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

tirsdag 29. november 2011

From the quill of old virgins

Now concerning virgins I have no commandment of the Lord: yet I give my judgment, as one that hath obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful.
- 1 Corinthians, 7:25

But so that, lacking the firm support of the scriptures, I am not blamed by someone for the verbose garrulity or garrulous verbosity of my dissertation, I shall attempt to weave with Christ's favour a most beautiful crown of virginity, plucking crimson flowers of purity from the meadow of holy books.
- On Virginity, Aldhelm of Malmesbury (translated by Michael Lapidge and Michael Herren)

He [Aldhelm] has his meed of praise, the glory won by his deserts; we must pursue our narrative.
- The History of the English Kings, William of Malmesbury (translated by R. A. B. Mynors, R. M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom)

Since I am writing my MA thesis on Edward the Confessor I decided to read up on what people in the Middle Ages thought about one of his prime claims to sanctity, namely chastity. Somehow I came across a little treatise most likely written in the latter quarter of the 7th century by the monk Aldhelm of Malmesbury (d. 709/10) and I decided to investigate it. 

 Despite being only marginally relevant to my thesis subject, I managed to take plenty of notes.

The treatise in question, On Virginity or De Virginitate, is the first implement of an opus geminatum, a double work, written by Aldhelm to Abbess Hildelith of Barking Abbey so that she might learn of the glorious virginal forebears found in the Bible and Christian mythology. It was later completed by the second implement, also dealing with virginity but this time in verse. The stylistic model for this work was Opus Paschale by Caelius Sedulius (5th century), described as the first Christian epic, whereas the subject-matter had already been expounded by church-fathers such as Tertullian, Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine, the latter three well known to Aldhelm himself. Like his antecedents in trade Aldhelm too enjoyed popularity and he became a widely known author and a stylistic influence on Bishop Boniface of Mainz, Bishop Daniel of Winchester and Abbess Eadburg of Thanet to mention a few. After the Norman conquest Aldhelm's popularity faded, but he received significant attention from William of Malmesbury (c. 1090-1143) who dedicated a large portion to him in the book The Deeds of the English Bishops and lamented that Aldhelm was no longer as appreciated as he had been in ages past.

I embarked on the project with a quaint mixture of dread and anticipation, for after reading the introductory material I soon realised that this was no easy text to deal with. As the translators and editors themselves tersely point out on page four:

Indeed, Aldhelm's love of verbiage for its own sake - he calls it "verbose garrulity or garrulous verbosity" - must often exasperate the well-intentioned reader who, having penetrated the lexical and syntactical obscurities of a two-page long sentence, finds that he is left with a trivial apopthegm of the merest banality.

And all of this dedicated to the matter of virgins. Not your ordinary bedside reading material, in other words, and I soon found out that the thinly veiled frustration of the editors was well merited. Aldhelm was quite obviously a man who enjoyed writing, who knew quite a bit and had even more to say, and was not afraid of sacrificing clarity for the sake of convolution. Since I picked this up in the middle of my research I was tempted to just skim it or read a small selection so as not to spend too much time trapped in its verbal wilderness, but I eventually decided to go through with it; partly as a challenge, partly because I was sick of not finishing books due to my research. Consequently I spent some late evenings charging through Aldhelm's maze of words, often enjoying his prose, equally often laughing loudly because of some odd phrase. One if these phrases is, I think, one of my favourite phrases of all times. In one of his sections of some length he compares the three levels of virginity he operates with to threads in an embroidery or tapestry, and after he has kept this going for some length he suddenly bursts out "But why are we rhetoricising about the tintings of fabric-dyes?" whereupon he continues with a lengthy simile replacing the fabric-dyes with diverse metals. What the editors and translators diagnosed as "love of verbiage for its own sake" proved very true indeed, and I burst out laughing as soon as I had read it. This may also explain my note on page 56 that sums it up by "Virginity and chastity compared in a tiresome array of similes."

Aldhelm's prose On Virginity is divided into two parts: an introduction where he writes about virginity and a catalogue of virgins from the Bible and Christian legends. He operates, as stated, with a hierarchy in which virginitas (virginity, signifying the monastic alternative) is the purest option, likened to gold and a whole range of other things, since Aldhelm is far from sparing with his similes. The second best option is that of castitas (chastity, a wedlock which is untainted by carnal activity or, as Aldhelm puts it, "the commerce of matrimony), and this is likened to silver and so on. The third option is iugalitas (conjugality, the consummated marriage) which in Aldhelm's opinion does not rank very high, and it is obvious he would have preferred that Christ had spoken quite vehemently against wedlock due to the risk of carnal activity.

