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Viking Ships & Piracy

Scrolling through my social media feeds this morning, I was reminded that today is #InternationalTalkLikeAPirateDay; and, serendipitously, I’m reading various accounts of Viking ships and sea-battles as I prep for my class on Vikings. When I made the schedule, I didn’t realize this happy coincidence, but I am glad for it. This is one of our first major readings in primary sources (we read “The Tale of Thorstein Shiver” and “The Tale of Audun from the Westfjords” early in the semester to get a taste for the subject matter), after a few weeks of reading modern perspectives on Scandinavian peoples during the Viking Age. Vikings remain some of the most popular pirates from the Middle Ages–as I noticed is noted on the Wikipedia page for “Piracy”–and later medieval literature looking back to the Viking Age provides some great accounts of their nautical exploits.[1]


Harold Godwinson’s ship as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry

First, we learn a lot about Viking Age ships, their construction, and what was valued in the best of them. A few passages stand out from a description of the Long Serpent of King Olaf Tryggvason (c.960-1000) in The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason (chapter 88; number 32 in Somerville and McDonald), included in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla:

During the winter after his return from Halogaland, King Olaf Tryggvason built a ship at Hladhamar. This ship was bigger than any other in the country and the stocks on which it was built survive as visible proof of this. Thorberg the Woodcarver was responsible for the stem and stern, but there were many others involved in the work as well. Some of them felled trees; some shaped the wood; some forged nails; and some hauled timber. All the materials used were of the best quality, and the ship was constructed with large timbers. It was long and broad and stood high above the water.

[E]veryone agreed that such a large and beautiful ship had never been seen before.

King Olaf named it the Long Serpent…. The Long Serpent had thirty-four rooms, or rowers’ benches [with room for sixty-eight men]. The dragon’s head at the prow and the coiled tail at the stern were both heavily gilded and the sides stood as high above the water as those of ocean-going ships. The Long Serpent was the best and most costly ship ever built in Norway.

This passage seems to be a sort of prototypical description of a ship, as other literary accounts (including Snorri’s own description of King Harald Sigurdarson’s ship, also in the Heimskringla) mimic, allude to, or even comparably rely on this passage as a type of reference point.

But perhaps more fascinating–from the perspective of looking for pirates and piracy in literature about the Vikings–are accounts of sea battles. One particularly fascinating narrative occurs in The History of the Earls of Orkney (chapters 87-88; number 37a in Somerville and McDonald), which describes the journey of Rognvald Kali Kolsson, Earl of Orkney (c.1103-1158), to Rome and the Holy Land. In one episode, Rognvald and his troops wage battle against a group of Muslim merchants on a ship called a dromond in the Mediterranean. Rognvald’s men see the dromond first, and Rognvald is able to call together his ships to formulate a plan for attack. After consulting with his advisors, a bishop (unnamed in this section) and a warrior named Erling, he seems rather confident in his strategy, saying, “If it turns out to be Christian merchants, we can make peace with them, but if they’re heathens, as I think they are, then almighty God in his mercy will give us victory. We’ll give the poor every fiftieth penny of whatever booty we take.” With that, the men from the Orkneys set their plan into motion, drawing their ships up alongside the enemy dromond to attack.

One of the problems with such an attack, as the bishop had previously mentioned, was the danger of a larger, taller ship pouring down hot pitch on a longship that sat lower in the water. As the battle starts, “The crew of the dromond began pouring burning sulphur and pitch over them, but most of it fell beyond the ships as Erling had predicted, and so they had no need to shield themselves from it.” With multiple ships drawn up beside the dromond, a few ships retreat farther out, and the bishop directs the men on these ships to fire arrows toward the enemies: “This attack was very effective. The people on board the dromond were so busy protecting themselves that they paid little attention to what the Norsemen at the sides of their ship were up to.” The Norsemen hack at the sides of the merchants’ ship, and soon begin to find ways to climb aboard while the enemies are distracted–in a series of adventuresome and even humorous moments involving a pile of burly Viking men climbing up an anchor onto the ship. The text even offers a brief anecdote about Erling’s neck injury, earning him the nickname “Wry-Neck” for his inability to hold his head upright afterward.

As Rognvald had guessed, the text identifies the enemies as non-Christians, but not until the battle is well under way. There comes a pause in the middle of the battle to describe the enemy warriors: “The men on the dromond were Saracens, whom we call Mohammed’s heretics. There were many black men too, and they put up the strongest resistance.” Pitting Christians and Muslims against each other is a rather widespread trope in later medieval literature, and it isn’t all that surprising to find this type of polemic here, with the common term “Saracens” used for the Muslim warriors. Given the complex and widespread networks of travel end trade in the twelfth century, it also isn’t difficult to accept the plausibility of this type of encounter between Muslims and Norsemen in the Mediterranean during the time. But the detail that some of the enemy merchants were “black men” is intriguing, since it adds another layer of racial sentiments as well as some sort of distinction from the Muslim men. All of these details distance the merchants, othering them for medieval audiences. Another curious detail occurs just a few lines later: “The Norsemen noticed that one man aboard the dromond was taller and handsomer than the others and they thought for sure that he must be their leader.” No mention is made, however, of the religious, ethnic, or racial identity of the leader, here or elsewhere in the passage. What makes him handsome to the Norsemen? Is he one of the Muslims, or one of the black men? What marks this man as leader is his physicality, but the text offers no specific detail to solidify his identity; this devil is not in the details, but purely in his otherness as a non-Christian, non-Viking, and presumably non-European.

Once the onslaught is over, and the Vikings have predictably won the battle, one last, strange moment is recorded at the end of the episode. Taking what they wanted from the dromond, the Norsemen set the whole ship on fire:

When the tall man they had captured saw this, he started and grew pale and agitated. They tried to make him talk, but no matter how much they threatened or cajoled, he didn’t say a word or make a sign. When the dromond was completely ablaze, they saw something that looked like a burning stream flowing into the sea. This greatly affected their prisoner. They concluded that they hadn’t searched carefully enough for treasure and that metal, either gold or silver, had melted as the fire took hold.

The narrator seems more interested in the loss of treasures like those known to the Vikings–gold and silver objects valued across the medieval world. But perhaps the reason this treasure escaped the notice of the men from Orkney is because it was easy for them to overlook, not knowing it was precious cargo, despite its seeming value to the merchant. Could this “burning stream flowing into the sea” be oil, catching fire as it leaked out of whatever containers held it on the ship? Oil of various types were part of the mercantile world of the Mediterranean by the twelfth century, as it was known not only in the Middle East but also to Western Europe by way of Islamic Spain. Perhaps this passage provides one glimpse of its presence, a casualty of Viking piracy on the high seas.

[1] All passages discussed in this post come from selections in The Viking Age: A Reader, ed. Angus A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald, 2nd ed. (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2014), 151-80 (chapter 6, “Fjord-Serpents: Viking Ships”).

CFP for Preach It, Sister! A Roundtable about Women and Homiletics

CFP: Society for the Study of Anglo-Saxon Homiletics at the 52nd International Congress on Medieval Studies
Western Michigan University (Kalamazoo, MI)
May 11-14, 2017

Preach It, Sister! A Roundtable about Women and Homiletics


Hildegard of Bingen receiving a vision and dictating to her scribe and secretary. From the Rupertsberger Codex Scivias.

For over ten years at the ICMS, the Society for the Study of Anglo-Saxon Homiletics (SSASH) has thrived in its aims to promote scholarship related to the sources, compositions, appropriations, and early studies of Anglo-Saxon homilies. In 2016, the session sponsored by SSASH gathered nearly 40 attendees, providing evidence for continued relevance and support. The session proposed for 2017 seeks to continue this presence at the ICMS, as well as the vibrant scholarship and collaborative discussions that Anglo-Saxonists have come to expect from the Society, with a specific focus on the work of women in the field.

