, in the very abbey featured in the stories, instilled into the monks at Bury a sense of their own institutional identity, and this was passed down from generation to generation. In this way, we see how liturgy served a didactic purpose, and at Bury St Edmunds, this didacticism was centred on the figure of Edmund himself.

As a sort of conclusion to this blogpost, and for the occasion of the vigil, I also present to you the two chants of Lauds in which the story of the river-crossing is narrated. The transcription of the Latin and the translation of the text is my own, and can be found in the appendices of my PhD thesis

Antiphon 4:

Dum peruenit sanctus et auriga eius ad aque transitum fit ibi dubium quomodo sancti gleba transierit in hreda [rheda] sed facit uirtus diuina pro sancto laudabilia

While the saint and his charioteer [4 Kings 2:12] arrived at the water-crossing, this [charioteer] became doubtful as to in what way he could cross on that turf in the wagon, but it is done by praiseworthy divine power for the saint.

Antiphon 5:

O sanctissimi meritum eadmundi per quem benedicitur filius dei cuius rote uehiculi dantes certa uestigii super flumen cucurrit dextra eque super pontem sinistra more petri calcantis equor nutu domini benedictus deus per omnia.

O merit of most holy Edmund, by whom the son of God is praised. Whose wheels produced sure tracks, the right moving over the river, just as the left did over the bridge, in the manner of Peter treading the level sea on God’s command. God is praised by all.

lørdag 16. november 2019

A decade of reading

This decade is soon over, and this has prompted a trend on Twitter that encourages people to list their accomplishments of the past ten years. In response to this, Professor Diane Watt suggested instead to make a list of things people have read in the past decade. Perhaps needless to say, I much prefer such lists, as I am often more excited about discussing books than discussing the ups and downs of my personal life - or even my professional life. I responded to this challenge on Twitter, but due to the medium's constraints I only presented a very few highlights of my own personal reading. Consequently, I am writing this blogpost as a way to expand a bit on the list, and to actually talk a bit more about the reading itself. So in the following, I'll present some of my personal highlights in the past decade of reading.

A main point I want to emphasise about the past decade is that I have become more ambitious in my reading. And I meant that in several ways. First of all, I have become more omnivorous as a reader, trying to sample a wide range of the world's available literature, and trying not to stick solely to my comfort zone. Granted, my reading is still to a great extent guided by my own personal aesthetic - there are themes, authors, genres and literary tools I prefer over others and that still constitute the majority of my book consumption. But I have increasingly come to see the value of reading books whose genres, themes or authors I might not explore in greater depth, but that at least provide me with a small window into a new world. I maintain a very firm belief that such knowledge of worlds outside your own, however small, holds a value in itself.

In this past decade I have also become more ambitious in the sense that I have gained greater confidence in my own ability to finish larger reading projects. This has drawn me out of the comfort that limited my reading in the first three years at university and plunged me into reading projects that will keep me busy for decades to come. However, this is not to say that I was unambitious before, but that previously my ambition was mostly formulated through ideas of future projects, things that I might pick up or might finish once I had become brighter, more experienced. I was waiting for some obscure moment when I would find myself ready to embark on all those projects I had jotted down on lists. But there was no such moment, and fortunately I emerged from that laziness and trusted in myself more.

Another aspect that has also presided over much of my reading in this past decade is a growing awareness of the limitations of my previous reading. This ties in with the issue of personal aesthetics that I mentioned above, but it goes in a slightly different direction. While I became more willing to go beyond my immediate preferences, I also realised that I should read more from various different voices. Those other voices were sometimes found outside my personal aesthetic, but sometimes also within it. This meant, for instance, that I began actively seeking out more texts by women. It also meant that I began exploring the literature of new countries, something to which I will return below.

I want to emphasise, however, that the following is not intended as a way of showing off. There is nothing particularly impressive about my reading or about the selection presented here. I am a slow reader, and sometimes an overly pensive reader, and it means that I probably read fewer books a year than a lot of my friends and colleagues. Rather, this is just an excuse for me to talk about some of the things I read, and I always take any excuse I can to do so, because talking books is one of my favourite things in the world.

