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.

søndag 28. august 2016

The Statue, a poem by Derek Walcott

As is quite apparent to regular readers of this blog, I am a big enthusiast for the verse of Saint Lucian writer and 1992 Nobel laureate in literature Derek Walcott. This is the reason why I often turn to his poetry when I need blogposts that do not require much time to prepare, research or write, and that is, to me, a perfect excuse to highlight some of his lesser known poems, such as those from the early collections which did not make it into the collected poems edition published by Faber & Faber in 1986.

In this blogpost, I give you a short poem from his collection The Castaway, first published i 1965. I take the text from the 1969 Jonathan Cape paperback edition.


Stone will not bleed;
Nor shall this vixor'ed prince, apotheozised
On his stone steed,
A barrel-bellied charger treading the air,
Its tightening haunches set
To hurdle with its warrior the chasm
Between our age and theirs.
Its eyes erupt, bulge in a spasm
Of marble. We stare
At their slow power to corrupt;

Then turn to read
Around another statue, civic-sized,
Bare, halding head,
Of some archaic, muscular aphorist
Laurelled, toga unkempt,
His forked hand raised like a diviner's rod,
His face creased with the wise
Exhaustion of a god.
Their eyes
Withhold amusement, mine, contempt.

Boys will be boys.
Who can instruct them where true honour lies?
Instinct or choice,
Proclaims it lies within
War's furious, dandiacal discipline.
We, who have known

Its victims huddled in a reeking ditch
Of the staff's iron light hurtling Saul
into pedestrian sainthood at his fall,
Still praise that murderous energy of stone.

On them, your fatherly, exhausted air
Is lost,
As sightless as the god's prophetic stare.

Across that gulf each greets the other's ghost.

For similar blogposts
Ruins of a great house

Two poems

The Prince


A selection of poems

onsdag 24. august 2016

Pikes, Thomas de Cantimpré and Ted Hughes

As can sometimes be seen on this blog, I'm very fond of juxtaposing medieval and modern cultural expression, be it folklore, literature, art, music or a range of other things. In this blogpost I'm taking a quick glance at the pike, nicely illustrated in Thomas de Cantimpré's book De Natura Rerum. As we see from this folio, the pike is called "esox". In a twelfth-century bestiary, Cambridge University Library II.4.26, edited and translated by T. H. White, however, it has been named "lupis". As White himself suggests in a footnote, this is probably a misspelling of "lucius", as the pike is known as "esox lucius". The bestiary's description of the pike goes as follows.

His wolfish greed has given the name of LUPIS to the Pike, and it is difficult to catch him. When he is encircled by the net, they say that he ploughs up the sand with his tai and thus, lying hidden, manages to escape the meshes.
- Anonymous, The Book of Beasts, edited and translated by T. H. White, Dover Editions, 2015: 202-03

Pike chasing sturgeon
Valenciennes - BM - ms. 0320, f.126, De Natura Rerum, Thomas de Cantimpré, book 7, c.1290 (Courtesy of

As a modern counterpoint to this description, I give you Ted Hughes' famous poem from his collection Lupercal (1960). The following text is taken from


Pike, three inches long, perfect
Pike in all parts, green tigering the gold.
Killers from the egg: the malevolent aged grin.
They dance on the surface among the flies.
Or move, stunned by their own grandeur,
Over a bed of emerald, silhouette
Of submarine delicacy and horror.
A hundred feet long in their world.
In ponds, under the heat-struck lily pads -
Gloom of their stillness:
Logged on last year's black leaves, watching upwards.
Or hung in an amber cavern of weeds
The jaws' hooked clamp and fangs
Not to be changed at this date;
A life subdued to its instrument;
The gills kneading quietly, and the pectorals.

Three we kept behind glass,
Jungled in weed: three inches, four,
And four and a half: fed fry to them -
Suddenly there were two. Finally one.

With a sag belly and the grin it was born with.
And indeed they spare nobody.
Two, six pounds each, over two feet long
High and dry and dead in the willow-herb -

One jammed past its gills down the other's gullet:
The outside eye stared: as a vice locks -
The same iron in this eye
Though its film shrank in death.

