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

torsdag 31. desember 2015

Narrative and Saints' Lives, part II - Saint-collectives and their figureheads

 In a previous blogpost I wrote down some reflections on the structuring of the narrative in stories about saints. This post was prompted by a reading group I've been arranging at the Centre for Medieval Literature in Odense where I work, in which we've read excerpts from Legenda Aurea by Jacobus de Voragine. The present post follows in the same vein, but while the previous post considered narrative in stories which were very brief, I here wish to consider what happens to the narrative when the story contains a great multitude of characters. The post in centred on the story of Saint Ursula and the eleven thousand virgins of Cologne, parts of which legend we translated in the last reading group session of the semester.

I'm also happy to know that the reading group inspired my colleague Alaistair Matthews to blog about his thoughts on the Ursula legend and medieval German literature, which can be read here.

Ursula shielding the virgins in her cloak
Amiens - BM - ms. 0203, f.045, book of hours, use of Rome, 15th century
Courtesy of

The Legend of Ursula

The legend of Ursula has been long in the making, and the story has received elaborating impulses at various points over a long stretch of time. The earliest evidence for a veneration of the virgin martyrs of Cologne is found in an inscription in an old basilica which states that a certain Clematius built this chapel in honour of the martyred virgins of the city. The inscription is believed to be from the fourth, or possibly the fifth, century, and is the foundation for the rest of the legend, although it provides neither names, dates or numbers.

The next step in the development of the legend came in the ninth century, when a sermon was written in natali sanctarum Coloniensum virginum, for the birthday of the holy virgins of Cologne. This birthday refers to the day of their death, considered in the theology of sainthood to be the heavenly birthday of the saint, the day when the saint entered, or was reborn in, Heaven. In this sermon we are for the first time given names and numbers, and it is stated that there were several thousand virgins, foremost of whom was the virgin Pinnosa. The high number of virgins is repeated in the martyrology of Wandalbert of Prüm, c.850, where it is said that there were several thousand of these virgins. This source might have been the Sermo in natali, for the martyrology of Usuard, c.875, only gives the names Martha and Saula and adds that there were several others, and this suggests that the high number of the Sermo had not yet become consensus. However, only a few decades after Usuard the number is set at eleven thousand and this became consensus for the centuries to come.

It was during the course of the tenth century that prose narratives emerged in which the basic story was established: The daughter of a Christian English king, Ursula, is asked for her hand in marriage by a pagan prince. Ursula wants to avoid the marriage, so she asks for a delay of three years, and in this time she summons ten fellow virgins and each of these eleven have a retinue of thousand virgins. They set off in a ship and are borne by the winds to Cologne, and from there they undergo circuitous route which takes them via Basel and Rome back to Cologne again where they are martyred by the Huns. This story is probably derived from an old legend, a version of which is also found in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the British Kings, where we find Ursula, eleven thousand noble virgins, and their retinue of sixty thousand young women. 

The ships sailing to Cologne
MS Egerton 3028, f.7, Wace, Roman de Brut, 14th century
Courtesy of British Library

By the thirteenth century, in the time when Jacobus was compiling the Legenda Aurea, the legend had become very elaborate. In the version recorded by Jacobus, Ursula demands that her bethroted is baptized, and she wants to bring the non-Christian virgins of her retinue to baptism as well, thus giving Ursula a more active and apostolic role. As in the above-mentioned legend, Ursula demands ten virgins to follow her, and a retinue of thousand virgins for each of the eleven. The virgins are then brought in from all over the world, and a special mention is made of Gerasina of Sicily who joins Ursula - though not herself a virgin - and brings her five children with her. This is a crucial point in the story, that in addition to the eleven thousand virgins there is a multitude of followers of both sexes who, as it is said, joins this new knighthood of Ursula, all bent on martyrdom.

The virgins and their followers then set out on the route described above and when they arrive in Rome they are greeted by Pope Cyriacus who is British and also fictional. Cyriacus joins up with the virgins and they all leave for Cologne, together with a number of other bishops who had held offices in cities as diverse as Ravenna, Lucca and Antioch. In addition, we learn that Ursula's husband-to-be, Ethereus, is also compelled by an angelic message to leave Britain where he has been residing and go to Cologne to meet his martyrdom.

At this stage in the story we are introduced to the first antagonists of the story, two scheming pagan commanders of the Roman army called Maximus and Africanus. They are concerned that this massive array of Christians "would make the Christian religion flourish overmuch", and so they plot to bring about the death of Ursula and her companions. They therefore communicate with their kinsman Julius, who despite his name and familial relations is the chief of the Huns, and he agrees to march on Cologne and slaughter the Christians. When all the groups of people finally converge on Cologne, it is Justus who plays the role as the traditional tempter as we find it in the classical accounts of virgin martyrs. For as the Huns are slaughtering the Christians, Justus becomes so dazzled by Ursula's beauty that he asks her to marry him. She refuses, and Justus shoots and arrow through her.

The last section of the legend as recounted by Jacobus tells of one virgin, Cordula, who had hidden in the ships during the massacre, but gave up herself and was martyred on the next day, leaving her outside the celebration of the martyrs.

Ursula's martyrdom by a Hun's arrow
Mans (Le) - BM - ms. 0688, f.028, book of hours, c.1435-1440
Courtesy of

Narrative and characters

The account in Legenda Aurea reads more like a chivalric romance rather than a saint's life, and this has been the case since the earliest prose narratives about the virgins of Cologne. The level of elaboration, however, the numerous characters, the profusion of sub-plots and the gathering of people from a wide-ranging geographical spectre, all these are typical of the chivalric romance as this genre came about in the twelfth century, the century which also saw a new surge in the cult of the eleven thousand virgins.

It is interesting to note the strategies employed to make the narrative more accessible to the reader or the listener. The various sub-plots of Gerasina of Sicily, Pope Cyriacus, the Bishop of Greece and his widowed sister, and others, all contribute to make the narrative more episodic. This in turns creates a different curve of suspense than what we find in most other narratives of Legenda Aurea, where the trajectory is more straightforward, more formulaic. Ursula and her companions, however, do not follow the typical trajectory, but rather a trajectory which might be said to bear greater resemblance to that of errant knights in the romances - except that the journey of the virgins are guided by divine power and angelic messages.

Another aspect which emphasises the similarity between chivalric romance and the Ursula story is the wide geographic scope. Ursula's followers come from all over Christendom, from locations which are both exotic and more familiar, at least to the continental audience. Ravenna, Lucca, Sicily, Antioch, Britain, Greece, all these are place-names thrown in seemingly to provide that blend of familiar and exotic which is so typical of the chivalric romance. For example, in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, written in the early 13th century, we find figures like Morholt of Ireland, Lot the king of Norway, Count Lanzidant of Greenland, Kingrisin king of Ascalon and Ipomidon of Babylon, to mention only a few of the most exotic members of the cast. This wide-reaching geographic blend is a staple of the chivalric romance, and in the abovementioned History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, we read how King Arthur subdued a wide range of kingdoms, as illustrated in the chronicle of Peter Langtoft, seen below.