With this as a backdrop, here are some of my personal highlights from the past decade of my reading.

The Making of Saint Louis (Cecilia Gaposchkin)

The Making of Saint Louis is an academic monograph that details the development of the cult of Saint Louis (Louis IX of France, d.1270), especially through the liturgical sources that were produced in the wake of his canonisation in 1297. The study is immensely well written and accessible, and it deals with a source material that makes for a wonderfully detailed presentation of the subject matter. I was notified of this book by my supervisor in the second year of my MA, and it became a key text for how I understood my own topic and how I framed my own questions and employed my methodology. To read this book was like entering through a succession of doors that lead you to one revelation after the other, and I am deeply indebted to this book for how I have developed as an academic. 

Don Quijote (Miguel Cervantes)

My reading of Don Quijote highlights what I mentioned above with regards to finally embarking on those projects I had left for future me to deal with. In my first year at university, 2007/08, I bought a copy of Arne Worren's Norwegian translation, and later on that year I compiled a long list of all the books I should read in the course of my lifetime. That list naturally included Don Quijote, and as I had already purchased a copy I would have been able to cross that off my list relatively soon. But something held me back. I suspect it was laziness and some vague sense of not being ready, not having done enough of the preparatory reading that would enable me to appreciate it. In 2014, however, as I was writing applications for a PhD and trying to find out what I would do next, I came to the realisation that I would probably not have as much free time for reading as I had that spring, at least not for a very long time. And so I started reading the exploits of the hidalgo of La Mancha, and I absolutely loved it. So much so that it remains my favourite novel to this day. As happy as I am to have read it, however, I am glad I waited for as long as I did. Back in 2007, I did not have the frame of reference required for understanding so many of the elements of the novel, but after my MA in medieval history I had a much greater appreciation for the playful intertextuality of Cervantes. I should also say that it took about half a year for me to get through it. I didn't read continuously, but also picked up several other books along the way, so the spring of 2014 was a good time to begin, and it also made me able to shelve Don Quijote in my mental reference library in time for my PhD.

Finishing the Aubrey/Maturin series

I first began reading Patrick O'Brian's masterful series of historical nautical novels in 2006/07 and I devoured the first thirteen or so within the first years at university. But after finishing The Far Side of the World, I left the series be for several years because I started my MA thesis, and I was worried that if I continued reading the series, I would be so consumed by the books that I would neglect the reading I would have to do for my MA. It was a tough choice to make because it is a literary world I had come to love and in which I felt at home due to Patrick O'Brian's ability to imbue his characters, even the most minor of all the characters, with a depth and humanity that makes them seem like old, and sometimes extremely detestable and annoying, acquaintances. I resumed my reading of the series in 2015, in the course of my PhD, and it turned out that I had made the right choice those five years prior, because I very quickly immersed myself in that world and did sometimes let it affect how I spent time I should have spent differently.

Reading Spanish

In senior high, when I was seventeen, I began learning Spanish. However, in my interminable stupidity, I did not keep it up and retained only a very limited vocabulary and sense of its grammar throughout my university days. When I started on my PhD, however, I became friends with several Spaniards who incentivised me to return to Spanish, and who introduced me to various aspects of the literature of Spain. Gradually I improved my skills in the language, and I began reading the albums of Mortadelo y Filemón, one of the great classics of Spanish comics. Most of the titles from the Spanish-speaking world, however, I read in translation, because I did not trust my own level of Spanish to be sufficient for such endeavours. But eventually I became more ambitious, and the great breakthrough came in 2018 when I read the poetry collection Salamandra by Octavio Paz. This was the first Spanish text, aside from the comics, that I had read primarily in Spanish, only using translations for checking unfamiliar words, and it felt like a great victory. It taught me that with some patience and a good dictionary I am able to get to grips with longer texts in Spanish, and it enabled me to read texts from new countries, texts unavailable in translation into English or Norwegian, such as the achingly beautiful poems of Uruguayan poet Juana de Ibarbourou.

