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

mandag 22. mai 2017

The tooth of time - a little nugget from Ribe




As mentioned in the previous blogpost, the beginning of last week was spent in the southwestern Danish town of Ribe, an important medieval bishopric and now a quaint, lovely, old-fashioned, seemingly timelocked settlement near the Jutland coast. There are several gems to be found around the town, some of which are big and striking like the medieval cathedral, some of which are small and easy to overlook like the many beautifully and creatively painted doors.

One such little gem is a bronze sculpture situated outside Ribe Viking Museum. The sculpture was created by the Danish artist John Olesen (b. 1938) in 1995, and now welcomes visitors who seek to get closer to ages past by exploring the many treasures of the museum. The idea of "the tooth of time", which is "tidens tand" in Danish and "tidens tann/tidas tann" in Norwegian (Bokmål and Nynorsk respectively), is a Scandinavian expression to denote the passing of time left visibly on objects. We say that something has been marked by the tooth of time, an image of quiet nibbling that I find very pleasing and immensely poetic. A very fitting concept to be reminded of before stepping into a museum to behold items that have been gnawed away by the tooth of time.














fredag 19. mai 2017

Saint George in Ribe





Earler this week, my colleages and I went to Ribe for our annual gathering, the one time of the year when our two branches of the Centre for Medieval Literature meet to discuss academic matters, catch up on each others' research, and to socialise in a place with medieval connections. Ribe is a small town in the southwest of Jutland. It is colloquially known as Denmark's oldest town, as it was one of Scandinavia's most important trading sites during the pre-conversion period. After the conversion of Denmark, Ribe became a bishopric and its cathedral has still layers from the twelfth and the thirteenth century.

I hope to return to a more general description of the church itself later, but for now I present you with one of my favourite details from the church space, found at the western end of the northern side naves, namely a glorious depiction of Saint George fighting the dragon. I'm tempted to think that the female figure placed above the two combatants is princess Alexandra, the maiden saved by Saint George - and in older calendars she was also venerated as a saint - but it might also be a different figure altogether, possibly the Virgin Mary.

I have not found any information about when this set of wooden sculptures were made, but I hazard to guess early sixteenth century. It is certainly not modern, and it is a wonderful depiction of one of my favourite scenes from hagiographic art.




























fredag 28. april 2017

A Caribbean Werewolf Tale - from Derek Walcott's Tales of the Islands


I have recently been reading some articles touching on one of  perhaps most memorable anecdotes from Gerald of Wales' Topographia Hibernica (which I have written about more extensively here). The anecdote concerns an Irish priest who once was approached by a wolf who spoke to to him as if he were a human, and begged the priest to follow him. The priest went with the wolf who brought him to where another wolf was about to die, and the wolves asked the priest to adminster the last rites to the dying, for they were humans who had been cursed and therefore had been turned into wolves. The priest administered the rites.

This story is one of many werewolf stories found throughout the history of literature. The werewolf is a pervasive figure in folklore and continues to attract the fascination and attentions from scholars and non-scholars alike.



The priest and the wolf
BL MS Royal 13 B VIII, f.17v, Topograhpia Hiberniae, Gerald of Wales, England, c.1196-c.1223
Courtesy of British Library


One story depicting a werewolf can be found in Derek Walcott's poem Tales of the Islands, a sequence of ten sonnets depicting aspects of life in the Caribbean, often highlighting the multilingualism of that life by an elegant use of the Patois French native to Walcott's Saint Lucia. The story in question, which Walcott himself styles "A curious tale" in the opening of the poem, is detailed in the ninth sonnet, titled "Le Loupgarou", which is French for "werewolf". The sequence is included in Walcott's collection of poems In a Green Night from 1962.



From Tales of the Islands
Chapter IX/"Le Loupgarou"

A curious tale that threaded through the town
Through greying women sewing under eaves,
Was how his greed had brought ld Le Brun down,
Greeted by slowly shutting jalousies
When he approached them in white linen suit,
Pink glasses, Cork hat, and tap-tapping cane,
A dying man licensed to sell sick fruit,
Ruined by fiends with whom he'd made a bargain.
It seems one night, these Christian witches said,
He changed himself to an Alsatian hound,
A slavering lycanthrope hot on a scent,
But his own watchman dealt the thing a wound.
It howled and lugged its entrails, trailing wet
With blood, back to its doorstep, almost dead.


tirsdag 25. april 2017

Distractions along the thesis road - an antiphon for Saint Laurentius


As every academic knows, the road towards completing the PhD thesis is a long-winded one, and it is full of major and minor distractions. In this brief blogpost I want to present you with an example of just such a little distraction from my current research.

