Saturday, April 30, 2022

The Utrecht Psalter

Vellum—fine parchment made from the skin of a calf—is more durable than paper. Even so, manuscripts that survived for centuries are precious, and sometimes we have them only due to extraordinary measures taken by individuals.

One such individual was Sir Robert Cotton, whose hobby was collecting old manuscripts of all kinds in his personal library. Despite a fire that destroyed some, there are countless things we know about the Middle Ages that we would not know except for his collection, including poems such as Beowulf. One unique manuscript that he collected was the Utrecht Psalter. (I should say "near-unique" for reasons explained a little later.)

A psalter is the Book of Psalms from the Bible. The word psalter is Old English (p)saltere from Latin psalterium from Greek psaltērion and means a stringed instrument. (Remember that the Psalms are songs.) This particular psalter came to the Cotton Library from Canterbury Cathedral some time after the Dissolution of the Monasteries (in the 1530s when Henry VII changed things). Robert had the pages bound, and then lent the manuscript to the Earl of Arundel, who took it into exile in the Netherlands (during the English Civil War in the 1640s); upon his death it was sold, and somehow wound up in the library of Utrecht University by 1716.

One of its distinguishing features is the style of art. Each vellum page contains a psalm, and the background of each page illustrates every image from each line of the psalm in understated color called bistro, a shade of brown or grayish brown. The pages are 10x13 inches—an unusually large size choice, unless it were intended to be used by several people reading/singing at once. It might have been a monks choir book rather than intended for personal instruction, as the mnemonic device of the illustrations would suggest.

Created in the 800s during the Carolingian period, it influenced a style that is called the "Utrecht style." There are at least three copies that were made of it prior to its acquisition by Cotton: the Harley Psalter (in the British Library), the Edwin Psalter (at Trinity College, Cambridge), and the full-color-with-gold-backgrounds Anglo-Catalan Psalter (so-called because it was half-illustrated by an English artist in 1180-1200 and finished in Catalan in 1340-50 in a different style), in the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

But whence came the original? An argument is made for it originating near Reims, because the style is similar to the Ebbo Gospels, suggesting that, like them, the psalter was sponsored by Archbishop Ebbo of Reims. Also, some believe the illustrations draw from details that would have been gleaned from the travels of none other than or recent predestination heretic, Gottschalk of Orbais. Besides psalms, it includes the Athanasian Creed, to which Ebbo's successor Archbishop Hincmar of Reims was partial.

This puts it in the vicinity of Hautvillers, which gives me a reason to re-visit Hautvillers and clear up a few details about which I was terribly neglectful yesterday. Tomorrow I answer the question: what about that dove?

Friday, April 29, 2022


Hautvillers is a commune in northeastern France. In 650 the Benedictine Abbey of St. Peter (in French it was the Abbaye Saint-Pierre d'Hautvillers) was established; it remained active until the French Revolution in 1789.

It was founded by St. Nivard, the Bishop of Reims, when a dove indicated where it was to be established. The abbey was devoted to the Rule of St. Benedict and of St. Columbanus, whose monastery practices in Ireland were in some cases even more strict than Benedict's.

The Abbey was known for its illuminated manuscripts. The very vibrantly illustrated Ebbo Gospels came from this Abbey. A well-known book of psalms known as the Utrecht Psalter (discovered in the Netherlands in the Utrecht University Library in 1858) is illustrated in a similar style to the Ebbo Gospels, and so might have come from here as well.

In 841, a priest from Reims stole from Rome the bodily relics of St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine and finder of the True Cross. Pilgrimages to see the relics helped bring donations to the Abbey, allowing it to purchase more property. (After the French Revolution, the relics were transported to Paris; they went to the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre in 1819.)

One of the uses of more land was, of course, to provide the Abbey with its own food and drink. Vineyards were always a good idea. One of the monks at Hautviller disliked using white grapes, because of their tendency to enter "refermentation." Refermentation happened after the wine was bottled: in the warmer weather, remaining yeast would "wake up" and start producing carbon dioxide again. Enough and you have sparkling wine; too much and you have exploding bottles. This monk laid down some rules for the best wines and best sparkling wines, such as blends of grapes from multiple vineyards (before pressing, not after they were already wine). His name was Dom Perignon. He did not develop the brand now known as "Dom Perignon," but it was named for him. The myth that Perignon invented champagne was created by a later monk, Dom Groussard, who made up many stories about the Abbey to garner fame.

Next: whether it came from Hautvillers or not, the Utrecht Psalter is worth a look.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Gottschalk of Orbais

I believe and confess that omnipotent and unchangeable God foreknew and predestined saint angels and elect men to eternal life gratis and that He equally predestined devil, head of all demons, with all of his apostates, and also reprobate men, namely his members, on account of their own most certainly foreknown evil merits, through the most right judgment to deserved eternal death; for thus says the Lord himself in His Gospel: “The prince of this world is already judged”

So wrote Gottschalk of Orbais (c.808 - 30 October 868 CE). He studied at Fulda Monastery in Germany where he became friends with Strabo and studied under Hrabanus Maurus. His first act of "rebellion" was being ordained in France (where he joined the Abbey at Corbie) not by his bishop, but by the local choriepiscopus of Rheims, a lesser functionary in the bishop's. By 840 he had left France for Italy where he preached his views on predestination, before being driven out by Hrabanus Maurus who at that time had become Archbishop of Mainz.

He preached and gained followers in Germany until the Synod of Mainz in 848. It was presided over by Hrabanus Maurus with King Louis the German present. Gottschalk was declared heretical, beaten, and for hidden to return to the Kingdom of Francia under Louis the German. He was sent to Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims to be kept under confinement, but he continued to preach his double predestination.

Six months after the Synod of Mainz was the Council of Quierzy—with Archbishop Hincmar and King Charles the Bald—at which Gottschalk's preachings were questioned again; this time, however, there was no calm theological debate. When Gottschalk refused to accept that is interpretation of Augustine was wrong, he turned to verbal abuse of his opponents. He was defrocked (both in the sacerdotal and sartorial sense), beaten, and imprisoned in a monastery at Hautvillers for the next 20 years, until his death.

Hautvillers; now there's a place worth talking about. Next time.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022


Ephesians 1:11 says "In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will." The Old and New Testaments as well have other passages that declare God's will as the driving force behind all actions and events.

Augustine of Hippo (354 - 430 CE) was fine with this. He maintained that God had foreknowledge of whether individuals would deserve heaven or hell. If God is omniscient, and omniscience includes knowledge of what is to come, then God knows what people will do. He also explained the sin of Pride as thinking that we are the ones who choose God rather than God's grace that empowers the initial act of faith. Some scholars claim that Augustine believed in "double predestination," the term that is used to explain that God chooses those who will be saved and those who will be damned.

(This seems to argue against the doctrine of Free Will, that human beings choose to do good or do bad, and hence are responsible for the ultimate fate of their souls. In my (Roman Catholic) youth, we were taught that God's knowledge does not "lock us in" to a certain path. It was explained as foreordination: God simply knows ahead of time the choices we will make.)

Of the three main Jewish sects in the 1st century CE, the Romano-Jewish historian Josephus (c.37 - c.100) wrote that the Sadducees did not have any thoughts on predestination, but the Essenes and Pharisees felt God's providence ordered all human events. The Pharisees still believed that man could choose between right and wrong. We don't know how scholarly an interpretation this was by Josephus.

