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

tirsdag 23. april 2013

The Knight and the Virgin - St. George and Edward the Confessor in late medieval England

For thou emongst those Saints, whom thou doest see,
Shalt be a Saint, and thine owne nations frend
And Patrone: thou Saint George shalt called bee,
Saint George of mery England, the signe of victoree.
- The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser (book 1, canto X)

April 23 was the feastday of St. George and the medieval section of twitter was all ablaze on this occasion, which is only natural since George occupies a very interesting role in the religious life of the Middle Ages, particularly the later centuries. Despite his enduring popularity, the historicity of St. George is highly dubious. He is reported to have died a martyr c.303 in Palestine - i.e. about the time of the persecutions of Diocletian - and he was allegedly a soldier of the Roman army who turned his back on soldiery once he converted to Christianity. This is a common trope in early Christian hagiography, and saints who committed this renuciation were very popular since the Roman army at that time was the ultimate symbol of Roman paganry. This was also the case with saints Christopher and Sebastian, saints whose historicity is as dubious as that of George and who retained a widespread popularity throughout the medieval centuries.

Paolo Uccello (1397-1475)

There are already many interesting blogposts on the subject of St.George on the Internet - in particular by A Clerk of Oxford which can be found here and here, and the British Library manuscript blog - and the topic is too complex and rich for me to go into great detail. Consequently, in this blogpost I aim to compare the standing in England of a knight and a virgin, namely St. George and St. Edward the Confessor.

The Beginning: the 12th Century

Saint George

The story of Saint George taming a dragon to save a virgin is well known and needs no elaborate retelling here. It is an old story and it became widely disseminated through Jacobus de Voragine's Legenda Aurea from the mid-13th-century, a compilation of saints' legends which engendered many localised adaptations both in England and France throughout the Later Middle Ages.

George had been a part of the religious consciousness of England since the 7th and 8th centuries through martyrologies - such as Bede's - and Ælfric of Eynsham's Old English prose rendition. It was, however, not until the 12th century the popularity of George really flourished in England, and the reason for this was the Crusades.

In the 12th century, as a consequence of the Crusade Movement, there was a shift in the saint paradigm of Western Europe. While the preceding centuries had seen the genesis of several royal martyr cults throughout Europe - Edmund in England, Olaf in Norway and Ladislas in Hungary, for instance - the new ideal was the chivalric holy king who embraced asceticism and gave himself to the Church. This ideal paradigm shift was a consequence of two contemporary strands of conflict: first of all the militant religiosity following the first crusade, secondly the conflicts between the secular and spiritual powers. From these strands of conflict emerged the chivalric saint, an ascetic, monkish saint modelled on the legend of Alexis of Odessa and which may very well have served as an driving force in the establishment of the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers. This chivalric ideal mixed with the Byzantine iconography of Saint George - and also other warrior saints - and the result was that George evolved into an equestrian and a dragonslayer. Although his legend clearly stated the dragonslayer aspect from the beginning of his cult, it was not until now this became a part of the representations in art. It is therefore no wonder that the purportedly earliest representation of George in English art is a wall painting from the 12th century showing him as a lancener.

From St. Botolph, Hardham, with thanks to Damien Kempf

Edward the Confessor

Roughly at the time of George's entry into English iconography, Edward the Confessor (d.1066) was himself on the verge of becoming a saint. I have expounded the genesis of his cult in greater detail elsewhere so I will be very brief on the matter here.

In 1138 Osbert of Clare, prior of Westminster Abbey, wrote the first purely hagiographical account of Edward the Confessor's life and miracles. The work was presented to the papal legate in England, but due to insufficient support from the English church the motion was denied. In 1161, however, the canonisation of Edward was again requested by the English clergy, and this time the unity of the church was satisfactory to the Pope. The hagiography which set the tone for later renditions of Edward's legend was composed by Aelred of Rievaulx in 1163, but he based his work to a great extent on Osbert's piece, although he decided on some interesting omissions. One of these was a reference to the legend of Alexis Odessa - paragon of the chivalric sainthood - and another omission is a reference to Edward the Confessor as an athlete of God.

