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

søndag 19. november 2017

Working with liturgical manuscript, part 2 - Initial thoughts

As mentioned in my previous blogpost, I'm currently working a lot with fragments of medieval manuscripts, focussing for the most part on liturgical material, in the rare book collection of the library of Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek. Last Friday I went to the reading room where we keep the books with fragments - the so-called fragment carriers - in order to have a closer look at the item called RARA Musik L 44. This is a collection of madrigals bound with a liturgical fragment where one of the folios contains an excerpt from the office for the feast of Visitatio Mariae (July 2).

RARA Musik L 44
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

By the time I went to scrutinise this fragment, I had already been working with pictures of it in order to transcribe the texts and identify them, trying to assess what type of book this is. The pictures had allowed me to identify much of the material, but I still needed to see the fragment in the flesh, and I also wanted to have a closer look at some very charming initials, which I wanted to share with you here. 

The first one is this cheerful little guy who hides in the initial I of the antiphon In montibus sanctis.

RARA Musik L 44
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

The second one is this splendid face protruding from the A initial of yet another antiphon, namely Annunciate salutare.

RARA Musik L 44
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

The third and final example has been tragically cut in half by the book-binder when the parchment was folded around the edge of the book. I quite like that his visible eye is looking down to examine that which has been lost. I owe this fellow a big thanks, however, because had it not been for the fact that he/she is so clearly hiding in an L, I would not have been able to identify the text of the antiphon Lux orta est, and in so doing made my identification of this office even more secure.

RARA Musik L 44
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

lørdag 11. november 2017

Working with liturgical fragments, part 1 - Texts for a commemoration

As stated in my previous blogpost, I am currently employed by the library of the University of Southern Denmark as a research assistant. Part of my job is to identify liturgical fragments, and this is a task I relish because it poses a particular set of challenges. Identifying any kind of medieval fragment is challenging, but in the case of the liturgical fragments the challenge is perhaps more balanced between those aspects that are very difficult and those aspects that are quite easy. In this little blogpost, I wish to provide an example of what I mean by this. (Before I continue I should also emphasise that I write this blogpost as a private individual, not as an employee. I have been given carte blanche to blog about my research from the heads of the fragment project, but I wish to emphasise that this blog is a personal endeavour, and does not represent the university or its library. All photos used are taken by me.)

Liturgical books in the Middle Ages were full of information, and in many cases this information had to be heavily abbreviated in order to provide directions for which texts and what type of texts were to be performed. In a cathedral or in a monastery, the performance of the liturgy was a ubiquitous aspect of the daily life, with masses and services of the daily cycle of hours in the celebration of a saint's feast. The songs to be performed for the various celebrations were written down in books, and - as stated - due to the sheer amount of information to be put into these books, much of that information was reduced to a single letter to denote the type of song to be performed, such as a red-lettered A for antiphon, a type of chant that was sung before and after a psalm. Moreover, in some cases the songs would be indicated only by their opening words, the so-called incipit, the beginning. This was most often the case with psalms, as they were well-known texts for the choristers and had their particular places in the established uses of the ecclesiastical institution, a use or usus meaning the way in which the psalms were organised to be sung in the course of the week, and the saints which were to be celebrated in that institution and the other institutions following that specific usus.

Because of this system of abbreviations, liturgical manuscripts pose a challenge to those who seek to extract its information as it is necessary to decode it. However, once you have learned those abbreviations, the decoding is fairly easy - depending on the state of the surviving fragments - and one can manage to extract quite a lot of information from a rather small fragment. In this blogpost, I wish to provide an example of that from the work that I have done recently on one of the four fragments that collectively comprise RARA Musik M 4. I will not say much about these fragments here, but I might return to that in a later blogpost.

RARA Musik M 4 - Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

This page is from the office for a confessor, i.e. one of the types of saints. It is still a bit unclear which type of confessor this particular office is celebrating, as there are several set sequences of chants and psalms that were common to all Latin Christendom in their celebration of saints belonging to this saint-type. Such sets of chants and psalms are called commune, common, because they were common to each ecclesiastical institution of Latin Christendom. Since the saint-type of confessor contains several commons - the common of one confessor, the common of one confessor who is not a bishop, the common of several confessors, and so on - it is not always easy to pinpoint exactly which common we are here dealing with. However, in this fragment, there is an added celebration in the office which is easier to pinpoint.