Pope Clement I (d.99 CE) wrote a letter to the Corinthians in which he appeared to express a predestinarian view of salvation.

Valentinus (c.100 - c.180 CE) believed it depended on what kind of nature you were born with, either good or bad or a mix of the two. A person born with good nature will be saved, with a bad nature will never be saved, with a mixture can go either way.

St. Irenaeus believed Valentinus' view was unfair, and that humans were free to choose salvation or not.

After Augustine, most arguments for or against predestination were based on agreeing with or refuting his explanations.

When the Middle Ages got well and truly underway, people like Gottschalk of Orbais (c.808 - 868) believed in the above mentioned double predestination. (I will say more about him tomorrow.)

Thomas Aquinas believed in free will, but also taught that God predestines certain people to a special closeness to God (called the beatific vision) based solely on God's own goodness.

William of Ockham (c.1287 - 1347) taught free will, but God predestines based on people's good works that He foresees.

The Cathars denied free will.

This is a subject on which there is likely never to be universal agreement.

That Gottschalk of Orbais really stirred things up when he weighed in. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

The Council of Orange

There were two Councils of Orange. The first was held 8 November 441, presided over by Hilary of Arles.  He and 17 bishops established rules for the right of asylum, penance, administering sacred rights to those who were "defective" in body or mind, and a few others.

The second Council of Orange, in 529, presided over by Cæsarius of Arles, dealt with heresy and affirmed much of Augustine of Hippo's ideas.

As it turns out, I've already mentioned one of the chief concerns of the Council of Orange in 529, when I wrote about John Cassian (the "sometime saint"). Cassian's "SemiPelagianism" (a "compromise" between the "heresy" of Pelagius and the "orthodoxy" of Augustine of Hippo) claimed that God's grace was not needed to start someone's path to the good. Augustine maintained that God's grace must be present from the beginning.

The third canon of the Council says:

If anyone says that the grace of God can be conferred as a result of human prayer, but that it is not grace itself which makes us pray to God, he contradicts the prophet Isaiah, or the Apostle who says the same thing, "I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me."

The quotation is from Romans 10:20, in which Paul quotes Isaiah 65:1. This suggests that absolutely anyone (and therefore everyone) could find God's grace, because the potential for God's grace is present in everyone whether they know it or not.

Canon 5 reinforces this:

If anyone says that not only the increase of faith but also its beginning and the very desire for faith, by which we believe in Him who justifies the ungodly and comes to the regeneration of holy baptism-if anyone says that this belongs to us by nature and not by a gift of grace, that is, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit amending our will and turning it from unbelief to faith and from godlessness to godliness, it is proof that he is opposed to the teaching of the Apostles,

I'm not a theologian, but this reminds me of the document Lumen Gentium ("Light of Peoples") from Vatican II, in which the "possibility of salvation outside the Church" is discussed.

Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Saviour wills that all men be saved. Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life.

This was a healthy attitude that denied no one the opportunity to be a child of God and receive salvation.

There was one item from Augustine of Hippo's writing that the Council did not ratify, and that was his stand on predestination. Next time.

Monday, April 25, 2022

St. Cæsarius of Arles

Cæsarius of Arles meant well. He was a major figure in his generation to preach asceticism in daily life, and as a bishop urged the necessity of preaching morality to all, including those who were opposed to Christianity.

Consequently, Cæsarius left over 200 sermons urging morality and goodness. They were copied and spread around the Christian world, expressing love, the last Judgment, and care of the poor. His sermons were quoted by Thomas Aquinas, and lines wound yup in some SAnglo-Saxon poetry.

He urged seriousness; he spoke against celebrating New Year's, which in the Roman Empire had become a time for debauchery. He also preached the Regula virginum ("Rule for Virgins"), the first set of rules specifically for women in convents/monasteries. He called women who joined cloistered groups "gems of the church" who "with God's help, evade the jaws of spiritual wolves." To do so, of course, they had to be separated from society through claustration. Claustration meant they were not to interact with the non-clergy at all: there would be walls or bars or grills physically separating them always from those not members of their order. He established a monastery exclusively for women in Arles, with the hope that their prayers would aid him in entering heaven. The first abbess of the monastery? His sister, Cæsaria.

Cæsarius was born around 468/470 CE and died 27 August 542. It was a time when the early church was still finding agreement on doctrine. As the bishop of Arles, he presided over the Council of Orange that ratified some doctrine and fought yet another heresy. I'll tell you about it next time.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

The Pallium

Tertullian in 220 CE wrote De Pallio ("Concerning the Pallium"), in which he talks about clothing fashion in different countries. The pallium here is not specifically religious. Pope Marcus in 336 conferred it on Bishop of Ostia, and Pope Symmachus did the same in 513 for Cæsarius of Arles. It was Boniface who insisted that it be conferred on metropolitan archbishops (archbishops who oversee a metropolis; some have the title but not their own archbishopric). The Archbishops of Canterbury were invested with the pallium, which is why Sigeric made that journey to Rome using the itinerary that has been preserved. Some popes did start charging for the pallium , enriching the coffers of the Vatican. The Council of Basel in 1432 condemned it, and the practice eventually ended.

But what is it, specifically regarding the papal garment? From the Latin palla, "woolen cloak," it is currently a band of wool that wraps around a certain way for ceremonial occasions. It used to be longer, hanging lower, but has shortened over time. Mosaics at Ravenna and Rome show the pallium looking as it did centuries ago. In current practice, a pallium is blessed by Pope Francis on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, but it will not be conferred then on a metropolitan archbishop: he shall receive it from the papal nuncio in his home diocese.

You may imagine that pallia are not bought at your corner ecclesiastical garment shop. It is made from the lambs who are presented by nuns of the convent of St. Agnes (a minor basilican in Rome). The wool is woven into the pallia by nuns of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere.

The significance of a garment of lambs wool draped over the shoulders of the pope may have originated with the pastoral image of a shepherd carrying a lamb draped over his shoulders. The popes are shepherds of their flock, etc.

Cæsarius of Arles was a pretty interesting character. He considered women the "gems of the Church." Unfortunately, like precious gems, he felt they should be locked away for safekeeping. I'll explain more in the next post.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Sigeric of Canterbury

If you search online for "Sigeric of Canterbury" the top entries returned are about his itinerary, as mentioned previously. He did more than travel to Rome, however.

He was educated at Glastonbury Abbey and was a monk there for awhile. Sometime after 975 he was made Abbot of the Benedictine St. Augustine's in Canterbury. In 985-6 he was made Bishop of Ramsbury. This title seemed to be granted to men who were being prepared eventually to be Archbishop, and that's what happened to Sigeric. He was made Archbishop of Canterbury from 990 to 994, which was the impetus for the well-known trip to Rome. He had to receive his pallium from the pope, the official piece of garb that denotes the archbishop status.

Why was he "groomed" for the highest clerical office in England? We don't have details about his career, but he is sometimes referred to in contemporary document as "Sigeric the Serious." This suggests that he was respected for his demeanor. On the other hand, since we do not have any contemporary details about his demeanor, some have suggested that the "serious" epithet was a misnomer based on translation of the Anglo-Saxon "Sigeric" into the Latin "Serio" which looks like "serious." Hard to say.