Utopian literature/hollow earth fiction

For reasons I do not quite understand, I found myself drawn to Utopian novels in the course of my PhD. Perhaps as a sort of misguided escapism - misguided because Utopian societies serve mainly to emphasise the prejudices of their creators rather than instilling any sense of humanity's potential into the reader. I suspect it began with Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth (in William Butcher's translation), which presented a number of threads that in turn led me to other works of hollow earth fiction, a genre that is in its genesis connected to Utopian literature. This is perhaps most clearly seen in my personal favourite of these storiers, namely Niels Klims reise til den underjordiske verden (Niels Klim's Journey Under Ground) by Danish-Norwegian writer Ludvig Holberg. The novel was written in Latin and published in 1741, and I read the Norwegian translation by Kjell Heggelund. The novel describes a fantastical world on a planet in the centre of the earth, and in the novel Holberg outlines his ideal society with a learning and humour that makes for a very entertaining read. And it also provides excellent reasons for why we should have complete gender equality in our society, an issue that is still unresolved in our own time.

The Dark is Rising Sequence (Susan Cooper)

When I finished my PhD in the autumn of 2017, I began a voracious reading regimen to properly celebrate that what I had worked on for three years was now done and I could change my pace and let my mind breathe, as it were. One of the books I started reading that autumn was Over Sea, Under Stone, the first book in Susan Cooper's fantastic series of children's novels collectively known as The Dark is Rising Sequence. I read the first book when I was back in Norway on a short holiday in October, a reward to myself for finishing the thesis, and the second book I read during Christmas, and so it continued until I had read them all. It was a series that resonated with me as a medievalist who has been dealing a lot with English history, and it provided me with a literary world that I could easily immerse myself into.

Travelling the world through books

As a final instalment in this verbose yet restrained list, I will include another example of my increased ambition as a reader. This also began in the autumn of 2017 when I had finished my PhD. After having had my head in the Middle Ages for the better part of the past three years, I decided I needed to do something different, to start expanding my literary horizon. The solution became a project that was inspired by British journalist Ann Morgan, who in 2012 set out to read one novel from every country of the world, detailed in her blog A year of reading the world. This prompted me to try something similar, albeit far less ambitious. I decided that I should read one book - be it poetry, drama, short fiction, novels or non-fiction - from every country of the world. Unlike Morgan, I have not set the start for this list in 2017, so I those countries I have already read will not have to be read again for the sake of the list. Two years into this project, I am only at 88 countries and so not even half way. But in the course of this project I have encountered a lot of wonderful stories and learned a lot about a myriad of countries and cultures that have given me a much greater appreciation of the literary depth of the world. This is also a case where I have been guided by my intention to read more women's voices, and, consequently, when selecting a book that will represent a new country, I usually select one by a woman. I have come to believe that women often give a more thorough representation of their societies than men do.

When I started this project I had access to the interlibrary loan system of the University of Southern Denmark, so this allowed me to seek out books from very distant corners of the world. Among the highlights of the project so far are Colonised People by Grace Mera Molisa (Vanuatu), The Land Without Shadows by Abdourahman Waberi, translated by Jeanne Garane (Djibouti), The fortunes of Wangrin by Amadou Hampaté Bâ, translated by Aina Pavolini Taylor (Mali), and Aibebelau by Ucheliou (Palau).

These are just some of the many aspects of my personal reading this past decade. And as the decade dies and a new is on its way, I'm looking forward to what new books I will be reading in the next ten years.

torsdag 31. oktober 2019

A Danish hell

Halloween is approaching, and even though I - as a Norwegian having grown up in the late '80s and early '90s - have no proper emotional connection to this season, I nonetheless appreciate how many of my fellow medievalists take the opportunity to share medieval depictions of the horrible and uncanny. So as an excuse to share this image, I present to you in this season of horror a heavily restored early sixteenth-century hellmouth from Sanderum Church near Odense in Denmark, one of the many masterful and wondrous details of this church interior.

