Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Medieval Germ Theory?

It was Ignaz Semmelweis in the 1840s in Vienna who noticed a link between illness (and death) and unsanitary conditions, specifically a link between women dying during childbirth who were aided by people who also were performing autopsies. He spent years trying to implement a universal handwashing policy. He did not know what was causing the deaths, but he saw a link to something.

Figuring out the cause of disease was a goal for anyone practicing medicine from the beginning of the discipline. Long before germ theory was developed, the miasma theory was proposed by Hippocrates (c. 460 – c. 370 BC): that some form of "bad air" or even "bad water" arising from rotting matter caused diseases like the Black Death, cholera, and other infections. This was an important move away from the theory of supernatural causes of illness. (There was also the idea of an imbalance in the body's natural humors.) The miasma theory allowed infection to pass through a population because of the environment, not from personal contact.

To counter bad air, you would naturally want "good air."  medical faculty of the University of Paris, writing in 1348 to explain the causes of the Black Death, said "The present epidemic or pest comes directly from air corrupted in its substance" and recommends incense which "hampers putrefaction of the air, and removes the stench of the air and the corruption [caused by] the stench."

Earlier, however, there were counters to the miasma theory.

The Classical Era and Middle Ages did have theories of person-to-person contact. Thucydides (c.460BCE - c.400CE) believed that the plague of Athens was being spread by personal contact. Galen (129 - c.200CE) referred to "seeds of plague" in the air. Isidore of Seville also mentioned "plague-bearing seeds." Avicenna (c.980-1037) was widely studied, and he linked the miasma theory with personal contact, believing an ill person could infect others by transmitting the "bad air" through breathing. His example was tuberculosis, and he believed that disease could also be transmitted through dirt and water, anticipating Semmelweis by 800 years.

Recent posts have mentioned Bologna as an important center for medical study, so it is not surprising that it was a professor of Bologna, Tommaso del Garbo (c. 1305–1370), who in 1345 promoted Galen's "seeds of plague" idea in his works

It took Girolamo Fracastoro in 1546, however, to publish De Contagione et Contagiosis Morbis ("On Contagion and Contagious Diseases"), three volumes on different diseases and their avoidance and treatment. He believed that there were particles that could travel through the air or by direct contact.

The idea that these "seeds of disease" were living things (what we call "germs") was not being entertained, simply because there was a long-standing theory that living matter could arise spontaneously from putrefaction. The belief that life could spring from rotting organic matter hindered understanding of bacteria already existing in the air around us. As it turns out, there were plenty of examples of Spontaneous Generation; let's talk about those tomorrow.

Monday, December 4, 2023

Theodoric Borgognoni

Speaking of surgery recently, we need to take a look at Theodoric Borgognoni, who pioneered some practices that were ahead of their time. Born in Lucca in 1205 to a physician and teacher, Hugo Borgognoni, he was destined for a medical career. He studied medicine at the University of Bologna. He also became a Dominican, then the personal physician to Pope Innocent IV, was made Bishop of Bitonto, and eventually became Bishop of Cervia.

Although he had ecclesiastical duties, he still practiced medicine and taught. One of his students was later the "father of French surgery," Henri de Mondeville. Borgognoni wrote the Chirurgia ("Surgery") in the mid-13th century, four volumes that cover what was known about surgery at the time, with his own additions. (A copy of the work created c.1300 on vellum was auctioned at Christie's a few years ago; a sample page is illustrated above.)

In the Chirurgia, he advocates many interesting techniques. Broken bones were a serious problem, and Borgognoni explained how to re-align the bones and tie them together with gold or silver wire. He also advocated post-operative massage of the area to aid proper healing.

Much of Chirurgia is similar to a work written 15 years earlier by Bruno da Longoburgo, but since both of them were students of Hugo Borgognoni, that can be expected. Borgognoni the younger, however, has plenty of ideas not found in the other work.

He departed from standard medical beliefs about pus. For centuries, pus bonum et laudabile ("good and laudable pus") in a wound was considered a sign of proper healing. There was some sense to this, because severe infection led to necrotizing tissue, which and looked very different was much worse. Pus was a different symptom, and looked to early doctors much better than the other option. Wounds that showed pus, therefore, would be left open to suppurate to support the healing process.

Borgognoni did not believe that pus in the wound was proper: he advocated cleaning and drying the wound, then suturing it:

"For it is not necessary that bloody matter (pus) be generated in wounds -- for there can be no error greater than this, and nothing else which impedes nature so much, and prolongs the sickness."

He also (which was not a unique idea) used wine to treat a wound. Now we know, of course, that alcohol in wine would help to kill harmful bacteria. Of course, wine for treating wounds did not automatically lead to the idea that a substance in wine was "killing" something in the wound. Wine was a good thing, and its goodness had healing properties—that was the thinking. It would take centuries to develop germ theory. There were, however, small steps in that direction, and I'll explain those tomorrow.

Sunday, December 3, 2023

Medicine Men

In the middle of the 14th century, the centers of medical knowledge were the universities at Bologna, Montpellier, and Paris. One of the professors linked to Bologna who trained several future doctors was Taddeo Alderotti.

Alderotti was born in Florence but moved to Bologna where he taught several men like Gentile da Cingoli, the emperor's doctor Bartolomeo da Varignana, and the anatomist Mondino de Luzzi.

Alderotti was a highly reputed doctor in his own right, and patients came from all over Italy to see him, making him a very wealthy man.

Another student at Bologna was Henri de Mondeville. Mondeville (c.1260 - 1320) was French, and studied at Montpellier and Paris before moving to Bologna to study under the prominent surgeon Theodoric Borgognoni, who had some new ideas about treating wounds. After studying under Borgognoni, he went back to the University of Montpellier as a professor of anatomy and surgery. He became royal surgeon to King Philip IV and his son King Louis X.

Mondeville wrote the first French surgical treatise, La Chirurgie ("Surgery"). Intending to write it in five sections, he only completed two from 1306, when he started, to his death in 1320. Some of his statements were opposed to current "wisdom," and it wasn't until centuries later that it was rediscovered in 1892 and Mondeville's ideas were justified.

What was so controversial? His approach to treating wounds, which he learned from Borgognoni. I'll explain the radical ideas of Theodore Borgognoni next time.

Saturday, December 2, 2023

Mondino de Luzzi, Anatomist

Successful surgery benefits from knowledge of the body's interior, and the study of anatomy was not always easy to come by. Dissecting human bodies fell out of favor after the Classical Era. One Italian physician did extensive research in anatomy and restored the study of it. His name was Mondino de Luzzi, and he lived and worked in Bologna from c.1270 - 1326.

His father and grandfather were pharmacists, and his uncle taught medicine. Mondino himself taught medicine and surgery at the University of Bologna from 1306 to 1324. In 1316 he published an illustrated manual of details of the inside of the human body (sample to the left). The Anathomia corporis humani ("Anatomy of the human body") was the first of its kind.

