Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Evesham Abbey

The early history of the founding of religious buildings goes hand-in-hand with visions and miracles, such as the August snowfall in Rome. The history of Benedictine structures is no exception.

Evesham Abbey was founded when Bishop (later saint) Ecgwine received a visit from a shepherd or swineherd named Eof. Eof told him of a vision he had of the Virgin Mary requesting that a monastery be built in her honor on a certain spot where he grazed his animals. ("Evesham" means "Eof's town.") Bishop Ecgwine built the monastery; we don't know when construction started, but we do have the charter of Pope Constantine granting privileges to the abbey in 709, firmly establishing its founding as an abbey.

Ecgwine was all too happy to resign his bishopric and become abbot until his death in 717.

Of Evesham Abbey only a bell tower remains since the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII. Evesham had trouble when the Danish invasions led to the monks being replaced. Within a generation, fortunately, St. Dunstan (previously mentioned in association with abbeys here) re-established the Benedictines there.

Later, when William the Conqueror took over the country, then-Abbot Æthelwig wisely hastened to pledge loyalty to him. Evesham and its Benedictines flourished under Norman rule, so much so that it supposedly earned the envy of the bishops of Worcester.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Saint Benedict

Benedict holding his Rule;
you can see the raven that
saved him from poisoned bread.
In the discussion of time I mentioned Benedict of Nursia, who created a rule for monks to follow. This blog has also mentioned Benedictines frequently. Let us look a little more closely at the man who founded the Benedictines.

Much of our (dubious) information on his early life comes from Pope Gregory I's book Dialogues. If we are to believe Gregory, Benedict was born about 480 in Nursia in Umbria and was sent to Rome at an early age to be educated, where the licentiousness of that city made him flee to a deserted area 40 miles from Rome. There, in Sublacum (Italian Subiaco), he met a monk, Romanus. Romanus gave him a habit, led him to a deep grotto, and introduced him to the life of a hermit.

Benedict lived as a hermit for three years, leaving it when the residents of a local monastery came to him and begged him to take the position of their deceased abbot. This was not a good idea. The monks and Benedict had such divergent opinions on how to conduct their lives that they ultimately decided to kill their new abbot. His prayers before meals foiled their attempts to poison him; in one instance, a raven carried away poisoned bread before Benedict could eat it. He eventually returned to his solitary life in Subiaco, founding 12 monasteries in that area.

In order to ensure harmony among monks and consistency among those observing the religious life, he devised what we call the Rule of St. Benedict. The Rule consists of 73 short chapters covering how to run a monastery, how monks should conduct themselves, and how to maintain discipline. Among other things, the Rule expects that all brothers are called to participate in discussions of subjects that affect the whole community, expects monks to be sparing of speech (although it doesn't expect complete silence), wants monks to sleep in their habits so that they can rise ready to do the day's work, and expects that all monks take turns in the kitchen.

He died 21 March 543.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Statutes of William the Conqueror

William, Duke of Normandy, who won the Battle of Hastings and conquered England, has been brought up many times in this blog. He ruled for 20 years (25 December 1066 - 9 September 1087). In that time, you would imagine that he made many laws. In the best estimate of historians, he probably made ... ten. That is really all the we can be certain of, and here they are:

1. Firstly that, above all things, he wishes one God to lie venerated throughout his whole kingdom, one faith of Christ always to be kept inviolate, peace and security to be observed between the English and the Normans.

2. We decree also that every free man shall affirm by compact and an oath that, within and without England, he desires to be faithful to king William, to preserve with him his lands and his honour with all fidelity, and first to defend him against his enemies.

3. I will, moreover, that all the men whom I have brought with me, or who have come after me, shall be in my peace and quiet. And if one of them shall be slain, the lord of his murderer shall seize him within five days, if he can; but if not, he shall begin to pay to me forty six marks of silver as long as his possessions shall hold out. But when the possessions of the lord of that man are at an end the whole hundred in which the slaying took place shall pay in common what remains.

4. And every Frenchman who, in the time of my relative king Edward, was a sharer in England of the customs of the English, shall pay according to the law of the English what they themselves call onhlote and ascot.[*] This decree has been confirmed in the city of Gloucester.

5. We forbid also that any live cattle be sold or bought for money except within the cities, and this before three faithful witnesses; nor even anything old without a surety and warrant. But if he do otherwise he shall pay, and shall afterwards pay a fine.

6. It was also decreed there that if a Frenchman summon an Englishman for perjury or murder, theft, homicide, or " ran"-as the English call evident rape which can not be denied-the Englishman shall defend himself as he prefers, either through the ordeal of iron, or through wager of battle. But if the Englishman be infirm he shall find another who will do it for him. If one of them shall be vanquished he shall pay a fine of forty shillings to the king. If an Englishman summon a Frenchman, and be unwilling to prove his charge by judgment or by wager of battle, I will, nevertheless, that the Frenchman purge himself by an informal oath.