He was considered a scholar and expert on religion. Ælfric of Eynsham, who succeeded Sigeric as Archbishop of Canterbury, dedicated a book of homilies to Sigeric, and asked Sigeric to correct any errors of doctrine he might find. Ælfric was quoted here in 2015 about his drinking preferences.

You have probably heard of Danegeld, the money paid to invading Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard by Æthelred the Unready. It was apparently the advice of Sigeric that Æthelred pay it. You can read a little more on why that may have not been a good idea if you check out this post from 2014. Sigeric himself paid money to the Danes to save Canterbury Cathedral from being burned.

Sigeric died 28 October 994, leaving a collection of books to Canterbury and wall hangings to Glastonbury Abbey.

The pallium mentioned here has a lot of history to it. I'll tell you about it next time.

Friday, April 22, 2022

How To Get There - Maps

The Middle Ages did not have maps the way we think of them. Or rather they had maps, but not for the purpose we would think of them. There were some general purpose maps that tried to show the world, or the country; maybe even a town. But a map you could use to travel from place to place easily?

Travel from village to village would be simply. You'd ask for directions from someone who'd been there. The lack of Welcome signs at the border of towns meant you should simply as the people you run into if you have reached the intended town. There might not even be a road or path; the directions might be "over the hill" or "follow the river downstream."

To get from one place to another, often the directions were simply an itinerary, a list of the towns and landmarks along the way. Some of these exist, such as the manuscript of Archbishop Sigeric of Canterbury, who visited Rome in 990; his list of churches and the route he followed is in the British Library. Many of these itineraries would probably be used once and tossed away.

Also in the British Library is the manuscript illustrated here. It is by Matthew Paris, and shows how to get from London to Rome with sketches of the places along the way!

Some trips were made solely to visit holy shrines, such as the famous shrine of St. James in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. These places were visited by so many people that you could more easily find directions as well as traveling companions.

I want to take a closer look at Sigeric next.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

How To Get There - Roads

I never gave roads much thought before. References to "The Silk Road" did not refer to a "road"; instead, it was a series of routes (and alternate routes) from one city/town to another, linking the West and the East.  I always just assumed that these were well-traveled paths. There are, however, routes that need infrastructure because the way is not easy.

One example is in areas where it is necessary to travel over wetland, for instance the Sweet Track (named for the discoverer in 1970, Joe Sweet). It allowed travelers to go from one small island at Westhay (four miles northwest of Glastonbury) over marshland to a high ridge at Shapwick to the west. Wooden posts were driven into the wet ground, and then oak planks were laid end-to-end. It allowed travelers to cover the 1.2 miles distance and stay dry. By examining the rings in the wood and comparing them to known patterns of tree rings (a technique called dendrochronology), it can be determined that the causeway was built in 3808-07 BCE. As it turns out, the Sweet Track was preceded by an even earlier system called the Post Track, which was built in 3838 BCE, which used ash planks over lime and hazel posts. This suggests a community effort to maintain the causeway over at least a couple generations. Changing climate and the drying up of some areas would have eliminated the need for some of these causeways.

The Romans were amazing road builders, and examples of their stonework can still be found throughout Europe and Great Britain. (The illustration shows a section of the Appian Way, an important Roman road in Italy.) Trade and military personnel needed to move swiftly, and the Roman Empire made sure they could. At the height of the Empire, 29 great highways led to/from the capital, helping to support the saying "All roads lead to Rome." It is estimated that 250,000 miles of roads were made and maintained, 50,000 of which were stone. Great Britain has at least 2500 miles of Roman roads. During there Roman occupation of Britain, many known pathways were paved in the Roman style. This helped passage in all weathers, since many well-worn walking routes could become muddy trails at certain times of the year.

Roman roads and timber trackways have left evidence throughout Europe. Getting from place to place over longer distances, however, required more than a smooth surface to tread. Westhay to Shapwick was easy and obvious. The Appian Way led from Rome to Brindisi in southeast Italy. What if I needed to get from Westhay to Brindisi, however? Did the Middle Ages have AAA that could create a personalized map? Let's find out tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022


One of the oldest roadways in Northern Europe is the Sweet Track, of crossed wooden poles driven into waterlogged ground to support oak planks. Discovered in 1970, it was dated by dendrochronology to determine its age. The planks were cut in 3807-8BCE, and provide evidence that the Glastonbury area was inhabited in Neolithic times by an organized community that wanted to ensure safe and easy passes of an extremely marshy area (for thousands of years earlier it was systematically shifting from dryish land to shallow lakes.

So far as we know, however, it didn't have a name until the Saxons in the 7th and 8th centuries called it in Anglo-Saxon Glæstyngabyrig. The "byrig" element is fairly straightforward, referring to a burh or fortified place. The first part is unclear, and might have been a personal name. It might be linked to a legend from the Life of St. Patrick: Patrick resurrected a swineherd named Glas mac Caise (Gaelic glas means "green/grey-green"), who then went to (what is now) Glastonbury. There are other theories as well, none definitive.

Glastonbury is overlooked by a hill, Glastonbury Tor, on the summit of which is the remains of the church St. Michael. (Seen above, and one of the few places I have blogged about that I have actually visited.) The Tor was considered a gathering place for fairies; St. Michael was the Christian main defense against evil entities, so the chapel (later the church) was built to guard against the supernatural.

I have previously mentioned William of Malmesbury's reference to Glastonbury, and the remains of an early glass factory there. Robert de Boron added significance to the area when he had the Holy Grail brought there.

Mystical legends, such as the Glastonbury Thorn tree which sprang from Jospeh of Arimathea's staff (even though the origin of that story is de Boron who does not have Joseph actually making it to Glastonbury), and the purported zodiac built into the landscape around the town (for which there is no convincing evidence) have made Glastonbury seem very mystical. The New Age movement of the 20th century embraced Glastonbury—as seen by the number of esoteric book and gift shops—and each summer sees an enormous Glastonbury Festival of the Performing Arts. Its identification as Avalon in the Arthurian legends was also a big inspiration for its current reputation.

The existence of the Sweet Track (it was named after the discoverer, Ray Sweet) got me thinking: what about the history of roads? Stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

The Origin of the Grail, Part 2

In Part 1 we learned that the first mention of the grail was as a miraculous serving dish. The day before we learned that Robert de Boron linked the grail to the cup used at the last Supper. Around the same time, German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach (c.1160 - 1220) had a very different idea about it.

von Eschenbach based his epic Parzival on Chrétien's Perceval. Parzival is sheltered by his mother from thoughts of knighthood, but three passing knights convince him to seek out Arthur's court. She dies after he leaves. His time at Arthur's court mirrors Chrétien's version somewhat, in that he defeats a knight, leaves and learns chivalry from a mentor, and becomes the guest at the castle of Anfortas, the Grail castle. Anfortas warns him not to be too curious, so he does not ask Anfortas about the strange wound he has or about the array of wondrous objects paraded before him. He awakens the next morning to an abandoned castle, leading him to think the night before was all illusion caused by evil spirits.