The epithet "athlete of God" was already an old topos of Christian literary iconography by the 12th century, but it did receive a new burgeoning during this period. For instance, a new hagiography written for Saint Oswald of Northumbria referred to him in the same manner. Although Frank Barlow argues that these elements omitted by Aelred of Rievaulx were not Osbert's inclusions, they nonetheless point to a desire by someone to align the old Anglo-Saxon king with the modern sensibilities of the 12th century. However, since Osbert's text was merely the foundation for the main text rather than the main text itself, these aspects did not become a part of the Confessor's iconography, but were rather left as waste themes.

Edward the Confessor and Edward Martyr, from MS Royal 2 B VI (13th century)

The Consummation: the 14th Century

The Knight

During the rule of Henry III the cult of Edward the Confessor reached its summit. Even after Henry's death, the cult of the Confessor was fairly popular - albeit with some competition from Thomas Becket - but in the course of Edward I's reign the devotional focus of the royal family started slowly to shift towards a more martial agenda. Since Edward the Confessor was lauded as a Solomonic peacemaker, he was not the right saint to turn to for aid against enemies, and Edward I displayed the banner of St. George - among others - at the siege of Caerlaverock in 1300. Furthermore, Edward I embraced the Arthurian mythology, and in an attempt to subdue the Welsh he proclaimed Arthur a saint. The implication of this was of course that Arthur as a saint would be dead and not sleeping on Avalon preparing for the final battle. The chronicler Peter Langtoft (d.c.1305) pursued this idea by weaving the arthurian mythology into the lineage of the English kings.

This shift gained momentum further into the 14th century. Edward II had three banners of Saint George made in 1322, and Thomas, Earl of Lancaster and cousin of Edward II, is shown standing beside the saint in Douce Hours (1320s), as shown here. When Edward III came to power in 1327 he had already had a long-standing devotion to the chivalric George, and this, together with the military climate of his reign, makes it no wonder that he came to conclude the devotional shift towards George. In 1348 Edward founded the Order of the Garter which worshipped Saint George as its patron, and kept its headquarter at Windsor Castle. Interestingly, the chapel dedicated to Edward the Confessor was rededicated to George and the Virgin, and a statue of the knight-saint was erected at the altar in February of 1351. August 13 the same year, Saint George was proclaimed the blessed George, the most invincible athlete of Christ, whose name and protection the English race invoke as that of their patron, in war especially (according to the Patent Rolls). This was the consummation of the shift that had begun in the 1290s.

It is of course interesting to note that George is here referred to in almost the same way as Edward the Confessor in Osbert of Clare's hagiography of 1138. This shows how enduring the topos of
athleta Christi really was, but although both these instances point to the same ideological current, they are probably not directly linked. Osbert's vita had been surpassed by that of Aelred of Rievaulx and there no reason to think that the formulation of George as an athlete of Christ was done to outshine Edward the Confessor. Edward as an athlete of God was a waste theme of his hagiographical image, not something that had survived into the 14th century.

Edward III from MS Stowe 594, a garter book from c.1430-40

The Virgin

By 1351 Edward the Confessor had become eclipsed by a different type of saint, one better suited to the military pursuits of the English king. However, Edward the Confessor does not wane into irrelevance in this period, and although strongly devoted to the cult of Saint George, Edward III had not forgotten his namesake saint. During a fight against the French at Calais in 1349, he is reported by Thomas Walsingham to have cried out
Ha Sant Edward, Ha Sant George. Furthermore, when the Order of the Garter had been founded the year before it had not solely been dedicated to Saint George, but, as Samantha Riches puts it, "under the joint patronage of the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary and St Edward the Confessor as well as St George". Nonetheless, despite Edward III's vestigial loyalty to the Confessor, this appears to have changed somewhat dramatically when the Saint Edward chapel at Windsor underwent a rededication. Whether this in fact does signal a dramatic shift in devotional loyalty, can not be ascertained, and the trajectory towards this conclusion may be less sudden than we may believe from the source materials. After all, we do not know the thought processes of Edward III.

