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

fredag 31. mars 2017

Language and embrace - ruminations for March 31

In the medievalist section of social media, March 31 is International Hug A Medievalist Day, founded by Doctor Sarah Laseke, currently of Leiden University. This is the day when social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook explode with images of embraces from medieval manuscripts, using scenes of demons battling, furtive and illegal embraces, amorous encounters, scenes of the Visitatio Mariae, the kiss of Judas, and so on.

As a medievalist, I find these displays of virtual intimacy somewhat heart-warming, and it made me remember an often quoted passage from Derek Walcott's book-length poem Omeros, in which he states:

Because Rhyme remains the parentheses of palms
shielding a candle's tongue, it is the language's
desire to enclose the loved world in its arms

I have loved this verse ever since I first read it in the spring of 2008, which was the second term of my first year at university, and a time when I had just starting to explore unfamiliar literatures. It is a pleasing thought that language seeks to contain what is loved in its embrace, and the equation of language and love through this imagery is one that I find immensely moving.

The further I venture into the fields of medieval studies, and the more I explore the literatures of the medieval period, the more aware I become that Derek Walcott's description of language is a highly idealized one, and one that should be sought but one which often is discarded. Instead, the sad truth is this: Language is often used to destructive ends, even when it is cloaked in a semblance of love and goodness.

There is nothing uniquely medieval about this. In the modern world we see more than sufficient examples of how the choice of words marks up delineations between us and them. This is why, for instance, a Syrian child coming to the UK is termed a migrant, whereas a Brit settling down in Spain refers to himself as an expat.

Using words as tools of alienation appears to be a human constant, and is just as much a modern feature as it is a medieval feature. For me, however, the medieval use of words and language in this way has been very much on my mind recently, as research has brought me more closely into how medieval writers would talk about language to identify the cultural others, and how language was an important way to emphasize someone's degree of humanity.

I recently worked on an article where I noted the frequency of sources that would remark about this and that people that they spoke unintelligibly or like animals. One favourite example comes from Adam of Bremen's Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, in which he refers to the Northern Norwegians as not so much speaking as gnashing their teeth together, so that their neighbours can barely understand them. (It is worth noting that he probably received this information in Denmark.)

Another example that I have worked a lot on lately is the Gesta Swenomagni regis et filiorum eius et passione gloriosissimi Canuti regis et martyris. This work, a saint-biography of Knud IV of Denmark, also known as Saint Knud Rex, was written in the 1110s by the English monk Aelnoth of Canterbury, and records how Saint Knud was killed by an angry mob of Danish noblemen and commoners in Odense in 1086. In order to emphasize the uncivilised behaviour of the regicides, Aelnoth often depicts them as raging, and in one memorable instance states that they behaved "more porcorum", in the manner of swine.

This connection of language and beastly behaviour has deep roots in Christian literature. Among the most famous early examples is perhaps the encounter between Saint Antony of Egypt and a satyr, as told by Jerome in his Life of Paul of Thebes. Here, the satyr, and also the hippocentaur, are speaking in a manner that is difficult to understand. In this way, their lack of language, their semi-animal composition, and their uncivilised inhabitation all combine to emphasize their otherness. The trope is an often repeated one, and draws on the same old approach to language and civilization that once made the Ancient Greeks coin the term "barbar" for someone outside the Greek world, meaning someone speaking unintelligibly.

In light of all these instances where languages are employed as demarcators of us and them, as fences you set up to identify yourself as inhabiting a different space than your neighbour, it is comforting to sometimes embrace the notion of Walcott's verse that it is the language's desire to enclose the loved world in its arms.

And this is also what medievalists will be doing tomorrow, when we engage in the social media phenomenon of #Whanthataprille, an online celebration of medieval languages.

Sometimes, it is good for the soul to be a medievalist.

mandag 20. mars 2017

Little Lives - a modern hymn for Saint Cuthbert

Today, March 20, is the feast of Saint Cuthbert, bishop of Lindisfarne who died in 687, and whose body was later moved to Durham after Viking raids. Durham thus became the cult centre, and his body was ultimately translated to its present location in the Norman cathedral in 1104.