mandag 28. oktober 2019

An autumnal view

This term I'm working in Växjö, Sweden, my first residence in Sweden and my first encounter with the Swedish autumn. There is much that resembles home, save for the notable absence of mountains, and I have been very fortunate in that my apartment has a balcony with a vista showcasing some of the beautiful colours of the season. While the temperatures usually do not allow me to enjoy this balcony as much as I would do in the summer, it nonetheless allows me some wonderful sights, such as the one in the picture below, which is a very good representation of my first Swedish autumn.

lørdag 26. oktober 2019

Panteísmo - a poem by Juana de Ibarbourou

This autumn I happened to become acquainted with the poetry of Uruguayan poet Juana de Ibarbourou (1895-1979). It was all a matter of chance, and it does not in any way speak of a great knowledge on my part of the poetry of Latin America. I was simply looking through a list of poets from Uruguay that my current university would have access to in its inter-library loan system, and this was part of my ongoing quest to read one book from every country in the world (a quest inspired by the project A year of reading the world by journalist Ann Morgan).

The Swedish university libraries do not carry a lot of Uruguayan poetry, and most of what is available has been produced by male poets. In general, I try my best to read works by women when entering into the literary heritage of a country that to me is new and largely unknown. I was therefore lucky to get my hands on a volume containing two of her collections, which I have been reading for the past two months.

In the course of my reading, I found that her verses struck a chord with me. Juana de Ibarbourou wrote about encounters with the natural world, about the kinship with forests, fields and countryside that resonated with my own upbringing in a rural district of the Norwegian fjords. And I was struck by how much of what she conveyed through her intense verses, depicting an antipodean world which I have never visited, easily translated into familiar vistas of my home tucked away somewhere in the Northern hemisphere. I became enamoured of her verses, and I kept reading until there was nothing more to be read in that volume I had borrowed.

At present, I do not know whether Juana de Ibarbourou's poetry is accessible in English translations, and whether they are accessible in complete editions of her collections. But in this blogpost, I present a preliminary translation of one of her poems that particularly caught my attention, and this is an attempt partly to improve my own Spanish through translation, and partly to present a sample of Juana de Ibarbourou's poetry to new readers. The poem in question is a sonnet from her collection Las lenguas de diamante (The tongues of diamond), published in 1919.


Siento un acre placer en tenderme en la tierra,
Con el sol matutino tibio como una cama.
Bajo mi cuerpo, ¡cuánta vida su vientre encierra! 
¡Quién sabe qué diamante esconde aquí su llama!

¡Quién sabe qué tesoro, dentro de una mirada,
Surgirá de este mismo lugar done reposo,
Si será el oro vivo de una era sembrada,
O la viva esmeralda de algún árbol frondoso!

¡Quien sabe qué estupenda y dorada simiente 
Ha de brotar ahora bajo mi cuerpo ardiente!
Futuro pebetero que espacerá a los vientos,

En las noches de estío, claras y rumurosas,
El calor de mi carne hecho aroma de rosas,
Fraganica de azucenas y olor de pensamientos.


I feel a bitter pleasure in lying down on the earth
With the morning sun warm as a bed.
Underneath my body, how much life is enclosed in its entrails!
Who knows what diamond hides here its flame!

Who knows what treasure, within a myriad,
Will rise up from this same spot where I now rest,
Whether it will be the living gold sown in a bygone age
Or the living emerald of a leafy tree!

Who knows what stupendous and golden seed
Is now sprouting beneath my burning body!
A future thurible that will spread to the winds

In the clear and noisy summer nights,
The heat of my flesh now given the scent of roses,
Fragrance of lilies, and the smell of thoughts.

tirsdag 8. oktober 2019

Canaan's grapes in Denmark

And speaking to them and to all the multitude, they shewed them the fruits of the land
- Numbers, 13:27

In the Book of Numbers, chapter 13, Moses sends twelve spies into Canaan, one from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, to examine the quality of the promised land. The spies return with reports of a land of abundant riches, of milk and honey, of inhabitants of immense stature, and as proof they bring with them a cluster of grapes so large that two men have to carry the grapes between them.

