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

søndag 27. mai 2012

Da Nobis Tuam Lucem Domine

After Coel's death Constantius himself seized the royal crown and married Coel's daughter. Her name was Helen and her beauty was greater than that of any other young woman in the kingdom. For that matter, no more lovely girl could be discovered anywhere. Her father had no other child to inherit the throne, and he had therefore done all in his power to give Helen the kind of training which would enable her to rule the country more efficiently after his death. After her marriage with Constantius she had by him a son called Constantine.
- The History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth (translated by Lewis Thorpe)

Helena, the Mother of Constantine the Great, was held in high regard by Medieval men and women and she was recognised as an important saint. She was said to have embraced Christianity at an early stage and on a trip to Jerusalem it was claimed she had located the True Cross, an occasion celebrated in the liturgical year as the inventio crucis, the rediscovery of the Cross. Geoffrey of Monmouth, on behalf of the Britons, laid claim to Helena by pronouncing her British by birth and a royal princess by heritage, the daughter of King Coel of established legend. Not all chroniclers were equally blinded by enthusiasm, however. William of Malmesbury soberly followed the ecclesiastical tradition, leaning on Ambrose of Milan's statement that she was the daughter of a stable-boy. Matters of heritage aside she was revered and venerated throughout the Middle Ages and several churches were dedicated to her. One of these churches is St Helen's Church of York.

It is assumed that the veneration for Helena has long roots in the religious history of York, but the oldest sign of a church is the 12th-century font. The church itself has been rebuilt once in the 16th century and twice in the 19th century, but it is believed that the current design echoes that of the 14th and 15th-century architecture to a great extent, with the exception of the chancel built in 1857-58. Facing the church today is St Helen's Square, established in 1732 after the graveyard had been paved over and its bones removed to Davygate where gravestones still can be found.

Both the Anglican and Catholic branches of the modern church are today very aware that the historical Helena had no connection to neither York nor Britain. This is, however, of lesser importance, for in her posthumous life she had had an important place in lay religiosity of several parishes. This particular church, as stated, can only securely be dated to the 12th century, but there was in York also a second church dedicated to Helena, namely St Helen Aldwark which is no longer extant, but most likely of Anglo-Saxon origin. Whether her alleged connection to England, or for that matter York's historical connection to her son Constantine who was proclaimed Emperor by his troops at the Roman headquarter in the city, has in any way influenced her popularity can not be ascertained. She has nonetheless been embraced by York and a statue of her at the town hall.

The earliest reference to St Helen's Church in the sources dates from 1235, but not much of its 13th-century heritage survives today, the exception being a handful of spolia found throughout the church space. Masonry points to construction activity going back to the mid 12th century, and it is speculated that if there stood an Anglo-Saxon minster on this spot, its wooden structure may have been replaced by a stone church at about this time. The High Medieval architectural features are nonetheless scant, outweighed by the Late Medieval remnants such as parts of the stained glass. The 14th and 15th centuries saw the most significant part of the church's Medieval architectural emendations.

St Helen's Church did not have a large congregation and its priest had little in terms of income. Its Medieval parishioners were largely the glass-painters who lived and operated in Stonegate and several of the guild's members were interred in St Helen's throughout the 15th century. The glass-painters' motto was Da nobis tuam lucem Domine, give to us your light, Lord, and their work can be witnessed in the Medieval glasswork still extant in the church.

torsdag 17. mai 2012

The Pearl of York

This dusk-dim room with windows deep embedded,
These breathing walls, carved cupboards, sloping floor,
Formed loom for her wed life so gaily threaded,
Shrill-sweet with children tumbling at the door.
- A York Shrine, D. Douglas Lord

In the Shambles, the old butcher street in York, there is an inconspicuous house with a green, oval, cross-marked plate at its door, telling the passers-by that this house is the shrine St. Margaret Clitherow. During my student days in York I walked through the Shambles several times and I noticed both the sign there and the one in Newgate Market, but although I often thought I should visit the shrine it soon escaped my memory altogether. Consequently it was not until my return to York in September of last year that I sought out the shrine of Margaret Clitherow and stopped there to pray and learn about the saint's history.

