In preparation for the V International Congress of the John Gower Society in Scotland this summer, I’ve been exploring a twisted little tale from John Gower’s Confessio Amantis known as the “Tale of Albinus and Rosemund.” The story sees Albinus, the newly crowned king of Lombardy, married to Rosemund, daughter of the previous king whom Albinus has slain. Despite the couple’s love for each other, Albinus tricks his wife into drinking from a cup that has been fashioned from the skull of her late father.
Having been so elaborately adorned with precious stones atop a gold pedestal, the vessel no longer resembles a skull, and Albinus bids his bride, “Drink with thi father, Dame.” Rosemund drinks. Albinus then reveals his cruelty, and Rosemund proceeds to have him murdered.
The tale made me wonder about the extent to which skulls have been used as drinking cups and whether the practice existed in the medieval period, perhaps even in Britain. I wondered, too, whether any remnants remained, particularly any as dazzling as the one Albinus debuts to Rosemund’s horror.
Vikings might seem the likely culprits, but Vikings did not, it seems, drink from the skulls of their enemies despite how deeply ingrained the association has become in popular culture. That said, the Poetic Edda contains a reference to cups created from skulls in the story of Wayland the Smith, who seeks vengeance against the king for his violent imprisonment. In the Old Norse narrative, Wayland kills the king’s two young sons and gifts their silver-gilded skulls to him, their eyes gruesomely replaced with glittering jewels.
Early Britons, however, did use skulls as crockery.
In 1987, researchers discovered cups crafted from human skulls in a cave in Somerset, England. The three cups, made from the skulls of two adults and a three-year-old child, were re-examined in 2011 and dated to 14,700 BP. As reported in The Guardian, “Detailed examination of 37 skull fragments and four pieces of jaw using a 3D microscope revealed a common pattern of hard strikes followed by more finessed stone tool work that turned a freshly decapitated head into a functional cup or bowl.”
Markings on the bones suggest that the bodies were butchered for meat before the heads were severed, but there is no physical evidence to suggest that the skulls served as trophies for those who repurposed them. Rather than being enemies, they may have died of natural causes, and it’s possible those who survived them intentionally preserved their skulls as a way of honoring them in death. But it is also possible that the skulls belonged to enemies according to Dr. Bruno Boulestin, an archaeologist at the University of Bordeaux in France, who stated that “in ‘nine out of 10’ societies known from historical or ethnographic records, skulls were removed as trophies for the purpose of humiliating the enemy.”
Whatever the circumstances, the cups were by no means haphazardly made, and the physical evidence, including engraving on the bones, appears to be ritualistic, rather than simply cannibalistic. Based on research by scientist Dr. Silvia Bello, the Natural History Museum in London explains, “The painstaking preparation of the skull-cups suggests that they were prepared for a special purpose rather than just for nutrition. After all, it would have been much quicker and easier to just smash the skull the access the fatty brain inside.” The craftmanship, therefore, is deliberate and thorough, even if the goblets themselves are not as glamorous as the one depicted in Gower’s tale.
At nearly 15,000 years old, the cups found in Gough’s Cave obviously predate the medieval period, but Wales, in fact, retains a skull cup originating in the Middle Ages, as it was made from the remains of a 6th-century monk and bishop known as Saint Teilo. Set in silver atop a silver stand, the cup now sealed behind glass at Llandaf Cathedral was once used for healing purposes, apparently as recently as the 1940s. The water from Saint Teilo’s well, also located in Wales, was said to be most effective against chest ailments, especially when drunk from Saint Teilo’s skull and even more so if distributed to the sick by the hands of the skull’s keeper. Like other saintly relics, the cup is attributed with healing properties, largely separating it from the gore associated with dismemberment.
Returning to the skull cup from which Rosemund drinks, I have yet to render my verdict on the vessel’s meaning but see it as a vehicle signifying both consumption and catharsis not unlike these others from early Britain. After drinking from the body of her father, Rosemund releases her rage in retaliation against her husband’s tyranny, embodying the conqueror and effectively ending Albinus’s reign.
