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

mandag 30. januar 2017

Songs for the new semester

The new semester is well underway, and for me it has already been a very busy semester with a lot of writing already past me and even more writing ahead of me. This year is the last of PhD thesis, and even though I feel on top of things as of now, I also know that there is a significant amount of work waiting in the months to come. Although I enjoy this kind of work, although I enjoy doing the necessary research, the writing, and the thinking that is required when putting together a coherent academic text, I also need some stimuli to ward off that sense of emptiness which can engulf you when you work on one and the same thing for a longer period of time. For me, one such stimulus is music.

Since I work on materials mostly pertaining to medieval history and the history of the church, I find it very suitable - and soothing - to listen to liturgical pieces from the medieval and the early modern period. I have presented some favourites in previous blogposts (such as here and here). In this blogpost, I offer you a selection of musical pieces which I have been particularly enjoying these past weeks, and which have dominated the soundtrack for my research so far this year.

Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85)

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-94)
Missa Papae Marcelli

Duarte Lobo (c.1565-1646)
Missa Vox Clamantis

Manuel Cardoso (1566-1650)
Missa Pro Defunctis

fredag 27. januar 2017

Borges and the Barometz - or, Excerpts from a personal history of reading

As we all know, there is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition
- Jorge Luis Borges, preface to the 1969 English translation by Norman Thomas di Giovanni

It is an old adage that a good book is like a good friend, and as a staunch bibliophile I subscribe fully to this. Therefore, it was a great pleasure to receive a package in my pigeonhole containing a translated edition of Jorge Luis Borges' wonderful little Book of Imaginary Beings (Libro de los Seres Imaginarios). This little book is in many ways typical of Borges in that it contains a wide-ranging display of knowledge drawn from a great variety of literary works and selected from several different cultures. The book is in effect a kind of bestiary compiled from the long and long-winded history of mythical - and sometimes fictional - beasts. For someone whose love of Borges comes in part from his eclecticism, the Book of Imaginary Beings is an utter delight to read.

I bought my first copy of its English translation during my second term at university, i.e. in the spring of 2008. I remember very clearly how I spent part of that summer reading through the book, and my reading was inspired by me having read somewhere that the intention of Borges had been that this book should not be read from beginning to end, but rather by picking chapters here and there more or less at random. For a budding medievalist, convinced of the usefulness of such cultural historical knowledge, the reading was a sheer delight.

One or two years later, I gave my copy of the Book of Imaginary Beings to a very dear friend for his birthday. Part of me always regretted it. Even though I was somewhat sad to part from such a treasury of often-arcane knowledge, I did nothing about it until this year (for reasons I still fail to understand). What inspired the purchase, however, was that I had allowed myself to become immersed in the cultural history of the monsters from the Graeco-Roman and the medieval tradition, and after having spent weeks researching and writing about Blemmyae, Panotii, Cynocephali and other fixtures of the medieval ideas of the extremeties of the world, I was inspired to buy Borges' modern and updated bestiary. After its arrival, I have spent some time relishing its chapter in a kind of academic nostalgia. To share that delight, I will present one of the chapters below, and hopefully this will whet the appetites of readers as yet unfamiliar with this work to either obtain or borrow a copy of their own.

The Barometz

The vegetable Lamb of Tartary, also named Barometz and Lycopodium barometz and Chinese lycopodium, is a plant whose shape is that of a lamb bearing a golden fleece. It stands on four or five root stalks. Sir Thomas Browne gives this description of it in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646):

Much wonder is made of the Barometz, that strange plant-animal or vegetable Lamb of Tartary, which Wolves delight to feed on, which hath the shape of a Lamb, affordeth a bloody juyce upon breaking, and live while the plants be consumed about it.

Other monsters are made up by combining various kinds of animals; the Barometz is a union of animal and vegetable kingdoms.