He theorized a hierarchy of body parts based on what he considered most important. The abdomen was the "least noble" part of the body, and so should be dissected first. The thorax came next, and last was the head with its "higher and better organized" structures (the organs of the senses: eyes, ears, mouth). He also discussed different methods of dissection between simple versus complex structures, like muscles and arteries versus eyes. When dissecting muscles, he suggested letting the cadaver desiccate, rather than mess with a decaying cadaver. The Anathomia was a manual to explain Mondino's proper methods for dissection.

That doesn't mean he was right about everything. He claims the liver has five lobes, the stomach is round and its internal lining is where sensation happens and the external layer is where digestion takes place. He apparently never found an appendix in a cavern, even though he examined many intestines. He says the heart has three chambers, not four. Still, the text became a standard in medical knowledge for 300 years.

Mondino wasn't much interested in pathology of disease, which is just as important to medicine as understanding how the physical; body works, if not more so. Fortunately, there were others—contemporaries of Mondino's, in fact—of whom we shall speak...tomorrow.

Friday, December 1, 2023

Surgery in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages saw illness as an imbalance in the humors of the body. Sometimes that could be treated by changing the diet. In the case of some illnesses, it might be determined that the body had too much of the "hot, wet" humor, blood, for which the treatment was to drain some of it.

Blood-letting was the simplest surgical procedure, but medieval surgeons were eager to accomplish more. Part of the history of surgery in Western Europe was tied to the needs of warfare. Consider John Bradmore's efforts to remove an arrow from Henry V. Another surgeon connected to royalty was John Arderne, the expert on a very particular and painful physical problem that he treated with surgery.

Monasteries and other religious organizations were more educated than the general population, and their access to books meant knowing more about medicine. There was one branch of medicine they avoided, however, even though the Egyptian and Greeks practiced it: dissection and surgery. The church was squeamish about surgery because it shed blood (and could lead to infection and death). The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 prohibited clerics from surgery or any practice that shed blood. Dissection of corpses was also frowned on.

Lay people, however, continued to expand knowledge of anatomy. The Italian Cronica of Salimbene di Adam (1221 - c.1290) tells the story of an epidemic that was killing men and chickens. A physician of Cremona discovered through dissection that the chickens had abcesses in their hearts. The corpse of a human victim was dissected; the same abcesses were found. The physician put out a pamphlet warning people against eating chicken or eggs, assuming that they were causing the spread of the disease.

Italy was where great strides in anatomy and surgery took place. The Anatomical Theatre of Padua, begun in 1595, was the first permanent anatomical theater in the world, where students watched their teachers dissect bodies to learn human anatomy. Anatomical dissection in Italy had begun long before that, however. For that story, we have to look at Italian physician Mondino de Luzzi (c.1270 - 1326), and the Anathomia corporis humani of 1316. We'll look into him next time.

Thursday, November 30, 2023


Trying to understand biology had many false starts. You probably have some idea of "humors" and the adjectives cold, hot, wet, and dry. These four provided a nice symmetry, and as you can see in the illustration, they also fit with the foursome of elements.

Other cultures came up with different paradigms. Indian Ayurveda medicine believed in three humors (tissues, waste, and dosha, "that which can cause problems") and five elements (adding "space" to the four seen here).

These qualities were supposed to explain the functioning of the body as a balanced mixture. An unhealthy state was the result of the balance being thrown off, the excess or absence of one of the humors.

The arrangement familiar to the West likely started with Hippocrates (although there were others around his time who also expressed ideas about the four elements), who systematized the idea of different substances being balanced in humans:

The Human body contains blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. These are the things that make up its constitution and cause its pains and health. Health is primarily that state in which these constituent substances are in the correct proportion to each other, both in strength and quantity, and are well mixed. Pain occurs when one of the substances presents either a deficiency or an excess, or is separated in the body and not mixed with others. [On the Nature of Man, attributed to either Hippocrates or his son-in-law, Polybus]

Galen furthered this theory, tying it to seasons and stages of life. For instance, a child corresponded to spring. Blood was hot and wet, which corresponded to spring. Yellow bile, hot and dry, corresponded to summer, corresponding with the life stage of a young man, and so on.

The humors could also influence personalities; one Greek text put it thusly:

  • The people who have red blood are friendly. They joke and laugh about their bodies, and they are rose tinted, slightly red, and have pretty skin.
  • The people who have yellow bile are bitter, short tempered, and daring. They appear greenish and have yellow skin.
  • The people who are composed of black bile are lazy, fearful, and sickly. They have black hair and black eyes.
  • Those who have phlegm are low spirited, forgetful, and have white hair. [from link]
These attributes were not predictive, like astrology. If a person's manner changed, it could be because the mix of humors in him had changed.

Humorism, or humoral theory, "explained" so much about physical health and temperament for 2000 years. The 1600s brought more exploration via surgery and the use of microscopes to better understand the function of the organs of the body and the fluids inside it. With the advent of germ theory, proposed in 1546 and expanded in the 18th century, the idea of humors fell by the wayside. 

Of course, there was much more to medical treatment in the Middle Ages than just fiddling with the balance of humors. Sometimes you had to get out the knives. Let's talk about medieval surgery tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The Maintenance of Health

The modern Italian word for a notebook is taccuino. It comes from the medieval (and later) popularity of the Tacuinum Sanitatis. That name is a Latinized version of the Arabic Taqwīm aṣ‑Ṣiḥḥa ("Maintenance of Health"). It was written in the 11th century by Ibn Butlan of Baghdad, a physician and Christian theologian during the Abbasid Era.

The original was organized in synoptic tables: a way to present data in a simple and condensed manner, previously used for astrological tables. Ibn Butlan used them to present not just ways to treat illness and to maintain health, but also ways to prepare food and how and what to grow for health. Later manuscripts were lavishly illustrated, especially after the 14th century. (The illustration is of a facsimile edition made in 1986.)

Ibn Butlan set out the essential elements of health and well-being:

  • sufficient food and drink in moderation
  • fresh air
  • alternations of activity and rest
  • alternations of sleep and wakefulness
  • secretions and excretions of humors
  • the effects of states of mind

If one is not paying attention to these elements, illness occurs.

The Tacuinum includes lists of many vegetables, fruits, nuts, and herbs that are good for treating certain conditions. It also includes the dangers of excess consumption. As the manuscript was copied and distributed, changes were made, and not every copy includes every list. Some added remedies that were not in the original.

The word "humors" was italicized in Ibn Butlan's list because I wanted to draw attention to it. I've ignored discussing the medieval idea of humors for over a decade because I assumed people have already heard of them and I want this blog to focus on all the things that are not generally known. Of course, the details of humors are probably worth talking about. See you tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023


Our teeth would no doubt be better off if this had never been discovered, but Pandora's box was opened long ago. Different species of sugarcane were being harvested in the Indian subcontinent, New Guinea, Southeast Asia, and other places long before the Common Era.

