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

fredag 30. september 2016

Theodoricus Monk and the European Tradition - summary of a talk in Trondheim, 29.09.16

Yesterday I gave a talk as a part of the NTNU medieval seminar series in Trondheim, organized by the department for historical studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. The topic of my talk was a Latin chronicle from late twelfth-century Norway, and it was a great opportunity for me to explore an argument which I will later apply in my PhD thesis, albeit in a condensed form. In this blogpost, I give you a summary of my talk which I prepared for a visiting scholar from the UK. I hope to return to this subject in future blogposts, and I did touch on it to some degree in my previous blogpost.

The whirlpool Charybdis, placed in Northern Norway
Detail from Carta Marina (1539) by Olaus Magnus
Courtesy of Wikimedia

The Latin chronicle Historia antiquitate Regum Norwagiensum, the old history of the Norwegian kings, was written in the period 1177-87. Most likely, it was completed before archbishop Eystein Erlendsson went into exile in England in 1180. The book was composed by the monk Theodoricus - this is the name he gives himself in the prologue - and he dedicates the work to the archbishop. From this we can conclude that the author was part of the archbishop's household, and that he most likely was a Benedictine. Scholarly consensus now identifies him as Tore Gudmundsson, who had studied in the monastery of Saint-Victor in Paris, and who became archbishop of Nidaros in 1204.

The Historia was written in a time of great political turmoil, with the crowned king Magnus Erlingsson fighting against Sverre Sigurdsson who claimed that the throne of Norway was his by right, and who led his army into two important victories in the Trondheim area in 1179 and 1180. Theodoricus ends his account in the 1130s, saying that he deems it unfitting to recount such atrocities that are being performed in his own day.

The narrative of Historia antiquitate is interspersed with a total of 9 digressions which diverge from the story of the Norwegian kings. These digressions can be divided into three categories: 1) digressions contemporary with the narrative of the Historia (only one); 2) digressions connecting the Norwegian narrative with historical episodes from distant epochs (most of them); 3) digressions delving into natural history or natural philosophy (only 3).

The academic tradition has considered these digressions to be inexpert emulations of the European historiographical form. In this paper, however, I aim to show how the narrative appears when we take these digressions as serious and deliberate inclusions, and if we assume that Theodoricus knew very well what he was doing. From Theodoricus' own words, we can see that he understood the benefit of digressions as educational and entertaining, and that he was concerned with bringing Norway into the history of Christendom.

My claim is therefore that these digressions serve to do just that: To create thematic associations between Norwegian history and that history which is well known to a learned medieval audience, i.e. Roman history, biblical history, and even French and German history. In this way, Theodoricus carves out a place for Norway in the apocalyptic history of Christianity, progressing from Creation towards Judgement Day.

In my paper, I will only focus on the digressions which appear in the narrative of Olaf Haraldsson, the saint-king who was patron of the Norwegian kingdom and whose cult was a central aspect in Archbishop Eystein Erlendsson's strengthening of his archdiocese. In the narrative of Olaf, Theodoricus puts 4 of his 9 digressions, and it is here we find the only digressions that deal with natural history or natural philosophy. It is my claim that this is done to emphasize the typological connections between the saint-king and the history of the world, and to create a set of associations which an international clerical audience would be able to understand and appreciate. The purpose is, as stated, to bring Norway into its place in Christian history, and the natural focal point for such a purpose is Norway's primary saint, Olaf.

The digressions found in the Olaf narrative can be summarized as follows:

Chapter 13: In which we learn about where Olaf Haraldsson was baptized. Theodoricus admits that there are conflicting traditions concerning this question, and compares this with the similar disagreement concerning the baptism of Constantine the Great. Olaf becomes an antitype to Constanine, the emperor who legalized Christianity.

Chapter 17: A chapter solely concerned with a digression that touches on three elements, between which the only connection appears to be Theodoricus' association. First, he talks about the nature of the whirlpool Charybdis, situated in the Pentland Firth, and refers to Pliny, Genesis and Paulus Diaconus. Then, via Paulus, he talks about the Longobards, and from there he moves on to the Huns and how they slaughtered holy men and women on their rampage. This appears in chapter 17, while the death of Olaf by the hands of the pagan Norwegians appears in chapter 19.