However, Samantha Riches argues that the patronage invoked in the Patent Rolls pertains not to George as patron and protector of England, but as that of the English king. Furthermore, Saint George often appeared together with the Confessor. The figure erected in the newly rededicated chapel at Windsor was flanked by a figure of Edward, while an image of George from c.1360 at Heydor depicts both the knight-saint and the two royal saints Edward the Confessor and Edmund. It is therefore obvious that we cannot speak of an eclipse of Edward's cult, especially since it may have thrived very well in other echelons of society than in the king's inner circle. This, however, remains conjecture as we have, to my knowledge, to few sources to make assertions. Nonetheless, given the Confessor's renaissance in the 1390s it is evident that he was not completely outshone by Saint George.

George receiving his armour from the Virgin, from MS Yates Thompson 13, book of hours of the Sarum Use, 2nd quarter of the 14th century. With thanks to A Clerk of Oxford

The Lancaster Years: the 15th century
Despite the widespread effect of Richard's devotion to the Confessor, Edward's primacy proved short-lived following the coup by Henry Bolingbroke. The Confessor remained a relatively important saint in the 15th century - testified to by the inclusion of his life in the legendaries of the period - but he came nowhere near the ubiquitous devotion towards Saint George which was sustained throughout the period thanks to the Hundred Years War. Even after the war had ended and turmoil began to brew on English soil, Saint George's position remained strong and unparalleled.

From Church of the Holy Trinity, Goodramgate, York, donated in 1471 by John Walker

Concluding remarks

In this blogpost we have seen briefly the parallel courses of the cults of George and Edward the Confessor in England throughout the Later Middle Ages. There are interesting similarities and equally interesting differences which all serve to demonstrate the complex set of parallel strands which comprise the landscape of medieval religiosity. They were both virgin saints, but one was a knight and the other a peacemaker. They both were referred to as athletes of God/Christ, but for one this became a waste theme, for the other it became a key aspect of his iconography. They both endured and left a considerable impact on the cultural landscape of medieval England, but they did so to different degrees. Both saints deserve a comprehensive study of their cults, but until that has been undertaken, this may serve as a superficial primer.


Barlow, Frank, Edward the Confessor, University of California Press, 1984
Bloch, Marc (ed.), “La Vie de S. Edouard le Confesseur par Osbert de Clare,” Analecta Bollandiana 41, 1923
Farmer, David, Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford, 2004

Klaniczay, Gabor, Holy rulers and blessed princesses: dynastic cults in Central Europe, translated by Éva Pálmai, Cambridge University Press, 2002

Nairn, Ian, Pevsner, Nikolaus,
Sussex, printed in The Buildings of England series, 1965: 234 (according to wikipedia).

Ormrod, Mark, "The Personal Religion of Edward III", printed in Speculum, vol 64, n. 4 1989

Prestwich, Michael,
Edward I, Yale University Press, 1997

Prestwich, Michael,
Plantagenet England 1226-1360, Oxford University Press, 2005

Riches, Samantha, St George - Hero, Martyr and Myth, Sutton Publishing, 2000

Riley, H. T. (ed.),
Thomae Walsingham, quondam monachi S. Albani, historia Anglicana, 2 vols., pt 1 of Chronica monasterii S. Albani, Rolls Series, 28 (1863–4)

Summerson, Henry, ‘George (
d. c.303?)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn

Vauchez, Andrè,
Sainthood in the later Middle Ages, translated by Jean Birrell, Cambridge University Press, 2005

Wright, Thomas,
The Chronicle of Pierre de Langtoft, London 1866

fredag 19. april 2013

A Song for April

Here in Norway we have suffered from an unusually long winter, and the greatest part of April has been covered by snow and marked by rather wintry temperatures. Recently, however, the weather appears to be turning for a new season, and for this occasion I here present a medieval spring poem from the selection Carmina Burana, which has also been set to music by Carl Orff (1895-1982).