A pond I fished, fifty yards across,
Whose lilies and muscular tench
Had outlasted every visible stone
Of the monastery that planted them -

Stilled legendary depth:
It was as deep as England. It held
Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old
That past nightfall I dared not cast

But silently cast and fished
With the hair frozen on my head
For what might move, for what eye might move.
The still splashes on the dark pond,

Owls hushing the floating woods
Frail on my ear against the dream
Darkness beneath night's darkness had freed,
That rose slowly towards me, watching.

søndag 21. august 2016

Dubious quests for a king - fantasies about the burial place of Olaf Haraldsson of Norway

For many people, history revolves around its kings and princes. This fascination seems to be a constant in recorded history, and it has not released its grip on human imagination even in our modern times, as evidenced by the many biographies, movies and of course gossip magazines in which kings have their premier seats. As a historian who works on medieval kings who were later claimed to be saints, I am frequently exposed to the often obsessive interest some people – both lay and learned – cultivate for royalty of ages past.

In recent years, this fascination has now very often moved its focus to the bones of these royal dead. This in itself is not new, as royal tombs and graves have been the subject of great interest throughout recorded history. For medievalists, one of the most famous cases of such interest is King Arthur, whose bones were said to have been found at Glastonbury Abbey in 1198 together with those of Queen Guinevere, and whose remnants were re-interred in 1278 by Edward I. Here, the earthly remains of the legendary king served as evidence for the king actually being dead and therefore not a rallying-point for the Welsh. The question of Arthur’s burial place is a recurring issue for certain amateur historians and enthusiasts, and it was raised again as late as May 2016.

It is easy to understand why the bones of kings hold such a grip on popular imagination. They are tangible vestiges of the past, and reminders that the things you read about in books have a connection to the real, physical world. This is probably part of the reason why the case of the Greyfriars Skeleton, discovered under a car-park in Leicester in September 2012, gained such massive attention. When the skeleton was identified as King Richard III in February 2013, media erupted with enthusiasm and interest, and it the fascination which had long been in place among many members of the global audience became immensely visible. The Greyfriars Skeleton was something of a milestone in the popular history of royal bones, as it proved to the world that lost historical kings could in fact be found. In the years following, we have seen people urging for a search for both King Alfred and Harold Godwinsson.

Miniature of the statue (1973) of Olaf Haraldsson by Dyre Vaa, Stiklestad Centre

In my native Norway, the interest in dead kings is also significant. Only about eight months after the Greyfriars press conference, a Norwegian made the claim that King Magnus VI Lagabøte (Law-mender), who died in 1280, was buried in the wall of Bergen Cathedral. Following a georadar examination of the walls, objects were located inside it. But the case will not be pursued until the cathedral is due for restoration in 2018.

The Norwegian king who has gained the most attention throughout history, and who continues to do so today, is Olaf Haraldsson, the Viking-turned-Christian who died at Stiklestad north of Trondheim in 1030 in an attempt to regain the Norwegian throne. Olaf was proclaimed to be a saint in 1031 by Bishop Grimkell, and in the twelfth century Olaf’s body was moved to the new cathedral in Trondheim which was begun by Archbishop Eystein Erlendsson.

The death of Olaf Haraldsson
Here from the old exhibition at Stiklestad Centre

Olaf Haraldsson is an important part of the Norwegian imagination, and part of this imagination has been concerned with the bones of the saint-king. The fascination with Olaf’s bones re-emerged in July 2016, when Bodvar Schjelderup – a professor emeritus of architecture – made the national press with the claim that Olaf Haraldsson did not rest somewhere in Nidaros Cathedral, but in the castle Steinvikholm further north in the Trondheim fjord. The castle was built in 1532 by Archbishop Olaf Engelbrektsson, who was the last of the Catholic archbishops of Norway. The background for Schjelderup’s claim is that the shrine of Olaf Haraldsson was indeed removed to Steinvikholm when the archbishop fled Trondheim during the Reformation. However, as professor of medieval history Steinar Imsen and archaeologist Øystein Ekroll both have pointed out, there are contemporary sources from the mid-sixteenth century saying that the reliquary of the saint-king was brought back to Nidaros Cathedral in 1564, and all historical evidence points to the conclusion that Olaf is still buried somewhere in the cathedral.
Steinvikholm Castle
Photo by Frode Inge Helland
Courtesy of Wikimedia