Chapter 18: In which Olaf returns to Norway and marches on Stiklestad. After a description of the strength and powerful nature of his kinsmen, Theodoricus launches into a discussion about the decrease in the size of human bodies, comparing the kinsmen of Olaf to the men of Theodoricus' own time, and then with the Israelites crossing Jordan according to the Book of Joshua. The ensuing discussion is a complex engagement with Christian apocalyptic history and Neoplatonist ideas which were in the 12th century criticized by the School of Chartres. He finishes this chapter with a description of the relatively recent discovery of an inhumated body of giant stature in Rome, identified as Pallas, known from the Aeneid.

Chapter 20: After describing the martyrdom of Olaf in chapter 19, Theodericus dedicates chapter 20 to an overview of how different authorities have concluded in the question of how long ago the world was created. This exposition is followed by a summary of Olaf's reign in terms of how many years he was king, thus inserting the reign of Olaf in a grand historical context.

In sum, if we understand Theodoricus' digressions as deliberate tools for connecting the history of Norway with the history of the world, by creating associations between Norwegian historical episodes and episodes from the more global past, we understand Historia antiquitate Regum Norwagiensum not as the work of an amateur, but of a carefully constructed narrative which establishes a place for Norway in the Christian apocalyptic history. 

mandag 26. september 2016

With the milk of their mothers - the savageness of Norwegians, and of Huns

These days I am working on a paper which I will present at the NTNU medieval seminar, a series of talks organized by the department of historical studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. The lectures are held one at a time on the last Thursday  of each month, and I was myself among the organisers when I were a student at NTNU.

For Thursday's talk I will be focussing on a Norwegian chronicle in Latin from c.1180. The work was written by one Theodoricus Monk, whom scholarly consensus has agreed to be Tore Gudmundsson who became archbishop of Nidaros - i.e. Norway and its Atlantic tributaries - in 1206. Theodoricus titled his work as Histori antiquitate Regem Norwagiensum - "The Old History of the Norwegian Kings".

Although the main narrative of the chronicle is dedicated to the history of the kings of Norway from the late 9th century to 1135, the narrative is interspersed with a number of digressions and anecdotes where Theodoricus discusses Roman history, biblical history  and natural philosophy, to mention the most prominent topics. The purpose of these digressions are still a matter of debate among scholars, and it is the purpose of their function that I will engage with on Thursday.

In this blogpost, however, I will just present one of these digressions, which deals with the Huns.

Alexander encloses the nation of Gog in the land of Magog
BL MS Harley 4979, Roman d'Alexandre, Netherlands, 1st quarter of the 14th century
Courtesy of British Library

In the seventeenth chapter of Historia antiquitate, Theodoricus engages in a digression - or rather a series of digressions - starting with the nature of the whirlpool Charybdis and ending with a brief account of the Huns and their pillaging. Theodoricus arrives at this subject through a series of associations, yet he has obviously thought the Huns to be a useful - if not logical - conclusion to the chapter. As his source for this account, Theodeoricus gives the Gothic history of Jordanes - whom he calles "Jornandes" - and goes on to describe them in great detail. It should be noted that Theodoricus himself appears not to have been familar with Jordanes' Getica from firsthand reading, and from his account it is more likely that he draws on Isidore of Seville's Etymologiae.

Theodericus has this to say about the Huns and their appearance. (I am below quoting from Ian and David McDougall's translation from 1998.)

Isti Huni, ut scribit Jornandes in historia sua, erumpentes de Mæotidis paludibus, ubi eos fertur inclusisse Alexander magnus filius Philippi - gens semifera et a Deo alienissima, forma etiam turpissima, nam in capite pro oculis quasi bina foramina habebant, veluti nigerrima pice infusa, statimque puerulis secabantur genæ, ut cum lacte matris discerent et vulnera pati- Theodoricus Monachus, Historia antiquitate Regem Norwagiensum, printed in Gustav Storm, Monumenta Historica Norvegæ, Kristiania, 1880: 32

Those Huns, as Jornandes writes in his history, burst forth from the Maeotic swamps, where Alexander the Great, son of Philip, is said to have confined them. They were a half-bestial and utterly godless race, and extremely repulsive in appearance, for in their heads instead of eyes they had, as it were, two hles which seemed to have been filled with the blackest pitch. While still very small children, their cheeks were cut so that even while drinking their mother's milk they might learn to endure wounds.- Theodoricus Monachus, The Ancient History of the Norwegian Kings, translated by Ian and David McDougall, Viking Society for Northern Research, 1998: 24.