An admiral of Alexander the Great learned of sugar on a campaign in India, so it was inevitable that sugar would make it to the Mediterranean area by traders. Pliny the Elder describes it in his Natural History, but not as a food:

Sugar is made in Arabia as well, but Indian sugar is better. It is a kind of honey found in cane, white as gum, and it crunches between the teeth. It comes in lumps the size of a hazelnut. Sugar is used only for medical purposes.

Crusaders brought sugar back to Europe from the Middle East, calling it "sweet salt." It was a common sweetener during the reign of Henry II, and Edward I imported a lot. Until the 1300s, it was affordable only by the wealthiest.

Venice saw its value and set up manufacturing in Lebanon, becoming the chief sugar distributor in 15th century Europe. Sugar was introduced to the Canary Islands and Madeira, after which Europe could get it more easily (but not necessarily cheaply). In the same year that Columbus sailed westward on his maiden voyage to the New World, Madeira produced 3,000,000 pounds of sugar.

Part of the allure of sugar was its reputed health properties. The Tacuinum sanitatis ("Maintenance of Health") of the 11th century has this advice about sugar:

Ask the grocer for refined sugar which is hard, white as salt, and brittle.  It has a cleansing effect on the body and benefits the chest, kidneys and bladder...It is good for the blood and therefore suitable for every temperament, age, season and place.

If it's that good for ill bodies, imagine what it could do for a body already healthy? There was plenty of inducement to enjoy sugar for its "healthful" effects.

You might guess that the Tacuinum sanitatis—considering its early provenance—was not a European text, and you'd be right. Let me tell you more about it tomorrow.

Monday, November 27, 2023

Medieval Treats

Besides sweet concoctions like dragges, medieval cooks prepared things like mincemeat and apple pie. Some cook books survive from early on, such as the Forme of Cury from the kitchens of Richard II.

For desserts, common ingredients were fruits, ginger, honey, spices and wine to sweeten things, but sweet and savory were often mixed. The Forme of Cury has a recipe for pork tartletts that includes currants. Fabulous Feasts, a collection of updated recipes from old manuscripts by Madeleine Palmer Cosman, offers a recipe for quince sauce with almonds, cloves, ginger, sugar, and wine starts with beef broth. A plum and currant tart from the same book starts with the marrow of four large beef bones! Here is one of the more intriguing combinations:

Perys Cofyns ("Pear Coffins")

This has three distinct steps: making the pears into "coffins" or "coffers" to hold the filling, cooking lentils (!) to supplement the berry filling, steaming the berries.

Step 1 — Start with 10 fresh hard pears, the juice of a lemon, and 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon. Cut the pears lengthwise, scoop out the core leaving about 1/2 inch pear wall. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Bake at 3508° for 5-10 minutes; do not let them get too soft. Set aside to cool.

Step 2 — Prepare the lentils. Rinse the dried lentils and place in a pot of water with a stalk of finely chopped celery, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 cup finely chopped dates, 1/2 teaspoon dried basil. Cover with beef broth. Bring to boil and cook 15-20 minutes until lentils are just tender but doubled in size.

Step 3 — Steam the berries. Rinse 1 cup raw cranberries, remove stems.* In pot with water, bring berries and 2 tablespoons sugar or honey to boil. When 1/3 of berries have popped open, remove from heat.** Cool the berries.

Put 1 tablespoon of lentil mixture into pears and top with the cranberries.

An interesting use of lentils to supplement the berry filling, but of course the lentils also include dates for additional sweetness.

As mentioned above, there were several ways to introduce sweetness into food, honey being very popular. Was sugar difficult to come by? Let's talk about then history of sugar in Medieval England tomorrow.

*The original recipe calls for "bog berries"; not being sure what was meant, Cosman substitutes New World cranberries.

**The medieval manuscript warns that the berries popping can spurt boiling water upwards, so do not lean over the pot too closely.

Sunday, November 26, 2023


When Margery Kempe (c.1373 - c.1438) dictated the story of her mystic experiences, she had no idea that someone would append a recipe to the end of it. The recipe was illegible when the manuscript was found in 1934 until multispectral-imaging technology was used to make the words clear. The reason for adding this recipe to this manuscript has caused some furrowed brows, and there are two theories. Here is a translation:

For Phlegm take –
Sugar candy, sugar plate*, sugar with
Aniseed, fennel seed, nutmeg, cinnamon,
Ginger [...] and licorice. Beat them
together in a mortar and make them in all
manner of food and drinks and dry first and last eat it.

The "For Phlegm" seems clear: this is a recipe for dragges, a sweet mixture intended to be medicinal. At one point in her life, Margery came down with the "flux"; this was probably dysentery. She was so ill that a priest was summoned to give her Last Rites because she feared she was near death. Dragges was intended to be a cure for many ills. A well-meaning scribe may have decided to add this recipe to help people avoid her illness in the future.

There is another credible theory, however, put forth in 2018 by Laura Kalas.

Dr. Kalas' argument is that the reason for the existence of this particular confection becomes clear when you look at the references to "sweetness" in her writing (and the writings of other mystics). Besides her conversations with God, she describes the sensations she experiences during her mystic episodes, which include sensations of sweetness. She asks God how she might make her love of God as swet to þe as me thynkyth þat thy loue is vn-to me ("as sweet to you as I think your love is to me"). She describes her experience with God as "sweet dalliance."

As a recipe for digestive dragges, or dragées, it is rich with sugar and spice, suggesting a wealthy site of monastic holiness and health. It thus offers a lens through which to explore the sweetness of confection and divine love in the Book. The hot spices, used to correct a cold and moist physiological constitution, are at the same time a means of stoking the hot fire of love that is played out in the Book. But the recipe imbues more than metaphorical signification. In the Middle Ages, the moral properties of food were imbricated with its ingestion. In consuming a foodstuff, one would take on some of its associated properties (the Eucharistic wafer as an obvious example). [Link to her article]

So...recipe for flux/phlegm, or reminder of the sweetness connected to spiritual revelation? In a nod to social media memes, "why not both?"

Now I'm thinking of sweet things, and since we are on the leading edge of the holiday season (some would say we are fully embroiled in it), let's look at some sweet medieval recipes for holiday entertaining...next time.

*"sugar plate" was a moldable form of sugar paste. I found an Elizabethan recipe here.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

The Book of Margery Kempe

Margery Kempe (c.1373 - c.1438) was a middle-class woman who went through a traumatic eight months after bearing her first child, after which she devoted herself to a life of pilgrimages and mystic experience. In her own words, she describes "the onset of her spiritual quest, her recovery from the ghostly aftermath of her first child-bearing." Unable to read or write (so far as we know), she dictated her experiences in order to leave a record of her marvelous conversations with God. She may also have been influenced by the Revelations of St. Bridget of Sweden, which had been read to her earlier in life.

A copy was made of the manuscript prior to 1450 with "Salthows" signed at the end. It then largely disappeared from public view. Excerpts appeared in 1501 in pamphlets published by Wynkyn de Worde, a prominent London publisher, and again in 1521 by Henry Pepwell, who printed English mystical treatises.