7. This also I command and will, that all shall hold and keep the law of Edward the king with regard to their lands, and with regard to all their possessions, those provisions being added which I have made for the utility of the English people.

8. Every man who wishes to be considered a freeman shall have a surety, that his surety may hold him and hand him over to justice if he offend in any way. And if any such one escape, his sureties shall see to it that, without making difficulties, they pay what is charged against him, and that they clear themselves of having known of any fraud in the matter of his escape. The hundred and county shall be made to answer as our predecessors decreed. And those that ought of right to come, and are unwilling to appear, shall be summoned once; and if a second time they are unwilling to appear, one ox shall be taken from them and they shall be summoned a third time. And if they do not come the third time, another ox shall be taken: but if they do not come the fourth time there shall be forfeited from the goods of that man who was unwilling to come, the extent of the charge against him—ceapgeld [**]as it is called—and besides this a fine to the king.

9. I forbid any one to sell a man beyond the limits of the country, under penalty of a fine in full to me.

10. I forbid that any one be killed or hung for any fault but his eyes shall be torn out or his testicles cut off. And this command shall not be violated under penalty of a fine in full to me. [source]

[*]The taxes and fees that allow participation in the community
[**]The forfeit of a beast

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Our Lady of the Snows

Art over the door of the Santa Maria Maggiore basilica
I said on Monday that Pope Liberius was usually known for one thing—his part in the Arian controversy—but that we owe him for the date of Christmas. Well, there's at least one other story worth repeating: his part in a miracle of the Virgin Mary.

A couple years prior to his establishing 25 December as the birthday of Jesus, Liberius had a dream. In the dream, Mary appeared an told him that a church was to be constructed on the Esquiline hill of Rome.* The same dream appeared to two other people: a childless Roman couple whose intent was to give all their worldly goods to the Mother of God. They happened to own property on the Esquiline hill. In the dream, Mary told her that she would give them a sign by covering the hill with snow.

Snow in Rome is rare, something that is noted and celebrated. And this was summer! On the morning of 5 August 352, Rome awoke to a covering of white snow on the Esquiline hill. Pope Liberius used the snow to outline the dimensions of a church in honor of Mary (represented in the sculpture above). The church they built was called the Santa Maria Maggiore [Saint Mary Major] basilica, dedicated to "Our Lady of the Snows."

*Rome was built on seven hills: Aventine, Caelian, Capitoline, Esquiline, Palatine, Quirinal, Viminal.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve(nts)

The week, as you can imagine, is very hectic around the world for many people, and I am no exception. In  lieu of a regular post, here is a collection of links for events that took place on 24 December:

563 - Hagia Sophia is re-dedicated after being destroyed by an earthquake.
1046 - Pope Clement II is elected.

1167 - John "Lackland" is born to King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine; he would later sign the Magna Carta.

1294 - Pope Boniface VIII is elected. He would become an enemy of Dante, who would place Boniface in the 8th circle of Hell.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Date of Christmas

Way back here we mentioned Pope Liberius, sent into exile by Constantius II because he wouldn't censure St. Athanasius for condemning Arianism (Constantius was an Arian). Liberius went to Beroea (modern Véroia in northern Greece), and Felix II became (an anti-)pope.

Liberius' fourteen-year papacy (352 - 366) is usually mentioned in relation to the Arian controversy and his replacement by Felix. But he is given credit for at least one other decision that has endured to modern times: the date of Christmas. The topic of the pagan date of Christmas gets mentioned every year in media, but the details are never revealed. Here they are.

It was clear, according to the mention of shepherds in the Gospel of Luke, that the birth likely happened in springtime. That didn't mean the birth had to be celebrated then; the Church could afford to be pragmatic about that, in its own way. By the 3rd century, Christians were already celebrating January 6th as the day when Jesus was revealed as divine, the Feast of the Epiphany. We now turn to one scholar:
About the beginning of the third century there arose in the Western countries a new opinion on the person of the Saviour. He was now held to have been a God from birth, His Father having been God Himself. [...] Within little more than a century that new dogma conquered the countries round the Mediterranean, [...] In the face of that view it could scarcely any longer appear proper to celebrate the memory of the deification of Christ in the festival of Epiphany on January 6. [Yule and Christmas: their place in the Germanic year, by Alexander Tille, p.120]
In 354, Liberius celebrated not only January 6 as "the appearance of Christ in God-like glory," but also he enforced December 25 as the actual birth, to reinforce the idea that Jesus was God from birth, not deified 12 days later. (And there's a bonus explanation: the 12 days of Christmas exist because of the dual celebrations from 25 December to 6 January.)