This tripartite division differs from that of Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine who identified the stages of female chastity as virginity, womanhood and marriage, and the difference is due to a particular dilemma Aldhelm was confronted with.The treatise is written to the Abbey of Barking, a nunnery whose members mostly came from the noble estate and were in many cases women who had divorced their husbands to dedicate themselves to the monastic life of virginity, despite this being expressly forbidden in Christian teaching. To reconcile his views with the situation of his audience he therefore uses his own tripartite division rather than the one established by the church fathers. Aldhelm also points out that although virginity is the purer option, compared to which "(...) all the sublime loftiness of wedded folk, takes second place", virgins run the risk of becoming tainted with pride by knowledge of their purity. Chastity, Aldhelm asserts, is therefore lesser than virginity in that it is not as pure, but chastity assures humility which is important to avoid pride which is of the devil and must be shunned. Virginity is nonetheless better, despite the risk of pride, because in reward for virginity men and women are endowed with prophetic powers "and things closed in the mystical coverings of the sacraments are divinely unlocked."

 Wall-plaque at the Catholic Church of St. Aldhelm. Yes, he became a saint.

On Virginity is a curious and highly interesting work, not seldom beautiful in its voluble prose sprawling the pages like a briar bush but more often frustratingly dense, not because it is lofty but because Aldhelm - or rather his translator as Aldhelm did not have these things - is miserly with periods and lavish with semicolons. Among his most beautiful sections I would like to present the following:

O excellent grace of virginity,which like a rose grown from thorny shoots blushed with a crimson flower and never withers with the defect of dread mortality, and although the tired fragility of the moribund flesh droops and ages with stooping and bent senility as the terminus of death approaches, virginity alone in the manner of happy youth continually flourishes and is constantly growing!
- page 74

I shall not indeed allow AMBROSE, redolent with the ambrosia of heavenly nectar, to lie hidden behind a veil of silence - [Ambrose], whose mellifluous sweetness of doctrine and the privilege of pure virginity were prefigured by beautiful omens (...)
- page 84

However, despite Aldhelm's mastery of language it is oftentimes a bit too evident that the piece comes from the quill of an old virgin who becomes exceedingly pompous when praising and borderline scatological when deriding the matter at hand. It is well worth a read, especially if you have an interest in the Middle Ages, but it must be met with a very open mind since both the subject-matter and the conclusions are strange to our times and difficult to get to terms with.

lørdag 26. november 2011

Advent Sunday

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the threshold of a season and a time for anticipation and reflection. To me this is a beautiful time of the year, a time fit for beautiful words and thoughts, words that, put together, will illustrate some of the emotional and symbolic gravity of the days ahead. The most beautiful words I have read concerning this season is put into a poem by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury and a very fine poet. I have a profound respect and admiration for Dr. Williams, both as a priest and as a poet, two roles he himself adamantly insists on keeping separate. The poem in question is Advent Calendar, published in The Poems of Rowan Williams, reprinted in 2002 by Perpetua Press.

Advent Calendar

He will come like last leaf's fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud's folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

Nativity scene by Sandro Botticelli

søndag 20. november 2011

Adversus Obfuscari

Down there you do not follow a single path
When you philosophise; so carried away are you
By showing off and the ideas it gives you.
- Paradiso, Dante Alighieri (translated by Charles Sisson)

In the course of research for my MA thesis I was directed to an article on the hagiography of Edmund of East Anglia (d. 869) which might provide some interesting details for comparative studies. The article in question is found in the anthology Holiness and Masculinity in the Middle Ages, a collection of essays edited by P. H. Cullum and Katherine J. Lewis, compiled for the purpose of shedding new light on old issues by focussing on aspects pertaining to gender studies. The compilation covers a vast timespan and includes a range of topics, some of them very interesting and relevant to my dissertation. Despite my overall good impression - and my firm conviction as to the project's importance - there was nonetheless one article in particular that made me seethe with scholarly rage to such an extent that I completed the opus mainly out of spite. This blogpost is therefore dedicated to a fierce rebuttal of poorly applied gender theory and scholarship that serves only to obstruct the usefulness of a discipline.

I have chosen the title Adversus Obfuscari as a play on Irenaeus' two books against heresies, Adversus Haereses, and I have included a neologism whose correctness I in all honesty can't vouch for. Since the article in question serves to sabotage the seriousness of gender history I find it obfuscating and I consider its author - Edward Christie - to be an obfuscator, a point of view I hope the subsequent rant will serve to assess.

