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

søndag 28. august 2016

The Statue, a poem by Derek Walcott

As is quite apparent to regular readers of this blog, I am a big enthusiast for the verse of Saint Lucian writer and 1992 Nobel laureate in literature Derek Walcott. This is the reason why I often turn to his poetry when I need blogposts that do not require much time to prepare, research or write, and that is, to me, a perfect excuse to highlight some of his lesser known poems, such as those from the early collections which did not make it into the collected poems edition published by Faber & Faber in 1986.

In this blogpost, I give you a short poem from his collection The Castaway, first published i 1965. I take the text from the 1969 Jonathan Cape paperback edition.


Stone will not bleed;
Nor shall this vixor'ed prince, apotheozised
On his stone steed,
A barrel-bellied charger treading the air,
Its tightening haunches set
To hurdle with its warrior the chasm
Between our age and theirs.
Its eyes erupt, bulge in a spasm
Of marble. We stare
At their slow power to corrupt;

Then turn to read
Around another statue, civic-sized,
Bare, halding head,
Of some archaic, muscular aphorist
Laurelled, toga unkempt,
His forked hand raised like a diviner's rod,
His face creased with the wise
Exhaustion of a god.
Their eyes
Withhold amusement, mine, contempt.

Boys will be boys.
Who can instruct them where true honour lies?
Instinct or choice,
Proclaims it lies within
War's furious, dandiacal discipline.
We, who have known

Its victims huddled in a reeking ditch
Of the staff's iron light hurtling Saul
into pedestrian sainthood at his fall,
Still praise that murderous energy of stone.

On them, your fatherly, exhausted air
Is lost,
As sightless as the god's prophetic stare.

Across that gulf each greets the other's ghost.

For similar blogposts
Ruins of a great house

Two poems

The Prince


A selection of poems

onsdag 24. august 2016

Pikes, Thomas de Cantimpré and Ted Hughes

As can sometimes be seen on this blog, I'm very fond of juxtaposing medieval and modern cultural expression, be it folklore, literature, art, music or a range of other things. In this blogpost I'm taking a quick glance at the pike, nicely illustrated in Thomas de Cantimpré's book De Natura Rerum. As we see from this folio, the pike is called "esox". In a twelfth-century bestiary, Cambridge University Library II.4.26, edited and translated by T. H. White, however, it has been named "lupis". As White himself suggests in a footnote, this is probably a misspelling of "lucius", as the pike is known as "esox lucius". The bestiary's description of the pike goes as follows.

His wolfish greed has given the name of LUPIS to the Pike, and it is difficult to catch him. When he is encircled by the net, they say that he ploughs up the sand with his tai and thus, lying hidden, manages to escape the meshes.
- Anonymous, The Book of Beasts, edited and translated by T. H. White, Dover Editions, 2015: 202-03

Pike chasing sturgeon
Valenciennes - BM - ms. 0320, f.126, De Natura Rerum, Thomas de Cantimpré, book 7, c.1290 (Courtesy of

As a modern counterpoint to this description, I give you Ted Hughes' famous poem from his collection Lupercal (1960). The following text is taken from


Pike, three inches long, perfect
Pike in all parts, green tigering the gold.
Killers from the egg: the malevolent aged grin.
They dance on the surface among the flies.
Or move, stunned by their own grandeur,
Over a bed of emerald, silhouette
Of submarine delicacy and horror.
A hundred feet long in their world.
In ponds, under the heat-struck lily pads -
Gloom of their stillness:
Logged on last year's black leaves, watching upwards.
Or hung in an amber cavern of weeds
The jaws' hooked clamp and fangs
Not to be changed at this date;
A life subdued to its instrument;
The gills kneading quietly, and the pectorals.

Three we kept behind glass,
Jungled in weed: three inches, four,
And four and a half: fed fry to them -
Suddenly there were two. Finally one.

With a sag belly and the grin it was born with.
And indeed they spare nobody.
Two, six pounds each, over two feet long
High and dry and dead in the willow-herb -

One jammed past its gills down the other's gullet:
The outside eye stared: as a vice locks -
The same iron in this eye
Though its film shrank in death.

A pond I fished, fifty yards across,
Whose lilies and muscular tench
Had outlasted every visible stone
Of the monastery that planted them -

Stilled legendary depth:
It was as deep as England. It held
Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old
That past nightfall I dared not cast

But silently cast and fished
With the hair frozen on my head
For what might move, for what eye might move.
The still splashes on the dark pond,

Owls hushing the floating woods
Frail on my ear against the dream
Darkness beneath night's darkness had freed,
That rose slowly towards me, watching.

søndag 21. august 2016

Dubious quests for a king - fantasies about the burial place of Olaf Haraldsson of Norway

For many people, history revolves around its kings and princes. This fascination seems to be a constant in recorded history, and it has not released its grip on human imagination even in our modern times, as evidenced by the many biographies, movies and of course gossip magazines in which kings have their premier seats. As a historian who works on medieval kings who were later claimed to be saints, I am frequently exposed to the often obsessive interest some people – both lay and learned – cultivate for royalty of ages past.

