Wednesday, May 31, 2023

The Alexiad

Nikephoros Bryennios the Younger (1062 - 1137) was a Byzantine noble. As a general, he defended Constantinople when the army of Godfrey of Bouillon attacked in 1097 during the First Crusade. He was also the second husband of Anna Comnena, the daughter of Emperor Alexios I Comnenos.

Anna's mother Irene Doukaina suggested he write a political history of the quarter century leading up to the coronation of his father-in-law, Alexios. It would largely be a "family history" of the Comnenos clan, and he gathered information for his "Material for a History." He drew on writings of contemporary historians such as Michael Psellos, John Skylitzes and Michael Attaleiates, covering many topics of which he would have no personal experience

Before the work was finished, Nikephoros died after becoming ill while on a military campaign in Syria. His widow, Anna, took the notes and turned them into The Alexiad, with a large focus on exalting her father:

I, Anna, the daughter of two royal personages, Alexius and Irene, born and bred in the purple. I was not ignorant of letters, for I carried my study of Greek to the highest pitch, and was also not unpractised in rhetoric; I perused the works of Aristotle and the dialogues of Plato carefully, ...

However, to resume—I intend in this writing of mine to recount the deeds done by my father for they should certainly not be lost in silence, or swept away, as it were, on the current of time into the sea of forgetfulness, and I shall recount not only his achievements as Emperor, but also the services he rendered to various Emperors before he himself received the sceptre.

The 15 chapters include not only the political rise and fall of emperors, but also the encounter with the "Frankish barbarians" of the Crusade, with details useful to modern historians:

For the Frankish weapon of defence is this coat of mail, ring plaited into ring[s], and the iron fabric is such excellent iron that it repels arrows and keeps the wearer’s skin unhurt. An additional weapon of defence is a shield which is not round, but a long shield, very broad at the top and running out to a point, hollowed out slightly inside, but externally smooth and gleaming with a brilliant boss of molten brass.

About 10 manuscripts of the finished work survive, some of them complete. Written in Attic Greek, The Alexiad gives us another version of the time period for scholars to study with some unusual traits. It is the only historical work written by a woman, and it differs radically from other histories because the author acknowledges feelings and opinions of the events discussed.

She virtually ignores her brother, John II Comnenos, who became emperor after Alexios. Anna, of course, wanted Nikephoros to succeed her father. Was John that bad an emperor? Was his reign worthy of being ignored in The Alexiad? Let's look at John II Comnenos next time.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Anna Comnena's Rebellion

Anna Comnena (1083 - 1153) has had her own blog posts before (here and here). The daughter of Alexios I Comnenos and Irene Doukaina, she was betrothed at an early age to Constantine Doukas and raised by Constantine's mother (who had helped Anna's father and grandmother in the coup that put Alexios on the throne). Constantine was named junior emperor and heir to Alexios.

Unfortunately, her father and mother later had a male child, John, making the succession of Constantine unnecessary. Constantine died in 1094, and Anna then married Nikephoros Bryennios in 1097. Nikephoros was about 35, handsome and educated, and a good match for the highly educated and talented Anna. Alexios approved the marriage heartily, and granted Nikephoros the titles Caesar (a court title denoting favor) and Panhypersebastos. (Panhypersebastos, meaning "venerable above all," was a new title created by Alexios.)

When Alexios died (attended by Anna in the hospital he founded and she worked at), Anna would have liked Nikephoros to take over, rather than her brother John. Anna was raised in the presence of inspiring women who often took matters in their own hands to bring about large results. Her paternal grandmother Anna Dalassene helped the coup that put Alexios on the throne, as did her mother-in-law Maria of Alania. Her mother, Irene, although initially seemed to be in an unsatisfactory marriage, later became a strong partner to Alexios, accompanying him on expeditions and ruling firmly when he left her behind. In the latter cases, she was regent for John with Nikephoros Bryennios. It has been suggested that Irene wanted Nikephoros to be named Alexios' heir rather than their younger son.

Anna's and Nikephoros' previous titles and administrative authority, seniority in the family, and ambition may have led them to be involved in a plot to replace John. John suspected opposition, so as his father lay dying in the monastery of the Mangana on 15 August 1118, John took a retinue to the monastery and obtained the imperial signet ring from his father. One chronicler, Niketas Choniates, claims that John embraced his father as if in mourning and secretly stole the ring from him. John then rode with armed followers to the palace and forced his way in.

Alexios died that night. John II Comnenos did not attend the funeral, fearing a public appearance would offer an assassination attempt. In his first year, however, he claimed to discover a conspiracy involving his mother and sister. Anna's property was taken from her and given to a friend of John's, John Axouch, who declined it. Eventually it was given back to Anna, but Anna was effectively removed from public life. Irene was retired to a monastery,

Much of what we know of this period comes from The Alexiad, a book begun by Nikephoros Bryennios and completed by Anna Comnena. I want to dive a little deeper into it tomorrow.

