Sunday, September 30, 2012

"The Most Popular Poet in America"

Today is the 805th anniversary of Rumi's birth. On the 800th anniversary, in a story done by BBC News online, he was referred to as "the most popular poet in America." What journey took a medieval Muslim mystic to that title?

Marco Polo described the city of Balkh in what is now northern Afghanistan as a "noble and great city and a seat of learning"—this despite its destruction 50 years earlier by Genghis Khan. Since the mid-8th century, Balkh had been a center for Persian-Islamic culture, drawing scholars and theologians from near and far. One of them was a theologian, jurist and mystic named Bahā ud-Dīn Walad, the latest of several generations of jurists, who was also known later as Sultan al-Ulama, "Sultan of the Scholars."

Bahā ud-Dīn Walad fled Balkh at the approach of the Mongols, taking his family westward until finally reaching an area that had been under the control of the Eastern Roman Empire and was still called Rûm. There he became head of a madrassa, which upon his death was inherited by his son, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī. Because the son lived in Rûm, however, he is usually known today as Rumi.

Rumi started in his father's footsteps as a jurist; he preached and issued fatwas.* A meeting with the dervish Shams-e Tabrizi inspired him to become an ascetic; when Shams disappeared (or was murdered; sources disagree) a few years later, Rumi was devastated. His emotions found expression in poetry. Once he started writing, he didn't stop; the Mathnawi has been called his greatest poetic work.

Although a devout Muslim (his poetry includes hundreds of lines from the Quran), his work is considered to have universal appeal. According to the BBC:

With his injunctions of tolerance and love, he has universal appeal, says Abdul Qadir Misbah, a culture specialist in the Balkh provincial government.
"Whether a person is from East or West, he can feel the roar of Rumi," he says.
The madrassa where Rumi taught
"When a religious scholar reads the Mathnawi, he interprets it religiously. And when sociologists study it, they say how powerful a sociologist Rumi was. When people in the West study it, they see that it's full of emotions of humanity."[source]
His poetry has an evolutionary strain, in that he saw a progression in the universal soul working through levels of existence. The Muslim philosopher Al Farabi introduced this idea to Islam, and it finds expression in Rumi in lines like:
I died as a mineral and became a plant,
I died as plant and rose to animal,
I died as animal and I was Man.
Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?
Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar
With angels bless'd; but even from angelhood
I must pass on: all except God doth perish.
When I have sacrificed my angel-soul,
I shall become what no mind e'er conceived.
Oh, let me not exist! for Non-existence
Proclaims in organ tones,
To Him we shall return.
Rumi's poetry has inspired much of classical Iranian and Afghan music, and has been translated into languages all over the world. Madonna, Goldie Hawn, Philip Glass and Demi Moore have done performances of his poetry.

As for Rumi in his country of origin: the Taliban outlawed music, and Sufism didn't fit their view of Islam. Since their ouster from political power in Afghanistan, Rumi has had a resurgence.

*Although in the West fatwas have a bad name, they are treated differently in the Sunni and Shia sects. Rumi was Sunni, and so his fatwas were non-binding.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Good King Wenceslaus

It's far from St. Stephen's Day, but yesterday was the anniversary of the death of the man who is associated with that holiday.

Wenceslaus (c.907-935) was the eldest son born to the Christian Duke of Bohemia, Wratislaw, and Dragomir. Dragomir was the daughter of a chief of a Hevelli tribe from eastern Germany; she was baptized a Christian at her marriage, but remained pagan. When Wratislaw died in 921, the 13-year-old Wenceslaus was sent to his paternal grandmother, (who would later be Saint) Ludmilla, for a good Christian education. Dragomir, angry at losing the influence over the new duke, had Ludmilla strangled, took Wenceslaus back into her care, and started introducing him to her religion (Bohemia was not entirely or steadfastly Christian). Her son secretly continued to practice Christianity, however.

Around 924-5, he became Duke in his own right and gathered the nobles who were Christians to depose his mother. This did not make all well in Bohemia, however, since there were still plenty of pagan nobles who did not appreciate the religion of their ruler. Wenceslaus' younger brother, Boleslav, was pagan, and some of the nobles tried to create a faction around him, hoping to replace Wenceslaus.

But Wenceslaus had plenty of external political difficulties as well. Henry I, the Christian King of Germany, attacked Bohemia with help from Duke Arnulf of Bavaria. The probably reason is that Henry I needed a tribute from Bohemia that had first been established in 895 and had recently been stopped. Henry himself owed tribute to the Magyars, and Germany very likely needed the money it could get from Bohemia in order to make his own payments.* Rather than engage in a war, Wenceslaus swore fealty to Henry and made the payment. The nobles—especially the pagan nobles—would not have appreciated becoming subservient to another country, especially a Christian one.

Wenceslaus, pursued, tries to enter church
Eventually, and for whatever reason, Boleslav and his supporters saw a chance and took it. Boleslav invited Wenceslaus to celebrate the feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian together. He was stabbed on his way to the church by three of Boleslav's friends.

A cult venerating him built up immediately after his death. The hagiographies written about him stressed how he would give alms to poor people. Whether this were true did not matter years later when it became celebrated as fact. Although he had only been a duke, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I proclaimed him a King, hence the title given in the holiday song. (There was an actual King Wenceslaus of Bohemia, but that was 300 years after the saint.)

His reign was short, and we cannot confirm the piety attributed to him. His legend became very powerful, however, enough to have him proclaimed the patron saint of Czechoslovakia. His feast day is the day of his death, 28 September, but he will forever be associated with 26 December, the Feast of St. Stephen, because of the 1853 song written by the English priest and scholar, John Mason Neale.

And just for the sake of completion.

*The politics of this situation were complicated, and might need their own post to clarify.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Saint Anthony

The Classical and Middle Ages generated more Saints Anthony that you can shake a crozier at:
Anthony of Antioch (d.302)
Anthony the Hermit (c.468-c.520) aka Anthony of Lérins
Anthony of Kiev (c.983-1073) aka Anthony of the Caves
Anthony of Rome (d.1147) aka Anthony Rimlyanin
Anthony of Padua (c.1195-1231) aka Anthony of Lisbon
Anthony of Florence (1389-1459)
But if you wanted to talk about an Anthony, wouldn't you pick the one they called "the Great"?

St. Anthony the Great (c.251-356) was mentioned in yesterday's post, supporting St. Athanasius against Arianism. He was a Coptic Christian from Egypt, but is recognized as a saint by the Coptic, Roman Catholic, Bulgarian Orthodox, and Eastern Orthodox churches.

His denomination-crossing significance derives from his status as the first monk. To be honest, there were monks—ascetics, men who chose to deny themselves worldly pleasure in order to study and pray—before him, but his decision to go out into the desert of Libya to get away from civilization was the example that made other ascetics take note.

It was about the year 270 that he heard the words from the Gospel of Matthew 19:21 at mass: "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor." He was moved to act immediately: he convinced his sister to join a local group of nuns, sold his considerable property, gave the money to the poor (except for a small amount he set aside for his sister's needs), and headed into the desert. He fasted during daylight hours, lived on bread and salt and water, slept on the ground, resisted devilish temptation, and fought demons.