2017 marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of Dorothy Bethurum’s edition of The Homilies of Wulfstan (1957), which remains a monument in the field. Yet this publication is just one representative of how women have been integral to the study of Anglo-Saxon preaching. For example, we also have the recent work of Mary Clayton, Mechthild Gretsch, Joyce Hill, Clare Lees, Joyce Tally Lionarons, Mary Swan, Elaine Treharne, Dorothy Whitelock, and Samantha Zacher. The past decade has brought about the publications of major books discussing sermons, such as Zacher’s Preaching the Converted: The Style and Rhetoric of the Vercelli Book Homilies (2009); Lionarons’s The Homiletic Writings of Archbishop Wulfstan (2010); and Treharne’s Living Through Conquest: The Politics of Early English, 1020-1220 (2012). The proposed roundtable, then, will feature a celebration of the work of women on Anglo-Saxon homiletics, allowing for not only showcasing past scholarship but also a forum for lively discussion of future possibilities within the field. Toward this end, the roundtable to be an all-female panel, in order to foreground women’s voices.

Please send abstracts of no more than 500 words with a completed Participant Information Form (available here) to Brandon Hawk by September 15, 2016. For more general information about the ICMS, please visit the conference website here.

Isidore of Seville & Old Media

Today marks 1380 years since of the death of Isidore of Seville (c.560-636), the famous sixth-/seventh-century Spanish archbishop and scholar. As a diverse writer, who synthesized ideas from the late antique world (including both pagan and Christian authors), his works were significant, influential, and highly popular touchstones for medieval thinkers. This British Library Medieval Manuscripts Blog post highlights some of his work. For the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Clement VIII canonized him in 1598, and he was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1722. In the twenty-first century, people might know Isidore as the patron saint of the internet–along with computer users, computer technicians, programmers, and students.

Isidore, his works, and their afterlife represent a fusion of several things that I love: a bridge between cultures (late antique and medieval periods), encyclopedic knowledge, and the possibilities of information transmission across the longue durée of media history. As a general characteristic of his scholarship, Isidore set out to capture, synthesize, organize, and preserve the knowledge of his predecessors for future thinkers. These impulses are particularly pronounced in his most famous work, the Etymologies–a striking case for considering how Isidore’s work represents old media practices in premodern manuscript culture.

Above (clockwise): Excerpts from Isidore’s Etymologies, Book VII, in St. Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 230 (c.800), p. 93; beginning of Isidore’s Etymologies in Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 92 (13th c.), fol. 1r; and detail of “De caelo” from Isidore’s De natura rerum in Zofingen, Stadtbibliothek, Pa 32  (9th c.), fol. 62r. All images in this post are from e-codices: Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland, used under a Creative Commons License.

In the Etymologies, Isidore aims to collect and transmit knowledge in something like a comprehensive encyclopedia, covering topics ranging from classical liberal arts like grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, medicine, laws, science, and music, as well as notes on the Bible, God, angels, saints, languages, peoples, geographies, animals, elements, earthly and heavenly topography, urban and rural spaces, natural resources, agriculture, military, maritime navigation, and domestic subjects. While Isidore never completed his massive work, it nonetheless contains 20 books with a total of 448 chapters, relying on around 475 texts from over 200 authors. (For an excellent overview of Isidore’s life and his Etymologies, see the “Introduction” in The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, trans. Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, and Oliver Berghoff, with the collaboration of Muriel Hall (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006), 3-28.)

Considering Isidore’s task and accomplishment with the Etymologies, it is no surprise that he has been deemed the patron saint of the internet. Thinking in terms of our own information-overloaded digital age, we might consider how he set out to distill the “big data” of knowledge passed on from his predecessors–indeed, the vast learning of the information-overloaded classical world–into pieces that could be taken in, retained, and used in smaller parts. For these reasons, medieval people often turned to the Etymologies for quick facts or the starting points of learning, just as many of us turn to Wikipedia.

Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 92 folV7

Index to Isidore’s Etymologies from Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 92, fol. V7.

Medieval means of wrangling big data may be seen beyond Isidore’s production of his Etymologies, as part of the later transmission and use of this text. One example appears in Cologny, Bodmer 92 (pictured left, folio V7), a copy of the Etymologies produced in the early thirteenth century. On folios V7-V11, a user of the book from the later thirteenth or early fourteenth century has added a series of index tables meant to facilitate looking up and finding specific subjects in Isidore’s encyclopedia. Subject terms are alphabetized and keyed to specific references (e.g. “f.33.A. biblioteca” and “f.2.0.A. celestis”), which may be found by following the apparatus of the text throughout the codex. The index and textual references, then, work much like hyperlinks, allowing users of the Etymologies to find information about specific topics, rather than reading the whole book from cover to cover. In fact, as an abundance of evidence from medieval manuscripts shows, readers were likely just as used to jumping around books as we are with engaging in non-linear reading. This indexical feature in Bodmer 92 is one framework that users created for navigating the platform of knowledge in front of them. It is, in other words, a means of information management. This example demonstrates how later medieval users valued, revalued, adapted, and worked with Isidore’s Etymologies for their own needs. It also represents one way in which Isidore’s work–and medieval manuscripts generally–presaged certain later practices in the ages of print and digital media.

Once we start looking for such structural and organization frameworks in medieval media, even basic examples may be understood as part of the desires for book producers and users to come to terms with big data like the vast amount of topics covered in Isidore’s encyclopedia. Old media reveal how medieval platforms of knowledge were further manipulated for key content management. Bodmer 92 contains another example of such a technique in its basic rubrication. On folios 2r-v (pictured below), the scribe has provided a compact but decorated list labeled “Capitulum,” with the titles of the numbered sections appearing again as rubrications for chapter headings in the following pages.

For instance, the contents lists “III. De gramatica.” and the section headed with this title is found on the other side of the leave, on folio 2v (pictured above). What makes this system all the more striking as assistive is the use of different colors of ink: while the main text is generally written out in dark ink, the list of contents on folios 2r-v is signaled by the use of red and blue inks, and the headings for each section throughout the manuscript are rubricated in red. The start of each new section is also marked by a decorated initial, making the division more pronounced for browsable use. Additionally, the tops of pages are marked with alternating numerals to indicate the book (recto, in blue) or section (verso, in red) of the content in relation to the whole of the Etymologies. Although these various paratextual features are common in medieval manuscripts, the creator(s) of Bodmer 92 harnessed them to facilitate user-friendliness, to build readerly success into the book itself in the face of the big data of this voluminous encyclopedia.

I end this post with the start of a set of verses attributed to Isidore known as Versus in bibliotheca, which offers an exhortation to continual education as he saw fit for a world filled with innumerable knowledge. The following verses, in fact, seem as fitting in a world with the internet as they were some 1380 years ago, when even the information contained in books was more vast than a single person could master in a lifetime.

Versus in bibliotheca

These bookcases of ours hold a great many books.
Behold and read, you who so desire, if you wish.
Here lay your sluggishness aside, put off your fastidiousness of mind.
Believe me, brother, you will return thence a more learned man.
But perhaps you say, “Why do I need this now?
For I would think no study still remains for me:
I have unrolled histories and hurried through all the law.”
Truly, if you say this, then you yourself still know nothing.

(Translation from The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, trans. Barney, et al., 16.)

Ælfric’s Genesis and Bede’s Commentarius in Genesim

My article “Ælfric’s Genesis and Bede’s Commentarius in Genesim” has been accepted for publication in Medium Ævum, forthcoming within the next year. In this article, I suggest that one contributing factor to Ælfric’s decision to stop translating Genesis halfway through (at chapter 22) is his knowledge of and use of Bede’s Commentarius in Genesim, which also concludes after the story of Isaac. With this basis in mind, I trace connections between Ælfric’s Preface to Genesis and Bede’s commentary, the tradition of Genesis exegesis, and a textual crux in the manuscript texts of the Old English Heptateuch. The implications suggest a more nuanced understanding of Ælfric’s reasons for concluding his project where he did, his fusing together of translation and exegesis, and problems that later scribes faced in reconciling Ælfric’s Genesis with various other Old English versions of the Heptateuch as a whole.