Emily McLemore, Ph.D. Department of English University of Notre Dame
Henry Longfellow’s “Musician’s Tale: Saga of Saint Olaf” from his Tales of the Wayside Inn may appear on the surface to be little more than a retelling of the Old Norse-Icelandic saga and a versification of the medieval story honoring Saint-king Olaf Haraldsson into a modern English translation suited for American audiences and mediated through Samuel Laing’s translation that Longfellow is working with as a model. However, situating the poem in its the historical context illuminates some of the rhetorical implications surrounding early American works of medievalism, such as Longfellow’s “The Saga of Saint Olaf.”
Medieval English diction, especially Old English terms and compounds, adorn the epic poetic retelling of the saga, such as the line “Through weald, they say, and through wold,” which include two “weald” (a forest) and “wold” (a wooded hill), both deriving from the same Old English word [wold] for wilderness and this imbues archaisms into the poem.
The story, in large part, tells the tale of conversion and Christianization of the pagan North by Saint Olaf. This is the same Olaf Haraldsson featured as a villain in the new sequel on the History Channel’s Vikings: Valhalla, where Saint Olaf appears as a militant Christianizer, unafraid to convert by the sword and slaughter those who refuse. This characterization of Saint Olaf is not far off historically.
Olaf II Haraldsson (Old Norse-Icelandic Óláfr Haraldsson) was known as Olaf “the stout” and Olaf “the big” during his reign. Olaf Haraldson was also called Olaf “the Lawbreaker” because of the violent and brutal means by which he converted the Norwegian people. In Norway today, he is commonly called Olaf “the Holy” (Olav den hellige) or Holy Olaf (Heilag-Olav) in recognition of his sainthood.
Olaf Haraldsson, later known as Saint Olaf, lived from 995 to 1030 and was King of Norway from 1015 to 1028. One year after his death in the Battle of Stiklestad, Olaf was canonized by Bishop Grimkell, which was later confirmed by Pope Alexander III in 1164, and this formal recongition encourages Olaf’s designation as Rex Perpetuus Norvegiae “eternal king of Norway”. His remains were enshrined in Nidaros Cathedral, built over his burial site, and his canonization encouraged widespread and violent Christianization in medieval Scandinavia.
In the previous blog, I included the opening stanza of the epic poem, “The Challenge of Thor” which Olaf then answers:
“And King Olaf heard the cry, Saw the red light in the sky, Laid his hand upon his sword,
There he stood as one who dreamed; And the red light glanced and gleamed On the armor that he wore; And he shouted, as the rifted Streamers o’er him shook and shifted, “I accept thy challenge, Thor!”
This initiates the presentation of Olaf as a violent converter and warrior of Christ, which makes him an enemy of indigenous Scandinavian religion.
Religion continuously causes tension in the poem. When Queen Sigrid, whom Olaf pursues as his queen, refuses to convert to Christianity, he beats her in punishment, demonstrating again his use of violent conversion.
“A footstep was heard on the outer stair, And in strode King Olaf with royal air.
He kissed the Queen’s hand, and he whispered of love, And swore to be true as the stars are above.
But she smiled with contempt as she answered: “O King, Will you swear it, as Odin once swore, on the ring?”
And the King: “O speak not of Odin to me, The wife of King Olaf a Christian must be.”
Looking straight at the King, with her level brows, She said, “I keep true to my faith and my vows.”
Then the face of King Olaf was darkened with gloom, He rose in his anger and strode through the room.
“Why, then, should I care to have thee?” he said,– “A faded old woman, a heathenish jade!
His zeal was stronger than fear or love, And he struck the Queen in the face with his glove.“
This section, surely designed to demonstrate Olaf’s Christian zeal, reveals to Sigurd how abusive a husband he would be, and her decision not to wed him, while couched in fidelity to her indigenous beliefs, could have just as much to do with the violence he displays toward her as a result of her assertion of her voice and her commitment to her beliefs.
Olaf’s violence persists as he converts the pagans—frequently called warlocks and witches—but Longfellow seems to applaud the deliverance of his enemies for “thus the sorcerers were christened!”