The manuscript turned up in a private library in 1934 and is now in the possession of the British Library. The name at the end was identified as (likely being) Richard Salthouse, a monk at the Norwich cathedral priory. There are notes in different handwriting, and the first page includes Liber Montis Gracie ("Book of Mountegrace"), so it seems that the manuscript passed through the Carthusian priory of Mount Grace in Yorkshire.

The book is interesting as the first medieval autobiography written in English. Some have questioned whether Margery was using this as an attempt at self-aggrandizement, but she refers to herself in the third person, which suggests an attempt at humility rather than celebrity. Unlike other accounts written by mystics, this book is not by a nun or monk or otherwise typical religious member of society. It is a glimpse into a middle-class woman's perceptions of the world and of religious mysticism.

You can read it, digitized, in the original Medieval English, here.

But now for something completely different: appended to the end of the manuscript (not found in the above digitized link) is a recipe. It seems to be a recipe for a sweet medicine. Tomorrow I'll tell you about it, and dragges.

Friday, November 24, 2023

Margery's Travels

Once Margery Kempe decided to dedicate her life fully to religious devotion, she decided a pilgrimage to the Holy Land was in order, inspired by hearing the English translation of the Revelations of Bridget of Sweden. Bridget's work promoted the purchase of indulgences, papal-approved pieces of paper that were intended to reduce your time in Purgatory. Margery bought several indulgences (available at pilgrimage sites) for herself and friends.

Although she spent three months in Venice along the way as well as time in Jerusalem, she records very little of what she saw; she was more interested in telling about conversations she had with Jesus along the way (well, she did mention falling off her donkey because she was so overcome with emotion at the sight of Jerusalem). She stayed in Assisi on the way home, visiting many churches. When she got home, she decided on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

On these trips (and when home in England) she had several negative reactions to her manner. She engaged in loud prayer and wild gesticulating, and her tears flowed constantly. Some found her actions the symptoms of a madwoman, or simply a public nuisance. The mayor of Leicester called her a cheap whore. accused her of Lollardy, and put her in prison for three weeks. She was later accused of heresy in York, but the archbishop of York cleared her.

She visited many religious figures, such as Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Arundel, and the female mystic Julian of Norwich, where she stayed for several days. Margery claims that Julian supported her and assured Margery that her visions were real and valid and that her tears were a sign of real devotion.

Later in life she made another pilgrimage, this time to Prussia in 1433. Specifically, she went to Danzig to see the Holy Blood of Wilsnack relic, three hosts that survived a fire in 1383 that burned down a church and whole village.

We know all this because in the 1420s she asked a priest to take down her story, producing the Book of Margery Kempe (you can read it on the website of my hometown university here). She continued to have the manuscript amended. A copy was made of it just before 1450 by a monk, after which it disappeared. Margery Kempe died some time after 1438, and was quickly forgotten.

Five centuries later, the manuscript...well, let's wrap this up tomorrow when the 20th century discovered Margery Kempe.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Margery Kempe

Margery Brunham was born about 1373 in Bishop's (now King's) Lynn, Norfolk. Her father was mayor for a short time and a member of Parliament. We do not know anything about her upbringing, but later events suggest clearly that she never learned to read or write. Around the age of 20 she married John Kempe. What we know of her comes from The Book of Margery Kempe, which she dictated later in life. It may be the first autobiography.

After her eldest was born (a son named John), postpartum depression seems to have set in. She went through eight very difficult months in which she imagined herself being attacked by devils who wanted her to abandon her faith; she was even urged to suicide, which sounds like deep depression.

Along with these demonic visions, she had one of Jesus asking her why she had forsaken him? She began to have conversations with Jesus, Mary, God, and other religious figures. She also had visions of being present at both Jesus' birth and Crucifixion. One modern scholar claims she looked for ways to live a chaste life. The definition of "chaste" would have to be very flexible, since she had 13 additional children.

Having finally escaped whatever disturbed state she was in, she got busy. First she began to brew beer, referring to herself later as one of the greatest brewers in town. That business eventually failed when her employees all left her. She then bought two horses and started a grain-grinding business. The horses, however, refused to cooperate, and that business failed.

That is when she decided to devote herself to a more religious life. This would include sexual chastity, but her husband had some thoughts about that. They finally negotiated a chaste marriage, but he had conditions:

  1. They share a bed still
  2. Margery had to pay all his debts
  3. Margery had to make him a fish supper every Friday
This was sufficient for her. #1 was okay, so long as there was no sex (but remember all the children? Yeah, chastity is tough and temptation is easy). #2 must have been possible with Brunham family money, since she was no longer running a business. #3...well, she had to eat supper, too.

She then engaged in her own form of public worship which involved loud wailing. This was very off-putting for onlookers, but at least it made an impression of someone who was in the grip of a powerful religious experience.

She started to "spread the word" in England and on pilgrimages; I'll talk more about that phase of her life tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Saint Bridget's Visions

St. Bridget of Sweden (c.1303 - 23 July 1373) began her life as Birgitta Birgersdotter. Her childhood might have been quite normal as the daughter of an upper-class knight and law speaker, until she was 10 years old. That was when she had her first vision.

She saw a vision of Jesus hanging on the cross. She asked the vision who did this to him, and he replied "They who despise me, and spurn my love for them." She became devoted to studying the suffering and crucifixion of Christ.

She received visions throughout her life, which were recorded by her and translated into Latin in Revelationes coelestes ("Celestial revelations") by her confessor. The sharing of these revelations increased her celebrity and put her in good company with Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe.

Some of her visions described scenes that influenced art for years to come. One was of the baby Jesus lying on swaddling clothes with light coming from him, with the Virgin Mary kneeling next to him in prayer. Another vision with both Joseph and Mary kneeling to either side of the babe—first described by her—is now a very common Christmas tableau.

Another vision came to her after she deliberately prayed hard and long over time to know the answer to the question "how many blows did Jesus receive during the Passion?" He appeared to her and said "I received 5480 blows upon My Body. If you wish to honor them in some way, recite fifteen Our Fathers and fifteen Hail Marys with the following Prayers, which I Myself shall teach you, for an entire year. When the year is finished, you will have honored each of My Wounds." Because the prayers in Latin would begin with "O Jesu" or "O Domine Jesu Christi," they were referred to as the "Fifteen Os" and became part of medieval prayer books.

She even engaged in prophecy. She predicted the existence of a Vatican State. When Mussolini created the boundaries of Vatican City in 1921 they matched almost exactly the borders she foretold. Interesting how Birgitta's life influenced much of religious art and practice.

Now, however, I have mentioned another woman who saw visions as if everyone knew who she was. Tomorrow we finally look into the life of Margery Kempe: medieval, middle-class, and mystic.

