Saturday, December 31, 2022

The Peace and Truce of God

I once mentioned how the end of the Carolingian Empire and the loss of its centralized administrative system made it difficult to mail a letter. Unfortunately, the loss of a centralized postal service was perhaps the least of the problems created in the 9th century. Without a strong central command, shifting politics and borders created numerous opportunities for warfare. This situation was not only undesirable in and of itself, it also affected innocent bystanders.

In 989, at the Council of Charroux, the Church proclaimed the Pax Dei, the "Peace of God," which declared clergy and other non-combatants "off limits" during military conflicts. Excommunication was the penalty for robbing a church, for robbing peasants of their goods or livestock, for striking or robbing a member of the clergy (unless he is bearing arms). Women and children were specifically added to the list of protected classes. In 1033, merchants and their wares were added to the list. A malefactor could avoid excommunication by making reparations.

This proved to be very popular in Western Europe. Local clergy had the responsibility to adopt and declare the Pax Dei in their region. The Abbey at Cluny gathered to itself a large territory, and many abbeys allied themselves to the Cluniac reforms. Once Cluny declared the Pax Dei, an enormous area was protected.

The Treuga Dei, or "Truce of God," was different. Created in Caen in Normandy in the 11th century, it declared that military hostilities could not take place on Sundays or any saints or feast days when daily work was suspended. Whereas the Pax Dei was declared locally by clergy, the Treuga Dei was universal. It was extended to Advent, Lent, and Rogation days (days of prayer and fasting). Over time, other days were added: Thursdays in memory of the Ascension, Fridays in memory of Good Friday, Saturdays because it was the day of the Resurrection. The Third Lateran Council in 1179 extended the Treuga to the entire Church.

How was this received by those inclined to wage war, and which influential churchman argued against the Treuga? Come back tomorrow and I'll tell you.

Friday, December 30, 2022

Cluny Abbey

William I, Duke of Aquitaine, founded Cluny Abbey in 910. Built in the Romanesque style, it had a basilica that was the largest in the world until the 16th century and St. Peter's in Rome.

More important than its size, however, was its strict adherence to the Rule of St. Benedict. Abbeys and monasteries had become lax for many reasons, and Duke William—whose nickname was "the Pious"—desired to restore a measure of piety and devoutness. He appointed Berno of Baume as its first abbot. Berno had established Baume Abbey on Benedictine principles of prayer, silence, and solitude. Baume later became a priory of the more significant Cluny, rather than an independent abbey.

Cluny had many supporters as its reputation as the leader of western monasticism grew. One was Pope Urban II of First Crusade fame, seen here consecrating the third Cluny church. Cluniac Reforms also promoted pilgrimages to the Holy Lands (which dovetailed with Urban's desire for a Crusade).

Interestingly, "poverty" had an odd relationship with the new brand of monasticism. Cluniac abbeys and churches elevated the trappings of the liturgy and increased the use of gold altar vessels, fine Bible-themed artwork like tapestries and stained glass, and polyphonic choral music.

Another practice or movement supported by the Cluniacs was the "Peace and Truce of God," an attempt to limit violence that was part and parcel of politics in Western Europe. What it was and whether it worked I'll discuss tomorrow.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

The Need for Reform

When St. Benedict established the Rule of St. Benedict for the proper functioning and practices of monastic life, he could not have anticipated the ways in which his plans would deteriorate in the future.

The dangers were both foreign and domestic. Raids from Vikings were a constant disruption of monastic life: destroying holy relics, burning crops, pillaging goods, impoverishing the abbeys so that they had to turn to nobles for financial support.

Dependence on local nobles—rather than being self-sufficient, which was the original intent—led to awkward circumstances. A lord might exert undue influence over the land used by the abbey, or the abbey itself. A nobleman might expect that a relative would be installed in the privileged position of abbot or abbess. A noble might also assume control over the abbey's revenue.

Daily life could be disrupted by a non-dedicated abbot, or simply by having a nobleman retire there, which was sometimes the case. He might demand a change in the schedule so that Matins, for instance, would not take place in the middle of the night, as it was designed. The strict vegetarian diet might be expanded to include meat, fasting and silence and monks' robes could be foregone for a much more comfortable daily life.

Ironically, given the last paragraph, it was a nobleman who created the situation that would return monastic living to its Benedictine ideal. That was the Duke of Aquitaine, and the founding of Cluny Abbey, which I will tell you about tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

The First Benedictine Monastery

When St. Benedict decided to create a place where men could quietly contemplate God, removed from the cares of the world, he chose a 1700-foot above sea level cliff top in southeast Rome. From 530 until 547, he developed the Rule of St. Benedict to guide the daily lives of the monks.

There were difficulties in building, according to an account by Pope Gregory II. Satan made a rock too heavy to move by sitting on it until Benedict shooed him away, and collapsed a wall on a young monk whom Benedict had to bring back to life. It was common in hagiographies to relate how the subject overcame pagan or demonic opposition.

Benedict's time at Monte Cassino was not long. He died in 534 and was buried in the oratory of St. John on the site. The monastery itself was sacked by Lombards in 570, and abandoned.

A second monastery was established on the site in 718 by Petronax of Brescia. He was an Italian monk who made a pilgrimage to the tomb of Benedict and found a few hermits living at Monte Cassino. They asked him to lead them; donations from nobles like the Duke of Benevento allowed them to rebuild. St. Willibald and St. Sturm of Fulda were at Monte Cassino under Petronax. Once again, however, the monastery was a target, this time in 883 by Saracens. The monks of Monte Cassino re-located to Teano and then Capua until 949, when Monte Cassino was rebuilt.

Monte Cassino experienced a golden age in the 11th and 12th centuries. It acquired much land in the area, referred to as the Land of Saint Benedict (ultimately reaching 80,000 hectares) which afforded it much material wealth. The abbey had art from Byzantine and Islamic artisans and received patronage from Byzantine emperors. Three popes came from Monte Cassino during this period.

It started to close independence and authority in the 13th century. Emperor Frederick II garrisoned troops there in his war with the pope. An earthquake in 1349 collapsed most of the buildings. Pope Urban V demanded funds from all Benedictine monasteries toward rebuilding Monte Cassino in 1369.

In 1799, Monte Cassino was sacked by the French Revolutionary Army. In 1866 it was declared a national monument with the monks as custodians. In 1944, it was destroyed by American bombers on the mistaken belief that German troops were stationed there. It was rebuilt, currently housing about a dozen monks.

During the time that the monks were "in exile" at Teano and Capua, the original Rule of St. Benedict was influenced by the Cluniac Reforms, sometimes also called the Benedictine Reforms. What were they, and how did they change the lives of monks? We will explore that next time.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

The Bishop of Eichstätt

Willibald spent ten years at Monte Cassino, sharing the experiences of his wide travels and helping to shape the monastic experience for Monte Cassino and another nearby Benedictine monastery.

This would change when Boniface, traveling to Rome in 738, told Pope Gregory III that he would like Willibald's help in evangelizing Germany. (It is believed that Boniface was related to Willibald through the latter's mother.) Gregory thought this was a good idea, and urged Willibald to travel once more.

Willibald came to Eichstätt, where Boniface ordained the monk, making him a priest on 22 July 741 and having him start missionary work. The following year, Boniface asked him to come to Thuringia, on the way to which Willibald ran into his brother Winibald, who had stayed behind in Rome in 724! The brothers had not seen each other in many years.