Arthur standing on the crowns he has conquered
MS Royal 20 A II, f.4, English miscellany, c.1307-c.1327
Courtesy of British Library

It is of course natural that a narrative containing such a multitude of characters is in dire need of figureheads and focal points. This explains for instance the various sub-plots of the story, which I suspect should be seen as a sign of inspiration taken from the numerous chivalric romances written in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Through these sub-plots, Ursula maintains her role as the architecture of the grand scheme, but it also allows for some pauses from the main action and the introduction to new characters which adds faces and thus personality to a massive blob of around seventy thousand persons marching on Cologne. However, it is worth noting that Ursula is the only protagonist character who is featured throughout the story. Eutherius, her husband, appears twice but is largely inactive, while Gerasina, Cyriacus and the unfortunate Cordula are given their time in the limelight and then never mentioned again - with the possible exception of Cyriacus who is mentioned leaving Rome, but as he has also been featured in the preceding paragraph it might still be said to be a continuous sub-plot. In this way, we are given a long list of names which allow us to create some mental images of the characters involved, but they are treated very briefly. However, since Ursula is the only properly recurring character, she is the one most easily imprinted on the mind of the audience. In a way, it seems like the secondary character are there to lift up Ursula as the main protagonist, like a choir is meant to bring out the soloist more strongly in a musical performance. In this way, the multitude is given several heads but only one figurehead.

Another explanation for the various characters might be to add some verisimilitude to the story by mentioned geographical localities which exist in the real world and which therefore act as guarantors of the account's veracity. To such a strategy it is of no significance that in the temporal setting of this narrative - which Jacobus argues must be set in the mid-fifth century, there was no queen of Sicily, and there was no pope called Cyriacus.

Regardless the explanation for the multitude of secondary characters, the need for a primary protagonist is evident. We can ask ourselves why Ursula ended up as this figurehead rather than Pinnosa mentioned in Sermo in natali sanctarum Coloniensum virginum, but ultimately it is only to be expected that an unwieldy mass of virgins needed at least one named figurehead so that the faithful can direct their prayers more easily, or so that the story is lifted out of mere myth, which is what happens easily when no names are attached to such a massive body of saints.

Ursula and Gerasina
Châteauroux - BM - ms. 0002, f.376, breviary, use of Paris, c.1414
Courtesy of

Ursula and the virgins
MS Royal 13 A IX, f.4, Francesco Roseti of Verona, before 1547
Courtesy of British Library

Concluding thoughts

In the medieval calendars and collections of saints' lives we find several feasts which commemorate groups of saints, men and women grouped together because they had shared eminence in their holy works. In the Legenda Aurea alone we find for instance chapters titled "The Seven Brothers", "The Seven Sleepers", "Saint Adrian and His Companions", "Saint Cyriacus and His Companions" (not to be confused with the character in the Ursula legend", "Saint Hippolytus and His Companions", "The Four Crowned Martyrs", and a few more. In most of these stories there are some saints who are more prominent than the others, and the often low number of companions makes it easier to accept these groups, yet even they have their figureheads.

The need for such figureheads can be exemplified not only by the fact that Ursula has become the leader of the group even though hers is not the oldest name featured in the legend. Another instance can be found in a Norwegian legend most likely based on the story of Ursula. This legend is that of Sanctorum in Selio, the holy of Selje. This legend tells of an Irish princess who escaped marriage to a pagan prince by fleeing to Norway. They were brought to the coast of Selje, which is a small portion of the the Western Norwegian coast. When the pagans came after them, Sunniva prayed for deliverance and the holy were buried in an avalanche of rocks. We don't know exactly how old this story is, but we know that the story was known in the mid-eleventh century from references in Adam of Bremen's History of the Diocese of Hamburg. The name of this princess, however, was not given until the twelfth century, when the relics of these men and women were translated to Bergen. She was then called Sunniva, and she is now one of Norway's four saints. That Sunniva emerges as the leader for the group as a late development in the legend is similar to what we see in Ursula, and points to the need for a figurehead in a group of saints as a phenomenon not limited to the legend of the virgins of Cologne.

This need for figureheads is probably not limited only to the medieval cult of saints, especially since there are plenty of postmedieval collectives of saints that are officially recognized. We have for instance the forty martyrs of England and Wales, or the martyrs of Nagasaki in 1622, but I'm not sufficiently familiar with these cases to know whether any figureheads emerged. It will, however, be interesting to see the development of the collective of saints canonized by the Armenian church earlier this year. In commemoration of the genocide of the Armenians in 1915, the Armenian church canonized all 1.5 million victims of the persecution, and the question is whether anyone, and if so who, will emerge as leaders and figureheads of the possibly biggest saint-collective in Christian history.

Ursula and the virgins in the most traditional depiction
Mâcon - BM - ms. 0003, f.003, Jacobus de Voragine, Légende dorée, c.1470
Courtesy of


Farmer, David, Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 2005

Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, translated by William Granger Ryan, Princeton University Press, 2012

Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival, translated by A. T. Hatto, Penguin Classics, 1980

fredag 25. desember 2015

Ruminations on the ivory tower

As a historian by education I have spent most of my adult life in academia. This means that I have become exposed to the prejudices that come from both sides, both from academics who think that people outside academia are hopelessly ignorant, and from non-academics who think academics to be out of touch with the real world. I'm quite sure most of my fellow scholars have been in touch with these ideas one way or the other. Personally I consider both these sides to be indulging in caricatures and I have little patience for either, but naturally there are some people from both within and without academia who come dangerously close to their respective caricatures.

In my current job as a PhD candidate at the Centre for Medieval Literature in Odense, Denmark, part of the many aspects of my work deals with impact and outreach, i.e. how to ensure how my research can be made available and accessible beyond the Centre itself. This has been a long-standing preoccupation for me as well, and this is part of why this blog has developed from its original travelogue form towards its current form as a channel for disseminating information about my research and reading. To my mind, academic research must have as one of its purposes to be made accessible to non-specialists so that the research can actually be of use to the public discourse. This is perhaps particularly pertinent to medievalists whose subject matter is perennially a topic in non-specialist discourse, yet often without regard for the latest research on the matter itself - which is why so many myths about the Middle Ages persist so very strongly even in our time.