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Bridget of Sweden

Sweden's most celebrated saint was Birgitta Birgersdotter, the daughter of a magnate, knight, privy councilor, and the first law speaker of Uppland, Birger Persson, and Ingeborg Bengtsdotter, who was connected to the family of the kings of Sweden. Birgitta was born in 1303, and was married at 13 to Ulf Gudmarsson, with whom she had four sons and four daughters.

In her 30s, she was made the chief lady-in-waiting to Blanche of Namur, the new queen of Sweden, wife of King Magnus IV.

Birgitta was known for her charitable works and her piety. In 1341 she and Ulf went on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Ulf died shortly after their return; Birgitta then joined the Third Order of St. Francis, devoting herself to caring for those less fortunate.

She also, as was common for many devout and wealthy women at the time, decided to found a religious order, the order of the Most Holy Saviour. Their monastery at Vadstena was supported by King Magnus and Queen Blanche. This was a double monastery, with accommodation for both men and women (although they lived separately). A requirement for joining was to give to the poor all your surplus income, but you were allowed to keep any and all books you owned.

In 1350 she went to Rome with her daughter Catherine to seek permission from the Pope to make her new order official. Rome, however, was no longer the seat of the papacy, it having been removed to Avignon some years earlier. Birgitta stayed in Rome, waiting for a pope, and continuing to perform good works, making herself so beloved that when Pope Urban V tried to restore the papacy to Rome, his confirmation of her new order was a foregone conclusion. She stayed in Rome until her death in 1373, making the occasional pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Her directions sent to Sweden to set up the monastery was for an abbess symbolizing the Virgin Mary to rule over both men and women.

She was canonized in 1391 by Pope Boniface IX, confirmed by the Council of Constance in 1415.

There is more to the story of how Birgitta Birgersdotter became Saint Bridget, including visions and prophecies. We'll look at the mystical side of her life tomorrow.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Double Monasteries

Double monasteries, such as the one mentioned in this post, was a monastery that combined two communities, one of men and one of women. They would live separately, but they might share some facilities, such as the church. They were often created by wealthy women who wished to rule a community of nuns but would also create a separate-but-equal community of men. The community of men might include priests who would celebrate mass for the entire community.

The practice began as early as the 4th century in Eastern Christianity (Eastern and Southeastern Europe, Western Asia, the Middle East); John Cassian founded one, and Caesarius of Arles created one for his sister and women attached to his own. Columbanus brought the idea of the double (or dual) monastery to Britain, after which it became popular in Gaul and Anglo-Saxon England. Hilda of Whitby was going to attend Chelles, but was trained in. monasticism by Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne and stayed in England and started Whitby Abbey.

The Second Council of Nicaea forbade double monasteries in Canon 20 "because this becomes a cause of scandal and a stumbling block for ordinary folk." Although they allowed existing dual monasteries to be "grandfathered," no new ones should be created, but 

Monks and nuns should not live in one monastic building, because adultery takes advantage of such cohabitation. No monk should have the licence to speak in private with a nun, nor any nun with a monk. A monk should not sleep in a female monastery, nor should he eat alone with a nun. When the necessary nourishment is being carried from the male area for the nuns, the female superior, accompanied by one of the older nuns, should receive it outside the door. And if it should happen that a monk wishes to pay a visit to one of his female relatives, let him speak with her in the presence of the female superior, but briefly and rapidly, and let him leave her quickly.

After the 12th century, dual monasteries became popular briefly, although eventually most monasteries evolved into wholly separate communities. In Sweden, however, the idea of a double monastery experienced a revival in the 14th century, especially due to the Bridgettines. I'll tell you who they were next time.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Walpurgis Night

“There is a mountain very high and bare…whereon it is given out that witches hold their dance on Walpurgis night.” (Jacob Grimm, 1883)

There is a legend in Germany that witches have an annual meeting on the Brocken, the highest peak of the Harz Mountains. In fear of the witches, the inhabitants of the area would light bonfires and ring church bells. This took place at the end of the year, on the night of April 30th: some culturally significant ways of looking at the annual cycle started the year on May 1st.

Into this likely very old practice we fold the extra ingredient of St. Walburga. Walburga came to Germany in the 8th century and founded a double monastery at Heidenheim. Her work converted many in Germany from heathenism to Christianity. She was considered a powerful deterrent to witchcraft. Her feast day was May 1st, the day that she was canonized (in 870) as well as the day her relics were transferred from Heidenheim to Eichstätt.

So the night of lighting bonfires, ringing church bells, and group gatherings to ward off witchcraft were celebrated on the eve of Walburga's Day, so the night of April 30th. In Germany this is called Walpurgisnacht. This is of course similar to the Gaelic festival of Beltane, celebrated on May 1st. Beltane and Samhain (which we call Halloween) divided the year neatly into two halves.

Walpurgisnacht is observed outside of Germany as well, and has become a time of merry gatherings with food and entertainment as well as bonfires. It is also called Valborgsmässoafton ("Valborg's Mass Eve", Swedish, which is more about the arrival of spring than averting witches), Vappen (Finland Swedish), Vappu (Finnish), Volbriöö (Estonian), Valpurgijos naktis (Lithuanian), Valpurģu nakts or Valpurģi (Latvian), and čarodějnice ("witch burning") or Valpuržina noc (Czech).

Goethe wrote a poem he called die erste Walpurgisnacht ("The First Walpurgis Night"); it is brief, and you can read it here. Felix Mendelssohn wrote a cantata based on it, which can be heard here.

For something quite different, I want to look at Walburga's founding of a "double monastery." What made it double, and was that significant? Let's delve into that next time.

Saturday, November 18, 2023

St. Walburga's Abbey

In the 1930s, two Benedictine abbeys were formed from the original in Eichstätt, Bavaria. One was in Thanet, where the nuns of Eichstätt bought and renovated the original 7th century complex founded by Domne Eafe. The other was in Colorado, where three nuns from Eichstätt purchased land considered by the monks that owned it to be un-farmable. With help from m ore nuns, they turned the land into a working farm; 60 years later they relocated (see illustration) to Virginia Dale, Colorado, where they remain a thriving community.

In both cases, the reason from branching out from Eichstätt was to flee from spreading Nazism.

This was not the first time nuns from the Eichstätt abbey took on a mission to America, however. A missionary monk from Bavaria challenged the nuns of St. Walburga's in 1851 to go to America to provide proper religious instruction to German immigrants. Three nuns took a steamer a year later, arriving in New York during the July 4th celebrations. They settled in St. Marys, PA. Not longer after, joined by reinforcements from Eichstätt, they created communities in the northwest territory that would soon become the state of Minnesota.

The origin of these nuns was the Abbey of St. Walburga, founded in 1055 to properly house the relics of Walburga (c.710-779). Her tomb in her last home of the abbey of Heidenheim had originally fallen to neglect. During renovations by Bishop Otkar of Eichstätt, she appeared to him in a dream and asked him why her remains were being “trampled upon by the dirty feet of builders.” He had her remains transferred to a new building which became the current Abbey of St. Walburga, populated by Benedictine nuns. This is where her bones started to exude miraculous Oil of Saints.