There is much more afterward, but regarding the procession of objects seen by Parzival: one of the objects is a stone, about which von Eschenbach tells us der stein ist ouch genant der gral ("the stone is also called the grail"). It is carried, preceded by candles and balsam incense, in a green silken cloth by a beautiful lady with the name "Overflowing Happiness." It is the stone of the phoenix, and connected with the power of resurrection. Every Good Friday, a shining white dove flies down to it with a Communion Host in its mouth, placing the Host on the stone to renew its power. Only the baptized can see the Grail. When Lucifer rebelled against God, the angels who did not take a side went to the stone. The stone is wide enough to be written on. Later in Parzival the titular character's name appears on the stone, marking him as the new Grail King.

There is more. von Eschenbach's interpretation of the Grail has provided fodder for many many years for scholars wishing to understand his meaning. After him, however, the Middle Ages settled on the cup from the Last Supper and made the Grail a central motif for quests involving the Arthurian Cycle.

Of course, since the cross on which Christ was crucified had been found years earlier, there was no reason to believe that the cup from the Last Supper had not survived. A 7th century pilgrim had claimed the cup was displayed in Jerusalem. In the late 12th century, a copy of the grail was supposedly looted from Byzantium and taken to Troyes; it was lost during the French Revolution. The Genoa Cathedral has a green glass dish supposedly used at the Last Supper. The Holy Chalice of Valencia appeared in 1399 but purports to be older. There is also the Nanteos Cup, a wooden bowl found in Wales, a glass dish found near Glastonbury, and a 6th century chalice called the Antioch Chalice. All were linked to the Grail legend, (without evidence).

Glastonbury, of course, is the place where (according to Robert de Boron) Joseph of Arimathea sends the Holy Grail. What was so special about it? Let's see what we time.

Monday, April 18, 2022

The Origin of the Grail, Part 1

When it comes to stories about the Middle Ages, the story of the Holy Grail is, you might say, the Holy Grail of stories.

The first mention of a grail was in the Old French Perceval, le Conte du Graal ("Perceval, the Account/Story of the Grail") by Chrétien de Troyes about 1190. Perceval was a young man raised by a single mother in the wilds of Wales. One day he encounters a group of knights and decides he wants to become one. His mother is opposed to this, but he sets out for King Arthur's court.

He is mocked by Sir Kay, but Perceval manages to kill a knight that has been a problem for Arthur. He trains under a knight, rescues and falls in love with that knight's niece Blanchefleur. He goes back to visit his mother, along the way encountering the Fisher King, at whose castle he spends the night. During a meal there he sees a procession: first a young man carrying a bleeding lance, then two young men carrying candelabra, then a young woman carrying a fancy golden serving dish (the grail), then another young woman with a silver platter.

When he wakes the next morning and heads home, Perceval sees a young girl mourning, who tells him that if he had asked about the grail, the wounded king would have been healed. He goes home and discovers that his mother has died. Later, after he has joined Arthur's court, a "loathly lady" enters and criticizes Perceval for not asking about the grail. A later short passage has a hermit explain to Perceval that the grail held a host (presumably from the Christian Mass) that sustains the Fisher King's father, who is wounded. (This link to the Christian Mass made it easy to equate the grail with a chalice.)

Chrétien did not finish the poem; the patron for whom he was writing it, Philip I Count of Flanders, died in 1191 while crusading at Acre. What he might have done to further the significance of the grail and the wounded king is unknown. Other writers, however, were happy to seize on the image of the grail and run with it, such as Robert de Boron in the previous post.

We will check on other writers who picked up where Chrétien left off.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Robert de Boron

Robert de Boron was a French poet of the late 12th/early 13th centuries. There are two texts in Old French that are definitively attributed to him: Joseph d’Arimathie and Merlin. Two other texts are attributed to him with uncertainty, although similar in style: Perceval and Mort Artu ("Perceval" and "Death of Arthur"). Together they are called the Robert Cycle, or The Romance of the History of the Grail.

In Joseph d’Arimathie, de Boron merged the legend of the grail with Christian concepts. The magical grail first appeared in Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval, le Conte du Graal in about 1190, but it was not a Christian item. de Boron explained it as the cup used at the Last Supper, and then used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch Christ's blood at the Crucifixion. Later, Joseph creates a company that brings the grail to Britain to Avaron, called Avalon by later writers, and then identified with Glastonbury; Joseph himself does not come to Britain. (Why a French poet would have the precious grail and its contents go to Britain is a mystery.)

The story of Merlin introduces several new elements to the Arthurian legend. One is that the poem purports to be from a book by Blaise, who was dictated to by Merlin himself. (The illustration above shows Merlin dictating while Blaise writes.) The element that most interests us right now is that of the last part of the poem: Arthur's fitness to be king results from being the only one who can withdraw a sword that has been sunk into a stone. This is the first time such an event was introduced into the Arthur story. It is not, however, the first time we have seen the image of a sword in a stone.

Yesterday's post on Saint Galgano told the miracle of the sword in the stone, and that the sword is still in the stone and viewable by all. This would have taken place by 1181, the year of Galgano's death. de Boron is most likely to have been writing after that date. Stories of a miraculous sword embedded in stone would certainly have spread, and since de Boron (and other writers about Arthur) seem to have no difficulty in adding fanciful elements to the legend, it is highly likely that de Boron took a legend that was spreading throughout Europe and imagined it as a test of fitness sent by divine powers.

But while we are in the subject of the Grail, did you know it was once thought to be a stone? One more dip into the fanciful before we return to more grounded topics.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

The Sword in the Stone

Galgano Guidotti (1148 - 3 December 1181) was born at Chiusdino in Tuscany. He became a knight with a reputation for cruelty and arrogance. At some point, he received a vision in which the Archangel Michael led him to a hill where the 12 apostles were standing and told him he should renounce all his worldly goods. Guidotti replied that this would be as difficult as splitting a stone, and he thrust his sword toward a stone in the ground. To his surprise, the sword went into the stone like butter.

Not long after this vision, while he was out riding, his horse refused his commands and led him to the hill of Montesiepi. He recognized it as the hill in his vision, drew his sword, and thrust it at the ground; it sank into the stone just like in his vision. He became a hermit on the spot. He died a year later.

A chapel was built over the site of his death, drawing pilgrims and penitents. Miracles were reported after praying to him, and in 1185 Pope Lucius III canonized him according to the new form al rules of the Catholic Church. A Cistercian Abbey of San Galgano was begun around 1220. The Abbey struggled financially, and was ransacked by John Hawkwood's band in 1363. It is in ruins now.

The sword in the stone, however, exists. Nearby, at the Rotonda of Montesiepi, there is a chapel with it on display (see the illustration). Research in 2001 showed that the metal protruding from the stone was consistent with the style of the 12th century. The handle and visible blade do not seem to be a prop merely attached to the stone. It really does seem to be a real sword embedded in a stone.

Hmm. Sword in a stone. Where have I heard that image before? We should look into that.

Friday, April 15, 2022

John Hawkwood

John Hawkwood (c.1323 - 1394) was an English soldier who became famous as a mercenary leader. Many Italian city-states hired foreign mercenaries to lead their armies, so that the soldiers had no loyalties to any families inside the city that could lure them to support a military takeover. 

