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

fredag 23. juni 2017

From Derek Walcott's Midsummer


For the Vigil of Saint John the Baptist, which is when Norwegians and Danes celebrate midsummer with a great bonfire, I give you an extract from Derek Walcott's book-length poem, Midsummer, printed in 1984 and here taken from Collected Poems - 1948-1984, printed by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1986.


From Midsummer

XI

My double, tired of morning, closes the door
of the motel bathroom; then, wiping the steamed mirror,
refuses to acknowledge me staring back at him.
With the softest grunt, he stretches my throat for the function
of scraping it clean, his dispassionate care
like a barber's lathering a corpse - extreme unction.
The old ritual would have been as grim
if the small wisps that curled there in the basin
were not hairs but minuscular seraphim.
He clips our moustache with a snickering scissors,
then stops, reflecting, in midair. Certain sadnesses
are not immense, but fatal, like the sense of sin
while shaving. And empty cupboards where her dresses
shone. But why flushing a faucet, its vortex
swivelling with bits of hair, could make some men's
hands quietly put aside their razors,
and sense their veins as filth floating downriver
after the dolorous industries of sex,
is a question swans may raise with their white necks,
that the cockerel answers quietyl, treading his hens.

onsdag 14. juni 2017

The typology of decapitation - the case of Edmund Martyr and John the Baptist



When working on the cult and literature of saints, one of the most noteworthy aspects one comes across is the many ways in which one holy person is typologically connected with other holy men and women of Christian and biblical history. This means a saint is understood as the antitype, i.e. as a kind of later reconfiguration, of an earlier type, hence typology. All saints are expected to be an antitype to Christ, but one saint can be typologically connected to a number of saints, either by shared features, belonging to the same category of saints, by intertextuality, or by other means. Mapping these connections is sometimes the most fun part of working with saints.

These days I am returning to Edmund Martyr, the king of East Anglia who in 869 was killed by Danish Vikings and who was venerated as a saint from at least the late ninth century. The first biography of Saint Edmund was written by Abbo of Fleury c.985, and this was the foundation for the later texts that were produced at Bury St Edmunds, the centre of his cult.


Edmund tortured by Vikings
BL MS Harley 2278, John Lydgate's life of Edmund and Fremund, England, between 1434 and 1439
(Courtesy of British Library)


In Abbo of Fleury's Passio Eadmundi, we are told how Edmund was tied to a tree and pierced by arrows while the Danish chieftain Hingwar (usually identified as Ivar Boneless) tried to make him subdue to Danish overlordship. When Edmund refused, his head was chopped off and thrown into the bushes lest a veneration of the deceased monarch should emerge. The head was later found, guarded by a wolf, and when it had been interred in a simple wooden chapel, the head and body miraculously merged into an intact unit.
 

The finding of Edmund's head
BL MS Harley 2278, John Lydgate's life of Edmund and Fremund, between 1434-39
(Courtesy of British Library) 


 Passio Eadmundi was the fundamental text for the later composition of a liturgical office at Bury St Edmunds. This office is today recorded almost completely in Pierpont Morgan MS 736, which was written and put together c.1130. The office for Edmund's feast day - November 20 - consists of a collection of chants and readings to be performed at the hour of Matins on the night of his dies natalis, his heavenly birthday and his death-day on earth. This office forms the centrepiece of my chapter on Saint Edmund for my doctoral thesis.

One night I was playing with one of my most important research tools, the CANTUS database in which liturgical chants from the Middle Ages are catalogued. While doing so, I serendipitously discovered that one of the chants for Saint Edmund - the seventh antiphon, i.e. a chant sung before the seventh of the psalms during the night office - shared some features with an antiphon for the feast of the beheading of John the Baptist.