As the title of my blogpost suggests, the important phrase to note here is the term "cum lacte matris". In Theodoricus' narrative, it has already emerged once before, and to a somewhat similar effect, as we shall see below.

The Huns sacking Orleans
 BL MS Royal 16 G VI, Les Grandes chroniques de France, Saint Denis, between 1332 and 1350
Courtesy of British Library

The first place in which the term "cum lacte matris" appears in Historia antiquitate is in chapter 11, in which Theodoricus gives an account of Olaf Tryggvason's (d.1000) conversion of the Norwegians to Christianity. When explaining the necessity of the king's missionary activity, Theodoricus gives the following description of the Norwegians.

Cernens namque effera corda barbarorum et a veterno squalore perfidiæ et quodammodo congenita cultura dæmonum, quam pæne cum lacte matris ebiberant
- Theodoricus Monachus, Historia antiquitate Regem Norwagiensum, printed in Gustav Storm, Monumenta Historica Norvegæ, Kristiania, 1880: 18

For he saw that the hearts of the heathen were savage, and that only a strong hand could free them from the age-old ingrained filth of faithlessness and the more or less inborn devil-worship which they had practically imbibed with their mother's milk
- Theodoricus Monachus, The Ancient History of the Norwegian Kings, translated by Ian and David McDougall, Viking Society for Northern Research, 1998: 14

Again we see the phrase "cum lacte matris", used in different circumstances but to the same effect and talking about two peoples who are not that far away from each other typologically speaking: The pre-Christian Norwegians and the savage Huns.

The natural question here is whether Theodoricus intended this usage as a way of connecting these two peoples through typology. After all, the phrase is the same and the purpose of the phrase is also the same: to highlight the savageness of a non-Christian people. It is very tempting to suggest that Theodoricus had such a connection in mind, and that the use of "cum lacte matris" is deliberate. It is not a far-fetched idea, and it would make of the pagan Norwegians an antitype to the Huns in much the same way Christ is the antitype of Adam, and every saint is an antitype of Christ.

However, there are also reasons to be cautious about drawing such conclusions. First of all, in the narrative of Historia antiquitate, it is the Norwegians who appear first and who are described in this way to explain the hard manner in which Olaf Tryggvason performed his missionary activities. The Huns, the supposed type, only appear later as a digressing anecdote which has no salvation narrative in it, and whose function in the Historia is obscure. One might argue that the reason for the inclusion of the Huns is that it allows for this typological connection, but that still begs the question why the supposed antitype is presented before the type - and a type is that which chronologically speaking comes first.

There is also another counter-argument for a connection between the Norwegians and the Huns. While the phrase used in these two episodes is the same, "cum lacte matris", the meaning of this phrase need not be the same in both episodes. The problem here is that the Latin preposition "cum" has many meanings, including "with", "when" or "while".

In the episode of the Huns, Theodoricus says "ut cum lacte matris discerent et vulnera pati", which can be translated as "so that with the milk of the mother, they learned to endure wounds". This shows that two actions were done simultaneously, but also separately. The inflicting of wounds and the drinking of the milk do not depend on each other.

In the episode of the Norwegians, Theodoricus says "congenita cultura dæmonum, quam pæne cum lacte matris ebiberant", which can be translated as "the demon-worship they had from birth, which was almost drunk together with the mother's milk". Here, by the use of "paene" which means "nearly" or "almost", it is clear that Theodoricus indulges in a poetic exaggeration. Furthermore, here "cum" is taken to mean "with", making the infusion of demon-worship and suckling one and the same act, each dependent on the other. And since the phrase is not to be intended literally in this case, while in the other the meaning is completely literal, it would appear that the two episodes are not typologically linked.

Ultimately, we will never know whether Theodoricus intended his readers to connect the Norwegians with the Huns, but although there are compelling reasons to admit such a possibility, there are also strong reasons not to.


Theodoricus Monachus, Historia antiquitate Regem Norwagiensum, printed in Gustav Storm, Monumenta Historica Norvegæ, Kristiania, 1880

Theodoricus Monachus, The Ancient History of the Norwegian Kings, translated by Ian and David McDougall, Viking Society for Northern Research, 1998

onsdag 14. september 2016

The Saint Olaf altar front in Trondheim

I am currently in Trondheim as a visiting scholar at the department of historical studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. The purpose of my sojourn is to connect with colleagues here who have worked a great deal with the material of the cult of Saint Olaf in medieval Norway. This term, I am myself working on a thesis chapter on the literature of Saint Olaf, and therefore it feels very good to be working in the city that once was the cult centre of Norway's most important saint.