Below are the introduction and a few brief excerpts (minus some footnote references) to tantalize readers:

Sometime between 992 and 1002, the Anglo-Saxon monk Ælfric (c.955-c.1010) translated part of the Latin Vulgate version of Genesis into Old English and wrote a vernacular Preface to his work. During this same time period, he also translated the Quaestiones in Genesim by Alcuin of York (c.735-804) and composed an Old English Hexameron on the six days of Creation. With such concerted interest in Genesis, Ælfric became one of the earliest translators of the Bible into the English language and joined the legacy of patristic and medieval scholars who had previously written about the biblical book. Prominent figures in this legacy who wrote works on Genesis influential for Ælfric include Basil of Caesarea (329/30-379), Ambrose of Milan (c.340-397), Augustine of Hippo (354-430), Bede of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow (672/3-735), and Alcuin—authors whom Ælfric judiciously echoes at the same time that he supplements them with his own contributions, synthesizing biblical exegesis up to his own time. This article examines one aspect of Ælfric’s engagement with sources, arguing for his use of Bede’s work on Genesis as a model for his own exegesis and translation.

In his Preface to Genesis, Ælfric gives a clear statement about his reason for translating only the first part of the biblical book. According to his claims, the practical reason is that his patron Æthelweard already had possession of a translation for the latter part of the book. Yet there is good reason to believe that Ælfric’s assertions in such instances have more complicated explanations behind them. […] I propose that another suitable explanation for Ælfric’s translation stopping point is found in reference to Bede’s Commentarius in Genesim and the author’s note about this text at the end of his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. The implications of this proposed source allow for exploring two related aspects of Ælfric’s work on Genesis: first, a set of relationships between Ælfric’s work on Genesis and previous exegesis on the biblical book; and, second, a textual crux in the manuscripts containing the longer and later (eleventh-century) translation project known as the Old English Heptateuch.


As evidence for Ælfric’s thinking on the topic of Bede and where to end his translation of Genesis, a number of other related texts may be brought together. Bede and Ælfric, in fact, stand in a long line of those who worked on Genesis but never addressed the whole book. For all of their popularity and influences on later authors, Basil’s Hexameron (translated into Latin by Eustathius) and Ambrose’s work by the same title constitute commentaries only on the first six days of Creation. Augustine famously wrote multiple commentaries on Genesis (De Genesi contra Manichaeos, De Genesi ad litteram imperfectus liber, and De Genesi ad litteram), none of them explicating the latter part of the book. Bede used all of these works throughout his corpus. In the preface to his own Commentarius in Genesim (a letter to Acca, Bishop of Hexham [c.660-740/2]), Bede cites Basil, Ambrose, and Augustine by name, referring to their commentaries on Genesis as chief among his sources, and including further references to Augustine’s Confessiones and Contra aduersarium legis et prophetarum. As already noted, Ælfric’s sources for work on Genesis include Alcuin’s Quaestiones in Genesim, which he knew directly since he translated it into an Old English text now known as Alcuini Interrogationes Sigewulfi. Alcuin’s treatise has a complicated relationship of reliance on Augustine’s De Genesi ad litteram and Bede’s In Genesim, since Alcuin echoes both authors but thoughtfully reworks their exegesis in ways that make it difficult to distinguish his dependence on one or the other. Even before Ælfric’s time, exegesis on Genesis that he would have read and relied on is already a complicated network of scholarly interplay.


The correlations I have proposed so far may be further considered to explore the implications of the present argument by turning to a crux in manuscripts of the Old English Heptateuch. Whereas Ælfric translated only part of Genesis, other, anonymous Anglo-Saxon translators also worked to render the first seven books of the Bible into Old English. The collective, cumulative work of Ælfric and other translators is represented in a combined text now known as the Old English Heptateuch. […]

The conventional view is that Ælfric’s translation of Genesis as it survives in the Old English Heptateuch ends at xxiv.22 or xxiv.26, based on the text ending at this point in Cambridge Ii.1.33. Yet there are reasons for reassessing the end-point of Ælfric’s translation, particularly regarding the suggestions I have posed. […]

Notes on a Manuscript Fragment

Several months ago, wandering through the large Antique Flea Market in Brimfield, Massachusetts, I came across a surprise. Sitting on the ground, leaning against an old clothes trunk out in the sun, I saw from a distance a large page of antiquated musical notation and text in an old frame. As I walked closer, I recognized it as a liturgical manuscript, containing musical staves and notation with Latin text. I discovered that the frame was not closed in the back but had glass on both sides, to allow viewing both sides of the page. Examining it some more, I became sure that the page was vellum, and it looked late medieval or early modern.

While looking it over, the vendor approached and asked if I knew what it was. I told him generally what I could–that this looked like a medieval musical manuscript, and that studying objects like this is my job, although I was unable to tell him much more without researching it. He was surprised, since he previously had no idea what it was. The manuscript had come into his hands, along with many of the other objects he had for sale that day, as part of an estates sale from the home of a wealthy doctor in Hartford, Connecticut. Beyond that, the vendor knew very little–nothing more about the doctor, not even his name–and he told me that he had found the framed manuscript sitting in the basement of the house when he purchased part of the estate at auction.

We quickly settled on a deal. As little as he was asking, I was sure that I could not pass up the opportunity to buy the manuscript. I did feel some guilt at buying a manuscript fragment, knowing the terrible histories behind codices being ripped apart by booksellers. But it was clear to me that the original manuscript had been broken up years before it came into the hands of the vendor I met, and well before the Hartford doctor owned it. (The frame was old enough to be held together in the back by old brown paper glued around the edges of the glass, rather than modern ways of holding glass in place.) I spent several minutes asking the vendor different questions (sometimes similar questions different ways) about the fragment, how he acquired it, and his potential involvement in book destruction; it was clear he had no idea about its history before finding it in a basement. I even gave him my views on how sad it is to see fragments like this, and warned him about these types of pages as a vendor. By buying the manuscript, I hope that I am contributing less to the problem of breaking up manuscripts and more to preserving cultural heritage by caring for the fragment and using it to teach students. Indeed, I have already found it useful in a medieval literature class for teaching about medieval text technologies, their modern afterlives, and the sad outcomes for some broken books.

What follows are a series of notes I have compiled about the manuscript, with some information and references about what I learned so far from some initial research. I took all photographs under natural lighting with my iPhone, after removing the manuscript from the frame.

Physical Description

The full page measures approximately 760-80 millimeters (30-30.75 inches) in height by 545-50 millimeters (21.5-21.6 inches) in width. The page is foliated as “99” in dark ink in upper right corner of the recto.

On the verso, the edge on the far right is discolored where it would have been bound into the spine of the original codex. Upon further examination, the discoloration turns out to be a strip of vellum folded over approximately 10-15 millimeters (0.4-0.6 inches) of the page; this is ostensibly part of the other half of the full bifolium as it would have been bound into the book–which was cut but left attached to this fragment when the codex was disassembled. As it had been framed, the verso would have faced outward for display, while the recto would have faced the wall. The verso, after all, has a more elaborate layout, containing more diverse elements. (See more on the layout below.)

MyManuscript_detail_holeA few distinctive features helped me to decide that this piece is vellum when I first saw it. The first was a conspicuous hole that had been sewn up, measuring approximately 25 millimeters (1.13 inches) in length, with five stitches with white thread.

The second were speckles from follicles on the hair side (verso), more noticeable toward the portion of the page that would have formed the gutter of the book. As usual, the flesh side (recto) is whiter and softer, while the hair side (verso) is darker and more coarse. The whole page is more stiff than pliable, with many wrinkles, likely from less than ideal storage, climate, and moisture in the display frame.

Concerning the mis-en-page, there are a number of noticeable characteristics. While the recto has five consistent lines of text and music above, the verso has a more complex layout. A more qualified musicologist could say more about the staves, notes, and their significance. For now, I only note that the music is consistently written out, on five-line staves drawn in red. I would be grateful for other thoughts on these traits.