RARA Musik M 4 - Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek

These three lines in minuscules are inserted into the sequence as a parenthesis in the performance. Such a parenthesis, so to speak, is a commemoration, a commemoratio, which is performed during a feast so as to ensure that those commemorated by this commemoratio are not forgotten. This little commemoration provides a very good example of just how much information can be found in a liturgical fragment.

As mentioned above, for the celebration contained in this part of the manuscript, it is unclear which office we are dealing with. For this little commemoratio, however, it is as simple as can be, since the information is given in the commemoratio's opening letters: De confessore non pontificus, or for a confessor who is not a pontiff. The time of the performance of the commemoratio is established in the following words, namely ad uesperas, for Vespers, an hour in the daily cycle of the office which was performed in the late afternoon, often around six (but depending on the time of the year as the hours followed the sun rather than a clock). In the office for a saint, the Vesper of the day before the feast itself is the first hour of the liturgical celebration of the saint.

Following the establishment of the time of the performance of the commemoratio, we are given the texts that are to be included in it. The first is a capitulum, a chapter, which is a passage from the Bible being read, in this case a verse from James 1:12, "blessed is the man who suffers temptation". This is a very appropriate text for a saint, especially for a confessor, since their main claim to sanctity was a holy and spotless living. Then comes the hymn Iste confessor, followed by what seems to be Psalm 1, Beatus uir, and then it is concluded with the antiphon Amauit eum dominus, a chant based on the book of Ecclesiasticus which states that the holy man is beloved of God who clothes him in a robe of glory.

In those three lines of the commemoratio can be found all that information: The type of saint being commemorated, the time of the day, and the four texts included in the commemoration. This compression of information allows for a lot of information to be found in even small liturgical fragments, or in small parts of larger fragments. This is one of the many reasons I thoroughly enjoy working with liturgical fragments, because there is so much to be found in a relatively small space, and because once the decoding has been learnt it is not too difficult to identify the various items included in the fragment.

tirsdag 31. oktober 2017

Old books, new beginnings

For the past three years I have been working as a PhD fellow at the Centre for Medieval Literature at University of Southern Denmark in Odense. This job ended with the submission of my PhD thesis on October 02, and I am therefore very pleased to announce that I will be starting in a new job tomorrow, November 01. This job is a four-month position as a research assistant, financed partly by the Centre for Medieval Literature and partly by the University Library, and my job will be to assist in the identification, cataloguing, digitisation and research of a collection of old books which the library purchased from an old boarding school back in the 1960s. This school was founded in the early seventeenth century, and this book collection contains not only a wide array of printed books from the fifteenth century onwards (including some interesting incunabulas), but also - within these printed books - a high, and rising, number of fragments from medieval manuscripts that are in the process of being identified. 

I have only a cursory idea of what the next four months will bring in terms of excitement, tasks, experiences and discoveries, but as I have already been engaged with some of this material during my PhD I do know what potential there is in some of the fragments and some of the incunabulas contained there. I have been very fortunate to be allowed this chance to broaden my horizon and to immerse myself in this treasure trove of old books, and I look forward to communicate these finds as often as I can.

søndag 29. oktober 2017

Night fishing - a poem by Derek Walcott

Night Fishing

Line trawl for each word
with the home-sick toss
of a black pirogue anchored
in stuttering phosphorus.

The crab-fishers' torches
keep to the surf's crooked line,
and a cloud's page scorches
with a smell of kerosene.

Thorny stars halo
the sybil's black cry:
"Apotheneis thelo
I am longing to die."

But, line, live in the sounds
that ignorant shallows use;
then throw the silvery nouns
to open-mouthed canoes.

