The last fragment falls into place

Fragments of Red

Fragments of Red


So, I’ve written about the Fragments Project before (herehere and here) and I’m about to embark on a trip back up to the Scottish Borders to sing in the last of the three ‘Fragments of…’ events, ‘Fragments of Red’. These events have staged audiovisual installations by The Red Field involving the performance of music from a C12th manuscript fragment alongside compositions inspired by the medieval chants.

There’s been music from Seán Doherty (for ‘Fragments of Blue’) and Michael Nyman (for ‘Fragments of Black’) and this time we’ll be singing new compositions by Grayston Ives in an event at Melrose Abbey alongside a variety of medieval tunes!

The music is beautiful and I can’t wait to join up with the choir in Scotland and hear it ring out in the abbey ruins.

Oxford Medievalism strikes again!

For anyone interested in Medievalism  (how ideas of the Medieval reappear in later cultures), this seminar on 26 February with Dr. William Whyte should be just the ticket:

Next meeting: Dr William Whyte (St John’s College, Oxford):Ecclesiastical medievalism in nineteenth-century Britain: architecture, faith, and time

Wednesday of 6th week, (26 February 2014), 5 pm,  in the Goodhart Seminar Room, Logic Lane, University College, followed by drinks.

Day to day Dante: BBC News – “US agents rescue 360 pitbulls in dog fight raid”

**First of all, a trigger warning, as I discuss the issue of child abuse in this post.**
This is slightly old news now, but this post has been languishing as a draft for quite some time and it’s part of an ongoing trend in day to day language, so I thought I’d polish it up and put it on display! This story (BBC News – US agents rescue 360 pitbulls in dog fight raid) caught my attention because the US Attorney overseeing the case said:

“I believe if Dante were alive today and rewriting the Inferno that the lowest places in hell would be reserved for those who commit cruelty to our animals and to our children.”

Initially, I want to say that I find the direct correlation of child abuse and cruelty to animals to be insensitive and wildly disproportionate. While I do believe that animal cruelty is a significant problem, and that animals should never be put through unnecessary suffering, such cruelty is of a very different order to the abuse of children. I also find it odd that anyone would believe that violence against children would not be punished in Dante’s Inferno, for reasons you’ll see below. I did find this statement to a press conference interesting, though, for a couple of other reasons: firstly for the fact that Dante’s concept of Hell is still such a touchstone for modern conceptions of how evil-doing should be punished (“There’s a special circle in hell reserved for x-offence” is a commonplace); and secondly because it got me wondering about how we would or could apply Dante’s categories for some contemporary crimes.

The Violent in the river Phlegethon (with Centaurs!), from the Manuscript Holkham Misc. 48 in the Bodleian Library

The Violent in the river Phlegethon (with Centaurs!), from the Manuscript Holkham Misc. 48 in the Bodleian Library

Of course, if we’re going to apply Dante’s categories in a modern world, the first challenge is whether we bring his sense of sin up to date too. And if we are updating them, to what? To broadly acceptable modern mores? To the contemporary pronouncements of the Catholic Church?

I think it’s safe to say that it wouldn’t be the latter. While developing his poetic identity as prophetic poet, a teller of divine truths, a decidedly Christian writer, Dante was not shy of kicking against the pricks of many ecclesiastical (and particularly papal) norms. A classic example of his nonconformity is his inclusion of excommunicated souls in Purgatory, souls whom the Church firmly declared were going to hell are granted passage to heaven by dint of personal repentance, despite the statements of the Church.

This isn’t to say that Dante would have been liberal minded. He condemned homosexuality, non-procreative sex and extra-marital sex, any non-Christian religion (or philosophical heresy), forgery, gluttony, un-managed anger, false prophesy, prostitution and pimping, the list goes on… He even put his own teacher in hell (but who hasn’t felt like doing that at least once during their school days?!).

He was innovative though (and might find some common ground with the current pope) as, in Dante’s version of Purgatory, heterosexual and homosexual lust are repented on the same terrace – repented, that is, on the way to heaven. This may not seem like a huge deal, and indeed, it is actively retrograde for a modern context, but in 13th Century Italy, it was kind of a big deal. ‘It doesn’t matter who you get overly steamy with’, Dante essentially tells us, ‘ as long as you repent and turn to God before you die, you’ll get to Heaven’. This isn’t a million miles away from Pope Francis’ statement that ‘If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?’ and, like Dante, this Pope seems liberal in some things and definitely conservative in others (e.g. recent papal pronouncements on abortion).

Anyway, to get back on track, would child and animal abusers find a place in Dante’s Inferno?

Before answering this question it’s worth remembering that, in the Inferno, motivation matters. The why can be as important as the what of a sin. A suicide (usually found in the 7th circle, among the violent against themselves) can be found among the lustful if they killed themselves for love/lust. This is what happens with Dido, who killed herself when her beloved Aeneas left her.

Now, as I mentioned before, it strikes me as odd that a speaker today would assume that violence against children is not covered by the Inferno. When it comes to animal cruelty I think the question make more sense, and while there are huge differences in the magnitude of these crimes, they would, arguably, be punished in the same place and there is already a circle set aside for the perpetrators of such offences. In fact, there might be three.

So, what are these three possible circles?