Margaret was born to the chandler Thomas Middleton and his wife Jane in 1553, and she was baptised in St Martin-le-Grand on Coney Street. That same year King Edward VI was succeeded by his half-sister Mary Tudor who attempted to bring England back into the Catholic fold after her father's break with Rome. Her campaign was not well-received, owing in large part to the burning of about three hundred Protestants on the grounds of heresy. It was this mass execution that earned her the nickname Bloody Mary, and the Catholic faith was more unpopular than ever before as a consequence.

Margaret grew up in Elizabethan England, an increasingly Protestant kingdom where Catholics eventually were prohibited from holding mass or do mission work. She married the widowed butcher John Clitherow in 1571 in the same church where she was baptised. John was a Protestant whose brother was a Catholic priest and Margaret converted to the forbidden faith in 1574, seemingly with her husband's compliance. Two years later conversion to Catholicism, recusancy, became a treasonable offence. Margaret opened her house to Caholic prests and masses were held there clandestinely. Although these services remained secret for quite some time Margaret's faith was not unknown and in the years 1577-84 she was imprisoned for her Catholicism several times.

When Margaret was not in prison she secretly instructed local children in the Catholic faith and continued to shelter priests and hold masses. Several of the priests she harboured eventually became martyrs for the faith by hanging, and it is said Margaret conducted secret pilgrimages to pray by the gibbet.

In January 1586 her stepfather Henry May became Lord Mayor of York. Henry was dedicated to the policies of the Council of the North, a council centred in York and established in the time of Henry VIII to persecute Catholicism which remained very strong in Yorkshire throughout the 16th century. In the first year of his mayoralty Henry May rounded up and punished a number of recusants, among whom were his stepdaughter Margaret. She was charged for harbouring Jesuits and other Catholic priests and for having her son be trained as a priest in Douai. On 14 March 1586, four days after her arrest, she was trialed at the Guild Hall where she refused to plead, because if she did the witnesses - the little children and the servants she had schooled in the faith - would be guilty of her condemnation too. The penalty for not pleading was peine forte et dure, a method of execution where the sentenced was placed under for example a door and stones were heaped upon it until the sentenced died. The following day she was held in prison on Ouse Bridge until March 25 when she was executed in this manner at the Ouse Bridge toll booth. Her last words are reported to have been "Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, have mercy on me!"

After her exection Margaret's body was buried beside a city dunghill. Six weeks later she was exhumed by a group of Catholics who carried the body away and gave it a Christian burial. Centuries later, October 1970, she was canonised by Pope Paul VI in the basilica of St. Peter's in Rome and she became the patron saint of the Catholic Women's League. Her right hand is currently preserved at the Bar Convent at York, and a statue of her can be found in the Church of St. Wilfrid.

lørdag 12. mai 2012

Ignorance and Experience: An Illuminator's Trajectory

There is an animal called the elephant, which has no desire to mate.
- MS Bodley 764, translated by Richard Barber

Medieval bestiaries contained creatures both real and legendary, whose ways of life served as moral fables for humanity. These books were richly illustrated, but the illuminators rarely knew much about what the various beasts looked like, relying instead on traditional depictions or literary descriptions from authors like Pliny or Isidore of Seville. In some cases this should come as no surprise since many of the animals described did not exist or were at best distorted representations of actual animals. A favourite example of mine is the bonnacon, a beast with a bull's body and a horse's mane whose poisonous excrement was its only means of protection against predators.

Bonnacon from the MS Bodley 764

In other instances the beasts were less than realistically depicted on account of their foreign provenance, and this was of the case with the elephant. The author of the MS Bodley 764 bestiary, for instance, had heard or read about how the distant Indians or Persians used elephants in warfare, putting wooden towers on their backs and firing arrows from the ramparts. He had also learned that the elephant could only mate after having eaten from the mandrake - here depicted as a tree - and for this the elephant becomes an allegory of Adam and Eve who only indulged in the pleasures of the flesh after having eaten the forbidden fruit.