The poem in question is known from its incipit Omnia sol temperat and is numbered as Carmina Burana 136. This collection of poems encompasses pieces both in Medieval Latin and Middle High German, and was given its title by Johann Schmeller who published a reading of the text in 1847. Most of its poems date from the 12th century and the anthology's modern editors have been very preoccupied with how these poems should be catalogued and labelled. They are often organised according to their subject-matter, which has resulted in the preponderant view that most of these lyrics should be termed secular. Whether this accurately reflects the purposes of the various composers is impossible to say, but it is of course necessary to be cautious when creating order where there originally may have been disorder.

Due to its secular appearance and the non-religious subject of many of its poems - songs of bawdy, drinking and gaming - the Carmina Burana is also referred to as a body of Goliardic poetry. The Goliards - talked about at length in a different blogpost - were men of erudition and clerical background, and famous for their proclivity for using religious poetic schemes in non-religious contexts.

The song in question here is, as stated, a celebration of spring and its author is anonymous. Below the setting by Orff there is a translation into English, this is carried out by me and all errors or inaccuracies are my responsibility.

Historiated initial from MS Landsdowne 383, psalter, 2nd quarter of  the 12th century, England

Carmina Burana, 136

Omnia sol temperat
purus et subtilis,
nova mundo reserat
facies Aprilis;
ad amorem properat
animus herilis,
et iocundis imperat
deus puerilis.

Rerum tanta novitas
in sollemni vere
et veris auctoritas
iubet nos gaudere.
vices prebet solitas;
et in tuo vere
fides est et probitas
tuum retinere.

Ama me fideliter!
fidem meam nota:
de corde totaliter
et ex mente tota
sum presentialiter
absens in remota.
quisquis amat aliter,
volvitur in rota.

The sun tempers everything
Purely and subtly
The world opens up
The face of April
To love it hurries
The soul of its master
And congenially he rules,
The boy-god.

A thing of such a novelty
In the ceremonies of spring
And the authority of spring
Commands us to rejoice
The customary change he provides;
And in your spring
It is faith and probity
Upholds you.

Love me faithfully
Pay attention to my faith:
Of my heart completely
And from my mind wholly
I am, face to face
Or absent, far away;
Whoever loves not in this manner
Is turned upon the wheel.

Miniature from MS Royal 2 B II, psalter, c.1250, Paris


Haskins, Charles Homer, The Renaissance of the 12th Century, 1968

Parlett, David, Selections from Carmina Burana, 1986

lørdag 13. april 2013

Oxen under the Sea

matre satus Terra, monstrum mirabile, taurus
parte sui serpens posteriore fuit
- Fasti, Ovidius
This week in my Medieval Latin class we have been working with an extract from the fourth book of Adam of Bremen's (fl.c.1075) Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum. While the three first books of this work are dedicated to the history of the See of Hamburg, while the fourth is a topographical exposition of the northernmost reaches. As he himself puts it (in my translation): "And in this way Norway is the outermost province of the earth, therefore it is proper that we set this book in the outermost place [of our work]. The fourth book was written in the 1070s and much of the information he received at the court of the Danish king Svein Estridson (1047-76), possibly in modern day Sjælland. Adam himself probably never visited Norway and certainly not Northern Norway. Accordingly, what he tells us from this part of the region, he knew through hearsay at the Danish court, and also through older authorities such as Solinus and Paul the Deacon's Historia Langobardorum. In addition to some interesting factual information - for example pertaining to the cult of Olav Haraldsson - the book gives an interesting view of how Norway was conceived in the contemporary mindset. This is especially the case for Northern Norway which is presented as a region encompassing both the savage and the sacred. The savage is represented by bearded women and strange beasts such as black foxes (presumably polar foxes which indeed have a brown/black pelt), while the sacred is represented by localised versions of the legend of the seven sleepers, and the tale of Saint Ursula of Cologne and the 1100 virgins, some of whom, Adam contends, escaped to Norway. It is perhaps this spin-off or extension which later grew into the legend of Saint Sunniva, or it may be that Adam confused Sunniva with Ursula.

