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

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

tirsdag 15. november 2016

The church containing Olaf Haraldsson's first shrine has probably been found

This is pretty exciting. For quite some time there has been an ongoing archaeological excavation in Trondheim, north of the public library in the city centre. Excavations began as a routine check of the area due to plans for a new building on the site. A few days ago, the main city newspaper of Trondheim, Adresseavisa, issued a video report from the dig where they interviewed project leader Anna Petersén. The archaeologists have found a graveyard and the remains of a church altar, most likely from the early part of the eleventh century. The preliminary conclusion is that this is the Church of Saint Clement, and this is where the excitement really kicks in - at least for me.

The Church of Saint Clement was namely the first church in which the body of Olaf Haraldsson was placed after it was exhumed on August 3, 1031. The exhumation was commissioned by Grimkell, an Englishman who was the bishop of Trondheim and who had followed Olaf Haraldsson to Norway. According to skaldic poems written within twelve years of the exhumation, the hairs and nails on the dead king were seen to have continued to grow in death. This, together reports of healings performed on the site, was seen as a sign of Olaf's holiness, and Grimkell declared Olaf to be a saint and had the body translated to the Church of Saint Clement. This was at a point in history when bishops had the authority to proclaim sainthood for dead people. Olaf's body was enshrined in the church and this shrine soon became a site of pilgrimage, and both the enshrinement and the pilgrims are attested to by skaldic poems written before 1043, namely Glælognskvida (c.1032) by Thorarin Loftunga and Erfidrápa (c.1042) by Sigvat Tordsson. A few decades later, the body of Saint Olaf was later moved to the Church of Christ which was built on the site where Olaf was belived to have been buried before his enshrinement in the Church of Saint Clement. The new church, situated where the current cathedral of Trondheim is placed, was commissioned by Olaf Kyrre (ruled 1067-93).

It has long been speculated about where the Church of Saint Clement was to be found, and until the current find it was believed to be somewhere else. Naturally, one always has to be cautious when making claims about the identity of medieval ruins, but here there is a strong likelihood that the identification is correct.

A video and a description of the find in English can be found here:

Bishop Grimkell washes the exhumed body of Olaf Haraldsson
Detail from an altar front, Trondheim, early 14th century

A few final remarks to those of you who have by now read the article:

- The remark that the church was "a wooden stave church" is a pleonasm. All stave churches were made of timber.

- That the find gives credibility to saga accounts is less important than one might think. Snorri Sturlusson is not the first to have written about this, and his sources were in fact the two skaldic poems mentioned above. That these poems, composed so close to the events themselves and known through written records that Snorri relied on, were right about the translation and the enshrinement should not surprise anyone.

- That Olaf was "declared a saint by popular acclaim" might be something Snorri claims, but this is very unlikely to be true. There might have been some knowledge of the Christian concept of sanctity among the Norwegian Christians, but for there to have been commissioned an exhumation of the body, and for the king to have been declared a saint, it was necessary to have episcopal authority at the very least. Nothing of the story as it is found in the early skaldic poems suggests that the first cult of Olaf was a popular cult that was later embraced by the church. On the contrary, the accounts present the story as something entirely orchestrated by the ecclesiastical power, which at that time was Bishop Grimkell. The people did probably embrace the cult quickly, but it was due to Grimkell it all started.

tirsdag 8. november 2016

Quietly marking the beginning of winter with a poem by Geoffrey Hill

The first snow arrived in Odense yesterday afternoon, and today I woke up to a ground dotted with fragile patches of snow that helped refract the light of a grey sun enough to take away some of the morning darkness. This first snow will not lie long, and it has already begun to recede. Snow is not as common here in Denmark as it is in my native Norway, and it is at this point unusually cold. I spoke to my local greengrocer about this temperature earlier today, and he then pointed out to me that this cold came from Norway. I took responsibility, of course.

The first day of snow and the first day of winter finds me shoulder-deep in thesis work, alternating between intense bouts of writing and slightly less intense bouts of reading. As a consequence, there is not much energy left for blogging, so I will mark the beginning of the winter very quietly, with one of the early poems by Geoffrey Hill.

In memory of Jane Fraser

When snow like sheep lay in the fold
And winds went begging at each door,
And the far hills were blue with cold,
And a cold shroud lay on the moor,

She kept the siege. And every day
We watched her brooding over death
Like a strong bird above its prey.
The room filled with the kettle's breath.

Damp curtains glued against the pane
Sealed time away. Her body froze
As if to freeze us all, and chain
Creation to a stunned repose.

She died before the world could stir.
In March the ice unloosed the brook
And water ruffled the sun's hair.
Dead cones upon the alder shook.

- Published in For the Unfallen (1959)