I was reminded of all this today when I was having a chat with my mother, and she wanted me to tell about what I had been up to lately at work. Not knowing where to start, I began talking about some of things that had taken most of my time in the week before leaving for home. This spiralled into a sprawling and eclectic conversation jumping from one topic to the next, only briefly touching directly on my own research. We were joined later by my father as I was explaining the origins of the cult of saints, and the conversation kept going on to medieval manuscripts, Reformation history and church history.

This latter topic is of some particular interest to my family since we live just a few hundred meters from where the medieval church of our village, Hyen, once stood. This is a church we know very little about, and I have only seen it mentioned twice in the ecclesiastical diplomas from the fourteenth century. Nothing remains from the structure itself, and it is likely that it was a wooden church, or that perhaps its stonework became embedded in the cellar walls of the nearby farms. No excavation has been undertaken, and today it is only marked by a menhir which was raised in its commemoration in the 1950s.

This church is the only proper connection my home village has to the Middle Ages, and it is apt to provoke some speculation. My father became triggered by our talk of manuscripts and started thinking of the sources that he thought must once have been there, such as books containing details about baptisms and weddings, arguing that these details must have been kept to provide data for the tax collectors and eventual disputes. It struck me how natural such expectations are to a modern mind, accustomed as we are to a wealth of paper and information. For my father, these convictions were perhaps all the more easily entertained because he is a sexton at the modern village church and a part of his job is to write down these details in the registers. I then took the opportunity to explain just how precious vellum was, and that our church was likely to have been a somewhat poor church, and that it might not even have had an entire bible among its possessions.

My father's expectations and his modern vantage point opened up for me a series of speculations about what our local priests might have had in terms of books, and that forced me to put together facts with conjecture, mingling what I knew from my academic work and what little information we have available about the church which once stood near our farm.

Later that evening I went with my father to help him with a few things in church, and as we were finishing he showed me the church registers which are kept there, looking up the details for the day of my baptism back in 1987 and the day of my confirmation in 2002. It was quite amazing to see these documents both from a personal and from a historian's point of view, and it became all the more clear to me what expectations a modern mind might have regarding medieval source materials.

All in all, my talk with my parents reminded me once again why it is so crucial that academics not only stick to their own when discussing and disseminating their work. When I'm talking with my colleagues at lunch, for instance, or at a conference, we have a common frame of reference which is radically different from the frames of reference that non-specialists can be expected to have. This is why it is sometimes quite easy to talk about work to fellow medievalists, even though we have our own specializations to bridge. But precisely because my parents are not schooled in medieval history, I need to engage more with basic matters, matters which I most often take for granted and therefore might not problematize sufficiently well. Furthermore, when I have to explain what I otherwise would find superfluous to explain, I am taken down those routes which might lead me to apply knowledge more conjecturally than is the norm in academic work. I'm therefore quite happy that my parents open up these paths to me in this way.

fredag 18. desember 2015

Some thoughts on an inclusive syllabus - gender

Jousting women
BL MS Royal 2 B VII, f.197v, psalter, England, between 1310 and 1320
Courtesy of British Library

A few days ago, November 30, academic and blogger Erin Wunker launched an appeal to fellow academics for crafting syllabi that emphasised inclusiveness and diversity. The appeal was disseminated on Twitter via the hashtag inclusivesyllabus, devised by Wunker's co-blogger Aimée Morrison (Associate Professor at University of Waterloo). I myself became aware of this appeal thanks to medievalist Dorothy Kim who picked itand redirected it more specifically to teachers of the pre-1500 eras. What followed was an engaging discussion about various ways in which to make syllabi more inclusive. Some of the suggestions that arose were collected in storify by Jonathan Hsy, and it became evident that there were many ways to go about making a syllabus more inclusive.

Personally, as a historian of medieval texts, I embrace the idea of an inclusive syllabus because a history syllabus should reflect historical reality, and the reality is that the medieval world was both diverse and complex (though often not inclusive in the modern sense). In this blogpost I wish to present some of my ideas for an inclusive syllabus, ideas which emerged in the course of the Twitter discussion, and which I think are more easily fleshed out here. In the following I will only address one topic, and hopefully I will return to other topics in later blogposts. Since this post is the result of a collaborative discussion my ideas were inspired by the suggestions of several people, sometimes in agreement, sometimes in opposition. I will try my best to provide due acknowledgement for these ideas, and if some readers who participated in this discussion feel they have been forgotten, please let me know.

The following is a set of works, themes and strategies by which I believe a syllabus of a course in medieval studies can become more inclusive. It is worth noting that this is not an exhaustive list by any means. It is also worth noting that the following does not comprise a syllabus of its own, but that it is intended to provide ideas for those who are designing their own syllabi. Moreover, I want to emphasise that a great number of participants in this dicussion come from literary studies, while I myself have a background predominantly from history. This means that my perspective will be somewhat different, and it also means that many suggestions might be more suitable for history rather than, say, English courses. However, I'm of the opinion that to teach medieval literature without also bringing in medieval history to provide a context for this literature is shoddy and wrong.

A final remark worth making is that the degree and level of diversity and inclusiveness in a medieval studies syllabus depends very much on the course itself. I for my part would love to design a course which was centred on precisely the diversity of medieval history. However, even though syllabi can often emphasise diversity only up to a point, the important thing is to be aware that measures can be taken to ensure an increased attention to diversity, both in introductory courses and more specialised courses.

Marie de France writing her lais
Bibliothèque nationale de France - BnF, Arsenal Library, Ms. 3142 f. 256, France, 1285-92
Courtesy of Wikimedia

Suggestions for inclusive syllabi - gender

Scholarship and secondary reading

There are many ways in which a syllabus can be made more inclusive, and a good place to start is to make sure that the reading list includes scholarship done by both men and women. In medieval studies, this is not difficult at all: Many brilliant scholars, both male and female, have contributed to the field of medieval studies for decades, and to have both men and women is important not only because it is more inclusive but also because that often is the only way to accurately represent the contributions done in a field of medieval scholarship. Once when I was a teaching assistant at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, after having finished my MA thesis, I was approached by one of the female history students who asked if I could give her some names of female academics. She made it quite clear that she wanted someone of her own gender to look up to, and in a field like history I can understand that very well as it often comes across - at least to first-year students - that history is largely written, and enacted, by men. Having done my MA thesis on the cult of Saint Edward the Confessor in the High Middle Ages, I was not short on suggestions and ended up compiling a long list of female academics whom I had myself relied on for my dissertation. To provide students with the sensation that they have someone from their own gender to look up to, and via those role models to be reassured that their gender does not prohibit a career in a field of medieval studies, is one of the cornerstones of an inclusive syllabus.

The same point, that students need to feel represented, should also be made when it comes to ethnicity. However, in medieval studies - especially history - that is less easily done simply because a vast majority of medieval scholarship is conducted by Caucasian men and women in Europe and in North America. When possible, inclusion of relevant scholarship by non-Caucasian academics is a positive thing and is to be encouraged. 