Cuthbert is the subject of many legends, and his importance and popularity have ensured him - and been ensured by - a range of biographical accounts. I hope to return to the subject of his legend in future blogposts. For the present post, however, I rather wish to present a poem of my own composition taking as its starting point one of the perhaps most beloved stories about Cuthbert in recent times. The story, recorded in a twelfth-century manuscript now in the British Library (MS Yates Thompson 26, folio 24r), tells of how Cuthbert was meditating by the sea and decided to go for a swim. When he returned, some otters came up to him and dried his feet with their warm breath. Several modern depictions of Saint Cuthbert have embraced this story.

Cuthbert and the otters, a story in three parts
MS. Yates Thompson 26, f.24r, prose life of Cuthbert, Durham, late 12th century
Courtesy of British Library

Little lives - a hymn for St. Cuthbert

After an illumination in BL MS. Yates Thompson 26, f. 24r

I thought of Cuthbert sitting by the water,
his head in Heaven and his feet on earth,
and how the little otters crept up to him
to keep him warm. He must have seen the worth
of little lives inhabiting Creation
whose time was praise for Him who gave them birth.
Perhaps he also felt this strange sensation:
that he was also small and still had worth.

- April 06 2014

søndag 19. mars 2017

Sea Grapes - a poem, and a reading, by Derek Walcott

Two days ago, on March 17 2017, Derek Walcott died in his home country Saint Lucia at the age of 87. I was deeply saddened by these unwelcome news. Derek Walcott is my favourite poet, not just in the English language but in any language. His verse has meant a great deal to me, both for my personal engagement with my own background and my own life, but also for my intellectual maturing and development.

When my head has cleared a bit from this initial sadness, I hope to put together a more coherent explanation of my relationship with Derek Walcott's verse and why I hold his poetry in such high esteem, a kind of epitaph as a tribute to a man to whom - despite his flaws - I feel indebted, and whose verse has marked my life in a way no other verse has done.

In this blogpost, however, as a kind of preface, I only wish to present one of his more famous poems, Sea Grapes, a poem which is in a way a foreshadowing of the book-length poem Omeros which he wrote in 1990, as Sea Grapes likewise presents a fusion of homeric and Caribbean imagery in an upheaval of chronology and a merging of history.

The text of the poem is taken from this website.

Sea Grapes

That sail which leans on light,
tired of islands,
a schooner beating up the Caribbean

for home, could be Odysseus,
home-bound on the Aegean;
that father and husband's

longing, under gnarled sour grapes, is
like the adulterer hearing Nausicaa's name
in every gull's outcry.

This brings nobody peace. The ancient war
between obsession and responsibility
will never finish and has been the same

for the sea-wanderer or the one on shore
now wriggling on his sandals to walk home,
since Troy sighed its last flame,

and the blind giant's boulder heaved the trough
from whose groundswell the great hexameters come
to the conclusions of exhausted surf.

The classics can console. But not enough. 

Derek Walcott reading Sea Grapes

For similar blogposts, see:

fredag 10. mars 2017

The Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius and the nations of the north

Recently, I finished writing an article in which I explored aspects of medieval otherness in texts concerned in one way or another with peripheral geographies. The article grew out of a paper I gave at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds in 2016, and allowed me to further develop the ideas I had been playing with then. The writing of this article brought me into contact with a wide range of texts which somehow engaged with geography and ideas of the monstrous, and especially texts wich contained some inclusion of the story of Gog and Magog. (I here refrain from using the term "legend", largely because to scholars in the Middle Ages, Gog and Magog were part of historical - and theological - reality.)

Gog and Magog entered the historical awareness of medieval scholars through the Bible, and have become synonymous with forces of destruction and evil. The names first appear in Ezekiel (38-39) where Gog, king of the land Magog, will be unleashed from the north as punishment for the iniquities of the Israelites. The situation of Magog to the north also tied this vision in with the prophecies of Jeremiah and Isaiah where the north is likewise presented as a house of evil forces. Although Gog and Magog are not featured in either Isaiah or Jeremiah, they nonetheless contribute to the same biblical typology of the north. In the Revelation of Saint John (19:11-21:8), however, Gog and Magog reappear, this time as two separate persons and allies of Satan in the battle at the end of days.

