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

tirsdag 17. januar 2017

Excerpts from the cultural history of the toad

In the middle of the thirteenth century, Thomas de Cantimpré (1201-72) composed an encyclopedic work titled Liber de Natura Rerum, in which he provided an overview of animals, trees, stones, and parts of the human body, to mention only a few. The third book of his work, only four pages long in the 1973 edition, Thomas dedicated to the monstrous humans of the east, "De monstruosis hominibus orientis". For much of this material he draws on Pliny, although his debt to multiple sources is indicated by the work's subtitle "secundum diversos philosophos", or "according to several philosophers".

One of these monstrous nations of the east is very briefly, but fascinatingly described by Thomas and disturbingly depicted in the illumination below. The name of this nation is not provided, and all Thomas states is the following:

In quadam regione, ut dicit Iacobus, cum bufonibus nascuntur pueri. Si quis autem sine bufone nascatur, mater eius tanquam adultera iudicatur et, que ab alienigena conceperit, a marito suo repudiatur.

In which region [the mountains of India], so says Jacobus, children are born together with a toad. But if it is born without a toad, its mother is judged to be an adulteress and, as she has conceived with another, is repudiated by her husband.

(My translation.)

Woman giving birth to a toad and a baby 
Valenciennes - BM - ms. 0320, f.45v, Thomas de Cantimpré, De Natura Rerum, c.1290, Paris (Courtesy of

In the medieval imagination there were many nations on the peripheries of the world who were deemed monstrous, either by physical attributes or by differing from the beholders - European Catholic Christians - through cultural practices. The case of the women of the Indian mountain giving birth to toads, we are here dealing with a case straddling both those form of monstrosity, which shows that the distinction between cultural and physical monstrosity might be more academic than medieval, and not very accurate.

In any case, the fact that the women of this anonymous nation were believed to engender toads illustrate their monstrosity in two ways. In part this has to do with the fact that we are dealing with a birth that goes against nature. However, part of the monstrosity might also be said to come from the animal being born, namely the toad. Thomas de Cantimpré elaborates on this animal himself in book 9, on vermin, where the toad is described as venomous, and having a pestilential appearance.

Another instance of the toad being associated with evil comes from a Norwegian altar front dated to c.1300, currently on permanent exhibition in Bergen Museum. The altar front comes from Nedstryn in Western Norway, and depicts the recapture of the Holy Cross by Heraclius from the Persians in 628. The story appears to have been popular in Western Europe, and was widely transmitted through its place in Legenda Aurea by Jacobus de Voragine, but was also popular before this. The recapture of the Holy Cross was the occasion for the feast-day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, celebrated 14th of September.

The main antagonist of the drama, as it was portrayed in the various Christian renditions, was the Persian king Chosroes who had himself worshipped as a god, and whose evil power was confronted by Emperor Heraclius. In the altar front from Nedstryn, the Persian army is recognizable from the Christians by their coat-of-arms. The Christians led by Heraclius carry the cross on their shields, while the Persians carry the black toad, strongly resembling the toad being born of the woman in the Indian mountains depicted above. The use of the toad as the Persian coat-of-arms highlights the evil connotations of the toad, since it became the symbol for those who desecrated the cross of Christ by carrying it to Persia. Consequently, the victory of the Christians is also shown by the sword of Heraclius cleaving the toad in two during the fight against the Persian champion.

The Persians capture the Holy Cross
Detail from the Nedstryn altar front
Courtesy of, photograph by Frode Inge Helland

Heraclius defeats the Persian champion
Detail from the Nedstryn altar front
Courtesy of, photograph by Frode Inge Helland

lørdag 31. desember 2016

In the Bleak Midwinter

As the year draws to its long-awaited close, it is time for one final blogpost in 2016. This month has been one of very short posts, and the present one will be no exception. As a soundtrack by which to conclude this year, I therefore present to you the Christmas carol In the Bleak Midwinter, as performed by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge. The carol is based on a poem by Christina Rosetti, and I have included the poem below the video.

In the Bleak Midwinter

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

mandag 26. desember 2016

A rose from the root of Jesse - a Christmas song in Norwegian and German

One of my favourite Christmas songs is the German song Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, a text of an unknown author. The music is a traditional German composition, and it was arranged for choral use by Michael Praetorius (1571-1621). The song is regularly performed during the Advent and Christmas season in my village, but then of course in its Norwegian rendition, "Det hev ei rose sprunge", which was translated by Peter Hognestad in the period 1919-21. The text of the song is a meditation on the birth of Christ as a fulfillment of Isaiah 11:1, where it says that a shoot will spring up from the root of Jesse, i.e. Christ. Jesse is the father of King David, and since the Gospel of Luke emphasizes that Joseph was of the house of David, Christ is seen as belonging to the branch of Jesse and thus fulfilling Isaiah's prophecy.

