Friday, September 30, 2022

Modern Old English

There's an episode of The West Wing in which Bartlett asks a retired English teacher if she made her students "read Chaucer in the original Old English."


Paralleling the theme of yesterday's post, Chaucer's Middle English is practically "Early Modern English." Middle English on the page would be recognizable to many, although if they hear it pronounced it would probably be difficult to discern, and Chaucer gave us many familiar words.

Old English presents more difficulty, but our connection to it is very strong. Also known as Anglo-Saxon , it can be called Old English because it is recognizable, if you look carefully. In the opening lines of Beowulf, for instance, you can discern that:

Dena = Danes
dagum = days
cyning = king
threatum = threat
thas/that = that
him = him
gōd = good

The Lord's Prayer begins:

Fæder ūre þū þe eart on heofonum
Father our you who art in Heaven

Obviously there has been evolution, but there are many nouns that have changed little in 1000+ years:

God, mann, heaofon, eorðe, weorold, lif, lufu, word, weorc, dæg, hand, cynn
God, man, heaven, earth, world, life, love, word, work, day, hand, kin

There are also many everyday verbs that have changed little in 1000+ years:

sittan, secan, healdan, beran, giefan, cuman
sit, seek, hold/held, bear, give, come

Of the 1000 most commonly used words in day-to-day Modern English, 83% come to use from Old English. Much of the rest of our vocabulary is also from Old English. In the historical development of the English language, Old English is con sided to be used from about 500CE to about 1100, and Middle English from 1100 to about 1500. Instead of a slow evolution from Old to Middle, however, there was one linguistically catastrophic event that pushed Anglo-Saxon "over the edge" and forced it to change. That's a story for next time.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

The Early Modern Period

I've offered my own idea of when the Middle Ages ended, but of course there are other ways to look at it. I suggested specific events taking place in or around 1453, but we can look at the Middle Ages not just about specific events so much as it was about cultural norms.

At the foundation of this question—and all discussions about periods in history—is whether you can accurately establish periodization at all. One of the first to "break up" the flow of events was Leonardo Bruni, mentioned as a tutor of Lorenzo Valla. Bruni has been called the first modern historian, and was the first to define human history as three periods: Antiquity, Middle Ages, and Modern. He was influenced by Petrarch, who described the glorious Classical Roman period versus the post-Classical tenebrae or "darkness." (This may have been the origin of the popular modern term "The Dark Ages.")

For Bruni to describe "Modern" as his lifetime (c.1370 - 1444) may cause us to smile, but of course it was modern to him...and may in fact still be considered the start of the Modern Era. Was there a shift in something in the 1400s that allows us to think of it as the start of our own era?

What trends or cultural shifts were significant enough—and continuous enough—to motivate modern historians to say that the Modern Era started in the 1400s? What was so different? We talk about the Renaissance as a rebirth of art and culture, but there was more:

•Globalization, with the expansion of mercantilism and sophisticated international economics
•The Age of Exploration/Discovery, with increased travel and improved methods of transport
•Religious dissent, and the development of secular policy
•The decline of feudalism, and the development of civic politics

The point is not just that these were different from what came before, but that these changes are still in place. Many of the changes that started in the 1400s are still with us, making the argument that what makes us "modern" and not "medieval" has in fact been going on for about six centuries, not just two or three.

A modern medievalist named Nancy Partner once said that if Medieval Studies wanted more respect from historians in general, they should start calling the Middle Ages the "Really Early Modern Era." Well, that may be stretching it, or maybe not, at least when it comes to the English language. Of the 1000 words most commonly used in Modern English, 83% come from Old English. Tomorrow I'll give you one idea of how much Old English you are speaking on a daily basis.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Lorenzo Valla--Early Modern Scholar

Lorenzo Valla was born about 1407 in Rome. His father was a lawyer for the pope. Lorenzo studied under Leonardo Bruni (sometimes called the first modern historian) and Giovanni Aurispa (who is credited with the revival of Greek in Italy).

Lorenzo entered the priesthood in 1431, seeking a position as a secretary in the Vatican's diplomatic office. Failing to secure that position, he went to Pavia to lecture, but he got himself in trouble there by offending the greatest jurist and expert on Roman law, Bartolus de Saxoferrato, by criticizing his Latin style. He had to leave Pavia, and became essentially an itinerant lecturer, traveling from city to city seeking opportunities at universities, until he was invited to Rome by Pope Nicholas V to work in Nicholas' new Vatican Library.

With steady employment, he could devote his spare time to writing. He had published in 1433 his first literary work, De Voluptate ("On Pleasure"), in which he argued for the benefit of Epicurus' embracing of natural appetites over the principles of the Stoics. He now produced a text on logic, Repastinatio dialectice et philosophie ("Re-digging dialectic and philosophy"). There are more: Notes on the New Testament, De Elegantis which examined Latin grammar and style, a work on Free Will that argued against Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy.

The truly ground-breaking work, however, was De falso credita et ementita Constantini Donatione declamatio, ("Declamation of the falsely believed and falsified Donation of Constantine") in 1440. The Donation of Constantine was largely believed (argued against, but still believed) as the foundation for papal authority over temporal lords.

Lorenzo took a close look at the text of the document that purported to be a formal imperial decree from the 4th century. His extensive familiarity with the development of Latin over the centuries helped him realize it was written in a style more appropriate to a less-educated writer from the 8th century.

Not only was the language wrong for the premise, he argued three other points:

1. There was no legal authority by which Emperor Constantine could have given Pope Sylvester I the powers claimed in the document.

2. There was no historical evidence in any records that there were administrative changes in the Western Roman Empire.

3. His own doubt that Constantine cared enough about the pope to give him anything.

The Church, understandably, rejected this theory. 

Lorenzo was put on trial by the Inquisition in 1444, ostensibly for supporting Alfonso V of Aragon in a territorial dispute over the Papal States.

Lorenzo Valla died 1 August 1457. It did not get formally published until 1517 and became popular among Protestants. Thomas Cromwell had it translated into English in 1534. The Donation eventually became recognized by all as a fake.

So why did I title this with the phrase "Early Modern Scholar"? Shouldn't he be labeled "Renaissance Scholar"? Many historians refer to the Renaissance as "Early Modern" now; the reasons why I look forward to explaining tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

The Donation Hoax

The Donatio Constantini (Latin: "Donation of Constantine") was a document in which the converted Emperor Constantine, whose Edict of Milan ended Christian persecution, gave the popes authority over the western part of the Roman Empire.

The 5th-century "Legend of St. Sylvester" tells about the relationship between Constantine and Pope Sylvester I. In it, Sylvester cures Constantine of leprosy, who then converts to Christianity. Following this, Constantine grants to Sylvester authority over Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and all churches, as well as any estates that are attached to churches. The oldest manuscript of the story is from the 9th century, but it is not until Pope Leo IX (pope from 1049 - 1054) that it gets used to affirm the supremacy of the papacy over temporal lords. It became a valuable tool in the argument, especially with the Holy Roman Emperors, that the pope's decisions and decrees superseded anyone else's. There was plenty of legal opposition to the idea, especially starting with Otto III, but no one denied its authenticity.

