Contract signed: Poetry and Nation-Building in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania

I have just signed a contract with Arc Humanities Press for a new book, Poetry and Nation-Building in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania: Three Early Modern Latin Epics, which will feature the first English translations of three early modern epic poems central to the formation of national identity in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The three poems are Bellum Prutenum (‘The Prussian War’) by Joannes Vislicensis (1516), an epic about the Jagiellonian dynasty and the Battle of Grunwald; Hodoeporicon Moschicum (‘The Muscovite Expedition’) by Franciszek Gradowski (1582), about a Lithuanian raid into Muscovy during the Livonian War; and Virtus Dexterae Domini (‘The Strength of the Lord’s Right Arm’) by James Bennet (1674) about the Lithuanian victory (and the role of Scottish emigrés) at the Battle of Khotyn. These three poems are chosen to represent the beginning, middle and mature periods of the Lithuanian Latin epic tradition. Each poem also describes a victory over a different aggressor: the Polish-Lithuanian defeat of the Teutonic Knights in 1410, Lithuanian victory over the Russians in the Livonian War and Lithuanian victory over the Turks at Khotyn in 1673.

The focus of the volume is the cultural and political significance of Latin – and Latin epic poetry, in particular – in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, where Latin epic was particularly successful and thrived for a long time after Latin literature had been superseded by the vernacular in neighbouring Poland. I argue that the Latin language empowered and enabled the flourishing of a Lithuanian identity that was both distinctive and inclusive, including the different peoples and faiths who inhabited an early modern Grand Duchy whose political self-understanding was grounded in the idea of Lithuania as a kind of patrician ‘Roman’ republic. This concept of a distinctively Lithuanian Latinity, which I call Lithuanitas, is central to understanding the Grand Duchy as well as the cultures of contemporary Lithuania and Belarus.

Poetry and Nation-Building in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania will be my second book in Arc Humanities Press’s Foundations series, following on from Pagans in the Early Modern Baltic (2022).


‘Competing ethnographies of the pagan Baltic’ at Schefferus Conference 2023

Today I spoke at the 2023 Schefferus Conference, held at the Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø, Norway, delivering a paper entitled ‘Competing ethnographies of the pagan Baltic: colonial and non-colonial constructions of indigenous religion’. The Schefferus Conference is largely focussed on the Lapponia of Johannes Schefferus (1673), the first ethnographic work on the Samí people and subsequent (and preceding) Samí ethnography (marking the book’s 350th anniversary), but my paper is a comparative one which examines ethnographic writing on another group of pagans in early modern Europe: the Baltic peoples.

The conference was organised by Dr Per Pippin Aspaas and Dr Andreas Klein, who has just brought out a definitive study of Schefferus’s Lapponia in English. The conference reception was held on Tuesday at Árdna, a specially-designed building that pays tribute to Sámi art and forms part of the University’s Centre for Sámi Studies. Unfortunately I missed the papers on the first and last days of the conference, but I attended the conference lunch and dinner and met many very interesting scholars working on Sámi religion both before and after attempted Christianisation. Scholars at the conference ranged from Classicists to medievalists, early modernists and specialists in contemporary Sámi ethnography.

The subject of my own paper was a Baltic perspective on early modern writings on indigenous religion. In the early modern period many of the Baltic peoples (speakers of both Baltic and Finno-Ugric languages in the eastern Baltic region) lived under the rule of mostly German and Swedish settler-colonialists, with the exception of the Lithuanians who shared sovereignty with Poland in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Baltic peoples were often characterised by their resistance to the adoption of Christianity. German and Scandinavian ethnographic writings on Old Prussians, Livonians, Semigallians, Estonians and other peoples under colonial rule differ markedly from Polish writings about Lithuanians and Samogitians (and indeed Lithuanians writing about themselves). The religious conversion of Baltic peoples was a concern in both colonial and non-colonial contexts, but while colonial writings often dehumanised the indigenous peoples of the Baltic, Polish writers from the late fifteenth century onwards attempted to understand the pagan Lithuanians whose leader Jogaila (d. 1434) had forged the joint polity of Poland-Lithuania. This paper explores how the ethnographic literature on Baltic peoples paralleled and anticipated but also differed from learned commentary on the non-Christian indigenous peoples of Europe’s far north, including the Sámi and Nenets peoples. The paper argues that ethnographic commentary on Baltic indigenous religion, which emerged in the mid-fifteenth century, prepared the conceptual ground for commentary on other indigenous peoples – including, ultimately, the indigenous peoples of the New World. At the same time, however, competing approaches to indigenous religion grounded in colonial and non-colonial contexts created alternative paradigms of interpretation that established a complex and at times unstable discourse.