The layout of the verso is fundamentally different because of the use of an inset block of seven lines of smaller text without music, including a versicle and response; these lines intrude on the text and staves for the third and fourth lines in the overall layout. The majority of text is written in dark ink, with a few exceptions. Indications of the psalms to be sung (ps.) as well as notations for the versicle and response (V. and R.) are written in red. Three red punctus marks appear in the middle of moriemini on the bottom line of text on the verso to indicate note changes on the single syllable e. The fragment contains two decorated initials, a yellow Q for “Quae est ista” on the recto and red O for “Omnes moriemini” on the verso.

The text is written in a Gothic Southern Textualis (see Albert Derolez, The Palaeography of Gothic Manuscript Books: From the Twelfth to the Early Sixteenth Century (Cambridge, 2003)). Without giving a full paleographical assessment, I will note a few features. In general the page shows a consistent, clean script, following the guidelines. Letters are generally rounded, conforming to southern rather than northern characteristics. The scribe uses both long-s and short-s, reserving the latter for terminal positions. The digraph æ is used consistently (as in quae and caeli). The words Dominus and Deus are always capitalized. While it is difficult to generalize from such a short text, the scribe clearly distinguishes between u and v, as in -stravit, the indication for the versicle as V, and Vere directly following. Overall, only a few abbreviations appear, for psalmus (twice), Dominus regnauit (both words), and Cantate.

A few manuscripts with comparable features include:

Burlington, University of Vermont, Robert Hull Fleming Museum, 1971.10.4, from a sixteenth-century gradual

New Haven, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library 485.3, from a sixteenth-century antiphonary

New Haven, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library 627, from a fifteenth-century (?) antiphonary

Based on comparable manuscripts, I believe this folio is from the sixteenth century, although that is only a tentative conclusion. I will discuss a possible origin below.


The following is a transcription of the manuscript fragment, as well as a translation noting biblical sources according to the Latin Vulgate (edited by Robert Weber, Biblia sacra vulgata; translations are from the Douay-Rheims). Because I provide photographs, I have not indicated line breaks, but I present each chant as a new item. I silently expand all abbreviations, while retaining manuscript capitalization and punctuation (except for one case: a dash for a line break in the middle of aliud on the verso). I provide some reconstructions in brackets for the text on the previous and following pages, based on close parallels from other sources.

/99r/ [Ferculum fecit sibi rex Salomon de lignis Libani: columnas eius fecit argenteas, reclinatorium aureum, ascensum purpureum, media charitate con]stravit.
psalmus. Dominus regnauit.
Quae est ista, quae progreditur quasi aurora consurgens, pulchra ut luna, electa ut /99v/ sol, terribles ut castrorum acies ordinata.’
psalmus. Cantate.
Vere Dominus est in loco sancto isto; et ego nesciebam.
Non est hic aliud, nisi domus Dei, et porta caeli.
Omnes morie…mini, quia in [Adam peccavistis….]

King Solomon hath made him a litter of the wood of Libanus: The pillars thereof he made of silver, the seat of gold, the going up of purple, the midst he covered with charity. (Canticles 3:9)
Psalm. The Lord hath reigned.
Who is she, that cometh forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in array? (Canticles 6:9)
Psalm. Sing.
Indeed the Lord is in this holy place; and I knew it not. (Genesis 28:16)
This is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven. (Genesis 28:17)
All die, because in Adam you all sin…. (1 Corinthians 15:22)

This liturgy is for the Third Nocturn of the Office for the Conception of Mary, celebrated on December 8. The chants on this manuscript page are a close parallel to the office that F. E. Gilliat-Smith from the (unreformed) Roman Breviary of 1481, in “Some Notes Concerning the Earliest Known Office of the Immaculate Conception,” The Ecclesiastical Review, Sixth Series, 5 (1916), 605-22, at 616-17. Other early modern breviaries (to which Gilliat-Smith did not have access to search via Google Books) contain closer parallels, some with the exact wording of this manuscript (indicated with asterisks), as in the following books.

*Breviarium romanum: ex decreto Sacrosancti Concilii Tridentini restitutum, S. Pii V Pontificis Maximi jussu editum, Clementis VIII et Urbani VIII auctoritate recognitum (Dionysius Thierry, 1669), 601 [and in various later reprinted versions, e.g. 1798 and 1831].

Die VIII Decembris. Officium proprium cum octava Inmaculatae Conceptionis Beatae Mariae Virginis: In hoc Mysterio Hispaniarum, & Indiarum Principalis Patronae: ex Breviario Franciscano desumptum (Ignatius Frau, 1762), 48-50.

Breviarium Romano-Monasticum, Pauli V et Urbani VIII PP. MM. jussu editum, oro omnibus sub Regula S. Patris Benedicti militantibus, praecipue nunc ad usum Congregationis Hispanae (J. Ibarra, 1779), 732.

*Officia sanctorum á summis pontificibus, tam pro Hispaniarum regnis, quam Pro Universali Ecclesia (Agustinus Figaró, 1827), 480-81.

Also from the closest parallels, I have gathered that the liturgy would often include the gospel reading from Luke 11:27, followed by a homily on this passage by Bede. The reading and homily would follow the lines derived from Genesis 28:16-17, preceding the line from 1 Corinthians 15:22.

Leonardo de Nogaroli

As Gilliat-Smith mentions, this liturgical office is credited to a certain Leonardo Nogaroli. Although Gilliat-Smith was unable to identify this figure, sixteenth-century sources relate that he was a cleric for the household of Pope Sixtus IV (pope 1471-84). A number of early modern accounts present information about Nogaroli composing a mass expressing the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which had gained growing support and was authorized and promoted by Sixtus IV. Irénée Henri Dalmais, Pierre Jounel, Aimé Georges Martimort present a brief overview in “The Veneration of Mary,” The Church at Prayer: An Introduction to the Liturgy, New Edition, Volume IV: The Liturgy and Time, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (Collegeville, MN, Liturgical P, 1985), 130-56, at 140. The following are some sources closer to Nogaroli’s own lifetime, as well as a few interesting later retellings.

Rodolpho Hospiniano on the “Conceptionis B. Mariae festum,” in De origine progressu, ceremoniis et ritibus festorum dierum Iudaeorum, Graecorum, Romanorum & Turcarum Libri tres (Zürich: Ioannem Wolfium, 1592), 107v: “Anno Domini 1466. Sixtus 4. decretum edidit, qod extat in Extrauagantibus libro 5. de Reliquijs & vener. Sanct. in quo constituit festum de mira conceptione B. Mariae, cum peculiari officio, quod composuit Leonardus Nagarolus Italus, in eoq, docet, sine peccato originali Mariam conceptam, ab omnibus fidelibus celebrandum esse, additu ijsdem indulgentijs, quas consequuntur homines in Corporu Christi solemnitate.”

Adriano Moerbecio, Scala Purpurea in sex gradus divisa (Antwerp: Hieronymus Verdussius, 1634), 134: “Ad tempora Sixti quarti R. P. D. Leonardus Nagarolus Protonotarius Apostolicus, composuit Officium de immaculata Conceptione, quod iam pene per centum annos decanatum est.”

Bartholomaei Carrana and Dominico Schram, Summa Conciliorum: Dudum Collecta Cum Additionibus Francisci Sylvii, Tomus III (Augsburg: Rieger, 1778), 640: “Joannes Gnesnensis in Polonia Archiepiscopus An. 1510. Concilium Provinviale celebravit, in quo Festum Conceptionis B. M. V. cum Octava, & Officio a Leonado Nagaroli composito celebrari jussit.”

Don Antonio Lobera y Abio, El por qué de todas las ceremonias de la Iglesia y sus misterios (Mexico: Libreria de J. Rosa, 1846), 465, in a question and answer dialogue about the Conception of Mary, between a Vicario and Curioso:
“Cur.– Qué oficio rezaba y tenia nuestra madre de Iglesia?”
“Vic. — Aquel rezo quo compuso Leonardo de Nagaroli, clérigo Veronense, el qua aprobó Sixto IV.”