We know for certain of his leadership of a group in France because of a letter addressed to him as the leader from Pope Innocent VI, asking Hawkwood's group to stop harrassing the fort at Pont-Saint-Esprit. They refused the pope's request, which led to their excommunication. The issue was resolved when the pope offered more money to fight for him in Spain and Italy. This split the group, and Hawkwood led the half that went to Italy. Italians had difficulty pronouncing his name, and he became known as Giovanni Acuto, "John the Sharp/Astute."

He was eventually allied with Bernabò Visconti against Pope Urban V. Although outnumbered, Hawkwood managed to outflank the enemy and capture many officers, cementing his reputation. He later went on raids through the countryside, intimidating various towns to pay him to leave them alone. One of these raids led to the War of the Eight Saints.

He outmaneuvered enemies with feigned retreats and ambushes, setting up banners in one area as if he were camped there, and then coming around at the enemy from a different direction. He was known for brutality as much as cunning: he had no problem with his men raping, dismembering, or outright murdering peasants. He sacked monasteries such as the Abbey of San Galgano.

I mentioned his marriage to Donnina Visconti yesterday; he also had an earlier English wife with whom he had at least one daughter, Antiochia, who married into the Coggeshall family of Essex. He had several children with Donnina, and at least two sons from other affairs.

After his death, on 17 March, 1394, an elaborate funeral honored him in the Duomo in his then home town of Florence; a painting of Hawkwood contracted by the Medici family in 1436 commemorates him. Donnina traveled to England to lay claim to his family lands, but the records of ownership had disappeared during the Black Death. His wealth seemed to vanish overnight.

Next I want to tell you more about the Abbey of San Galgano and the sword in the stone.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Chaucer & the Viscontis

On the 28th of May in 1378, a small expedition of 16 men set out from the City of London. In the financial records that manage their pay, only two of the men are named. One was the chamber knight Sir Edward de Berkley; the other was Geoffrey Chaucer. Berkeley was paid 20 shillings per day and had nine attendants; Chaucer, only an esquire, had five attendants and made 13 shillings and four pence per day. The royal accounts list their purpose as meeting with Bernabò the Lord of Milan and with John Hawkwood.

Why was Chaucer chosen for an embassy of some sort to Italy? He had been there already in 1368, when he was in the household of Prince Lionel, younger son of King Edward III, and was arranging the marriage of Lionel to Violante Visconti, daughter of Galeazzo II Visconti.

Royal marriages between countries were always valuable for alliances, and England was glad to have an ally on the Italian peninsula in its on-again/off-again hostilities with France. Chaucer would already be familiar with the roads traveled, and probably the language. He might also have asked to go, having likely had a taste for himself of the magnificent library started by Galeazzo.

Bernabò's reputation for his willingness to fight anyone was well-known, and so allying with him was a wise move. (Although his endless antagonism of Pope Urban VI was not to England's liking.)

As for John Hawkwood, an English mercenary, he was in command of part of Milan's forces. Not only did he have an excellent reputation as a fighter and leader, commanding high prices for his service, but he had the year before married Donnina Visconti, daughter of Bernabò. That Donnina was illegitimate did not make the familial bond between Hawkwood and his father-in-law any less firm.

We do not know the exact purpose of the trip, although securing potential military support on the continent seems likely. It lasted 115 days, with Chaucer and Berkeley returning to London on September 19th. London to Milan is about 800 miles, and the routes were well established by then, but it would still be over a month of travel one way. Do you suppose they told stories to each other to pass the time?

I have written about Hawkwood before but, as with anyone, there is a lot more to his story that I'd like to tell you. So I will.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Bernabò Visconti

Poor Bernabò Visconti. Lord of Milan, not well-liked by his people, deposed and imprisoned (then likely poisoned) by his nephew. Of course, he did hassle his nephew's father, Bernabò's brother Galeazzo, and he did kill his other brother, Matteo, so in some ways he deserved the troubles.

Born in 1323CE, he became a Lord of Milan in 1354, sharing the title and responsibility with his brothers: Bernabò ruled over Bergamo, Brescia, Cremona, and Crema; Matteo had Lodi, Piacenza, Parma, and Bologna; Galeazzo took the western regions. Matteo died at a dinner, supposedly poisoned by his brothers.

Bernabò was at war almost constantly with Pope Urban V, possibly over a papal bull Urban produced. In 1356 he offended the emperor, and had to fight off an attack on Milan. He was declared a heretic by Pope Innocent VI, and excommunicated in 1363. In 1373, he was excommunicated again, but the papal delegates sent to deliver the official document were arrested and forced to eat the parchment, the leaden seal, and the silk cord rolled around it. This did not help his case with the pope.

The citizens of Milan did not see that his actions were for their benefit, or in any way reflected well on Milan. A statue of him on horseback was commissioned—in itself not unusual for a ruler—but its placement near the main altar of San Giovanni Church was seen as inappropriate. He became such a well-known symbol of corruption that he made it into Chaucer's Monk's Tale in the list of tyrants.

His brother Galeazzo's son, Gian Galeazzo, handled the problem of Bernabò by deposing him, imprisoning him, and likely poisoning him shortly after. The sculptor of the equestrian statue, Bonino da Campione, made a few alterations to the statue so that it would be suited for its new purpose: as Bernabò's funerary monument. It now lives on in Milan's Castello Sforzesco.

I cannot leave this family yet, because there is another link between the Viscontis and Chaucer, which I will go into next time.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

The Dream of a United Italy

Italy was not unified as a country until 1861; before then, the separate regions/cities saw themselves as unique sovereign entities. This led frequently to rivalries that could become wars, but many often looked back to the glory of Rome, when such wars did not happen.

Gian Galeazzo Visconti (16 October 1351 - 3 September 1402) was the first Duke of Milan. He himself made Milan into a duchy in 1395, after being granted the title of duke from Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia (after paying Wenceslaus 100,000 florins).

He was lord of Milan earlier, a position he gained by overthrowing his uncle Bernabò. He did this by faking a religious conversion, inviting Bernabò to a celebratory ceremony, and capturing him; Bernabò was imprisoned, but not for long: his death came in short order, supposedly from poison.

He brought the same ruthless efficiency to conquering Verona, Vicenza, and Padua (he spent 300,000 florins to divert the course of the River Brenta that supplied Padua with water and transportation). He wanted to unite all of northern Italy, re-creating the old Lombardy. Of course, he wanted to unite it under himself, which did not sit well with some city-states such as Bologna and Florence. Still, the hope of a powerful empire on/of Italy inspired poets and politicians. One modern website reports:

Poets talked again of “un solo re,” the King above race and party, who would bring back the Roman peace and turn the cities from their path of fratricidal war; patriots feared the engulfing of those cities within the belly of the Viper.

The hopes and fears were centred upon one man, Giangaleazzo Visconti, Count of Virtue and first Duke of Milan, the greatest of a family that had been climbing to the position of supreme power in Lombardy for over a hundred years. It was said that the Duke had taken the Iron Crown from its safe-keeping and was preparing his coronation robes. [link]

Italy might have done worse. Visconti was more than just a power-mad potentate. He built monasteries and continued the work on the cathedral of Milan. At Visconti Castle he expanded the library's scientific papers and illuminated manuscripts. He may have created the "first modern bureaucracy" in that he established a department for the purpose of improving public health.