"Walburga" sounds like "Walpurgis"; is there a connection? Let's find out tomorrow.

Friday, November 17, 2023

Domne Eafe, Mother & Saint

The mother of Saint Mildred was Domne Eafe—also Domneva, or Lady Eva—a great-granddaughter of King Æthelbert of Kent. She married King Merewalh of Mercia. They had at least three children, three daughters who all became abbesses and saints. There was supposedly a son who died early (called Merlin in some later legends).

Domneva had two brothers— Æthelbert and Æthelred who were being raised by King Eorcenbert of Kent, —a grandson of Æthelbert through Eadbald. When he died, Eorcenbert's son Ecgbert killed Æthelbert and Æthelred. Feeling guilty, Ecgbert gave Domneva land in Thanet as wergild to build an abbey.

A later legend goes into detail about the land granted by King Ecgbert: she was to be given as much land as her pet deer could run around in a single lap. The result was 80 sulungs of land. A sulung was a local Kentish unit of measurement, the amount that could be ploughed by four ox-pairs. Put another way, a sulung was two hides, and a hide was the equivalent of 120 acres, the amount a household needed to thrive. To the Anglo-Saxons, a hide was also the unit on which public obligations (taxes, supporting the lord in times of war, etc.) were based.

So she got an enormous space to use. To be fair, it is unlikely that the legend is true and she got that much (19,200 acres), but there was enough land to give her standing in the wider community as well as the status that being an abbess offers. Her name appears in many charters of the time as a witness, as well as the beneficiary of grants.

Domneva ran the abbey along Benedictine rules. She was succeeded by her daughter, St. Mildred. Mildred was followed as abbess about 733 by Eadburga, a friend and student of Mildred who also became a saint. You can see Domneva in the illustration, flanked by her two successors. By Eadburga's time the abbey had 70 nuns. She secured some royal charters to ensure its growth and continuation, and built a new church dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, which housed the relics of St. Mildred.

Although the abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII and had various uses over the years, it was bought in 1937 by Benedictine nuns from St.Walburga's Abbey in Eichstätt in Bavaria. Why did Benedictine nuns in Bavaria want to revive an abbey in England? This was not just a 20th century story, nor just a European story. I'll explain that tomorrow.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Saint Mildred

Well, that is what a modern world would call her. To the Anglo-Saxons, she was Mildrith (also Mildthryth or Mildryth). Her father was a king: King Merewalh of Magonsaete (a sub-kingdom of Mercia, in modern Hereford; his father might have been Penda). A great-great-granddaughter of Æthelbert (through his and Bertha's son, Eadbald), she was born about 660 and lived about 70 years.

A hagiography in the 11th century says that she was educated at the Abbey at Chelles, suggesting that she was linked to the Merovingian royal line, probably through her mother, Domne Eafe. While there, a young nobleman asked for her hand in marriage, but she replied that she was there to learn, not be married. The abbess tried to persuade her by every possible means to be married, but Mildred refused. The frustrated abbess threw her into a hot oven, but after three hours Mildred was unscathed.

The abbess then beat her and tore out a hank of her hair. Mildred wrote to her mother, enclosing the hair that had been torn out, and her mother immediately sent ships to rescue her. Mildred escaped the abbess on her own and found passage back to England, leaving her footprint embedded in a stone at the place where she first disembarked from the ship. She then joined her mother at Minster-in-Thanet  (which her mother had established). Mildred became abbess in 694.

She was popular on the continent: there are several shrines/mentions of her in the Pas-de-Calais area of northern France. She died in Minster-in-Thanet some time after 732 after a lingering illness and was buried at the Abbey's Church of St. Mary.

Mildred's remains were moved to a new abbey church of Saints Peter and Paul, built by her successor as abbess, Edburga, by 748. She was a very popular saint and her relics drew attention from worshippers and pilgrims.

When the Danes invaded England they captured Minster-in-Thanet in 1011. The abbey was abandoned and the church downgraded to a parish church. Mildred's relics were transferred to Canterbury and the Church of St. Augustine.

Her sisters (Milburga of Much Wenlock and Mildgyth) were also saints, but it was her mother who was really interesting. We'll look into her next time. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

St. Augustine's Abbey

When Augustine came to England in 597 to begin the process of turning its inhabitants to Christianity, one of his first acts was to found (in 598) the Monastery of Saints Peter and Paul.

The land and building (formerly a temple) was given to Augustine by King Æthelbert, whose wife (Queen Bertha) was Christian. The king gave it so that Augustine and his followers had a place to live, and gave gifts to the endeavor. They also intended it to be a special place where important people (kings, abbots, bishops) would be buried. Initially it would have been built of wood, like most Saxon buildings. A stone building, such as Augustine was accustomed to in Rome, took longer, and the stone church (whose remains can be seen in the illustration) was dedicated by Æthelbert about 613.

It was the only important religious house in Kent for two centuries following its founding, and was a missionary school where classical learning was taught. It became known over time for an extensive library of both religious and secular texts, many of them produced in its own scriptorium.

In the mid-10th century, Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury (959 - 988), reorganized the abbey along strict Benedictine rules and renamed it for St. Augustine. Another rebuilding plan was put in place after the Norman Conquest, when William had churches enlarged as imposing Romanesque structures. Unfortunately, a fire in 1168 destroyed a lot of the abbey's records, but another rebuilding campaign restored it.

After that, the complex expanded to include a great hall, a lady chapel, a brewhouse and bakehouse, land for a vineyard, and more. It succumbed to the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, who appropriated all their land and assets.

The abbey was treated better by the invading Danes: King Cnut in 1027 spared the place and granted it the possessions of the town Minster-in-Thanet, including the body of Saint Mildred. Mildred's body had miraculous powers and brought even more attention to the abbey. She was a great-great-granddaughter of Æthelbert, and I'll tell you more tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

The Liudhard Medallion

Bishop Liudhard, who followed Bertha to Kent when she married King Æthelbert, is treated like a footnote in the story of Christianizing England, but his footnote has another footnote.

In the public museum in Liverpool, England, is an exhibit of several gold medallions. They were found c.1844 in a grave at St. Martin's Church in Canterbury, the oldest Christian Saxon church in England still in use. One of these commemorates Bishop Liudhard; it was probably minted after his death but before the death of his patroness, Queen Bertha, in 601.

One side (shown here) shows a figure and the Latin inscription for Liudhard, "LEUDARDUS"; also included are the letters "EPS" denoting "EPiscopuS" (bishop). The obverse side shows a patriarchal cross: a cross with a smaller horizontal bar above the main crossbar. It is the earliest datable coin that depicts a patriarchal cross, especially one that has circles hanging from its arms.

