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

tirsdag 29. juli 2014

Hymn for St Olav

Today, July 29, is the feast of St Olav of Norway, possibly the most important of Norwegian saints. Olav Haraldsson was born in 995 and died at the battle of Stiklestad close to modern-day Trondheim in 1030. In the year after his death, he was declared a saint by Bishop Grimkell whom Olav had brought from England to Norway, and he quickly became a rallying point for Norwegians who were disappointed with the Danish overlordship. Many of those who sought the saint's protection were his former enemies, many of whom had been Christian for many years and no thanks to Olav. It is therefore a myth that Olav brought Christianity to Norway, but as a saint he became a figurehead that united Norwegian Christians.

Olav has engendered a significant cultural legacy, as can be seen in the wealth of texts and sculptures depicting him. In later blogpost I hope to return to this fascinating repertoire of medieval culture, but this time around it will have to suffice with a modern hymn for St Olav, written in in 1896 by the Norwegian poet and playwright Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. I will first give the Norwegian text, which can be found here along with the musical setting by Wolfgang Plagge from 2000. I will then provide a literal translation of the text.

Du folk i Hellig Olavs hjem
Som han blant frie førte frem
Som han gav liv og kristen tro
Ved dåpen i sitt martyrblod.
Nu reis dei, syng på Olavs dag
Til Olavs Gud om Norges sak.

Hvelv over frie norske hjem
Det lyse håp som samler dem!
Gi at hver mor med barn på kne
Må trygg og glad vår fremtid se
Da blir det gamle hjem så kjært
Og kommer oss så nært, så nært!

Statue of St Olav in wood, 67 cm tall
Probably produced on demand in Lübeck c.1450, but found in Iceland
Courtesy of this website

O people in Saint Olav's home
Whom he among the free led forth,
Whom he gave life and Christian faith
By baptism in his martyr's blood.
Now stand up, sing on Olav's day
To Olav's god for Norway's sake.

Ensconce each free Norwegian home
In that light hope which gathers them!
Give that each mother with child on knee
May safe and glad our future see
Then will the old home be so dear
And come to us so near, so near.

onsdag 23. juli 2014

The Fount of Tides - how tidewater was explained in the Middle Ages

Veni in altitudinem maris, et tempestas demersit me
- Psalm 68
De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine
- Psalm 130

One of the most persistent myths about the Middle Ages, is the idea that medieval men and women thought the earth was flat. This myth has become one of the rafters in the great narrative of modernity, which is built around the idea of continuous historical progress in which mankind's self-improvement is as linear as the passing of time. The grand narrative of modernity is largely based on an intense, unrelenting optimism and enthusiasm about technological advancement and societal development, to a great extent propped up by a secularist dislike of religion and the rise of relativism. The main idea seems to be that since society is always improving - which is one of the great dictums of modernity's champions - things must have been pretty bad all those centuries ago, especially since the world was dominated by a tyrannical, monolithic church and science was kept at bay by the metaphysics of monks. That this is grossly simplistic can be seen in this short article on the myth of the flat earth.

Olaus Magnus map of the northern reaches from 1539
Courtesy of

The origin of this idea has been traced to the novel The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus by Washington Irving, published in 1828, in which the belief in a flat earth becomes the foil of the medieval powers and elevates the hero Columbus who single-handedly proved the earth's spherical shape. This misconception is prevalent even today, and has been taught in schools for a long time.

Although the myth has been ascribed to Washington Irving's novel, the idea that the medieval world was flat may have been in circulation long before 1828. In this blogpost, I will look at an excerpt from Adam of Bremen's Gesta Hamaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum, written in the 1070s, which may show us one of the sources for the idea of a flat medieval earth.

The excerpt in question describes a voyage into the deep northern waters for the purpose of finding out whether there was any solid land beyond Iceland (which is described as the world's outermost region, even further away than Greenland and Vinland). Eventually, the expedition reaches the northern waters and discover that the world is covered by a thick fog, and after a while they reach the end of the earth where there is a deep chasm in which water flows in and out. This is the fount of tides, according to Adam of Bremen. Since it was still unknown in the 11th century that the moon affected the tides and ebbs of the earth, it was believed that the tide was caused by the ocean issuing out of this great abyss. The excerpt is found in book four, chapter 39. The following is my own translation, and it can be checked against the Latin text. I have also used, as a corrective reference, the translation into Norwegian by Bjørg Tosterud Danielsen and Anne Katrine Frihagen from 1993.
Thereafter passing on this side Denmark and on the other side Britain they arrived at the Orkneys, which they kept on their left side when passing, having Norway on the right side and assembled after a long voyage at the frozen Iceland. From this point they plowed the waters into the furthermost region of the seven stars [i.e. the Arctic], and after a while they put behind them all the islands that could be seen - of which I have spoken above - and commending their brave journey unto the omnipotent God and the blessed confessor Willehad, they then were plunged into this dark mist of the frozen waters, which the eyes could penetrate only with great difficulty. And lo: the unstable channel of the ocean returning to the hidden beginning of its source, and the unfortunate, despairing sailors - indeed, imagining death only - were drawn with a most forceful urge towards chaos [it is said to be the chasm of the bowels of the earth] [sic.], [towards] this deep in which, rumour has it when the sea seems to withdraw, all the seas return and are then swallowed up and again spewed back up from whence they are said to have sprung. When these sailors now solely implored the merciful God to receive their spirits, the force of this returning sea washed some of the ships away, while others were repelled by the flowing water and brought back a long way behind the rest. And after they had been liberated from this present danger, which their eyes clearly saw, by help of the favourable God, with great strength they took to the oars to help the escape.