Then, in 1440, a Catholic priest named Lorenzo Valla took a close look at the document. He was a specialist in Latin translation, and something about the document did not look right. His familiarity with numerous Latin documents of all types and all times led him to the conclusion that, rather than an official document from the 4th century, it was a poorly written forgery from the 8th century, and therefore a hoax. 

Why was he motivated to chop down the chief pillar of papal authority over secular powers, when he himself as a priest could benefit? He might have had a personal reason, which I will look into and share next time.

Monday, September 26, 2022

The Donation of Pepin

The idea of actual Papal States giving the pope serious temporal power really took off in 756 when Pepin the Short, king of the Franks, gave to Pope Stephen II several territories and towns in the Italian peninsula.

To be fair, the territories were not Pepin's to give, not originally anyway. They were under control of Aistulf, king of the Lombards. A few years earlier, in 751, Aistulf conquered the exarchate of Ravenna. The exarchate of Ravenna was the last piece of Italy considered to be part of the Roman Empire, having been established by Byzantine Emperor Justinian as part of his plan to administer the western part of the fading empire.

Aistulf decided that his conquest of Ravenna and killing of the last ruler of it, the exarch Eutychius, meant he was now the nearest thing to a Roman Emperor. He therefore demanded that Rome itself submit to him and send him a tribute of one gold solidus per person.

Pope Stephen II could not negotiate with Aistulf to back down, so he sent a request to Pepin to come to his aid. The Franks and Lombards were on friendly terms, so Stephen thought Pepin would have better luck. Pepin promised the pope he would arrange the return of the Exarchate of Ravenna. The pope in return anointed Pepin and his sons Charles (Charlemagne) and Carloman as kings of the Franks (they did not need this to be kings, but it was a nice piece of recognition from a figure who was seen as the head of the Christian faith). He also named them patricians of the Romans, an honorary title suggesting they were Roman elite. The pope also pronounced a blessing on Pepin's wife, Bertrada.

So Pepin took his army to Lombardy, surrounded Aistulf's forces, defeated any military opposition, and made Aistulf promise to return Ravenna. A treaty was signed, Pepin turned around to go home, and once he had left Lombardy, Aistulf ignored the treaty. Aistulf besieged Rome. Word went to Pepin. The Frankish army came and forced Aistulf to abandon the siege.

So more than Ravenna became part of the Papal states, because Pepin turned over Lombardy as well and several other cities. Emissaries of the Roman Empire entreated Pepin to give the land to the political empire, not the spiritual papacy, but Pepin would not. The pope would now be a temporal ruler for centuries to come.

You may have heard that there was an earlier gift of land to the pope, called the Donation of Constantine. We will talk about this hoax tomorrow.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

The Papal States

Although the early popes had no temporal power or property, as the Roman Catholic Church grew in popularity and influence, they accrued territory. It started simply, when Constantine gave the Lateran Palace for the pope's use, but the Renaissance saw a significant expansion and increase in the papacy's temporal and political influence.

As the Church grew post-Edict of Milan, donations of and (or buildings to be used as churches) followed from well-to-do Christins. These were all initially treated as property privately held, not as property of a political entity. This may have helped when the Roman Empire crumbled under attacks: Odoacer's overthrow of Romulus Augustus in 476, and the later rule by the Ostrogoths, would have made the Church's position more precarious if it were seen as a political rival. At this time, however, it was just a private "corporation," so to speak. The pope could be a dutiful subject under the new (and potentially hostile) administrations, while still professing spiritual authority.

When the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, headquartered in Constantinople, decided to reconquer the Western Roman Empire from the Goths, it set in motion a chain that would pass more temporal power to the popes. True, the East managed to regain much territory in Italy between 535 and 554, but the fighting left the economy in disarray. This made it easier for the Lombards to enter from the north and proceed to conquer most—not all—of the territory held by Constantinople.

The remaining strip of land stretching diagonally from coast to coast and including Rome. As the Eastern Empire's ability to manage these lands from far away waned, they increasingly left the popes in charge, since by this time the popes were the single largest landowner. At some point, these lands and others became known s the Duchy of Rome.

As their temporal power grew, of course, it led to severe clashes with other rulers. But then, it was other rulers' generosity that contributed to the papal increase in power. One such example was the Donation of Pepin, which I'll tell you about next time.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Pope Innocent IV

Innocent IV (born Sinibaldo Fieschi) had a busy decade. He lived longer than that, of course, and was consequential, but there is a lot of uncertainty about him pre-elevation to the throne of Peter. He was born in Genoa, but some sources say it was further south in Manarola. There is a belief that he taught canon law in Bologna, but there is no record of it. Some biographies say he was the Bishop of Albenga in 1235, but from 1230 until 1255 Albania's bishop was named Simon.

One of his first problems as pope was dealing with conflicts between Gregory IX And Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. One was that Frederick had been supportive of a Sixth Crusade, but then was lax about taking part. Another was that Frederick had captured some territories in Lombardy belonging to the Papal States. Gregory called a general council to vote to depose Frederick, but Frederick captured two cardinals who were on their way. This intimidated the remaining cardinals, who were reluctant to oppose the emperor afterward. Gregory had denounced Frederick as a heretic (he was such a religious skeptic that Dante placed him in the circle for heretics).

Innocent, in his earlier role as Cardinal Fieschi, was on good terms with Frederick, but as pope he had to continue the policies of his predecessors, demanding the return of lands in Lombardy. Frederick refused, of course, and his continued political attacks on papal rule created enough of a hostile environment in Rome that Innocent became concerned for his freedom. He snuck out of Rome in disguise in 1244, making his way ultimately to Genoa. A few months later he went to France, winding up in Lyon where he was warmly welcomed.

In December of 1244 he summoned his bishops to the First Council of Lyon; the goal was to minimize Frederick's authority. It was the smallest general council ever: many members feared Frederick's wrath and did not attend, and bishops from the Middle East and Far East were hampered in travel by (respectively) Muslim and Mongol hostilities (see here and here). (Innocent's attempts at dealing with Mongols shortly after would fail.) The council excommunicated Frederick, throwing Europe into turmoil until Frederick's death in 1250.

With Frderick's death, Innocent felt safe in returning to Italy. He also doubled down on the idea that he hd the right to interfere with secular politics. He appointed Afonso III in Portugal. He helped Henry III of England buy a title in Italy, even though Henry had been giving trouble to Archbishop Edmund Rich.

In other news, Innocent formally approved the Order of the Poor Clares, named for Francis of Assisi's friend. (In the picture above, he is granting charters to Franciscans and Dominicans.) He reversed earlier popes' orders to round up and burn copies of the Talmud, being convinced by a team of rabbis that the Talmud was a foundation for them to be able to understand the New Testament.

His time as pope has been woven through this blog for years, and it was high time he got his own titled post to bring some of these references together in one place.

Speaking of things that get mentions and might deserve a fuller explanation, the Papal States have been mentioned above, as well as here and here. Let's explain what they were and how they got started.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Who's the Pope?

With the recent posts on rival popes and antipopes, it may be worthwhile to examine the title "pope" a little.

From the start, St. Peter was recognized as the bishop of Rome, and his position was considered a sort of "first among equals." His successor (so far as we know; we cannot always be certain of such early records) was Pope Clement I, who may be the Clement mentioned by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. Pope Clement wrote his own letter to the Corinthians, in which he tells them to be unified and heal a schism that was dividing them. It is considered the earliest example of the bishop of Rome acting authoritatively over far-flung Christians. There is no evidence that his right to instruct them was questioned. In fact, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church considers Clement's letter part of the New Testament.

