Summer vacation is always a good time to spend extra time with books, especially with books you've long wanted to read. So it was that I delved with great interest into a recently published collection of essays titled, The Arthur of the Italians: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Italian Literature and Culture (a generous gift from a good friend). Curiously (or not), I'm the only person to have added this book to my collection over at Library Thing.
When I first became aware of the book a few months ago, I knew I wanted to read it to learn more about the Otranto mosaic (about which I've written briefly before) and the sword of Saint Galgano (about which I've also written before). Though the book provides me with no new information or insight into the mosaic at Otranto, it did answer a question I've long had about the Sword in the Stone (which, according to the legends, was not named Excalibur [which came from the Lady of the Lake], but Caliburn).
Saint Galgano was born in the castle at Chiusdino, a short distance away to the south of Siena) somewhere in the middle of the twelfth century. We have several historical documentations of him, so there can be no question of his existence even if his dates are not so certain. He died on November 30th, probably in 1181, but some texts say in 1183.
He is mostly remembered because of a sword that he thrust into stone, a sword which remains in the stone to this day:
In his essay titled "Arthur in Hagiography: The Legend of San Galgano," Franco Cardini relates that after receiving two visions of the Archangel Saint Michael, Galgano decided to leave behind his military life and become a hermit. Cardini continues:
Sometime afterwards, riding from his native Chiusdino to nearby Civitella, he noticed that at a certain point his horse obstinately stopped. Galganus let the reins hang loose on the horse's neck, and it carried him up to the top of the Montesiepi hill. Then and there he chose the hill for his dwelling-place and dismounted. Either not finding or not wanting to seek wood to make himself a cross, he unsheathed his sword - crucifom, as swords were in the twelfth century - and thrust it into the ground. The sword struck deep into the rock and afterwards could not be removed. That stone, topped by the sword-cross, served as an altar and, more significantly, as a symbol of Calvary. Before it, the aspiring knight lived and prayed as a hermit until the end of his life - a short period, as his biographers say that he died less than a year later.
I have long wondered which came first, Galgano's sword or the Sword in the Stone of the Arthurian legends. Before reading this essay, I could not easily or clearly determine the answer.
After exploring the symbolism of Galgano's dreams and his name (a popular one at the time which may have connections with Gawain), Cardini concludes that the sword of the saint came first:
Ultimately, the name Galgano/Galvano and the echo of the 'sword in the stone' - attested since the end of the twelfth century in the written sources, but present as a material and concrete datum further back than we can pinpoint - could actually suggest an idea that was born in the episcopal-seigneurial court of Volterra and in the Cistercian order during the Duecento, when Arthur was well known, to popularize the 'sanctuary' of Montesiepi and the adjancent abbey [built in honor of Saint Galgano].
Unfortunately, he ends his essay with this sentence.
One particular element of the connection between the sword of Saint Galgano and the Sword in the Stone noted by Cardini is worthy of both mention and reflection:
Arthur proved that he was destined for the throne by removing the sword held fast in a tree or anvil; Galganus by contrast abandoned the world of sin and signalled [sic] his conversion by fixing his sword in the stone and thereby renouncing his arms, to worship the cross whose form the sword suggests.
Let us strive to follow Saint Galgano's example. He stopped pursuing the glory of this world to pursue the glory of heaven. Through his intercession, may we do the same.