Below are two renditions, one in Norwegian and one in German.

tirsdag 20. desember 2016

Folkefrelsar til oss kom, the Norwegian translation of Veni Redemptor Gentium

Like my previous blogpost, this one will be short and focus on a piece of music for the Advent season. In this post, I present to you the Norwegian translation of the Ambrosian hymn Veni Redemptor Gentium, "come, redeemer of the people", Folkefrelsar til oss kom.. The authorship of this hymn has been attributed to Bishop Ambrose of Milan (d.397). We do know that Ambrose did write a number of hymns, but we also know that many hymns attributed to him and labelled with the term "Ambrosian chant" - most famously Te Lucis Ante Terminum - were composed at a later date.

The present rendition is from a concert on the feast of St. Lucia in Aker church near Oslo, given by Kvindelige Studenters Sangforening (The Singer Union of Female Students) in 2009. The present arrangement deviates somewhat from the more typical version sung in church by added elaborations which draw on Norwegian folk music for its sound. The text is the translation into Nynorsk by Bernt Støylen in 1906, and it is included in the Norwegian hymnal and the second hymn.

For an English translation of the Latin hymn, see here.

For a blogpost by Clerk of Oxford on various English translations, see here.

For further blogposts concerning Ambrose:

Ambrose and the cult of SS Gervasius and Protasius

Ambrose and the cult of SS Nazarius and Celsus

A different rendition of Folkefrelsar til oss kom

mandag 12. desember 2016

Veni Veni Emmanuel

Advent is progressing rapidly and Christmas is just a few days away. For a last-year PhD candidate, this means to be shoulder-deep in writing and in sundry preparations that are required before leaving for home and the Christmas holiday (and more writing, but hopefully on a different text than at present). As usual at the end of term, my work means that I have less energy left for blogging. So, in order to keep up some activity here, I will give you this brief blogpost featuring three versions of one of my all-time favourite songs for Advent, Veni veni Emmanuel.

I first heard this song in elementary school, probably in connection with the marking of Advent which the classes performed for each other towards the end of term. Or it might have been for the school's Christmas feast, or simply our teacher's attempt to provide us with some culture. In any case, the lyrics - sung in Norwegian - and the music stuck with me and returns to me each Advent, even though I have not yet learned the complete text.

The song is a famous one, and is often - even in the Norwegian hymnal - marked as a text written by an anonymous author in the twelfth century. This is a popular claim, but the earliest evidence of the text comes from early eighteenth-century Germany. The song is a synthesis of the seven O antiphons, a name given to seven antiphons for Magnificat (i.e. performed during the office of Vesper), which address Christ in different titles drawn from the prophecies of Isaiah, which are believed to have foretold the coming of Christ.

Below are three versions of the song, two with the Latin text, one with an English translation. I had hoped to provide a Norwegian version instead, but could find none to my liking.

Enjoy, and have a happy Advent.

søndag 27. november 2016

November Sun - a poem by Derek Walcott

November draws to its close, and this has been a very busy November for me. I've done a lot of travelling, with some travelling still to come, and I find myself shoulder-deep in writing, hoping that I will be able to deliver a chapter draft before I leave Denmark for Christmas.

As always when I find myself too busy to write anything reflective or lengthy, I revert to one of my great passions in life, namely poetry, and this is a strategy I very often employ in November which usually happens to be far more hectic than I tend to envision at the beginning of the month.

In tune with the season, I give you "November Sun", written by Derek Walcott and printed in his poetry collection Castaway from 1965. The following text is taken from the 1969 edition by Jonathan Cape Ltd.

November Sun

In our treacherous
seasonless climate's
dry heat or muggy heat or rain
I'm measuring winter by this November sun's
diagonals shafting the window pane,
by my crouched shadow's
embryo on the morning study floor. Once

I wallowed in ignorance
of change, of windfall, snowfall,
skull-cracking heat, sea-threshing hurricane.
Now I'd prefer to know.
We age desiring
these icy intuitions
that seasons bring.

Look, they'll be pierced with knowledge
as with light! One boy, nine years in age
who vaults and tumbles, squirrelling
in his perpetual spring,
that ten-month, cautious totterer
my daughter.
I rarely let them in.

