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

torsdag 27. oktober 2016

Musical Mirror Images - the office of Saint Louis of France and Roman de Fauvel

In 1297, Pope Boniface VIII canonized King Louis IX of France (1214-70). This canonization was the result of an investigation into testimonials by witnesses and consultation of the various biographies that were written in order to testify to the dead king's holiness. Ever since Louis' death from dysentery in Tunis at the beginning of the Eighth Crusade, several interest groups had begun lobbying for a canonization of the king. Among the most important of these groups were the French king Philippe IV Le Bel (Louis' grandson), the Dominican Order, and the Franciscan Order. For the latter two groups, Louis IX had been an important patron, and he was also an ideal Christian king.

As mentioned, in order to provide solid, written evidence for Louis' holiness, an unusual large number of hagiographical accounts were produced prior to the canonization. When the pope had affirmed that Louis was indeed among God's holy, there were also composed liturgical offices in honour for his feast-day, his dies natalis, which was the day of his death, August 25.

Since Louis the king and saint was of great importance to several groups, there were composed many offices - some of which were merely different versions of the same basic template - and the Dominicans, the Franciscans and the Cistercians all had their own offices. To the mendicant orders, Louis was the ideal king to which all other French kings should be measured, and their textual production centred on Louis should also be understood in this regard, namely as attempts to influence the behaviour of the current king.

Also to Philippe IV his grandfather appeared as an ideal king, and also as an important facet in the mythology of French kingship which by that time was already expansive and complex, drawing on elements from Merovingian and Carolingian history as well as from the Capetian dynasty. In other words, Louis IX was an important pillar by which Philippe IV's own reign was supported.

After Philippe IV's death in 1314, however, the French monarchy descended into a state of chaos due to a series of short-lived young kings. Philippe IV was succeeded by Louis X who reigned for two years until his death. Louis was succeeded by Jean I who was born November 5 1316 and died five days later. Jean I was then succeeded by Philippe V, the second son of Philippe IV, who reigned until 1322.

In the midst of this turbulent period, there was composed a poem by Gerard du Bus which addressed the troubles of the French monarchy through an allegory. The poem is called Roman de Fauvel, and chronicles the rise of the donkey Fauvel from his insurrection against his master to his accession to the French throne. Fauvel marries one of Dame Fortune's handmaidens, Vainglory, and together they populate the garden of France with their unholy offspring, and it is revealed that Fauvel is indeed Antichrist.

Fauvel approaches Vainglory's bed
Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, fonds francaise 146, f.34, 1316
Courtesy of Wikimedia

The poem is an attack on corruption and abuses by political and religious men, and serves as a warning for the young king - presumably Philippe V - of the importance of a strong, virtuous ruler, and the necessity of not allowing little Fauvels to rise to positions of power. The poem survives in a manuscript from 1316, BnF fr.146, so it was composed in the midst of a very uncertain period of the French monarchy.

In BnF fr.146, the narrative of the Roman de Fauvel is interspersed with musically annotated songs, providing another dimension for its performance. And we should assume that the Roman has indeed been performed for the young king Philippe. One of the aspects of the Roman de Fauvel is that here, too, good kings are presented to the young king as ideals worthy of emulation. Unsurprisingly, Gerard du Bus makes use of Philippe V's own great-grandfather Louis IX as one such ideal king. As a consequence, despite the darkly satirical mode of Roman de Fauvel, also here we find Saint Louis serving as an edifying model, similar to one of his purposes in the hagiographic corpus (which naturally includes the liturgical offices).

In this way, the offices for Saint Louis and the Roman de Fauvel function as a kind of mirror images to each other. They both share a purpose, namely to shape the future of the French monarchy. Of course, this is not a purpose they both share to the same extent. The liturgical offices had as their primary goal to honour the saint in Heaven so that he would act as their ambassador in the court of God. Consequently, the liturgical attempt to shape the future of the monarchy was less direct in that it addressed the saint and exhorted him for divine intervention.

The Roman de Fauvel, on the other hand, is addressed directly to the king and seeks to influence its audience by holding forth a story of a possible future disaster - in modern parlance we might call it dystopian. Therefore, the similarities between the Roman and the offices should not be overemphasized or simplified, but in the end they both apply the figure of the holy king Louis as a key figure in their respective narratives, and they both seek to influence worldly events through the performance of their texts.

Louis IX, initial from the office Ludovicus decus
Paris - Bibl. Mazarine - ms. 0344, f.242, breviary, Use of Paris, c.1318
(Courtesy of

Ludovicus Rex: Extraits Des Offices de l'Adoration de Saint Louis
Choeur Grégorien de Paris, Jean-Noël Haddad, 1997

Roman de Fauvel, directed by Joël Cohen
Performed by Boston Camerata and Project Ars Nova


Dillon, Emma, Medieval Music-making and the 'Roman de Fauvel', Cambridge University Press, 2002

Gaposchkin, Cecilia, The Making of Saint Louis, Cornell University Press, 2010

Gervais du Bus, Le Roman de Fauvel, edited by Arthur Långfors, Paris, 1968

søndag 23. oktober 2016

Modern echoes of Ovid - from the works of Derek Walcott and Geoffrey Hill

I'm currently reading a collection of essays by Thea Selliaas Thorsen, classical scholar at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and Norway's foremost translator of Ovid. The collection contains fifty very short essays on selected pieces from literary history, with an emphasis on the classical heritage. Its title, Kom ikke uten begjær (come not without desire), is taken from an epigram by Paul Valéry. This book is an illuminating and entertaining collection, and to me as a medievalist not as well-versed in the classical literature, it is highly educational. And it also serves as a good reminder of how resilient past texts are even into our modern age.