The Enemy subjected him to the temptations of the flesh and the anxieties of the world like thoughts of his family and loved ones, urging him to return to the world (as we are told by his biographer, St. Athanasius):
But the more the Evil One brought unto him filthy and maddening thoughts, the more Saint Anthony took refuge in prayer and in abundant supplication, and amid them all he remained wholly chaste.
Monastery of St. Anthony
Stories of Anthony's great devotion and asceticism were taken back to civilization by visitors, and more and more people came to learn from him and share in his growing reputation for holiness. But Athanasius tells us that Anthony was horrified by this, lest he himself be exalted as more worthy than other men. The so-called "first monk" never founded a monastery, never gathered followers, never preached a set of rules for others to live by. He pursued his own path to faith. On his death bed, he instructed the division of his garments to others, and requested to be put into an unmarked hole in the ground by two friends, Marcarius and Amatas, and the location left unrevealed to prevent veneration.

That didn't stop others from using him as a focal point, however. Shortly after his death at the age of 105, his followers started to dig and expand a spring in the cave where he lived, creating an oasis. Around this they began to build a monastery. The Monastery of St. Anthony still stands today, the oldest and largest Coptic monastery in Egypt. Its extreme isolation saved it from being a target of Arab conquest. It has changed and expanded greatly over the centuries, but can still be found 1300 feet above sea level in the desert southeast of Cairo.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Coptic Christians

Coptic Icon of St. Mark
Coptic Christians have suddenly been in the news, from a centuries-old fragment of papyrus with a supposed reference to Jesus being married to the maker of a controversial film on Mohammed. Now might be a good time to talk about their history.

According to tradition, St. Mark the Evangelist carried the message of Christianity to Alexandria in Egypt and founded the first communities that became the Coptic Church. There is a fragment of the Gospel of John written in Coptic that dates to the first half of the 2nd century in Upper Egypt, suggesting that St. Mark's efforts bore widespread fruit. The English name "Copt" started being used in the 17th century, from the Latin Coptus (Copt), which derived from Arabic al-ḳubṭ (the Coptsfrom Greek Aigyptios (Egyptian).

Christianity's foothold in Egypt was strong, and has remained so. The Catechetical School in Alexandria has operated continuously since 190 CE, and produced some significant theologians of the first millennium: Athenagoras, Clement, and the prolific Bible commentator Origen all studied there.

Coptic Christianity has been present in this blog before, but hidden in the background. The Nicene Creed, discussed here, was modified at the Council of Constantinople in 381; tradition has it that the new version which is more like what is used today was proposed by the Coptic Christian St. Athanasius of Alexandria (c.298-373). Athanasius was Pope in 352 during the debate over the Arian heresy. He was supported by his fellow Copt, Saint Anthony of Upper Egypt, who is considered the first Christian monk. When John Cassian, the "sometime saint," went to Egypt to learn asceticism from Christian monks, he was visiting Copts who were following Anthony's model. St. Jerome, translator of the Bible into Latin, seen here mocking Pelagius, visited the Coptic Christian community in Egypt around 400.

Coptic Bible
The Copts survived after the Arab conquest of Egypt in 640, because the Prophet preached kindness to Egyptians on account of his Egyptian wife. Over the centuries, however, as the Christians in Egypt became a minority, they lost more and more rights. Still, in the long run they were able to maintain their separate religious identity and yet be accepted as citizens of largely Muslim Egypt; Coptic Christians remain <20% of the Egyptian population. The late 20th century is better for Copts, and one even made it to one of the most internationally prestigious positions in the world: Dr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Secretary-General of the United Nations (1992-97).

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Father of Modern Optics

For a long time, there were two competing theories about how the eyes see—both wrong.

Alhazen ibn al-Haytham
Aristotle believed in what is called the intromission theory: the idea that actual physical forms enter the eye to plant images in your head. Euclid and Ptolemy believed in the theory of extromission: the idea that rays from the eyes went out and "scanned" or "detected" objects. Scholars and philosophers for centuries came down on one side or the other. It wasn't until the 11th century that a better theory came along.

Alhazen ibn al-Haytham (965-c.1040) was a Muslim who wrote about many topics. Originally he was a theologian, trying to address and reconcile the issues between the Shi'ah and Sunnah sects. He made his most lasting contributions, however, in the fields of astronomy, mathematics and optics. His Kitab al-Manazir (Book of Optics) changed the study of optics forever. He rejected both previous theories, arguing that there was no time for the eye to emit rays that could travel to a distant star and back to the eye instantly the way they would have to when first opening the eyes. He also refused to believe there was any mechanism that allowed forms to enter the eye. Instead, he opted (ha ha) for light coming from external objects to enter the eye, carrying an image of the object being looked at.

His theory of light's involvement in sight came when he realized that bright and dim light both affected visual perception, and that bright light left after-images on the eye. Also, it was obvious that perceiving color depended upon having sufficient light. He even invented the camera obscura in order to learn more about how light worked.

...and he did it while in prison.
Alhazen's diagram of the eye, with terms we still use

Earlier in his career, he became overconfident in his knowledge and made the mistake of claiming it would be possible to devise a way to control the annual spring flooding of the Nile. (Although born in Basra, Iraq, he lived his adult life in Cairo.) Hearing this, Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, the sixth ruler of the Fatimid dynasty, ordered him to do so. When al-Haytham realized he wasn't able to perform this enormous feat of engineering, he tried to simply retire from the profession. The angry Caliph sent his men for al-Haytham, who feigned madness in order to avoid a death sentence for disappointing his all-powerful ruler. He was placed under house arrest, and devoted the remainder of his life to the sciences for which he is now known. Because of the experiments he conducted in order to test his theories, mirroring what would be known as the scientific method, some think of him as the "first scientist."

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Price of a Man

Murder has long been considered the worst crime in many societies. Unlike theft, or vandalism, it cannot be paid back. The only "proportional response" for avenging the death of a friend or loved one was to use the Old Testament values of "an eye for an eye" and slay the slayer. This, unfortunately, could lead to a Hatfields and McCoys situation, with death after death on both sides, an escalating cycle of inter-family murders.

But does it have to?

In the early Middle Ages, Anglo-Saxon and Germanic societies found a way to establish, as a community, a way to settle the matter of a death in a legal and tidy system: wergild (Old English wer = "man"* + gild = "tribute/gold").

The practice was first established by Æthelbert of Kent (c.560-616). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that Æthelbert held sway over the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Britain. He was the first English ruler to convert to Christianity, and perhaps wergild was his attempt to cool the hot blood of the Anglo-Saxon culture. Within a couple centuries, wergild was being used for theft, rape, breach of peace and many other crimes and misdemeanors. Wergild allowed a community to move on after monetary retribution.

How much retribution? It was different for different areas and times. In Kent in the 8th century, a cow was worth a shilling; a freeman was worth 100 shillings, and a nobleman 300. Elsewhere, a sheep might be worth a shilling, and a nobleman worth 1200 sheep. Only slaves were worth too little to account for.

Exchanging money for people had uses beyond crime. In the later Middle Ages, ransoms for captured prisoners were a regular occurrence, and money was more valuable than eliminating an enemy in a military engagement that was far removed from the emotional setting that might have led to homicide in a different time and place. The 20th century hasn't forgotten about wergild, even if we do not use it widely. You may recall the revelation that the U.S. was using financial compensation for deaths and injuries to civilians in Afghanistan. Wergild also appears in The Lord of the Rings, when Isildur refuses to throw the One Ring into Mount Doom when he had the chance, instead claiming it "as wergild for my father and brother." In his case, however, wergild created a larger problem than it solved.