The purpose of this blogpost, however, is not to go into great details about Adam's fascinating work, but to look at one animal which caught my attention. In his exposition of the wildlife of Norway Adam says:
In these same mountains there are there are untamed beasts of such a plenitude, that in many parts of the region they feed only on wild animals. There they capture oxen, buffalos and moose as they do in Sweden; furthermore bisons which they [also] capture in Slavonia and Russia; only Norway [however] has black foxes and white hares and martens [presumably stoats], and bears of the same colour, who live under the ocean in the same manner as the oxen.
- Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, Adam of Bremen, book 4, chapter 32 (my translation)

Mosaic of an ophiotaurus, exhibited at Yorkshire Museum, York
It was of course this latter idea that caught my attention. I'm accustomed to many strange ideas from ages past pertaining to the habitation of animals, and I knew about the myth of barnacle geese hibernating in barnacles. However, the thought that oxen should be living under the sea was very quaint, and Adam himself continues these lines by saying "several [of these things] appear strange and unaccustomed to us". The most likely explanation of these submarine oxen are, in my mind, that they are a confusion of the walrus. However, the idea has an interesting classical counterpart, namely the ophiotaurus - as shown above - and the taurocampus, which appear to be variations of the same mythological theme.

The ophiotaurus is found only in the poem Fasti by Ovidius, as quoted in the epigraph,and the name means snake-bull. According to the poem whoever burned the beast's entrails would gain the power to overthrow the gods. The distich above describes it as follows (in my translation):
brought forth by Earth its mother the marvellous monster
was a bull and its hindpart was like a serpent.

From the baths in Ostia Antica, courtesy of giannidedom

This description also fits the beast known as the taurocampus. I don't know the origins of this particular animal, nor am I familiar with any classical references to it, but the name is a amalgamation of taurus and campus, which appears to be a common name for water beasts whose hindparts are coiling in a manner more akin to an eel than a serpent. There are numerous beasts such as this is Roman iconography, and we see a great variation in the mosaics of Roman baths, such as the one above from Ostia Antica. In this particular fauna, "campus" appears to be merely a suffix describing the sligthly serpentine tail, and we therefore have beasts such as pardalocampus (with the foreparts of a leopard) and the hippocampus (with the foreparts of a horse, presumably moulded on the seahorse). The latter beast also found its place in the medieval world through its inclusion in bestiaries, such as the one below.

Submarine creatures from MS Harley 4751, 2nd quarter of 13th century, England

Whether Adam of Bremen knew about the ophiotaurus or the taurocampus is beyond conjecture. We know he was familiar with several classical authors, such as Vergilius, and it is far from unlikely that he had read Fasti. The conclusive proof, however, eludes us, and we can only guess whether Adam, when writing about the oxen who lived under the sea along with the white bears, thought of the monster who was half-ox and half serpent as imagined by the Romans.