The assumption, especially because each coin or medallion has a loop for hanging it as jewelry, is that they were part of a necklace from the grave of a woman who converted to Christianity. The other coins make for an interesting collection:

...an Italian tremissis of Justin II, a Germanic tremissis of unsure origin, a Merovingian solidus struck by Leudulf at Ivegio vico and two tremisses from southern France, the first from Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges, the second from Agen. [link]

(A tremissis is a gold coin that is worth one-third of a solidus, hence the name which means "a third of a unit.")

The existence of the Liudhard medal requires us to see his presence in England as far more significant than the history books would typically suggest. His two-decade sojourn at the court of Æthelbert and Bertha must have made serious progress in spreading Christianity for him to have had a medallion made with his name.

After Liudhard's death, his remains were transferred from the churchyard of St. Martin's to the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. That church was later converted to St. Augustine's Abbey. It is now a school, but let's take a look at its life as an abbey tomorrow.

Monday, November 13, 2023

Bishop Liudhard

Saint Augustine gets a lot of credit for the Gregorian Mission to the court of King Æthelbert of Kent and the mass conversions to Christianity that followed. As fertile as his efforts were, the ground had been prepared by someone else. Twenty years earlier, the Frankish princess Bertha had become Æthelbert's queen, and brought to England the Catholic Bishop Liudhard.

Originally from Senlis on the continent, he created a new parish by restoring a Roman church east of Canterbury. He dedicated it to St. Martin of Tours, making it the first Christian Saxon church in England. (The illustration is a view of the church as it exists today.)

Bede, who is the chief source of the story of the Gregorian Mission, does not say much about Liudhard at all, and we think he died not long after Augustine's arrival in 597. Liudhard would have been preaching in Kent for 20 years at that point, so might have been advanced in years. Augustine's successor as Archbishop of Canterbury, Laurence of Canterbury, had Liudhard's remains removed from St. Martin's Church and buried at the Abbey Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, which had been founded by Augustine (and was later named for him).

Thought of locally as St. Liudhard, he is given credit for a miracle in the 11th century. An artist, Abbot Spearhafoc, was given a ring by Edith of Wessex, queen of King Edward the Confessor. He lost it, and it was only found again after Spearhafoc prayed to St. Liudhard. Spearhafoc created statues for Liudhard's tomb. Liudhard was also credited for bringing rain when needed.

In the 19th century, a gold medallion was found in a grave in Canterbury with Liudhard's name on it.That sounds simple and straightforward, but it's pretty interesting. I'll explain more next time.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Saint Bertha

Augustine's mission to Christianize King Æthelbert of Kent in 597 was clearly successful, but we cannot discount the fact that he had help. He did not go alone, of course. Also, he had a powerful advocate when he arrived in Kent: Æthelbert's wife, Queen Bertha.

Bertha was a Frankish princess, the daughter of Charibert I of Paris and Ingoberga, and a granddaughter of Clovis I and Clotilde (who became a saint). Part of the marriage arrangement allowed her to bring a bishop with her, Liudhard. Bertha and Liudhard re-established a church from Roman times just outside of Canterbury dedicated to St. Martin of Tours.

By the time of Augustine's arrival, she and Æthelbert had been married about 20 years, and Christianity was not a new concept for the citizens of Kent. A biography of Bertha (unusual for women to have biographies in that era, but her royal status and connection to the Mission made for an exception) claims that, under her influence, Æthelbert actually requested Pope Gregory to send missionaries. No letters of the time support this, but the anecdote told here that precipitated the mission is considered by many to be a spurious argument of the mission created by Bede.

Bertha's ancestry might also have aided the mission in other ways: Frankish royals gave their support to the mission by adding interpreters and priests to Augustine's group as they traveled. The Franks likely also wanted Britain across the Channel (especially Kent, the closest and most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom), to be friendlier to the continent. (On the other hand, Gregory might have been hoping for a distant land to be more allied with the papacy than with the Franks.)

Whatever the case, Gregory wrote to Bertha in 601, complimenting her on her faith and her knowledge. The mission surely had a smoother reception than it might have if Bertha and Liudhard had not created an atmosphere amenable to Christianity for years.

Bertha had two children. Eadbald was King of Kent from 616 until 640. Æthelburh was the second wife of King Edwin, who was converted by St. Cuthbert. The date of Bertha's death is not known. She is commemorated in many places in Kent.

Another whose Christian influence on Kent should be noted is the bishop she brought with her, Liudhard. Let's take a look at this neglected man next.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Augustine's Mission and Bertha

Augustine (early 6th century - c.26 May 604) was a prior of the Abbey of St. Andrew in Rome when he was chosen by Pope Gregory to travel to Britain to bring Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons.

His chief goal was to convert King Æthelbert of Kent. The illustration shows Kent to be a fairly small area, but Æthelbert was powerful as a bretwalda and was respected and listened to by neighboring kingdoms. He was also married to a Frankish princess, Bertha. This link to the continental kingdom not only helped his influence, it made him open to Christianity, since Bertha was a practicing Christian.

Æthelbert allowed the missionaries to preach and use a church dedicated to St. Martin as a base. Æthelbert did convert, and was probably baptized at Canterbury. We don't know when he converted, but letters dated 601 from Gregory refer to him as "my son" and mention his conversion.

With the king's conversion, a community-wide conversion became possible. Augustine mentions making lots of conversions within a year of his arrival. In 598 Augustine wrote to the patriarch of Alexandria claiming he had baptized more than 10,000.

With many conversions progressing, Augustine sent one of his companions, Laurence, back to Rome with questions for Gregory about organizing the church in Britain: who could marry whom, how to deal with church robbers, consecration of bishops, relations between the churches of Britain and Gaul, etc. Messengers from Rome eventually brought a pallium from Gregory to Augustine, making him a bishop.

One bit of advice was to shift feast days of the locals to days celebration Christian martyrs, and to turn religious sites to shrines for saints.

Obviously the Gregorian Mission worked, and Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury for his efforts. There is someone else who should get more credit for Britain's conversion, however, and that is Bertha. I'll tell you more about her next time.

Friday, November 10, 2023

Not Angles, but Angels and Other Wordplay

One of the anecdotes about Pope Gregory "the Great" that is most often repeated is how it came about that he sent missionaries to England.

Supposedly, about 597, he was walking through Rome and came upon a slave market where some fair-skinned and blonde-haired children were being sold. He asked what they were and was told "Angli"; that is, they were Angles. His reply was Non Anglo, sed Angeli, meaning "Not Angles but Angels." Asking where they came from he was told "Angle-lond." He decided this "Angel-Land" needed to know all about Christianity, so he sent Augustine and a contingent of missionaries to England.

Furthermore, when told that their province was Deira and their king was Aella, he replied that they would be rescued de ira ("from wrath") and that Alleluia should be sung in that land.

This story is told by Bede in 732—the illustration above of the incident is from Westminster Cathedral—and whether it actually happened is up for debate. In the illustration you can see the monk Augustine standing to the right with a staff.