Health was to be his undoing. Shortly after subjugating Bologna, and with Florence failing against his attack because of problems with famine and disease, he fell ill to a fever. He died on 3 September 1402. An extraordinary statesman who might have, given another several years, made the peninsula a force to be reckoned with instead of a series of separate states.

But what about the hapless Bernabò? It's easy to see him as just a stepping stone to power for Gian Galeazzo, but there must be more to his story...and there is, including a link to my favorite English poet. This next one may have lots of links to previous posts.

Monday, April 11, 2022


Kyiv is one of the oldest cities in eastern Europe. Humans lived there since the Stone Age, and from the Iron Age there is evidence of animal husbandry and trading with inhabitants of the Black Sea coast. Roman coins found dating to the 2nd through 4th centuries CE are evidence of wider trading.

The Primary Chronicle, that tells the history of the Kievan Rus peoples from about 850 to 1110, tells the story of four siblings: the brothers Kyiv, Shchek, Khoryv, and their sister Lybid. They founded the city around 485, and named it after Kyi. The family was part of the Khazar Empire, a semi-nomadic Turkic group that was covered parts of Russia, Ukraine including Crimea, and Kazakhstan. The Primary Chronicle has residents of Kyiv saying "there were three brothers Kyi, Shchek, and Khoriv. They founded this town and died, and now we are staying and paying taxes to their relatives the Khazars."

Another tale is that Saint Andrew passed through the area and set up a cross to mark where a church would be built. St. Andrew did not leave a lasting mark, though, since in the Middle Ages St. Michael's image became linked with the city.

There is another saint linked to Kyiv, about whom I wrote years ago. You really need to click this link.

Kyiv was on the trade route between Greece and the Varangians to the north, which helped its prosperity. By the year 1000CE its population was about 45,000, rising to about 100,000 by the beginning of the 12th century. Prosperity made it a target, however. It was attacked in 968 by the nomadic Pechenegs. In 1169, Grand Prince Andrey Bogolyubsky sacked the city and destroyed the royal palace. In 1203 Prince Rurik Rostislavich burned the city. In 1240, the Mongol invasion again destroyed the city. In the 1320s, Grand Duke Gediminas and a Lithuanian army conquered Kyiv. In 1482, Crimean Tatars sacked and burned it again. And then, of course, World Wars I and II took their toll. Through all this, it has survived.

Slava Ukraini.

Tomorrow, as promised, back to Gian Galeazzo Visconti.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

The Ostrogoths, Finally

To be fair, I have mentioned one Ostrogoth before: King Theodoric was talked about here and here. The larger culture of the Goths has been mentioned many times in this blog, but this particular group has been wanting attention. The "Ostrogoths" part of the name comes from Germanic auster meaning "eastern." Before descending on Italy, these "Eastern Goths" built an empire in the 3rd century stretching east to what is now Belarus and Ukraine; "many Ostrogothic graves have been excavated south and southeast of Kiev" [Britannica] It is believed that the difference between Ostrogoths and Visigoths is based on geography, with "Visi-" being tacked on by the Roman scholar/statesman Cassiodorus (mentioned in the first Theodoric link above).

Little is known of the Ostrogoths and Visigoths except through records from the cultures with whom they came in contact, mostly Roman. They left us no literature of their own, although we know they had their own spoken language: a Goth Christian Bishop named Wulfila (or a team working under him) designed a Goth alphabet based on Greek and used it to translate the Bible; I showed their alphabet here. A few additional Goth religious fragments exist. Other Gothic documents such as statements from Theodoric are in Latin.

Isidore of Seville wrote a history of the Goths, in which he tells us that, when they asked the Roman Emperor Valens to send them teachers to instruct them in the Christian faith, Valens (because he had strayed from the truth) sent them heretical priests who instructed them in the Arian heresy. Salvian of Marseilles, a 5th century writer in Gaul concerned with the decline of the Roman Empire, writes in his De gubernatione Dei ("On the government of God") about the vices of the Romans versus the virtues of the "barbarian" Goths. The Arian Goths are praised for the chastity, tolerance toward Catholics.

Sometimes a charismatic ruler is necessary to hold a nation together. When Attila the Hun died and his empire began to fall apart, the Ostrogoths grew in strength, especially under Theodoric, and expanded, eventually into Italy. But after Theodoric died in 526, the Ostrogoth control of Italy started to disintegrate, and the Emperor Justinian in the Eastern Empire saw his chance. He declared war on the Ostrogoths in 535. In the following two decades, much of Italy was damaged in the battles between the two armies. What is certain is that, after 554CE, no more Gothic texts are produced in Italy; the Ostrogoths seem to have lost their national identity.

Although I said I would touch on the Ostrogoths only before taking on the first Duke of Milan, I can hardly pass up the opportunity at this point in modern history to seize the opportunity given me by the Ostrogothic link to Kyiv.

Saturday, April 9, 2022


In 286CE, the Emperor Diocletian decided that the capital of the Western Roman Empire should be Mediolanum (Milan) instead of Rome, leaving Maximian to rule there while he ruled the Eastern half from Nicomedia. The origin of the name "Mediolanum" is in doubt: a case could be made that it is Latin for the "middle of a plain," but it originally was a Celtic settlement, and so it could come from a Celtic root llan meaning "church."

Whatever the case, the area was rich for farming, vineyards, and raising wool-bearing sheep, so it could support a capital's population and preference for opulence. That environment—as well as its position in the north, just below the Alps—meant it was the best point of attack for invading groups from Europe. Also, Maximian made it a more desirable prize by expanding: monuments, hot baths, palaces and official buildings; he surrounded it with a 4.5 kilometer stone wall.

The Visigoths attacked in 402, prompting then-Emperor Honorius to move official functions south to Ravenna. Half a century later, Attila the Hun overran the city. In 539 the Ostrogoths destroyed Milan during their war with the Empire. A mere 30 years later, the Lombards descended from the origins near the Elbe in Germany, conquered Milan, and settled in, giving their name to the Lombardy region. They surrendered the city to Charlemagne in 774.

There were more ups and downs for Milan in the turbulent centuries that followed, but the 14th century saw relative peace. Near the end of that century, Milan became a dukedom, a center of fashion, and one of the largest cities in Europe. Before I get to the first Duke of Milan, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, and his extraordinary dream of a united Italy, however, I want to talk about a group that was mentioned in the above paragraph for the very first time: the Ostrogoths.

Friday, April 8, 2022

The Massacre of Thessalonica

The following tale, like much of early history, cannot be confirmed, but it has come down to us as an actual event with actual consequences. During the reign of the Emperor Theodosius (reigned 19 January 379 - 17 January 395), a charioteer tried to rape...someone. It may have been a servant of Butheric, a Roman general. Butheric arrested the charioteer. The general populace demanded the charioteer's release, but Butheric was having none of it. They rose up and lynched Butheric.

Theodosius decided a lesson had to be learned. When a large number was gathered in the hippodrome in Thessalonica (southeastern part of Illyricum, or northeast part of Greece, if you prefer), Theodosius (or a local officer) set his troops upon them, killing 7000. (See the 16th century engraving of the massacre above.)

Whomever ordered the massacre, Theodosius accepted responsibility for it. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, was appalled and outraged. He wrote to Theodosius to tell him he would not be able to receive the Eucharist until he repented. Theodosius accepted this, but only after eight months of being stubborn. That is the inspiration for the painting by Rubens of Ambrose denying Theodosius entrance to the church in Milan, displayed in the previous post. (The story was sufficiently popular that van Dyke later painted the same moment in an almost identical manner to Rubens' design.)