Catherine of Siena
Autun - BM - ms. 0269, f.170v, Book of Hours, Use of Autun, c.1480-1490
Courtesy of

Female medieval authors

The majority of recorded medieval history is dominated by men. The majority of known individuals from the Middle Ages, both in the political sphere, the religious sphere, the cultural sphere, the mercantile sphere and so on, are men. Most of the texts written in the Middle Ages were written by men and largely for men. This is how the situation is, and the majority of primary sources for a syllabus in medieval studies is most likely to be comprised of male writers or male authors (not always the same thing in the Middle Ages), unless the course was designed specifically to teach female writers, which would be an interesting challenge. The problem, however, is not that most medieval sources were written by men, this is to be expected. The problem arises when the many female influences on medieval texts are ignored, and it is here an inclusive syllabus can make an important difference.

Although most medieval authors were men, we have quite a list of female authors as well and these can be employed in a wide range of syllabi, covering several angles and subjects. Since women in the Middle Ages had several restrictions for how they could participate in society. However, many women did become notable authors, for instance due to their education as nuns. Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that many authors did not themselves write the works they authored, but dictated them to a scribe. This also meant that the literacy was not necessarily the obstacle we might think it is. I also want to point to Hildegard of Bingen for a case where lack of education was seen as a strong point. In her collection of celestial visions Scivias, Hildegard emphasises her insufficient education and lifts it up as a mark of the authenticity of her vision. Because she is lacking rhetorical prowess and can only describe her visions in simple words, her prose is also - she argues - more true, more accessible, more accurate. This claim of superiority in content through inferiority in style is a timeworn topos of much medieval writing and originated in part in opposition to the rhetoric of pagan writers of the early Christian period. Hildegard is here following an old tradition, but she employs the motif as a woman: Since she, as a woman, is less educated than high-ranking churchmen, her prose is untouched - thus not falsified - by rhetorical ornament.

It is also important to note that although there were many medieval femal writers and authors, several female voices gained dissemination through the translation of their words into Latin. This was the case with Saint Birgitta of Sweden whose revelations were translated by her confessor. In the case of some Italian female recluses who became venerated as saints, their stories were also written down into Latin by their male, mendicant confessors. The stories and the content of the works came from women, but word and content was shaped by men educated in the hagiographic genre.

Despite social restrictions, women could become powerful voices in their age, and could be ardent critics of men of powers, be they kings or popes, such as Birgitta of Sweden and Catherine of Siena respectively. Most of the primary sources from the Middle Ages which have a female authorship are religious works since it was in the religious sphere could be most active and could most easily express themselves in literature. These works, however, are applicable not only to religious matters but can be used to explore several aspects of medieval culture. 

Christine de Pizan
BL MS Harley 4431, various works by Christine de Pizan, France, c.1410-c.1414
Courtesy of British Library

Below is an incomplete list of female late-antique and medieval authors which provides important suggestions to elements of an inclusive syllabus:

Anna Komnene, The Alexiad

Anonymous nun of Barking Abbey, Life of Edward the Confessor (in Anglo-Norman verse)

Birgitta of Sweden, Revelations

Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies; The Treasure of the City of Ladies

Clemence of Barking, Life of Saint Catherine (in Anglo-Norman verse)

Egeria, The Pilgrimage

Elisabeth von Schönau, various works

Hadewijch of Brabant, various works

Heloise, Letters

Hildegard von Bingen, Scivias

Hrothsvita of Gandersheim, various works

Jorunn Skáldmær, skaldic extracts preserved in The Prose Edda

Margery Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe

Marie de France, Lais

Medieval women as patrons

As was pointed out by Erica Weaver, medieval women of power - either as queens or abbesses - were important patrons of arts and were the dedicatees of many important works of medieval literature. Chrétien de Troyes, for instance had Marie duchess of Champagne as his patron, and Marie's mother Eleanor of Aquitaine was the patron of writers such as Wace and Benoit de Sainte-Maure. One of the perhaps most interesting cases of female medieval patronage is Queen Emma of England who commissioned the historiographical work now known as Encomium Emmae Reginae (alternately Gesta Cnutonis). This latter work is available in translation and has been the subject of much excellent scholarship.

Emma receiving the encomium
BL MS Add. 33241, Encomium Emmae Reginae eleventh century
Courtesy of Wikimedia

It is here important to note that although female literacy was generally lower than the literacy of men, literacy in the Middle Ages is not the same as being familiar with literature. In the Middle Ages, reading was a communal activity and one person would often read aloud to others, either during mealtimes in the monastery, in the royal court, or in the families of nobles and the merchants. Precisely since the ability to read was so limited, those who could read were often given the task of reading to others, and sometimes work could be recited from memory - which was made easier by writing in verse, and which is why prose texts could sometimes be rendered into verse as a mnemonic tool. Medieval literature had a strong oral element we sometimes tend to overlook.

Medieval female saints

In addition to teaching works authored by women, an inclusive syllabus also needs to contain works written about women, even though these works were authored by men. One helpful perspective here is history, where legal documents of various kinds provide examples of the the roles, the constrictions, but also the possibilities of women in the Middle Ages. Even in a literature course, it would be a great addition to provide some historical context for the lives of medieval women, for women in the Middle Ages were not secondary characters to historical events although they have been made to be so by traditional historiographical works.

Four female saints (the Magdalene, Mary of Egypt, Margaret and one more)
BL MS Royal 2 B VII, f.308, psalter, England, between 1310 and 1320
Courtesy of British Library

One field in which the role of women, the perception of women and the importance of women in the Middle Ages can be seen is in the cult of saints. I emphasise this field because the cult of saints is my own particular field, so I am more than a little biased. Nonetheless, I maintain that in the cult of saints we see the convergence of many subjects and many perspectives which are useful to the topic at hand. For instance, when reading texts pertaining to medieval female saints, we can in some cases grasp the outlines of the historicity of the lives of these women (though that historicity has been obscured by the pre-requisites of hagiography). We can also be able to detect how male medieval writers viewed women. A great number of such writers held a view of women which was tinged with various degrees of misogyny inherited largely from patristic writers and parts of the Biblical narrative, and which was cultivated by a monastic environment in which celibacy and separation of the sexes were seen as crucial steps towards spiritual perfection. Also secular writers, like Giovanni Boccaccio, were likely to hold such views of the feminine. However, men who wrote down hagiographies for women were faced with a subject which had attained holiness and yet belonged to what was considered the weaker sex. In these hagiogaphies, therefore, male writers were compelled to provide a more nuanced depiction of women, and even though they might exude a more negative attitude to women in general they at least had to acknowledge that their protagonists were holy persons.