We refer to him as "Pope Clement," but there is no evidence that he used that title himself. The first bishop of Rome to be referred to as pope (from Latin meaning "papa," but you knew that) was Damasus I (c.305 - 384), who grew up benefitting from Constantine's Edict of Milan granting protection to Christians. In fact, since "pope" meant "father," it could be and was used for bishops. Pope Leo I (called "the Great"; 440 - 461) called himself Pope, and from his time forward that title was reserved for the exclusive use of the bishop of Rome.

Rome became a suitable resting place for the bishops of Rome when Constantine granted them the use of the Lateran Palace (see photo), but sometimes the politics in Rome became unstable and prompted the pope to re-locate, not always by choice. In the 1200s the papal court could sometimes be found in Viterbo, or Orvieto or Perugia. When a pope died, the College of Cardinals would meet in his location to hold the Conclave to elect a successor.

Then there was the pope who fled Rome in disguise because of the Holy Roman Emperor. He just happens to be a pope whose time in office—ten and a half years—includes numerous references to items mentioned throughout this blog. I can't wait to tell you more.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Electing a Third Pope

The existence of rival popes in the Western Schism led to the Council of Pisa and, ultimately, to the need to elect a third pope.

After months of discussion and debate, the cardinals obedient to Avignon and those obedient to Rome joined in Conclave. Canon Law declared that an election not take place until 10 days after the death of a pope, but the cardinals agreed that the Papal See had been vacant for at least that long. The Conclave of cardinals went on for 11 days, while the general Council of Pisa continued separately. The Council felt that, if the cardinals could not find a suitable candidate who was agreeable to all, they would intervene and have their own election. This was not allowed by Canon Law, however, and did not get much traction.

Finally, Baldassare Cardinal Cossa convinced the Conclave to vote unanimously for Peter of Candia. He had been made a cardinal by Innocent VII in 1405, but had worked to heal the division between popes. On 26 June he was elected Pope Alexander V. He presided over the remaining council meetings, pledged to work for reform, and confirmed appointments and ordinations made by the various cardinals.

The two (now) antipopes repudiated the outcome of the Council of Pisa, and an interesting dilemma was raised: if Popes Benedict and Gregory were deemed illegitimate, then did that mean that their appointment of cardinals was illegitimate, and if so, could these cardinals have the authority to elect a pope? The Council of Pisa was nor received by everyone with a sigh of relief that the schism was over; there were serious concerns about its ability to elect Alexander.

In act, the controversy continued into the 20th century. Let me explain.

Alexander V's time as pope was brief: he died 3 May 1410, having been pope less than a year (that is his tomb above). He was succeeded by none other than his strongest proponent at Pisa, and Cardinal Cossa became Pope John XXIII. Keep in mind that Benedict in Avignon and Gregory in Italy never "resigned" their titles, so there were still three men claiming to be pope. In fact, Benedict outlasted John and Gregory.

The Annuario Pontificio ("The Pontifical Yearbook") listed the Roman popes as legitimate until 1409, followed by the Pisan popes elected by the reconciled cardinals; that means Gregory XII, Alexander V, and John XXIII were "official" (even though Gregory and Alexander were claiming legitimacy concurrently). I say "were" because that changed in 1958 when Angelo Cardinal Roncalli was elected pope to replace Pius XII. He chose the papal name John XXIII, claiming there had been only 22 legitimate Pope Johns. The Annuario Pontificio was re-written to indicate that the Roman Pope Gregory's time in office was officially recognized as lasting until 1415, to be succeeded by Pope Martin V.

So all that work to find a compromise candidate in Peter of Candia to become Alexander V and heal the schism has been quietly ignore, and "Alexander V" and the first "John XXIII" are now deemed antipopes.

[edit] Of course, nothing required a pope to be in Rome, and Avignon wasn't the only non-Rome location for some popes. And speaking of Popes: who was the first pope? I know what you are thinking, but wait until tomorrow for the real answer.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

The Council of Pisa

To understand where this story begins, you should see this post first, and check out the map to the left.

There were two series of popes, one in Avignon and one in Rome. There was an attempt to bring the Gregory XII and Benedict XIII together in Savona, but at the last moment each side backed out when they feared being attacked and captured by the rival faction.

Following this, unrest among Gregory's cardinals caused him to summon them to Lucca and forbid them from abandoning the city. Then he really annoyed them by making four new cardinals to cement his support. This was the final straw: not only had he earlier promised not to make any more cardinals, but the four he made were his nephews.

Most cardinals deserted Gregory at this point, meeting together and writing a manifesto to all Christian nations, urging them to come to a Council at Pisa. Benedict in Avignon refused to participate, convoking his own Council of Perpignan. Gregory fled Lucca with his sole remaining loyal cardinal and wound up a guest of a powerful Italian family, the House of Malatesta. Much of Christianity, however, wanted the chaos ended and sent bishops, university theologians, and prelates to Pisa.

This Council of Pisa met on 25 March 1409. It included 22 cardinals and 80 bishops; "proxy votes" represented 100 additional bishops, 87 abbots, 41 priors or religious orders, and a total of 300 doctors of theology or canon law. A general council was declared to begin the next day.

On 26 March, convened in the Cathedral of Pisa, representatives went to the doors, opened them, and loudly in Latin called upon Benedict and Gregory to appear. Obviously the rival popes were not present, whereupon the general council condemned them essentially for contumacy (basically, contempt of court). This ritual would be repeated the next day, then the 30th, and then twice in April on the 15th and 24th, giving the pontiffs plenty of time to appear or send representatives.

The charges against the two were read on 24 April, taking three hours to go through 38 charges. After debate and determinations that lasted for weeks about the papal infractions—completely ignoring the fact that the cardinals present had aided and abetted these same—Benedict and Gregory were offered the chance to defend themselves. Their representatives were unsuccessful.

One of the issues that needed to be addressed was the merging of the two alternate colleges of cardinals. There was argument over which cardinals had remained faithful to the papacy and which were to be considered rebels caused hostility between the groups, but it was ultimately decided that it was their duty to withdraw from both popes and join together.

All in all, the council went on for weeks. Realizing that, of course, a new pope had to be elected, a new concern arose that there were too many French cardinals among them, and there could be a French pope elected who would try to remove the papacy to the Avignon complex. The argument was made that everyone, not just the cardinals, should vote. They decided to stick with canon law, however, and leave it to the assembled cardinals. The cardinals themselves met and agreed that the election of a new pope would need unanimity or a 2/3 agreement of the 10 Avignon cardinals and a 2/3 agreement of the 14 Rome cardinals. Everyone else agreed to this, and that the Conclave, the gathering of the College of Cardinals to elect a pope, should take place tomorrow.

...and I will tell you result tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

The Western Schism

When Pope Clement V decided he wanted to live in his home country, France, he moved the papal offices from the Vatican in Rome to Avignon in 1309. The papacy returned to Rome in 1377 by Gregory XI—who was French himself, but was persuaded that the papacy should reside in its original home, perhaps through the efforts of Catherine of Siena—but French cardinals were not happy with that. When Gregory died a year later, Romans were determined that they would have an Italian pope who would stay in Rome and never move the papacy again, so they started a campaign of pressure. Cardinals in Rome elected the Archbishop of Bari, the well-respected Bartolomeo Prignano, to become Pope Urban VI, on 8 April 1378.