One of the great benefits of working on Olaf while residing in Trondheim is the proximity to the remains of the once vibrant cult. Among these remains is an altar front exhibited in the Archbishop's Palace, now a museum of Trondheim's medieval past. In the current blogpost I wish to share this amazing piece of medieval art with you, and at the same time provide a brief description of what it actually depicts. For a more thorough description, see this website (in Norwegian). (All pictures are taken by me.)

The altar front depicts the martyrdom of Olaf Haraldsson, king of Norway from 1015 to 1028. Olaf died 29th of July, 1030 in an attempt to regain political control of the Norwegian kingdom, which by then was under the Danish overlordship of King Knud the Great (d.1035). The final battle was fought at Stiklestad, a bit north of Trondheim, and was interpreted in the medieval literature as a battle between Christians and pagans. Olaf was indeed depicted as a new Constantine, who finally - through his great sacrifice - brought all of Norway into the Christian fold. This image of the great missionary martyr was cultivated in the texts composed towards the end of the twelfth century at the court of the Norwegian archbishop Eystein Erlendsson (r.1161-88) and his immediate successors. (For a brief history of this literature, see this blogpost.)

The image of Olaf as a missionary king has been seriously questioned by modern historians, and there is little reason to buy into the image formulated in the medieval texts. However, what is of interest to me as a historian of the cult of Saint Olaf, is exactly how this medieval image worked and how it was maintained. And in this altar front, we see a very vivid description of how the martyr story was imagined.

The altar front is believed to have been made in or around Trondheim in the period 1320-30. Its four scenes depict four key stages in Olaf's death and canonization. Olaf's canonization took place on August 3rd 1031, when his body was exhumed from its first burial site and then translated to the church of Saint Clement in Trondheim (also known as Nidaros). This translation of Olaf's relics was organized by Bishop Grimkell of Trondheim, a bishop whom Olaf himself had brought to Norway from England when he sailed to his native land in 1015. At this time, the canonization of a saint was an episcopal matter, not something that was decided by the pope or his cardinals.

The story on the altar front must be read from bottom left to top left, then from bottom right to top right. It is difficult to assess the immediate source for the narrative of the altar front. The most likely source is the work now known as Passio et Miracula Beati Olavi, in which Olaf's life, death and miracles were collected into one volume. This Latin volume had received its fourth redaction probably sometime in the 1180s, and should be seen as the official version of the legend of Saint Olaf. However, the first panel includes an episode that is not found - as far as I can judge from Gustav Storm's 1880 edition of the Latin text - in Passio Olavi. It is, however, found in Snorri Sturlusson's Heimskringla, written sometime in the 1220s, but - as will be seen below - there is one significant difference between Snorri and the panel which goes against Heimskringla as the altar front's most immediate source.

In the first panel we see Olaf on his way to Stiklestad and he hands over a bag of coins to a passer-by. Olaf tells the man - a farmer in Snorri's story, but in the panel most likely a priest - that the coins are to be spent on prayers for the souls of the heathens who will fall for the sword of the Christians in the coming battle. The speech scroll in Olaf's other hand might originally have said something to that effect.

The second panel takes place te night before the battle at Stiklestad, and while he is sleeping he receives a dream vision. In this vision Olaf sees a ladder ascending to Heaven - iconographically related to Jacob's ladder, presumably - and on the top of the ladder is Christ calling to Olaf and asking him to ascend to Christ and be happy. In Snorri, Christ does not figure in the vision and Olaf ascends the stairs in the dream. This vision is seen as the premonition of Olaf's martyrdom, and is therefore an important evidence to the idea that Olaf's death was a part of God's plan for which Olaf received his just reward.

The symbols of the evangelists Mark and Matthew

Olaf in the centre of the panel
He is olding the axe of his martyrdom and the royal apple, emblem of his kingship

The lower right panel shows Olaf's death at the hands of his heathen adversaries. In Passio Olavi, very few details are provided concerning the killing of Olaf. Since the Passio is a hagiographic text, aimed at emphasizing the victorious sacrifice rather than the corporeal demise, the text is more focussed on Olaf's soul ascending to Heaven.