Decollation of John the Baptist
Amiens - BM - ms. 0195, f.133v, pontifical of Corbie, thirteenth century, Northern France
(Courtesy of enluminures.culture.fr)

According to Matthew 14, Mark 6, and Luke 9, John the Baptist was beheaded on the orders of King Herod Antipas. The reason for the beheading was that Herod's wife Herodias hated John the Baptist and told her daughter Salome that should Herod ask what she wanted as a gift, Salome would request the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. Salome then danced for the king, and Herod was overcome with delight and told his step-daughter to ask for anything she wanted as a reward for her dance. Salome then heeded her mother's words, and John the Baptist was duly beheaded.

The death of Saint John the Baptist is marked with its own feast in the Catholic liturgical calendar, and it is celebrated on August 29. Unlike most other saints, however, the death-day of John the Baptist is not his principal feast, which is his nativity on June 24. Nor is the day marking the day of his beheading, but instead it marks the finding of his head. This is why the day is known as the feast of the decollation, rather than the dies natalis.


Even the marginal hybrids turn their face away in sorrow 
Limoges - BM - ms. 0002, f.182v, gradual, Fontevrault, c.1250-c.1260
(Courtesy of enluminures.culture.fr)

Since both John the Baptist and Edmund Martyr were beheaded, it is no wonder that the venerators of Saint Edmund should think that the two saints were typologically connected, especially the hagiographers and liturgists at Bury whose job it was to emphasize such connections through musical borrowings, textual allusions, and iconographic similarities. To illustrate how this was done, I will here present you the antiphon of Edmund and that of the feast of the decollation to illustrate how this typological connection was made through liturgical borrowings.

The antiphon for Saint Edmund:

Misso spiculatore de crevit tyrannus
dei adletam eadmundus dum capite
detruncari sicque ymnum deo personuit
et animam celo gaudens intulit.

(The thrown stabs increased by the tyrant, the athlete of God, Edmund, when his head was cut off, and thus resounded with hymns for God and brought the soul rejoicing to Heaven)

The antiphon for the decollation of John the Baptist:

Misso Herodes spiculatore praecepit
amputare caput Joannis in carcere
quo audito discipuli ejus venerunt et
tulerunt corpus ejus et posuerunt
illud in monumento
(The thrown stabs ordered by Herod amputated the head of John while in prison. When his disciples heard this, they came and interred his body and placed it in a monument.)


Praecepit amputare caput Joannis in carcere
Cambrai - BM - ms. 0189, f.161v, Evangeliar, Use of Cambrai, c.1266, Cambrai
(Courtesy of enluminures.culture.fr)


As can be seen from the words put in bold, it is likely that the antiphon for the feast of the decollation served as the foundation for the antiphon of Edmund Martyr. This relationship is also strengthened by some of the words that are not identical but nonetheless carry the same meaning. While the Edmund antiphon uses "detruncari" and the decollation antiphon uses "amputare", it is nonetheless clear that they signify the same form of execution. Similarly, while the primary antagonist in the antiphon for the decollation is identified as Herod, the antagonist of the Emund antiphon is not named but instead referred to as "tyrannus", a term which in medieval liturgical chants is sometimes used about Herod (such as this hymn verse for the feast of the Holy Innocents).

These two antiphons, therefore, provide a good example of how the typological connection of two saints could be emphasized through liturgy. By borrowing key words and phrases from an antiphon for the decollation, the liturgists pointed to the fact that Edmund and John the Baptist both were beheaded, and that they therefore had a relationship in the collegium of saints. Such connections were important to bring out because that way the typological roster of Saint Edmund - i.e. the list of his features shared with other saints - could be mapped out more completely, and thus Saint Edmund's role in the history of Creation could be understood more clearly. This in turn would mean that he could be addressed more accurately, more flatteringly, which might bring about his help more effectively.

Although such a connection might seem arcane to us who do not perform medieval liturgy, we must remember that the monks at Bury St Edmunds would sing both these antiphons. And even though the antiphons were sung at different times in the year, they would nonetheless be performed by the same monks year after year, and thus be remembered. In this way, the monks who venerated Saint Edmund would be reminded that their patron also shared features with the forerunner of Jesus Christ.