This brings to mind the mandrake, which cries out like a man when it is ripped from the eath; and in one of the circles of the Inferno, the sad forests of the suicides, from whose torn limbs blood and words drip at the same time; and that tree dreamed by Chesterton, which devoured the birds nesting in its branches, and when spring came put out feathers instead of leaves.
- Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings (translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni), Vintage Books, 2002: 28

Although Borges does not mention it, the vegetable lamb is first described in medieval travel accounts of the Far East, and its first mention is often ascribed to Odoric de Pordenone (1286-1331), a Franciscan friar who travelled extensively in the East and who wrote an account of his journeys. The Barometz is believed to be a misunderstanding of the cotton plant, and its description gained enduring popularity.

This popularity might indeed be partly due to its inclusion in John Mandeville's Travels, written in the second half of the fourteenth century. In chapter 21, the narrator describes this beast in the following way:

Therefore, should one go from Cathay to northern or Southern India, one will go through a kingdom called Caldilhe. This is a very large country, where a kind of fruit grows like a gourd. When it is ripe people cut it open and they find inside an animal, a thing of flesh and blood and bone, it's like a little lamb without wool. People eat the animal and the fruit too, and that is mavellous indeed.
- John Mandeville, The Book of Marvels and Travels (translated by Anthony Bale), Oxford World Classics, 2012: 104

The vegetable lamb of Tartary
Woodcut from an unspecified edition of John Mandeville's Travels
Printed by Henry Lee in The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary 
(Courtesy of Wikimedia)

fredag 20. januar 2017

Geoffrey Hill's "The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian"

Today is the feast of Saint Sebastian, who, according to tradition, was a Christian soldier in the Roman army during the reign of Diocletian. Since Christianity was forbidden, Sebastian was arrested when his Christianity was found out, and he is said to have suffered martyrdom around 300. This martyrdom is often depicted as Sebastian being tied to a tree and pierced by arrows, but this was only the first part of his passion story. According to legend, Sebastian was later taken care of by a woman called Irene, later known as Irene of Rome, and he recovered from his wounds. His martyrdom was later consummated when Diocletian had his soldiers beat him to death with clubs when Sebastian confronted the emperor.

The story of Sebastian has enjoyed varied but immense popularity through the Middle Ages, and the arresting quality of his iconography - owing in part to its likeness with Christ's crucifixion - has inspired later legends as well as later art.

The image of Saint Sebastian has been used as the starting  point of a poem by Geoffrey Hill in his sequence Of Commerce and Society from his first poetry collection. The poem itself is a social commentary and has little to do with the story of Sebastian itself, and even his cause of death is incorrectly stated as being the arrows. Nonetheless, it is a beautiful poem whose reliance on the haunting imagery of Sebastian's passion story heightens the sense of drama and adds drama to the social commentary.

From Of Commerce and Society

6 The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian

Homage to Henry James
'But then face to face'

Naked, as if for swimming, the martyr
Catches his death in a little flutter
Of plain arrows. A grotesque situation,
But priceless, and harmless to the nation.

Consider such pains 'crystalline': then fine art
Persists where most crystals accumulate.
History can be scraped clean of its old price.
Engrossed in the cold blood of sacrifice

The provident and self-healing gods
Destroy only to save. Well-stocked with foods,
Englarged and deep-oiled, America
Detects music, apprehends the day-star

Where, sensitive and half-under a cloud,
Europe muddles her dreaming, is loud
And criticial beneath the varied domes
Resonant with tribute and with commerce.
- Published in For the Unfallen (1959)

Martyrdom of Sebastian
Aix-en-Provence - BM - ms. 0016, f.278, Book of Hours, Use of Paris, between 1480-90
(Courtesy of

For other blogposts on Saint Sebastian:

Poems on Saint Sebastian

On Sebastian and hedgehog iconography in the legend of Saint Edmund Martyr

Guillaume Dufay's two motets for Saint Sebastian

On Sebastian depicted with a beard

Two Tuscan depictions of Sebastian's martyrdom

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