*Think "werewolf"="man+wolf."

Monday, September 24, 2012

Hermann of Reichenau

Hermann, with crutch & Salve Regina
Hermann of Reichenau (1013-1054) was born to Count Wolverad II and his wife Hiltrud in Upper Swabia. He was severely disabled at birth, and had to be carried around in a specially built chair. A 1999 article tried to diagnose him based on contemporary reports.
Using the biography written by his disciple Berthold, [an] unbiased analysis of the symptoms described [...] is worked out: [...] Intellectual functions were unaffected. [...] Muscle disease is considered possible, but motor neuron disease - either amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or spinal muscular atrophy - seems to be the most convincing diagnosis. [C Brunhölzl, Thoughts on the illness of Hermann von Reichenau]
Because of his condition, he was nicknamed "Contractus" or "the Lame." When he was seven years old, his parents handed him over to the cloister school of the nearby Benedictine monastery on Lake Constance, where he studied under Abbot Berno. Berno was a well-known figure at the time for, among other things, his reforms in liturgical music. Hermann became a monk in 1043 and, upon Abbot Berno's death in 1048, became Berno's successor as abbot.

Despite Hermann's extreme difficulty in moving and even speaking, he was considered a devoted monk and brilliant scholar. He wrote a great deal on music, mathematics, and astronomy. As well as a treatise on the science of music, he wrote two of the best-known of the medieval liturgical songs, the Alma Redemptoris Mater (Loving Mother of the Redeemer), and the Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen).*

Among his other accomplishments, he is credited with speaking Arabic, because through his writings he made available to the Latin West many scientific discoveries that were previously only widely known in the Arab world. This knowledge of Arabic, however, is only an assumption. His biographer, Berthold, never mentions knowledge of Arabic, which would be unusual omission for such an accomplishment. The monastery was a center of learning in the area, and very likely held copies of works by Gerbert of Aurillac, who learned much from Arabic sources in Spain.

Hermann wrote two works on the astrolabe, previously unknown in Europe, and described a portable sundial. His works on mathematics used Roman numerals. Although this precluded the use of decimals, he still achieved some remarkable results. In his Epistola de quantitate mensis lunaris (Letter on measurement of lunar months), he tries to find the average length of a lunar month. In decimal notation, it is 29.530851 days. Hermann did not only not have decimal notation, he didn't have minutes and seconds. In his time, the hour was divided into "moments" and "atoms." He calculates the length of the lunar month to be 29 days, 12 hours, 29 moments, 348 atoms, which turns out to be exactly right.

He also wrote a history called Chronicon ad annum 1054 (Chronicle to the year 1054). The original is lost, but a 1529 edition saved the unique historical knowledge inside. After Hermann's death, it was continued by Berthold; Berthold died in 1088, but the duty was taken up by others up until 1175.

Hermann died on 24 September. In 1863, he was beatified (a step toward being recognized as a saint). As Blessed Hermann of Reichenau, he is considered the patron of unborn babies, and his Feast Day is celebrated on 25 September.

*A popular English version of Salve Regina was prominent in the Whoopi Goldberg film "Sister Act."

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Autumnal Equinox Lightshow

Holy Trinity Church in Barsham, Suffolk
The equinox, from Latin aequinoctium (the time of equal days and nights), the day twice each year when the amount of daylight and darkness equalizes. We are used to marking the solstices, because the longest day of sunlight and the shortest day in winter carry real-life significance for us. But the equinoxes in spring and fall rarely get the same attention.

But in Suffolk, England, in Holy Trinity Church in the tiny town of Barsham, the equinoxes have provided a special show since the Middle Ages—if one knew where to look.

To be truthful, the "special show" was forgotten for a long time because of some changes. Holy Trinity is an early church, using stone from Caen that tells us it was built post-1066, although the round tower is by many considered to be an earlier Saxon style. The church suffered when Henry VIII broke with Rome and made changes consistent with the new Anglican Church. A rood screen, an ornate partition between the main part of the church and the nave behind the altar, was torn down, and the large crucifix that hung on it was eliminated. In 1870, however, the vicar of Holy Trinity decided to rebuild the rood screen and restore the crucifix to the same spot it hung in centuries earlier. Unfortunately, the vicar also decided to hang a large painting over a narrow west window whose significance he did not realize.

On the equinoxes, light strikes the crucifix for 4 minutes
Then, in 1979, a fire destroyed the nave roof. During the reconstruction, someone took the painting down. Years later, during a mass at dusk on the autumnal equinox, someone saw it. Now that the church was restored to its original configuration, the narrow western window throws a shaft of light for 4 minutes each equinox—and only on the equinox—right onto the crucifix near the top of the rood screen.

It was easy to miss for several years: it doesn't show when there is cloud cover at twilight, and you need to be looking up. Now that the phenomenon has been re-discovered, however, the church is filled each equinox by people waiting to see the fascinating result of an unknown medieval architect who decided to use light to illuminate his art.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Jews in London

One street is all that remains of the Jewry
Jews had followed William the Conqueror to England* and established a significant presence in London in an area still called Old Jewry. Their business and money-lending practices were efficient, such that their homes were made of sturdy stone more often than their Gentile neighbors' houses. William II (1087-1100) seems to have been tolerant of the Jews; Henry II (fl.1154-1189) as well. Life in London was considered amenable enough to Jews that the well-known Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra visited London, where in 1158 he wrote his Iggeret ha-Shabbat (Epistle on the Sabbath), which can still be found in print today.
Of course, life was never "good" for the Jews in medieval Europe. In England, for instance, there were laws designed to harass the Jews, like that which required every Jew who died in England to be buried at a special cemetery set up at Cripplegate in London—which forced every Jewish family to pay a fee for the burial.

King Henry III of England was first mentioned here in my second-ever blog post. In 1232 he established the Domus Conversorum (House of Converts), meant for Jews who converted to Christianity, giving up their possessions in exchange for a home and a daily stipend for food and necessities.

Henry was devout, certainly, but not always charitable. In the words of one scholar:
If Henry III, despite being constantly broke, managed to find enough money to keep work at [Westminster] Abbey in progress, that was partly because he was at least a devout enough Catholic to be able to rob the Jews with a good conscience. [A History of London, Robert Gray]
Henry, always in need of money, was fond of borrowing from the Jews and simply not paying them back. Jews were seen as being a tool for the King's pleasure, and the Barons and others resented the Crown's control over them. For the Coronation of Richard I Lionheart in Westminster Abbey, a Jewish group tried to crowd in the Abbey to show support and bring gifts for the new king. Their presence touched off riots. Londoners rushed to the Jewry and set fire to houses, killing those who tried to escape.

Thirty were reported killed. The conviction rate afterward: three. Two of those had accidentally torched a Christian home, and one had robbed a Christian home in the confusion.

*No evidence exists of a Jewish presence in England prior to 1066.

Friday, September 21, 2012

London Bridge is Falling Down!

[For earlier history, see here.]

Finding the origin of nursery rhymes can be unreliable, since one never knows how long a rhyme was circulating orally until it got recorded. See my comments on "Ring Around the Rosie" here. Also, what we think of as the nursery rhyme may be just the latest version; earlier versions may lead to entirely different interpretations. The full current version of "London Bridge Is Falling Down" can be read here. It has references that make it very unlikely to be a medieval poem.