- From The Arkansas Testament, Faber & Faber, 1987

torsdag 26. oktober 2017

Home office in autumn

These days I'm taking a vacation at home in my native village, Hyen, in Western Norway, as a way to wind down after the stressful conclusion to my PhD process and the submission of my thesis. The days have been filled with the kind of autumnal atmosphere that I was sorely missing in the more southerly Denmark, and I have relished in the yellow leaves and cold evenings. But even though I'm on vacation, I'm not completely free, and the other day I had to turn one of the rooms into a makeshift office for a meeting I was joining via Internet. It did feel good to have some academic impulses even in these days of rest, and especially when the view from my office was the one below.

tirsdag 10. oktober 2017

Consummatum est

Consummatum est - it is completed. This is the pious blasphemy with which I have quietly expressed to people that I have submitted my PhD thesis, and that I have finished the work of three years, two months and two days. It all happened on October 02 2017 with a simple e-mail containing a bouquet of attachments, and having clicked "send" I sensed a rush of calm and delight. This sensation lasted for about an hour, an hour in which I called my loved ones to spread the good news, but the elation was quickly punctured by an e-mail saying that I had handed in to the wrong faculty, a blunder which was the result of trying to locate the correct instructions for submission on the university's websites. This blunder did not cause any actual problems, the attachments were forwarded to the right person, and I also send the e-mail again to the right person, partly as a safety measure, partly - I suspect - as a way of denying to myself that I had cocked it up.

The blunder did not cause any actual problems, but it came at the tail end of several weeks in which I had been tossed between different emotional states, back and forth between confident and worried, patient and impatient, calm and stressed. This period included me having to ask for a two-week extension, which was then followed by a weekend's extension, and it also contained a confusing and sometimes contradictory quest for the needed details about length, size, page-limit, character count, and structure of the thesis itself.

Because the blunder came on top of this, my elation was soon exchanged for a sense of incompetence, and it no longer felt like the great fulfillment of three of the happiest years of my life. Instead, it felt like a somewhat bathos-filled, anti-climactic finale to some strange tragicomedy I didn't really comprehend. I also think this feeling was exacerbated by the fact that I had submitted electronically - I had submitted a virtual, unbound and unprinted copy of my thesis, not a physical manifestation of my intellectual labour but a digital copy that remained untangible no matter how often I would upload it to Dropbox or e-mail it to myself to make sure I would have a back-up of it. It was all done by the clicking of a few icons on a slow computer in a lonely office on an autumn day whose general meterological conditions I no longer remember.

It has now been nine days since I handed in my thesis, and in the interim I have come to realise that the post-submission fatigue has been greater than I thought and much stronger than myself. I have spent part of the time relaxing, reading poetry, preparing for travels, and going back to the office to clean out books, to socialise with friends and colleagues, and to take care of various minor things. It has been nine days, and this is the first time I have been able to write anything, or to even attempt to put my thoughts into a coherent whole again. These days have been long and quiet, and also difficult, because for the first time in three years there is no major on-going project that I need to tend to, that I need to finish within a looming deadline, and I simply don't know what to do. I had thought these days would be spent reading, or going out to eat and to stroll around flaneur-like about town. But no, I have been unable to do so, and I think it is because I have not yet come to terms with the fact that I have submitted, that I am done, that I only have a distant defence to worry about and that's it. I ascribe this feeling to the contrast between the scramble of the past two months and the unceremonious completion of the thesis, the almost doubtful reality of my submission.

Since I submitted, I have been able to see a printed version of my thesis, the one sent to my secondary advisor for perusal before the defence, and it did feel great to see my words on a physical page, to see how the structure and order of the work plays out in print, and to be able to do the very tangible and familar act of browsing with pages that I had myself filled with words and ideas. It did feel great, but I didn't push away what the final weeks of the process had imprinted upon me, and I still find that the energy I thought I would have for books and exploration is something that is on its way back, slowly.

But I can at least await its return with the knowledge that as far as my thesis goes, it is completed. 

lørdag 30. september 2017

Countryman - a poem by George Mackay Brown


Come soon. Break from the pure ring of silence,
A swaddled wail

You venture
With jotter and book and pencil to school

An ox man, you turn
Black pages on the hill

Whisper a vow
To the long white sweetness under blessing and bell

A full harvest,
Utterings of gold at the mill

Old yarns, old malt, beside the hearth,
A breaking of ice at the well

Be silent, story, soon.
You did not take long to tell

- From Voyages, Chatto & Windus, 1983