Papal authority went to Urban's head, and his attempts at reform and his outbursts of temper did not sit well with the college of cardinals, who soon began to regret their decision. In an extraordinary move, several of them met in Anagni in central Italy and had a second election on 20 September. They claimed that the election of Urban was illegitimate because it was due to threats of intimidation and violence, and so they justified themselves in electing Robert of Geneva as Pope Clement VII. Unable to reside at the Vatican due to Urban's presence, Clement and the supporting cardinals returned to Avignon.

Thus was born the Western Schism, also called the Papal Schism or the Schism of 1378. The world had no choice but to take notice, and to take sides. Rome had the support of the Italian states, the Holy Roman Empire, England, and much of Eastern Europe and the Scandinavian countries. Avignon was supported by France, the kingdoms on the Iberian peninsula, Scotland, and several Mediterranean countries. Some nations shifted their allegiance over timeNaples, Bohemia, Flanders and Portugal (among others), started with Avignon and later switched as Rome seemed to be a safe, traditional choice.

Urban vs. Clement was only the start. Urban was succeeded by Boniface IX, then by Innocent VII, then by Gregory XII. Clement was replaced by Benedict XIII.

Now we come to Peter of Candia: had been made a cardinal by Innocent VII in 1405, and his greatest desire was to reconcile the schism. When Innocent was succeeded by Gregory, Gregory made a move that shocked both Avignon and Rome, and would lead to the next step: a solution put forth in Pisa.

By 1409, the Italian city-state of Pisa had had enough of the controversy. They decided that 30 years of papal confusion and chaos needed to be resolved, and the only way they could think of to do so was . . . (wait for it) to elect another pope!

And that story will have to wait until tomorrow.

Monday, September 19, 2022

Catherine in the World

Catherine of Siena (25 March 1347 - 29 April 1380) wanted to join the Dominicans and retire from the world. This was not only discouraged by her mother, but a vision Catherine had of being married to Christ included the injunction to go out into the world to do good works.

During a 1374 visit to Florence, she made the acquaintance of Raymond of Capua, chaplain of a second order monastery of Dominican nuns. While nursing plague victims, he became ill; Catherine sat by his side during his recovery, which he attributed to her prayers.

They began a close relationship, and he became her confessor and spiritual advisor, traveling with and advising her. Catherine traveled around northern and central Italy, urging reform of the clergy. She convinced the cities of Pisa and Lucca to avoid an alliance with an anti-papal movement. She wrote to John Hawkwood, trying to persuade him to turn his energy to supporting God.

She had a long correspondence with Pope Gregory XI, which included urging him to return the papal headquarters from Avignon back to Rome, which he eventually did. Not all cardinals approved of the return, and when Gregory died a few years later, two competing groups of cardinals—in in Rome, one still in Avignon—each elected a pope, resulting in what is called the Western Schism. Such was her perceived influence that Catherine went to Rome at the request of Pope Urban VI to support his legitimacy. Unfortunately for Urban, her support was not sufficient.

Catherine's habit of extreme fasting was very unhealthy, and Raymond admonished her to eat more, but she refused. In 1380 she lost the ability to swallow easily. She suffered a stroke and lost the use of the lower half of her body. She died on 29 April 1380.

Although she was buried in Rome, her head was placed in a bronze bust and taken to Siena. It was carried through the city in a procession to the Basilica of San Domenico, accompanied by her then 89-year-old mother. Her mother and Raymond of Capua collaborated on her biography. She was named a Doctor of the Church in 1970 by Pope Paul VI in recognition of her pious example and her treatise The Dialogue of Divine Providence.

About this Western Schism, during which she was unsuccessful in convincing everyone to accept Urban as the legitimate pope: his opponent didn't succeed either. I should say opponents, because Avignon and Rome weren't the only cities to name a pope. That story is for next time.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Catherine of Siena

Catherine of Siena is an example of how one can be connected to a religious order and still influence events "in the world."

She was born on 25 March 1347 as Caterina di Jacopo di Benincasa, and survived the imminent Black Death that was about to ravage Europe. A happy child, she had a vision of Christ with Peter, Paul, and John when she was only five or six, and decided shortly after  to devote herself to God.

This was not her parents' plan for her, however, and at 16 they wanted her to marry the widower of a sister who had died in childbirth. Catherine cut off her hair and started fasting to show her opposition to this plan and to make herself less attractive to a husband.

Quiet rebellion won out, and eventually her father relented and allowed her to choose her own life's path. She would later advise Raymond of Capua how to manage adversity: "Build a cell inside your mind, from which you can never flee." In her imagination, she pictured her father as Christ, her mother as Mary, her siblings as apostles. She treated them with respect and used this approach as a path to spiritual growth.

After she had a vision of St. Dominic she expressed a desire to join the Dominicans; this upset her mother, who tried ways to change her mind, but eventually allowed her to join a local group of devout laywomen, the Mantellate Sisters, a third order devoted to the education of youth and caring for the ill and poor. They taught Catherine to read. She still lived with her family, but seemed to have taken a personal vow of silence. Also, she would give away food and clothing, upsetting her family.

At 21, she had a vision which she described as a mystical marriage to Christ (pictured above by Giovanni di Paolo, 1400s). She claimed that she received a wedding ring during this vision, but not a typical ring, rather Christ's foreskin from the time of his circumcison when he was eight days old. (She would claim that she wore this ring, but it was invisible.) During this vision, Christ told her to give up her quiet life at home and go into the world. She became more active in her charity, helping the ill or poor in hospitals or homes.

Eventually, Siena became too small a venue for her desire to do good works, and she started getting involved in much larger issues. What she did, and how she even fixed a "problem" with the papacy, we will talk about tomorrow.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Third Orders

While explaining oblates I mentioned that there was a group called "Third Orders."

"Third Order" signifies a lay member of a Christian religious order; that is, a person who wishes to be a member of a religious order and follow certain rules and lifestyle options, but does not live in a monastery or nunnery. Even today, people who fall into this category—sharing in the spirit of a religious order but living a secular life—can be found in Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Anglicanism.

Originally, these tertiaries (Latin tertiarii, "third") began in the 12th century. If there is a third, then what are the first and second? First denotes the male order, since the male monastic version was usually the first founded. Second was when women wished to participate in the same order. For example: St. Francis, after being credited with establishing the Friars Minor, then established the Poor Clares, and afterward the Third Order of St. Francis. The Rule of the Third Order of St. Francis has become the standard for other third orders.

Those wishing to follow a third order often gathered in communities, called confraternities. There exists a Durham Liber Vitae, the Durham "Book of Lives," which is a confraternity book with a list of about 20,000 names (from the 9th century to about 1300) of those who were visited and supported the church in Durham. Donors to churches were often called confraters, a nice honorary title in exchange for their patronage. Groups like the Templars also had systems by which lay people could be confraters and support their mission.