Returning to Eichstätt with Winibald, the brothers founded a "double monastery" at Heidenheim; that is, a monastery that had separate living arrangements for men and women, but sharing a single chapel and other facilities. This was more common in the eastern monastic communities and the influence of Willibald's travels. Winibald became its first abbot. They were joined by their sister, Walburga, who became its abbess.

In 746, Boniface made Willibald bishop of Eichstätt, where he served for over 40 years until his death c.787. He lived at the Heidenheim monastery, sharing his wisdom and knowledge of various countries and attracting many visitors.

Fascinating as the concept of a "double monastery" might be, the monastery of Monte Cassino has a long history that has caused it to be mentioned several times over the years of this blog, but it has never received proper attention. I'll correct that oversight tomorrow.

Monday, December 26, 2022

St. Willibald's Travels

Although St. Willibald wrote about St. Boniface (to whom he was related on his mother's side), what we mostly know about him came from another's writing, an itinerary written by an Anglo-Saxon nun named Huneberc who knew Willibald and his brother, St. Winebald. The two brothers also had a sister who became a saint, Walburga, whom I wrote about here.

In fact, the entire family was notable. Their mother was a saint, Wuna of Wessex; some think she was the sister of Boniface. Their father was known as Richard the Pilgrim because in 721 he went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land with his wife and two sons, leaving his daughter in care of the abbess of Wimborne in Dorset. Richard himself died in Lucca, in Tuscany, after developing a fever; he is considered a saint and his relics were displayed in Lucca and in Eichstätt. Both his and Luna's feast day is 7 February.

After Lucca, Willibald with Winibald continued the pilgrimage. They stayed in Rome, visiting the Lateran Basilica and St. Peter's. Then disaster struck, as Huneberc relates:

Then with the passing of the days and the increasing heat of the summer, which is usually a sign of future fever, they were struck down with sickness. They found it difficult to breathe, fever set in, and at one moment they were shivering with cold the next burning with heat. They had caught the black plague. So great a hold had it got on them that, scarcely able to move, worn out with fever and almost at the point of death, the breath of life had practically left their bodies. But God in His never failing providence and fatherly love deigned to listen to their prayers and come to their aid, so that each of them rested in turn for one week whilst they attended to each other's needs.

The symptoms more closely align with malaria. After recovering, Willibald continued his journey in 724. Winibald stayed in a monastery in Rome.

Willibald went to Ephesus where he visited the tomb of John the Evangelist. He spent the winter in Lycia (in Turkey), then traveled to the island of Cyprus, then to Syria and the church of Saint John the Baptist.

He is the first known Englishman to visit the Holy Land, visiting Nazareth and Bethlehem. He also visited Egypt, before returning to Nazareth, and then Cana, Capernaum, and finally arriving in Jerusalem on 11 November 725. He visits many places in the area before going to stay awhile in Tyre, after which he went to Constantinople.

He spent two years in Constantinople, staying in a small room at the Church of the Holy Apostles. He visited Nicaea, where he studied the records from the First Council of Nicaea, which had been called by Constantine to settle the question of Arian versus Nicene Christianity. He finally left for Naples, arriving there after seven years of traveling. He then spent ten years (729 - 739) at Monte Cassino.

He might have been content to stay at Monte Cassino, but a conversation between Boniface and Pope Gregory III would change his status, his location, and reunite him with his family. I'll explain that next time.

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Boniface and the Christmas Tree?

Portrayals of St. Boniface almost always show an axe in his hand or in the background. This stems from the story of Donar's Oak, a tree sacred to Germanic pagans somewhere in what is now the region of Hesse.

The Vita Bonifatii auctore Willibaldi ("Life of Boniface by Willibald") tells us the story of Boniface and the oak tree dedicated to Donar. Here is the relevant excerpt:

...the saint attempted, ... , to fell a certain oak of extraordinary size, which is called, by an old name of the pagans, the Oak of Jupiter. And when in the strength of his steadfast heart he had cut the lower notch, there was present a great multitude of pagans, who in their souls were earnestly cursing the enemy of their gods. But when the fore side of the tree was notched only a little, suddenly the oak's vast bulk, driven by a blast from above, crashed to the ground, shivering its crown of branches as it fell; and, as if by the gracious compensation of the Most High, it was also burst into four parts, and four trunks of huge size, equal in length, were seen, unwrought by the brethren who stood by. At this sight the pagans who before had cursed now, on the contrary, believed, and blessed the Lord, and put away their former reviling.

The oak timber was used to build an oratory dedicated to St. Peter; the rest, as they say, is history.

At some point, however, this story became elaborated upon and embellished with long dialogues between Boniface and the pagan priests. Unbelievably, these stories evolved to Boniface convincing the newly-converted pagans that, rather than worship the oak, they should worship the fir, because the evergreen nature represents everlasting life, because it points upward to heaven, and because it is the wood of peace (too soft for weapons). This has led some to say that Boniface invented the Christmas Tree. 

American author and clergyman Henry van Dyke wrote "The First Christmas Tree" in 1897. This may have been the origin of the modern myth.

Willibald was an interesting character, and a prime example of how well-traveled a person could be in the 8th century. He managed to visit most of the known world in his lifetime. We'll follow his travels tomorrow.

Saturday, December 24, 2022

St. Boniface

About 675 CE in Wessex, England, a boy named Wynfrid was born to a noble family. Educated in the Benedictine abbeys of Exeter and Nursling, he chose life as. Benedictine, becoming ordained at the age of about 30.

He traveled to Frisia, attempting to convert the Saxons there, with little success. Returning to England, he discovered that he had been chosen to replace the recently deceased abbot, but he preferred to continue his efforts to evangelize pagans.

On a trip to Rome in 718, he met with Pope Gregory II, who gave him the Name "Bonifatius" meaning "good fate" or "auspicious." Gregory made him a bishop, but instead of granting him a diocese sent him to Germania—where the spent the rest of his life, attempting to convert the area. His job was made more difficult by the war currently being fought between Charles Martel and the Frisian king, Radbod. (Radbod died in 719, but Frisia continued to oppose the Franks, right up through the Massacre of Verden in 782.

Fortunately for Boniface, Charles Martel supported his mission, as did succeeding Carolingian rulers. Boniface's goal of destroying as many pagan symbols as he could probably dovetailed with the Frankish goal to subjugate the Saxons and see them ruled by Frankish culture.

A second trip to Rome in 732 saw him receive the pallium as archbishop from Pope Gregory III. That same year, Charles Martel defeated the Umayyad Caliphate at the battle of Tours, after which he rewarded many churches and monasteries with lands. This act, unfortunately, led to church officials benefitting materially, a practice which Boniface deplored. Martel, however, did establish four dioceses in Bavaria with Boniface as their archbishop.

Boniface had one of his disciples found a monastery at Fulda, where Boniface was interred when he died in 754.

The axe you see in the picture above is pretty ubiquitous in portrayals of Boniface because of a particular act of his, the felling of the Donar Oak, a tree sacred to pagans. And speaking of Boniface and trees, did you know that some credit him with the invention of the Christmas Tree? I think tomorrow would be a good time to tell you about that.

Friday, December 23, 2022

The Abbey of Fulda

Fulda is a town in Hesse, Germany. In 744 CE, a disciple of St. Boniface named St. Sturm built a monastery there, intended to be the largest monastery ever founded at Boniface's behest. Boniface argued—and succeeded—in having Fulda placed directly under the supervision of the popes, rather than local bishops. Sturm was its first abbot. Ten years later, Boniface died and was buried there, which enhanced the reputation of the monastery. Visitors and donations flowed to Fulda, and it became a prominent center of learning.