In Christian art of the Middle Ages, the enormous cluster of grapes became a symbol of the bounty of God that the faithful eventually will receive. The scene of the two men carrying their burden of promise became an element of the pictorial narratives with which churches were often decorated in medieval Christendom. Consequently, this scene became part of a universal visual code that allowed men and women of all estates of any society of Latin Christendom to absorb Biblical history, and in this way people of Scandinavia, of Spain, of Dalmatia, of Germany could access the same iconography. In this blogpost, I wish to show you two such examples from parish churches in medieval Denmark - more specifically, the island of Fyn. The two examples are not only from two different churches, but also two different centuries, thus showing the stability of this iconography in medieval Christian art. And before I commence, I wish to thank my dear friend Dr Rosa Rodríguez Porto, whose insight into medieval art was what taught me about this scene in the first place.   

From the choir of Sanderum Church

The first example of this scene comes from Sanderum Church, about which I have written briefly in a previous blogpost. The church itself was built in the latter half of the twelfth century, a time when several parish churches were built on Fyn, and which might serve as a testament to the wealth of the diocese, whose centre was Odense. The scene of the grapes can be found on the northern wall of the choir, where several scenes from the Old Testament are depicted. These scenes are from a thirteenth-century wall-painting programme that is likely to have once covered the entire interior with scenes from the Old Testament and the New Testament, and possibly also scenes from the stories of certain saints. However, the only part that remains of this thirteenth-century decoration is the northern wall of the choir. Even this part is incomplete, since rebuilding in the later Middle Ages, a time when Sanderum most likely belonged to the Bendedictine convent of nuns at Dalum Monastery, altered several parts of the structure, both of the choir and the nave. But the two men bearing that large cluster of grapes have since then been rediscovered after a long period behind white paint, and can still serve to remind us of how this episode was transmitted to the local parishioners.   

Bellinge Church

The second example is from the church of Bellinge, a church that by the first quarter of the fourteenth century definitely belonged to Dalum Monastery, and whose oldest, and now almost completely lost, structure is in the late romanesque style. The interior of this church was covered by a wall-painting programme in 1496, in which scenes from the Bible can be found along the walls of the nave, in the vaulting, and in the choir, as well as a large depiction of St George killing the dragon. The scene of the two spies returning with their bounty of grapes can be found in the second of the two vaults of the nave, and can be seen from the choir when facing towards the congregation. This means that it would not have been seen by the parishioners in the course of the service itself, though they would likely see it when looking up after receiving the Eucharist - if they did so by walking up to the altar. 

There are most likely several more depictions of this scene throughout the medieval churches of Fyn. Many of them have been lost to us, either by the application of layers of white paint, or by rebuilding that have necessitated the removal of the crucial part of the wall. I hope to see more examples of these two spies in future visits to Danish parish churches, and I shall look for them eagerly. 

søndag 29. september 2019

Saint Michael in Segovia, a modern medieval knight

In my previous blogpost I ruminated briefly on the iconography on Saint Michael the Archangel for the occasion of today being Michaelmas, and I had intended to leave it at that this year. But as I was looking through some pictures from earlier this year, I came across another depiction of Saint Michael that I encountered on a late night in Segovia just a few months ago, and this is a picture I really want to share.

Sancte Michael Archangele, defende nos in proelio
Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle
From a medieval prayer to the archangel

I was puzzled by this image, especially as it was posted on the door of a cafe in a way that made it seem that there was no clear relationship between the image and the place in which it was placed, and that this was not a part of the cafe's deliberate decor. In and of itself, the image is perhaps only to be expected in a city like Segovia, where the medieval cityscape is very well preserved, and where medieval iconography is ubiquitous. And to be sure, the image is a variation on the typical medieval representation of the archangel: A sword-wielding knight standing above his vanquished enemy, the satanic dragon. The legend arching across the upper part of the image is the opening of a liturgical chant for the feast of Michael going back to at least the ninth century (as can be seen here). He is carrying a shield that resembles that of Saint George, a common detail in Renaissance imagery, as illustrated by one of Raphael's famous paintings.