War elephant from MS Bodley 764

The elephant offers a rare example of an illuminator's trajectory from ignorance to experience. The illuminator in question is the Benedictine monk Matthew Paris, known for his historiographical and hagriographical works. In his bibliography we find the wonderful and wonderfully illuminated Chronica Majora, a universal chronicle whose last part covers the years 1254-59. The elephant occurs at least twice in the pages of this work and it shows very clearly the difference between knowing of an animal and actually knowing an animal.

In 1241 Richard, Earl of Cornwall, King Henry III's younger brother, returned from a crusade in the Holy Land. He probably met or corresponded with Matthew Paris at St. Albans, and the tale he told allowed the illuminator to fill his pages with a number of curiosities. One of these curiosities Richard experienced in Italy where he was Emperor Friedrich II's guest. When Richard went to the city of Cremona he was met with a joyous procession led by a decorated elephant with a brass band playing on its back. This was the emperor's elephant, a part of his exotic menagerie for which he was well known, and a beast Matthew Paris had never seen. Consequently his depiction of the elephant relied heavily on a convention established in the bestiaries, for instance the beast's lack of knees.

 The elephant of Cremona from Chronica Majora
In the second part of Chronica Majora we come across something very different. King Louis IX of France sent Henry III an elephant as a gift in 1255 and it was kept at the Tower of London together with the rest of the king's menagerie, a menagerie that among other specimens included an polar bear brought to him from King Håkon IV of Norway. For the first time Matthew Paris, who was both close to King Henry and badmouthed him quite viciously on occasion, had the opportunity to behold an exotic beast in the flesh and discover that it really possessed knees. This can be seen in the remarkably realistic portrayal of the king's elephant in Chronica Majora, a rare case in which we can see for ourselves the trajectory of a Medieval illuminator's experience.

King Henry III's elephant, also from Chronica Majora

mandag 7. mai 2012

Names of the Hedgehog

and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
- Genesis 2:19

Linguistics is one of my many passions and I find great pleasure in learning new words or learning how words have come about. One of the great things about being a Medievalist is the opportunity the subject-matter gives you to come across and learn new words when elving into a past age and its texts. In the course of my thesis work I have come across several great words, both in English and in Latin, and this blogpost is dedicated to the words used to describe one particular animal: the hedgehog.

Edmund's martyrdom

Old English

The oldest of the texts I will deal with in this blogpost is Life of St. Edmund by Ælfric of Eynsham (c.950-c.1010). This text is a hagiography of king Edmund of East Anglia who was killed by Vikings in 869 and it is written in Old English. In the story King Edmund is captured by the Viking chieftain Hingwar who wants him to become his underking and reveal the whereabouts of the royal treasure. The king, a Christian, refuses to become the subject of a pagan and steadfastly resists the tortures brought about by the Vikings. Hingwar orders his men to pierce the king with arrows, a martyrdom like that of St. Sebastian. In describing this episode Ælfric employs a very effective comparison, effective both because it is precise and because its hyperbolic nature increases the shock-effect of the brutality of martyrdom: Edmund, pierced by arrows, resembles an ígl, a hedgehog. The passage concludes as follows:

he eall wæs besæt mid heora scotungum swilce igles byrsta, swa swa Sebastianus wæs.

(he was covered with arrows in the manner of a hedhehog, as was Sebastian)

This particular passage will be a recurring feature of this linguistic expedition since this is the story in which I have found most of the names of the hedgehog, and indeed it is the story that put me onto this idea in the first place.

The name in question here is, as mentioned, ígl, a name that can, according to the Old English dictionary also be rendered as ígil or íl. Interestingly this particular name can be recognised as the root of the modern Swedish word for hedgehog: igelkott.