One of its major manuscripts was the Annales Fuldenses, "Annals of Fulda," a contemporary account of the Carolingians from the final years of Louis the Pious (died 840) to 900. It is believed that Einhard, who was educated there, is responsible for entries up until 838.

Production of manuscripts was a specialty of Fulda, increasing the size of the library to about 2000 volumes. The only surviving copy of the De Rerum Natura of Lucretius was probably discovered here in 1417 (mentioned here). Before his death in 771, Charlemagne's brother Carloman took special interest in Fulda to guarantee its success. The monks also learned many other trades in order for the monastery to be self-sufficient, even living outside the monastery to pursue these trades.

After Sturm, Abbot Baugulf ran the monastery from 779 to 802. He focused on expanding educational aspects of the monastery. Later, under the 5th abbot, Hrabanus Maurus, a new school was formed: Fulda monastery school was essentially a high school, with separate departments for theological studies, the arts, and the sciences. He also sought out more holy relics for the monastery, which further increased its importance as a pilgrimage site.

A turning point for Fulda came in 1221, when its prominence was recognized by the abbots being named Princes of the Holy Roman Empire. This slowly affected Fulda adversely, however: the increasingly wealthy monastery tried to turn public lands to their own private lands, which led to a local insurrection in the 14th century. The monastery was dissolved in 1802, but the diocese and community that sprang up because of it still exists.

Once again, I find that a name that weaves in and out of the posts on this blog has been neglected. St. Boniface has appeared in several posts over the years as a prominent figure without ever discussing what made him prominent. I will fix in that gap that next time.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

The Law of Frisians

Nowadays, Frisian or Friesian conjures images of horses. The Friesian is one of the oldest horse breeds, popular as a war horse in the 16th and 17th centuries. Their origin is Frisia in the northern Netherlands and northwestern Germany.

When Frisians joined Widukind in rebellion during the reign of Charlemagne, they guaranteed life would change: Charlemagne prevailed, and forced the Frisians to accept Christianity and a set of laws he imposed upon them. This was the Lex Frisionum, the "Law of he Frisians."

The Lex was based on existing Frisian law. There were four legal classes—nobles, freemen, serfs, and slaves—and fines were applied differently to the different classes. (Clergy were not subject to civil law.) Twenty-two chapters of the Lex were all about fines, including wergild, the payment to relatives of a killed person. As with the Anglo-Saxons (and unlike many other cultures), the wergild was equal whether a man or woman.

The Lex includes two references to trial by ordeal, mentioned here and elsewhere. The Frisian method was to hold a stone that has been pulled from boiling water. Blisters were expected, but if they healed within three days, the holder was deemed innocent. A noble could mark himself innocent by Canonical Purgation, described in the post on Oath of Purgation.

The problem with the Lex Frisionum is that we don't have any original documents. What we know about it comes from a 1557 version, compiled with other Germanic law documents from the monastery at Fulda. We don't know how faithful that copy was to the original; some scholars point out that Charlemagne would not have allowed pagan elements to remain. Like so much of history, we only know what we have, and so much is speculation.

Monastic libraries like that at Fulda provide much of what we know, and since Fulda has been mentioned several times recently, I think I should delve into its significance.

Until next time...

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

The Acts of Charlemagne

Charlemagne is a known and respected figure in history, his reign establishing a re-birth of arts and education among the Franks, uniting much of western Europe, creating a non-centralized administrative system that managed an empire, re-establishing (with the help of the pope) the "Holy Roman Empire."

Many of those accomplishments, of course, were built on a foundation of decades of war that killed thousands. We've all heard of mass Christianizations by rulers of large sections of the populace, but haven't talked enough about mass slaughters. The two often went hand-in-hand.

Charlemagne spent decades focused on the Saxons to his east, wanting control over their politics and their souls. In 772 he destroyed the Irminsul, an important pagan symbol, and proclaimed rulership over much of Saxon territory. Ten years later, a rebellion rose up among the Saxons against Frankish forces at Süntel in Lower Saxony, joined by the Frisians. The Saxons prevailed, killing envoys of Charlemagne, four counts, and 20 additional noblemen.

When he heard this, the Lord King Charles rushed to the place with all the Franks that he could gather on short notice and advanced to where the Aller flows into the Weser. Then all the Saxons came together again, submitted to the authority of the Lord King, and surrendered the evildoers who were chiefly responsible for this revolt to be put to death—four thousand and five hundred of them. This sentence was carried out. Widukind was not among them since he had fled to Nordmannia [Denmark]. When he had finished this business, the Lord King returned to Francia. [Royal Frankish Annals]

The execution of the 4500 is called the Massacre of Verden. Some annals claim the 4500 were given a choice of baptism or execution, as the woodcut above displays. The instigator was Widukind, who continued being a thorn in Charlemagne's side over the next few bloody years until his final defeat and acceptance of baptism, along with the Frisians who had joined Widukind's Saxons.

Once Charlemagne subjugated a nation, forcing Christianity upon them, he would send missionaries. He would also establish a set of laws for them. In this particular case, the Frisians also asked for their own bishop. Charlemagne sent Ludger, later called "The Apostle of Saxony." He also created the Lex Frisionum, their own set of laws, which I'll dig into next.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

The Life of Charlemagne

There are two "Lives" of Charlemagne, one by Einhard who was a member of the Carolingian court for decades, and one by a "Monk of St. Gall." The Monk writes that he was given the idea for the biography when Emperor Charles III visited St. Gall for three days; this can be dated to 883, meaning the Monk was writing 70 years after its subjects death, and 60 years after Einhard's eyewitness account.

Einhard's Vita Karoli Magni ("Life of Charles the Great") is not just a list of wars fought and won—and there were many—but offers insight to the habits and interests of its subject, and in so doing gives a glimpse of daily life in the Frankish court.

One thing we learn is of the close relationship Charlemagne had with the scholars with whom he surrounded himself: they had nicknames for each other. Charles himself was called (King) David, while Einhard's skill at managing building projects and his knowledge of Scripture saw him named Bezaleel, from a character in the Bible

...filled with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, and in cutting of stones, and in carving of timber. [Exodus, xxxi]

Einhard, writing after Charles' death, forsakes the idea of making up tales of his subject's youth, claiming that no one was currently alive who could tell him anything about the king's life before his time as king. As much as Einhard writes because of his admitted great admiration for Charles, he refuses to do what so many medieval biographers would do: embellish his subject's early life with tales of his prowess, etc.

Of the 47 years' worth of wars discussed, the penultimate with the Huns stands out because of the near-total victory by Charlemagne, after which the spoils of war changed the Franks from "a poor people" to a land with so many riches that their coinage was devalued and commodity prices rose.

Of Charlemagne's personal life, we learn of his wives and concubines and their respective children (Einhard even admits that one name escapes him; the honesty of his account in places is refreshing). We learn that he quarreled with his mother Bertrada only once (when he divorced his first wife whom he had married on Bertrada's advice), and that he treated his sister with the same reverence he treated his mother.

