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

mandag 20. mars 2017

Little Lives - a modern hymn for Saint Cuthbert

Today, March 20, is the feast of Saint Cuthbert, bishop of Lindisfarne who died in 687, and whose body was later moved to Durham after Viking raids. Durham thus became the cult centre, and his body was ultimately translated to its present location in the Norman cathedral in 1104.

Cuthbert is the subject of many legends, and his importance and popularity have ensured him - and been ensured by - a range of biographical accounts. I hope to return to the subject of his legend in future blogposts. For the present post, however, I rather wish to present a poem of my own composition taking as its starting point one of the perhaps most beloved stories about Cuthbert in recent times. The story, recorded in a twelfth-century manuscript now in the British Library (MS Yates Thompson 26, folio 24r), tells of how Cuthbert was meditating by the sea and decided to go for a swim. When he returned, some otters came up to him and dried his feet with their warm breath. Several modern depictions of Saint Cuthbert have embraced this story.

Cuthbert and the otters, a story in three parts
MS. Yates Thompson 26, f.24r, prose life of Cuthbert, Durham, late 12th century
Courtesy of British Library

Little lives - a hymn for St. Cuthbert

After an illumination in BL MS. Yates Thompson 26, f. 24r

I thought of Cuthbert sitting by the water,
his head in Heaven and his feet on earth,
and how the little otters crept up to him
to keep him warm. He must have seen the worth
of little lives inhabiting Creation
whose time was praise for Him who gave them birth.
Perhaps he also felt this strange sensation:
that he was also small and still had worth.

- April 06 2014

søndag 19. mars 2017

Sea Grapes - a poem, and a reading, by Derek Walcott

Two days ago, on March 17 2017, Derek Walcott died in his home country Saint Lucia at the age of 87. I was deeply saddened by these unwelcome news. Derek Walcott is my favourite poet, not just in the English language but in any language. His verse has meant a great deal to me, both for my personal engagement with my own background and my own life, but also for my intellectual maturing and development.

When my head has cleared a bit from this initial sadness, I hope to put together a more coherent explanation of my relationship with Derek Walcott's verse and why I hold his poetry in such high esteem, a kind of epitaph as a tribute to a man to whom - despite his flaws - I feel indebted, and whose verse has marked my life in a way no other verse has done.

In this blogpost, however, as a kind of preface, I only wish to present one of his more famous poems, Sea Grapes, a poem which is in a way a foreshadowing of the book-length poem Omeros which he wrote in 1990, as Sea Grapes likewise presents a fusion of homeric and Caribbean imagery in an upheaval of chronology and a merging of history.

The text of the poem is taken from this website.

Sea Grapes

That sail which leans on light,
tired of islands,
a schooner beating up the Caribbean

for home, could be Odysseus,
home-bound on the Aegean;
that father and husband's

longing, under gnarled sour grapes, is
like the adulterer hearing Nausicaa's name
in every gull's outcry.

This brings nobody peace. The ancient war
between obsession and responsibility
will never finish and has been the same

for the sea-wanderer or the one on shore
now wriggling on his sandals to walk home,
since Troy sighed its last flame,

and the blind giant's boulder heaved the trough
from whose groundswell the great hexameters come
to the conclusions of exhausted surf.

The classics can console. But not enough. 

Derek Walcott reading Sea Grapes

For similar blogposts, see:

fredag 10. mars 2017

The Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius and the nations of the north

Recently, I finished writing an article in which I explored aspects of medieval otherness in texts concerned in one way or another with peripheral geographies. The article grew out of a paper I gave at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds in 2016, and allowed me to further develop the ideas I had been playing with then. The writing of this article brought me into contact with a wide range of texts which somehow engaged with geography and ideas of the monstrous, and especially texts wich contained some inclusion of the story of Gog and Magog. (I here refrain from using the term "legend", largely because to scholars in the Middle Ages, Gog and Magog were part of historical - and theological - reality.)