Monday, May 29, 2023

Maria of Alania

The Unified Kingdom of Georgia in the Middle Ages stretched from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. When it was conquered by the Byzantine Empire, the daughter of its then ruler, Bagrat IV, was taken to Constantinople as a hostage in 1056. She was five years old. Martha of Alania, called Maria in Constantinople, was raised and educated by the Empress Theodora; when Theodora died a year later, Maria was sent home.

In 1065, to further unite Georgia and the empire, Maria was married to Michael VII Doukas, who was in line to become emperor in 1071. Unfortunately for Michael, his reign experienced military disasters and economic woes, and in 1078 a coup replaced him with Nikephoros III Botaneiates. Michael was forced into a monastery and became a monk, and Maria with her young son Constantine was sent to a monastery (but did not become a nun).

Nikephoros was widowed while in office, and his intention to remarry started a fierce competition among all the eligible noblewomen. He settled on Maria for several reasons: marrying her would assuage the hostility of her Doukas relatives after the ouster of her first husband; her foreign birth meant she had no blood relatives who would try to use her empress status as a way to garner power for themselves, and she was a known beauty:

And certainly she was as slender of stature as a cypress, her skin was white as snow, and though her face was not a perfect round, yet her complexion was exactly like a spring flower or a rose. And what mortal could describe the radiance of her eyes? Her eyebrows were well-marked and red-gold, while her eyes were blue. Full many a painter's hand has successfully imitated the colours of the various flowers the seasons bring, but this queen's beauty, the radiance of her grace and the charm and sweetness of her manners surpassed all description and all art. Never did Apelles or Pheidias or any of the sculptors produce a statue so beautiful. [from the Alexiad]

She was still married to Michael, however, and the Orthodox Church considered a marriage to Nikephoros to be adulterous. The first priest who was asked to perform the marriage refused (and was demoted), but the next one was willing to accommodate the couple. Nikephoros agreed as part of the marriage pact to make her son from her first husband the heir to the empire, but he later went back on his word.

She allied with Anna Dalassene, and adopted her son Alexios in order to give him closer ties to the palace and the emperor; this allowed Anna and Alexios and Maria to plan to replace Nikephoros. Maria would have liked her son to become emperor, but he was still a child, and when the coup took place in 1081, Alexios became emperor. Alexios made Constantine his heir, even betrothing his own daughter Anna Comnena to the boy. Maria was treated well and remained in imperial quarters at Mangana, a suburb of Constantinople. As mother of the imperial heir, she lived a lavish lifestyle, making donations to a monastery and building a convent at Jerusalem. She was a patron to literary figures.

When Alexios and his wife bore a son of their own, however, the betrothal between Anna Comnena and Constantine was called off, Constantine was declared no longer heir, and Maria was retired to a monastery. Constantine died in 1096. Maria died in 1118, remaining an important figure to her fellow Georgians.

About the Alexiad that wrote so glowingly about Maria: it was written by Anna Comnena, Alexios' daughter, and we're going to look at her next time.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Rebellion in Constantinople

Alexios I Comnenos might not have made it to the position of Byzantine emperor if not for the behind-the-scene actions of his mother, Anna Dalassene. She endeavored early in the lives of her children to make politically advantageous marriages for them and help them get to useful positions, such as when she helped Manuel and Alexios become leaders in the army.

In 1081, an opportunity arose to take power from the current ruler of the Byzantine Empire, Nikephoros III Botaneiates. His empress, Maria of Alania, had originally been married to the previous emperor, Michael VII Doukas, and wanted her son by Michael, Constantine, to succeed. Nikephoros wanted instead to be succeeded by a close relative. Anna forged an alliance with Maria against Nikephoros, an alliance with a precedent: Anna's son Alexios was married to Maria's cousin Irene.

Anna allowed Empress Maria to adopt Alexios. This made her son Constantine and Alexios brothers, which allowed Alexios to come and go in the palace as "family" and be fed information from Maria about Nikephoros' plans. Alexios and his brother Isaac also pledged loyalty to Maria's son Constantine (who was just a child).

In February 1081, Isaac and Alexios left Constantinople to raise an army against the emperor. Anna had the rest of her children join her in the Hagia Sophia for sanctuary. She protested that her sons were innocent of the accusations that they were committing treasonous actions, and pleaded for the emperor's protection for her family. She claimed they had learned of a plot by enemies to have Isaac and Alexios blinded, and the boys had therefore fled to safety. She managed to get the emperor to publicly grant protection to her family. Her actions not only gave her sons time to raise an army but also convinced the emperor that there was no danger of a coup, leading him to be less guarded about their actions.