This latter issue is something that has been on my mind ever since I took a course in Latin poetry in 2012, a course taught by Thea. During that term I started to reflect on the numerous allusions to Ovid - and other classical poets - in works by modern poets whom I had discovered at university and was by then consuming avidly. By reading Thea's essays, a great number of which feature Ovid in some capacity, I was again brought back to this topic, and I was reminded that I have wanted to write something about this for years now. So when I serendipitously opened one of Derek Walcott's early collections and found a sequence of poems titled Metamorphoses after Ovid's magnum opus, I wanted to share it here. In addition to an exctract from Walcott's sequence, I also present an extract from the similarly-titled sequence of poems by Geoffrey Hill.

From Metamorphoses, by Derek Walcott

I - Moon

Resisting poetry I am becoming a poem.
O lolling Orphic head silently howling,
my own head rises from its surf of cloud.

Slowly my body grows a single sound,
slowly I become
a bell,
an oval, disembodied vowel,
I grow, an owl,
an aureole, white fire.

I watch the moonstruck image of the moon burn,
a candle mesmerized by its own aura,
and turn
my hot congealing face, towards that forked mountain
which wedges the drowned singer.

That frozen glare,
that morsured, classic petrification.
Haven't you sworn off such poems for this year,
and no more on the moon?

Why are you gripped by demons of inaction?
Whose silence shrieks so soon?

- From The Gulf, 1969

Apollo and Daphne, from Ovid's Metamorphoses
Antonio del Pollaiolo, probably 1470-80, National Gallery, London
(Courtesy of Wikimedia)

From Metamorphoses, by Geoffrey Hill

3 The re-birth of Venus

And now the sea-scoured temptress, having failed
To scoop out of horizons what birds herald:
Tufts of fresh soil: shakes off an entire sea,
Though not as the dove, harried. Rather, she,

A shark hurricaned to estuary-water,
(The lesser hunter almost by a greater
Devoured) but unflurried, lies, approaches all
Stayers, and searches of the fanged pool.

4 Drake's drum

Those varied dead. The undiscerning sea
Shelves and dissolves their flesh as it burns spray

Who do not shriek like gulls nor dolphins ride
Crouched under spume to England's erect side

Though there a soaked sleeve lolls or shoe patrols
Tide-padded thick shallows, squats in choked pools

Neither our designed wreaths nor used words
Sink to their melted ears and melted hearts.

- From For the Unfallen, 1959

onsdag 12. oktober 2016

Edward the Confessor, according to William Wordsworth

Today is the feast of the translation of Edward the Confessor. This day celebrates the anniversary of when his dead body was placed in its shrine at Westminster Abbey in recognition of his sainthood, and this took place on October 13, 1163, only two years after his sainthood had been formally acknowledged by Pope Alexander III. A translation, or translatio, is the moving of a saint's remains to a new site, often a shrine placed in such a way that the faithful could see it when they were in the church. October 13 became, in the course of the thirteenth century during the reign of Henry III, the principal feast-day for the Confessor, although this had previously been his death-day, January 5. (For the development of the liturgical feast-days, see this blogpost.)

I have written several blogposts about Edward the Confessor, since his cult was the subject of my MA thesis, and several of these give a thorough account of the development of his cult. This time around, however, I will commemorate the translatio Edwardi by presenting to you a poem by William Wordsworth, "The Norman Conquest" which was the thirty-first of his ecclesiastical sonnets, composed in the period 1821-22. (The text is taken from this website.)

Wordsworth's sonnet only treats Edward very briefly, and rather condescendingly, and it is a clear testimony to how Edward's role in the Norman Conquest was perceived at least by the poet, if not by a wider segment of the British literati. The role of Edward in the prelude to the invasion in 1066 has been a contested issue ever since William the Conqueror laid claim to being Edward's chosen successor (for more on this controversy, see this blogpost).

For William Wordsworth, however, the verdict is clear: It is Edward who is to blame for what he sees as the "evanescence of the Saxon line", presumably meaning the line of Saxon kings which the ecclesiastical sonnets have in part followed up to this point. This testiness towards the changes brought on by the Norman Conquest is probably not that uncommon Wordsworth's own time. At the very least, it is close to the sentiment of Edward Augustus Freeman (1823-97), who wrote in his six-volume The History of the Norman Conquest of England (published between 1867 to 1879). Here, Freeman launches the conviction that the Norman Conquest eradicated English culture to such an extent that it was only the later sainthood of Edward that helped his name survive the Middle Ages.

Whatever the prevalence of Wordsworth's approach to the dramatis personae of the Conquest, the sonnet is a suitable reminder that attitudes are not constant and that Edward who was revered as a saint and patron in the Middle Ages, by the nineteenth century had found himself cast in a very different role

The sigil of Edward the Confessor, as Anglorum basilei, king of the English
Courtesy of Wikimedia

Ecclesiastical Sonnets, XXI - The Norman Conquest

The woman-hearted Confessor prepares
The evanescence of the Saxon line.
Hark! 'tis the tolling Curfew!--the stars shine;
But of the lights that cherish household cares
And festive gladness, burns not one that dares
To twinkle after that dull stroke of thine,
Emblem and instrument, from Thames to Tyne,
Of force that daunts, and cunning that ensnares!
Yet as the terrors of the lordly bell,
That quench, from hut to palace, lamps and fires,           
Touch not the tapers of the sacred quires;
Even so a thraldom, studious to expel
Old laws, and ancient customs to derange,
To Creed or Ritual brings no fatal change.

Similar blogposts

A trip to Westminster Abbey

The cult of Edward the Confessor

Edward the Confessor and Thomas Becket

A poem for Harold Godwinson

Edward the Confessor and the nightingales

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.

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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.