The Second Vatican Council codified the "lay vocation" of the third orders, distinguishing it from a consecrated state. The various third orders had to revise their rules and submit them to the Vatican for approval. The term "third order" began to be replace by "secular order" to indicate that they were living "in the world" as opposed to cloistered.

An example of a third order religious who was active and influential in the secular world was Catherine of Siena, briefly mentioned here but sorely deserving of more attention, which I will give her next time. Until then...

Friday, September 16, 2022


Becoming a monk was not always a choice. Sometimes it was the default choice for someone with no skills that he could turn into a career, or for someone who had no taste for farming. Sometimes, parents would decide that the church was the best option for their child.

The Venerable Bede was a puer oblatus, a "boy oblate," sent to be raised at a monastery at the age of seven. The word oblate, in fact, means someone who has been offered. Monasteries that adhered to the Rule of St. Benedict accepted oblates that young—it was their chief source of new members—until 656CE, when the Tenth Council of Toledo forbade boys before the age of ten. Orderic Vitalis was given to his monastery at ten or eleven, and could take vows as early as fourteen. Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury suggested that oblates could take vows when the authorities of the monastery decided he was mature enough to understand and handle the obligations involved.

Various monasteries had their own policies regarding oblates. The 11th century About William of Hirschau defined two kinds of oblate:

fratres barbati ("bearded brethren), also called conversi (converts), who took vows but did not have to be clean-shaven or live cloistered.
oblati (oblates), workmen who followed religious rules while working at the monastery.

Other terms were used over the centuries: commissioned, donates, confronter, with various distinctions that changed over time. Despite the many approaches to managing and designating those who wished to be involved in the monastic or priestly life, the chief distinction was between those who entered fully and took all vows, and those who were only partially committed.

Which leads me to a new idea about oblates: a third order, for lay members of religious orders. There is a long history of this, which I'll tell you about tomorrow.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

The Venerable Bede

Start typing the word "venerable" into a search engine on the Internet and one of the options offered will be "venerable Bede." He was a monk, and the author of Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum ("Ecclesiastical History of the English People"). This work was considered so important that it has survived in countless copies and translations.

Bede (Beda, Bæda) was born about 672-3 o lands belonging to the monasteries of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow in Northumbria (now Wearside and Tyneside). Because the name Beda appears on a list of kings of Lindsey in Northumbria, and because of Bede's obvious connections to notable men, we think he came from a well-to-do family, possibly royal.

He was sent to the monastery at Monkwearmouth at the age of seven as a puer oblatus ("a boy oblate" or "boy dedicated to God's service"). At the time, the abbot was Benedict Biscop. Some years later he went to Jarrow, which was dedicated on 23 April 635. A plague in 686 left only two survivors at Jarrow who knew the holy services, Abbot Ceolfrith and a young boy. Bede would have been about 14 and was likely that boy.

Bede was ordained a deacon earlier than the typical age of 25, indicating exceptional ability and respect earned. He became a priest at the age of 30. In started writing about 701, with De Arte Metrica ("On Metrical Art" [meaning poetry]) and De Schematibus et Tropis ("On Figures and Tropes"). Once started, he did not stop writing, producing works and translations to explain history, the church, church services and religious trappings, the Bible, histories of saints, histories of abbots of Jarrow, and far more.

One of his works created a stir: in De Temporibus ("On the Times," meaning the ages of the world), he calculated that Christ was born 3,952 years after Creation. The generally accepted feeling was Isidore of Seville's opinion that the length of time was more than 5,000 years. Some monks complained to Bishop Wilfrid of Hexham (mentioned here). Wilfrid did not share their concern about Bede, but a monk who was present relayed the event to Bede, who wrote back explaining his calculations and asked the monk to share his thinking with Wilfrid. Regarding dates: the use of Anno Domini ("Year of the Lord") to count years since the birth of Christ was introduced by Bede. Bede also writes extensively on the controversy over the proper dating of Easter Sunday.

We know from a letter written by a disciple of his, Cuthbert (not St. Cuthbert) that he began to feel ill, his breathing became labored, his feet began to swell. He asked for a box of his things to be brought to him, and gave away his possessions, described as "some pepper, and napkins, and some incense." He died 26 May 735, his body being found on the floor of his cell that morning.

In 1899, Pope Leo XIII named him a "Doctor of the Church," the only native Englishman to be given that title.

Although Bede's literary output and life have countless points from which I could find a link to tomorrow's blog post, I wanted to talk about the pracrive=ce of handing a seven-year-old over to be raised by strangers in a monastery. Next time.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

The Synods of Clovesho

A synod, from Greek σύνοδος (sinoðos, "assembly") is a council of Christian authorities, usually to decide issues of doctrine or administration. Synods are usually named after the location of the meeting. This blog has mentioned synods in Elvira, Mainz, Verona, and (of course) Whitby.

There were several Synods of Clovesho recorded in the late 8th and early 9th centuries. The location of Clovesho (meaning "Cliff's-Hoe") has never been satisfactorily identified, but it is generally assumed to be somewhere in the kingdom of Mercia, since the current king of Mercia usually presides.

The Venerable Bede writes that, at the Council of Hertford in 672, Archbishop Theodore of Tarsus declared that he was made Archbishop of Canterbury by the pope, and that there should be a regular synod held on 1 August every year "in the place which is called Clofeshoch." Although it is likely that this schedule was followed, we do not have a record of any of the synods until 716 under King Ethelbald of Mercia, in which the freedom of the churches in Great Britain was confirmed.

The synods resembled the Anglo-Saxon witenagemot, in that it was more than a collection of bishops and abbots, but also included the king and his chief advisors and other high-ranking men of the kingdom.

The next recorded synod took place in 742. It affirmed the decision of 716. King Ethelbald of Mercia presided; his recorded statement is as follows:

I, Ethelbald, king of the Mercians, for the health of my soul and the stability of my kingdom, and out of reverence to the venerable Archbishop Cuthbert, confirm it by the subscription of my own munificent hand, that the liberty, honor, authority, and security of the Church of Christ be contradicted by no man; but that she and all the lands belonging to her be free from all secular services, except military expedition, and the building of a bridge or castle. And we charge that this be irrefragably and immutably observed by all, as the aforesaid king Wihtred ordained for him and his.

I previously mentioned Queen Cynethryth's last recorded mention was at the Synod of Clovesho in 798. It was presided over by King Coenwulf of Mercia and Archbishop Æthelheard. After the death of King Offa, his widow was made abbess at Cookham Abbey. At the synod, Æthelheard produced documents showing that the abbey belonged to Canterbury, and it was not in Mercia's power to make decisions about it. Æthelheard then granted the monastery to Cynethryth, but she had to give up other lands that were in her possession in Kent, amounting to 160 households' worth of property. (The site of Cookham Abbey has only recently been discovered.)

The last recorded Synod of Clovesho was in 824.

The Venerable Bede has been mentioned many times throughout the history of this blog, but has never received his own entry. Time to rectify that.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Queen Cynethryth

If Eadburh, wife of Beorhtric of Wessex, was as vindictive as history reports—exiling and executing enemies—what was the catalyst for that behavior? Did she learn from growing up and watching her mother, Cynethryth?

It is true that the queens of Mercia seem to have a notable amount of authority compared to other royal women—in fact, Cynethryth of Mercia, wife of King Offa, even had her own coinage with her image on it!—but was she actually as terrible and bloodthirsty as we are told?