The cult of saints is an important source for an inclusive syllabus, not only because it is a repository for mixed attitudes towards women, but also because women themselves could write hagiographies. I've mentioned above the Life of Saint Catherine written by Clemence of Barking, for instance. Clemence's Life was, however, an adaptation, a vernacular version of an existing legend.The norm was that men were the ones writing the Latin, seminal lives, such as when Goscelin of Saint-Bertin and Osbert of Clare were commissioned to write the vitae of English female monastics who were believed to be saints. In the genre of hagiography, however, we see an interesting intersection of men and women in the cases where the lives of the women were dictated by the women themselves in the vernacular and then translated into Latin as the vita of that woman by a male figure, often her confessor. This is believed to be the case with Christina Markyate in the twelfth century, and became a widespread trend in the emergence of cults of female recluses in Italy in the thirteenth and fourteenth century. In the case of the Italian ascetic women, their confessors and/or hagiographers were often monks of the Dominican and Franciscan orders who sought to make of these women examples for others to follow, and who also were likely to give these vita a certain mendicant spin. This relationship between a female author and a male writer, translator and editor is an interesting area of study, and there are numerous examples of this relationship. As mentioned above, the same relationship goes for male scribes who latinized the visions and polemics of women religious who later became saints, such as Birgitta of Sweden, but in those cases we can at least expect that the author has been active in the editing process, whereas in the case of hagiographies the author and protagonist has been dead for some time by the time the hagiography is published.

Elizabeth of Hungary reading
Chambéry - BM - ms. 0004, f. 652, Franciscan breviary, Milan, c.1430
Courtesy of

During the Middle Ages, there were many female saints which were venerated throughout Christendom. Some of these women were mythical and belonged to such a distant past that their mere historicity is dubious, namely SS Margaret, Lucy, Agnes, Agatha, Catherine of Alexandria, Barbara and others. Some were results of more slowly coalescing legends, as in the cases of SS Ursula, and Sunniva of Norway. Other women were historical, although veneration and hagiography naturally added some sediments of myth to their stories, such as Eadburga of Winchester, Elizabeth of Hungary, or Margaret of Scotland. This rich repository of medieval stories about women is a great and needful addition to an inclusive medievalist syllabus.

Below is a list of some lives of female saints available in English translation:

Anonymous, The Life of Christina Markyate (Oxford World Classics)

Clemence of Barking, Life of Saint Catherine (Everyman)

Geoffrey of Burton, Life and Miracles of St Modwenna (Oxford Medieval Texts)

Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, texts on the female saints of Ely (Oxford Medieval Texts)

Niketas Magistros, Life of Theoktistes of Lesbos (Dumbarton Oaks)

Raymond of Capua, The Life of Agnes of Montepulciano (Dominican nuns of summit)

Shorter versions of legends and lives can be found in Jacobus de Voragine's The Golden Legend (Princeton University Press). For a more detailed studies of these women, it is also necessary to work with their liturgical offices.

In addition to these female saints, it is of course important to remember the omnipresent cult of the Virgin Mary, which resulted in an expansive body of literature, both in Latin and in the vernacular. This subject is too big for this present blogpost, but should not be overlooked as it covers both religious and secular literature, hymns, liturgical offices, miracle collections and prose narratives. 

Mary of Egypt
BL MS Royal 20 D VI, Lives of the saints, Wauchier de Denain, France, 13th century
Courtesy of British Library

Women also appear in medieval texts as representatives of otherness, but this is a subject I hope to cover in a later blogpost.

mandag 14. desember 2015

Two hymns for Advent

Advent is well under way and this has been a particularly busy month for me with several projects that have needed my attention. Now things are finally starting to calm down, and as I prepare to finish my last days in Denmark before Christmas, I want to share with you two of my all-time favourite Advent hymns, which have been a part of my Christmas experience ever since I was a child, and which still bring me very fond memories of Christmas in Western Norway.

The first one is a Norwegian version of a hymn traditionally attributed to Ambrose of Milan, namely Veni Redemptor Gentium, "come redeemer of the peoples".  Whether this attribution to Ambrose is correct is beyond my knowledge. However, there is reason to be suspicious of such claims, as many hymns written in the style instigated by Ambrose at Milan have been wrongly attributed to him. It has therefore proved difficult to distinguish between hymns by Ambrose and Ambrosian hymns, the latter being hymns composed in the Milanese style inspired by the sainted bishop. Back home, this hymn is traditionally sung by the congregation in one of the first Advent services, and since this is often before I have returned home it has been a while since I heard it.

The second hymn is much younger than Veni redemptor. It has traditionally been dated to the twelfth century, but its oldest appearance dates to the eighteenth century.

BL MS Egerton 809, gospel lectionary, Germany, Swabia, 12th century
Courtesy of British Library
Folkefrelsar til oss kom

Adoration of the shepherds
BL MS Additional 52539, Italian book of hours, c.1390-c.1400
Courtesy of British Library

fredag 27. november 2015

A Vision of Mammon on Black Friday

The most intransigent spam messages in today's inbox have told me that today is Black Friday. I normally don't proselytise on this blog, but I make an exception for some issues and I will make an exception this time. As a farm-boy from a small rural village of Western Norway it is hard to identify and to comprehend some of the workings and going-ons of higher capitalism, but now as a PhD candidate I find it more and more difficult not to get inundated by the sundry pernicious stratagems that businesses concoct to attract more buyers and to accelerate consumerism. To me there is something deeply disturbing and immoral about this type of extreme capitalist-induced consumerism, used as I am from childhood that things should last and if they broke they could be repaired.

As a medievalist familiar with the Bible and biblical language, it is difficult not to wax slightly gloomy and launch into Jeremiads on the subject. The Bible contains many poignant words on the subject, but in this instance I leave the words to the Caribbean poet Kendel Hippolyte, born in Saint Lucia, who wrote an evocative poem called Mammon in his poetry collection Birthright (Peepal Tree 1997).

The destruction of Baal's altar, and Gideon's sacrifice
BL MS Royal 2 B VII, psalter, England, between 1310 and 1320
Courtesy of British Library

ghost, guardian-spirit of banks, trans-national Corporations,
daylight deals in air-conditioned sewers
ghoul, eating the flesh of our dead childhood
ghost, effluvium of the rotting innocence in the skull-vault
ghost, smoke-screen between my self and your self
whose language is a hissing yes to vice
who salivates hypocrisies and sleeks the tongue with moss
who slithers between Man and Woman
who multiplies us only to divide
who adds and then subtracts to zero
ghost, slick as night-wet city streets
vinyl-skinned and glittering with devices
whose rock-pit is a gold-mine near Johannesburg
watching our children growing
never-closing nickel eyes minting their images
watch him, this god
rattle like dice, like thirty pieces of silver
watch him
flick and rustle a green promising tongue
watch him
grin like a wallet opening
watch him
as he whispers to you now.

torsdag 26. november 2015

The Ash Plant, by Seamus Heaney

November is usually the month when all the projects planned or merely dreamed of throughout the autumn comes crashing into reality to eat the days and weeks with a rapacious hunger. At this point, I'm past the most hectic period but since there's not much energy left for blogging, I'll put up this beautiful poem by Seamus Heaney, published in Seeing Things (Faber & Faber 1991).