Gog and Magog entered the historical awareness of medieval scholars through the Bible, and have become synonymous with forces of destruction and evil. The names first appear in Ezekiel (38-39) where Gog, king of the land Magog, will be unleashed from the north as punishment for the iniquities of the Israelites. The situation of Magog to the north also tied this vision in with the prophecies of Jeremiah and Isaiah where the north is likewise presented as a house of evil forces. Although Gog and Magog are not featured in either Isaiah or Jeremiah, they nonetheless contribute to the same biblical typology of the north. In the Revelation of Saint John (19:11-21:8), however, Gog and Magog reappear, this time as two separate persons and allies of Satan in the battle at the end of days.

Jeremiah and the vision of the cauldron
Bourges - BM - ms. 0003, f.196v, Bible, last quarter of the twelfth century, Central France
Courtesy of

One of the several texts with which I became engaged in my research for this article was the Apocalypse of the so-called Pseudo-Methodius. This work of prophetic historiography was originally written in Syriac by an anonymous author situated somewhere northwest of Mosul, a location based on the Syriac preface where it says that Saint Methodius received the vision disseminated in the book on a mountain in this area (Garstad 2012: viii). The attribution of the Apocalypse to Methodius of Olympus is difficult to explain but of great significance in one respect, namely the book's function as a prophectic writ. Saint Methodius, reportedly bishop of Tyre, is said to have been martyred in 311 according to Jerome. That Methodius could have written the book is impossible, as it has been dated to around 690, and since it was written not far from Mosul in today's Iraq. Impossible though it be, the attribution of the authorship to such an important and historic figure as Methodius serves perhaps first of all to give weight to this book's value as a prophecy. After all, it purports to have been written almost four hundred years before the times of the book's first readers. For this reason, the anonymous author has been eternized as Pseudo-Methodius.

The Apocalypse was written in response to the political situation of the time. The area around Mosul had earlier in the century been conquered and was under Muslim overlordship by the time the book was written. By the beginning of the 690s, the Muslim government increased their taxation of the Christian communities, and this resulted in conversion to Islam, or apostasy from the Christian faith as was how the author would have seen it. Apostasy is one of the signs of the end times in biblical chiliastic typology, and throughout the Apocalypse this point is emphasized by references to 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 (Garstad 2012: ix). In short, the Apocalypse is a work of historical exegesis which presents the Muslims, referred to as Ishmaelites, as a sign of the beginning of the endtimes, and which chastises those who converted to Islam from Christianity as the apostates whose apostasy confirmed the role of the Ishmaelites as the heralds of the apocalypse.

Alexander enclosing the nations in the north
BL MS Harley 4979, f.47, prose Roman d'Alexandre, the Netherlands, 1st quarter of the 14th century
Courtesy of British Library

The Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius was translated into Greek and Latin within fifty years of its composition, and in those languages the book spread to Byzantium and Europe. Among the works it affected was the so-called Primary Chronicle of Novgorod, a monastic chronicle written at the monastery of Caves in the first quarter of the twelfth century. In this chronicle, an extract from the Apocalypse was included, having possibly made its way to Novgorod via an Old Slavonic translation. The extract included in the Primary Chronicle concerns the unclean nations to the north which, according to Pseudo-Methodius, had been enclosed behind a great wall by Alexander the Great when he beheld how filthy their habits were (Lunde and Stone 2012: 180-81). Among these nations were, unsurprisingly, Gog and Magog. This combination of the story of Alexander's Wall with the nations of the north so familiar to the Abrahamic religions is not a novel feature in the Apocalypse, it can already be glimpsed in the Quranic story of D'hul Quarnayn, but it has no doubt popularized the conflation and helped bringing its imagery to new audiences, as evidenced by the inclusion of the story in the Primary Chronicle.