There is at least one other anecdote about Gregory involving wordplay. It recounts that Gregory wanted to go to England himself to spread Christianity. At a break in his journey, while reading his Bible, a locust startled him by landing on the edge of the book. He exclaimed locusta! and then thought it was a sign to loco sta, to "stay in your place/locus."  As it happened, someone from the papal palace arrived an hour later to tell him he was needed back in Rome.

The Gregorian Mission to England by Augustine and company transformed the island. After Gregory's death he was referred to in Britain as "our Gregory," and the first biography of him was written at the monastery in Whitby. It was in England at the Synod of Whitby that customs such as the calculation of the date of Easter were made firm, and the Archbishop of Canterbury was one of the most powerful Christian offices after the pope. I'll summarize Augustine's spread across England tomorrow.

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Gregory the Great

Saint Gregory the Great (c.540 - 12 March 604) started as Pope Gregory I in 590. Earlier than that he started as a prefect of Rome, though he established a monastery on the family estate (on a major road linking the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus; his father was a Roman senator), and lived as a monk for awhile before becoming a papal ambassador. He was well-educated and, thanks to his family connections we assume, probably well-versed in Imperial law.

Under his predecessor, Pelagius II, Rome and the country were in dire straits due to incursions from the Lombards that had ravaged the country. Rome was filled with poor refugees, and the Lombards were "at the gates" and overrunning the peninsula. Pelagius sent emissaries (including Gregory) to Constantinople (the seat of the Empire) to send help.

Constantinople was not helping, and when Gregory became pope in 590, he took matters into his own hands. Rome was overcrowded with people who were starving and destitute. Gregory turned out to be a very effective administrator, possibly from the influence of his father's political knowledge. He started organizing ways to help the citizens.

Charitable relief was one of his greatest triumphs, using profits from donations to churches to help the poorest among the population. He demanded that each parish seek out those in need and keep track of them. Gregory encouraged his rich acquaintances to expiate their sins by making donations to aid the poor. If his staff (the papacy already had an accounting department) and followers would not cooperate, he replaced them. In one of his letters, he reprimands a subordinate:

I asked you most of all to take care of the poor. And if you knew of people in poverty, you should have pointed them out ... I desire that you give the woman, Pateria, forty solidi for the children's shoes and forty bushels of grain."

Famine was a large problem. The church owned over 1300 square miles of farmland which produced goods that were sold. Gregory set quotas for production, urged the people tending the land to do more, and had the results shipped to Rome to be distributed to the needy. The starving crowds in Rome started to receive—free of charge—necessities such as cheese, fish, grain, meat, oil, and wine.

Gregory was responsible for many other reforms, both political and religious. He made some changes to the order of the Mass which still pertain today, and maybe I will get to those details some day. In yesterday's post, however, I teased that he set in motion something that would make a profound change to the whole of English history. Tomorrow I'll tell you what he did outside of Rome and Italy. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Basilica of San Zeno

Theodoric as King of Italy did not just want to be king of the land; rather, he wanted to be seen as king or custodian of or successor to the Roman Empire. He therefore restored and renovated many public buildings as well as building new ones.

One of these new buildings was a small church built for St. Zeno. Zeno of Verona (c.300 - 371) was an early saint with a couple of backstories. One says that he came from Mauretania, an area in Africa known for Berbers, where he tutored children in their schoolwork and taught them about Christianity. Another theory was that he was a follower of Athanasius, an opponent of Arianism, who visited Verona in 340. The style of the nearly 100 sermons we have from Zeno support an African origin. One tradition says he was the eighth bishop of Verona, and Gregory the Great calls him a martyr.

Zeno supposedly—among his other good works—converted man from Arianism to Roman Christianity. Despite this, the Arian Christian Theodoric thought it wise to build a church for Zeno. The place was expanded into a basilica under King Pepin of Italy (Charlemagne's son) in the 9th century. In the 10th century, Zeno's body was moved to a different church after the building was damaged by Magyars, but it was returned eventually to its original crypt. The church was rebuilt with the patronage of Holy Roman Emperor Otto I. The current expanded building was completed in 1398.

You can learn more about the church and see its interior here. The church's sculptures show scenes from Theodoric's life. One scene is Theodoric riding into Hell (see it in the previous post), but also there are depictions of Theodoric's fight with Odoacer. Not depicted, however, is a famous story having nothing to do with Theodoric but known to all. The crypt below the church, where St. Zeno's bones lie buried, is supposed to be the crypt where two young lovers killed themselves because their families denied them their union. These two families of Verona were the Montecchi and Cappelletti, although you may know them as the Montagues and Capulets.

Regarding Gregory the Great: he has been mentioned only a few times in this blog, but he made a decision once that affected the whole of English History (and probably Western Civilization) forevermore. I'll explain next time.

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Theodoric Lives On!

Long after the death of Theodoric in 526, legends rose of the Germanic warrior who led his people to conquer various armies. (Theodoric even shows up on the Rök Stone.) As time passed, however, he wasn't called Theodoric of Ravenna: he was called Dietrich von Bern (of Verona). The name "Dietrich" means "Ruler of the People," which is the same definition as "Theodoric." The legends come from the late Holy Roman Empire and are largely written in Middle High German.

As is typical with the oral tradition of tale-telling, the details got muddled. Theodoric was born shortly after Attila the Hun died and a century after the Gothic King Ermanaric; he later invaded Italy and became its "king" by defeating Odoacer (the previous invader), with his capital in Ravenna. Dietrich, on the other hand, was the king of Italy already, ruling from Verona, but was forced into exile by his evil uncle, Ermenrich, and winds up at the court of Etzel (Attila) and the Huns. The switch from Ravenna to Verona suggests that the legends arose from the Lombards, whose capital was Verona (Ravenna was still part of the Byzantine culture).

Dietrich also differed from Theodoric in that he sometimes was depicted as breathing fire. This suggests a hint of the demonic. There may be an origin of this in some of the ideas about Theodoric. A 12th-century German chronicler, Otto of Freising, wrote that Theodoric rode to Hell (while alive) on an "infernal" horse. (See the illustration, thought to represent that ride of Theodoric, who is here labeled regem stultum, "stupid king," on the church portal of San Zeno Maggiore in Verona.) Some traditions called Theodoric a son of the devil. Because Theodoric was a practicing Arian, the prevailing Roman Christianity had reasons to "demonize" him.

An early (c.820) German heroic lay, Hildebrandslied, includes the story of the main character's flight alongside Dietrich to escape Odoacer, one of the few people that handed Theodoric defeats (until Theodoric negotiated a treaty and then slew Odoacer during the celebratory feast). Later legends become less and less historical, with Theodoric/Dietrich slaying a dragon, or fighting dwarves and giants.

The Church of San Zeno Maggiore, whence comes the above illustration, has a few more interesting historical tidbits I'd like to share. At first I thought it might be linked to Zeno, the Byzantine Emperor who put Theodoric in charge of the military and set him against Odoacer, but it turns out that it's a lot more interesting than that. See you tomorrow.