Held up as validation of his conversionary conquests, Olaf finds the ghost of Odin, and proclaims the Allfather dead:
“King Olaf crossed himself and said: “I know that Odin the Great is dead; Sure is the triumph of our Faith, The one-eyed stranger was his wraith.”
Longfellow’s narrative takes this a step further later in the poem,
“All the old gods are dead, All the wild warlocks fled; But the White Christ lives and reigns, And throughout my wide domains His Gospel shall be spread!” On the Evangelists Thus swore King Olaf.
When it comes to human sacrifice, Olaf threatens that if the pagan practice continues, then it will be the upper not the lower class offered as sacrifices to the gods, and in making this threat of violence against the aristocracy, convinces them to give up the practice.
“Such sacrifices shalt thou bring; To Odin and to Thor, O King, As other kings have done in their devotion!”
King Olaf answered: “I command This land to be a Christian land; Here is my Bishop who the folk baptizes!
“But if you ask me to restore Your sacrifices, stained with gore, Then will I offer human sacrifices!
“Not slaves and peasants shall they be, But men of note and high degree, Such men as Orm of Lyra and Kar of Gryting!”
Then to their Temple strode he in, And loud behind him heard the din Of his men-at-arms and the peasants fiercely fighting.
There in the Temple, carved in wood, The image of great Odin stood, And other gods, with Thor supreme among them.
King Olaf smote them with the blade Of his huge war-axe, gold inlaid, And downward shattered to the pavement flung them.
At the same moment rose without, From the contending crowd, a shout, A mingled sound of triumph and of wailing.
And there upon the trampled plain The farmer Iron-Beard lay slain, Midway between the assailed and the assailing.
King Olaf from the doorway spoke. “Choose ye between two things, my folk, To be baptized or given up to slaughter!”
And seeing their leader stark and dead, The people with a murmur said, “O King, baptize us with thy holy water.”
Even the notoriously unruly Thangbrand, described repeatedly as “Olaf’s Priest” and credited with Christianizing Iceland through violence, is praised for his efforts and paralleled with Olaf’s missionizing work:
All the prayers he knew by rote, He could preach like Chrysostome, From the Fathers he could quote, He had even been at Rome, A learned clerk, A man of mark, Was this Thangbrand, Olaf’s Priest.
He was quarrelsome and loud, And impatient of control, Boisterous in the market crowd, Boisterous at the wassail-bowl, Everywhere Would drink and swear, Swaggering Thangbrand, Olaf’s Priest
In his house this malcontent Could the King no longer bear, So to Iceland he was sent To convert the heathen there, And away One summer day Sailed this Thangbrand, Olaf’s Priest.
Of course, when met with resistance from those still adhering to indigenous cultural practice, Thrangbrand resorts to violence, in accordance with his benefactor:
Hardly knowing what he did, Then he smote them might and main, Thorvald Veile and Veterlid Lay there in the alehouse slain. “To-day we are gold, To-morrow mould!” Muttered Thangbrand, Olaf’s Priest.
Much in fear of axe and rope, Back to Norway sailed he then. “O King Olaf! little hope Is there of these Iceland men!” Meekly said, With bending head, Pious Thangbrand, Olaf’s Priest
The final line of this stanza is repeated twice in the poem, communicating the violent nature of Olaf’s mission and emphasizing the brutality associated with his Christianization of the indigenous cultural practice.
In their temples Thor and Odin Lay in dust and ashes trodden, As King Olaf, onward sweeping, Preached the Gospel with his sword
The ethnonationalist overlay, as well as situating this saga retelling as a tale in colonial America, parallels the violent Christianization of indigenous peoples in North America, extending from the earliest colonial period to the ongoing American “Indian wars,” which the United States government was conducting, and which would not conclude until after the Civil War. “White Man’s Burden” justifications loomed large, and literature such as Longfellow’s “Musician’s Tale” support the continued Christianization and Westernization of indigenous cultures in the United States as around the globe to European colonial powers.