We don't know anything about her or her parentage until 770, when her name appears as a witness on a charter. The similarity of her name to that of the wife and daughters of King Penda (c.606 - 655) of Mercia (Cynewise, Cyneburh, Cyneswith) suggests she was of that line, which would make her a distant relative of Offa.

The Vitae duorum Offarum ("The lives of the two Offas") relates and compares the stories of the 4th or 5th century Offa of Angel and the Offa of Mercia who reigned in the second half of the 8th century and was married to Cynethryth. Originally thought to be composed by Matthew Paris, it is now thought to be an earlier work. Of Cynethryth, the Vitae calls her "Drida," and that she was Frankish and condemned for some crime to be set adrift at sea. She drifts to the Welsh shore where she is found and brought before Offa. She claims to be a member of Carolingian royalty, and Offa puts her in the care of his mother, Marcellina. Offa eventually falls in love and marries her, after which she changes her name from Drida to Quindrida (from Thryth to Cynethryth).

The minting of coins in her likeness tells us a lot about how much authority Offa gave her. In one of his letter, Alcuin refers to Cynethryth as "controller of the Royal household." The marriage seemed to be a steady one. Alcuin, writing to their son Ecgfrith, advised him to follow the example of his parents, and comments on her piety.

What the crime was that originally caused her to be set adrift, we'll never know. Æthelberht II, King of East Anglia and Alfred the Great's older brother (died 20 May 794) is said to have been assassinated by Offa. Later chroniclers suggest that Cynethryth was more involved. This may be simply because of the earlier tale of her coming into the picture as an exiled criminal. There are no specifics or evidence that she was inciting executions or assassinations.

It is not unknown, however, that early kings would kill off even relatives in order to make succession clear and avoid attempts at usurpation of civil war. When Offa's and Cynethryth's only son, Ecgfrith, reigned a mere 141 days, the only heir to the throne of Mercia was a very distant relive, Coenwulf, because nearer relatives had been eliminated by Offa. Alcuin himself acknowledged this, writing:

That most noble young man has not died for his sins, but the vengeance for the blood shed by the father has reached the son. For you know how much blood his father shed to secure the kingdom upon his son. ... This was not a strengthening of the kingdom, but its ruin.

The last reference we have to Cynethryth was in 798, when she was present at the Synod of Clovesho in a dispute regarding the monastery at Cookham. I'll explain her connection to that dispute, and talk about the Synods, next time.

Monday, September 12, 2022

An Evil Queen

First, let me say that there was more than one Eadburh. Eadburh was the name of King Alfred the Great's mother-in-law (Alfred's wife was Ealhswitha, daughter of Eadburh (830 - 895) of the Mercian royal family and Æthelred Mucel of Mercia). Then there was Eadburh of Winchester (921 - 951CE), daughter of King Edward the Elder (mentioned here), who became a saint. 

Then there was the Eadburh who was most definitely not a saint.

King Offa of Mercia and Queen Cynethryth had five children: one sone who became king of Mercia after Offa, and four girls. They married their daughter Eadburh (seen to the left) to King Beorhtric of Wessex (reigned 787 - 802) in 789.

According to Asser's Life of King Alfred, Eadburh made many enemies and demanded they be killed or exiled. Possibly jealous of anyone who was too close a confidant of Beorhtric, she (supposedly) attempted to poison one of his favorites, but wound up causing the target and her husband to be killed. Her part in the king's death being discovered, she fled to Francia and appealed for sanctuary from Charlemagne.

Asser goes on to say that Charlemagne brought out one of his young sons and asked her which she would prefer to marry. (In 802 or just after, when this would have taken place, the 55-year-old Charlemagne would have been a widower, his fourth wife Luitgard having died in 800. Still, it's a little hard to swallow.) Eadburh said she'd prefer the son because of his youth, at which Charlemagne replied: "Had you chosen me, you would have had my son; but because you have chosen my son, you will have neither him nor me."

So Charlemagne makes her an abbess in a convent, but after she is caught having a sexual affair with a Saxon, she is expelled from the convent. She dies as a penniless beggar on the streets of Pavia in Lombardy.

Let's look at this from another angle.

Eadburh, daughter of the powerful Offa of Mercia, married Beorhtric of Wessex (seen to the right). This made Wessex and Mercia allies, to the benefit mostly of Wessex. To keep Offa pleased, Beorhtric might well have given Eadburh plenty of authority. In their 13 years of marriage, however, there was no evidence of offspring. Kings need an heir (it's wise to have "an heir and a spare"), and many in Beorhtric's position would have wanted to put Eadburh away and find someone more fertile, which he did not do. We do not know when Beorhtric was born, but it does not seem likely that he died of old age when Eadburh became a widow.

So why is Asser telling this story at the beginning of a Life of King Alfred? He uses the story to explain why Wessex kings do not let their wives use the title "queen," because Eadburh's actions supposedly tainted the practice.

But wait, there's more.

As in the tragedies of Socrates, "look for the earlier crime." The alliance of Offa and Beorhtric created a power strong enough to make some significant changes in the politics of southern Great Britain. One of their acts was to drive Ecgberht (born about 771-775) into exile in the 780s, whereupon he fled to the court of Charlemagne. Who was Ecgberht? Why drive a child out of Wessex? He was the heir to the throne of Wessex, and by driving him out, Beorhtric became king. After Beorhtric's death, Ecgberht returned and ruled Wessex from 802 until 839.

So why was this important in a biography of Alfred? Because Ecgberht's son and heir was Æthelwulf, and Æthelwulf's son and heir was ... (wait for it) ... Alfred. Asser made sure to denigrate the man responsible for preventing Alfred's grandfather from taking the throne, and made a statement about how regressive Wessex was toward women at the time.

Did Eadburh poison and exile her enemies? If she did, where did she learn such behaviors? Well, the hand that rocks the cradle...

Tomorrow I'll tell you about her mother.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

The Life of Asser

Most of what we know about King Alfred the Great comes from a single manuscript copy from the Cotton Library, Vita Ælfredi regis Angul Saxonum (Latin: "The Life of Alfred, King of the Anglo-Saxons"). We know it was begun in 893 because Asser mentions how old Alfred was at the time of writing (Alfred died six years later).

John Asser was a Welsh monk at St. David's in Dyfed (southwest Wales). We know little about him until he was recruited by Alfred to join his court for his scholarly abilities.

In the biography, we learn that Alfred decided on St. Martin's Day in 887 (November 11) that he wanted to learn Latin, and asked Asser to be his teacher. Asser asked for six months to consider, since he did not want to leave his position at St. David's. This was granted, but Asser fell ill when he returned to St. David's, and a year later Alfred to ask why the delay. Asser said he would decide when he recovered. The monks at St. David's felt the arrangement could be beneficial to them, and Asser agreed to divide his time between the two obligations.