The article in question is titled Self-Mastery and Submission: Holiness and Masculinity in the Lives of Anglo-Saxon Martyr-Kings and Edward Christie's aim is to investigate submission and its implication on masculinity in the passions of Edmund and Oswald and how this aligns with the conflicting ideologies of Pagan and Christian heroism of the Anglo-Saxon world. The focal point of the article is an interesting one and I for my part have for a long time been very fascinated by collisions of cultures and their aftermath. However, Christie's argumentation is so fraught with anachronism, so steeped in the bilgewater of obsolete scholarship that the minor points of interest and real scholarly worth are overshadowed by nonsense.

Very little is known about the historical King Edmund. He was king of the East Angles until his death in 869 at the hands of Danish Vikings and this death is all the two near-contemporary written sources can tell us. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Asser's Life of King Alfred were both composed in the 890s during the reign of Alfred the Great and as such may be considered fairly trustworthy by virtue of proximity in time, but despite being records dated only some 30 odd years after Edmund's death they fail to provide any great detail. Nonetheless it appears that Edmund's death attracted some attention and a generation after his death there were issued coins venerating him as Sancte Eadmund Rex, but what instigated this is not known to us.

From Richard II's Wilton Diptych (late 14th century)

In the latter quarter of the 10th century Abbo of Fleury wrote the first hagiography, Passio sancti Eadmundi, which portrays Edmund as St. Sebastian: tied to a tree and pierced with arrows. As with Sebastian Edmund's death came not because of arrows, but at the hands of the Viking chieftain Hingwar - probably Ivar the Boneless - who decapitated Edmund when the king refused to tell where his treasure was hidden. This is the main point of interest to Edmund's hagiographers. Through submission to the Viking chieftain Edmund performs his passio Christi, the imitation of Christ necessary to attain sainthood, and through his death Edmund conquers in spirit what he could not achieve in the flesh: victory over the Pagans. This also becomes a focal point for Edward Christie.

St. Sebastian (by Sandro Botticelli), the model for Abbo of Fleury's portrayal of Edmund

The opposing ideals of Pagan and Christian culture and the victory in spirit versus victory in the flesh are both elements that can be found in the Medieval matter and as such provides material for scholarly investigation, so where does it all go wrong for Edward Christie? A clear marker of this can be found on page 147 where he writes "Part of my purpose is nonetheless to explore the psychoanalytic reading of Anglo-Saxon heroism (...)". The problem here is of course the psychoanalysis for how do you apply a questionable approach of the 20th century to a Medieval reality whose writers did not know and consequently paid no heed to this way of thinking? It should be pointed out that some aspects of psychoanalysis - in which respect I'm hardly even a layman and am therefore prone to mistakes - can be used propitiously if applied with extreme care, provided - of course - that we have enough material to allow such investigations. I'm thinking here of the implications of childhood trauma, exploration of which may yield some useful information for explaining adult behaviour, but how do you do this when there is no childhood to explore?

Things get worse when Christie goes on to explore the passion of St. Edmund equipped with modern theories, starting with the society of exploit as put forth by 19th century American economic theorist Thorstein Veblen who divided "barbaric" society into "exploit" and "industry". The chief problem here, of course, is that this is anthropological scholarship from the very infancy of anthropology, a field that has undergone significant developments in the past hundred years. Whether Veblen's theories are still valid I don't know and I find it unfortunate that Christie has not taken pains to ensure the reader that they are. Anthropology can be a good way of exploring historical issues, especially since there are certain anthropological constants that manifest themselves in various ways throughout history, but Christie is far too careless in his treatment here. He cites from the Frankish chronicler Fredegar to prove that this division did exist, but to cite merely one example from the vast range of Early Medieval literature to buttress a claim based on 19th century hindsight is not what I consider persuasive.

Christie moves on with this idea of the society of exploit as exemplified by the Viking raiders, quoting Sigmund Freud on kingship who in turn relies on James George Frazer's anthropological studies. The problems here should be evident. Christie has seemingly cherry-picked material from the dawn of anthropology to find support for his approach, although the theories and interpretations of both Freud and Frazer suffer from the scant methodological and theoretical framework of their own time.