Viking boat pulling down London Bridge
The earliest reference to something that might be related to the Bridge rhyme is found in the Norse Heimskringla, written in Iceland by Snorri Sturluson (1178-1241). In it, Sturluson collected stories of Norwegian kings. In one story, King Olaf II attacked London and the Bridge in the company of the Saxon King Æthelred the Unready. They pulled it down with chains, dividing the Danish forces who had no other easy way to cross the Thames. The 1844 English edition included a poem by another poet, Ottar Svarti ("Ottar the Black"), which begins with the line "London Bridge is broken down." It was discovered later, however, that the translator decided to prefix Ottar's poem with a made-up line. Ottar never referred to London Bridge.

In the 1890s, another theory as to the origin came from a British folklorist. Drawing on an old theme of blood sacrifice to make foundations strong, she suggested that children were buried—perhaps alive—under the Bridge. Actually, there was a burial "under" the Bridge. Peter de Colechurch, who was heavily involved in the construction of the 12th century version, was a chaplain of the church in which St. Thomas Becket was baptized. He had a chapel on the Bridge dedicated to Becket. de Colechurch died in 1205 and was buried in the crypt, at the river level of the chapel. At the dismantling of the Bridge in 1832, when his bones were found, they were unceremoniously tossed into the Thames.

Wedding of Henry III & Eleanor of Provence
Then there's the story that Eleanor of Provence (c.1223-1291), who was given the tolls and rents from the Bridge as a present from her husband, Henry III, spent them on herself rather than the upkeep of the Bridge. The Bridge fell into disrepair, and a derisive verse was formed with the telling, sarcastic phrase "my fair lady."

Control of the Bridge was returned to the City of London in 1281. Ironically, the heavy river ice that winter built up against the bridge and five of the arches collapsed.

The Bridge has become iconic. A few remaining stones of the medieval version can be seen in the churchyard of St. Magnus Martyr, which used to be at one end of the span. In the early 1960s, when he learned London wanted to replace the Bridge and offered to sell the Victorian version, American chainsaw magnate Robert McCulloch offered the winning bid of $2,460,000. McCulloch transported the stones (carefully coded) to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, USA, where he had them painstakingly re-assembled over a steel structure. "London Bridge" now exists on both sides of the Atlantic!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

London Bridge is Going Up!

London Bridge—the first of which was built in 80 CE—has, indeed, fallen down. In fact, for the first millennium of the Common Era, the wooden structure linking Southwark to the City of London was rebuilt countless times. As the only link between the banks of the river from the sea until Kingston (15 miles upriver from London), it was important for commerce and defense.

In 1014, when Æthelred the Unready's Saxons and King Olaf's Vikings joined forces and sailed up the Thames, they aimed to split the Danish forces in London by attacking the Bridge. The Danes hurled spears down on the ships, which defended themselves with thatch taken from London cottages; then the attackers went under the Bridge and pulled down the supports with cables. To some, this is the origin of the nursery rhyme.*

That wasn't the only time "London Bridge is Falling Down" would have entered the vocabulary. For the first 70 years after the Norman Conquest in 1066, there were ten incidents in which fire destroyed or significantly damaged the bridge. Several of the rebuilding efforts included aid from different counties, proving the importance of London Bridge to those outside the city.

A stone bridge was begun in 1176. Financed by a tax and overseen by Peter de Colechurch, it took 33 years to finish.

The enclosed road on the Bridge
This was an enormous undertaking. The new London Bridge was 300 yards long, with 20 arches that were 60 feet high and with 30 feet wide spaces, each with gates. The bridge supported a road 20 feet wide—wide enough to be used for houses and shops, some of which were three stories high. Upper stories would be built wider than the main floor, and joined by timbers. The Bridge became a narrow lane lined with shops, with a roof overhead. Their rents supported the upkeep. Mill wheels were set up under the arches to grind grain.

Sadly, the City's modern needs demanded that the old Bridge be demolished and a new one be built, in 1831-2. Another decade, and we might even have had photographs of the structure that stood for over six centuries.

*More on that in the future.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Abbot Suger

Abbot Suger in stained glass
Back here, I discussed Gothic architecture, but there was no time to mention its birthplace, the Abbey Church of St.-Denis, or its midwife, Abbot Suger.*

The church had existed for centuries, and was rebuilt a few times before Abbot Suger (flourished 1122-1151) arranged the renovation that was to transform ecclesiastical architecture. The major elements of Gothic architecture—elaborate style, ribbed vaulting that supported higher ceilings, pointed arches that enabled larger windows, etc.—already existed, but Suger's efforts brought them together in one building for the first time and created something very different from the massive, dense, dark Romanesque style of building.

Was Suger an architect? A builder? How is it that we so confidently give him credit for this change in ecclesiastical building? Because he did something else that was unique for the era: he told us what he was doing. He left us two works, preserved by the Abbey: Liber de De rebus in administratione sua gestis (The book of deeds done in his administration), and Libellus Alter De consecratione ecclesiae sancti dionysii (The other little book on the consecration of the church of St.-Denis). Translated in 1946 by art historian Erwin Panofsky (previously mentioned here), they tell a tale of a devoted man dedicated to praising God and His creation through every aspect possible of the church that was built to honor Him.

Ambulatory showing ribbed vaulting
No, he probably didn't design the building, but we are sure he had a hand in the design, and have no reason to discount his words when he says:
Noble is the work, but the work which shines here so nobly should lighten the hearts so that, through true lights they can reach the one true light, where Christ is the true door… the dull spirit rises up through the material to the truth, and although he was cast down before, he arises new when he has seen this light.
Suger made clear that introducing more light to the interior of the church, promoting the use of color, and building in taller elements would help lift the congregants' spirit as well as their eyes upward. He had an enormous amount of money and effort put into the construction of a gold crucifix, 6 meters in height, and gold altar panels; into these panels he says he put:
about forty-two marks of gold; a multifarious wealth of precious gems, hyacinths, rubies, sapphires, emeralds and topazes, and also an array of different large pearls
The cross is long gone, but the church remains, celebrated as the first truly Gothic church, standing on the Ile de France. A piece of it—Suger's chalice—has made it to North America, however, and stands in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.  Also, there is a photo-filled blog devoted to Suger right here.

*Pronounced su-zháy.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Locks Through the Ages

Locks are mentioned as far back as the Old Testament. The book of Nehemiah, which describes events in the second half of the 5th century, makes mention in chapter 3 of repairing the gates of the City of Jerusalem, saying that they "set up the doors thereof, and the locks thereof, and the bars thereof." Whatever they meant by locks, they were clearly a part of the security different from bars and doors.

Late Medieval lock from Newcastle-upon-Tyne
We know that the Romans had barbed spring padlocks made of iron. A barbed hasp of metal under tension would catch on a hook inside the padlock, and a key would push in at the hook, releasing the barb so that the hasp would spring open.

A pin-tumbler lock—that uses internal pins (sometimes) of varying lengths that require a matching key pattern before they are in the proper alignment to allow the lock to open—was first patented in 1784 patent by Joseph Bramah. The modern version with which we are familiar today was patented in 1848 by Linus Yale Sr., and then modified by Linus Yale Jr. in 1861.

Mechanism of Egyptian pin-tumbler lock from Nineveh
Chances are that none of these gentlemen was aware that a 2700-year-old pin tumbler lock has been found in the Khorsabad palace in Nineveh.* It is made of wood. The key had four pins; it would be inserted into a channel in the bolt and lifted up to raise four tumblers up and out of the way so that the lock could be opened.