Jeremiah and the vision of the cauldron
Bourges - BM - ms. 0003, f.196v, Bible, last quarter of the twelfth century, Central France
Courtesy of

One of the several texts with which I became engaged in my research for this article was the Apocalypse of the so-called Pseudo-Methodius. This work of prophetic historiography was originally written in Syriac by an anonymous author situated somewhere northwest of Mosul, a location based on the Syriac preface where it says that Saint Methodius received the vision disseminated in the book on a mountain in this area (Garstad 2012: viii). The attribution of the Apocalypse to Methodius of Olympus is difficult to explain but of great significance in one respect, namely the book's function as a prophectic writ. Saint Methodius, reportedly bishop of Tyre, is said to have been martyred in 311 according to Jerome. That Methodius could have written the book is impossible, as it has been dated to around 690, and since it was written not far from Mosul in today's Iraq. Impossible though it be, the attribution of the authorship to such an important and historic figure as Methodius serves perhaps first of all to give weight to this book's value as a prophecy. After all, it purports to have been written almost four hundred years before the times of the book's first readers. For this reason, the anonymous author has been eternized as Pseudo-Methodius.

The Apocalypse was written in response to the political situation of the time. The area around Mosul had earlier in the century been conquered and was under Muslim overlordship by the time the book was written. By the beginning of the 690s, the Muslim government increased their taxation of the Christian communities, and this resulted in conversion to Islam, or apostasy from the Christian faith as was how the author would have seen it. Apostasy is one of the signs of the end times in biblical chiliastic typology, and throughout the Apocalypse this point is emphasized by references to 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 (Garstad 2012: ix). In short, the Apocalypse is a work of historical exegesis which presents the Muslims, referred to as Ishmaelites, as a sign of the beginning of the endtimes, and which chastises those who converted to Islam from Christianity as the apostates whose apostasy confirmed the role of the Ishmaelites as the heralds of the apocalypse.

Alexander enclosing the nations in the north
BL MS Harley 4979, f.47, prose Roman d'Alexandre, the Netherlands, 1st quarter of the 14th century
Courtesy of British Library

The Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius was translated into Greek and Latin within fifty years of its composition, and in those languages the book spread to Byzantium and Europe. Among the works it affected was the so-called Primary Chronicle of Novgorod, a monastic chronicle written at the monastery of Caves in the first quarter of the twelfth century. In this chronicle, an extract from the Apocalypse was included, having possibly made its way to Novgorod via an Old Slavonic translation. The extract included in the Primary Chronicle concerns the unclean nations to the north which, according to Pseudo-Methodius, had been enclosed behind a great wall by Alexander the Great when he beheld how filthy their habits were (Lunde and Stone 2012: 180-81). Among these nations were, unsurprisingly, Gog and Magog. This combination of the story of Alexander's Wall with the nations of the north so familiar to the Abrahamic religions is not a novel feature in the Apocalypse, it can already be glimpsed in the Quranic story of D'hul Quarnayn, but it has no doubt popularized the conflation and helped bringing its imagery to new audiences, as evidenced by the inclusion of the story in the Primary Chronicle.

The story of the enclosed nations is found in chapter eight of the Apocalypse, and is one of the longest chapters in the book. It begins by recording Alexander's heritage, being - according to Pseudo-Methodius - born of the Ethiopian princess Chouseth and King Philip of Macedonia. After Alexander's victory over Darius, he sojourned to the "Country of the Son" where he encountered the sons of Japheth, son of Noah. The nations descending from Japheth were found abominable by Alexander and he was repulsed by their unclean, cadaverous diet, and out of fear that they would "pollute the whole earth" and, most importantly, the Holy Land, he sought aid from God and then began to round up the sons of Japheth and drive them into the north. Pseudo-Methodius says:

And he drove tehm out of the land of th dawn and pursud close behind them, until they were brought into the lands beyond the North, and there is neither a way in nor a way out for them from east to west, through which one might come in to them or might go out. (Garstad 2012: 25)