Asser mentions reading to Alfred in the evenings, meeting Alfred's mother-in-law, and traveling with him. He describes the geography of his travels in England, as if he were writing for an audience unfamiliar with the English countryside: possible for his Welsh countrymen, whose he wished to educate about the king. He also includes some anecdotes that help flesh out information otherwise found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

The biography does not mention any events after 893, although Alfred lived another six years (and Asser well beyond that). That fact, and the fact that there is a single manuscript, suggests that what we have is merely an early draft that never was finished and sent to be copied and distributed. On the other hand, there are other literary works that show evidence of access to Asser's manuscript. A history written by Byrhtferth of Ramsey in the late 10th century quotes large sections of Asser. An anonymous monk in Flanders seems acquainted with Asser's work in his 1040s-written Encomium Emma (Latin: "Praise of [Queen] Emma"). In the early 12th century, Florence of Worcester quotes Asser in his chronicle. It seems clear that Asser's manuscript either "made the rounds" or lived in a much-visited library; we just don't know where it was in its earliest existence.

We do know that Bishop Matthew Parker (died 1575) possessed it in his library, but it was not included in the catalog when he bequeathed his library to Corpus Christi, Cambridge. Prior to that, it was owned by the antiquary John Leland in the 1540s. He might have acquired it when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, salvaging it when their properties and possessions were being sold off.

I seem to have turned a life of Asser into a discussion of his one known piece off writing.

As a reward, and possibly to keep Asser from going back to Wales, Alfred gave him the monastery of Exeter. He was made Bishop of Sherborne sometime between 892 and 900. He may have been a bishop already, at St. David's.

In 1603, the antiquarian William Camden printed an edition of Asser's Life in which he ascribes to Asser the founding of a college at Oxford. This extraordinary and evidence-free claim was repeated, but no modern scholar or historian.

The Annals of Wales (probably kept at St. David's) mention Asser's death in 908. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 909 (or 910, in some versions; different chroniclers started the year at different dates) tells us "Asser, who was bishop at Sherborne, departed."

And now for something completely different: one of the anecdotes he tells is about a daughter of King Offa, who married a king of Wessex and became a stereotype of Disney films: an evil queen. Tomorrow I'll tell you about Eadburh.

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Alfred the Not So Great?

It is not inappropriate—in fact, it is mandatory for a historian—to question the assumptions that come down to them from the past.* So when someone is called "Great"—the only English monarch to be named so—it is perhaps inevitable that someone will question what earned him that epithet.

Here I had mentioned how Alfred the Great reformed and renovated the defense of southern England by building or re-building 30 strongholds (called burhs in Old English), and increased taxes according to the amount of a landowner's real estate. Real estate was measured in "hides" and so this grand plan was called the Burghal Hidage. In fact, there is a document called the Burghal Hidage (a burned copy was salvaged from the Cotton Library). It is this creation of a strong defensive system, which included creating a standing army of about 27,000, that helped earn him the praise he has received.

Unfortunately for his reputation, the United Kingdom is fascinated by its history and therefore is constantly engaged in archaeological investigation. Forty years of archaeological evidence on the strongholds that comprise the Burghal Hidage has raised eyebrows about Alfred's role.

It turns out that Alfred's plan may not have been entirely Alfred's. Towns that were part of the Burghal Hidage and that claim now that they were founded by Alfred the Great became towns some time after Alfred's reign. Also, many of these burhs were clearly established prior to Alfred's reign and continuously maintained.

Part of developing these strongholds included Alfred being credited with the development of the connected towns and an "Alfredian" efficient street plan. Excavations in Worcester, however, show that the early street plan was in fact established about 100 years after Alfred's death.

So where did we get the original information about Alfred's greatness? Why is he given credit for things that were developed before or after his reign. That would be Asser, a Welsh monk brought to Alfred's court. His life, and his Life of King Alfred, are worth a closer look, for which I hope you'll come back here tomorrow.

*I say "them" and not "us" because I am not properly a historian: I am just a story-teller.

Friday, September 9, 2022

Alfred's Improvements

Alfred the Great (849 - 899) was not an idle king, even when not battling Danish invasions to protect the shores of Great Britain.

Some of his reforms and innovations did involve the military, though. The traditional way to deal with trouble was for each small community to assemble its own men against an attack. The Danes, however, would attack swiftly a small area, conquer it, and fortify it as a new base from which to mount further attacks and to which they could retreat if their further military plan looked like it was failing. They could make steady progress across the country before a large-scale defense could be mounted by a king. After defeating Guthrum at Edington, Alfred used the following respite to plan a standing army, ready to march and strike at the first sign of invaders.

In order to do this, Alfred had to raise taxes. His people had what was called the trinoda necessitas (three-fold tax): obligations for military service, fortress work, and bridge repair. Alfred increased a landholder's taxes based on the productivity of his land. He also created over third fortified places in souther Great Britain from which he could organize resistance to invaders.

He also increased naval power. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claims that Alfred's ships were larger and faster than ships of the Danes or Frisians. Alfred wanted to stop invaders before they reached shore, if possible.

He was also responsible for some legal reforms. He gathered together many of the laws from the past, including the code of King Ine of Wessex (689 - 726), rejecting laws that didn't please him, and produced a law code of 120 chapters with a strong biblical influence.

Even while dealing with these many "royal obligations" he was encouraging changes in education and culture. Perhaps inspired by Charlemagne's re-birth of culture, he established a school at court for his children and others. He also arranged for translations into English of Latin works he felt everyone should know. Concerned that the Viking invasions were a sign of God's wrath, he founded monasteries and "imported" monks because he found little local interest in populating the monasteries. He made sure copies of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care went to his bishops for the better preparation of priests.

Now, calling anyone "the Great" will always raise questions about the accuracy of the epithet, and Alfred is no exception. Tomorrow we'll hear why some modern historians claim he wasn't that Great. See you then.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Alfred versus Danes

After establishing the Danelaw that was supposed to bring peace between the Danes/Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons of the south, Alfred thought that his reign had eliminated major military engagements. With the death of Guthrum, with whom he had negotiated the peace, Vikings apparently did not feel obligated to honor the borders.

A fleet of 330 ships arrived on English shores in 893, including wives and children, indicating their intent to colonize, not just plunder and go. They settled At Appledore and Milton, both in Kent, and Alfred set up men to keep an eye on their movements. Alfred started talks with Hastein, the Viking chieftain in Milton, but while doing so, the group at Appledore started moving northwestward. Alfred's eldest son, Edward, defeated them in Surrey. A siege at Exeter was defeated by Alfred. There were other battles, until by 895 the Danes were running out of food and supplies. They retreated to the Thames, and fortified themselves 20 miles north of London, but they were outmaneuvered by Alfred who blocked the river. In 897 they retreated, some to Northumbria, some to East Anglia, some to their ships and back to Europe.

Alfred lamented the effect of Danish raids on England, especially education:

...learning had declined so thoroughly in England that there were very few men on this side of the Humber who could understand their divine services in English or even translate a single letter from Latin into English: and I suppose that there were not many beyond the Humber either. [Alfred's preface to his translation of Pastoral Care]

Manuscript production also suffered during these years; there was also much destruction of manuscripts when Danes burned churches and monasteries. An 873 document is so poorly made that a historian suggests the scribe did not even know Latin. Alfred had established a school for his own children and others, where they studied both English and Latin. He encouraged learning, especially in English, for everyone who had a mind to apply themselves.

His reign produced many other improvements and changes in the culture, and I'll talk about them tomorrow, before we sk the question: Was Alfred really great?