Isaac and Alexios returned to Constantinople on 1 April 1081 with their army, and Alexios assumed the throne on 4 April. Maria's son Constantine was only 7 years old at the time, so too young to assert a claim to the throne against Alexios' claim, but Alexios gave him the title junior emperor, which had to satisfy Maria.

Regarding other titles, however: it was typical for the emperor's wife to be also crowned and given the title "Augusta." Alexios' wife, Irene Doukaina (of the Doukas clan), was not crowned until a week later. Alexios then gave the title Augusta to his mother! Former empress Maria was allowed to live on in the palace thanks to her help in the coup and the fact that she was alone and far from home (Alania was in Georgia).

Alexios preferred to take personal control of the army, and so was often away from the capital, leaving his mother in charge of matters. She was still managing many administrative matters when the First Crusade came through, but she retired to a monastery not long after, and died on 1 November in 1100 (or 1101 or 1102: the year is unclear).

While on the subject of Byzantine women: Maria of Alania is worth looking at in more detail. She came from the newly unified kingdom of Georgia, was married to two emperors and took part in overthrowing the second to raise up a third. I'll talk about her tomorrow.

Saturday, May 27, 2023

Anna Dalassene

"Behind every great man is a woman" was never more apt than in the case of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Comnenos and his mother, Anna Dalassene. She was born c.1025-1030 to a Byzantine official named Alexios Charon (about whom her biography says little) and a member of the noble Dalassenos family.

She was married to John Comnenos, younger brother of Isaac I Comnenos, who rebelled in 1057 against the current emperor and took the throne. This placed John himself (and therefore Anna) closer to the seat of power, and may have served to increase her ambitions for her children.

She and John had eight children. When Isaac decided to abdicate the throne to become a monk, John declined the throne, despite Anna's vehement urging about the benefits the position would create for their children. The throne went to Constantine X Doukas, whose family Anna then considered a rival that must be opposed.

Constantine died in May of 1067, the throne passing to Romanos IV Diogenes. John died 12 July of that same year, and Anna became responsible for raising the children and finding opportunities for them. She allied herself with Constantine's widow, with whose help she arranged politically advantageous marriages for her children. She also allied herself with Romanos, supporting him against the Doukas clan. Anna's youngest daughter, Theodora, was married to Romanos' son. Her eldest son, Manuel, became one of Romanos' best generals. (Manuel died from infection in 1071, and she tried to put Alexios forward as a suitable replacement in his position, but Alexios was considered too young at the time.)

Romanos IV was captured by the Seljuk Turks in August 1071, and the Doukas clan returned to power with Michael VII Doukas taking the throne. When Romanos was freed from the Seljuks, the Doukas clan led troops against him, capturing him to prevent a return to power and blinding him. Anna was accused of supporting Romanos, even being brought to trial.

She was prepared. She boldly pulled a crucifix from under her cloak and said "Here is my judge and yours. Think of him before deciding and take heed that your decision is worthy of the supreme judge, who knows the secrets of men's hearts." She and her sons were exiled to the island of Prinkipos. After Romanos died and there was no chance of a rebellion coalescing around him, they were allowed to return from exile. Michael VII even seemed to try to win her over by allowing Anna's son Isaac to marry his wife's cousin. Also, Alexios was married in 1078 to the 12-year-old Irene Doukaina, niece of Constantine X Doukas.

So it looked like her desire for her children to be secure and successful was coming true. There was more to come, however, because in 1081 the Comnenos clan and Anna would pull off a coup d'état, the details of which you will read tomorrow.

Friday, May 26, 2023

Emperor Alexios I Comnenos

Alexios I Comnenos (1057 - 1118) was the Byzantine emperor during the start of the Crusades. Since the Byzantines were a part of the old Roman Empire, and Christian, and a well-populated and economically significant city at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, Europeans saw them as allies and the gateway to the lands of the infidels who held the Holy Land.

The Crusades were not his only concern, however. As a young man, he and his brother, Manuel Comnenos, served with distinction against the Seljuk Turks, whose territory was right across the Bosporus. The empire also had trouble with Normans in the western Balkans. At one point, he refused to fight against a kinsman who was seizing control of Byzantine territory in Asia Minor for himself. This did not count against Alexios, however, because his abilities were too valuable, and he was needed to help deal with Robert Guiscard.

His father, John Comnenos, had refused the throne when the previous ruler, Isaac I Comnenos, abdicated to become a monk. The throne therefore went to Constantine X Doukas, followed by Romanos IV Diogenes, then Michael VII Doukas, then Nikephoros III Botaneiates, against whom Alexios conspired to take the throne himself. Alexios surrounded Constantinople with his troops, broke through the walls on 1 April 1081, and was crowned on 4 April. Nikephoros fled, but was captured and forced into monk-hood.

