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

tirsdag 30. juni 2015

Seamus Heaney's Postscript

Since June is drawing to its close, I will keep it very simple in this month's fourth blogpost, presenting the poem Postscript by Seamus Heaney, which I came across when reading The Poetry of Birds, edited by Simon Armitage and Tim Dee.

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you'll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open

Heraldic swan
MS Additional 69865, f.5, leaves from a book of hours, Use of Rome,  c.1390-c.1400
Courtesy of British Library

fredag 26. juni 2015

The Swineherd King

In the preface to his hagiography of Edward the Confessor, Aelred of Rievaulx comments that no other royal house of Europe can look back at such a plethora of saintly kings and queens. However, according to a tradition picked up by Jacobus de Voragine in his Legenda Aurea, the genesis of the British line of monarchs was quite humble, if not downright lowly, as the first in the new line of kings was a swineherd. The story is found in the legend of Saint Germain of Auxerre (c.380-448), a remarkable figure of the early Catholic church and whose life has become saturated with exactly the kind of stories and myths that make his entry in the Legenda Aurea a very entertaining read. 

Saint Germain looking at the opening to the first lesson in an office lectionary
Paris - Bibl. Mazarine - ms. 0399, f.111v, Abbey of Saint-Magloire, Paris, early 15th century Courtesy of

Germain was born to a noble family. He received a very good education first at Arles and Lyons and then in Rome, and he entered into contact with the imperial court. Eventually, the emperor appointed him duke and ordered him to return to Gaul where he took up residence in his native Auxerre. In 418 he was consecrated bishop of Auxerre, and according to the legend this move from the ducal to the episcopal seat came about in a Pauline conversion, which is a story fit for another time.

After more than ten years in his office, in the early 430s, Germain travelled to Britain together with Lupus to combat the Pelagian heresy which was then thriving in Britain. According to the chronicle of Saint Prosper, this was commissioned by Pope Celestine, while Bede in his Ecclesiastical History claims that Germain was sent by a synod. Germain's journey to the British Isles has also been woven into one of the early lives of Saint Patrick, in which it is claimed that Patrick was part of Germain's retinue. The account of Germain's mission is so suffused with legend that the exact details are winnowed only with difficulty. Jacobus de Voragine covers it very briefly, saying that the two bishops were welcomed by local clergy who had been told of their arrival by demons whom the bishops had driven out of the possessed. This appears to be a garbled version of Bede's account, as Bede tells us that the demons first tried to capsize Germain's ship in the Channel, and when they were chased away they came to England and there took possession of some of the Britons. When Germain came ashore, however, he freed the possessed and chased the demons further away.

It is likely that Jacobus drew on Bede for part of his account of Saint Germain, for Jacobus had access to Bede for some of his legends, though evidently he has here been writing from memory, or has received the story from a faulty source. We know that Jacobus sometimes transmits English material rather imperfectly, and in a previous blogpost I wrote about when he confused Edmund of East Anglia and Edward the Confessor.

Saint Germain looking the other way
Chaumont - BM - ms. 0033, f.319, Breviary, Use of Langres, c.1481
Courtesy of

As for Germain's campaign against Pelagianism, Jacobus - unlike the far more prolix Bede - merely states that the saint "convinced the heretics of their error" and that was that. Bede then claims that the Catholics went to the shrine of Saint Alban so as to ratify the conversion with the saint's blessing. Jacobus' silence on the matter suggests again that he is not writing this legend with the Ecclesiastical History at hand.

After a while, heresy resumed its grip in Britain and Germain was sent back to deal with it, and it is here we learn of the origins of the British monarchy. Jacbous tells us:

On one occasion while he was preaching in Britain, the king of Britain refused to give shelter to him and his companions. One of the king's swineherds, after feeding his charges and receiveing his wage at the palace,was on the way home and saw Germain and his fellows in sorry straits due to hunger and the cold. He kindly took them to his cottage and had his one and only calf killed for their supper. When the meal was finished, the bishop had all the calf's bones laid upon their hide, and as he prayed over them, the calf stood up whole and entire. The next day Germain accosted the king and asked him bluntly why he had refused him hospitality. The king overcome with astonishment, could think of nothing to say in response. Germain said: "Begone then, and leave the kingdom to a better man!" Then, by God's command, he had the swineherd and his wife summoned, and, to the amazement of all, proclaimed him king. Hence the monarchs who have ruled the British people since then are descendants of that swineherd.
- Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea (translated by William Granger-Ryan)