Carl Joseph von Hefele and J. Cardinal Hergenröther, Conciliengeschichte. Nach den Quellen bearbeitet, Aahter Band (Freiburg: Herder, 1887), 542, for the year 1510: “Das Fest Mariä Empfängniß ist mit Octav zu feiern nach dem vom Papste approbirten Officium des apostolischen Protonotars Leonardo Nagaroli, und zwar in der ganzen Provinz.”

Ideas about the Immaculate Conception ultimately derived from apocryphal gospels and an accumulative tradition reaching back to early Christianity, and during the Middle Ages the concept was hotly debated. Ambivalence about the feast continued for centuries after the medieval period. Pope Pius V (pope 1566-72) reacted against the term “Immaculate” and did away with the special mass for a more general feast-day liturgy.

“Quae est ista, quae progreditur”

From searching the CANTUS Database, I discovered some significant features of this version of the Office. The first striking feature is the chant “Quae est ista, quae progreditur” (CANTUS 004425). As Rachel Fulton discusses, the biblical Canticles (Song of Songs) was central to medieval conceptions about the Virgin Mary, and this particular chant from Canticles 6:9 became a defining feature in the Office of the Assumption. (“‘Quae est ista quae ascendit sicut aurora consurgens?’: The Song of Songs as the historia for the Office of the Assumption,” Mediaeval Studies 60 (1998), 55-122. My thanks to Yvonne Seale for helping me get a hold of this article.) This use of Canticles in the Assumption liturgy is surely the starting point for its inclusion in the Office of the Conception. The rendering of this chant with the verb progreditur is especially significant in comparison with other uses in the liturgy, since this rendering follows the Vulgate, not the form with ascendit as found in other liturgical texts (the version Fulton discusses).

Other parallels between the manuscript fragment with the Office of the Conception and other feasts also appear in medieval liturgy. Fulton notes parallel uses of Canticles for the feasts of the Assumption and the Conception, as well as connections between offices for the Assumption and the Dedication of a church (see esp. 65, n. 27). Of the other chants in the manuscript fragment discussed here, CANTUS lists both “Vere dominus est in loco isto” (006540a) and “Non est hic aliud nisi domus” (003913) for the Dedication of a Church in a host of manuscripts. In addition, “Quae est ista…” also appears for the Feast of Anne, Mother of Mary (July 26) in Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, lat. 15182 (c.1300, Notre Dame Cathedral), 508v; Common of Several Virgins in Piacenza, Basilica di S. Antonino, Biblioteca e Archivio Capitolari, 65 (s. xii, Piacenza Cathedral), 431v; and memorial chants for Mary in Karlsruhe, Badische Landesbibliothek – Musikabteilung, Aug. LX (s. xii, Zwiefalten), 272r. All of these parallels point to the interrelated nature of liturgical elements for various feasts related to the Virgin Mary.

“Omnes moriemini”

In the last element of the fragment, the rendering of 1 Corinthians 15:22 as “Omnes moriemini quia in [Adam peccavistis]” is also anomalous. This phrasing is not found in Vulgate (neither the textus receptus of Jerome nor the Clementine revision, which read “in Adam omnes moriuntur”) or Vetus Latina versions. It comes closest to the phrasing “in Adam omnes morimur” used by Irenaeus and Augustine (Pierre Sabatier, Bibliorum sacrorum latinae versiones antiquae seu Vetus Italica, 3 vols. in 4 (Rheims, Reginald Florentain, 1743), 3:715), although further research could reveal even closer parallels outside of Sabatier’s sources. In addition to the breviary parallels already noted, this particular chant appears in the Office for the Conception of Mary in Cardinal Gousset, La croyance générale et constante de l’Eglise touchant l’Immaculée Conception de la Bienheureuse Vierge Marie (Paris: Jacques Lecoffre, 1855), 801, in extracts with reference to Leonardo Nogaroli.

Notably, this specific rendering of the verse appears in explicitly Spanish texts. For example, I have already cited parallels in the 1762 Die VIII Decembris and the 1779 Breviarium Romano-Monasticum, both of Hispanic origins. Similarly, “Omnes moriemini” is also used in other early modern religious texts regarding the Conception of Mary, as in the following.

A. P. F. Pedro de Alva y Astorga quotes this verse in his Spanish-Latin treatise Militia Immaculatae Conceptionis Virginis Mariae, contra malitiam originalis infectionis peccati (Immaculatae Conceptionis Lovanij, sub signo Gratiae, 1663), col. 927.

In Sermones panegíricos de varios misterios, festividades y santos, Tomo Segundo (Madrid: La Administración del Real Arbitrio de Beneficiencia, 1801), 180, Miguel de Santander also quotes it in a sermon on the Conception composed in 1786:
Pero apartad, señores, de la Concepcion de María la idea de estas desgracias, calamidades y miserias. Todo quanto intervino en ella, decia San Gerónimo, fue pureza, justicia, santidad, verdad, gracia y misericordia. Es innegable qu el decreto estaba dado, y la sentencia de muerte se habia executado con todo el rigor de la ley: Omnes moriemini quia in Adam peccavistis. Vió el mundo á algunos nacer ya santificados; pero ninguno fue concebido que dexase de ser inficionado con el mortífero veneno de la serpiente.

Angelino Brinckmann quotes it, invoking Pope Sixtus IV, while discussing the doctrine of original sin in his Theologia Universa Speculativa, Moralis, Polemica (Wetzlar: Nicola Ludovic Winckler, 1733), 209.

Finally, from slightly later, the Spanish Bishop Hipolito Antonio Sanchez Rangel de Fayas uses this verse rendering in a discussion of death in Fracmentos de una pastoral escrita en Mainas en la fuga de su primer obispo (Madrid: E. Aguado, 1825), 44, 49, and 53.

From these correspondences, it might be possible to associate the manuscript fragment with a Spanish provenance, or a copy of the Office as it was used in Spain. Additional circumstantial support for this is one manuscript already mentioned, Beinecke 485.3, which is from Spain and has similar features (and is bound with other Spanish and Italian liturgical fragments; see the description here). Still, these are only tentative conclusions. By posting these notes, and with further research, I hope others might have more to tell me about the manuscript fragment’s contents, origins, and possible provenance.

As an added bonus, while researching all of this, I also came across a recording of a sixteenth-century arrangement of Quae est ista quae progreditur by Giovanni Palestrina (c.1525-1594), which is well worth a listen.

Reflecting on the Significance of Studying the Middle Ages

Several weeks ago, Kisha Tracy (at Fitchburg State U and co-founder of the MASSMedieval blog) sent out a message soliciting fellow medievalists to share some of our ideas about what we value as the significance of studying the Middle Ages (that link will take you to her own post about this). She set up a public Facebook group for this, with the plan to invite her students to read the posts, write reflections of their own, and to discuss them in class at the start of the semester. Since this sounded like such a great idea, I took her cue and asked students in my British Literature through the Eighteenth Century course to do the same.

Here is what I originally posted in the Facebook group:

In general, I firmly believe that the most significant reason to study the Middle Ages–or to study any culture–is to learn critical thinking. If we can learn to critically think about medieval culture, we can learn to critically think about any culture. When we encounter medieval culture, we simultaneously encounter both alterity and familiarity. Reflecting on the similarities and differences is important, but so too is considering how we face them and what we do in response.

Medieval people were, in many ways, like us, wrestling with the same questions we do, even if on different terms or in different contexts. Medieval people reflected on and wrote about their everyday lives, their relationships, their place in the world, their beliefs, their fears, their hopes, as well as cultural issues like religion, race, sexuality, and politics. Some students might cry at the death of Marie de France’s Nightingale; others might embrace the portrait of heroism created by the Beowulf poet; some might champion the proto-feminism in The Wife of Bath’s Tale. What we learn from all of these is how to empathize. Yet, in our empathy, we can also learn to be critical, to see the problematic even behind texts that we like or want to embrace.