Around mid-August 2016, just a few days ago, the matter of Olaf’s burial site was again raised, and again it made the national press. This time, the claim was put forth by Joralf Gjerstad, a healer from the town Verdal north of Trondheim. Gjerstad has gained national attention for his alleged ability to heal, and in an article in one of the leading Norwegian newspapers he claimed to have had a vision which showed that the royal saint was not buried in Trondheim but rather at Stiklestad, the place of his death in 1030. According to the vision, the king was taken away after the battle and buried in a small hill.

This ongoing discussion concerning the remains of Olaf Haraldsson is testament to the importance of studying medieval history, because the past will always remain relevant and for that reason we will always need experts who can sift the nonsense from the truth. Unfortunately, however, this discussion concerning Olaf Haraldsson’s bones also reveals the almost liminal place which the expert inhabits on the national stage, and this is a matter of great concern.

In the two cases reported here, the news outlets have given precedence to the claims of amateurs and put them on the same level as experts. This is a trend which is quite common in today’s media world, and it perpetuates the notion that experts and non-experts are to be listened to equally. Such a notion is false, and it can be very damaging in certain cases. As for the discussion about Olaf Haraldsson’s bones, there is not much immediate damage to be made. However, it helps solidifying a very dangerous trend, and as such it should not be taken lightly.

Nidaros Cathedral

There are no good reasons to pay attention to the claims put forth by either Schjelderup or Gjerstad – or for that matter Gunnar Rosenlund who made claims about Magnus VI. While experts like Steinar Imsen and Øystein Ekroll have dedicated much of their professional lives to gain a thorough understanding of the Norwegian Middle Ages, the counter-claims are made by men driven by ideas well beyond the empirical and well beyond historical science. For instance, Gunnar Rosenlund consulted a psychic in order to find the tomb of King Magnus. Bodvar Schjelderup is a pyramid enthusiast who imagines that the bones in the shrine taken back to Nidaros Cathedral had been swapped, and that Olaf’s actual bones still reside in the castle. Furthermore, his claim that Olaf Haraldsson resides at Steinvikholm is ultimately founded on a numerical game with the angles of the Kheops pyramide, as he himself stated in an interview in Trondheim's student magazine Under Dusken in 1997. Joralf Gjerstad has formulated a vision which is contrary to every single medieval source dealing with the death of Olaf (and there are many of them). That Gjerstad had a vision is probably a historical fact, many people experience visions in the same way that people dream. But just like a dream is a reality only within the mind of the dreamer, so there is no reason to think that the mental images in Gjerstad’s head should have any consequence for the physical world.
Stiklestad Church

Talking about Gjerstad’s claim, a relative of mine then said that it was only to dig up the area. And it is true, the easiest way to deal with these claims is to follow the logic of them to the bitter end and actually perform the searches. But such a solution is itself deeply problematic. First of all, if we are to dig up a place because a local healer has had a vision that goes contrary to professional consensus, we are letting amateurs dictate the priorities of historical research. I don’t think I speak too harshly when I say that that is intolerable. Secondly, to perform searches in order to debunk the fantasies and imaginings of amateurs will cost money, time and energy that could be much better spent following the priorities of experts who know which excavations are most needed.  Thirdly, if the whims of amateurs are to be heeded in this way, amateurs are not only dictating the priorities of historical research but also of the national attention. In a time when it has become increasingly challenging for non-experts to filter out the facts from the dubious, the voices of experts should not be obscured by such searches – because even though experts are allowed to speak against such claims, it is the amateur’s claims which will always be the loudest because it is that claim which dictates the search.

For a medievalist, there will always be struggles against poorly founded notions and wild claims. The on-going discussion about the bones of Olaf Haraldsson is a good reminder of to what lengths these claims can go.