Saint Michael and the dragon
Raphael, between 1504 and 1505
Courtesy of Wikimedia

But there is one detail that strikes me as notably modern in this depiction, and which shows to me that this is a case of a modern medievalism used in representing Saint Michael as a symbol of fantasies of medieval knighthood. That detail is his armour, which is a chainmail armour covering most of his body (including his feet, from what it seems to me), partly covered by a tunic that reaches to the knee. This is a very common feature of medieval depictions of knights, including illuminations of Saint George. But it is not a typical feature of medieval depictions of Michael the Archangel. In medieval illuminations, Michael is usually wearing a kirtle or, more typically from the fourteenth century onwards, a full plate armour as in the painting by Raphael.

The monk Gelduin presents his work to Saint Michael 
Avranches - BM - ms. 0050, f.001, c.980-1000 
(Courtesy of

The final battle from BL MS Additional 11695, ff. 147v-148
Beatus of Liébana, Commentary on the Apocalypse, 10th century
(Courtesy of British Library)

Saint Michael battling the dragon 
Cambrai - BM - ms. 0528, f.198v, Homiliary, twelfth century 
(Courtesy of

A minuscule rendering of an epic battle
Cambrai - BM - ms. 0190, f.149, Epistolary, Cambrai, 1266 
(Courtesy of

In short, despite efforts, the Saint Michael I encountered in Segovia is clearly a product of the modern imagination and its imaginings of the medieval period, rather than a product of the medieval period itself, even though the iconography and the liturgical intertextuality clearly draw inspiration from the cult of Saint Michael as it was established in the medieval period. All in all, I will argue that this rendition has more in common with the Spanish comic book hero El Capitán Trueno (Captain Thunder) than with medieval renditions of the archangel.

When I encountered Saint Michael in this guise, I was intrigued as I always am when I see examples of how medieval culture inspires modern imitations. But I was also a bit perturbed, and precisely because I know that modern imitations of medieval culture are often likely to have their genesis in fantasies that champion violent nationalism. In Scandinavia, this is seen in racist appropriations of the Viking past, and in Spain the medieval past and its chivalric trappings can easily be applied to fuel sentiments of anti-Semitism and islamophobia. When seeing the modern rendition of the medieval Saint Michael, one immediate question was: Who is the speaker of the supplication in the legend, what is the battle in question, and against whom is Saint Michael to be expected? I would love to know whether this imagery is more widespread in Spain, and whether it does have the kind of troubling connotations that I fear, or whether it is simply an act of enthusiasm.

lørdag 28. september 2019

Saint Michael in Roskilde

Today, September 29, is the feast of Saint Michael the Archangel. Saint Michael is a popular figure in medieval Christian art, where he is most commonly depicted as the leader of God's army in the fight against the rebel angels. This is often portrayed as the winged Michael in battle with a dragon, and it is a scene that can be found in religious art throughout Christendom. It is likely to have inspired the iconography for several saints who have also become famous for battling dragons. This might especially be the case with Saint George, who is often rendered in a way that makes him appear as more or less a Saint Michael sans wings. This can be explained in part by George typically being depicted as an armed knight, which really emphasises his similarity with the armed general of the heavenly cohorts, Michael. The iconographies of other dragon-battling saints might also have been influenced by Saint Michael, either directly or indirectly through such imitators as Saint George. This is particularly likely in the cases of saints where the dragon has not been an instrumental part of the foundational legend. An example of this can be seen in the case of Saint Olaf of Norway, who is often shown with a dragon or dragon-like figure under his feet. Such a scene is not found Olaf's oldest narratives, and the scene is therefore more likely to have been shaped by other influences. A counterexample are scenes of such famous dragonslayers as Saint Margaret of Antioch, who emerged from the dragon after being swallowed, a scene so iconic that it is unlikely to have been inspired by Saint Michael or any more nondescript dragon slaying stories. The same goes for the legend of Saint Martha fighting the tarasque in Provence, where the iconography of a half-swallowed man's legs protruding from the beast's mouth is unlikely to have any immediate iconographical origin from outside the legend itself. I am, however, not familiar with whether there are any studies of these possible connections.   

For the feast of Michaelmas this year, I'm putting up a picture from a bench end in Roskilde Cathedral. The scene was made around the turn of the fifteenth century. 

Michael battling the dragon
Bench end from Roskilde Cathedral, c.1500