Between Khorsabad and Yale, the pin-tumbler lock was used all over Europe and Asia, changing very little in mechanics, but a lot in art design. As metal-smithing became more refined, the locks and keys became more complex. Locks and keys also became works of art, designed to fit visually with their intended purpose.

In medieval Europe, with men going off to war, important keys—to doors, chests that held valuables, coffers that held the lord's seal (needed for official documents) would be left with the trusted lady of the castle, the chatelaine (from Latin castellan, the "lady of the castle"). The symbol of the chatelaine became a cord or belt from which hung several keys. This led to the term "chatelaine" (still in use) to mean a chain or dangling clip used to organize items, such as a small pair of sewing scissors on a long chain.

*If you care to do your own searches on this topic, you'll frequently find the oldest lock is said to be 4000 years old or from 4000 BC. Since the references agree it was found in Khorsabad palace, which was built by Sargon II, who ruled 721-705 BCE, I have to assume online sources have been careless in their reporting of its age. Smith College is a little more careful with its description.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Got Silk?

Silk was not a medieval invention. According to Chinese tradition, Empress Si-Ling-Chi in 2460 BCE watched silkworms spinning cocoons; she unwound several cocoons, then ran the strands together to make thread, then wove the result into cloth to make a robe for Emperor Huang-Ti.

The Silk Road routes
Unverifiable, but it may very well be true. What is slightly more historically documented is that China guarded the secret of this magnificent fabric for centuries, but was willing to manufacture the cloth and sell it for very high prices to others. Wealthy people from other countries would gladly pay large sums to purchase it—soft and smooth, light to wear, dyed easily—so knowledge of this material spread. India somehow figured out the secret and was manufacturing its own silk by the 2nd century CE.

Ezekiel mentions silk, which means it was known to the Middle East in the 6th century BCE. Aristotle mentions the process of dealing with the cocoons, but the knowledge must have been lost for awhile, because it seems to be a mystery to that part of the world centuries later. We are told that Julius Caesar (100-15 March 44 BCE) had silk curtains. It is thought that the Romans first encountered silk in the hands of the Parthians in the first century BCE. By the end of the 1st century CE, Rome was trading for silk with the Parthians; we don't know what kind of "mark up" the Parthians were putting on the silk that they got from the East, but it was probably substantial. Although more than silk was traded between the East and West, silk was one of the few things only available from the Far East, and so the collection of interconnected trade routes from China and India to Byzantium and Alexandria became known as the "Silk Road."

Of course, it is cheaper to manage production yourself, and the Byzantine scholar Procopius (500-565 CE) tells us how some Nestorian monks* gave the Emperor Justinian the secret: the thread comes from silkworms that could not survive transportation, but their cocoons would travel well if insulated in dung and fed on mulberry leaves when hatched. Byzantium created a thriving silk industry and supplied Europe for centuries. The silk factories were staffed by all-female crews, and so were called gynaecea—after the name given to the section of a Roman or Greek home devoted to women.

Marco Polo on the Silk Road
The cycle of industrial espionage continued, however, when Muslims, who learned the secret of silk when they conquered Persia, took over Sicily and Spain. By the 13th century, Europe was producing its own silk and purchasing less from Byzantium. By the 15th century, France had its own factories. This was necessary, according to Louis XI, because purchasing silk from Italy created a trade deficit for France of 40-50,000,000 gold écus.**

Silk is different from cotton or wool in that it is not spun; rather, two or more strands are twisted together. To produce this, new techniques were invented. The simple reel is said to have been first devised for holding strands of silk, which could be up to a mile long. Two reels would be set up to unwind simultaneously so that their strands could be twisted together in a technique called "throwing."

The Middle Ages loved silk so much that a whole new vocabulary was created to describe its uses in fabrics:
  • alexander - a striped silk
  • baldachin - a warp of gold thread with a woof of silk
  • begin - 14th century rayed silk fabric
  • camlet - half silk/half hair (such as angora)
  • cendal - woven silk material
  • ecarlate - high-quality silk
  • gauze - semi-transparent silk (from 13th century onward)
  • imperial - silk with gold thread; originally from Byzantium, later called baldachin
  • osterni - silk dyed purple
  • samite - silk with interwoven gold or silver threads
  • sarcenet - thin soft silk with slight sheen; sometimes called "shot"
  • tartaire - silk from Tartary
...and in all these centuries, it hasn't lost its luster.

*Remember the Nestorians? They were a branch of Christianity deemed heretical a century before Procopius, who made their home in the East where William Rubruck ran into them.
**Story of the Silk Road by Yiping Zhang, p.146 (I don't normally bog things down with citations—I assume you trust me!—but this number was so ... impressive that I felt the need to point to a source. It may be a huge exaggeration.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

You CAN take it with you

12th c. image of St. Cuthbert
St. Cuthbert (c.634-687), briefly mentioned here, never stayed in one place for very long—not even after he died. He grew up near Melrose Abbey, became a monk and was made master of guests in a monastery at Ripon, then returned to Melrose when the monastery was given to someone else.* After a few years he was made prior at Lindisfarne. Before his death he resigned and retired to one of the Farne Islands off the northeast coast of Northumbria. Urged to become Bishop of Lindisfarne, he left the Islands for a few years, but returned when he felt his death was approaching. His body was brought back to the mainland so that he could be interred at Lindisfarne Priory.

In 875, with the threat of Danish Invasion, the monks fled Lindisfarne, taking Cuthbert's remains. The monks and Cuthbert's body wandered for seven years looking for a home. In 883 they were offered a place called Chester-le-Street near Durham, where Cuthbert was re-interred.

In the late 900s, the threat of Danish invasion caused monks to remove the Saint's bones again, carrying them to Ripon over 300 years after he had lived there—but only for a few months. The monks brought the bones back toward Chester-le-Street, but stopped in Durham after having dreams that the saint wished to be interred there. A stone church was built to house the relics. Then came William the Conqueror, campaigning to make sure the north of England feared him, so in 1069 the monks fled with the bones back to Lindisfarne, but shortly after returned to Durham.

William's habit of building massive churches to impress the locals (and perhaps to appease God for William's sins) meant that, by 1104, the bones of Cuthbert could return to Durham to a cathedral that had been built on the site of his original stone church. We are told that it was decided at this time to open the casket they had carted around for so many generations; they discovered two remarkable things. One was that Cuthbert's body had remained uncorrupted (a sign of sanctity). The second thing was a book, now called The Stonyhurst Gospel or St. Cuthbert's Gospel.

It's a tiny bound book, only 5.4x3.6 inches, and was probably not Cuthbert's personal Gospel. It is likely that it was made after his death, and placed with him out of piety at some point during his post-death wandering. It, like Cuthbert, wandered for hundreds of years after its finding, ultimately passing among collectors until it came to the Jesuit Stonyhurst College. The British Library has called it "the earliest surviving intact European book," and purchased it in April 2012 for £9,000,000. They plan to display it alternately in London and Durham.

*That someone was later St. Wilfrid; among other things, Wilfrid became celebrated for his speech at the Synod of Whitby on why Easter should be calculated using the Roman method, not the Irish method. Cuthbert was raised in the Irish tradition, but accepted the Roman method when it became the rule.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Marco! Polo!

Today is the 758th anniversary (according to tradition) of the birth of Marco Polo (1254-1324). Son of a wealthy Venetian merchant who traded with the Middle East, Marco might have simply grown up to follow his father's footsteps, but he instead followed a different set of footsteps: at the age of 17 he accompanied his father and uncle to Asia.