As soon as his sons were old enough, he had them taught to ride and hunt and use weapons. His daughters were taught the arts of the spindle and distaff and to avoid idleness; all his children were taught the liberal arts, and to adopt high principles. When he was at court, dinners were always with the family. His attachment to his children was strong, and he openly wept when two sons and a daughter pre-deceased him. He also wept for the death of Pope Adrian I, whom he considered a great friend.

His sons and daughters also traveled with him, the sons riding up front and the daughters in the rear, guarded. One failing in Charles as a king was the fact that his daughters would have made him some powerful alliances through carefully chosen marriages, yet he never allowed them to be married, keeping them always with him. He had betrothed his eldest, Hruotrud, to Emperor Constantine VI, but it was broken off, possibly because of religious differences, or the distance she would have been from her father?

Despite the affection he showed for his family, he was a king and emperor who had to be harsh at times. Some of those times will be explored tomorrow.

Monday, December 19, 2022


Charlemagne, as has been mentioned many times over the years, brought many educated people to his court (Alcuin, for example), promoting learning and art to the point where there was a Carolingian Renascence long before the Renaissance of common knowledge. One of those scholars and historians was the Frankish Eginhard, in Latin called Einhardus; we simply call him Einhard.

Born about 775, when Charlemagne was already king of the Franks and the Lombards, Einhard was sent to be educated at Fulda. He was physically small, and so focused on scholarship and Latin rather than fencing and riding. (His Latin style is considered superior to that of most writers of the time.) Around 791-2 he was accepted to Charlemagne's court and was made "Clerk of the Works" for several construction projects.

His wife was named Emma; legend says she was a daughter of Charlemagne, and that the two eloped but were forgiven by her father. The woodcut above shows the diminutive Einhard being carried by Emma as they flee Court. There is no evidence to support this story, but folklore liked the idea. The Count of Erbach in 1810 claimed descent from Charlemagne through Einhard and Emma.

He was never given a title or a permanent position until after Charlemagne's death, when Louis the Pious made Einhard his private secretary. Einhard spent about 40 years serving the father and son kings, retiring in 830. Before he retired, however, he made use of the Royal Frankish Annals to compose the Vita Karoli Magni ("Life of Charlemagne"), the most thorough—and, of course, biased—contemporary biography we have for Charlemagne. He died in 840.

Einhard was responsible for other works: On the Adoration of the Cross, On the Translations and the Miracles of SS. Marcellinus and Petrus, and a collection of letters. But the biography of Charlemagne is worth taking a closer look, next time we meet.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Long Hair and Kingship

Gregory of Tours mentions, regarding an event in which the body of King Clovis I was exhumed, "Though I did not know who he was, I recognised from the length of the hair that it was Clovis." Elsewhere he refers to theFranks as reges criniti, the "long-haired kings." The post just prior to this tells of a choice offered to a queen to have princes shorn or killed; she chooses killed rather than the shame of princes who are shorn of their locks and therefore denied the chance to some day rule. Gregory tells another anecdote of King Clovis defeating a rival king who betrayed him, Chararic, cutting short the hair of him and his son and confining them in a monastery. When it was later reported to Clovis that the son had remarked to his father that they should grow their hair long again, Clovis had them killed.

Human cultures have developed many ways to indicate social cues, and hair length and style has certainly been one way to distinguish the upper from the lower echelons, but the Merovingians took it to an entirely new level.

We have every reason to believe that the Franks, like the Romans, kept their hair short, so the Merovingian line of royalty would have stood out from the common folk. It was not necessary that the hair had never been cut, just that it was long. Why this was so, we cannot say for certain. Some suggest it is simply a distinction between the Germanic military culture and the Roman religious culture of the various peoples that the Merovingians conquered, but that is too simplistic to be accurate.

When the Merovingian kings began to become lazy, their "Mayors of the Palace" managed their affairs, effectively running the kingdom. The last Merovingian king was Childeric III, whose Mayor of the Palace was Charles Martel, the "Hammer." According to Charlemagne's biographer Einhard, Charles allowed Childeric "to sit on his throne, content with the name of king only, with his long hair and flowing beard, and give the appearance of sovereignty." Eventually, Martel's son, Pepin the Short, took the throne with the backing of Pope Zachary. He had Childeric tonsured and sent with his also-shorn son Theuderic to separate monasteries.

You may recall in the post on Childebert how his brother Chlodomer was killed in battle against Burgundy. A Byzantine historian, Agathias, writes a contemporary account of the battle, giving us a little more on the attitude toward hairstyles in different cultures:

And when he fell, the Burgundians, seeing his hair flowing and abundant, loose down to his back, at once realised that they had killed the enemy leader. For it is the rule for Frankish kings never to be shorn; instead, their hair is never cut from childhood on, and hangs down in abundance on their shoulders. Their front hair, is parted on the forehead and falls down on either side. Their hair is not uncombed and dry and dirty and braided up in a messy knot like that of the Turks and Avars; instead, they anoint it with unguents of different sorts, and carefully comb it. Now this it is their custom to set apart as a distinguishing mark and special prerogative for the royal house. For their subjects have their hair cut all round, and are not permitted to grow it further.

The few seals of Merovingian kings that we have show the long hair, parted in the middle. Hair styles among the common folk might have been varied, but notably long hair was reserved for, and crucial to, the Merovingian royalty.

Now for another of those names I feel I have neglected: Einhard is significant because of his life of Charlemagne, and I'll tell you more next time.

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Saint Clotilde and Murder

Clotilde is considered a saint by both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. She was an early supporter of St. Geneviève, she built the chapel that later became the Abbey at Chelles, and it was probably her influence that persuaded her husband, Clovis, to return the Vase of Soissons to St. Rémy after one of his soldiers took it post-conquest.

Most details of her life come from Gregory of Tours. She was born about 474 at Lyons, the daughter of King Chilperic II of Burgundy. Chilperic had two brothers, Gundobad and Godomar. At the death of their father, Gondioc, Gondioc's kingdom was divided among the three brothers. Gundobad turned on Godomar, and then on Chilperic, killing his brothers and their families, in order to reunite their father's kingdom under one ruler. Clotilde fled to her uncle, Godegisel.

Clovis and Godegisel joined in war against Gundobad, eventually defeating (but not killing) him; Clovis, King of the Franks, received an annual tribute from Burgundy after that. He also requested Clotilde's hand in marriage; Gundobad was not in a position to refuse.

Clovis I and Clotilde were married in 493. They had four sons (Ingomer, who died shortly after birth; Chlodomer, Childebert I, and ClotharI) and a daughter, Chrotilda. Clotilde insisted on baptism for her children; Clovis, not a Christian, objected, and when Ingomer died soon after birth and baptism, he criticized her. Yet, she persisted, and Chlodomer survived baptism, after which she had less opposition to raising the children in her faith.

Her greatest religious triumph may have been in 496 when Clovis was on the eve of battle with the Alemanni. He prayed to her God that he would be baptized if he were victorious. He prevailed in the Battle of Tolbiac and was baptized by Bishop Remigius of Reims on Christmas Day 496 (he is the St. Rémy in the link above). This Catholicism would aid him and his children in the future, ensuring the political support of the Roman Empire against many of the Franks' foes, who were Arian Christians.

When Clovis died in 523, Clotilde retired to the Abbey of St. Martin at Tours. She did not retire from public influence entirely, however. Even a saint is not immune to the desire for revenge, and the murderer of her father, her uncle Gundobad, was still ruling Burgundy. It is believed that her three sons' attack (and decade-long war) on Burgundy was instigated by her.