In recent years, this fascination has now very often moved its focus to the bones of these royal dead. This in itself is not new, as royal tombs and graves have been the subject of great interest throughout recorded history. For medievalists, one of the most famous cases of such interest is King Arthur, whose bones were said to have been found at Glastonbury Abbey in 1198 together with those of Queen Guinevere, and whose remnants were re-interred in 1278 by Edward I. Here, the earthly remains of the legendary king served as evidence for the king actually being dead and therefore not a rallying-point for the Welsh. The question of Arthur’s burial place is a recurring issue for certain amateur historians and enthusiasts, and it was raised again as late as May 2016.

It is easy to understand why the bones of kings hold such a grip on popular imagination. They are tangible vestiges of the past, and reminders that the things you read about in books have a connection to the real, physical world. This is probably part of the reason why the case of the Greyfriars Skeleton, discovered under a car-park in Leicester in September 2012, gained such massive attention. When the skeleton was identified as King Richard III in February 2013, media erupted with enthusiasm and interest, and it the fascination which had long been in place among many members of the global audience became immensely visible. The Greyfriars Skeleton was something of a milestone in the popular history of royal bones, as it proved to the world that lost historical kings could in fact be found. In the years following, we have seen people urging for a search for both King Alfred and Harold Godwinsson.

Miniature of the statue (1973) of Olaf Haraldsson by Dyre Vaa, Stiklestad Centre

In my native Norway, the interest in dead kings is also significant. Only about eight months after the Greyfriars press conference, a Norwegian made the claim that King Magnus VI Lagabøte (Law-mender), who died in 1280, was buried in the wall of Bergen Cathedral. Following a georadar examination of the walls, objects were located inside it. But the case will not be pursued until the cathedral is due for restoration in 2018.

The Norwegian king who has gained the most attention throughout history, and who continues to do so today, is Olaf Haraldsson, the Viking-turned-Christian who died at Stiklestad north of Trondheim in 1030 in an attempt to regain the Norwegian throne. Olaf was proclaimed to be a saint in 1031 by Bishop Grimkell, and in the twelfth century Olaf’s body was moved to the new cathedral in Trondheim which was begun by Archbishop Eystein Erlendsson.

The death of Olaf Haraldsson
Here from the old exhibition at Stiklestad Centre

Olaf Haraldsson is an important part of the Norwegian imagination, and part of this imagination has been concerned with the bones of the saint-king. The fascination with Olaf’s bones re-emerged in July 2016, when Bodvar Schjelderup – a professor emeritus of architecture – made the national press with the claim that Olaf Haraldsson did not rest somewhere in Nidaros Cathedral, but in the castle Steinvikholm further north in the Trondheim fjord. The castle was built in 1532 by Archbishop Olaf Engelbrektsson, who was the last of the Catholic archbishops of Norway. The background for Schjelderup’s claim is that the shrine of Olaf Haraldsson was indeed removed to Steinvikholm when the archbishop fled Trondheim during the Reformation. However, as professor of medieval history Steinar Imsen and archaeologist Øystein Ekroll both have pointed out, there are contemporary sources from the mid-sixteenth century saying that the reliquary of the saint-king was brought back to Nidaros Cathedral in 1564, and all historical evidence points to the conclusion that Olaf is still buried somewhere in the cathedral.
Steinvikholm Castle
Photo by Frode Inge Helland
Courtesy of Wikimedia

Around mid-August 2016, just a few days ago, the matter of Olaf’s burial site was again raised, and again it made the national press. This time, the claim was put forth by Joralf Gjerstad, a healer from the town Verdal north of Trondheim. Gjerstad has gained national attention for his alleged ability to heal, and in an article in one of the leading Norwegian newspapers he claimed to have had a vision which showed that the royal saint was not buried in Trondheim but rather at Stiklestad, the place of his death in 1030. According to the vision, the king was taken away after the battle and buried in a small hill.

This ongoing discussion concerning the remains of Olaf Haraldsson is testament to the importance of studying medieval history, because the past will always remain relevant and for that reason we will always need experts who can sift the nonsense from the truth. Unfortunately, however, this discussion concerning Olaf Haraldsson’s bones also reveals the almost liminal place which the expert inhabits on the national stage, and this is a matter of great concern.