Although primarily revered as a scholar and poet, Longfellow was also an abolitionist who supported the anti-slavery movement in the mid-nineteenth century with both his art and his resources, and in 1842 write Poems on Slavery in an effort to draw attention to the inhumane cruelty of slavery, and he contributed financially to abolitionist organizations and individuals. Additionally, Longfellow was intrigued by indigenous peoples, and Longfellow’s most famous poem, The Song of Hiawatha, tells a fictionalized tale in part inspired by Ojibwe legend, but likely influenced by nationalistic epic projects, such as the Finnish Kalevala. Of course, Longfellow’s goal to include Anishinaabe legend in American literary canon could be viewed as inclusive in that it offers Anishinaabe peoples representation that might help preserve and celebrate their cultural heritage. However, Longfellow’s poem, perhaps unconsciously or subconsciously, reinforces harmful stereotypes and corroborates assimilation attempts by missionaries and government Indian agents to Anglicize indigenous people, which worked to erase cultural practices and identities.
Longfellow’s interest in Saint Olaf aligns him with other romantic antiquarians, but the rhetoric that emerges from a retelling of an Old-Norse Icelandic saga as a tale told in the cozy Wayside Inn in colonial Massachusetts creates an ethnonational link with medieval Europe and a religious model for conversion subjugation of indigenous peoples and belief systems by force and through an overt threat of violence. Since the advent of early modern European colonialization, efforts to Westernize indigenous people in North America were part of the same tradition of civilizing heathens through violent missionizing, just as certain early medieval Christian saint-kings, such as St. Olaf and Charlemagne, practiced conversion by the sword.
Longfellow articulates a melancholy nostalgia and romantic reverence for indigenous people, stating:
“As population advances westward, the plough-share turns up the wasted skeleton; and happy villages arise upon the sites of unknown burial-places. And when our native Indians, who are fast perishing from the earth, shall have left forever the borders of our wide lakes and rivers, and their villages have decayed within the bosom of our western hills, the dim light of tradition will rest upon those places, which have seen the glory of their battles, and heard the voice of heir eloquence;—and our land will become, indeed, a classic ground.”
However, the use of pronouns—us and them—demonstrates Longfellow’s view that the time for the indigenous is over as United States continues expanding west, an idea that remains toxic to the numerous, yet all-too-invisible, indigenous communities who resides in every state in the union.
Moreover, Longfellow’s medievalism participates in a broader social trend that serves to connect America with Europe through a shared historical and ethnonationalist identity. This rhetorical implication and paralleling create an historical allegory and provides the rationale for acts of genocide perpetrated by the American government and European colonists against indigenous peoples in North America, and the “New World” more broadly. It further reinforces as well, the New World—Old World rhetorical connection. Like many medieval theologians parallel the Old Testament with the New Testament, and at times use the Old Testament as a source of prophecy, Christianization of the indigenous Old World of the pagan North serves as a prophetic roadmap for Manifest Destiny and American westward expansion, which frequently employ violence and committed acts of genocide as a means of Christianizing and Westernizing indigenous peoples.
Richard Fahey, Ph.D. Medieval Studies University of Notre Dame
“We may have to turn around if the wind gets too strong,” our bus driver told me. It was pelting rain on the morning of Saturday, April 1, the day of the Medieval Institute-sponsored pilgrimage to Southside Chicago. The night before, a tornado warning had hit Notre Dame, and I thought, even when traveling by modern-day motor vehicle, pilgrims must brave tempests to reach their destination.
Happily, the weather did not deter our driver, and our busload of 50 people disembarked at the Cardinal Meyer Center to walk in the footsteps of Father Augustus Tolton, the first recognizably Black American Catholic to be ordained a priest. The members of our pilgrim band, ranging in age from their teens to their eighties, hailed from Saint Mary’s College, the University of Notre Dame, Holy Cross School, and two local parishes, Saint Augustine’s and Saint Pius. We represented a cross-section of academic disciplines and communities from around South Bend.