Liberius could not have been unaware of the long-term affects of this positioning. He knew that he was appropriating a day that was important to the Roman calendar: the old Dies Natalis Solis Invicti ["Day of Birth of the Unconquered Sun"]. By taking over that celebration he would eventually replace the Roman pagan festival with the Roman Christian one. I say "Roman" Christian because, in the Eastern Church the date of the Epiphany remained the primary date to celebrate.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Sacrament of Marriage

A medieval marriage, from a British Library ms.
The Christian churches that have survived until the modern era (Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy) consider marriage a sacrament; that is, one of the seven
efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. [Catechism of the Catholic Church]
Not everyone saw it that way. A Christian movement that was declared heretical, Catharism, had an entirely different view. (We call the movement "Catharism," but they called themselves Perfecti, "the perfected.") The Perfecti saw sexual reproduction as sinful, and wanted nothing to do with it. This meant they avoided anything that was the product of sexual reproduction, including animals that others would consume as food. They were opposed to marriage completely; so completely, that proof of legal marriage was enough to get a charge of heresy dismissed, if one was accused of being a Cathar.

It is due to the Cathars that marriage is considered a sacrament. The Synod of Verona in 1184 (during the pontificate of Pope Lucius III) was convened to discuss and condemn heresy. It declared marriage a sacrament in opposition to what was being said by Cathars and other heretical groups like the Waldensians.

This was despite the fact that marriage does not fulfill a goal in the same way as the other sacraments. There are sacraments of Christian initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, Communion. There are sacraments that "confer a character": Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Orders. Penance/Confession and Anointing of the Sick help to purify the soul. The sacrament of marriage puts a "stamp of approval" on the start of a new phase in a couple's lives and reminds them of their place in the community of Christians. In the words of one scholar:
Like the other sacraments, medieval writers argued, marriage was an instrument of sanctification, a channel of grace that caused God's gracious gifts and blessings to be poured upon humanity. Marriage sanctified the Christian couple by allowing them to comply with God's law for marriage and by providing them with an ideal model of marriage in Christ the bridegroom, who took the church as his bride and accorded it highest love, devotion, and sacrifice, even to the point of death. [source]
One of the most interesting aspects of marriage in the Catholic Church is that it relies on "free consent": two people choose to marry each other, and the Church only officiates, it does not give or deny approval to a marriage.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Władysław the Elbow-high

Władysław the Elbow-high was honored
with a 500-Złotych gold coin in 2013
You may remember the story of the Carolingian king Pepin the Short; not a great nickname to have if you want to gain the respect of your people. Well, what if you were so short that you were called "Elbow-high?" That was the unfortunate nickname of a king of Poland.

Władysław I* (c.1260-2 March 1333) was so short that his nickname was "elbow" as in "elbow height." He was named King of Poland long after the death of his father, Casimir I. It was a position he was going to have to work for. Poland had long before been divided into different provinces. Władysław inherited one from his father, gained two more as his brothers died, and then set out to gain control of all the provinces and reunite Poland.

He had opposition. Although the province of Greater Poland had originally supported him, they switched their loyalty to Wenceslas II of Bohemia, who was crowned King of Poland in 1300. Władysław went to the pope to press his claim, but Boniface VIII was no help. He continued his campaign of invading and uniting provinces, taking over Lesser Poland and Pomerania; in 1314 he re-conquered Greater Poland and held it, despite an attack from John of Luxemburg, the King of Bohemia.

In 1318 he tried once again to gain support for becoming King of Poland. This time, Pope John XXII (who also wielded political power in this case) gave his support. Keeping Poland was not easy. He managed, however, to subdue the perennially bothersome Teutonic Knights, and he married one son to a Lithuanian, helping to stop Lithuanian raids into Poland. His reign was an important stage in reuniting Poland under one ruler.

*He was First or Fourth, depending on which historian you ask and whether they stick with a single dynasty or blend all historical rulers with the same first name together.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Hildegard of Bingen, MD

Hildegard of Bingen (1098 - 1179) has been discussed here before, and many know her as a nun and composer of devotional music. Her compositions have been adapted by numerous musical and spiritual groups. Among her writings, however, were also works about the natural world and medicine.

Two works in particular date to the 1150s. Physica ["Physics," or "The Physical World"] is her attempt to explain the whole world from the elements (the four: earth, air, fire, water) to all animals and plants, and even metals and stones, both ordinary and precious gems. One theme that runs through this work is the Genesis-based idea that Man has been given dominion over all the Earth. Everything on Earth has been put there by God, and therefore everything has value, and therefore Man can benefit from everything God put on Earth, from nourishment found in plants and animals to the material value of gems.