Also, her position as queen may have overruled the softer sensibilities one might expect from a mother and one who would later be considered a saint. During the war with Burgundy, her eldest son Chlodomer was killed. His part of the kingdom was to be divided among his three sons, further fracturing the kingdom of the Franks. Childebert and Clothar did not want this, and (the story goes), turned to Clotilde for... "advice." The two sent her two items: scissors and a sword. The implication was clear: the boys could be killed, or they could be shorn. (Long hair was a necessary mark of kingship for this particular culture, as mentioned here.) Supposedly, her reply was "It is better for me to see them dead rather than shorn, if they are not raised to the kingship." (Of course, we have no proof of this, but for these anecdotes to circulate about someone who was generally revered suggests there may be a kernel of truth.)

Clotilde died in 545 and was buried beside Clovis in the Church of the Holy Apostles (which is now the Abbey of St. Geneviève). Veneration of her made her the patron saint of queens, widows, brides, and those in exile.

Now, about that long hair think: how important was it? Let's talk about that tomorrow.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Childebert I

Childebert was the third of the four sons of Clovis I, who united all the Frankish tribes in Gaul for the first time, and then had it divided up again at his death (511 CE) among his sons. Childebert's brothers were Theuderic I, Chlodomer, and Clothar I. In the division, Childebert received Paris and everything to the north to the English Channel coast and west to Brittany and its coast.

The brothers joined in 523 to war against Godomar of Burgundy and his brother, Sigismund. (Clovis had defeated Godomar's father in 500, forcing Burgundy to pay tribute.) Godomar escaped the first encounter, but Chlodomer took Sigismund prisoner. Godomar rallied the Burgundians and regained his lost territory, but Chlodomer executed Sigismund. Fighting continued for a decade until 534 when Godomar was killed and Burgundy taken over.

Sadly for Chlodomer, he was killed in the final battle. Childebert and Clothar did not want his kingdom of Orléans to be divided among his three children, so they conspired to eliminate them. The eldest two were killed; the youngest escaped to a monastery. Childebert annexed Orléans and Chartres.

Future military campaigns gained him Geneva and Lyons. The king of the Ostrogoths ceded Provence to the Franks in 535; Childebert's share of the spoils were Arles and Marseilles.

He also invaded the Iberian Peninsula on behalf of his sister, Chrotilda. She had been married to King Amalaric of the Visigoths. (A purely political move: Amalaric's father Alaric II had been killed by Chrotilda's father, Clovis I. This marriage was supposed to cease national hostilities; it did nothing to assuage personal hostility.) She was Catholic; he pressured her to convert to the heretical ArianismGregory of Tours writes that he even beat her until she bled, and she sent a bloody towel to her brother.

Childebert attacked Amalaric, who fled but was assassinated. He brought his sister home, but she died along the way; he buried her in Paris next to their father. He also brought back the tunic of St. Vincent of Saragossa, patron of vintners, sailors, and brickmakers.

Childebert expanded his boundaries and built more religious structures than any of his brothers. He died on 13 December 558, leaving two daughters, who according to Salic Law could not inherit. His territory went to his younger brother Clothar I.

Here's a question: if Burgundy was already paying tribute to Gaul, was the war against Godomar necessary? Necessary, no; but motivated by a powerful force: a mother's wishes. I also left out a crucial and related detail regarding the disinheriting of Chlodomer's sons. I'll explain tomorrow.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Conomor the Cursed

There flourished around 540 CE a ruler in Britany called Conomor the Cursed, so notorious for his cruelty that some think he provided the seed of later legends of vicious characters.

He had no biography, but he is mentioned in some of the vitae ("lives") of Breton saints; he is mentioned several times by a contemporary, Gregory of Tours. From these saints' biographies we can glean that there was a king of Dumnonia—not the one in Cornwall, but the colony in northern Brittany established by folk from Cornwall fleeing the Saxon invasions—and prince of Poher named Conomor or Conomerus (Welsh Cynfawr, "big dog").

According to Gregory of Tours' Historia Francorum ("History of the Franks"), a Breton count named Chanao decided to eliminate his competition by killing his brothers. One of them, Macliau, escaped to Conomor, who "hid him in a box underground," explaining to Chanao that Macliau was dead. After Chanao died, Macliau was free to take over. This sounds admirable, and I offer it in the interests of "equal time." Other anecdotes are not so complimentary.

Conomor is said to have received his position by murdering his predecessor Jonas and marrying his widow, becoming regent to her son Judael. Conomor tried killing Judael, but Jonas' widow fled with Judael to the Frankish court of King Childebert I, who aided his vassal Conomor by incarcerating Judael. Fortunately, Samson of Dol, Gildas, and others persuaded Childebert to abandon Conomor and free Judael.

Conomor also married Tréphine, daughter of Count Waroch I of Vannes, but killed her and their son Trémeur. Tréphine is considered a saint, patron saint of sick children and those whose birth is overdue. The story of Tréphine and Trémeur is considered to be the origin of the legend of Bluebeard, the French folktale of a wealthy man who murders his wives.

After Childebert's death (13 December 558), his brother Clothar I becomes king. Clothar leads an expedition into Brittany to deal with Conomor's villainy. Judael accompanies him, and manages to kill Conomor in battle.

There is a possible link with the Tristan legend. King Mark sends his nephew (in some version his son), Tristan, to escort his new bride Iseult to him. Tristan and Iseult have a steamy affair, and Mark intends to execute Tristan, who escapes. A stone inscription in Cornwall refers to "Drustanus son of Cunomorus." A biography of a 6th century Welsh bishop, Paul Aurelian, refers to "King Marc whose other name is Quonomorus." The legend of a father or uncle being cruel to a son/nephew fits the profile of Conomor.

This is a good time to stay in this time period but turn eastward from Brittany to the land of the Franks and  the Merovingian Childebert I, whose father was first king of the Franks and whose mother was a saint. See you next time.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Samson of Dol

Unlike most of the early Celtic saints, we know much more detail about the life of Samson of Dol (c.486 - 565), thanks to a biography written only a few years after his death. His parents, Amon and Anna, had tried for years to have a child; when they finally had Samson, they considered him a special gift from God, and so at the age of five sent him to study at the famous monastery school under St. Illtud.

There he learned how to live an ascetic life, and was ordained by St. Bishop Dubricius, at which event a white dove descended onto his shoulder. Samson left the monastery when two nephews of Illtud who envied him tried to slander him; they fed him poison, which had no effect.

He started traveling. He founded a community in Cornwall, he went to the Scilly Isles where the island of Samson is named for him, then to Guernsey where he is the patron saint. In Brittany, he found the monastery of Dol.

While in Brittany, he became involved in local politics. There was a king, Conomor, who was serving as regent for a nephew whom he tried to have killed. Samson, along with Gildas and others, persuaded the local bishops to excommunicate Conomor. Samson also persuaded King of the Franks Childebert I to stop supporting Conomor's position as "protector of the English Channel."

We know the date when he was ordained, because it is recorded as taking place on the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter (22 February) at the beginning of Lent. For February 22 to be at the beginning of Lent (a "floating" holiday), it would have to take place in 521. Traditionally, one was ordained at the age of 35, which would mean he was born in 486. Samson attended a religious council in Paris which took place sometime between 556 and 573, at which time he would have been already quite old. His signature is on documents from it as "Samson, a sinner." The estimated date of his death is halfway between the estimates of the date of the Paris council. He was buried in the Cathedral of Dol.