Adam of Bremen,
Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum

Farmer, David,
Oxford Dictionary of Saints

Publius Ovidius Naso,

torsdag 4. april 2013

Wandragesil, the elusive saint

During the research for my MA degree I spent much time perusing the late 14th-century Westminster Missal in order to map the various liturgical items used in the celebration of Edward the Confessor. The missal in question was commissioned by the abbot of Westminster Nicholas Litlyngton (d.1386), and is often referred to as the Litlyngton Missal. It was published in three volumes by John Wickham Legg in 1891, 1893 and 1897 as a part of the Henry Bradshaw Society series of liturgical material, and it was this tripartite work I was working with. As I spent late evenings charting with which saints Edward the Confessor shared liturgical items, I noticed gradually that there were - unsurprisingly - certain recurring saints. Since liturgy - as is the case with hagiography as well - is a genre in which the various saints draws from the a stock of motifs and topoi according to their saint-type, this is only to be expected. However, it was interesting to see how Edward the Confessor, a virgin saint who died from sickness and old age, shared liturgical items with a large number of clerical saints such as Earconwald and Guthlac. One of these recurring saints was listed as Wandragesil, and to my disappointment I could not find any mention of him in the references I had available. It was not until this Tuesday (April 02 2013) that I finally made the connection I should have made two years ago, and finally realised who exactly Saint Wandragesil really is. This minor blogpost is dedicated to explain this difficulty, perhaps for the benefit of others who may encounter the same problem.

Commemorative medal, taken from this website

After some time spent searching the world wide web and consulting a few publications, it turns out Wandragesil is referred to by a number of similar but slightly different names. This plethora of names constitutes the major obstacle in identifying St. Wandragesil. In the course of my research I've come across the following variants: Wandragesil, Wandregisel (both English), Wandregisil (German), Wandrille (French), Wando (unknown, possibly German) and finally Wandregisilius and Wandregisilus (both Latin). There may very well be other variants I have omitted, and I'm curious to learn what he is known as in Belgium, for instance, where his relics were brought in 944 to save them from Viking raiders.

Wandragesil is a Merovingian saint and lived c.600-68. He was brought up at the court of Dagobert I (623-38) and received monastic education after he separated from his wife in 628 by mutual consent. He was ordained by Bishop Ouen of Rouen (in whose church there is currently a modern stained glass representation of Wandragesil, as seen below), and eventually founded his own monastery at Fontenelle, currently known as Saint-Wandrille.

Stained glass window from the south transept of St.Ouen, from wikimedia

Typologically speaking Wandragesil may qualify as a hermit saint, like Guthlac, because he spent some time in solitude in the Swiss mountains - where he is said to have founded a monastery at Saint-Ursanne - before becoming a priest. However, it is as abbot he is best remembered and the major centre of his cult is precisely at Fontenelle, which became a flourishing Benedictine abbey sometime after his death.

During the Viking attacks in the 9th and 10th centuries his relics were brought to other churches, and, as stated, in 944 they came to Ghent. It was from here the cult and feast of Wandragesil were introduced to England, and before the Norman conquest Wandragesil was celebrated in Southern England. Fontenelle Abbey even had three cells in England - the most important of which were Ecclesfield in South Yorkshire and Upavon in Wiltshire - and his feastday of July 22 is included in several of the English liturgical uses. To my knowledge there is insufficient research done on the cult of Wandragesil in England, but it is interesting to note that he was celebrated at important liturgical centres such as York, Hereford and Westminster (each pracitising its own use), and as the Litlyngton Missal indicates, this celebration persisted into the late 14th century. Furthermore, the available liturgical evidence also suggest stability, as his feast features in an early 13th-century antiphoner of the WorcesterUse, a 13th-century antiphoner of the Sarum Use from Barnwell and an early 14th-century antiphoner from a non-monastic Welsh church, also following the Sarum Use.

This is only a brief overview of the cult of St. Wandragesil - or whichever of his many names you prefer - and I hope in due course a more comprehensive study of his cult will be undertaken. For now I'll settle for this brief glimpse into a fragment from the medieval sanctorale with the hope that it may solve the difficulties pertaining to his plethora of names.

ReferencesFarmer, David, Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 2004

Harvey, Barbara F., ‘Litlyngton , Nicholas (b. before 1315, d. 1386)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [, accessed 3 April 2013]

Legg, John Wickham, Missale Westmonasteriensis, in three volumes (1891, 1893 and 1897)