The other book was Causæ et Curæ ["Causes and Cures"]. In it, she lists 47 different diseases. Whereas in Physica she listed 200 herbs and other plants, in Causæ et Curæ she describes over 300 plants that are useful for medical use. She might not have had personal experience of all these, since she would have had access to standard texts from such as Pliny and Galen and Isidore of Seville. She wouldn't be the first or last to borrow from Pliny and the others.

She would not, however, give medicines the final say in the treatment of illness:
Hildegard gave physical events, moral truths, and spiritual experiences equal weight. Healing was both medical and miraculous, and God’s will was an important element in her remedies. “These remedies come from God and will either heal people or they must die, for God does not wish them to be healed,” she wrote. [source]
It wasn't just up to God and the herbals. She also believed in using rituals bordering on the magical as part of the healing process. She claimed betony leaves placed next to the bed would reduce bad dreams. Sadness could be countered by mandrake: mandrake she believed was made from the same earth that made Adam. If a sad man dug up a mandrake root, washed it in a fountain for 24 hours, then took it to bed, he could alleviate his depression after reciting: “God, who madest man from the dust of the earth without grief, I now place next me that earth which has never transgressed in order that my clay may feel that peace just as Thou didst create it.” [source] And marshmallow (the plant, not the sweet confection made from it) could counteract evil magic!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Marco Polo's Co-author

Page from Chapter CXXIII
Everyone is familiar with the story of Marco Polo, who traveled to the Far East, had amazing adventures, and returned home to be put in prison in Genoa because of local wars. In prison, he wrote a book of his travels, telling of things that were marvels to Western Europe.

What most people don't know is that Polo was not in prison alone. A fellow inmate, Rustichello da Pisa, was an author, without whose help what we call The Travels of Marco Polo might never have come to be.

We know little of the 13th century Rustichello. He was a native of Pisa, and might have wound up in a Genoese prison after the 1284 Battle of Meloria. He would have been there a long time when Polo was imprisoned in 1298 after the Battle of Curzola.

Rustichello had previously written a romance, called alternately Compilatione ["The Compilation"] or Roman de Roi Artus ["The Romance of King Arthur"]. It was a French version of a work in the possession of King Edward I of England. Rustichello must have had access to it while Edward passed through Italy in the early 1270s on his way to the Eighth Crusade.

But what was his involvement in Marco Polo's tale? Was he simply the scribe? According to some who read the book and Rustichello's other writings:
Everyone who studies Marco Polo acknowledges that Rustichello’s fiction-writing techniques and habits show up in the book, but critics writing in English tend to stop with a very few observations that are repeated faithfully from one study to another. [source]
He is also likely the reason that the original version was written in French, the language of romance literature, rather than Italian or Latin. The original title was Divisament dou monde ["Description of the world"]; an Italian edition was also called Il Milione ["The Million"}, but we do not know if that was intended to denote a million new things, or a million lies.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Doctor Illuminatus

A brilliant scholar and fervent theologian/philosopher did such a good job at achieving his aims that the Church realized they had to suppress his work!

Ramon Llull was born in Majorca in the 1230s and probably was a courtier at the court of King James II of Aragon. He had a vision at the age of 30; while about to write a love letter, he turned and saw Christ on a cross hanging in the air. This image appeared to him five times, inspiring him to the religious life with very specific goals, one of which was to convert the Muslims to Christianity.

He did not intend simply to travel eastward and preach to the Muslim world; he had a more reasoned plan than that. He would counter their religion with logical and philosophical arguments that were so clear as to compel them to abandon their faith for his. His first task was to counter their great scholar, Averroes, and his first step was showing that theology and philosophy could be reconciled.

The Arab world had found comfort in separating the two, explaining that what was true in philosophy could be false in theology. Averroes himself had relied on this distinction to avoid persecution for his heretical idea about the non-existence of a unique soul that survives death. Llull decided to prove the Arab world wrong by reconciling philosophy and theology, raising the Christian West to an intellectually superior status that the East would have to fall in line with. He allied the natural and there supernatural, arguing that divine truths needed to be approached with reason guided by faith. Likewise, faith needs reason, lest it be misguided by personal desires or emotions. Llull had created a machine, the Ars Magna ["Great Art"], which would affirm the truth of propositions by lining up geometrically shaped pieces when levers and cranks were used. The machine was a three-dimensional representation of his "Llullian Circle" that could demonstrate all the possible truths of his system.

Llull's followers called themselves Llullists and spread the glory of his writings.* He met John Duns Scotus in 1297, who gave him his nickname of "Doctor Illuminatus" for the illumination he brought to the faith. His followers gained such influence in Spain that they were able to endow chairs at the Universities of Barcelona and Valencia.