But about this Conomor character: he is thought to be the historical foundation for the folk tale of Bluebeard, and of the wife-beating giant Cormoran, and Tristan's uncle. How bad could he be to inspire three vile characters of legend? We'll find out tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

St. Illtud

The location of Wales on the south-western part of the island of Great Britain protected it somewhat from the pagan Germanic invasions that took place after the departure of the Roman legions in 410 CE. They did, however, have to deal with Christian heresy, such as the British theologian Pelagius' (died 418) emphasis on human choice in salvation and his denial of original sin. Germanus of Auxerre traveled to Britain to combat Pelagianism. Not only was Germanus successful, but he became the mentor of one of the most prominent Welsh saints, Illtud.

The earliest mention of Illtud is in a life of St. Samson of Dol, written about 600. In it, we learn that he founded a monastery and college in Glamorgan, possibly the earliest college of its kind in Wales, in the 6th century. Its numerous pupils included Gildas, St. David, and St. Samson. He was one of the most accomplished of the disciples of Germanus, well-educated and well-versed in Scripture. There are traits, however, such as his supposed ability to foretell the future, that I would put down to later legend-making.

A later biography written about 1140 tells us much more that we should not take as fact, but we can accept that it is an indicator of his popularity. The Vita Sancti Iltuti ("Life of St. Illtud") can be found here, where you will see him called "Illtud the soldier" (in Welsh he is sometimes referred to as Illtud Farchog which means "Illtud the Knight"), son of a Breton prince and a cousin of King Arthur, whose court he visits so he can experience its magnificence.

Eventually an angel appears to him and urges him to serve the "King of Kings," so Illtud decides to forsake his wife and become a hermit. He later takes Holy Orders and becomes an abbot, experiences miracles, cures his wife of blindness through his prayers, sees his opponents suffer, and more. There is another Welsh legend that names Illtud, along with Cadoc and Peredur, as the triumvirate into whose keeping Arthur places the Holy Grail.

The 12th century's renewed fascination with the Arthur legend inspired writers to embrace any character perceived to have been contemporaneous with Arthur. It seems likely that Illtud might not have been remembered except for the existence of the life of Samson, a student at his school. We should probably ask why Samson of Dol was considered important, and we will ... tomorrow.

Monday, December 12, 2022

Gildas' Life, Certainly False

Something about the 6th century British monk Gildas inspired later writers to create elaborate biographies for him.

The first is referred to as the Rhuys Life, since it was written by an anonymous monk at the monastery on the Rhuys Peninsula in the 9th century. He claims Gildas was the son of Caunus, a king in Scotland, with four brothers. When their father dies, one brother comes king and the others become monks. Gildas goes to a monastery under St. Illtud. Gildas becomes ordained in Ireland then returns to northern Britain to preach. The High King of Ireland, Ainmericus (and there was a king Ainmuire Mac Sétnai in the 560s) asks him to restore Christianity to Ireland. After he "fixes" Ireland, he travels to Rome and Ravenna, slays a dragon, and performs miracles. He then settles on the island of Houat off the coast of Brittany as a hermit, during which time he preaches to a woman who is pregnant with St. David (mentioned here).

He later found the monastery at Rhuys and writes a rule book for monks, then later writes a book that criticizes five British kings. He dies on 29 January 570. At his request, the body is placed on a boat and set adrift, but on 11 May 571 the ship comes ashore at Rhuys with the body perfectly preserved, so they bury him at Rhuys. (The picture is a statue of Gildas at Rhuys.)

Gildas' life was greatly elaborated upon in the 12th century by a friend of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Caradoc of Lancarfan. In it, Gildas becomes one of 24 sons of King Nau of Scotia. This is in the time of Arthur, whom Gildas loved. His brother Hueil, however, frequently came down from Scotland to raid, and on one of these excursions he is killed by Arthur. Gildas travels to see Arthur and forgive him.

Gildas then retires to a secret island, but after pirates from the Orkneys carry off his goods and friends, he goes south to Glastonbury, ruled by Melwas, King of the Summer Country (Somerset). Here follows the first time the abduction of Guinevere is mentioned in literature. Melwas abducts her to Glastonbury and rapes her. When Arthur comes to Glastonbury to retrieve his queen, Gildas persuades the two kings to make peace.

There is a Welsh genealogical tract, Bonedd y Saint ("Descent of the Saints"), whose oldest manuscripts date from the 13th century, that credits Gildas with three sons and a daughter. Except for their names, however, we know nothing more about them.

Gildas' lived at the right time to be incorporated into the fascination with King Arthur. There is another link between Gildas' life and Arthur, actually, and that is through his first mentor, St. Illtud.  Who was St. Illtud, and what was his link to Arthur? I'll tell you tomorrow.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Gildas' Life, Probably True

The 6th century British monk St. Gildas, also known as Gildas the Wise, is known by different biographies with wildly different claims and details. There are a few things we can assume are largely true.

He was born in Scotland to a noble family, but forsook it to be educated (we think) at a monastery in Wales under St. Illtud. He became known as a teacher, traveling around Britain and Ireland while preaching and setting up churches and monasteries.

He eventually went to Brittany to become a hermit, but his reputation drew followers longing for instruction. He built a monastery for them on the Rhuys Peninsula. (Pictured above is a chapel to St. Gildas in France.) This s where he wrote his less-than-complimentary history

His De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae ("On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain") was a savage treatment in three parts of the people and rulers in the past and their sinful ways.

Part one explains recent British history, starting with the Roman conquest and leading up to his own time (He gives his birth year as the same in which the Battle of Mount Badon is fought, which is said by some to be 452CE; the Annales Cambriae give his death as 570; both these dates cannot be mutually trustworthy). Part two is a criticism of five kings, some of whom are clearly documented figures. Part three condemns the current state of the British clergy.

Part one gets the most attention from scholars of Arthurian literature. In it, he mentions Ambrosius Aurelianus as the figure who led the British against the invading Saxons and drove them out. This section also has the earliest reference to the Battle of Mount Badon (Mons Badonicus), the major engagement against the Saxons which decisively stopped their advance and occupation of Great Britain.

If "Arthur" fought at the Battle of Mount Badon, and Gildas was born that year, he would have been very young during much of the time that the "Arthur" figure flourished. For some reason, however—oral tradition?—later biographies of Gildas tie him more tightly to Arthurian Legend, adding some details to those legends for the first time. But that's a story for tomorrow.

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Nennius the Historian

Nennius, the lowly minister and servant of the servants of God, by the grace of God, disciple of St. Elbotus, to all the followers of truth sendeth health

Thus begins the Historia Brittonum, "History of the Britons." The survival of about three dozen manuscripts tells how popular it was. 

Nennius was a Welsh monk and historian who flourished about 800. The "Elbotus" he mentions in his opening line refers to Bishop Elfodd of Bangor, who persuaded the Welsh Christian church to accept the Roman method for computing Easter.

The Historia is a compilation of other sources, some of which (such as Bede, and Gildas' De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, "On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain") are obvious. Other sources are not clearly identified, but it is highly unlikely that Nennius was making things up. His goal would be to bring together several sources; some of them may be oral histories for which we don't have other evidence, including a-historical legends and folklore.

One example of non-provable detail is the legend that Britain was founded by Aeneas after leaving Troy. Another is Nennius' contribution to the Arthurian legends by listing his twelve battles, the geographical locations of which have challenged historians. He also calls Arthur dux bellorum, "duke/leader of battles" rather than a king.