At the time, Marco's father and uncle had just returned from a trip to the East. They brought with them a letter from Kublai Khan of the Mongols (1215-1294), to be delivered to the Pope, requesting 100 missionaries and oil from the lamp of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. In 1275, after a three-year journey, the two Polos and Niccolo's son Marco delivered the oil to the Khan. There, we are told, the Khan took a liking to Marco. Marco returned 24 years later to find Venice at war with Genoa; Marco was imprisoned by Genoan authorities because of his participation in a naval battle, and spent his time in prison dictating an account of his travels. The rest, as they say, is history.

But what about history before Marco?

Trade between East and West at this time benefited from the Mongol Expansion (c.1207-1360), because it broke the monopoly on trade routes enjoyed by the Islamic Caliphate. Marco's family was well situated for these travels. His grandfather, Andrea Polo of San Felice, was noble and well-off. Andrea set up his three sons (Marco, young Marco's father Niccolo, and Matteo*) in commerce. They had offices in Constantinople and at Sudak on the Black Sea. Niccolo and Matteo had met Kublai Khan when, on a trading expedition, they met up with his envoys who were returning from visiting the Khan's brother Hulagu in Persia. The Polos were persuaded to make the journey to Cathay to meet the Khan. It was Kublai's first meeting with Europeans, and he was fascinated by what they had to tell him about Europe and the Latin West. He asked them to take his request to their Pope; he wanted to learn all about Christianity and the liberal arts of the growing university system.

Marco Polo's travels
Upon returning home, the brothers discovered that Niccolo's wife had died, leaving Marco to be raised by relatives. Pope Clement IV had died and a new pope had not yet been chosen. After two more years with still no papal successor in place, the brothers decided they could wait no longer, and headed East with young Marco. They stopped at Acre and consulted with the papal legate Teobaldo Visconti, who gave them letters for the Khan explaining why their commission failed. They continued East.

Not long after, however, they learned that Teobaldo himself had been named pope, and they turned back to Acre and managed to get communications to and from him. Now, as Pope Gregory X (c.1210-1276), he could only offer a couple Dominicans. These Dominicans lost heart in Armenia when they ran into the troops of a sultan, and turned back for home.

The Khan was pleased to see the Venetians, who did not return to Europe for many years. According to Marco's account, not only did he see coal and paper money for the first time, but he was made governor of Yang-chow, with 27 cities under him, for three years, and given several missions by the Khan to visit other areas in Asia and return with information. It was more than 20 years before the Khan gave them permission to return home.

People of his era had a difficult time believing the stories he told. Later scholars had an even more difficult time: why did he never mention chopsticks in all that time? Or the Great Wall? But the Great Wall was a work in progress, much of which was only built after Marco's time there. And perhaps chopsticks weren't an impressive enough difference to bother reporting; after all, his was a Europe still only slowly adopting the use of the fork.

But, embellishments or not, his name is famous—even if children who play it in a swimming pool have no idea who he was. (And some day soon I'll tell you about the "Reverse Marco Polo," Rabban bar Sauma.)

*Half the sources call him "Maffeo"

Friday, September 14, 2012

Hadrian's Wall

In 1796, Newcastle's town clerk bought a 17th century mansion called the Chesters Estate which included a part of Hadrian's Wall and a Roman fort. He leveled the fort to create a park-like setting for his home, showing no particular interest in preserving a piece of history. Fortunately, his young son felt differently. John Clayton (1792-1890) would follow in his father's footsteps as town clerk, but before that he would diverge from his father in showing a keen interest in preserving the past.

In the 1830s, John became concerned about Hadrian's Wall: parts were missing. Farmers and others had been dismantling sections of the 72-mile-long structure for their own building projects for centuries. Dismayed at the loss of a piece of history, he began to buy up the land on which it stood. He promoted tourism of the Wall, he conducted excavations and restoration work, and he published archaeological studies on it.

Foundation of a "milecastle"
Traditionally, the Wall was begun on this date in 122. There is evidence, however, that when Emperor Hadrian visited Britain in 122 to review the borders of the Roman Empire the wall was already in progress. The descriptions and remains are impressive: its dimensions varied from 10 feet wide by 16-20 feet high to 20 feet wide and 11 feet high. (The variety is because different legions worked on different sections and had different materials at hand.)

There were "milecastles" every 1620 yards (the Roman mile) capable of housing 50-60 men, with towers every 1600 feet. Well, that was the plan: the placement of the milecastles can vary by up to 200 yards depending on terrain. Later, 14-16 larger forts were built along the Wall that could each house over 500 men. Additionally, a road was constructed on the south side to allow swift travel along the perimeter, and a system of berms and ditches made approach from the north more difficult.

Every article on the Wall says it was built to keep the Picts out, but while that may have been the purpose of the Wall, its function was more complex than as just a defensive work. At every milecastle was a gate, and historians accept that commerce would have passed from north to south on a daily basis. The "threat" posed to Roman Britain by tribes north of the Wall may have been exaggerated.

Broken gateway at a milecastle
The collapse of the Roman Empire in 410 and the withdrawal of its legions from Britain might have meant the abandonment of the Wall, but there is evidence that it remained garrisoned, probably by local Britons, for another generation or two. Eventually, however, it was abandoned, and the materials started to be scavenged for other constructions.

In 1987 it was declared a World Heritage Site. A National Trail footpath follows the Wall for part of its length. Just last week, a project called "Connecting Light" illuminated the Wall with 500 balloons to create a 70-mile spectacle in honor of the London 2012 culture festival.

Thursday, September 13, 2012


St. Francis of Assisi
The Mendicant Orders were a 13th century movement that stirred up great controversy in the Middle Ages. Called so from the Latin verb mendicare (to beg), they rejected wealth and possessions in order to emulate their view of the ideal Christian life.

The first group that earned the title "mendicant" was founded by St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). Deciding that a life without material possessions was more godly, he created a group that he called the Ordo Fratrum Minorum. Literally, this means Order of Minor Brothers—Francis himself referred to his members as fraticelli, "little brothers"—but from Latin frater through French frere the word became friar to denote these men. Therefore, it is usually now officially called (in English) the Order of the Friars Minor, or the Grey Friars, although colloquially they are called simply Franciscans. His first step was to gather 12 disciples; then he presented his group to Pope Innocent III for official recognition. Innocent was reticent at first, and wanted Francis to return when his group was larger and better established, but (supposedly) he had a dream in which he saw Francis supporting the Basilica of St. John Lateran, which is the Pope's "seat" in his role as Bishop of Rome. Innocent accepted that Francis would support the Church, so he approved the new Order. He had the men tonsured; ordained or not (and Francis never was, another reason that they were "minor" brothers), tonsuring was a mark of their Church connection, and was a way to say "you're part of the team now, so stick with approved doctrine!"

Francis wrote a set of rules that included this:
And let those who have promised obedience take one tunic with a hood, and let those who wish it have another without a hood. And those who must may wear shoes. All the brothers are to wear inexpensive clothing, and they can use sackcloth and other material to mend it with God's blessing.
Maybe it was a dissatisfaction with the growing wealth and opulence of the church, or a desire to do something toward Salvation that didn't require traveling on Crusade, or merely the eloquence of the messengers and the attraction of the message, but the Order grew quickly. Franciscans traveled to preach in England, France, Spain, Hungary; Francis went to Egypt, but returned to make sure the message of the Friars Minor was not being diluted by too many new ideas. Still, he did not feel the need to "rule" his Order: in 1220, he resigned his position as its head, leaving it to Peter of Cattaneo (who died in 1221) and then Elias of Cortona (who, with Franciscan humility, always signed his name "Brother Elias, sinner).