Lullian Circle [source]
We know that he was stoned to death by the Muslim inhabitants of the town of Bougie on a mission to North Africa. Documents by Ramon Llull exist that can be dated to December 1315, but he was probably dead shortly after.

Despite his fame and religious zeal during his lifetime, and his martyrdom, he has never been considered for canonization by the Roman Catholic Church. The Church realized that his ideas were too radical. Sixty years after Llull's death, Pope Gregory XI (1327 - 1378) condemned his work, as did Pope Paul IV (1476 - 1559) a century after Gregory. Linking the natural and supernatural together was not going to work for the Church as a whole, despite the efforts of the "Illuminated Doctor." There were too many things that relied on faith for the Church to insist that, without reason, they would not pertain.

Centuries after Llull's death, some of his other writings were discovered that made his name prominent in the field of "election theory," but we'll save that for another time.

*He is considered to be the first major writer in the Catalan language.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Templars' Bad Luck Day

(This one may meander a little; just hang on.)

A few days after William Tell shot the apple from his son's head in 1307, another significant event took place on the other side of the Alps. On the 22nd of November, Pope Clement V issued a papal bull requesting that all countries in Europe arrest the Knights of the Temple and confiscate their property.

Clement had not always been an enemy of the Templars, but their purpose was fading. They existed, along with the Hospitallers, to escort pilgrims and maintain some security in the Holy Land, but European possessions in the Holy Land had all been re-taken by non-Christians. These Orders maintained their wealth and property in Europe, although the reason much of it had been awarded to them was now gone. A couple years earlier, in 1305, Clement had suggested that the Templar Knights and the Hospitaller Knights merge, since there seemed little reason for two such Orders under the circumstances. He invited the Grand Masters of each Order (Jacques de Molay for the Templars, Fulk de Villaret for the Hospitallers) to the Vatican to discuss it, but neither would agree to the merger.

This alone wasn't enough to turn Clement against the Templars, but he had some pressure. The King of France, Philip IV, owed the Templars a great deal of money, and decided that arresting all the Templars in France on charges of impropriety and confiscating their property would be a way to square his debts. Philip had taken action on October 13. It was a Friday. Jacques de Molay was burned at the stake, and it was downhill from there for the Templars. (Clement gave all their European possessions—that were not confiscated by Philip—to the Hospitallers.)

...and this has given rise to one theory about why "Friday the 13th" is considered an unlucky day. In fact, this is the theory that friends tell to me most often, since I am known to have an interest in the Middle Ages. Someone has also put forward the idea that the day has been considered bad luck since Chaucer, because the line "and on a Friday fell all this misfortune" appears in The Nun's Priest's Tale of The Canterbury Tales. (That is not an indication that Friday itself was unlucky; Chaucer often inserted small bits of info that make the tale seem more personal.) As I did with the nursery rhyme "Ring Around the Rosie," however, let me splash some cold water on this theory.*

References to an actual unlucky day being a Friday the 13th of the month don't appear prior to the 20th century. A Boston stock promoter (and some say manipulator), Thomas Lawson (1857 - 1925) wrote a book about an unscrupulous stock broker who creates a panic on Wall Street to take advantage of the situation. The book is called Friday the Thirteenth, and he chooses that day because on Wall Street it is "Bear Saints Day" (whatever that is), not because it is inherently unlucky. "Friday the 13th" becomes a popular superstition after this book, according to one writer. Searching Google's Ngram viewer (which scans texts that Google has entered into its electronic database) for the phrase "Friday the 13" shows a steady rise of references to the term after 1905. There are earlier references as well, but if you search for "Friday the 12" or "Friday the 10" you will find similar results. There is no hard evidence I can find that "Friday the 13th" dominated the cultural consciousness prior to our Modern Era.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Plague and Social Change

The climax of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381
On the heels of the recent news article about how victims of the Bubonic Plague still exist in significant numbers today, we have this article on how the Plague in the 14th century wrought huge changes on the fabric of society.

The radical shift in the numbers of the workforce and in the population of consumers threw off the balance that a stable society requires. Some goods were in great demand, there being fewer laborers to make things. Some consumer goods were in great supply, there being fewer consumers.

What the article above, from medievalists.net (a website I strongly recommend ), has just covered this week, DailyMedieval looked at back when the Occupy movement was first going strong in the United States.

The first installment briefly explained the philosophy behind the Peasants' Revolt.
The second explained some of the other factors that ruled up the lower classes.
Part three described the prominent characters that spurred on the movement.
Part four described the destruction caused in London by the Revolt.
Part five explains how the Revolt was quelled; the illustration above shows the "death" of the movement when its leader was killed during a parlay.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Return of the Bubonic Plague

After the first catastrophic outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in 1348-50, Europe continued to suffer about every decade. The Plague returned, although without so devastating effect. Because people were familiar with the symptoms, they knew to avoid those who had it, and isolated the sick or themselves. Also, the Plague had already taken the weakest of the population, and so those remaining had a better chance of resisting.