This is a sort of
death cell
where knowledge of our fatality is hidden.
I trace here, like a bent astronomer

the circle of the year,
nurturing its inner seasons'
mulch, drench, fire, ash.
In my son's
restless gaze
I am time-ridden,
the sedentary dial of his days.
Our shadows point one way,
even their brief shadows on the cropped morning grass.

I am pierced with this. I cannot look away.
Ah Christ, how cruelly the needles race!

tirsdag 22. november 2016

A lost legend about the finding of Saint Stephen's relics

The story of Stephen Protomartyr is well known in history of Christianity, and he is widely hailed as the first Christian to have died for his belief in Christ, as recorded in Acts 7:54-60. Since he was killed by stoning, the stone is his primary iconographical attribute. His death-day, the dies natalis, is celebrated on December 26.

The lapidation of Saint Stephen
Amiens - BM - ms. 0195, f.114v, pontifical, 13th century, France
(Courtesy of

However, there is also another feast dedicated to Stephen in the medieval sanctorale, and that is the feast marking the anniversary for the finding og his bones, the inventio. The story of this find dates back to the fifth century, and was - at least according to Jacobus de Voragine in Legenda Aurea - first recorded by the historian Gennadius of Massilia (d. c.496). The legend tells us that a priest in Jerusalem called Lucian had a vision in which Gamaliel (Acts 5:34; 22:3) tells him where to find the body of Saint Stephen, along with the body of himself, Nicodemus and others. Lucian hesitates, however, since visions are not always to be trusted. Gamaliel appears a second time, and tells Lucian how he will be able to distinguish between the bones in the burial place. Gamaliel points to four baskets, three in gold and one in silver, and says that Lucian will be able to distinguish between the relics by way of the content of these baskets. One was filled with red roses, two were filled with white roses, and the fourth basket was filled with Saffron. These baskets represented the coffins of the saint, and the red roses signified the martyrdom of Saint Stephen. Lucian still hesitated. When the vision of Gamaliel occurs a third time, Lucian considered the vision to be true and followed the instructions he has been given. Jacobus de Voragine describes the finding itself accordingly:

As soon as they began to dig, the earth shook and a sweet odor spread, and its fragrance, by the merits of the saints, freed seventy sick people of their infirmities. The relics of the saints were transferred with great rejoicing to the church of Sion in Jerusalem, where Saint Stephen had functioned as arch-deacon, and were given honorable burial there. At that very hour a great raistorm relieved the drought.
- Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, translated by William Granger Ryan, Princeton University Press, 2012: 427.

This feast is celebrated on August 3 in the medieval calendars.

The funeral of Saint Stephen
Filippo Lippi, 1460, fresco, Prato
(Courtesy of Wikimedia)

The legend of Saint Stephen's relics was widely known in the Middle Ages, also in medieval Norway. But it seems that the form in which it was known is something of a mystery, at least if we are to judge from a letter sent by Pope Alexander to Archbishop Eystein Erlendsson, most likely in the 1160s. Alexander's letter touches on several questions that Eystein has sent him in a letter that is now either lost or forgotten in the Vatican libraries. One of the questions from Eystein concerns a legend of Saint Stephen, and Alexander replies as follows:

On the legend of the invention of blessed martyr Stephen, in the manner in which it belongs to you [Norwegians] we have not seen it, and we can [accordingly] neither approve nor disapprove of it according to the law. But we know that concerning this, that which is written about the vision of Lucian the priest is that which is read in the Roman Church.
- Eirik Vandvik, Latinske dokument til norsk historie, Det norske samlaget, 1959: 68 (my translation)

In other words, it seems that there existed a Norwegian version of the legend that is now lost, and it is impossible for us - as it was for Pope Alexander III - to say anything about how it differs from the legend as it was read in the Church. That there was a significant difference - however minute - is evident from the fact that Eystein found it necessary to ask specifically about it in a letter to the pope. Eystein was a well educated man, and is believed to have received his education at the monastery of Saint Victor in Paris. He had also been a royal chaplain at Konghelle (Kungälv in modern Sweden) before becoming an archbishop, so he was well familiar with the ecclesiastical rites, and therefore must have been well familiar with the official version of the invention Stephani.

Another lapidation
 Avignon - BM - ms. 0190, f.043, antiphonary, turn of the 13th century
(Courtesy of

I encountered this detail during my research on the cult of Saint Olaf for one of my thesis chapters, and it eventually dawned on me why this matter was so important to Archbishop Eystein. The finding of Saint Stephen is, as mentioned, celebrated on August 3, and this day is also hugely important for the archbishopric of Nidaros for one particular reason, namely the feast of the translatio of Saint Olaf, the patron saint of Norway whose bones were kept in the Nidaros Cathedral.