As if founding his ideas on this kind of obsolete scholarship was not enough, Edward Christie then considers the decapitation of Edmund along the same lines as Karma Lochrie did in a 1994 article on Judith's beheading of Holofernes in the Beowulf manuscript. In this article Lochrie relied on the ideas of Luce Irigaray and Toril Moi, arguing that the decapitation of Holofernes was a symbolic castration and Christie urges for the possibility of reading Edmund's death as feminising. First of all Christie and Lochrie have completely ignored any scholarship done on the practice of decapitation in Early Medieval and older societies and its spiritual implications. The head has been a forceful symbol down the ages for quite obvious reasons, such as the fact that the head is the centre of reasoning and thinking. There is to my knowledge no evidence to suggest that Celts and Goths collected heads as a symbolic castration. If the Celts and the Goths wanted to castrate their enemies they castrated their enemies, they did not decapitate them. When, according to the first book of Samuel, King Saul said to David he wanted hundred Philistine foreskins David did not return with hundred noses, because when kings of old said they wanted their enemies castrated they did not consider the head a good substitute.

That Holofernes guy was such a dick. (by Botticelli)

Secondly Christie seems to believe that the ideas concocted by radical gender theorists in the 20h century should somehow be relevant to the writers of Anglo-Saxon hagiography. This is anachronistic in the worst sense possible and it obfuscates the entire discourse. The ideas of Irigaray and Moi, perpetuated by Lochrie and Christie, are themselves spawned by the contemporary issues of those who proposed them and as such must be understood in relation to the modern era, not to mention the personalities of the theorists. When Abbo of Fleury wrote the Passio sancti Eadmundi there is no reason to believe he considered the decapitation as anything but a decapitation, the final resort of a Pagan king whose archers had not managed to make Edmund yield to his demands. What is even more certain is that he did not quote, paraphrase or allude to any theories put forth by Irigaray or Moi, and consequently such theories should only be applied with extreme caution and reserve if they are to be applied at all (which I strongly doubt). Edward Christie shows no reserve but rather seems to immerse himself quite happily in a long series of anachronisms and as a result comes up with an utterly unconvicing and unpersuasive argument which is nothing more than poorly applied gender theory.

lørdag 12. november 2011

Life and Times of Alfred, King of Wessex

But I have explained this concern for learning how to read among the young and old in order to give some idea of the character of King Alfred.
- Life of King Alfred, Asser (translated by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge)

One of the great perks of being a student of Medieval history is the opportunity to become acquainted with a wide variety of literary sources to ages past, small windows into a world now lost to our understanding. Recently, in the course of my MA work, I decided to have a look at the Penguin anthology of sources to the age of King Alfred to find out whether Asser's biography could have had some bearing on the hagiographical tradition of Edward the Confessor. It turned out in the end that I could glean little from Asser's Life of King Alfred since it was poorly disseminated in the High Middle Ages and as such probably had little influence on later biographical texts. However, because it is a rather brief text I decided to read through it for the sheer pleasure and because I'm becoming increasingly fascinated with the Anglo-Saxon period.

The item on the front cover is the Alfred Jewel bearing the inscription AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN, Alfred ordered me to be made. The jewel is now at display in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Life of King Alfred was written in 893 by Asser, a clergyman, perhaps even a bishop if we are to believe Gerald of Wales (12th century), of St David's in Wales. His Welsh origin led him often to use Welsh colloquialisms such as marking directions as being on "the right hand of Severn" rather than to the south of Severn, and he often provided the - sometimes false - Welsh rendition of a placename in addition to the Latin and English. Asser was summoned by King Alfred in the mid 880s to enter into his service and after some consideration he decided, in the early 890s, to accept the offer, dividing his time between the king's retinue and St David's in Wales.

The text is a quaint literary product. Some of the chapters take the shape of chronicle, sometimes even recounting events in France and, on one occasion, passing judgements on the strife following the death of Charles the Fat of the Carolingian empire. Other sections, however, recount with a mixture of fondness and admiration the king's passion for literature, and a large portion of the book is dedicated to a detailed description of how Alfred often had clergymen read aloud to him from Scripture or poetry whenever affairs of the realm allowed him some leisure. A third emphasis - connected to both of the previous ones but the latter in particular - was the king's religious life, how he would go off at night and pray, always hearing mass before going on his morning hunt and how he would care for the poor. These sections comes very close to hagiography and it might have been the case that Asser had certain plans in that direction, but since the manuscript was abruptly left unfinished we shall never know this.

The king's love of literature is a key aspect of this anthology of sources to King Alfred the Great, translated and edited by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge. In addition to Asser's biography there are selections from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a project instigated by Alfred himself, excerpts from works by Pope Gregory, Augustine and Boethius translated into Old English at the king's behest and a compilation of other - chiefly legislative - sources. All in all it is a treasure trove for anyone who wishes a better insight in the era of King Alfred and the various literary and political undertakings that make his reign such an interesting period.