One interesting detail to note in this panel is the faces of Olaf's killers compared to the faces of Olaf's own soldiers. While the soldiers of the Christian army have rather bland and plain faces, the faces of the enemies have protruding noses and scowling eyes, in sharp contrast to the Christians in the panel. It could be that these faces are intended to highlight the heathen religion of the antagonists, and it would be useful to compare these depictions with contemporary depictions of Jews and Saracens. Øystein Ekroll, PhD and expert on the medieval cathedral of Nidaros, told me once in conversation that Tore Hund - the man holding the spear - was sometimes said to have been a sorcerer, and that is perhaps what is intended to be portrayed in the panel.

However, before drawing any firm conclusions in this matter, it should be noted that in the first panel there is also a figure with a similarly protruding nose who seems to carry a Christian shield. The verdict awaits therefore a more thorough examination of the material.

The symbols of the evangelists John and Luke

The last panel on the altar front shows the exhumed body of Olaf being washed and sprinkled with holy water. The man with the asperigillus, with which holy water is sprinkled, must be a bishop because of his crozier and bishop's mitre, and this is therefore most likely bishop Grimkell, the one who orchestrated Olaf's translation. The man who washes the body is possibly a deacon, although the crozier in the background might suggest that he, too, is a bishop. In the centre of the panel is a man who appears to hold a book, and this might actually be the Passio Olavi itself, the account of his life, death and miracles.

There are more things to be said about the Saint Olaf altar front, and there are more details to be fleshed out - some of which have already been noted at the aforementioned Norwegian website (here). The panel is a beauitful piece of medieval art, and a great example of the kind of condensed narrative that one often finds in pictorial representations of the legends of the saints.

Similar blogposts

A nineteenth-century hymn for Saint Olaf

The royal saints of Hungary

A miracle of Saint Olaf's

The literature of medieval Nidaros

Amateur theories on the burial site of Saint Olaf

Saint Hallvard of Norway

The early cult of Canute Lavard

torsdag 8. september 2016

Return to Nidrosia

Nidaros Cathedral seen from the bridge over the river Nid, Trondheim

I once read a quotation attributed to Jorge Luis Borges that the greatest joy is not in the reading, but in the re-reading. To a certain extent this holds true of travelling as well, and a happy return to a beloved place that was once new and uncharted can in several ways be more pleasant than the first discovering journey. In part, such a pleasure owes its being to the invocation of memories, and to a nostalgic person such as myself memories have a particularly strong grip one's heart. In part, the pleasure comes from the familiar, and the knowledge that one can move about in the area with great ease and not get lost, yet at the same time still be able to discover new things and see beautiful details one has previously overlooked.

This month I'm immersed in this joy of revisiting. Two years after I left Trondheim to begin my PhD in Denmark, I am now back to spend some time as a guest at the department for historical studies at my old alma mater, the Norwegian University for Science and Technology. I have spent seven years of my life in this city, receiving both my BA and my MA here, and I have many friends and acquaintences who in various ways, big or small, have helped me becoming the person I am today.

I arrived in Trondheim on Monday afternoon and have already spent a few days catching up with people, getting settled in at my temporary office at the department, and sauntering about in the old city centre, trodding the familiar streets, viewing the familiar spots, and enjoying my first Norwegian September since 2013, September being a particularly crisp but often sunny month in my home country.

The reason for my return has mainly to do with a requirement in my PhD contract which stipulates that I have to spend a minimum of three months at another academic institution. My choice of Trondheim was an easy one. The primary reason is that I'm working on the cult of Saint Olaf of Norway, whose shrine was situated in the Nidaros cathedral in Trondheim, the seat of the Norwegian archbishop. For this reason, there are many colleagues here who have worked on material relating to the cult of Olaf, and new research is continuously being carried out. I'm here to immerse myself in this research, and to draw on the expertise of friends and colleagues, who have been very welcoming in sharing and wanting to share their knowledge with me, in the best fashion of academic kindness.

The academic network is my primary reason for returning to Trondheim, but a significant pull factor has of course also been the fact that I can now return to a beloved city and beloved friends, a combination that is a joy without measure. Part of this joy comes from the fact that ever since I began working on the material for Saint Olaf, I have had to do a lot of research into the history of the city and its medieval past, and I have a greater knowledge of this now than what I had when I studied here. Therefore, when coming back to the city, I return with a new understanding of the different medieval survivals and the different localities, and this helps me to see the familiar through new eyes and to appreciate even more the many remnants of the medieval past.

I have only been here a few days, but I know that when I leave for Denmark again in October I will leave with an even greater understanding of the material on which I'm working, and of the city I called my home for seven years.