What is interesting to my purpose here is the idea of a great chasm at the end of the world. This image, sailors falling off an edge and into the deep unknown, is emblematic of how the idea of the medieval flat earth has been represented. However, Adam of Bremen is not talking about a flat earth, he is talking about a chasm in the Arctic from which water issues and is drawn back, thus creating those mysterious tides. The chasm in itself, as any discerning reader will note, does not and can not suggest a flat earth, for if it did the water that went into the chasm could not be regurgitated from it. Elsewhere in his work, it is also very clear that Adam operates with a spherical world, as he refers to the British sea which runs into the Arctic and covers the whole world - not in the sense that it flows to the edges of the world and then falls into the void, but in the sense that it runs around the globe.

When considering this excerpt from Adam's Gesta hamaburgensis, it is easy to see a possible origin for the idea that medieval men and women thought the world was flat. If the anecdote about the Frisian sailors who toppled into the chasm at the end of the world entered folklore and became one of those stories of imprecise and unknown origin, you don't need many steps before the regurgitating chasm is replaced by a cosmic void. Of course, we don't know that this confusion has taken place, and I'm certainly not saying that Adam is the source for Washington Irving's misconception, but the anecdote nonetheless illustrates those potential misunderstandings which become so ingrained in public consciousness as to morph into factoids.

Courtesy of this website

mandag 21. juli 2014

Seamus Heaney in Iceland

To a medievalist, summer season is conference season, and in the course of June and July several conferences have been arranged and are being arranged for the purpose of bringing together people who study the Middle Ages in some capacity. I myself gave a paper at the annual International Medievalist Congress in Leeds, and in time I might dedicate a somewhat lengthy blogpost on this wonderful experience. I'm still composing myself in the aftermath of the congress and finally moving out of my apartment, so I'm still not in a frame of mind suitable for writing lengthy blogposts. In the interrim, here is a poem by Seamus Heaney, which is a friendly nod to my fellow medievalists who last week participated at the New Chaucer Society at Reykjavik. 

Ingolfr Arnasson at Reykjavik
Johan Peter Raadsig (1806-82)
Courtesy of Wikimedia

A Postcard from Iceland

As a dipped to test the stream some yards away
From a hot spring, I could hear nothing
But the whole mud-slick muttering and boiling.

And then my guide behind me saying,
'Lukewarm. And I think you'd want to know
That luk was an old Icelandic word for hand.'

And you would want to know (but you know already)
How usual that waft and pressure felt
When the inner palm of water found my palm.

The Althing
W. G. Collingwood
Courtesy of Wikimedia

tirsdag 15. juli 2014

Unto the End of Days - Time in medieval historical and liturgical thought

Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.
- Book of Daniel 12:2

From MS Harley 334, Image du Monde, 2nd quarter of the 15th century
Courtesy of British Library

Medieval man understood time differently from how we do. We tend to think of time as linear and divided into successive epochs. We recognise to a great extent that these epochs are constructs which help us navigate and make sense of history, but they are nonetheless an inextricable part of the way we understand the past. For learned people of the Middle Ages, men and women, things were different. They likewise had successive epochs, like the six ages of man as formulated by Saint Augustine or the four kingdoms expressed in the Book of Daniel, but history had a teleological nature which to many historians these days is alien.

This difference makes it sometimes very difficult for modern historians to faithfully represent medieval people in their research. Often, historians run the risk of focussing on one particular aspect of, say, a medieval monk's literary output, while ignoring some other parts that may be just as significant. The Norwegian medievalist Dr. Sigbjørn Sønnesyn has recently argued that the historiographical output of William of Malmesbury must be considered in conjunction with his theological work, and his office as historian should not be separated from his office as cantor and participant in the monastic liturgy at Malmesbury Abbey. By pointing to these two aspects of William of Malmesbury's life as a monk, Dr. Sønnesyn points to one of the significant problems often encountered in medieval studies: the frequent neglect of the omnipresent liturgical rites so fundamental to the monastic life.

To be precise: there are many medievalist scholars, and not all of them musicologists, who have done significant research which includes liturgical sources. However, the tendency, addressed by Dr. Sønnesyn, to divorce William of Malmesbury the historian from William of Malmesbury the liturgist, has resulted in a failure to consider his historiographical output together with his theological work.  

The last three days of Creation
MS Egerton 1894, Genesis picture book, England, 3rd quarter of the 14th century
Courtesy of British Library

In this blogpost, I want to follow up on Dr. Sønnesyn's remarks on the relationship between liturgy and history, and argue that this relationship is only natural to a medieval mind because of the multi-layered nature of medieval time, or perhaps rather times. These musings are also informed by a one-day colloquium held at St Mary's College in London and papers given by Emma Dillon, Nils Holger Petersen and Beth Williamson.