Olaf Haraldsson returned to Norway in 1030, trying to regain the kingdom of Norway which was then under Danish overlordship. The armies met at Stiklestad north of Trondheim and Olaf was killed on July 29. The year after, on August 03 1031, the body of Olaf was exhumed under the auspices of Bishop Grimkell, whom Olaf had brought to Norway as bishop of Nidaros. This was when Nidaros was a bishopric under the Hamburg-Bremen archdiocese. Olaf's body had been buried along the shore of the river Nid which flows through Trondheim after the battle, and was now placed in the Church of Saint Clement, which appears to have been found recently. The exhumation followed reports of miracles occurring at the site of Olaf's burial, and the translation of the body was in effect a pronouncement of sainthood, i.e. a canonization.

Saint Olaf's body is carried off the battlefield of Stiklestad
Illustration by Halfdan Egedius to the 1899 edition of Snorre Sturlusson's Heimskringla
(Courtesy of Wikimedia)

In the liturgy of the Nidaros archdiocese, the primary feast of August 03 was the inventio Stephani, with a commemoration for Saint Olaf to be given at Vesper and Matins. This is unsurprising given that the primary feast of a saint is normally the dies natalis, and accordingly the major feast of Saint Olaf in the Nidaros liturgy is celebrated July 29. However, even though the feast of Stephen is the primary feast, Olaf and Stephen are nonetheless connected in several ways in the cult of saints in Nidaros.

The clearest example of Olaf and Stephen being connected can be seen not only in the liturgy, but also in the fact that one of the oldest chapels of the new cathedral was dedicated jointly to Olaf and Stephen. We don't know the exact date of when the chapel was consecrated, but historian Øystein Ekroll points out that it was likely done in the course of the 1160s, with 1161 as a terminus post quem since this year the first chapel - situated just below the other one - was consecreated by Eystein.

Olaf is typologically connected to Stephen by virtue of him being the protomartyr of Norway. This is a theme that Theodoricus Monachus picks up in his chronicle Historia antiquitate Regum Norwagiensum, written around 1180. Here we read explicitly that Olaf followed the example of Stephen when dying in battle at Stiklestad. For reasons that are not clear, this image is not picked up in the later hagiograhy Passio Olavi which draws important material from Historia antiquitate. It was in other words, a well and widely known connection between Olaf and Stephen in medieval Norway.

Grimkell sprinkles the body of Saint Olaf
Detail from an altar front from Trondheim, c.1320

The connection between Olaf and Stephen are only found clearly expressed in twelfth-century sources, but the tantalizing question is: Was this connection known or present before the twelfth century? For instance, could it have been the deliberate choice of Bishop Grimkell to have Olaf's relics exhumed on the very day celebrated for the finding of Stephen's relics? And if so, could this had had an impact on the legend of inventio Stephani in medieval Norway? We do know that such a legend existed, but we don't know in what form, and we do not know whether it connects to Olaf in any way. But given the fact that they are both celebrated on the same day for the finding or movement of relics, it is tempting to think that there might have been a connection between them expressed in the now lost Norwegian legend concerning the finding of Stephen's relics. Of course, it is meaningless and fruitless to make any guesswork beyond this point, but it is at least an attractive idea.


Ekroll, Øystein, "Erkebiskop Eystein, Oktogonen i Kristkyrkja og Kristi Gravkyrkje i Jerusalem", printed in Eystein Erlendsson - Erkebiskop, politiker og kirkebygger, edited by Bjørlykke, Kristin, Ekroll, Øystein, Gran, Birgitta Syrstad, and Herman, Marianne, Nidaros domkirkes restaureringsarbeiders forlag, Trondheim, 2012

Gjerløw, Lilli, Ordo Nidrosiensis Ecclesae, Oslo, 1968

Gjerløw, Lilli, Antiphonarium Nidrosiensis Ecclesiae, Oslo, 1979

Jacbous de Voragine, The Golden Legend, translated by William Granger Ryan, Princeton University Press, 2012

Theodoricus Monachus, The Ancient History of the Norwegian Kings, translated and edited by David and Ian McDougall, The Viking Society for Northern Research, University College London, 1998
Vandvik, Eirik, Latinske dokument til norsk historie, Det norske samlaget, 1959

 For similar blogposts, see:

Carols on the lapidation

The possible finding of the Church of Saint Clement in Trondheim

Saint Olaf and the literature of Nidaros archbishopric

The Trondheim altar front

Theodoricus Monk and the European tradition