The journey to Chicago marked the end of the MI’s Pilgrimage for Healing and Liberation series. On my mind were lessons learned from the four webinars we hosted throughout the spring semester. First, the goal of the journey is to come home changed. Pilgrimage encompasses our experience en route to holy places and within sacred precincts, but it doesn’t end there. The pilgrim identity leaves an imprint that lingers once the journey is over. Muslims who make the hajj earn an honorific title when they return home, signifying that they have grown in wisdom from their sojourn to Mecca. In the panel discussion on “Pilgrimage in the Global Middle Ages,” Professor Mun’im Sirry shared that some Indonesian Muslims even take a new name to emphasize that the hajj has changed their very identity. Of course, our day trip to Chicago was not as momentous as a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca. Nevertheless, as pilgrims we set out with intentionality, desiring new energy to animate our work for racial justice.
The second lesson: how we go is as important as where we go. Professor Layla Karst, in the webinar on “Becoming a Pilgrim People,” described making a pilgrimage as a liturgical act that forms us as church. By journeying together, the pilgrim community makes God’s presence visible in the world here and now. Karst challenged those of us making the pilgrimage to become the church that the world needs today. Between 2021 and 2024, Pope Francis has invited Catholics into a synodal process designed to intensify communion, participation, and mission in the life of the church. By gathering a mix of students and community members, our group witnessed to Pope Francis’ vision for a church of encounter and dialogue between people of diverse cultures, generations, and life experiences.
The preeminent sacred site for Christian pilgrims is Jersualem, the place of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As Professor Robin Jensen explained, Christian pilgrimage dates back to the fourth century when the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built. For nearly 2000 years, pilgrims have walked the Way of the Cross in Jesus’ footsteps. They recall the events of his Passion to draw close to him in his suffering. Death, though,is not the end of the story. The Holy Sepulchre marks the tomb from which Christ rose to new life, thereby liberating all creation from the power of death. What was once a place of trauma and violence has become sacred ground where compassion and freedom take root.
The destination for our pilgrimage was likewise the site of one man’s suffering and death. We walked to the bridge where Father Tolton returned by train from a priests’ retreat out of town. He began walking home in 105-degree heat but collapsed one block away from the station. Standing at the site of his collapse, we placed flowers and sang, lamenting the devastating impact of poverty, violence, and environmental racism on the people of Southside Chicago, where Tolton tended the sick and preached the Gospel. He died at a nearby hospital on July 9, 1897. In an American church that long denied his vocation because he was Black, Tolton persevered, shared his gifts, and made a way out of no way for Black Catholics. His life and ministry bore heroic witness to the promise of God’s Reign, where all are welcome and provided for abundantly.
A providential surprise awaited us at the end of our journey. The founders of Warriors 4 Peace, an Indianapolis non-profit, were in Chicago the same day to meet with Bishop Perry, the promoter of Tolton’s cause. Warriors 4 Peace opposes gun violence and promotes peaceful change to honor the memory of Jack Shockley, who was murdered by handgun in 2020 when he was 24 years old. Jack’s parents adopted Fr. Tolton as the patron saint of their peace-making work, and an artist friend of theirs had created two sculptures of Tolton, which were on display the day of our pilgrimage. The life-size bust of Augustus Tolton generated a powerful sense of energy and presence. The icons reminded me of sacred art’s capacity to bring us face to face with the holy witnesses who have gone before us and still accompany us in the struggle for justice and peace.
Pilgrimages stage multiple encounters that have the potential to change people along the way. Through story, art, and places of memory, our pilgrim community encountered Fr. Tolton, a Black Catholic soon-to-be saint. We met our hosts at the Black Catholic Initiative of the Archdiocese of Chicago, who are carrying on the legacy of Tolton’s apostolate. We listened to the Shockley’s, who invited us into their grief. And throughout the day, while riding the bus and breaking bread together, each pilgrim encountered fellow travelers who had likewise given up their Saturday and defied stormy weather to make the journey. Pilgrimage both connects us with the religious practices of the deep past and forms us for a synodal church that can walk together into the future.
Annie Killian, Ph.D. Public Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow Medieval Institute University of Notre Dame