St. Clare of Assisi
He also formed, with St. Clare of Assisi, a sister order; as well as the Third Order of St. Francis for lay people who wish to live as nearly as possible a godly life while still being part of the world.

The nice thing about being a saintly person and creating your own fan club while alive is that, upon your death, your memory is likely to spur people to action. Elias of Cortona immediately started to raise funds for building a church to Francis in Assisi, and labored to get him canonized—which he was, less than than 2 years after his death, by Pope Gregory IX. The new church was far enough along by June 1230 to receive Francis' body.

The Mendicant Orders, and the Franciscans especially, would become involved in serious debates in the future over whether priests or the Church should own property. Those arguments are what provided Umberto Eco with the setting for his best-selling first novel, The Name of the Rose.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Rainbow Connection

Check this out, then come back.

Theodoric (or Thierry, or Dietrich) of Freiberg (c.1250-c.1310) was a Dominican, a philosopher, and a physician. His name is often written with the title magister (master), so we know he had an advanced university education, almost certainly at Paris. In 1293 he was named Provincial of the Dominican Order, Albertus Magnus' old post.

Freiberg's description of the geometry of the rainbow.
We have 21 works written by him, although a list of works by Dominican authors compiled in 1330 lists 31 under his name. Somewhere between 1304 and 1310, Theodoric produced De iride et radialibus impressionibus (Concerning the rainbow and impressions of radiance). In it, he presents the correct explanation for the rainbow. He explains the primary rainbow, the secondary rainbow and why the colors are reversed, and the path light takes to make the rainbow.

That last is important, especially if you've read the link I gave you above and are aware of the competing theories for refraction and reflection, and the place of water droplets versus clouds. Freiberg accurately describes how the path of sunlight is refracted when it enters the droplet, reflected off the other side of the droplet, and refracted again when it leaves the droplet and becomes visible to the observer. Freiberg determined much of this by experimenting with glass spheres filled with water, an extraordinary act in itself in the history of scientific experimentation.

Perhaps, however, the mechanics of the rainbow was an idea whose time had come. In one of those examples of synchronicity that crop up in history from time to time, there was another scientist who came to some of the same conclusions as Frieberg. His name was Kamal al-Din al-Farisi, and he and Freiberg had no contact—although they did have one thing in common: they both knew the 11th century seven-volume work called The Book of Optics by Ibn al-Haytham. But that's for another day.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Macclesfield Psalter

Psalters—books of the Old Testament Psalms, usually decorated and illustrated—were common in the Middle Ages. They were intended for the private use of a family; a wealthy family, since the production of an illuminated psalter—although they were small, often the size of a modern paperback book—was expensive and time-consuming. Although they were prized possessions when they were made, we can understand if a book in Latin lost the interest of a family over the centuries.

We can be sympathetic, then, to the 9th Earl of Macclesfield, who did not know the contents of his library when a family dispute evicted him from Shirburn Castle in Oxfordshire, the family seat, in 2004. A thorough inventory (he was allowed to keep the contents of the castle, but not the estate), turned up a forgotten book, now known as the Macclesfield Psalter and housed in the Fitzwilliam Museum of the University of Cambridge.

The Macclesfield Psalter is 252 small pages of densely illustrated text. The artist showed a gift for blending the mundane with the absurd. Animals act as humans; humans and animals interact in impossible ways. It also showed more traditional images of holy figures, like Christ appearing on a rainbow, seen yesterday.

Other than the amusing and intricate illustrations, we know little about its history. Based on techniques used, and its similarity to other psalters of the same area, an origin of c.1330 is assumed. Similarity with other psalters made around this time suggest the same artist(s) and scribe(s) worked on multiple books that survive. Areas of pages that would have held a family crest have been removed, however, making identification with a particular patron impossible. There is, in the border of the Confession prayer, a man praying at an altar, and it is assumed that he is supposed to represent the head of the family. Beneath Psalm 107, a Dominican friar is depicted, who is assumed to be the owner's confessor. If you are interested in poring over its pages on a quest to learn more, you can purchase a complete facsimile from Amazon; there are second-hand copies floating around as well.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Chasing Rainbows

The formation of a rainbow is a complex matter, inspiring both wonder and curiosity. How they come about took a great deal of time, speculation, and ultimately experimentation.

Aristotle was sure that water droplets were involved, and he knew there was a relationship between rainbow, sun and observer. In his model, however, each water droplet in the air is a tiny mirror that reflects toward the observer a piece of color.
Since each of the mirrors is so small as to be invisible and what we see is the continuous magnitude made up of them all, the reflection necessarily gives us a continuous magnitude made up of one color; each of the mirrors contributing the same color to the whole. We may deduce that since these conditions are realizable there will be an appearance due to reflection whenever the sun and the cloud are related in the way described and we are between them. ... So it is clear that the rainbow is a reflection of sight to the sun. [Meteorologica, Book III, Part 4]
Among his other theories, Robert Grosseteste (c.1175-1235) rejected Aristotle's view that the rainbow was created by reflection; instead, he believed that light passing through clouds, rather than bouncing off them, produced the spectrum. Since every schoolchild knows that refraction breaks white light up into the spectrum, this seems to us like Grosseteste knew what he was talking about.

Then came Roger Bacon a generation later. Some believe he studied under Grosseteste. What is certain is that Bacon knew of Grosseteste's works, because he sometimes quotes them verbatim in his own writing. When it comes to the rainbow, however, Bacon does something that seems baffling on the surface. He rejects the refraction theory and returns to Aristotle's reflection theory. Modern historians shake their heads over this apparent retrograde thinking.

Christ on a rainbow, the Macclesfield Psalter
Bacon had his reasons, however, which make more sense once you know the details of Grossesteste's theory. Grosseteste required three separate refractions to take place, using the borders of the clouds in a complicated lensing effect. Bacon pointed out that a rainbow could appear in a simple spray of water, as in a fountain, and the clouds and interfaces needed for the complex refractions described by Grosseteste were clearly not involved. Bacon also pointed out that the view of the rainbow changed as the observer moved, which meant the rainbow was being reflected toward the observer while keeping its proportions and color. It did not stay "painted on the clouds" as if it were just projected there by light refracted through a cloud lens. (At this point, it is obvious that they did not yet understand "seeing" as light reflecting off objects and into the eye.)

Bacon didn't have all the answers, of course. He struggled to explain the curve in the rainbow, and the fact that it was not a solid half-sphere: why wasn't there color in the center? And he ignored refraction completely when discussing the rainbow, even though he used refraction to explain the occasional halo around the moon.

Did Bacon hold back scientific progress? Hard to say. Grosseteste's theory was valuable in that refraction is crucial in the formation of a rainbow, but he made several assumptions that could not be supported. He ignored the part played in the process by water droplets, even though Aristotle and—more recent to Grosseteste, Albertus Magnus (c.1200-1280)—had insisted on the part they played. Grosseteste thought the entire cloud was the refracting lens. Rainbows were still not properly understood, but the efforts made to comprehend something that could not be touched and experimented on were impressive.*

...and what of the accurate explanation of the rainbow?  A few years after Bacon's death, a disciple of Albertus Magnus would work it out. But that's for another day.