Alexios took on an empire that was in decline and face with content military threats at the edge of its borders. Alexios' military skills enabled him to strengthen the empire and recover lost territory. The First Crusade was sparked by his requests for aid against the Turks, as mentioned in this 2012 post. He got the help (some of which was better than others), but the Seljuks continued to be a problem throughout his reign. He was also plagued by the question of succession, his preference being for his son John II Comnenos, while his wife pushed for their daughter Anna and her husband.

I might get to the resolution of who succeeded Alexios, John or Anna, but I want to talk about another Anna: Alexios' mother. She was an important figure who had a significant role in helping his rebellion succeed, and we should look at her next.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Kilij Arslan I

Kilij Arslan I (1079 - 1107) was the Sultan of Rum; it was he who had to deal with the Europeans of the First Crusade when they attempted to "free" the Holy Land from non-Christians in the late 1090s.

Prior to the First Crusade, however, he had his own set of difficulties. The Turks were organized in several different tribes that saw each other as rivals: Seljuks (Aslan's tribe), Danishmends, Mangujekids, Saltuqids, Tengribirmish, Artuqids, and Akhlat-Shahs. Upon the death of Arslan's father, Suleyman (d.1086), the Sultan Malik Shah I of Isfahan imprisoned him, seeing him as a potential rival. When Malik died in 1092, a quarrel among his jailers allowed him to escape, after which he assembled an army and set up a capital for himself in Nicaea.

In times of political rivalry, carefully chosen alliances become vital. A non-Turkish complication in this part of the world was the size and proximity of the Byzantine Empire. Nicaea was in Byzantine Territory, and Arslan was able to set up his capital there (relatively safe from his Turkish rivals) because of a strategic alliance.

Arslan married the daughter of Emir Tzachas, a Seljuk Turkish military commander. Tzachas had earlier in life become a significant member of Byzantine society, until he lost his position when Emperor Alexios Comnenos I came to power and dismissed him. He then became an enemy of the Byzantines. Arslan married the daughter, Ayşe Hatun, to strengthen his own power against the Byzantines.

Then there was a twist: Arslan received a communication from Alexios, claiming that Tzachas intended to usurp him. Arslan marched his army to Tzachas' location, invited his father-in-law to a banquet, and killed him. This simple act ingratiated him to Alexios. When the Crusade of 1101 captured Nicaea and sent Ayşe Hatun to Costantinople to be held for ransom, Alexios sent her back without a ransom, in order to honor his alliance with Arslan.

Kilij Arslan, whose name means literally "sword lion," drowned in 1107 while crossing the Khabur River to escape a losing battle against a rival. In January 2021, archaeologists found his grave in Silvan, in Turkey.

Emperor Alexios Comnenos' name keeps cropping up in discussions of the Crusades, and he should probably be discussed a little more, but that's for tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

The Sword of the Lion

When the First Crusade approached the Holy Land, they were met by the Seljuk Sultan of Rum, Kilij Arslan I. His first encounter with the Europeans came when the Peasants' Crusade, led by Peter the Hermit, overran the castle of Xerigordon at Nicaea. They did so because Arslan sent his spies to give them the impression that the castle was easy pickings. In fact, it was inconsequential to him, but a German contingent raced to take their prize. Once they were settled in it, Arslan sent a force to besiege it and starve them out, knowing that the place had few supplies. He offered a choice: renounce Christianity and become captives, or be put to death.

The tables turned on Arslan after this, because the easy victory led him to believe that all the Crusaders would be easily handled. Unfortunately for him, a far more organized and strategy-oriented army was headed his way. He decided to refocus his attention on his rivalry with the Danishmend Turks, ignoring the soon-to-arrive actual First Crusade. 

As a result, he was away from Nicaea when the Crusaders besieged it in May 1097. Returning to Nicaea, he was defeated by the Crusaders on 21 May. Nicaea was then held by the Byzantines, and Arslan's wife and family were taken captive. She was sent to Constantinople to be held for ransom, but was returned without ransom (for reasons which are a separate chapter of Arslan's story).

Kilij Arslan means "sword lion," and he had a reputation for being a great soldier and leader, but in this case he decided not to go it alone and to ally himself with his Danishmend rivals (as he would later to deal with the Crusade of 1101), attempting to ambush the Crusaders at the end of June near Dorylaeum. The defensive line created by the disciplined Europeans, however, proved too strong for the Turkish mounted archers. The Turkish camp was captured on 1 July by the arrival of Bohemond with reinforcements. According to the Gesta Francorum, the Europeans gained respect for Aslan's tactics and soldiers, claiming "had the Turks been Christian, they would be the finest of all races."