As much as we might empathize, studying the medieval period also forces us to face the Other in many ways. Studying the Middle Ages causes us to wrestle with very different perspectives that emerged from very different assumptions. Some students might find the Christianity of The Dream of the Rood very foreign, even disturbing; others might find the irreverence and wit of the mystery plays offensive; some might decry the xenophobia in representations of Jews or Muslims in various texts. All of these issues offer opportunities to discuss why we react in these ways, and how we should harness these reactions critically. While we do not need to embrace medieval perspectives or assumptions (and in many cases we should not), we do need to consider them critically, to discuss and write about them in ways that help us to understand the past. Indeed, critically understanding that past can also help us to critically understand our present.

Students came to class with great ideas. They found ways to incorporate what they had read by others in the Facebook group, their own ideas, and connections to the two pieces of literature they read for today (Bede’s account of Cædmon’s Hymn and The Dream of the Rood).

The list generated by our discussion (that does disservice to students’ engagement and discussion) includes the following:

Significance of Studying MAs.jpeg

Critical thinking
Influence on later people & authors
Gender, “connected to time”
Language (especially rhetoric)
Socio-cultural issues
Similarity of the modern & medieval
Social/class status
Technological and scientific advances in the period
The “uniqueness” of the period (not pictured above)
“Magic” & “superstition” (as evidence of belief systems)

With these ideas, and the expanded thoughts attached to each bullet-point on the board, we established a host of themes to which we will return. In their discussion, students set up basic questions to follow throughout the course. And, as one student pointed out early on in the discussion, these are not exclusive to studying the medieval period; they are notions applicable to literary study, the humanities, and reflecting on culture generally.

Medievalism in The Force Awakens

This week, one of the most highly anticipated pop culture events hit theaters everywhere: Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens. I saw the film as early as I could, and have a lot to say about it. Most specifically, as a medievalist, I was struck by a certain amount of medievalism built into this movie.

Medieval Twi-lek

Is this a medieval Twi’lek? Panotti depicted in the Wonders of the East, from the eleventh-century London, British Library, Cotton Tiberius B.v, folio 83v (image courtesy the British Library).

I’m not the first to consider Star Wars and the Middle Ages together. Peter Konieczny has previously discussed a number of parallel ideas on Bryan C. Keene used Star Wars as a lens to think about the “close link between the celestial and the spiritual” in medieval manuscripts at the Getty’s online magazine The Iris. A while back, there was quite a bit of interest in a Yoda-look-alike from a medieval manuscript, London, British Library, Royal 10.E.iv–which isn’t the only image like it, as Erik Kwakkel noted another in London, British Library, Royal 2.B.vii, and Discarding Images found figures similar to both Yoda and Gandalf in Warszawa, Biblioteka Narodowa, Rps 8002 III. The British Library Medieval Manuscripts Blog has collected a host of other images from medieval treasures with characters resembling various aliens (including the one above). With another perspective in mind, Tom O’Donnell has recently retold the story of Episode IV as an Irish saga.

In this post, I want to focus on how some ideas and themes from The Force Awakens resonate as parallels to medieval European culture.

[While the following discussion is somewhat general, some spoilers do creep in, more notably at the end. I’ve marked some of the more egregious ones, but read at your own risk!]

The trajectory of the Star Wars films (and the expanded universe beyond them) is, in many ways, similar to the general history of Rome, especially in late antiquity. In the pre-cinematic Star Wars universe, there was the development of the Old Republic–the golden age of classicism, when learning, philosophy, peace, justice, and culture flourished. The prequel films (Episodes I, II, and III) portrayed the rise of the Galactic Empire, with the autocratic rule of an emperor and expansive colonization. In the original film trilogy (Episodes IV, V, and VI), we see the Empire at its height as well as the civil war raging as colonized peoples fight to reconcile their own cultures in the face of new imperial rule over them. In many ways, these events mirror the supposed golden age of the Roman Republic, the rise of the Roman Empire, and its decline as the colonized (insiders as well as outsiders) resisted expanding imperial control. No doubt George Lucas was aware of these parallels in his conceptions of the larger narrative.


The Roman Forum in ruins.

With The Force Awakens, we encounter a world thirty years later, in the middle of a civil war, as the Galactic Empire fights to hold on despite its seeming decline–similar to the late antique and early medieval period after the Roman Empire has receded from its once-expansive boundaries. In both trajectories, legends circulate as reminders of the past and people’s connections to it; oral stories are the vehicles for memory as people seek to collect fragments of knowledge; people seek relics of the past to root themselves in a larger narrative; figures–both would-be colonizers and colonized–struggle to reconcile the old world with the new as they also struggle to understand it all.

Metaphorically, the protagonist Rey’s search for the truth about her identity amid legends and ruins of the past in The Force Awakens is not all that different from how some medieval people viewed their world. Someone like Bede (672/3-735), for example, saw himself as sifting through his sources to understand connections between ancient Israel, Christian Rome, his own Germanic ancestors, and what that meant for the identity of the inhabitants of Britain (himself included). We learn early in The Force Awakens [minor spoiler] that Rey is an orphan, left on the desert planet Jakku at a young age. Although it might be anachronistic (and a bit simplistic) to call Bede an orphan because he was sent to the monastery of Monkwearmouth at the age of seven, there is a curious parallel. Indeed, the medieval example of sending children into monastic life is a clear link to children entering Jedi orders in the Old Republic era of the Star Wars galaxy–and one reason, presumably, why Yoda uses the excuse that Luke is “too old to begin the training” in The Empire Strikes Back. To push parallels further, Bede spent his life exploring the ruins of culture in written books to find historical and religious truth; whereas Rey has spent much of her life and the plot of The Force Awakens (true to classic Star Wars, following the archetypal hero’s journey) exploring ruins of the legendary past to sort out the truth about herself and her place in the galaxy.

Relics also play a central role in The Force Awakens, as a sort of thematic and material link to the previous films. Familiar from the trailers, the two most prominent material objects used as relics are the melted helmet of Darth Vader and the lightsaber once owned by Anakin Skywalker and then his son, Luke. In one scene, we see the main antagonist Kylo Ren praying to the remains of Vader’s helmet, seeking guidance to follow in his path as a Sith lord. Throughout the film, it becomes clear that Kylo Ren venerates Vader as a type of spiritual father and Dark Side anti-saint. In another scene [minor spoiler], Rey finds the Skywalker lightsaber, has a series of visions linked to its history, and learns about it from the character who has had it for years, Moz Kanata. After initially rejecting the lightsaber, Rey later embraces her connection to the weapon and its spiritual heritage. The lightsaber remains a contested artifact through the movie, as it shifts hands and Kylo Ren seeks to take it for himself–presumably to add it to his Vader shrine. Not in the trailers, another relic featured in the film [bigger spoiler] is a fragmented map (many connections could be raised here about manuscript and digital media) that leads to the secret hideout of Luke Skywalker, who has gone missing. As the impetus for the whole plot of the film from the beginning, this object is also contested and sought by both sides of the war.


Mummified head of Simon of Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury, in St Gregory’s Church in Sudbury.

With both Vader’s mask and the Skywalker lightsaber, it is hard not to see similarities with the veneration and spiritual meaning afforded to relics in the medieval period. Relics from the Middle Ages may be found in churches across Europe, including items claimed to be corporeal objects, clothing, and possessions of certain saints or even Jesus himself. Some famous examples are pieces of the True Cross on which Jesus was crucified; the Veil of Veronica or the Shroud of Turin that represent Jesus’ burial; even the foreskin of Jesus from his circumcision. In other cases, churches and holy places had shrines with bodies, mummified skulls, fingers, or vials of blood supposed to be from saints. All of these drew pilgrims from local and distant places.

Like Kylo Ren, medieval people regularly prayed to such relics, either at the shrines of saints or in the churches where they were held, for physical and spiritual assistance. Like the Skywalker lightsaber and the map to Luke’s location, relics were often hot items, as their possession was contested, debated, and some were even stolen and traded for their value (see Patrick J. Geary’s Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages). After all, relics in both the medieval world and the Star Wars universe are not only objects but also vessels for greater spiritual power and meaning.