The various manuscripts have many differences: having been made by hand, there are omissions in some of individual words or whole paragraphs, and the scant autobiographical material in it is not consistent. Nennius' authorship has been questioned, but since it is the only name associated with the majority of manuscripts, Nennius still gets the credit.

Speaking of giving credit to historians, I keep referring to Gildas without really telling you who he was or why he's considered important. He, too, added much to the legend of Arthur in his history, which we will turn to next time.

Friday, December 9, 2022

The Fall of Boudica

When the Romans in the 1st century CE reneged on their deal with King Prasutagus of the Iceni tribe, seizing property, beating his widow, and raping his daughters, the widow, Boudica, decided to take revenge.

The Iceni and the Trinovantes united to drive out the Roman occupiers, Boudica apparently at their head. They first attacked Camulodunum (Colchester), killing Romand and Roman sympathizers. The Ninth Legion was stationed in Londinium (London); hearing of the slaughter, they marched toward Camulodunum, but Boudica planned an ambush that destroyed 1500 Roman legionnaires. With Londinium undefended now, she led her British army there.

The Roman governor of Londinium had only 200 auxiliaries with him, and so fled the city with his men, leaving it open to the rebels, who killed the inhabitants and burned the town. According to Cassius Dio, the attackers:

hung up naked the noblest and most distinguished women and then cut off their breasts and sewed them to their mouths, in order to make the victims appear to be eating them; afterwards they impaled the women on sharp skewers run lengthwise through the entire body. All this they did to the accompaniment of sacrifices, banquets, and wanton behavior.

The 14th and 20th Legions were northwest, in Wales, and heading toward Londinium. Boudica headed to meet them, attacking the settlement at Verulamium (St. Albans). The Roman forces gathered to meet them numbered 10,000. Although the British outnumbered them, the Romans had tactical experience. The British were first "softened up" by a hail of javelins, and the superior Roman cavalry broke up the resistance. The attempt to drive out the Romans failed. We are told by Cassius Dio that Boudica fell sick and died. Tacitus says she took poison to avoid capture. Both could be true.

Bede and Nennius both refer to the uprising of 60/61, but don't mention Boudica. Gildas mentions a female ruler whom he calls a "treacherous lioness." The attitude of these writers mirrored that of the Roman writers at the time: they were amazed that the "barbarians" were willing to abandon the better quality of life provided by Roman culture for their previous less-civilized lifestyle.

And speaking of historians, this is the first mention of Nennius in almost 1100 blog posts, a shocking sign of neglect for a 9th century historian who made significant contributions to, among other things, the legend of King Arthur. Let's meet Nennius tomorrow.

Thursday, December 8, 2022


History doesn't usually commemorate the losers, but in some cases the figure involved has fought (and lost) so spectacularly that the events are not forgotten. Such is the case with Boudica.

In stature she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh; a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a large golden necklace; and she wore a tunic of divers colours over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch. This was her invariable attire.

This description was by Roman historian Cassius Dio, writing a century after her death. He called her Buduica, his Latin version of the Brittonic name by which she is known now, Boudica. (The second 'c' often found in her name was a typo added by Tacitus.) That was probably not her real name, however, given that Common Brittonic (the British Celtic language used by the inhabitants before Roman and Viking invasions started adding new words) includes the feminine boudīkā, "victorious." What we know her by was likely a title given to her, in which case we have no idea what her birth name was.

Boudica was a queen of the Iceni tribe, wife of Prasutagus. The statue shown here includes their two daughters. The Iceni inhabited the area now known as Norfolk in the 1st century CE. Under the Romans (Claudius' forces had conquered Britain in 43), Prasutagus was allowed to be king, so long as he named Caesar his co-heir along with Prasutagus' two daughters. Rome also achieved local support by making loans of money and real estate to influential Britons.

When Prasutagus died before 60 CE, his will was not honored. Romans claimed the kingdom, loans and real estate were confiscated, Boudica and her daughters were beaten and raped. Cassius Dio says that the philosopher Seneca had made loans to some Britons, and called them in.

The stage was set for an uprising of the Iceni against the Romans, and Boudica was ready for it. Their initial success was sufficient to prompt the current emperor, Nero, to consider abandoning Britain altogether. That became unnecessary as the war went on.

Details to come.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Women of Legend

The word for a Slavic epic hero is bogatyr. One of the best-known was patterned on Prince Vladimir's uncle, Dobrynya. His battle with a dragon to save a princess would have resulted in most other folklores in being married to the princess, but his bride came from a different story.

Slavic folklore included female bogatyr called polianitsa, who are known to be as brave and strong and skilled as the bogatyr, and who often rescue their husbands. Dobrynya "met" a polianitsa named Nastas'ya Nikulichna when he saw her riding her black horse across he plains. (Without explanation) he fired an arrow at her that struck the side of her helmet. The strike had no effect; the arrow bounced and fell to the ground. He fired another with the same result. A third arrow finally caused her to stop and look around.

She rode up to him, grabbed him off his saddle by his hair, stuffed him into her saddlebag, and continued her ride. After four days, her horse stumbled, complains to her that he was carrying too much weight. Nastas'ya then pulled Dobrynya out of her pouch, asked him who he was, and gave him her terms: if he were older than she, she would kill him; if he were younger, she would treat him like a brother; if they were the same age, she would marry him.

Dobrynya did not want to risk revealing anything, so he refused to talk. Her horse recognized him, however, and identified him as Dobrynya Nikitich who was her age. Nastas'ya said they should get married, and they rode to Kyiv to make it happen. Prince Vladimir attended the wedding feast, which lasted three days, and Nastas'ya went to live with Dobrynya's widowed mother, Amelfia Timofeyevna, while Dobrynya went to fight a war in Lithuania.

While Dobrynya was away for many years, Nastas'ya (believing him dead) agreed to marry Alyosha Popovich (the second of the three best-known legendary bogatyr). Dobrynya was not dead, however, and learned of the wedding plans. He rushed back in time to attend the wedding disguised as a minstrel. After singing for the couple, he revealed himself, forgave this wife, and threatened to kill Alyosha. He was stopped by the third legendary bogatyr, Ilya Muromets. Dobrynya and Nastas'ya then lived happily ever after, agreeing to never speak of or to Alyosha ever again.


There were actual women performing legendary acts in history. Vladimir's grandmother was one of them, in fact. Another was a 1st century British queen—a little early for the Middle Ages, but mentioned in medieval literature—Boudicca. Let's talk about her next.

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Slavic Epic Legends

A bylina (plural byliny) is an Old Russian epic poem. They often contain tales of a bogatyr, a legendary hero. Early examples are like any other culture's folklore, containing tales of giants and dragons, acts of magic and miracles, etc. With the era of Vladimir the Great, Grand Prince of Kyiv, the so-called Kievan Cycle included bogatyr who were more rooted in real historical figures and (slightly) more realistic events.

I have mentioned Dobrynya, based on Vladimir's maternal uncle. The bylina of Dobrynya Nikitich starts with his mother advising him to avoid doing four things, all of which he winds up doing. She tells him not to travel the Saracen Mountains, not to trample baby dragons, not to rescue Russian captives, and not to bathe in the Puchai River.