Reappearances of the Bubonic Plague came in 1361-2, 1369, 1379-83, 1389-93, 1575-77, 2013.

2013? Yes. If you are reading this in December 2013, know that there are 20 confirmed cases of the Plague in Madagascar, as reported by the BBC. This is not a surprise, considering Madagascar had 60 confirmed cases in 2012. In fact, between 2000 and 2009 there were over 20,000 cases reported, with about 7% resulting in death! The illness is most prevalent in areas of reduced sanitation; these conditions occur in many parts of the world—even First World countries—and (as mentioned in the BBC article linked to above) Madagascar's prisons are a breeding ground for the disease. Madagascar accounts for a large percentage of total cases; it is not the top of the list, however—a list that includes the United States. Read more here.

To read about the Bubonic Plague as discussed in DailyMedieval, see my four-part series:

  • Part 1 (an abbreviated timeline)
  • Part 2 (a little about how it was spread)
  • Part 3 (straightening out a nursery rhyme misconception)
  • Part 4 (a touching first-hand response to the initial outbreak)

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

St. Leoba

This blog has mentioned before that St. Boniface called for help from women as well as men when he attempted to christianize Germany. One of those women was a nun—later a saint, due to several miracles—named Leoba.

Actually, her very existence was a miracle. Her parents were old and barren, but her mother one night had a dream in which she was told she would bear "a beloved child of Christ.". The woman vowed that she would give her daughter over to the Church. Her biographer, Rudolf of Fulda, tells us:
Shortly after the woman had made this vow she conceived and bore a daughter, whom she called Thrutgeba, surnamed Leoba because she was beloved, for this is what Leoba means. And when the child had grown up her mother consecrated her and handed her over to Mother Tetta to be taught the sacred sciences. [Life of Leoba, Abbess of Bischofsheim, by Rudolf of Fulda]
Leoba's exemplary behavior made her a natural fit for Boniface's mission to Germany (also, her mother and Boniface were cousins). A dream of Leoba's, that she would have great influence and accomplish many things, prompted her to join the mission.

Boniface established Leoba as the abbess of a convent in Tauberbischofsheim. (Tauberbischofsheim is the capital of the Main-Tauber district; its first mention in history is in St. Leoba's biography.) He gave her jurisdiction over all the nuns of the mission, and when he later left for Frisia, he gave her his cowl to indicate that she was his steward while he was gone. (He never returned, being martyred in Frisia.)

Later, she was given an estate by Charlemagne near Mainz, where she retired with several nuns. After she died, on 28 September 782, miracles were attributed to her intercession. When her relics were translated 50 years later as a result of her canonization, and placed behind the altar of a church in Fulda, Rudolf was given the task of recording her life. Rudolf says he witnessed some of her miracles himself: a man from Spain had terrible twitching in his limbs that was cured after lying prostrate before Boniface's shrine. Her explained that he had a vision of a woman who presented him to Boniface for his blessing, after which he woke up and had no more twitching. (Why this is a miracle of the woman and not of Boniface, I cannot say.) In another case, however, a man who had been bound by iron rings had them come off while praying before Leoba's shrine.

Monday, December 9, 2013


Today is an important day in Sweden: Anna's Day, celebrating all people named Anna. It is also the traditional day to start preparation of lutefisk in Sweden and Finland, so that it is ready for the traditional meal on Christmas Eve.

It is made from cod, soaked in cold water, changed daily, for five or six days, then left in cold water with lye for two days. The fish swells and takes on a gelatinous consistency. This stage also raises its pH value to 11-12, making it very caustic and downright dangerous to eat. In order to make it edible, it must be soaked in cold water for another week, changing the water daily to flush out the lye.

Why do this? The origin of the process is uncertain (see below), but the lye would make the fish unappetizing to wild animals; perhaps it was done to allow large amounts of fish to be left hanging on drying racks out in the cold air. It certainly helps preserve the fish. Treating food to make it more alkaline is also used in the preservation/preparation of corn into hominy.

Lutefisk has a history that stretches back centuries. Scholarly research claims it is first mentioned in the late 18th century; a cookbook from 1845 describes the preparation of the lye used to make lutefisk by combining limestone and birch ash in water. Historians, however, have found a reference to lutefisk by a Swedish archbishop in 1555, and that a letter from King Gustav I (1496 - 1560) mentions it in 1540.