Realizing he could not stop the conquest of the Holy Land, Arslan decided to spend his time on hit-and-run attempts on the Europeans. He also destroyed crops and water supplies in their path, but could not stop them. His experience here is what made him take the approach of the Crusade of 1101 much more seriously, but in that case he was facing a less-organized group that was easier to defeat.

Why, however, was his wife returned from Constantinople without the ransom the Europeans demanded? There were Byzantines in the Crusade, so clearly the Byzantines were enemies of Arslan. Or were they? I'll explain in the next post.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

The Battle of Mersivan

The Crusade of 1101 had high hopes: the First Crusade had already been successful, establishing the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and the Germans, French, and Lombards (joined by Byzantines from Constantinople) who set out as reinforcements at the request of Pope Paschal II thought they would be avoiding any serious battles. They were mistaken, however, when different groups of Turks banded together and met them at the Battle of Mersivan. The Turkish leader, Kilij Arslan I, had his forces push the invaders where he wanted them to go.

The westerners were then at a disadvantage in the Mersivan area, dealing with dry open land bereft of supplies that was more suited to the cavalry regiments of the Seljuk and Danishmend Turks. Over the several days of the battle, the Turks outmaneuvered the Crusaders at every turn, surrounding them on the very first day.

On day two, a raid by the German division failed, and they were cut off from the main army with no supplies or communication. After a relatively inactive third day, the next day saw Turkish reinforcements. The Crusaders tried to break out of their position, inflicting some damage to the Turks, but they failed to achieve their goal. The fifth day saw the Crusaders' camp captured. Shockingly, the knights fled, leaving behind families and priests to be killed or enslaved. The Lombards, mostly peasant class who did not have horses, could not flee and were largely wiped out, although some were captured and made slaves.

This defeat, and the rounding up and destruction of those who fled, taking place just a few years after the First Crusade, taught the Muslim world that the Crusaders were not invincible. The leader of the Turks, Kilij Arslan I, had redeemed himself after the losses brought by the First Crusade, and established a capital at Iconium. I'll tell you more about Kilij Arslan next time.

Monday, May 22, 2023

The Crusade of 1101

Because the First Crusade was successful, in 1100-1101 several of those who had avoided going on the First (or started and turned back because of the difficulties in traveling such distances) decided to conduct their own Crusade. Because they had avoided the First, this Crusade is sometimes called the Crusade of the Faint-Hearted. Stephen, Count of Blois (1045 - 1102), fled from the Siege of Antioch, for instance, and was so strongly criticized that his wife refused to allow him to stay home. This new Crusade was an opportunity for him and others to redeem themselves.

Pope Urban had died before the First Crusade was completed, but his successor, Pope Paschal II, called for reinforcements to supplement the armies who remained in the Holy Land. His urging resulted in three separate groups deciding to take up the Cross.

One group was from Lombardy, led by the Archbishop of Milan, Anselm IV. They were untrained and undisciplined peasants who, when they reached Constantinople, pillaged the city (even killing Emperor Alexios I's pet lion) until they were gathered and shipped to a camp at Nicomedia.

A second group met them there in May 1101. These were led by Stephen of Blois and other nobles, bringing French, Germans, and Burgundians. They were joined by Raymond IV of Toulouse, who had been successful on the First Crusade and had been offered the position of "King of Jerusalem," which he refused (the title went to Godfrey of Bouillon).

The largest contingent in this combined army was Lombards, who wanted to march the army north where they could rescue Bohemond I of Antioch, who was held captive by a Turkish dynasty, the Danishmends. The Seljuk Turks, realizing that combining forces was necessary to defeat the intruders, persuaded the Danishmend Turks to join them. This proved disastrous for these new Crusaders, but that is a story for tomorrow.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

The First Troubadour

William IX, Duke of Aquitaine and Gascony (1071 - 1127), also Count of Poitiers, had a shaky start in life. He was the son of Duke William VIII of Aquitaine and his third wife, Hildegarde of Burgundy; but the duke's earlier marriages and divorces (and the very close relatedness of the parents) caused the Church to declare the young William illegitimate. William senior had to make a pilgrimage to Rome for approval from Pope Alexander II (who wasn't always so obliging in marital questions).

Our subject was also a Crusade leader, but not of a Crusade that gets talked about, or even included in the numbering system: it is simply called the "Crusade of 1101."

He invited Pope Urban II—who had called for the Crusade in November 1095—to his court for Christmas of that year, during which Urban urged William to take up the Cross. William was more interested, however, in whether his rival, Count Raymond IV of Toulouse, would go on Crusade, leaving Toulouse unguarded (he did). William's wife, Philippa of Toulouse, was Raymond's niece, and William thought she could make a claim to the territory. The pair did capture Toulouse in 1098, and were subsequently threatened with excommunication.