Dropwort and ash
BL MS Egerton 747, herbal miscellany, various authors, Salerno, between c.1280 and c.1310
Courtesy of British Library

The Ash Plant

He'll never rise again but he is ready. Entered like a mirror by the morning,
He stares out the big window, wondering,
Not caring if the day is bright or cloudy.

An upstairs outlook on the whole country.
First milk-lorries, first smoke, cattle, trees
In damp opulence above damp hedges -
He has it to himself, he is like a sentry

Forgotten and unable to remember
The whys and wherefores of his lofty station,
Wakening relieved yet in position,
Disencumbered as a breaking comber.

As his head goes light with light, his wasting hand
Gropes desperately and finds the phantom limb
Of an ash plant in his grasp, which steadies him.
Now he has found his touch he can stand his ground

Or wield the stick like a silver bough and come
Walking again among us: the quoted judge.
I could have cut a better man out of the hedge!
God might have said the same, remembering Adam.

mandag 16. november 2015

The Emptiness of Royal Gain


In the histories of kings it is a commonplace to find stories about ambitious men who rose high, achieved a sought-for throne, only to fall miserably a short time afterwards. Many great stories, true as well as fictional, are woven around this basic premise, and those of us who study medieval history are bound to encounter a fair share of such accounts, either in the guise of cautionary tales or as chronicled incidents. In the histories concerning medieval Norway prior to the twelfth century, such tales abound with such frequency that they seem sometimes endless. I have chosen a brief excerpt from one of these histories as an example. The excerpt in question comes from the book called Historia Norwegie, the first Latin account of Norwegian history that we know of. It was written in the middle of the twelfth century, but we know neither where nor by whom. Historia Norwegie is a rich and entertaining exposition of the geography and the royal history of medieval Norway.

After an account of the geography of Norway and its tributary islands including Iceland and the Orkneys, the historiographer begins his chronicle of Norwegian kings from the earliest period. Up until the time of Harald Fairhair in the 9th century, this chronicle is essentially a list of deaths following each other in quick succession, as will be seen.

Aun fathered Egill, nicknamed Vendilkráki, who was deprived of his kingdom by his own slave, named Tunni. The slave raised civil strife against his master in eight battles and won the Victory in all of them; he fell in the ninth, vanquished at last, but the kinghimself was soon afterwards gored to death by a ferocious bull. He was succeeded in the realm by his son Óttarr who was killed by a namesake
- Historia Norwegie, translated by Devra Kunin, printed in Phelpstead 2001

Sadly, there are no depictions of this brief footnote in the history of royal demise, so instead I have chosen to let this illumination of the death of Philippe le Bel of France serve as an illustration.

Paris - Bibl. Sainte-Geneviève - ms. 1128 , f.346,
Boccaccio's Noble Men and Women, 15th century, Paris
Courtesy of

Similar blogposts:

Submarine oxen of Northern Norway

An explanation of tidewater by Adam of Bremen

Beavers in Historia Norwegie

Harald Fairhair and his dead queen (from Ágrip)

Bearded women in Norway and the Far East

torsdag 12. november 2015

Sanctity in Milan, part 4 - The Flayed Bartholomew

This series of blogposts is inspired by a work-trip to Milan which the Centre for Medieval Literature arranged this September, and aims to present some of the many stories and cultural expressions connected to the cult of saints in and/or related to the city's history.

This post is a rather short one, presenting the famous sculpture of the flayed Saint Bartholomew, which is situated by the transept of the cathedral of Milan. The statue, finished in 1562, was made by Marco d'Agrate, a fact which he proudly displays in the legend on the stone underneath Bartholomew's feet. The text reads: Non me Praxiteles, sed Marc'finxit Agrat, "Not Praxiteles, but Marco d'Agrate made me". By this comparison to one of the greatest and most famous sculptors of the classical era Marco placed his own worth at the very summit of the artistic expression then in vogue in Late-Renaissance Italy. (Photographs taken by me.)

The gruesome and gruesomely realistic depiction of the flayed saint is not only intended to convey one of the most famous details from the story of Saint Bartholomew, it also serves to highlight Marco d'Agrate's intimate anatomical knowledge and his ability to render stone into the semblance of living flesh, where tendons and muscles are as well-crafted as the hairs of his dangling head-skin, worn in a manner not unlike the traditional depictions of Herakles draped in the skin of the Nemean lion.

The story of Bartholomew's martyrdom inspired a wide range of depictions of the saint throughout the medieval and early modern periods, and as a consequence his iconographic attribute is the knife by which he was flayed. It is also for this reason he is seen as the patron saint of tanners and all other trades related to the treatment of hide. According to the traditional, and rather apochryphal, legend, Bartholomew met his death in India where he was preaching the word of God. In Legenda Aurea the episode itself is briefly recounted as follows:

[T]he king tore the purple robe he was wearing, and ordered the apostle to be beaten with Clubs and flayed alive. Christians then took his body and gave it honorable burial. King Astyages and the temple priests were seized by demons and died.
- Jacobus de Voragine,
The Golden Legend, translated by William Granger Ryan, Princeton University Press, 2012: 498

The manner of Bartholomew's death was given a similar, but less horrific rendition in Michelangelo's Last Judgement, in which the saint has been given the features of the playwright, poet and infamous pornographer Pietro Aretino.

Bartholomew Aretino
From Wikimedia

For similar blogposts, see:

Sanctity in Milan, part 1

Sanctity in Milan, part 2

Sanctity in Milan, part 3

On the late-medieval iconographic development of Saint Sebastian

lørdag 31. oktober 2015

Torquato the badger-poet

In a previous blogpost I had a closer look at some adaptations of William Shakespeare in Italian comic book stories from the Disney universe. Since the beginning of the Italian production of comics about Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse in the 1950s, a wide range of works from world literature have been adapted into stories from the world of Duckburg, in Italian Paperopoli. A range of these adaptations have been collected in a book series issued by Corriere della Sera which is called I classici della letteratura, the classics of literature, presenting these adaptations with information both about the stories themselves and their authors. I am very fond of these adaptations since I grew up with them in Norwegian translations, and they will feature in many blogposts to come. This time I will look briefly at one very charming aspect of an adaptation of Torquato Tasso's (1544-95) epic poem Gerusalemme Liberata, the deliverance of Jerusalem, which was completed in 1575.