Finally, a convergence between the plot and production of The Force Awakens reveals another aspect of medievalism connected to monasticism. Even during the movie’s production it became known that part of it was filmed on location in Ireland’s beautiful Skellig Michael, an island on which a secluded Christian monastery was founded in the early medieval period, perhaps as early as the sixth century.


Stairs on Skellig Michael, Ireland.

As already mentioned, echoes of monasticism are especially prominent in relation to the Jedi. These include common ideals of peace and justice, emphasis on spiritual life and beliefs, a certain amount of asceticism, even simple clothing to represent simple lifestyles (just look at the robes on this Yoda look-alike!).

Yet the use of Skellig Michael for The Force Awakens evokes stronger resonances between medieval monasticism and the Jedi than simple parallels. [Major spoilers abound in this paragraph.] In the last scene of the film, we finally see Luke at his haven, confirming earlier rumors that he has followed his predecessors Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda in taking up the ascetic life of a hermit on a secluded outpost. Yet this life of seclusion echoes more than only Jedi models, as similar figures range from the early centuries of Christianity through the Middle Ages: Anthony the Great in the desert (like Obi-Wan on Tatooine), Guthlac of Crowland in the marshy fens of England (like Yoda on Dagobah), and especially Irish monks who sought out lives as homeless drifters or in complete seclusion from society on islands like Skellig Michael. In seeking his own isolation–for spiritual, personal, or psychological reasons–Luke joins in a long line of religious ascetics through the medieval period.

In all of these parallels, a strong thematic thread between the medieval and The Force Awakens is the notion of looking back in time to make meaning of the present. This idea is, really, at the heart of medievalism, in making the medieval modern through adaptation. And, like medievalism, as with much science fiction, this is partly the appeal of Star Wars: while set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” it resonates with our own perspectives. Indeed, these resonances reach much deeper, into early foundations of our own culture in the medieval period.

Updates (12/31/15): See now Terry O’Hagan’s post about Skellig Michael and medieval archaeology in relation to the film; and Howard M. R. Williams’s post on Vader’s mask as an archaeological crematifact.

Attending the York Christian Apocrypha Symposium

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to attend the York Christian Apocrypha Symposium in Toronto, Canada, organized by Tony Burke in consultation with Brent Landau. You can learn more about the conference, presenters, and papers delivered here. I was a medievalist in a sea of experts on early Christianity–a field to which I often look in my own research and teaching–and it was great to be welcomed into that community with common interests in studying apocrypha. For my own presentation, I talked about “Preaching the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew in Anglo-Saxon England,” a part of my larger project examining the uses of Christian apocrypha in the earliest English sermons.

Here are some excerpts from my presentation:

In this essay, I examine uses of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew for preaching and related media in late Anglo-Saxon England. Christian apocrypha enjoyed a prominent afterlife in the medieval period (and beyond), particularly as subjects for preaching; this is especially the case in Anglo-Saxon England. This essay examines a partial translation of Pseudo-Matthew in an Old English sermon designated Vercelli 6 [surviving in the Vercelli Book], with the contention that this sermon should be considered as part of a larger network of media drawing on apocryphal narratives for details about Jesus’ childhood, including historical documents, liturgical objects, and visual arts.

This examination specifically addresses how visual images serve as translations of apocrypha, and therefore key contexts for the culture surrounding parallel narratives in Old English preaching. Adopting an interdisciplinary framework of transmission studies—encompassing book history, translations, and adaptations across media—allows for considering apocrypha beyond verbal representations, to encompass the many cultural currents that surrounded and affected Anglo-Saxons in their attitudes toward para-biblical narratives. Taken together, multimedia witnesses to Pseudo-Matthew further demonstrate how this apocryphon permeated Anglo-Saxon preaching contexts across a variety of porous social boundaries linked by common materials. Just as vernacular sermons containing apocrypha could have been preached to both elites and commoners as well as men and women, these narratives appeared in other media accessible to audiences across the spectrum of social strata.


One significant feature of representations in sermons and visual arts is how they emphasize Jesus’ deeds rather than his teachings. In Christian tradition, Jesus’ teachings are of course central, but Old English sermons based on apocrypha about his life do not use them as a basis; instead, they focus on narrating his actions. Similarly, artistic representations of Jesus’ life depict scenes that emphasize narrative action—not surprisingly, since actions lend themselves to pictures more readily than words. By highlighting narrative actions in verbal and visual media, Anglo-Saxons acknowledged that Jesus’ deeds are as significant as his words for teaching Christian doctrine, even when certain events are either not present or not related explicitly in the canonical gospels.

Extended narratives surrounding Jesus’ infancy miracles are wholly absent from biblical accounts, and the popularity of these traditions largely relies on details from apocryphal narratives. In other words, for medieval authors, apocryphal stories suitably embellish those in the canonical gospels. These deeds are central to understanding Jesus’ miraculous and divine nature as well as soteriological doctrines, making them, subsequently, central to Christian teaching. In fact, when considering the incarnational theology surrounding Jesus’ life—especially for the Nativity, Crucifixion, and Resurrection—the lines between Jesus’ words and actions are blurred, since he is considered the Word of God. Jesus’ words and actions are simultaneously representative of his transcendent character, entwined together as signifiers of his divinity. In this sense, messages relayed through his speeches are no different from messages relayed through his actions. Reflection upon verbal and visual translations of apocryphal materials reveals this convergence.


One claim in the following examination is that sermons and visual arts are not so different in their adaptive translations of apocryphal gospels. Catherine E. Karkov has pointed out that visual translations (like sermons) refer to influences besides strictly textual sources, such as pictorial resonances.[1] If, as scholars have readily acknowledged, translation is a process contingent on complex contexts and influences, then associations that may not be apparent in a primary written source should be considered seriously. In this manner, it is useful to examine translations as analogous to each other, such as those related to a common source, which may open up keys to reading analogues in other media, or to the cultural meanings that resonate in and across media. When various materials are examined together as comparative projects of translation, we are able to see, as Jessica Brantley has productively pointed out, that they “represent related responses in different media.”[2] In this, we are urged to remember that each of these responses is a specific, ideological representation of how the creator perceived and used traditions from which the product was shaped. This reminder is particularly important for the present study, since Anglo-Saxon cultural artifacts provide us with an understanding of not only the transmissions but also the receptions via translation of apocrypha in mainstream culture.


An appreciation for the importance and role of Pseudo-Matthew in Vercelli 6 is further highlighted with examination of translations in other media. Previously, textual influences of this apocryphon have gained much attention, especially in relation to Marian devotion. Yet, as with many Christian apocrypha in Anglo-Saxon culture, one aspect of this text’s influence that has remained largely overlooked is in visual arts. As I suggest in the following, the early eleventh-century Sacramentary of Robert Jumièges (Rouen, Bibliothèque Municipale 274 (Y.6) contains a series of thirteen illuminations, two of which portray iconography ultimately indebted to Pseudo-Matthew. Such identifications provide further circulation of these apocryphal traditions as well as expanded contexts for Vercelli 6 and related preaching texts based on this apocryphon.

[1] Text and Picture in Anglo-Saxon England: Narrative Strategies in the Junius 11 Manuscript, Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 31 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001), 17.

[2] “The Iconography of the Utrecht Psalter and the Old English Descent into Hell,” Anglo-Saxon England 28 (1999), 43-63, at 62.

Supermoon Eclipse, Apocalypse, & Medieval History

This weekend, the End is finally upon us. At least, that’s what some outspoken would-be prophets are saying about one upcoming astronomical event on September 27, 2015: the first occurrence in over thirty years of a total lunar eclipse of a supermoon. (The last eclipse like this occurred in 1982, the next is set to occur in 2033.)

One outcry has come from John Haggee, who has pointed to a specific passage in Joel 2:31–especially as it reads in the King James Bible–to claim that, at the End, “The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and the terrible day of the Lord comes.”

Illustration from an astronomical treatise by Persian polymath Al-Biruni (973-1048), explaining the phases of the moon.