A visit to St Edmund’s Abbey, Hovedøya

Hovedøya: the chapterhouse

This afternoon I visited the ruined Cistercian Abbey of St Edmund on the Norwegian island of Hovedøya, located in the Oslo fjord just opposite the Norwegian capital. Hovedøya was founded by English Cistercians from Kirkstead Abbey in Lincolnshire on 18 May 1147, and grew to become Norway’s wealthiest monastery; it is also the country’s best-preserved monastic ruin. I have wanted to visit Hovedøya for a long time, since in addition to the eponymous St Edmunds Abbey in Suffolk and Athassel Priory in Ireland, Hovedøya is the only medieval monastery dedicated to St Edmund, King and Martyr.

Hovedøya: the abbey viewed from the southeast

Cistercian abbeys were traditionally dedicated to the Virgin Mary – as was Hovedøya, but the dedication to St Edmund was inherited from a pre-existing church that was incorporated into the new monastery (presumably the east end of the current ruins). Norway has a few medieval churches dedicated to St Edmund, the legacy of a particular Norse connection with a saint whom Norsemen themselves had made. Hovedøya long retained its close connection with the English Cistercians, and the abbots were all Englishmen until 1249.

Hovedøya: view from the tower looking eastwards over the body of the abbey church

Hovedøya was burnt down in 1532, a few years before the dissolution of the monasteries, which may have helped to preserve it – the site was already a ruin, so had little appeal for redevelopment as a manor. The abbey has a compact monastic plan centred on a cloister, with a monastic prison, calefactory, refectory, laybrothers’ refectory, library and chapter house all centred on the cloister. Part of a tower survives in the northwest corner of the church which can be ascended by a spiral staircase. 

Hovedøya: doorway from the cloister into the south transept

The highest surviving parts of the church are at the crossing; possible fragments of altar stones survive in the presbytery, but there is virtually no decorated stonework surviving apart from one doorway linking the cloister to the south transept. A few cavities for piscinas and aumbries survive as well. Hovedøya’s level of preservation is more limited than Athassel’s, but the size of the monastic church and claustral complex is comparable even if Hovedøya has none of Athassel’s vast monastic precinct – presumably no precinct wall was required since the monastery was on a small island.

Hovedøya: spiral staircase inside the tower

Hovedøya is a fascinating reminder of Norwegian Christianity’s close links with England, and with the former Danelaw in particular – as well as its Cistercian monastic heritage (and indeed present, as Norway’s current Catholic bishop is a Cistercian monk from an English abbey).

Hovedøya: the abbey viewed from the southwest


Coronation commentary

King Charles III after being crowned with St Edward’s Crown by The Archbishop of Canterbury the Most Reverend Justin Welby during his coronation ceremony in Westminster Abbey, London. Picture date: Saturday May 6, 2023. Aaron Chown/Pool via REUTERS

The weeks and days leading up to the Coronation of Charles III today have been busy for me, as the media have shown great interest in my knowledge of liturgy, ritual and ceremonies – not something usually at the top of the current affairs agenda! It all began with the publication of the Coronation invitation on 4 April, which provoked a great deal of discussion because it featured a figure of the ‘Green Man’, on which I was asked to comment on account of my interest in the origins of British folklore. I spoke to Slate, and wrote an article on the subject for The Spectator (provoking a riposte from Sebastian Milbank at The Critic!). I was also interviewed for BBC Radio 4’s ‘Sunday’ programme about the Green Man, but never made it to air. As the Coronation ceremony approached I began to focus on the ritual of Coronation itself, and wrote an article for The Critic about the character of ritual itself. As a consequence of beginning a month-long Twitter thread on Coronation history, I was also asked to write an article about the history of Coronations for Parliament’s in-house magazine, The House. On 28 April BBC Radio 4 invited me to speak briefly about the Coronation regalia on the World At One programme alongside Dame Elizabeth Anionwu, who carried the Orb in procession at the Coronation.

When the Coronation order of service was finally published on 28 April, I was the first to make a detailed comparison between the 1953 order and that of 2023, elucidating exactly where the new Coronation service innovated and departed from tradition. I gave journalists and commentators permission to make use of my analysis, and I know it has been used by commentators as far afield as Israel and the United States. In a further article for The Critic I analysed the order of service. I also wrote another article for The Spectator, this time about the liturgical conservatism of Coronations and the extraordinary ritual survivals they perpetuate. Furthermore, I spoke to Damian Thompson’s ‘Holy Smoke’ podcast about the Coronation in relation to the Reformation, and my research on the Coronation was cited in the House of Commons Library’s official briefing to MPs on the Coronation.

In addition to these articles, I contributed an article to First Things about the magic of monarchy, and I have spoken to journalists from The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail as well as Poland and Lithuania about the Coronation; my commentary on the religious dimension of the Coronation will go out on LRT (Lithuania’s national broadcaster, whose journalists I also advised on Coronation-related matters) tomorrow. I have also featured on several podcasts talking about the Coronation, including Nathan Eckersley’s podcast and a special Coronation episode of the ‘Religion Off The Beaten Track’ podcast. I was also flattered to receive a mention in one of the episodes of ‘The Rest Is History’ (one of my favourite podcasts!) dedicated to Coronations.