These days I am researching the liturgical office for Saint Knud the king, also known as Canute or Kanutus Rex, who died in Odense in 1086 following a rebellion that spread across the estates of eleventh-century Danish society, at least according to some of the earliest sources. The liturgical office - which occupies a prominent part in my thesis - contains the chants and readings for the feast of Knud's death (July 10). We do not know when the office was composed as the manuscript sources for it only survive in fragments, and few conclusions can be drawn with certainty. The office survives, however, in printed breviaries from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, and therefore I have for the past two days been immersed in the structure and the content of this office.

During my transcription of the office text, however, I was briefly distracted by a rubric breaking off the flow of the office itself, placed between the chants for Vesper and the chants for Matins. This rubric points to a chant for Saint Laurentius of Rome (3rd century) whose feast is celebrated August 10, i.e. one month after the feast of Knud. The text and the position of the chant can be seen in the picture below, which - don't worry - is not a photograph of the breviary itself but of a printout.



Antiphona Sancti Laurentii
Breviarium Othoniense 1497, f.262r (print-out with personal notes)
(Courtesy of Copenhagen Royal Library


The chant in question is an antiphon with a versicle belonging to the repertoire of chants for Saint Laurentius. The antiphon can be found on this website, while the versicle can be found here. An antiphon is a short text in verse chanted before and after a psalm. In the office of a saint, the antiphons were often composed specifically for the saint in question, as we see here. The text reads:



Antiphon:

Laurentius ingressus est
martir et confessus est
nomine domini nostri ihesu cristi


Versicle:

Dispersit [dedit pauperibus justitia ejus manet in saeculum saeculi]



This can be translated (by me) as:
Laurentius martyr is entering, and the name of our Lord Jesus Christ is confessed.

He disperses and gives the poor, His [God's] justice endures in all eternity.


The text itself is typical of a generic chant for a saint and contains nothing special about Saint Laurentius of Rome. I was nonetheless distracted by it in part because it is a beautiful little poem, and because its placement in the office of Saint Knud was a bit puzzling to me. As mentioned, Knud is celebrated exactly one month before Laurentius, and therefore this rubric can not be a commemoratio, a chant celebrating the less important of two saints when the feasts of those two saints overlap. What I do know is that Saint Laurentius was the patron of the metropolitan see of Lund. Although the city of Lund now lies in Sweden, it was Danish in the Middle Ages and housed the archbishop of the Danish church. The patronage of Laurentius in Lund and the bishopric of Odense's subordination to the archbishop of Lund might go some way to explain this rubric. But at the current time, however, I have no satisfactory explanation to give.

I have paused to reflect a bit on this little piece simply because it is a distraction and because it is something I do not yet have a satisfactory answer to. It is a good example of those thousand little things that can lead to a wild goose chase in the academic writing process. Hopefully, with this current blogpost, I have managed to vent my curiosity and prevented the distraction from leading me too far astray .




søndag 23. april 2017

Spanish poetry for World Book Day


Today, April 23rd, is World Book Day, an international celebration of books that has taken its date from the death-day of Miguel de Cervantes, William Shakespeare, and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega. The tradition of World Book Day began in 1926. In honour of this wonderful day, I will here present some of my favourite Spanish poetry to mark that this day is a Spanish invention, founded by the writer Vicente Clavel (1888-1967). The poems below are taken from The Penguin Book of Spanish Poetry, and the translations are made by the book's editor, J. M. Cohen.



Lupercio Leonardo de Argensola

Lupercio Leonardo de Argensola (1559-1613) was poet and historian, and this untitled poem was one of my first exposures to the Spanish sonnet. I learned of it through a reworking of the poem into English by Geoffrey Hill, and it remains one of my favourite poems.


Llevó tras sí los pámpanos otubre,
y con las grandes lluvias insolente,
no sufre Ibero márgenes ni puente,
mas antes los vecinos campos cubre.

Moncayo, como suele, ya descubre
coronada de nieve la alta frente,
y el sol apenas vemos en Oriente
cuando la opaca tierra nos lo encubre.

Sienten el mar y selvas ya la saña
del aquilón, y encierra su bramido
gente en el puerto y gente en la cabaña.

Y Fabio, en el umbral de Tais tendido,
con vergonzosos lágrimas lo baña,
debiéndolas al tiempo que ha perdido.

(October has taken the vine-leaves with it, and swollen with the great rains, Ebro will suffer neither banks nor bridges, but rather covers the neighbouring fields.
Moncayo, as usual, now reveals her tall brow crowned with snow, and no sooner do we see the sun in the East than the opaque earth conceals it from us.
Now the sea and the woods feel the north-wind's anger, and its roaring shuts people up in port and people in their cottages.
And Fabio, lying on Thais' threshold, wets it with shameful tears, his debt to the time that he has wasted.)