Front page of vol.14 in the second edition of I Classici della Letteratura

In 1565 Torquato Tasso settled in Ferrara and became attached to the house of d'Este, and during his time there he wrote a number of plays and poems in addition to his magnum opus. Gerusalemme Liberata is an epic chivalric poem, and in composition Tasso borrowed from that blend of classical epic and chivalric romance which had been made famous by Ludovico Ariosto in the early part of the century. The narrative of the poem is set during the First Crusade and recounts the capture of Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulchre led by Godfrey de Bouillon in 1099, but also heavily interspersed with digressions, love stories and fantastical episodes.

Gerusalemme Liberata has had a great impact on Western culture. For instance, Edmund Spenser was very much inspired by Tasso's poem in the writing his own epic, The Faerie Queene, which he began composing in 1590.  Also John Milton relied on Tasso's imagery for parts of Paradise Lost, and a wide range of operas, songs and paintings have sought to elaborate or focus on elements from Tasso's epic, and in the twentieth century the poem was adapted into a Disney comic.

Opening page of Paperopoli Liberata

The comic book adaptation, Paperopoli Liberata or Duckburg Delivered, was written by Guido Martina and drawn by Giovan Battista Carpi. It was first published in the Italian Topolino magazine (Mickey Mouse) in vols. 598 and 599, respectively issued on 14th and 21st of May, 1967. The epic, medievalesque tone of the adaptation is set already on the opening page where we see a painting of Donald and Scrooge fighting Beagle Boys in stereotypical Saracen armour (note the pointed helmets) and armed with revolvers and machine guns, highlighting the blend of old and new, and perhaps preparing the reader for the fact that the adaptation is set in modern-time Duckburg.

The first lines of the comic book story are adaptations from the opening of Gerusalemme Liberata. In the new rendition the text begins like this (translations from Italian are my own):

Canto l'armi Furiose e il capitano / Chamato Paperino

"I sing of furious arms and the captain / who is called Donald Duck"

While Tasso's poem opens in this way:

Canto l'arme pietose e 'l capitano
che 'l gran sepolcro liberò di Cristo

"I sing of pious arms and the captain
who liberated the great Sepulchre of Christ"

Guido Martina has retained the tone of the epic and necessarily secularised the content, but although the Paperino story is set in a fictional part of America rather than in late-eleventh-century Jerusalem, some elements are still retained and employed in a game of intertextuality. One example of this can be seen below, as a sign tells us that this is the camp of Donald Duck and his nephew, bringing to mind - as is pointed out in the introduction to this volume - the camp of the crusaders in Tasso's epic.

(Note, for instance, that Martina applies "Furiose" with a capital f instead of Tasso's "pietose". This is of course to remove the religious dimension of the poem, but it might also be a nod to Tasso's debt to Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, and perhaps also to Martina's own possible debt to Luciano Bottaro who had composed his adaptation of Ariosto's poem, Paperin Furioso, the year before.)

The story begins with the breaking of the camp and the departure for Paperopoli, and this sequence contains one of the most charming tools of intertextuality I can think of. As the nephews are taking down the tent, they notice that their new friend, a little badger, is saddened by their imminent leaving. The nephews then suggest that he come with them back to Paperopoli, and this makes the badger happy. But how is this intertextuality? Well, simply because this badger is a representation of Torquato Tasso himself, as his surname means "badger" in Italian. This is made crystal clear on the following page, where the little badger turns to the reader and says:

"It is not that I lack speech, it is that I, Torquato the badger, speak in the language of the badgers!"

Torquato the badger is then put in the car and as he departs he looks forward to whatever will transpire next, saying "what a wonderful adventure! I will tell this to my children, and to my children's children". Torquato Tasso is thus in a way reincarnated as Torquato the badger, and he will become the badger-poet who renders in proper verse the story which is about to unfold in Paperopoli.

The Ducks behold Paperopoli, as the crusaders beheld Jerusalem

For similar blogposts, see:

On adaptations of Shakespeare

On an episode from Orlando Furioso

On a painting on a knight errant

Elegy for Edmund Spenser

mandag 26. oktober 2015

Saint Boniface and the Miracle of the Fox

I recently finished reading the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, a collection of stories about saints and miraculous events from Italy and sometimes the nearby world in the sixth century. This opus, divided into four books written in dialogue form between Gregory and the monk Peter - is a huge treasure trove for a medievalist, both for its interesting insights to daily life in Gregory's time, but particularly for a saint scholar such as myself since this book was written at a time when hagiographical typology still was in its first formative period. Many of the stories recounted by Gregory contain similarities with other stories, both earlier and later, and these make for interesting comparisons. The most famous dialogue is undoubtedly the second book, which is a comprehensive hagiographical vita of Benedict of Nursia.

I hope to return to Gregory's Dialogues frequently, and in this blogpost I wish to present you with a miracle that happened to Saint Boniface when he was a young boy:

Boniface used to tend his mother's hens in a yard near the house. Frequently a fox would come from his den nearby and carry off some of the flock. One day when the boy Boniface was standing in the yard, the fox came as usual and took one of them. The boy quickly ran into the church and fell on his knees: 'O God,' he prayed in a loud voice, 'can you be satisfied to see me go hungry at my mother's table? Look! A fox is eating up all our hens!'  The moment he finished the prayer he ran out again. Almost immediately the fox came back, opened his jaws to free the hen, and fell dead at Boniface's feet.
- Gregory the Great, The Dialogues, translated by Odo Zimmerman, 2002: 40-41

The monk Peter finds this story to be a charming account and deems it to be a childish favour (but in a positive way). Gregory then responds that God sometimes fulfill small requests to keep our faith going for greater ones.

In addition to the typological details of this brief account - an animal returning with its prey, the culprit falling dead at the saint's feet - we also see echoes of the age-old iconography of the fox as the trickster and symbol of slyness and theft. This was an iconography which held great currency in the medieval imagination, and it was this which gave us the many stories of Renard the Fox, stories which became so popular that the name "renard" supplanted the word "goupil" as meaning "fox" in the French language.