But these types of predictions based on astronomical signs and portents are nothing new, and certainly much older than modern Christianity. In fact, we would need to look to sources from the ancient Near East to understand many of the roots of modern apocalyptic eschatology (apocalyptic being related to cataclysmic world events, and a certain ideological outlook; and eschatology being related to things related to the End, personally or cosmically). Many sources of this nature exist from early Judaism, early Christianity, and the medieval period–from which we can glean examples for this post.[1] For instance, in some of his scientific writings on time, the eight-century Anglo-Saxon monk Bede argued against others around him whom he saw as “heretics” for their continual insistence on counting dates and trying to discover the specific time of the Final Judgment. He was just one writer who rolled his eyes (and worse) when contemporaries tried to predict the specific date of the apocalypse to come.

While various scholarly arguments rage about whether or not medieval people looked to the year 1000 (or other dates) as the End, one thing is clear: Christianity was (arguably, it always has been) an apocalyptic religion with a stark eschatological outlook at its heart. Some Anglo-Saxons looked to astronomical events as part of their national history. And at least some authors saw the turn of the new millennium as a significant event.

Illustrations of omens from the biblical history known as the Nuremburg Chronicle (1493).

Some Anglo-Saxons expressed apocalyptic eschatological urgency related to recent and contemporary events such as celestial signs and Viking raids. Tenth-century entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are especially telling.[2] Within the Chronicle, certain entries have extended accounts of major military, political, and social events, while other years have only brief references. Some of the most significant entries with astronomical events are a series of references to comets in 892, 905, 975, and 995. One representative is found in the entry for 975:

& sona on þam ilcan geare on hærfest æteowde cometa se steorra, & com þa on ðam æftran geare swyðe mycel hungor & swyðe mænigfealde styrunga geond Angolcynn.
(And then immediately in harvest-time in that same year, the star cometa appeared. And then in the following year came a very great famine and very manifold disturbances throughout the English race.)

Two other tenth-century entries contain further celestial signs:

926: Her oðeowdon fyrena leoman on norðdæle þære lyfte.
(Here fiery rays appeared in the northern part of the sky.)

979: Þy ilcan geare wæs gesewen blodig wolcen oftsiðas on fyres gelicnesse; & þæt wæs swyðost on middeniht oþywed & swa on mistlice beamas wæs gehiwod þonne hit dagian wolde; þonne toglad hit.
(The same year a bloody cloud was seen, many times in the likeness of fire; and it appeared most of all at midnight; and it was formed thus of various beams; and when it became day it glided away.)

It appears that astronomical signs of the times have been touted out by apocalyptic thinkers for a long time. It might even be that Anglo-Saxon authors behind these entries in the Chronicle might have been worked up because of an event like a supermoon eclipse. In any case, if the earth has survived strange astronomical occurrences in the past, we can at least hope that we will also survive our upcoming event.

[1] For an excellent overview of this subject, see James Palmer’s recent book, The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2014).

[2] See The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, A Collaborative Edition, ed. David Dumville and Simon Keynes (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983-); translations are adapted from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, trans. and ed. Michael Swanton (New York: Routledge, 1998), which includes an introductory overview and further bibliography.

Teaching with Lego

Recently, because of my new commute, I found and have been listening to the backlog of episodes of the WNYC podcast Note to Self (formerly New Tech City). According to the show’s website, “Host Manoush Zomorodi talks with everyone from big name techies to elementary school teachers about the effects of technology on our lives, in a quest for the smart choices that will help you think and live better”–and the show’s frequent catchphrase tell us that it’s about “finding balance in the digital age.” I’ve been enjoying the podcast so much that I’ve also begun thinking about how to incorporate it into my classes; for example, I assigned this episode about reading in the digital age to students in two of my courses.*

Lego1Last week, on my morning drive, I listened to one of the most recent episodes, aired August 19, 2015, titled “LEGO Kits and Your Creative Soul.” I couldn’t stop thinking about how this could be incorporated into my literature courses. So I took a risk and tried something new, perhaps a little wacky, on the second day of class in two of my courses. At the very start of class, I produced a box of around 300 Lego pieces and told students that they had ten to fifteen minutes to free-build with them while thinking about the nature of creativity and the creative process. The goal was to use it as an object lesson, to let them build and think (or let their minds wander while being creative), then to talk about creativity, art, and criticism before discussing the daily reading, this conversation between Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro.

They were all unsure. There was some nervous laughter. One student gave me such a look of confusion and hesitation that I was sure she saw me sprout a second head. When I slowly poured out the Lego pieces onto the desk at the front of the room, it took around twenty seconds before any students moved. Then, slowly, they walked to the front: one or two at first, then more following. They all took a handful and returned to their desks, and the creativity began.

As they got more comfortable, students talked about what they worked on. In one class, I heard a couple discussing creativity, and the keyword “imagination” emerged. Some joked with each other about the activity, their creations. After a few minutes, they started looking at what pieces their neighbors had, swapping with each other, talking about “stealing” and “sharing,” some students joining their pieces together into a single creation.

Lego3 Lego4

Eventually, when they had exhausted their own supply, students returned to the remaining pieces still on the desk at the front of the room. Some grabbed pieces indiscriminately, while others were more strategic and circumspect, looking for particular pieces that would work for their creations, a few repeatedly returning.

The conversations afterward unfolded into brainstorming ideas, questions, examples of art and other creations, my own brief survey of how many have creative hobbies and what they are, and challenges to how we think about creativity, imagination, and art. I asked my leading questions and gained a hoard of insightful answers.

What did you build? How would you describe your project? I wanted them to take some first steps toward both describing and interpreting their creations, even if they were abstract. Some had definite answers, while a few admitted that they didn’t know. Among the identified creations, they had built a performance stage, several rocket ships (one had built-in wi-fi), a chameleon, a dog-thing, a room with a window, a functional parking garage gate, a wizard (but without any minifigure pieces), a boat, the world’s tallest tower (“in a micro-world”), a knight, his horse, and a ship for them to go on (the last three by a thee-student team).

What was your process? Some said that they just started putting pieces together until something emerged. Others talked about working with whatever they had in front of them until they had some a creation. Some talked about how certain pieces just seemed to fit together somehow, so they started with those and went from their. A few based their creations on a single centerpiece (like a window). One student said that he spent all his time just trying to create the most stable, dense creation, one that wouldn’t (or couldn’t) fall apart.

Lego2What does this reveal about the creative process? About art in general? Ultimately, this led to a discussion about (seeming) complexity and simplicity as related (or not) to effort or lack of it; the nature of an artistic product in relation to the process; aesthetic and functional creations, or how something can be both; surface-level analysis and paying deeper critical attention. We ranged across examples from visual arts to literature, from metalwork to poetry, from pottery to music. Some admitted the need to start building, assess, take apart, restart, reassess, and repeat until something that made sense came out of it; this part of the conversation led to thinking about how writing often means doing the same. Others acknowledged the process as adaptive, noting that they still hadn’t finished, even as some continued to fiddle, add, and change details as we talked. One astute student, thinking ahead in the class, asked if I had them do this to make a point about the accumulation of a piece of literature like the Bible, which developed over time with lots of accretions.

For my last question about this exercise, I asked: If you were to step back and analyze what you’ve created, how would you start? In both classes, they started by telling me that they would focus on individual pieces: color, shape, size, telling how they fit together. One student said that she would do this “starting from the bottom and going to the top,” in a structural, organized way. Following this, another pointed out the need to go back and forth between analyzing individual pieces and relating them to the whole creation. In one class, one student brought up the significance of perspective to understand the creation, especially the difference between talking about it as the creator or a critic.

Finally, I with the groundwork laid, we were able to shift to a more specific discussion about literature. We didn’t leave behind the Lego activity, but it helped to propel us forward. We had some baselines (generalizations, assumptions, and challenges) for thinking about how to approach creativity, imagination, and art as academic critics. By the end of the class, a few students even acknowledged the usefulness of the Lego activity. And we found that these worked as a bridge to discussing keywords for literary analysis with the ideas posed by Gaiman and Ishiguro.

* One student told me that she liked the episode so much that she subscribed and has been listening to older episodes.