The story of the enclosed nations is found in chapter eight of the Apocalypse, and is one of the longest chapters in the book. It begins by recording Alexander's heritage, being - according to Pseudo-Methodius - born of the Ethiopian princess Chouseth and King Philip of Macedonia. After Alexander's victory over Darius, he sojourned to the "Country of the Son" where he encountered the sons of Japheth, son of Noah. The nations descending from Japheth were found abominable by Alexander and he was repulsed by their unclean, cadaverous diet, and out of fear that they would "pollute the whole earth" and, most importantly, the Holy Land, he sought aid from God and then began to round up the sons of Japheth and drive them into the north. Pseudo-Methodius says:

And he drove tehm out of the land of th dawn and pursud close behind them, until they were brought into the lands beyond the North, and there is neither a way in nor a way out for them from east to west, through which one might come in to them or might go out. (Garstad 2012: 25)

Alexander then prays to God for help again, and God makes two mountains move closer together, so that the passage between them is small enough to be covered with a gate. This gate is made of brass and covered with a material, asyncite, seemingly Pseudo-Methodius' own invention (Garstad 2012: 339, n. 20),  that resists fire and iron. When the wall was finished:

So these accursed, false, and foul nations employed all kinds of magical intrigues, and in these things he [Alexander] rendered their sordid and inhuman, or to put it more strongly, godless sorcery ineffectual, so that they were not able by fire or iron or any other device to force open gates such as these and make their escape. (Garstad 2012: 27)

Among these nations are Gog and Magog, and by a reference to the prophecy of Ezekiel, Pseudo-Methodius states that they will break free from their enclosure at the end of times.

Alexander fighting dragons and firebreathing, horse-headed men
BL MS Royal 20 A V, f.73 Roman d'Alexandre, first quarter of 14th century, French
Courtesy of British Library

Among the nations of the north, there are both historical peoples such as the Sarmatians and the Alans, but also the mythical Dogheads. The Ishmaelites, however, are not found in this monstrous catalogue, and therefore serve a different role in the apocalyptic drama of the latter days than Gog and Magog. Pseudo-Methodius records that the Ishmaelites emerged from the desert of Yathrib, i.e. the Arabian peninsula, and this is of course in keeping with the first spread of Islam, and we are reminded that what the Apocalypse does is to weave historical events into a tapestry whose ending has been foretold in the Bible. Consequently, the role of the Ishmaelites is not to emerge onto the world at the endtimes, but to facilitate the emerging of Satan and the nations of the north and thus usher in the Apocalypse. This should be understood as a reference to the Muslim government, under whose rule many Christians converted to Islam and thus committed the apostasy of which Paul spoke in 2 Thessalonians. This also partly explains why the biblical intertextuality of the Apocalypse is as curiously selective as it is, with no reference to Revelation, and with an emphasis on the brief prophectic extract from 2 Thessalonians described above.

Nonethelss, the nations of the north will emerge in the end. Pseudo-Methodius describes how the oppression by the Ishmaelites will be overturned and things will resume their happy state once more. This happiness, however, will then be followed by this:

 Then the gates of the North will be opened up and out will come the powers of the nations which were enclosed within, and the whole earth will reel from their face and men will cry aloud and flee and hide themselves in the mountains and in the caves and among the gravestones. And they will be deadened with fear and many will perish and there will be none to bury their bodies. (Garstad 2012: 61-63)

Of course, in the end the nations of the north and Lucifer will alike be vanquished, and Pseudo-Methodius identifies the champion of Christianity as Rome. This is the Rome that descended from the kings of Ethiopia, according to a novel historical twist brought into the story by Pseudo-Methodius. As mentioned above, Alexander the Great was descended from the Ethiopian royal house by way of his mother Chouseth, the king's daughter. After Alexander's death, however, Chouseth married one of Alexander's general and bore him a daughter, Byzantia. Byzantia then became the mother of three sons, each of whom became the leader of an important city: Alexandria, Byzantium, and Rome. Therefore, the future leader of Rome will be a new Alexander, the antitype in the typology of history, and just as the half-Ethiopian conquerer enclosed the nations in the past, so will Rome, descendants of the Ethiopian kingdom, enclose the the nations at the end of the world. In this way, Pseudo-Methodius tells us, we see a fulfillment of Psalm 68:31, "Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God".

The Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius is a fascinating little work, and it is fascinating for many reasons. When I was working on my article, it provided me with a terrific, and horrific, example of how the typology of the north inherited both from the biblical and the Graeco-Roman cultures could be used in a specific context. I also came to better understand how that use could travel beyond its initial context and still carry meaning, all thanks to the spread of the typology handed down through the Bible and also the Graeco-Roman traditions that influenced the Alexander legends.


Anonymous, The Primary Chronicle, translated extract in Lunde, Paul, and Stone, Caroline, Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness - Arab Travellers in the Far North, Penguin Books, 2012: 180-81

Garstad, Benjamin, introduction to The Apocalypse fo Pseudo-Methodius, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 2012

Pseudo-Methodius, The Apocalypse, edited and translated from its Greek version by Benjamin Garstad, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 2012

tirsdag 28. februar 2017

Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings - a poem by Geoffrey Hill

For a quiet end to the month of February, here is a favourite sonnet of mine by the sorely missed Geoffrey Hill. Text from this website.

Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings
For whom the possessed sea littered, on both shores,
Ruinous arms; being fired, and for good,
To sound the constitution of just wars,
Men, in their eloquent fashion, understood.
Relieved of soul, the dropping-back of dust, 
Their usage, pride, admitted within doors;
At home, under caved chantries, set in trust, 
With well-dressed alabaster and proved spurs 
They lie; they lie; secure in the decay
Of blood, blood-marks, crowns hacked and coveted, 
Before the scouring fires of trial-day
Alight on men; before sleeked groin, gored head, 
Budge through the clay and gravel, and the sea 
Across daubed rock evacuates its dead.

søndag 26. februar 2017

A passage by Derek Walcott, or, a Fragment from The Schooner Flight

February has been a busy month with me trying my best to deal with the transition from writing to reading. After having spent several months producing text, I've now reached a point in my research where I have to read in order to produce more text, and it takes some time getting used to the change of pace this forces on me. As a way of distraction from the tranquility of reading, I'm sometimes transcribing manuscript fragments which is a way of producing text, albeit very differently from the writing of my thesis.

Because of all this, my blogging this month has been rather brief and must remain so in my attempt to have four blogposts done by the end of February. For the third post, therefore, I present you a fragment of Derek Walcott's poem The Schooner Flight, a poetic sequence which chronicles the voyage of a mariner onboard a schooner while he is missing his wife and reflecting on the wild nature around him. The poem can be found in its entirety here. It is written in imitation of the Caribbean patois which Derek Walcott has known from his earliest days, and which he often applies to his work when he wishes to place the text in the mouth of fictional Caribbeans.

After the Storm, from The Schooner Flight

There are so many islands!
As many islands as the stars at night
on that branched tree from which meteors are shaken
like falling fruit around the schooner Flight.
But things must fall, and so it always was,
on one hand Venus, on the other Mars;
fall, and are one, just as this earth is one
island in archipelagoes of stars.
My first friend was the sea. Now, is my last.
I stop talking now. I work, then I read,
cotching under a lantern hooked to the mast.
I try to forget what happiness was,
and when that don't work, I study the dtars.
Sometimes is just me, and the soft-scissored foam
as the deck turn white and the moon open
a cloud like a door, and the light over me
is a road in white moonlight taking me home.
Shabine sang to you from the depths of the sea.

mandag 20. februar 2017

Saint Christopher in Roskilde

In May 2016, a friend and I went on an excursion to Roskilde, one of Denmark's episcopal seats, and our primary target for the trip was its cathedral. The current building has undergone several bouts of extension and renovation throughout the centuries, but its oldest part is believed to date from the 1170s, and it is believed that the building was initiated by Bishop Absalon, who in 1177 became archbishop of Lund and thus metropolitan of Denmark. Absalon's stone cathedral replaced older churches on the spot, and it was dedicated to Saint Lucius who also had been the dedicatee of the previous church. Roskilde was an important religious centre in medieval Denmark, and in the 1140s a chronicle was written here, a chronicle now known as the Roskilde Chronicle, or Chronicon Roskildense.