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great (848 - 26 October 899) was not the King of England, because at the time there was no unified England. He was king of the West Saxons (Wessex), which covered much of the south of Great Britain.

His father, Æthelwulf, died when Alfred was about 10 years old, and the crown went in turn to three of Alfred's brothers, Æthelbald, Æthelberht and Æthelred, before Alfred was crowned in April 871.

His chief task as king was fighting off invasions by Viking. In 878, after the decisive Battle of Edington against Guthrum, Alfred made an agreement with the Vikings, granting to them northern England, the north-east Midlands, and East Anglia (an area that became known as the Danelaw) in exchange for leaving the rest of Great Britain safe from invasion. Alfred also convinced Guthrum to convert to Christianity, whereupon he was baptized with the name Athelstan.

This attempt at peace did not last. Alfred was forced to deal with more Danish incursions. In 885 there was a raid on Kent, an ally of Alfred in south-east England. The Danes besieged Rochester, whereupon Alfred gathered a large that caused the Danes to abandon Rochester and flee to their ships. A year later, Alfred reoccupied the city of London (which was not as important as it became later), rebuilding the Roman wall and making the city safe for habitation and trade again.

In that same year he was named King of the Anglo-Saxons. Contemporary chronicles claim that all Saxon kingdoms of the time recognized him as ruler. This unification of the Anglo-Saxons did not mean all things were going well. Guthrum-Athelstan passed away in 889, and the uneasy peace that had been brokered between him and Alfred began to dissolve. Alfred's kingdom was about to become embroiled in frequent battle with Vikings again. We'll look at the latter years of his reign tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Let's Talk Clocks

What constitutes a "clock"? The Latin horologium could refer to a clock or a timepiece of a sundial or the building or structure designed to support any of those.

Modern horology, the study of the measurement of time, distinguishes clocks which mark time by striking something (the word "clock" comes from French cloche, "bell"), whereas a timepiece does not. So a timepiece can mean a watch, a sundial, a clepsydra, or an hourglass, etc.

The sundial was likely the earliest way to measure time: a shadow on a flat surface displays the progression of the sun.

The clepsydra (Greek κλεψύδρα, literally "water thief"), was used in Babylonb, Persia, and Egypt as far back as the 16th century BCE. The simplest form is a bowl or other vessel with a hole from which the water drains, and markings to match drainage levels with the passage of time. The Greco-Roman world devised an in-flow (rather than out-flow) method which, as water filled a container, would trigger a sound, creating an "alarm clock." Water clocks evolved that used gears and escapement mechanisms to produce greater accuracy.

An escapement is a gear mechanism that ticks forward and back to cause another piece to advance. The illustration shows how this works in a pendulum clock, advancing the hands. The use of the escapement was crucial to the development of mechanical clocks, which started to appear in the 14th century in Europe. (Not in the 10th, built by Gerbert d'Aurillac.)

Let's not neglect candle clocks. A Chinese poem written in 520CE by You Joanfu mentions a clock marked so that it could be used while burning to measure the passage of night time. The Anglo-Saxons credit Alfred the Great with creating the candle clock. He used squat candles (<5" high) marked at 1" intervals to mark time.

The hourglass was also a common method of measuring time, the earliest depiction of which is in a 1338 painting by Ambrogio Lorenzetti.

The earliest mechanical clock, a clock that did not use water or sand or candles, that used a predictable motion due to the escapement and a pendulum, did not appear until the early 1300s. Norwich Cathedral had a tower clock constructed in the early 1320s. The first known municipal clock that struck on the hours was in Milan in 1336. Over the next few decades, mechanical clocks appeared all over: Old St. Paul's Cathedral, Salisbury Cathedral (still has many original parts!), Wells Cathedral (still with its original face), etc. Detailed descriptions of clock designs by Richard of Wallingford (1292 - 1336) and Giovanni de Dondi (c.1330 - 1338) still exist, though the many clocks they built are long gone.

A king who developed his own timepieces made from candles? He sounds like someone worth looking into.

Monday, September 5, 2022

Who Invented the Mechanical Clock?

In researching the previous post, I came across a reference to Pope Sylvester II (formerly Gerbert d'Aurillac, c.946 - 1003) inventing the mechanical clock. The source of this was the William Godwin's final book, Lives of the Necromancers, An Account of the Most Eminent Persons in Successive Ages Who Have Claimed for Themselves, or to Whom Has Been Imputed by Others, The Exercise of Magical Powers [1834]:

This generous adventurer, prompted by an insatiable thirst for information, is said to have secretly withdrawn himself from his monastery of Fleury in Burgundy, and to have spent several years among the Saracens of Cordova. Here be acquired a knowledge of the language and learning of the Arabians, particularly of their astronomy, geometry and arithmetic; and he is understood to have been the first that imparted to the north and west of Europe a knowledge of the Arabic numerals, a science which at first sight might be despised for its simplicity, but which in its consequences is no inconsiderable instrument in subtilising the powers of human intellect. He likewise introduced the use of clocks. He is also represented to have made an extraordinary proficiency in the art of magic; and among other things...

The italics are mine. A little further along, Godwin adds a footnote that tells us his information comes from William of Malmesbury. William (c.1095 - c.1143) was the foremost English historian of the 12th century. Not exactly a contemporary, but maybe near enough that the memories and stories were still fresh? It would be difficult to determine the accuracy of this report, especially in the context of a brief blog post. Fortunately, I don't have to.

As it turns out, Marek Otisk of the University of Ostrava (Czechoslovakia) published an article on this very topic in September 2020, Gerbert of Aurillac (Pope Sylvester II) as a Clockmaker. He examines the reports from William of Malmesbury, the Chronicle of Thietmar of Merseburg (died c.1018), and a much later record (someone who died in 1610). Among his detailed examination of these and other historical records we learn that although William claims Gerbert built a clock in Reims, a friend of Gerbert's (Richest of Reims), writes about Gerbert's stay in Reims in detail and never mentions a clock. Otisk concludes that William's ascribing of the creation of a clock to Gerbert cannot be trusted.

The later report by the Benedictine monk Arnold Wion, who died about 1610, claims Gerbert built a clepsydra, a water clock, in Ravenna. What we know of Gerber's time in Ravenna, however, is that it was very short; again, no contemporary accounts support this story.

Thietmar of Merseburg tells a different story, that Gerbert created a clock in Magdeburg. Thietmar was a bishop and close friend of Holy Roman Emperor Henry II, who succeeded Otto III, credited with making Gerbert into Pope Sylvester II. Thietmar's Chronicle includes a specific detail about Gerbert creating, in Magdeburg, "created clocks (horologium) which he correctly calibrated according to the Polar star (stella, dux nautarum) which he observed through an observation tube (fistula)." [Otisk, p.32] Otisk likes this account because both Thietmar and Gerbert were in Magdeburg in the late 990s, and very likely crossed paths several times.

The use of the word horologium is misleading, however. We use it for the word "clock," but it is more likely that Gerbert was creating a calibrated armillary, or possible even an astrolabe, which he knew about from his exposure to science being done by Islamic philosophers.

So I can't tell you who created the first mechanical clock. But the question of horologium remains: when long-ago writers refer to "clocks," what exactly did they mean? What constituted a clock? There were several ways to measure time without staring at the sun and judging, and I'll talk about those devices tomorrow.