Miniature of Saint Germain
MS Egerton 1070, Book of Hours, France, c.1410
Courtesy of British Library

There are several noteworthy things in this passage. First of all, we note the similarity between the resusciation of the calf and the story of the rams of Thor, the Norse god of thunder, which could be flayed and eaten in the evening and be alive and well in the morning. Secondly, the legend casts a Biblical shine on the early British house of kings, since the British kings originate from a swineherd, just as the kings of Israel in Judaic tradition are descendants of the shepherd Saul, anointed by God's prophet Nathan. Since Germain is here acting on God's command, he effectively takes the role of Nathan and replaces the British line of kings with another, hand-picked according to Biblical principles.

I do not know where Jacobus came across this legend, it is certainly not Bede.



Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, translated by Bertram Colgrave, Oxford World's Classics

Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea, translated by William Granger-Ryan, Princeton University Press, 2012


tirsdag 16. juni 2015

Soundtrack of spring term research

With the spring term coming to a close, and in order to keep up a minimum of regularity in the posts on this blog, I now wish to share with you some of the music that has kept me company through the spring term. Since February - the beginning of the Danish term - I have spent most of my weeks preparing my lectures, writing scripts for my classes, read through the material and more, and then prepared the texts for the week. Since I have designed the course and put together its syllabus myself, I have been required to spend even more time making due preparations than I might otherwise have done had I taken over some existing course, and this has resulted in some long days in the office. To help me in this process, I have had a number of musical pieces which I have had running in the background for hours on end. 

When I'm working with medieval history in its sundry forms, I usually listen to music from the sixteenth century and earlier, although occasionally moving into the early decades of the seventeenth. This was a habit I began during my MA research, as I had by then been introduced to a much wider variety of early music than I had previously known, thanks to some courses designed by my MA supervisor, to whom I owe my knowledge of Guillaume Machaut, Guillaume Dufay, Palestrina and others. 

The selection of this blogpost does not contain the totality of songs to which I worked this term, but it is a representative selection, including pieces I first discovered this spring and therefore became an intrinsic part of this season's soundtrack. 

Palestrina (1525-94) - Missa Assumpta Est

Palestrina - Missa Nigra Sum

Annibale Padovano (1527-75) - Mass for 24 voices

Roland de Lassus (1530-94) - Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah

Alessandro Striggio (c.1536-92) - Mass for 40 and 60 voices

onsdag 3. juni 2015

St. Kevin and the blackbird

Today is the feast of St. Kevin, who founded the monastery of Glendalough in County Wicklow, Ireland. He became the monstery's abbot, and he is traditionally believed to have died c.618, allegedly at the age of one hundred and twenty years old. As a founding figure, Abbot Kevin is mostly a mythical figure whose lives - written several centuries after his death - are aimed at strengthening the abbey's territorial claims and privileges. One of the many legends surrounding him tells of how he managed to sustain his monastic community with salmon brought to him by otters.

Another, and perhaps the most famous of the legends surrounding him is how, when he held his arms outstretched in prayer, a blackbird landed in his hands and laid an egg. Kevin remained in the same position until the egg was hatched, so as not to disturb the bird. This story is recorded in Gerald of Wales' Topographia Hiberniae, and is one of many legends illustrating how the Irish saints control nature. I've written extensively on this in another blogpost.

Kevin and the blackbird
MS Royal 13 B VIII, Gerald of Wales' Topographia Hiberniae, England, c.1196-c.1223
Courtesy of British Library

The story of St Kevin have been rendered in tercets by Seamus Heaney, and for St Kevin's Day, here's the poem in full, courtesy of this website.

St Kevin and the Blackbird

(from The Spirit Level, 1996)
And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.


And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

Information on St Kevin is taken from David Farmer's Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 2004.

For similar blogposts, see:

Seamus Heaney's poems for St Brigid

Gerald of Wales on the Irish saints