The front of Roskilde Cathedral

The interior of Roskilde Cathedral is lavishly decorated with wall-paintings and sculptures, and most of them dating from the fifteenth-century onwards. There are many wonderful things to relate about these decorations, and in future blogposts I aim to return to several of them. In the present blogpost, however, I will merely give a taste of the splendour which is housed within the cathedral, and to do so I will give you two representations of Saint Christopher, one of the most common saints in medieval European art.

Saint Christopher carrying the Christ-child
Fresco from the chapel of the three holy kings, Roskilde Cathedral

The legend of Saint Christopher - Christophanes or Christ-bearer - tells of how a pagan soldier, often depicted as a giant and sometimes even as a dog-head, walked about the world in order to find the most powerful master so that he could submit to him. He met the Devil and sought to serve him, until he discovered that the Devil feared Christ. Intent to become a servant of Christ, Christopher sought instruction in the Christian faith, which he received from a hermit. As a form of service to Christ, Christopher stationed himself at a river to ferry people across. Since he was thought to be a giant, he is normally shown wading the river with his passenger sitting astraddle his neck. One day he was ferrying a little child across the river, and mid-stream the child became so heavy that Christopher barely could stand upright. The child then told him that he was Christ, and that the heaviness was the weight of the world which Christ carried. As proof of the child's testimony, he told Christopher to plant his staff in the ground and let it blossom the next day. When Christopher saw his staff blossoming - which is why the staff can be seen to bear leaves and fruits in the medieval depictions - he became a preacher for the Christian faith. He was later martyred for his missionary effort.

Detail from a wooden seat
Roskilde Cathedral

Saint Christopher's role as the patron of travellers ensured his popularity throughout the Middle Ages, and he was often included among the Fourteen Holy Helpers, a late-medieval saint collegium whose members varied throughout Europe. The depictions of Christopher at Roskilde Cathedral are typical examples of his most common iconography.


Farmer, David, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 2004

Roskilde Domkirke in Store Danske Leksikon, Gyldendal

mandag 6. februar 2017

Ultima Thule, a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I am currently putting the final touches on an article with which I have been preoccupied for the past month or so. In this article I have been pursuing a favourite fascination of mine, namely the descriptions of the peripheral and unfamiliar in medieval and pre-medieval writing. Consequently, my article has brought me into contact with descriptions of wild men and women inhabiting the most forbidding and inhospitable parts of the earth, and I have relished in the tales of these distant lands and their various inhabitants, different from the authors of the medieval texts in several respects.

One of the most famous symbols of geographical remoteness that has come down from us from the Graeco-Roman literature, which infused the medieval authors with a wide range of ideas about the geographical periphery, is the land of Thule or Tile. This island was first described by Pytheas of Massilia in 330 BC, and has since then been identified as a range of different locations in the North Atlantic, including Iceland, and Greenland.

The cultural history of Thule is longwinded and immensely fascinating, and one that I would love to return to at some point. For the time being, however, I will only present one of the many appearances Thule has made in cultural history, namely a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (Text taken from

I was pointed to this poem when I read a fascinating blogpost about the island of Kerguelen in the southern Indian Ocean, and it reminded me that Thule as a symbol of immense remoteness and the edge of the world is no longer limited to the northern hemisphere, but also carries a symbolic value for the geography of the southern part of the globe.

The island of Thule
As depicted in Olaus Magnus' Carta Marina from 1539
Courtesy of Wikimedia

Ultima Thule

With favouring winds, o'er sunlit seas,
We sailed for the Hesperides,
The land where golden apples grow;
But that, ah! that was long ago.

How far, since then, the ocean streams
Have swept us from that land of dreams,
That land of fiction and of truth,
The lost Atlantis of our youth!

Wither, ah, wither? Are not these
The tempest-haunted Orcades,
Where the sea-gulls scream, and breakers roar,
And wreck and sea-weed line the shore?

Ultima Thule! Utmost Isle!
Here in thy harbors for a while
We lower our sails; a while we rest
From the unending, endless quest.