*More on Grosseteste, Bacon and their theories can be found in an article by David C. Lindberg in Isis, Vol.57, #2 (1966).

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Sometime Saint

  • His feast day is Leap Day, so he's celebrated only every 4 years.
  • He is revered in the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, but for different reasons.
  • He was never officially canonized.
  • He was likely a heretic.
John Cassian (c.360-c.435) was a monk in southern Gaul, the son of wealthy parents. A well-educated young man, he visited Palestine as a youth and became acquainted with Eastern monasticism in Bethlehem. Desiring to delve more deeply into the ascetic life, he asked for a leave of absence from the monastery in Bethlehem and traveled to Egypt, where he visited Christian hermits for seven years. He was so impressed by their wisdom that he returned to Bethlehem to ask for an extended leave, and went back to Egypt for another several years.

From Egypt he traveled to Constantinople and became a disciple of St. John Chrysostom, who elevated him to the position of deacon. Chrysostom had local issues that led to his exile from Constantinople in 404, whereupon Cassian was sent to Rome to appeal to Pope Innocent I on Chrysostom's behalf. At that point, Cassian drops out of the public record for the next decade. We assume he was made a Roman Catholic priest, because in 415 we find him in Marseilles having founded two monasteries, one (over the tomb of St. Victor) for men and one for women. He seems to have lived out his days in Marseilles, writing a couple of works, one of which (Called "The Institutes" for short) explained the monastic life. He is buried at St. Victor.

Gregory the Great regarded him as a saint. Pope Urban V, who had been an abbot at the monastery at St. Victor, had "Saint Cassian" engraved on the silver casket that held his head. The Greek calendar of saints lists him. The modern procedure of canonization did not exist, however, and the Roman Catholic Church—although "recognizing" a feast day of 29 February—does not consider him an official saint. The Eastern Orthodox Church gave him slightly more recognition with a feast day of 23 July.

Despite these testimonies, he is considered the origin of the heretical refinement of Pelagianism called Semipelagianism. Whereas Pelagianism taught that coming to God (salvation) was an act of free will, and the orthodoxy of Augustine taught that God's grace was needed for salvation, Semipelagianism held that the initial steps toward salvation were an act of free will, but God's grace was necessary for the increase of faith that ultimately brought one to God.

It was a nice compromise, but the Second Council of Orange in 529 declared it a heresy along with Pelagianism, and reaffirmed the theology of Augustine. The 14 bishops of the Council declared that although faith was a free act, from the very beginning it was the result of God's influence. It was approved by the pope (probably Felix IV), and that was that.

Saturday, September 8, 2012


Arius was not the only early writer whose ideas were superseded by other theologians, making him a heretic. One of the next great disruptions to Christian doctrine took place several decades after Arius' death, when Pelagius (c.354-420/440) started preaching. In fact, we know little about him outside of his heresies, especially since his trials were public, and Augustine wrote about him. He was likely from Britain (Augustine and others say so, and give Brito or Britannicus as a surname); Jerome mocks him for being Scotorum pultibus proegravatus (stuffed with Scottish porridge).* From his detractors we also know that he was a large man, and spoke Latin and Greek well.

Pelagius was actually considered a saintly man and a fine theologian, and once he reached Rome he made the acquaintance of several well-known and respected men. His ideas, however, brought him into opposition with others. The chief point of difference that brought Augustine's attention was Pelagius' opinion that original sin did not, in fact, scar all human beings. Adam's sin may have been the exemplar of bad behavior, but through will power we are able to avoid sinning. To Augustine, who came to the conclusion that God's grace was necessary no matter the will of the individual, this was an idea to be squashed.

What then (for Pelagianism) was the point of Christ's sacrifice on the Cross? It was to balance Adam's example with its opposite: the perfect example of selflessness that shows us it is possible to please God. Pelagius disliked the idea of pre-destination, and felt that everyone had the ability through free will to change the path of the future for himself. This was the "through faith alone" doctrine over a thousand years before Luther and Protestantism, although he also asserted Ceterum sine operibus fidei, non legis, mortua est fides. (Without the work of faith, not of law, faith is dead.) For Pelagius, a blameless life was sufficient to enter heaven. For Augustine, a blameless life was a good thing, but not sufficient; you needed God's grace.

A trial for heresy was declared. Pelagius lost and was banished from Rome. We think he died around 420 or later in Palestine. As with Arianism, his ideas did not die with him: they were spread and refined, even producing a version called Semipelagianism which hung on for a few centuries.

*Keep in mind that, in those days, "Scot" probably meant he was from Ireland.

Friday, September 7, 2012

And then, Champagne

William of Champeaux (c.1070-1122) was a student of Anselm of Laon, and may have helped to compile the Glossa interlinearis. He may also have been born many years earlier than the date assumed, since he was appointed Master of Notre Dame in 1094, and 24 years old would have been a very young Master to handle some of the issues of the day. He taught at the cathedral school of Notre Dame, and like Anselm was a proponent of Realism.

A medieval university lecture
He also may have studied under the Nominalist Roscellinus of Compèigne. The Nominalists believed that universal/abstract concepts of Realism (which existed independent of our perceptions of things (think of Plato's myth of the cave) did not exist. Instead, there are only particular things: there is this chair and that chair, but no universal and abstract chair from which your and my chair derive. Words were either significant or made up. A significant word was intimately connected with the concept it described. Examples of words that are not significant are "chimaera" and "blictrix" and "hircocervus" because they are not real things. The extension of this approach leads to difficulties, because (as we know) we can talk about things that are untrue.

William, however, rejected Nominalism. He and Anselm of Laon were Realists. William is considered by some to be the founder of an extreme form of Realism, perhaps as a result of refining his views during debates with Peter Abelard.

One of the most famous students in Paris was Peter Abelard, more of whose writings have survived and been widely read than William's. Abelard debated with William numerous times over these concepts and others. Although Abelard (according to his own biographical work) lost every time, he calls William a jealous and defeated and discredited man, and claims that William was driven from the Paris schools. Even so, Abelard followed William in order to study under him further, which may be more telling than Abelard's criticisms of a man to whom he lost several arguments.

It is true that William left Paris. He went to the Abbey of St. Victor just outside of Paris. Two of his students from this time were Hugh of St. Victor and Bernard of Clairvaux, both of whom would greatly distinguish themselves. William continued to gain the attention of his superiors, as well, who moved him wherever they felt the need for a calm head and a devout reformer.

...and then, Champagne.

Champagne is a sparkling wine produced via a secondary fermentation in the bottle that produces carbonation. It is properly only made from grapes grown in the Champagne Valley region in northeast France, the boundaries of which are determined by law. This Champagne wine was first made notable when it was used at special occasions such as French coronation festivities. It was William in 1114, in his capacity as bishop of Chalons-sur-Champagne, who issued the Grande charte champenoise (Great Champagne Chart). This "defined the agricultural and viticultural possessions of the Abbey of Saint-Pierre-aux-Monts, thus giving rise to the modern Champagne wine region." [reference] Although the boundaries since then have been amended a few times, it was William of Champeaux, extreme Realist and theologian, who first determined what could rightly be called "champagne."

*I apologize for not being better at explaining philosophical concepts; also, I do not even want to try to get into more detail, lest I get us both bogged down.