What William is most known for now, however, is his career as the first known troubadour. There are 11 songs attributed to him. A 13th century vida says of him:

The Count of Poitiers was one of the most courtly men in the world and one of the greatest deceivers of women. He was a fine knight at arms, liberal in his womanizing, and a fine composer and singer of songs. He traveled much through the world, seducing women.

He did in one song admit to deceiving two women. Several of his songs show an attitude toward women in the courtly love tradition, however, in that the subject is called midons, "master":

Every joy must abase itself,
and every might obey
in the presence of Midons, for the sweetness of her welcome,
for her beautiful and gentle look;
and a man who wins to the joy of her love
will live a hundred years.
The joy of her can make the sick man well again,
her wrath can make a well man die,

Orderic Vitalis tells us that he wrote and performed "witty measures" of his adventures on Crusade, but the only Crusade in which he participated, as mentioned, was the Crusade of 1101. I'll tell you what happened with that tomorrow.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

The Troubadour Styles

Troubadours originally referred to their songs as vers, but over time developed a set of several different specific types of composition. The vers was a love song that later took on the term canso. The newer identifiable genres include:

Alba (called an aube in German love songs or Aubade in French): a "dawn song"; the lament that dawn approaches and the man must depart before the lady's husband discovers them).

Comiat: a song renouncing the lover.

Canso de crozada: a song encouraging the Crusades.

Desdansa: a dance for sad occasions.

Devinalh: a riddle or cryptogram.

Gap: a boasting song.

Maldit: a complaint of a lady's behavior.

Planh: a lament on the death of an important figure (evolved from the Latin planctus, a lament).

Serena: a song expressing impatience, waiting for night to fall so one could join their lover.

Tenso: a debate between two poets.

Viadeira: a traveller's complaint.

Let's look at the man thought of as the original troubadour next time.

Friday, May 19, 2023

The Female Troubadour

The word "troubadour" was masculine, and the feminine form was "trobairitz" (both singular and plural). The term was rarely used, and was first seen in a 13th century Occitan romance, Flamenca. Trobairitz wrote and performed for Occitan noble courts from 1170 to about 1260—significant because up until then known female composers only produced sacred music.

Almost all information we have about them comes from their own biographical lyrics. We know of only 20 or so female poets. They were outnumbered by troubadours by 20 to 1, and their surviving works are about 1% of the total musical works from the 12th and 13th centuries. In fact, of the works of trobairitz that have survived, we have perhaps only a single work from each, except for two women.

The Comtessa Beatriz de Dia (pictured here from a 13th century codex; Dia was a town in southern France) was born c.1140 and died c.1212. She left us 5 works—four cansos and one tenson—one of which is the only trobairitz work with musical notation. (In the case of troubadours, about 10% have musical notation intact.)

The other trobairitz who left us more than one composition was Castelloza, the wife of Lord Turc of Meyronne (in southwestern France). She wrote several cansos about Arman de Brion, whose status was higher than hers. She describes the pain of betrayal:

My handsome noble-natured dear,
I’ve loved you since the day you pleased me.
How great a fool I am is clear.
For you held back, while such love seized me
That I not once have turned away.
Though you repay my good with ill
I’ll stand my ground and love you still,
For love so has me in its sway
That I now doubt my life can offer. [source]

Cansos and tenson were only a few of the types of songs composed by the troubadours and trobairitz. There were also alba, devinalh, gap, planh, ensenhamen, and many others. I'll give you a list next time, in case you want to try your hand at some different styles of song.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

What Makes a Troubadour?

In the years 1100 - 1350, a type of musical performer arose called a troubadour. They did not call themselves troubadours; that term was first used in 1575 to refer to court poets of the 12th and 13th centuries. They almost always referred to themselves as chantaire, "singer." The term "troubadour" is assumed to come from Occitan trobador, from trobaire, "composer," which may be from Late Latin tropare, "to compose, to invent a poem."

The earliest known troubadour whose work has survived was Duke William IX of Aquitaine (grandfather of Eleanor of Aquitaine). He may not have been the first troubadour: it is possible that his political prominence helped him appear to be the start of a tradition, but he may instead have been just one example of an already thriving cultural event. The chronicler Orderic Vitalis records that William composed songs about his experience on the First Crusade. Order also gives us a first-hand account of William performing "many times ... with rhythmic verses and witty measures."

The troubadour phenomenon rose and fell. The 12th century began with few examples of activity, but the final decades saw a burst of output: almost half of the almost 2500 pieces (from a total of about 450 known names) that have survived come from the years 1180 - 1220. Beginning in western Aquitaine, it spread to eastern Aquitaine, then down to Toulouse and Provence. In the early 1200s it reached Italy and Spain.