Alexander then prays to God for help again, and God makes two mountains move closer together, so that the passage between them is small enough to be covered with a gate. This gate is made of brass and covered with a material, asyncite, seemingly Pseudo-Methodius' own invention (Garstad 2012: 339, n. 20),  that resists fire and iron. When the wall was finished:

So these accursed, false, and foul nations employed all kinds of magical intrigues, and in these things he [Alexander] rendered their sordid and inhuman, or to put it more strongly, godless sorcery ineffectual, so that they were not able by fire or iron or any other device to force open gates such as these and make their escape. (Garstad 2012: 27)

Among these nations are Gog and Magog, and by a reference to the prophecy of Ezekiel, Pseudo-Methodius states that they will break free from their enclosure at the end of times.

Alexander fighting dragons and firebreathing, horse-headed men
BL MS Royal 20 A V, f.73 Roman d'Alexandre, first quarter of 14th century, French
Courtesy of British Library

Among the nations of the north, there are both historical peoples such as the Sarmatians and the Alans, but also the mythical Dogheads. The Ishmaelites, however, are not found in this monstrous catalogue, and therefore serve a different role in the apocalyptic drama of the latter days than Gog and Magog. Pseudo-Methodius records that the Ishmaelites emerged from the desert of Yathrib, i.e. the Arabian peninsula, and this is of course in keeping with the first spread of Islam, and we are reminded that what the Apocalypse does is to weave historical events into a tapestry whose ending has been foretold in the Bible. Consequently, the role of the Ishmaelites is not to emerge onto the world at the endtimes, but to facilitate the emerging of Satan and the nations of the north and thus usher in the Apocalypse. This should be understood as a reference to the Muslim government, under whose rule many Christians converted to Islam and thus committed the apostasy of which Paul spoke in 2 Thessalonians. This also partly explains why the biblical intertextuality of the Apocalypse is as curiously selective as it is, with no reference to Revelation, and with an emphasis on the brief prophectic extract from 2 Thessalonians described above.

Nonethelss, the nations of the north will emerge in the end. Pseudo-Methodius describes how the oppression by the Ishmaelites will be overturned and things will resume their happy state once more. This happiness, however, will then be followed by this:

 Then the gates of the North will be opened up and out will come the powers of the nations which were enclosed within, and the whole earth will reel from their face and men will cry aloud and flee and hide themselves in the mountains and in the caves and among the gravestones. And they will be deadened with fear and many will perish and there will be none to bury their bodies. (Garstad 2012: 61-63)

Of course, in the end the nations of the north and Lucifer will alike be vanquished, and Pseudo-Methodius identifies the champion of Christianity as Rome. This is the Rome that descended from the kings of Ethiopia, according to a novel historical twist brought into the story by Pseudo-Methodius. As mentioned above, Alexander the Great was descended from the Ethiopian royal house by way of his mother Chouseth, the king's daughter. After Alexander's death, however, Chouseth married one of Alexander's general and bore him a daughter, Byzantia. Byzantia then became the mother of three sons, each of whom became the leader of an important city: Alexandria, Byzantium, and Rome. Therefore, the future leader of Rome will be a new Alexander, the antitype in the typology of history, and just as the half-Ethiopian conquerer enclosed the nations in the past, so will Rome, descendants of the Ethiopian kingdom, enclose the the nations at the end of the world. In this way, Pseudo-Methodius tells us, we see a fulfillment of Psalm 68:31, "Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God".

The Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius is a fascinating little work, and it is fascinating for many reasons. When I was working on my article, it provided me with a terrific, and horrific, example of how the typology of the north inherited both from the biblical and the Graeco-Roman cultures could be used in a specific context. I also came to better understand how that use could travel beyond its initial context and still carry meaning, all thanks to the spread of the typology handed down through the Bible and also the Graeco-Roman traditions that influenced the Alexander legends.


Anonymous, The Primary Chronicle, translated extract in Lunde, Paul, and Stone, Caroline, Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness - Arab Travellers in the Far North, Penguin Books, 2012: 180-81

Garstad, Benjamin, introduction to The Apocalypse fo Pseudo-Methodius, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 2012

Pseudo-Methodius, The Apocalypse, edited and translated from its Greek version by Benjamin Garstad, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 2012