First of all, in medieval historical thought there were two major strands of the movement or progression of history. Both of these were formulated around the eve of the Western Roman Empire, both of these were founded upon Jewish history as presented in the Bible and both of them were expressively Christian. The oldest strand was that formulated by Augustine, and which in German scholarship is referred to as Heilsgeschichte, the history of the salvation of mankind (with thanks to Nathaniel Campbell). In this presentation of history, Augustine sought to express the progression of time from Creation unto Judgement Day and was concerned with the work of holy men and women and God's intervention in mankind's life and work.  

St Augustine in his study
Sandro Botticelli
Courtesy of Wikimedia

The second strand to be considered here was formulated by Augustine's disciple Orosius and was concerned with the passing of earthly empires, for the most part modelled on the historical books of the Old Testament, in particular Kings and Chronicles, but perhaps also heavily informed by that famous dictum of Ecclesiastes: There is no new thing under the sun. This approach by Orosius, called Weltreichslehre by German scholarship, was often placed within the overarching narrative of Heilsgeschicte.

Both these strands of history are linear in the sense that they have a clearly defined beginning and a clearly defined end. At the same time, both these strands have cyclical aspects to the way history progresses. In Augustine's Heilsgeschichte, we encounter men and women who imitate Christ in their lives and works and sometimes deaths, and although each life and death has a beginning and an end, this succession of imitations has a certain cyclical aspect to it. In a similar way, Weltreichslehre describes the cyclical rise and fall and ultimate demise of kingdoms, empires and princedoms in their progression through history towards Judgement Day. In this sense we see that to a medieval historiographer, history had at least two layers of time, two parallel lines of historical progression. 

Christ in Majesty
MS Arundel 157, St Albans psalter from c.1240
Courtesy of British Library

A similar multiplicity of layers can be found within the yearly cycle of monastic life. I do not claim that these layers correspond with those of historiography, for that would imply that historiography and liturgy are separate spheres of historical progress. Rather, these layers come in addition to those presented in historiographical writing and help to illustrate how thoroughly medieval life was permeated by multiple layers of historical progress.

In the liturgical year we also find an overarching narrative of linear progression, as the liturgy recreates the temporale, the life and times of Christ, beginning at Advent, reaching a climax at Easter and then coming to its close around All Saints. Of course, this linear narrative in turn becomes cyclical since it is reenacted every year, but within the structure of the liturgical year it is linear in a way similar - but not identical to - Augustine's vision of the history of the holy.

However, within this overarching structure of the temporale, the liturgical year is also marked by the daily cycle of the divine office, in which saints are celebrated in a series of communal prayers and meditations known as the hours. The office begins at Vespers, around six in the afternoon, on the day before the saint's day and concludes with the Vespers of the saint's day, an hour known as the second Vespers. Similar to Orosius' everchanging yet neverchanging succession of earthly realms, the catalogue of saints celebrated in the divine office, the sanctorale, was continuously emended with new saints being added and old saints receiving new days as their relics were moved. Additions occurred, but these additions were celebrated in the same way as the older saints. There were differences in celebration, of course, depending on the time of the year and the importance of the saint at a particular monastery. For instance, St Edmund had a more significant position at Bury St Edmunds than he had at, say, Westminster Abbey. Despite these differences, the daily celebration of the divine office nonetheless was a liturgical wheel within the greater liturgical wheel of the temporale.

Day of Judgement
Triptych by Hans Memling, fifteenth century
Courtesy of Wikimedia

The liturgical year as a recreation of the life and times of Christ points to one interesting difference between medieval historiography and literature pertaining to the cult of the saints, i.e. hagiography and liturgy. While historiography - through the Orosian approach - was largely modelled on the Old Testament, hagiography and liturgy were chiefly concernced with the imitatio Christi of the saints. This does not mean that historiography did not employ motifs from the New Testament or that liturgy did not refer to events of the Old Testament, but we see that historiography and liturgy focus on different parts of the Bible. In this way we can sense that historiographical writing and liturgical celebration form a kind of unity in the way that they each emphasise different parts of the Bible and together create a whole within which medieval men and women navigate their way towards Heaven.

When we consider the multiple layers of time that permeated the life of a medieval monk or a nun, there is little reason to separate the monk as a writer of history from the monk as a partaker in the daily rhythm of the liturgical year. Consequently, when we consider a medieval monk's historical oeuvre, like that of William of Malmesbury, we would do well to remember that his writing must have been heavily informed by liturgical ritual and the theology espoused at the monastery at which he worked. Taking this into consideration, we must also, as Dr. Sønnesyn wisely exhorts us to do, look at points where the liturgical background bleeds into the arrangement of historiography. What implications this has on the presentation of morality of history or the interpretation of worldly events are aspects that must be examined on an individual basis, but must be included in order to represent a medieval monk's literary production as faithfully as possible.