Duke William was probably the highest-ranking member of society who could be designated a troubadour. Most described themselves as "poor knights," although there was Jaufre Rudel, prince of Blaye in southwestern France.

The troubadours had an "enemy" in the jongleur. The jongleur was not the juggler that the word has become, but was actually a minstrel. The difference is that the minstrel plays songs he has heard from others, although there may be an element of dancing and acrobatics. The troubadour is a poet-composer, a much higher calling requiring skill. Troubadours often wrote attacks on jongleurs. There were, however, many troubadours who also entertained in the manner of the jongleur.

The word troubadour is masculine; a female troubadour is a trobairitz. It would make sense to look at the phenomenon of the female composer in the troubadour tradition next.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Peire d'Alvernhe, Poet and satirist

I mentioned that, for all our talk of courtly love in the Middle Ages, the only use of the actual phrase was in a single Provençal poem. The author of that poem was Peire d'Alvernhe, a troubadour born about 1130. He produced 21-24 poems (authorship can be difficult to determine) by 1170. He was known well-enough that Dante names him in the Divine Comedy.

An anonymous biographer tells us he was handsome and charming and wise, and that he spent time in Spain at the court of Alfonso VII of Castile and his son Sancho III. The biographer calls his poems the greatest poems ever except for the slightly later Giraut de Borneill. A contemporary of Peire's, Bernart Marti, wrote a poem in which he accuses Peire of entering a religious life but abandoning Holy Orders.

Not only did he abandon the religious life, he also abandoned the concept that brought us to this blog entry. The reference to courtly love is in a poem in which he praises love of the Holy Ghost over that of cortez amors de bon aire, "well-spirited courtly love." In this preference of spiritual over carnal love he (and others) followed the influence of one of the earliest troubadours whose name we can put to his poetry, Marcabru (active 1130 - 1150).

Of all Peire's poems, modern scholars have spent the most time and effort discussing a particular one: Chantarai d'aquest trobadors ("Song of wandering troubadours"), a sirventes or "service song" used by troubadours to address a particular subject for educational purposes. In this poem he describes a dozen known troubadours, criticizing their looks and their poetry before proclaiming himself their superior. Although critical, it is seen as a good-natured parody, and he ends by telling the listener that it was composed "while laughing and playing."

On the other hand, if the twelve other troubadours were not present to laugh along with their descriptions, would an audience be familiar enough with the others to understand that it was all in fun? On the other other hand, it does give us (as few pieces of medieval literature do) give us information about specific poets we might not otherwise have, allowing us opportunities to identify authorship for some of the troubadours' works.

Peire d'Alvernhe, Bernart Marti, Marcabru, Giraut de Borneill—we have many names of troubadours, but what did they have in common? What made a "troubadour" rather than just a poet? Let's talk about the troubadour life tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Courtly Love

"Courtly love" is the phrase used to describe a set of "rules" expressed in medieval literature about the relationship of a man (usually a knight) with a woman (usually a noblewoman). First appearing in continental French stories, it became (for some) a way to conduct oneself in a relationship, especially one outside of marriage.

First, a few facts. The phrase "courtly love," the English translation of the French amour courtois, was not routinely used until the late 19th century (introduced by a French philologist). (To be fair, the phrase cortez amors appears in a single Provençal poem in the 12th century.) C.S.Lewis in The Allegory of Love defined it as "love of a highly specialized sort, whose characteristics may be enumerated as Humility, Courtesy, Adultery, and the Religion of Love."

Also, the focus of the practice was not so much about the behavior of the knight as the privilege of the woman. Eleanor of Aquitaine is credited with bringing the courtly love ideals from her home to England when she married Henry II. Eleanor's daughter Marie, Countess of Champagne (by Eleanor's first husband, Louis VII), spread it to the court of Champagne. Troubadours popularized the ideas in their poems and songs.

Courtly love was expressed as a form of feudalism, where the man acts as a vassal of the lady. Addressing her in poetry as his "lord" served two purposes: it showed his willingness to serve, and it hid the lady's name. Courtly love was often a secret love, because it was adulterous: the lover pined for the love of a highborn lady who was often married to his real feudal lord. This "forbidden love" did not stop him from expressing g the utmost courtesy and humility toward her.

Many noble marriages were political arrangements rather than loving unions, and given the daily lives of many noble couples, who hardly spent time together, there were opportunities to see the lady without her husband present, although the presence of ladies-in-waiting precluded consummating physical love.

Andreas Capellanus in the late 12th century wrote De amore ("Concerning Love"), also known as De arte honeste amandi ("The Art of Loving Virtuously"). In it he lists several rules that became entwined with the courtly love idea:

1. Marriage is no real excuse for not loving.
6. Boys do not love until they arrive at the age of maturity.
8. No one should be deprived of love without the very best of reasons.
13. When made public love rarely endures.
14. The easy attainment of love makes it of little value; difficulty of attainment makes it prized.
20. A man in love is always apprehensive.
30. A true lover is constantly and without intermission possessed by the thought of his beloved.