There was an earlier clash between Ambrose and Theodosius worth noting. Theodosius' court was not in Rome, but in Milan in northern Italy (hence the Edict of Milan, not Rome). In the 380s, according to one historian [Peter Brown], the need of this northern court for food motivated landowners to oppress and misuse their tenants to produce it. Ambrose opposed what he saw as abuse of the lower classes, speaking out about the need of the rich to care for the poor as was appropriate in a Christian nation. Christianity would not, however, affect politics as much as the Edict of Thessalonica would suggest. According to Brown, "modern scholars link the decline of the Roman empire to the avarice of the rich of this era."

But let's turn from people and politics for a bit and consider a place. A (brief) history of Milan is next.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Edict of Thessalonica

Although Constantine had called the 1st Council of Nicaea to make sure there was an established orthodoxy for Christianity throughout the empire, the resulting Nicene Creed did not accurately express the beliefs of all Christians. There were still many Arians who viewed Christ's nature as subordinate to God the Father. Constantine's son in the east, Constantius, was an Arian, and even exiled some Nicene bishops. His successor, Julian, rejected Christianity personally, and supported all religions. Julian's successor, the Christian Jovian, reigned for eight months before being succeeded by another Arian, Valens. By 379, when Valens was succeeded by Theodosius I, Arianism was the dominant form of Christianity in the Eastern Empire, while Nicene Christianity was dominant in the West.

Like Constantine, Theodosius wanted to establish a single Christian orthodoxy for the empire, and he issued an edict:

It is our desire that all the various nations which are subject to our Clemency and Moderation, should continue to profess that religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter, as it has been preserved by faithful tradition, and which is now professed by the Pontiff Damasus and by Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic holiness. According to the apostolic teaching and the doctrine of the Gospel, let us believe in the one deity of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity. We order the followers of this law to embrace the name of Catholic Christians; but as for the others, since, in our judgment they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to give to their conventicles the name of churches. They will suffer in the first place the chastisement of the divine condemnation and in the second the punishment of our authority which in accordance with the will of Heaven we shall decide to inflict.

Note the term "Catholic Christians." "Catholic" means "universal," and was an attempt to stress that everyone should have the exact same beliefs. (Of course, threatening heretics was also supposed to be a powerful motivator.) This edict was released on 27 February 380, and was followed in 381 by the first Council of Constantinople, which slightly revised the Nicene Creed.

Of course, enforcement of the edict was going to be necessary. In 381 there was an edict that forbade heretics from settling in cities, followed in 392 and 394 by laws forbidding heretics from living in Constantinople. In 383, Theodosius ordered all non-Nicene sects to submit written creeds to him for review. He declared them all invalid (Arian, Macedonian, Anomoean), except for the Novatian Creed (their big difference was that they claimed no lapsed Christian who had performed a pagan sacrifice should be allowed back into Christianity; what distinguished them from the Donatists was that Novatians did not submit to Rome, whereas Donatists followed Rome, but felt that some of their fellow clergy were traditors. Also, Donatists were willing to welcome traditors back into the fold with a baptism, whereas Novatians did not believe in second chances. Novatians were declared schismatics, and eventually also labeled heretics and persecuted. They survived until the 8th century.

The illustration on the pages is a painting by Rubens of Theodosius being refused entry to the church in Milan by St. Ambrose. Why this was the case, why Milan was important, and what this has to do with the decline of the Empire, will be next.

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Edict of Milan

The winds of change blew quickly for christians in the Mediterranean in the early 4th century. Emperor Diocletian had persecuted christians pretty successfully—those who gave in and turned over their copies of Scripture were labeled traditors, and opposition to them became the Donates movement—until he retired in 305CE. After 305, the emperor was Gaius Galerius Valerius Maximianus, who continued the Diocletian persecutions until 30 April 311, when he issued the Edict of Toleration, which declared Christianity as a religio licita ("approved religion")

I should mention that, at this time, the Roman Empire was split in half, with an Eastern and a Western Empire. Though they had distinct cultural differences, they endeavored to stay united as an empire. Therefore, it came as no surprise when Licinius, ruler of the Eastern Empire, came to Milan to Constantia, the younger half-sister of Emperor Constantine of the Western Empire. This happy occasion, in February of 313, was ideal for the two imperial personages to spend time together and discuss business along with pleasure.

Constantine had some business to discuss. Several months earlier, on 28 October 312, he had defeated a rival for the throne at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. According to one chronicler, Eusebius of Caesarea (mentioned most recently here), Constantine saw a cross of light above the sun and the Greek words Ἐν Τούτῳ Νίκα ("in this (sign), conquer"; usually given as the Latin in hoc signo vinces, "in this sign you will conquer."

They painted the chi rho, the first two letters of Christ's name, on their shields. Constantine's forces won, and he declared he would convert to Christianity. Full disclosure: he did not convert until he was on his deathbed, according to Eusebius, who cannot always be trusted; he died 22 May 337.

But back to the Edict: Constantine and Licinius issued a joint statement that according to some reports (an actual document does not exist) says:

When we, Constantine Augustus and Licinius Augustus, met so happily at Milan, and considered together all that concerned the interest and security of the State, we decided ... to grant to Christians and to everybody the free power to follow the religion of their choice, in order that all that is divine in the heavens may be favorable and propitious towards all who are placed under our authority.

Emperor Constantine is often described as having made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. This document does not do that. He did try to make sure Christianity was uniform and understandable, so in 325CE he called the first Council of Nicaea which established the Nicene Creed as opposed to Arianism. Also, his mother did all she could to promote Christianity. It would be another 43 years before Christianity pushed out the Roman religion, but that's a story for tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

The Council of Arles

No religious group has ever stayed uniform in its beliefs and practices, and in the first few centuries of the Common Era, the burgeoning Christian religion was no different. Every couple of generations there were synods (Greek sunodos; "meeting"), gathering to determine and approve proper practices and policies.

The first Council of Arles was convened in 314CE. I mentioned this recently regarding Donatism, but there was more to discuss than that.

Besides declaring Donatism heresy and excommunicating Donatus Magnus, they determined that those who truly were traditors by turning their holy books over to persecutors would be deposed, but their official acts would not be declared invalid.

The Council also determined:

The date of Easter should be held on the same day throughout the Christian world, not on a day set by each individual church.

Ordaining a priest required the approval and cooperation of at least three bishops. Clergy must live in the parish they were supposed to manage.

Actors, and those who participated in gladiatorial combat and races in the arena, should be excommunicated

This was all started right after the Edict of Milan, when everything changed for the early Christian Church. We'll get to that tomorrow.

Monday, April 4, 2022

Donatism Aftermath

Although Donatus Magnus' appeal at the Council of Arles failed, and he was exiled to Gaul until his death, Donatism did not die out. After all, it had become the dominant church in parts of North Africa. Rome and a succession of popes would have liked to bring the Donarists of North Africa back "into the fold," but there was opposition.