 Hedgehogs from the Aberdeen bestiary, c.1200


Like all other animals of the Middle Ages, real or mythical, the hedgehog was interpreted allegorically or "in mystical terms" in the bestiaries where it was made a didactic example for men to learn from. In the bestiary of MS Bodley 764, written between 1220 and1250 and translated and abbreviated by Richard Barber, the author first describes the creature's habits and way of life. He commends it for its cleverness and claims that they gather grapes directly from their vine with their spines, a myth that probably dates all the way back to Roman times. When he turns to the didactic part of the text, the mystical interpretation, the author is quite severe and says that the hedgehog is "a sinner full of vices like spines, skilled in wicked cunning, and in deceits and robberies. He cheats others of the fruit of their labours and takes their food for himself." Like the sinner who fears the judgement of God, it is claimed, so the hedgehog hides among rocks.

This unfavourable reputation owes probably much of its severity to the Vulgate where Jerome mistook the Hebrew word for owl, kippoz, for kippod, hedgehog. In Bible passages such as Isaiah 34:11 and Zephaniah 2:14 the hedgehog thus becomes a symbol of desolation and deserted places, said to inhabit the places that will be destroyed in the vengeance of God.

In Latin the hedgehog is known by the name irenaceus or erinacius. According to the author of the MS Bodley 764 bestiary the animal was also known by the name echinus and this rendition, perhaps a vulgarisation, we will find vestiges of in vernacular texts.

 Hedgehogs from the MS Bodley 764

Middle English

In one of the secondary sources I've been working with, I have been referred to three Middle English texts in which the hedgehog is named. Each of these texts is a version of the story of St. Edmund and they all employ the classic simile when describing the pierced King Edmund. I have also come across another Middle English text in which the hedgehog features poetically, a poem by William Dunbar, but here the matter does not pertain to the life of Edmund of East Anglia.

The oldest of the three hagiographic texts is the South English Legendary. This book is a collection of saints' lives rendered in verse and composed in the latter half of the 13th century somewhere close to Gloucester. Here the vernacular word for hedgehog resembles very much the Old English word and we see here one of the stations in the word's trajectory towards modern Swedish. In the words of the compiler of the legend, King Edmund was [a]s ful as an illespyl is of pikes al about.

John Lydgate (c.1370-1449/50), a monk at Bury-St-Edmunds, wrote the poetical rendition of the lives of Edmund and his cousin Fremund as a gift for the child-king Henry VI. The king stayed at Bury from Christmas 1433 to April 23, St. George's day, the following year and was given this didactic present, presumably aimed at shaping the young monarch to become a good and righteous Christian. In this work we may detect that the evolution of the language has favoured the name most resembling the Latin word. John Lydgate states that Edmund [r]assemble an yrchoun fulfillid with spynys thikke /As was the martyr seint Sebastyan.

A similar usage we can also find in the third text, the Gilte Legende. This opus is a mid-15th-century hagiographical collection translated from the French work Legende doree, which in turn is a translation of Jacobus the Voragine's 13th-century Legenda Aurea. Although more or less contemporary with John Lydgate the saint's martyrdom is rendered differently, owing perhaps to a difference in sources or the fact that Lydgate wrote in rhyme royal. According to the author of the Gilte Legende King Edmund appierid fulle of arowys lyke as an urchyn fulle of pryckis.

In conclusion of this linguistic excursion we must turn to a work by William Dunbar (1460?–1513x30), The Tretis of the twa mariit wemen and the wido. This poem is Dunbar's longest opus and one of the first to be printed. It is a comical work recounting a conversation between the three titular women.The subject is the trials of marriage and in a passage dealing with a husband's kisses the husband's cheeks are compared to the pines of a hedgehog: He schowis one me his schewill mouth & schendis my lippis / And with his hard hurcheone scyne sa heklis he my chekis.

St Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna

With Dunbar we come to a close as he stood on the threshold of Modern English and the English Renaissance. As we have seen the hedgehog has furnished authors with poetic and didactic material - and the simile of Edmund can be said to be both - throughout the Middle Ages. Due to its recurring role we have here been able to follow the evolution of its name in a long-spanning, but of course vastly incomplete, trajectory. The names I have presented above are not the only names awarded the hedgehog in Medieval times, but they serve nonetheless as a nice overview.