Folklorists suggest an even earlier reference: when Vikings raided Ireland, St. Patrick had his followers make them an offering of fish—spoiled fish. The Vikings seemed not to mind, so Patrick had his people pour lye on the fish, hoping to poison the Vikings. The Vikings, against all expectation, found the fish tasty and demanded the recipe.

But let honesty prevail: the major Viking raids in Ireland happened a few hundred years after Patrick.  Still, lutefisk was probably around prior to King Gustav. The "Vikings enjoy something we think is vile" was probably an old joke at the expense of Vikings. I suppose the tale could be partially true, but Patrick was not likely to be the instigator.

So go buy some whitefish (cod or ling), start soaking it in cold water, and get some birch ash ready!

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Jalāli Calendar

Syrian Astrolabe
Yesterday I mentioned that Omar Khayyam spent some of his time working on calendar reform. This was not the same calendar reform being done in the Christian world, however. The Persian calendar was—and still is—far more accurate than the Gregorian calendar.

Originally, the Persian calendar was lunar, following the 28-day cycle of the Moon. Since the year does not fit into an equal number of lunar cycles, however, the lunar calendar creates "seasonal drift" without a lot of alterations. This calendar was begun over 1000 years BCE. Khayyam was one of several scholars using astronomical observations to create a revised version. It was approved on 15 March 1079 by the Seljuk Sultan, Malik Shah I.

Khayyam and his team calculated the length of the year to be 365.24219858156 days; modern science puts it at 365.2422464 days. Some aspects of the new calendar:

  • The year started within a day of March 21st, the vernal equinox
  • Months were based on when the sun transited to a new sign of the zodiac, not 12:00AM
  • Months could last from 29-32 days, and
  • Months could change their length from year to year

That 4th point is because of the 2nd point. Months weren't given arbitrary numbers of days as in the West. The Jalāli calendar depended on strict astronomical data, not cultural numerical choices. Therefore, the 6th month of the year might have 30 days one year and 31 days the next, depending on when the sun passed across the line in the sky that separated the zodiacal signs. It also means that seasonal drift—the tendency of seasons to start and end on widely varying dates over time—never exceeded one day. Leap years were unnecessary.

Eventually, the varying length of the months was considered a liability. The calendar—still used in Iran and Afghanistan—was changed in 1925 in order to have a more regular look and to save the hassle of applying the results of constant astronomical observation.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Omar Khayyam, Mathematician

First page of "Cubic equation and
intersection of conic sections"
A book of verses underneath the bough
A flask of wine, a loaf of bread and thou
Beside me singing in the wilderness
And wilderness is paradise now.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated by Edward Fitzgerald in 1859, made Khayyam the most famous Persian poet in the 19th century. Few people realize that Khayyam did not need Fitzgerald to be famous. Centuries earlier, he was one of the most influential thinkers produced by the Middle East.

Born in Nishapur on the 18th of May in 1048, he spent part of his youth in Balkh, which would produce Rumi 80 years after Khayyam's death. He studied under the well-known scholars Mansuri and Nishapuri. He put his education to work: as an adult, he was either teaching algebra and geometry, studying the stars, working on calendar reform, acting as a court advisor, or learning medicine. He taught the works of Avicenna.
The Tomb

He was best known in his lifetime and afterward for his mathematical writing, especially on algebra. Many of the principles of algebra that made their way to Europe came from Khayyam's Treatise on Demonstration of Problems on Algebra (1070).

One of his claims was that the solution of cubic equations cannot be solved by a ruler and compass. He said it required the use of conic sections, and announced his intention to write a paper that lays out the "fourteen forms with all their branches and cases." He never got around to it, and 750 years would have to pass before someone produced the proof of Khayyam's claim.

Omar Khayyam died on 4 December 1131 at the age of 83, and was buried in what is now the Khayyam Garden in Nishapur. A  mausoleum was built in 1963 to house his remains.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Nithard, the "Bastard" Historian

Nithard, as Abbot of St. Riquier
Charlemagne, looking around for suitable political marriages, chose a likely source of a bride for his son, Charles. He suggested to King Offa of Mercia (c.730 - 26 July 796) that one of Offa's daughters marry into the Frankish royal family. This would have made a very nice connection, and might ultimately bring part of England under Frankish rule in the future. Offa suggested an additional proposal: marrying his son, Ecgfrith, to Charlemagne's daughter Bertha.

Charlemagne was so insulted by the idea that he broke off ties to England and refused to allow English ships to land at Frankish ports. Charlemagne was very wary of the idea of allowing his daughters to marry, lest they produce potential heirs to the throne that created future problems. He had no plans to marry any of them off.

The daughters, however, were not isolated, and two of them seem to have found "arrangements" that suited them. Rotrud bore a son, Louis, to Rorigon the Count of Maine. Bertha had a relationship with Angilbert (later an abbot, and even later a saint!) that produced two sons, one of whom was Nithard.