  1. The fifth circle, Anger: If you are violent towards a child or harm  an animal through uncontrolled anger then you could wind up here, mired in the Styx, where Dante saw the damned souls who ‘struck each other with their hands, / their heads, their chests and feet, / and tore each other with their teeth’. (VII, 112-114)*.
  2. The seventh circle, Violence: In the subsection of the first section of this circle, the sinners are submerged in Phlegethon,
    Dante and Virgil meet the Minotaur, from the Manuscript Holkham Misc. 48 in the Bodleian Library

    Dante and Virgil meet the Minotaur, from the Manuscript Holkham Misc. 48 in the Bodleian Library

    ‘the river of blood that scalds / those who by violence do injury to others’ (XII, 47-48). They’re also watched over by the Minotaur (who looked a little different for a medieval audience than he does for us, as you can seen from the picture on the right) and guarded by an army of centaurs. It contains a space for those who commit sexual violence, ‘violence against nature’, which I think should (and quite possibly would) be reclassified in modern context as sexual assault and child sexual abuse. With the previous caveats that I in no way consider the abuse of children and cruelty to animals to be similar orders of crime, I do think that today the idea of animals as others to whom gratuitous violence is wrongfully done has traction. Even for a medieval christian, the idea that all of creation was sacred could justify the placement of those who are cruel to animals in this particular circle.

  3. The ninth circle, Cocytus, treachery: This is the deepest circle, and while it may seem an odd choice for these 21st century sinners, it actually encompasses any breach of trust in a family or against a guest. Dante also explicitly considers violence against family members, specifically children, and guests as a manifestation of this kind of treachery. Count Ugolino is damned for killing and eating his own children when imprisoned with them and starved (XXXIII, 43-75), and Fra Alberigo ends up in the ninth circle for hiring assassins to kill his dinner guests (XXXIII, 118-120). It’s easy to see how other forms of child abuse would fall into this category, especially by family members, teachers, and others in positions of authority and care over children, in loco parentis, is after all in the place of a parent. Again, if we take the crime of cruelty animals, particularly pets,  there is certainly an argument to be made that they are either family or guests in our homes and thus cruelty towards them makes us traitors to the bonds of family or perverters of the role of host.

Dante often makes space for wildly varying levels of criminality (or sin, in his logic) within the same circle of hell and this is what I think we can do in this case. While taking issue with the Attorney’s blithe association of child abuse and animal cruelty, I do think it casts an interesting light on modern models of crime and ‘sin’ and a cultural memory of systematic punishment which seems to have become embodied in Dante’s Inferno.

* All quotations from Dante Alighieri, the Inferno, translated by Robert and Jean Hollander. Anchor Books, 2002.

Fragments (revisited)

(As promised, here are some thoughts about singing medieval music and new music inspired by it! It first appeared on the Fragments Project blog, over here.)

2013-07-20 16.48.17

I’ve been singing in choirs since I was about 6 and had my first experience of singing Gregorian chant in an abbey choir when I was 13. Fourteen years on and I hadn’t sung it since, so when Matthew first approached me about singing some plain song in the Scottish Borders I was interested. Now, when I’m not singing I study medieval literature, so when he explained that the music came from a 12th century manuscript fragment that had been found in an archive near Hawick my interest became excitement which in turn became a 6 hour train journey and a performance at the Heritage Hub in Hawick for the Fragments launch event.
That was my first visit to the Borders and I was lucky enough to be invited back, just over six months later, to sing Séan Doherty’s new piece, Et Clamabant, at the Fragments of Blue event in Jedburgh. It was a singular experience for a singer, being part of an audiovisual event that went beyond a typical performance, to be at once performer and spectator, to be enveloped in the music, the imagery and the architecture of the abbey and the fragment. It was also a heart-warming experience for a researcher of medieval culture because we were singing music from the world I study and taking part in the revival of that world, letting its words and melodies ring out again.
Even more exciting was that we were also witnessing the new creative work which has sprung from those ancient texts and tunes. To experience the Red Field’s audiovisual pieces during the performance and to see the new installation in the ruined abbey, complete with the atmospheric sound sculptures, was both fascinating and moving. And to perform to such a large audience and to witness the interest and enthusiasm of everyone present for that little medieval fragment and what it represents gave me a new faith in my own work, in the idea that my own studies don’t represent a dusty little niche, but rather a different fragment, waiting to be brought into the light.

On chanting from the Hawick Missal

one side of the Hawick Missal fragment

one side of the Hawick Missal fragment

A little context: not long ago a fragment of a 12th century manuscript missal (a book containing instructions for carrying out the mass) was found in an archive in the Scottish borders. It inspired a project which has involved performances, audio-visual art, installations and new compositions.


I’ve sung in two of these events, performing plainsong chants from the manuscript and a new composition by Seán Doherty responding to its contents. While practicing and performing for these events, I’ve been prodded by the experience to write poems, the first of which (written in November 2012 at an event in Hawick itself) is here:


You want to see a soul?

A near immortal something,

a life

that sings on in a resonance of ink

nibbed to each page

with extraordinary care;

words on skin in skin, fragmented,


now exhumed and rising

word on note on tongue

from lungs expelling songs of other times

and people

and geographies

and realms entirely;

so old they’re new,

so strange they hang in air

unbound, aloud, beyond