He bathes in that river and meets a female dragon. He defeats the dragon, who pleads for a treaty, which he grants. The dragon immediately breaks the treaty, flying to Kyiv and kidnapping Prince Vladimir's niece Zabava. Vladimir orders Dobrynya two choices: rescue my niece, or be executed (sounds historically accurate!) Dobrynya's mother gives him a legendary horse Burko and a magic silk whip. Dobrynya tracks down the dragon's lair in the Saracen Mountains and tramples her dragon pups, one of whom cripples Burko with a bite to the leg; the magic whip (riding crop?), however, restores the horse with its application.

The dragon refuses to give up Zabava, and they fight for three days. Dobrynya, exhausted, wants to give up, but a voice from Heaven tells him to continue for three more hours, at the end of which he kills the dragon. This tale is so popular that it is still told: the illustration above is from a 2006 animated feature.

The happy ending would be Dobrynya marrying the rescued Zabava, but alas! Dobrynya is a peasant and not suited to the niece of a prince. Zabala's hand in marriage goes to Alyosha Popovich (second of the three best-known bogatyr). Dobrynya marries Nastas'ya Nikulichna, a polyanitsa (a female bogatyr).

From here I was thinking of talking about the medieval belief in dragons, but a female bogatyr is too interesting to leave alone with a single sentence. Dobrynya's marriage to Nastas'ya isn't part of the dragon story. It starts when he shoots her with an arrow. But that's a story for tomorrow.

Monday, December 5, 2022

Slavic Epic Heroes

Grand Prince of Kiev Vladimir the Great (958 - 1015) expanded the territory for the Kievan Rus. He cared about his reputation, showing his religious devotion by erecting a temple to the various gods of the people he had conquered. (He abandoned this when it became politically prudent to convert to Christianity.) The conversion to Christianity was politically prudent when he married a royal from Constantinople, abandoning his Kievan wives. (I think it stemmed from trying to overcome his illegitimacy, his mother being his father's housekeeper.)

Something else happens during his reign that I have to assume is not a coincidence, and that he encouraged it: the rise of the Kievan Cycle, legends about heroes, some of whose origins can be traced to real people during Vladimir's reign among his elite warriors and personal companions.

Now for some terms: a bogatyr (etymology uncertain) is a hero, a knight errant similar to Arthur's knights of the Round Table who travel the land having adventures recorded in the Rus' epic poems called bylinas (from the past tense of the Russian verb for "to be," indicating "something that was"). Prior to Vladimir's reign and the Kievan Cycle, Slavic/Russian legends include supernatural elements; the bogatyr often wield magic. The Kievan Cycle is more rooted in fact and national pride. The heroes are often depicted in defending the homeland.

One of the bogatyr is Dobrynya, shown to be based on Vladimir's maternal uncle of the same name. Vladimir had been sent to Dobrynya in Novgorod as a youth. One story claims that Vladimir's rape of Rogneda (see the link above) was orchestrated by Dobrynya, after Rogneda insulted his sister, Vladimir's mother Malusha. It was Dobrynya who forced Novgorod's Christian conversion "by fire" after Vladimir's decision.

The picture above is an 1898 painting the three best-known bogatyr: Dobrynya Nikitich, Ilya Muromets, and Alyosha Popovich. Bogatyr were sometimes known for specific characteristics. Dobrynya was known for his courage, Alyosha for his wits, and Ilya excelled in strength and integrity and his defense of the homeland.

Tomorrow we'll delve into some of the fictional and not-so-fictional bogatyr and their bylinas.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Christianization Aftermath

Vladimir the Great's mass conversion plan for the Kievan Rus was not acceptable to everyone. Less than a decade earlier he hd built a temple to several gods of the local tribes he had conquered, and picked Perun as the chief god.

Perun was the top god of the Slavic pantheon, a sky god with the power of thunder and lightning and storms. He was god of war and law, fertility and oak trees, and his symbols were the eagle and the hammer or axe (many "Axes of Perun" amulets have been found in archaeological digs). Perun was important to many peoples in the region, and even to Vladimir's own military.

So when Vladimir commanded that everyone come to the Dnieper to be baptized in the river or be named his enemy, people were upset, and many resisted. Dobrynya, Vladimir's uncle—Novgorod chronicles claim that it was he who raised Vladimir as a child, and later persuaded him to take control from his older brother—is said to have driven Novgorod to Christianity "by fire."

Pagan protests took place in areas outside of main population centers, such as in the Upper Volga and in the northeast in what is now Rostov in the Yaroslavl Oblast in Russia. Even decades later, in 1071, the bishop was being threatened by a mob opposed to Christianity, but the local prince bisected a "sorcerer" with an axe, saving the bishop and discouraging the uprising. Pagan culture could not be eradicated completely, surviving for centuries: a medieval epic poem composed probably shortly after 1200 called The Tale of Igor's Campaign blends Christian motifs with pagan gods.

Mass conversion was a political move, but it did not immediately change the hearts and minds of the subjects or the culture in win they lived.

But since we've touched on Slavic literature, I want to talk more about Vladimir's uncle Dobrynya, and the Kievan version of the Round Table. More on that tomorrow.

Saturday, December 3, 2022

The Christianization of the Kievan Rus

Although his grandmother, the cruel and vicious Olga, is considered by some to be the reason the Kievan Rus became Christian, Vladimir the Great is the one who made it "official." The "Baptism of Kyivan Rus"*  is celebrated every year. The reason he converted himself and the country is worthy of debate.

The account of the Primary Chronicle is that he looked for the best religion of the three major ones (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) to submit to, settling on Christianity because it didn't have the dietary prohibitions of the others. The Chronicle also contains what is called the "Korsun Legend." In it, Vladimir captures Korsun—part of the Byzantine Empire—in the Crimean Peninsula. He uses this to negotiate with the Emperor Basil II for Basil's unwedded sister in marriage. Vladimir already had a few wives, but this would be the highest-born wife he could get, and forge an alliance with a large empire. Basil consents if Vladimir will be baptized a Christian. He does so, and marries Anna Porphyrogeneta.

Several Arab sources cast this event in a slightly different light. They tell us that two rebels joined forces against Emperor Basil, one of whom actually declared himself emperor in September 987. Basil wanted help dealing with them, and so turned to Vladimir, despite their less-than-friendly history. Vladimir offered his help in suppressing the rebels, in exchange for Anna's hand in marriage. Vladimir also agreed (although he seemed to have had the upper hand in this deal) to be baptized and to Christianize his whole nation. Once this agreement was finalized, Vladimir sent 6000 troops to Basil's aid.

Whichever version is accurate, Vladimir married Anna, but had a problem at home: several wives. He had to divorce Rogneda (who entered a monastery), Adela, and Malfrida. He also had all the residents of Kyiv meet him at the Dnieper River for a mass baptism. He baptized his children and all the nobility. Messages went to all residents of Kyiv to come to the river and be baptized or be declared Vladimir's enemy. Priests from Korsun performed the ceremony.

Afterward, less than a decade after setting up shrines and temples to pagan deities to please the various tribes, he had them all torn down or burned. 

In our high school History of Western Civilization classes we often hear about entire countries being forced into Christianity. We never hear about paganism fighting back. In this case, let's see how Vladimir's people felt about their forced conversion. See you tomorrow.

*The Russian attack of Ukraine in 2022 has resulted in a change in many places to use the Ukrainian spelling "Kyiv" over the Russian "Kiev." I still use "Kievan Rus" because it is historically what the group has been called; when I mention the capital city, I will use the Ukraine spelling.