We don't know much about Nithard's upbringing. He was well-educated, as all Carolingian children with connections to the Court would be, but whether it was at the palace school or under his father at the Abbey of St. Riquier isn't known. He was made abbot of St. Riquier like his father, and aided his cousin Charles the Bald in the conflicts that occupied the descendants of Charlemagne.

We remember Nithard now for his historical works. He wrote four books on the history of the Carolingian empire after Louis the Pious. His Historiae or De dissensionibus filiorum Ludovici pii ["History" or "On the Dissension of the Sons of Louis the Pious"] provides an excellent firsthand account of the conflicts—not always accurate or unbiased, but detailed in ways only an eyewitness to the events could produce.

So far as we can tell, he died of wounds received during a battle in June 844. When Angilbert was exhumed in the 11th century, and his body found to be uncorrupted (lending aid to the idea of his canonization), Nithard's body was found with him.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Abbot Angilbert

Abbot Angilbert (c.760 - 18 February 814)was mentioned as Charlemagne's envoy to Pope Leo III here, but there is much more to his story.

St. Riquier
Born into a noble family, he was raised at Aachen and was first a pupil and then a friend of Alcuin. His learning and ability to write verse earned him the nickname "Homer." He was apparently extremely close to the royal family: Charlemagne had his children educated along with others. This intimacy would surface later in a surprising way.

He assisted the court in secular administration, but by 790 had been named Abbot of St. Riquier in northern France as well as the governor of Ponthieu. Angilbert spent a great deal of money improving the abbey. He was also a frequent ambassador to the papacy. The first time was to Pope Adrian I, when he delivered Charlemagne's views on the iconoclasm controversy. Later he delivered gifts and assurances of support to Pope Leo III.

Despite his religious status, and there being no record of an official wedding, he had a relationship with the daughter of Charlemagne, Bertha, with whom he had two children. There may have been no wedding, and Bertha and Angilbert escaped the charge of adultery by virtue of their relationship to Charlemagne. A biographer in the 12th century claimed that, prior to his death, Angilbert did great penance for the impropriety of his "marriage." This allowed him to be made a saint, despite the questionable actions of his life.

A fragment of an epic poem about court life, which also details the meeting between Charlemagne and Pope Leo III when the pope fled to Paderborn to escape his enemies in Rome, is sometimes ascribed to Angilbert. Angilbert would have been in a position to witness all that the poem discusses, and he apparently possessed the literary gifts that would have enabled him to produce the poem. Authorship cannot be proven, however.

He died a few weeks after Charlemagne. Louis the Pious, Charlemagne's son and successor, mindful of the potential for family members to challenge his rule, exiled his sisters to various convents. One of Bertha and Angilbert's sons, however, remained active as a Cariolingian historian.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Deal with Charlemagne

Charlemagne is no stranger in this blog, and most people learned in school of his Christmas Day coronation. The truth is, as I mentioned in that post, that Pope Leo who did the crowning on 25 December really owed Charlemagne for quite a lot—including probably the fact that he was still on the Throne of Peter, and alive.

He became Pope Leo III very quickly after his predecessor's death; in fact, he was elected the same day Pope Adrian I (c.700 - 25 December 795) was buried. Presumably, the haste was because the Romans wanted to get their man in the position before the word got out to the Franks who might have had their own choice in mind.

Leo tried to get ahead of any opposition by immediately writing to Charlemagne, including tokens of respect and requesting diplomatic representatives, and placing Charlemagne in the position of the Pope's defender. Charlemagne considered himself a great friend to the Church as well as a great proponent of education, and responded favorably to what amounted to flattery. Charlemagne sent gifts to Leo, delivered by one of his favorite Carolingian ambassadors, Abbot Angilbert, along with a contingent of soldiers.

These soldiers were very important a little later. Leo had enemies among the Romans, who spread terrible rumors about his life of sin (he was accused of adultery and perjury). In April of 799 he was attacked and beaten severely. He escaped to St. Peter's, and was thereafter escorted by Charlemagne's men to preserve his safety, going to Paderborn in northern Germany to be received by Charlemagne.

Charlemagne's men escorted the pope back to Rome, and Charlemagne himself went there in November of 800, arbitrating a council with Leo and his adversaries on 1 December 800. Leo took an oath of purgation (the Middle Ages held great stock in the accused or his friends proclaiming his trustworthiness); Charlemagne found in Leo's favor, and his adversaries were exiled.

A few weeks later, Charlemagne, while attending mass on Christmas Day, had the crown of the Holy Roman Emperors placed on his head by Pope Leo. Supposedly, this was a surprise to Charlemagne, but does anyone think this had not been discussed while Leo and the king met in Paderborn?