Despite his sobriquet "the Great" Alfred only achieved this fame relatively late and it is doubtful whether he was held in particularly high regard by the first generations following his death. The Cistercian monk Aelred of Rievaulx, Edward the Confessor's last Latin hagiographer, dedicated an extensive section of his Genealogy of the English Kings (1157-58) to "the very pious King Alfred", but how old this tradition was at the time of Aelred's composition is uncertain.

Alfred was the son of Æthelwulf and Osburh and became king of Wessex on the death of his brother Æthelred in 871, ruling the kingdom until his death in 899. The time of his reign was a tempestuous era of recurring attacks from marauding Vikings and his biographer Asser notes that Alfred was greatly troubled "by the relentless attacks of foreign peoples, which he continually sustained from land and sea without any interval of peace." These tribulations caused enormous material and - more importantly - human damage throughout Britain and to ward off the raiders Alfred was forced into guerilla warfare and spurred on to improve fortifications and build new strongholds where required. The reader sometimes learns of fierce encounters between the king's army and the Vikings, such as the breaching of York's walls in 867.

For in those days the city did not yet have firm and secure walls.
- Life of King Alfred, Asser

To me, however, the time of King Alfred is of interest not so much because of the ceaseless carnage, but because of the great literary endeavours that took place in that period, samples of which comprise an important part of the anthology as noted above. Illiterate and speaking only the vernacular Alfred had several texts of great cultural importance translated into Old English, and he himself kept a book in which he had jotted down certain passages of particular beauty which he carried on his body. Asser shows a particular fondness in recounting these details and likewise at the end of the document where, as the epigraph illustrates, the king's men are admonished for not being literate. A similar satisfaction on the part of Asser can be detected when the king "prompted by Heaven, took it upon himself to begin on the rudiments of Holy Scripture on St Martin's Day", 11 November, 887, i.e. when the king decided to learn Latin sufficiently enough to master the various extracts he had gathered in his little book.

This is, all in all, a delightful anthology, perfect for the Medieval enthusiast and a good starting point for those interested in the cultural exchange of the Anglo-Saxon world. In time, when time and money allow, I look forward to add it to my own book collection.

mandag 7. november 2011

Northumbrian Sunset

September 15 this year I left York after a week spent catching up with my wonderful friends and former flatmates of Constantine House. As I was travelling through the evening and its open Northumbrian landscape, beholding the world fade into darkness, I felt very sad and melancholic. I knew at that stage that this was the definite end of my time as a Constantine and indeed the definite end of Constantine House as I knew it. There would be nothing to return to for me there, nothing save fond memories that would plunge me into deep nostalgia if I were to seek them out again. Due to this state of mind and the changing landscape hurrying past the train window I jotted down a couple of lines that, in hindsight, reflect what I felt quite well, and I would like to share them with my readers. In compensation for yet another exhibitionistic indulgence of this kind I have also included several pictures of that evening, pictures that will hopefully mitigate any pomposity on my part.

Northumbrian Sunset

A pale Northumbrian sunset,
A week of memories;
My heart is filled with rue, yet
I live for times like these.

The land prepares for nightfall,
Soon England goes to sleep;
I have the pilgrim's heart: all
I love I try to keep.
- September 15 2011

Crossing the Tyne.

 Newcastle sunset.

søndag 6. november 2011

Life's Little Oddities, part III - The Almshouses

and have my roof and food by dead men's alms
- In an Almshouse, Augusta Webster

One day I was walking back to my lodgings at Constantine House from a tour along the New Walk. Since I have often neglected the southern part of York I took the opportunity to stay on that side of the river for a while and as I strolled down Skeldergate I noticed a very pretty collection of brick houses and a lovely garden, all embraced by a short wall with a white fence on top of it. It had a charming air of past times about it and I was immediately attracted to it. 

Taking a closer look I learned that it was an almshouse erected in memory of Sir Joseph Terry, an important man in the civic life of York whose offices included Freeman of York, Sheriff of York, Alderman of York, Governor of the York Merchant Adventurers Company and Lord Mayor to mention but a few. In 1887 he received a knighthood from Queen Victoria and the same year he obtained a grant of arms in commemoration of this honour. The almshouses were raised the year after his death. 

I didn't examine the premises as much as I would have liked, partly because I was not hungry enough to order something from the café, partly because I didn't want to conspicuously loiter with a camera where people were eating. Some day, hopefully, I may enjoy a nice cup of tea in the gardens of Joseph Terry's almshouses.