Donatism also had its own internal problems, some of which came from the Circumcellions. The name was derived from Latin circum cellas euntes ("those going around larders") The larder in this case referred to a cool place for food storage, from which we get the word "cellar." The meaning behind the label was because the Circumcellions lived off of food from others whom they tried to convert to their cause. The called themselves Agonistici ("fighters" [for Christ]). They first appeared in 317 from the lower strata of society, fiercely anti-Roman and desiring social reform.

A bishop in Numidia, Optatus, remembered for his writing against Donatism, said that in 340 they started attacking officials such as creditors and landlords. Those killed during the violence were considered martyrs. In fact, martyrdom became the primary Christian virtue, as opposed to chastity, charity, humility, etc. In fact, they would sometimes attack Roman legionnaires with wooden clubs, knowing they were outmatched, so that they could be martyred. 

Augustine of Hippo (pictured here) spoke out against them, writing:
And those men also belong to this same heresy [i.e.of the Donatists] in Africa who are called circumcelliones, a rough and primitive type of men most notorious for their outrages—not just for the savage crimes that they perpetrate against others, but also because in their insane fury they do not spare even themselves. For they are accustomed to killing themselves by various kinds of deaths, but especially by throwing themselves off heights, by drowning, or byself-immolation. And they seduce others whom they can, of either sex, to join them in this same mad behavior.
They would also disrupt courts of law to produce the same outcome. The punishment for contempt of court was, in fact, execution. The Donatists did not necessarily want the alliance mentioned by Augustine.

Right up through the 15th and 16th centuries, attempts at church reform that declared priests in the wrong were slammed with accusation of the heresy of Donatism, including John Wycliffe and Jan Hus.

I want to get back to the Council of Arles in which Donatism was rejected a second time. It was the first of many at Arles, and dealt with much more than Donatism. Stay tuned.

Sunday, April 3, 2022

The Donatists

In Northern Africa, specifically the area we now call Algeria, a Berber Christian bishop created one of the first schisms in the Catholic Church. I'm talking about Donatus Magnus, who died around 355CE.

Christians in the Roman Empire were persecuted prior to Emperor Constantine (274-337CE). Many church leaders turned over their scriptures and paraphernalia instead of defying imperial writ. These traitors to the faith were labeled traditors (literally "surrenderers").

Donatus was adamant that services or sacraments performed by traditors were invalid, and that they needed to be re-baptized into the faith if they intended to act like clergy again. If they were not re-baptized, then those they baptized would not truly be members of the Church.

(A lot of names coming at you:) The real trouble began when Bishop Felix of Aptungi consecrated Caecilian as Bishop of Carthage and Primate of North Africa. There was a rumor that Felix had become a traditor, though the people of Carthage knew he was not. The Primate of Numidia, however, held a council that declared Caecilian to be invalid. That council then consecrated Majorinus as bishop. Majorinus died soon after, and Donatus Magnus in 313 was consecrated Bishop of Carthage and Primate of North Africa.

Now there were two Bishops of Carthage and Primates of North Africa. Each of them went on to consecrate bishops, ordain priests, baptize people and deliver sacraments, and soon there were cities with two bishops, one under Caecilian, and one in communion with Donatus. The Donatist group appealed to the Emperor, who wanted nothing to do with it and passed it to Pope Miltiades, who was of Berber descent and therefore linked to the people of North Africa.

Miltiades summoned each to a council in October 313. The Donatist arguments against Caecilian were brushed off, so the Donatists stormed out. Miltiades then affirmed Caecilian. The Donatists appealed to the Emperor again, but the Council of Arles in 314 again ruled against them. This started a trend of Donatist-leaning clergy to declare anyone they did not like a traditor and therefore invalid as priests.

Donatus continued to preach his cause and fight against Rome, with no major success, but it didn't die out easily. Tomorrow we'll look at how it survived for more than a millennium.

Saturday, April 2, 2022

The Berbers

They call themselves the Amazigh, but history knows them as Berbers, who inhabited northwestern Africa since at least 10,000BCE. The etymological origin of "Berber" is problematic. The obvious guess is that it comes from the Greek βάρβαρος ("barbaros"), used by the Greeks to refer to any non-Greek speaking people. One scholar thinks instead it's from the Bavares, a tribe known to exist in Mauretania from the 3rd to 5th century CE.

The historian Ibn Khaldun shared two popular theories of the origin of the Berbers. One was that they were descended from Canaan, son of Ham, son of Noah. Either that or they were descended from another son of Ham, Keloudjm.

As Muslims moved westward across northern Africa, Arabization had a profound effect on Berber culture: tribal practices were replaced with Islam. During the 12th century, Christian and Jewish communities became marginalized, although Jews continued to exist as dhimmis, protected peoples. 

Prior to the influence of Islam, however, most Berber groups were either Christian or Jewish or Animist. One of the most famous of early Christian fathers, St. Augustine of Hippo, was from a Berber family. On the other hand, so possibly was Arius, an early heretic. Another Berber who created an approach to Christianity that did not suit the mainstream was the heretic Donatus Magnus. Let's dabble in heresy next time.

Friday, April 1, 2022

The Laffer Curve

That is an odd headline (and topic) for a blog on the Middle Ages, but let's push on and see where we wind up. The Laffer Curve (named for Arthur Laffer, illustrates a "a supposed relationship between economic activity and the rate of taxation which suggests that there is an optimum tax rate which maximizes tax revenue." [New Oxford American Dictionary] Arthur Laffer acknowledged that Ibn Khaldun essentially defined what we now call the Laffer Curve in his best-known book, Al-Muqaddimah ("Introduction").

We know quite a bit about Ibn Khaldun (27 May 1332 - 17 March 1406) because he wrote an autobiography. Born to a wealthy Arabic family, he was able to trace his ancestry back to the time of Mohammed. He had a classical Islamic education, memorized the Koran, and studied law and Arab linguistics. He also learned mathematics, logic, and philosophy. While in his teenage years, both parents died in the first big wave of the Black Death.

He started his political career at the age of 20 in Tunisia, producing fine calligraphy on official documents, but shortly after moved to Fez as a writer of royal proclamations. There he fell out with the sultan while scheming to advance himself and went to jail for 22 months. After getting out, he was not getting the attention he felt he deserved in terms of jobs, and decided to move to Granada. The Sultan of Granada gave him a diplomatic mission to King Pedro the Cruel of Castile, which Ibn Khaldun carried out successfully. Eventually getting involved in too much political intrigue, he left for Ifriqiya, where the current sultan had been Khaldun's cellmate! The sultan made Khaldun his prime minister. In 1366, that sultan died, and Khaldun allied himself with a different sultan, who was defeated a few years later, upon which Khaldun decided a monastic life was best. He continued to get involved in politics, however, always finding ways to anger someone.

Regarding his works, Al-Muqaddimah was the first part of a seven-volume work that included a world history up to his time. The socio-economic-geographical approach to describing empires is considered by 19th and 20th century scholars as the first ever writing in the social sciences. Khaldun explains that there is a group solidarity that enables small groups to grow in power, and yet become their own worst enemy and eventually fall from power and be overcome by another tightly knit group. He had similarly ahead-of-his-time ideas about economics.

I will leave the discussion of Ibn Khaldun (for now at least) with one more thing: his apt description of government as "an institution which prevents injustice other than such as it commits itself."

A large part of his historical work involves the Berbers, and I will talk about them in the next post.