Fox with duck
MS Royal 2 B VII, English psalter, between 1310 and 1320
Courtesy of British Library

Ai vist lo lop - I saw the wolf
Medieval traditional about a wolf, a fox and a hare
Performed by Arany Zoltán

fredag 16. oktober 2015

Narrative and Saints' Lives, part I - Abdon and Sennen, and the semblance of historicity

At the Centre for Medieval Literature in Odense where I work, we have recently started up a Latin reading group in which we translate selected stories from Legenda Aurea together. Since we are a centre of literary scholars – in various ways – we always talk about the stories as stories and narrative in addition to what grammatical discussions might arise. This has proved to be a very nice forum for talking about various forms of narrative, partly because we have a wide range of expertise among us and partly because the stories themselves – abbreviated renditions of existing tradition – lend themselves very well to narrative analysis. In this series of blogposts, therefore, I aim to present parts of our discussions and talk about points to be made from the stories. I will attempt to talk about elements and points that I raised in the course of our talk, but when I rely on the ideas of others I will do my best to attribute them as precisely as possible.

Abdon and Sennen holding their palms of martyrdom
Avignon - BM - ms. 0136, f.257v, Roman missal, c.1370
Courtesy of

First up is the story of SS Abdon and Sennen, and since their legend is so very short I will here quote it in full length as translated by William Granger Ryan in the 2012 edition of The Golden Legend (Princeton University Press).

Abdon and Sennen suffered martyrdom under the emperor Decius. When Decius had conquered Babylonia and other provinces, he found some Christians in these regions, brought them back to the town of Cordoba, and put them to death with various tortures. Two officials of that area, whose names were Abdon and Sennen, took the martyrs’ bodies and buried them. When the two were denounced and brought before Decius, he had them bound with chains and brought to Rome with him. There in the presence of the emperor and the Senate, they were ordered either to sacrifice and receive their freedom and goods, or to be devoured by wild beasts. They scoffed at the idea of sacrificing and spat upon the idols, so they were dragged to the circus, and two lions and four bears were loosed upon them. The beasts, however, would not touch the saints but rather stood guard around them, so they were put to death by the sword. Then their feet were tied together and their bodies dragged into a temple and thrown in front of an idol representing the sun god. When the bodies had lain there for three days, a subdeacon named Quirinus took them away and buried them in his house. They suffered about A.D. 253.

Later, in the reign of Constantine, the martyrs themselves revealed the whereabouts of their bodies, and Christians transferred them to the cemetery of Pontianus, where the Lord granted many benefits to the people through them.
- Jacobus de Voragine,
Legenda Aurea, translated by William Granger Ryan, 2012: 412

Abdon and Sennen bury the remains of Christians martyrs
Guillaume Courtois, 1656-57
Courtesy of Wikimedia

As can be seen, this is a very compact story and it contains a lot of information and also a wide number of hagiographical topoi. To what extent this story has some truth to its foundation is difficult to assess. This difficulty arises not only from the fact that we lack sources contemporary to the two martyrs, but also because the narrative contains several details which are grounded in historical facts. For instance, Decius was known for his persecutions of Christians, and he did live around the date given, and although he died in 251 and could not have done anything against any Christians in 253, the text saves itself from historical inaccuracy by adding the “about”. Furthermore, that people were taken from Babylonia (which was not the name of the region at the time) all the way to Spain might be based on the Roman practice of transferring auxiliary troops from one end of the empire to the next for the purpose of detaching them from their native power base. These details lend a certain sheen of trustworthiness to the story, and we might speculate whether those are conscious additions made for that particular purpose, or whether we see here a jumbling of vague and confuse memories of a past – but not too distant – century. The reason for thinking so is that although we do not know much about the historicity of Abdon and Sennen, we know that they are included in the Depositio Martyrum which was composed in 354 and accordingly some memory seems to have remained of them (see Farmer’s Oxford Dictionary of Saints for details of their cult).

Abdon and Sennen
Retabula painted by Jaume Huguet, 1459-60
Courtesy of Wikimedia

However, notwithstanding the semblances of historical truth, we also find that several of the details in the narrative can be labelled as hagiographical topoi. The Decian persecutions is a typical historical framework for saints of dubious historicity, and this period is one of three in which such saint stories are usually set, the other two being the persecutions under Nero and the persecutions under Diocletian. These are not the only periods of Roman history to be used as historical backgrounds for early saints’ lives, but they are the most common. Accordingly, what appears to be a reasonable date for these two martyrs might merely be a commonplace, a suggestion strengthened by the strange approximation of their death, because although it is not meant to be accurate it takes its starting point two years after Decius’ death.

This leads us to another important point which was presented by my colleagues Lars Boje Mortensen and Alastair Matthews, namely that the occasional presentation of minute details might be a way for the writer to give the impression of an account which comes from eyewitnesses, that the details provide a certain verisimilitude akin to that provided by the echoes of historical facts mentioned above. (It is important to note that “the writer” in this question is not Jacobus de Voragine as he was compiling from older sources.) Accordingly, the precise number of animals (with their mnemonically powerful symmetry), the name and rank of the man who buried them, and the approximate precision of their dating (as pointed out by Boje Mortensen) are all there to provide the narrative with more intensity and to bridge the gap between the times of the reader and the times described.

Abdon and Sennen
Châteauroux - BM - ms. 0002, f.256v, breviary, Use of Paris, c.1414
Courtesy of

In addition to this verisimilitude we also see a number of topoi aside from that of its temporal setting. Many details can be found which reminds one of other stories, and either this is done deliberately to invoke that kind of association – a typical feature of hagiography which was intended to lend credence and gravity to the story – or it could be a result of the writer having this array of topoi readily available in his memory.

The most obvious topos is that of the saint being forced to sacrifice to pagan idols and then refuse with holy derision. This is found in a wide range of saint stories, among them St. Catherine and St. Eustace. Another topos is the intended death by wild beasts – also found in St. Eustace – and the ultimate death by sword following the failures of the initial tortures (St. Catherine). Furthermore, that the saints are dragged through the streets can be found for instance in the story of Saint Fermín, while the detail that their remnants are honorably buried by other Christians can be seen for instance in St. Polycarp. That the saints posthumously alerted the faithful of their resting place is a topos perhaps most famously found in the story of Ambrose’s find of the relics of SS Gervasius and Protasius in Milano.

One final point should be mentioned here regarding the narrative progression of the story. The narrative begins in Babylonia and provides the historical setting and an initial geographical setting. Then the story moves to Cordoba and the first batch of martyrs – an unnumbered array of Babylonian Christians – are killed off. This is the preface of the story and in three lines we move from a grand scene with a big cast of characters which traverses a wide space to the deeds of two officials in Cordoba. At this point the narrative makes one more geographical move before it gains complete focus and it is amplified by a number of minute details. It is interesting, and perhaps also significant, that the narrative moves to Rome in order to reach its climax. From the inclusion of Abdon and Sennen in the Depositio Martyrum this might attest to a Roman memory of their martyrdom, and this is further suggested in the quiet epilogue which effectively begins with the abrupt introduction of Quirinius to the stage and the summary of their re-interment.

Abdon and Sennen
Nuremberg chronicles, f.128r, 1493
Courtesy of Wikimedia