In the two cases reported here, the news outlets have given precedence to the claims of amateurs and put them on the same level as experts. This is a trend which is quite common in today’s media world, and it perpetuates the notion that experts and non-experts are to be listened to equally. Such a notion is false, and it can be very damaging in certain cases. As for the discussion about Olaf Haraldsson’s bones, there is not much immediate damage to be made. However, it helps solidifying a very dangerous trend, and as such it should not be taken lightly.

Nidaros Cathedral

There are no good reasons to pay attention to the claims put forth by either Schjelderup or Gjerstad – or for that matter Gunnar Rosenlund who made claims about Magnus VI. While experts like Steinar Imsen and Øystein Ekroll have dedicated much of their professional lives to gain a thorough understanding of the Norwegian Middle Ages, the counter-claims are made by men driven by ideas well beyond the empirical and well beyond historical science. For instance, Gunnar Rosenlund consulted a psychic in order to find the tomb of King Magnus. Bodvar Schjelderup is a pyramid enthusiast who imagines that the bones in the shrine taken back to Nidaros Cathedral had been swapped, and that Olaf’s actual bones still reside in the castle. Furthermore, his claim that Olaf Haraldsson resides at Steinvikholm is ultimately founded on a numerical game with the angles of the Kheops pyramide, as he himself stated in an interview in Trondheim's student magazine Under Dusken in 1997. Joralf Gjerstad has formulated a vision which is contrary to every single medieval source dealing with the death of Olaf (and there are many of them). That Gjerstad had a vision is probably a historical fact, many people experience visions in the same way that people dream. But just like a dream is a reality only within the mind of the dreamer, so there is no reason to think that the mental images in Gjerstad’s head should have any consequence for the physical world.
Stiklestad Church

Talking about Gjerstad’s claim, a relative of mine then said that it was only to dig up the area. And it is true, the easiest way to deal with these claims is to follow the logic of them to the bitter end and actually perform the searches. But such a solution is itself deeply problematic. First of all, if we are to dig up a place because a local healer has had a vision that goes contrary to professional consensus, we are letting amateurs dictate the priorities of historical research. I don’t think I speak too harshly when I say that that is intolerable. Secondly, to perform searches in order to debunk the fantasies and imaginings of amateurs will cost money, time and energy that could be much better spent following the priorities of experts who know which excavations are most needed.  Thirdly, if the whims of amateurs are to be heeded in this way, amateurs are not only dictating the priorities of historical research but also of the national attention. In a time when it has become increasingly challenging for non-experts to filter out the facts from the dubious, the voices of experts should not be obscured by such searches – because even though experts are allowed to speak against such claims, it is the amateur’s claims which will always be the loudest because it is that claim which dictates the search.

For a medievalist, there will always be struggles against poorly founded notions and wild claims. The on-going discussion about the bones of Olaf Haraldsson is a good reminder of to what lengths these claims can go.

onsdag 17. august 2016

Two Poems by Geoffrey Hill

August has been a terribly hectic month for me so far, and that has taken its toll on my blogging. For years, my aim has been to provide at least four blogpost each month, and sometimes this can only be achieved by some filler-pieces like the one you are reading now. Nonetheless, I want also these filler-pieces to be meaningful or to be worth reading, and so I have decided this time to unearth two lesser-known poems by one of my favourite poets, Geoffrey Hill. Frequent readers of this blog will have noticed my love for his verses several times, and indeed this is only one of several blogposts featuring his poetry. These poems are both taken from his first collection, For the Unfallen (1959).

The Bibliographers

Lucifer blazing in superb effigies
Among the world's ambitious tragedies,
Heaven-sent gift to the dark ages,

Now, in the finest-possible light,
We approach you; can estimate
Your not unnatural height.

Though the descrete progeny,
Out of their swim, go deflated and dry,
We know the feel of you, archaic beauty,

Between the tombs, where the tombs still extrude,
Overshadowing the sun-struck world:
(The shadow-god envisaged in no cloud)

Orpheus and Eurydice

Though there are wild dogs
   Infesting the roads
We hace recitals, catalogues
   Of protected birds;

And the rare pale sun
   To water our days.
Men turn to savagery now or turn
   To the laws'

Immutable black and red.
   To be judged for his song,
Traversing the still-moist dead,
   The newly-stung,

Love goes, carrying compassion
   To the rawly-difficult;
His countenance, his hands' motion,
   Serene even to a fault.

Similar blogposts

Epitaph for Geoffrey Hill

A selection of Geoffrey Hill's poems

Damon's Lament for his Clorinda, Yorkshire 1654

The Herefordshire Carol