Lope de Vega Carpio

Lope de Vega (1562-1613) is one of the foremost writers of Spanish literature. He is predominantly remembered for his numerous plays, but his religious poetry has also achieved well-deserved fame. The following untitled poem is another verse to which I came through a reworking by Geoffrey Hill, and it is a hauntingly direct, unvarnished grappling with issues of personal faith.


Qué tengo yo que mi amistad procuras?
Qué interés se te sigue, Jesús mío,
que a mi puerta, cubierto de rocío,
pasas las noches del invierno escuras?

Oh, cuánto fueron mis entrañas duras
pues no te abrí! Qué extraño desvarío
si de mi ingratitud el hielo frío
secó las llagas de tus plantas puras!

Cuántas veces el ángel me decía:
"Alma, asómate agora a la ventana,
verás con cuanto amor llamar porfía!"

Y cuántas, hermosura soberana:
"Mañana te abriremos" - repondía,
para lo mismo responder mañana!

(What have I that you should sue for my friendship? What interest brings you, dear Jesus, to spend the dark winter nights at my door, covered in dew?
Oh how hard was my heart that I did not open to you! What strange madness was it if the cold frost of my ingratitude chapped the wounds on your pure feet?
How many times did the angel say to me: 'Now, soul, look out of your window, and you will see how lovingly he persists in knocking!'
And how many times, oh supreme beauty, did I reply: 'I will open tomorrow', only to make the same reply upon the morrow!)


Miguel de Guevara

This final poem is a religious sonnet is attributed to the sixteenth-century Mexican priest Miguel de Guevara (dates unknown), and it is one of the most moving religious poems that I know of.


A Cristo crucificado

No me mueve, mi Dios, para quererte,
el cielo que me tienes prometido,
ni me mueve el infierno tan temido
para dejar pos eso de ofenderte.

Tú me mueves, Señor; muéveme el verte
clavado en esa cru, y escarnecido;
muéveme el ver tu cuerpo tan herido,
muévenme tus afrentas, y tu muerte.

Muéveme, al fin, tu amor, y en tal manera,
que aunque no hubiera cielo, yo te amara,
y aunque no hubiera infierno te temiera.

No me tienes que dar porque te quiera;
pues aunque lo que espero no esperara,
lo mismo que te quiero te quisiera.

(To Christ Crucified
It is not heaven that You have promised me, my God, that moves me to love You, nor is it the hell I so fear that moves me to cease sinning against You.
You move me, Lord; it moves me to see You nailed to that cross and despised; it moves me to see Your body so wounded; the insults You suffered and Your death move me.
Finally, Your love moves m, and so much that even if there were no heaven, I should love You; and even in there were no hell, I should fear You.
You have not to give me anything to make me love You; for even if I did not hope for what I do hope for, I should love You just as I do.)



onsdag 19. april 2017

Writer's block - a poem by Emelihter Kihleng


This month is nearing its end and this is the first blogpost of the month. It has, in other words, been a very hectic month, but hectic in various ways. The first week passed by in a frantic writing process which saw the finishing of the first half of the thesis chapter on which I am currently working. The second week was spent in Norway during the Easter holiday. But now that I have returned from home and I am once again back at the office, I can turn my attention to this blog again, since my brain is neither too narrowly focussed, nor too relaxed to write new posts.

As a start for the April blogposts, I present to you a poem by Emelihter Kihleng, a poet from the Federation of Micronesia. I have a particular interest in geographical localities that are peripheral to my own cultural standing, and which are small - particularly so if they are islands, for reasons I do not entirely comprehend myself. Therefore, I was very happy to discover Emelihter Kihleng and her first collection of poems. The collection is titled My Urohs. An urohs is a long skirt worn by Micronesian women, and this is a recurring feature of identity marking in Kihleng's collection, a collection in which matters of identity are dealt with in several - and sometimes gripping - ways.

For this blogpost, however, I give you a poem which, as the title shows, deals with writer's block, a suitable way to mark the resuming of activity here on this blog.


Writer's block

I'm finally sitting down to write a poem
Is it the heat?
the quiet,
not a tree stirring,
a single leaf falls from the mahi

the house darkens
the tin roof holds its breath
rain pounds the cement
and everyone in Kolonia sighs
steam rising from the pavement

what is it about this place?


(Published in My Urohs, Kahuaomanoa Press, Honolulu, 2008)

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.