Was this a real practice in anyone's life? Did real people engage in these "poetic" affairs (sexuality rarely comes into the subject of courtly love)? Hard to say, although it seems entwined with some of the very real chivalric ideals that were expected behavior on the part of the knight.

That single instance of cortez amors I mentioned was by a poet named Peire d'Alvernhe, who was prolific enough in his time and obscure enough in ours that he is a perfect subject for this time.

Monday, May 15, 2023

The Matter of Rome

The man who first came up with the concepts of the Matter of Rome, the Matter of Britain, and the Matter of France, was Jean Bodel (c.1165 - c.1210).

For Bodel, the Matter of Rome was the collected literature of the Greeks as well as the Romans, and included historical figures such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, and especially the Trojan War. The Iliad and the Odyssey were important inspirations for later works. 

Curiously, the Iliad and the Odyssey were not known to the Middle Ages. Although the two epic poems were known and studied in the Byzantine Empire, Western Europe only knew about them through a couple short prose narratives. This was enough, however, to spark the imagination. A 12th-century French poet, Benoît de Sainte-Maure, wrote a 40,000-line version of the story of Troy that was a major source of inspiration for medieval poets. The Iliad and the Odyssey themselves were not made available in print in Western Europe until almost 1490.

Another significant source from the Matter of Rome that informed medieval knowledge was Virgil's Aeneid. After leaving Troy, Aeneas travels the Mediterranean (not unlike Odysseus) and finally founds Rome. A grandson or great-grandson of Aeneas, Brutus/Brute/Brut, later founds Britain and becomes its first king. The story of Aeneas got retold as the Roman d'Enéas ("Romance of Aeneas"), c.1160 in a poem of a little over 10,000 lines.

Troy continued to captivate European audiences. Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde is a love story that takes place in Troy during the war, introducing the medieval notion of courtly love to Ancient Greece. Anachronism did not bother medieval writers, however: even if they understood the possible cultural differences that would have existed, they would not let historical accuracy get in the way of telling the story they thought people wanted to hear.

Courtly love, for instance, was a popular central theme of much literature, and I find I've mentioned it briefly only once without going into detail. I'll rectify that oversight tomorrow.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

The Matter of Britain

Just like the Matter of France, the Matter of Britain is a collection of legends and literature involving kings and heroes.

King Arthur was central to many of these legends, but not the only figure. The Knights of the Round Table was fodder for many stories that promoted chivalrous behavior and Christian values wrapped in mysterious powers and fantastical antagonists.

The 12th century poet Chrétien de Troyes, though French, contributes to the Matter of Britain with stories of Perceval, Lancelot, Yvain, and the Story of the Grail. Thomas Malory's 15th century Le Morte d'Arthur was the ultimate expression of the Arthurian Cycle.

The 12th century Historia Regum Britanniae ("History of the Kings of Britain") by Geoffrey of Monmouth collects many earlier texts and provides us with the stories of King Coel, making him the father of Helena. This is also the source of Shakespeare's King Lear.

One of the earliest works in the Matter of Britain is the 9th century Historia Brittonum by Nennius (to be fair: Nennius was likely a later contributor to the work; the original author is unknown). One of Nennius' singular contributions to the Matter of Britain is the idea that Britain was found and founded by Brutus or Brute of Troy, Britain's first king  and a descendant of Aeneas. Using the legend of the diaspora of heroes after the Trojan War, this created a desirable link to Rome through its Virgilian founder, Aeneas.

And that was important because Rome and its Empire was the "Golden Age" that Western Europe looked back at and longed to recreate, hence the Holy Roman Empire. As it happens, the third and final of the Matters was the Matter of Rome. I'll tell you more next time.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

The Matter of France

This post referred to the Song of Roland as foundational to of the Matter of France. The Matter of France, also known as "The Carolingian Cycle," is a collection of legends and literary works about the origins of the French nation.

It is not unusual to look back in history and perceive a "Golden Age" when life was better and people were more heroic. Charlemagne, because he united much of Western Europe, promoted a rebirth of learning and arts, and spread Christianity, is seen as the cornerstone on which the nation of France was built.

The Matter of France is written about in chansons de geste, or "song(s) of heroic deeds."

A French poet from the Champagne region, Bertrand de Bar-sur-Aube (late 12th - early 13th centuries) divided the matter of France into three cycles of chansons de geste  at the start of a poem about a Count of Paris who was one of Charlemagne's grandsons:

At Saint-Denis, in the great abbey, we find it written (I don't doubt) in a book of noble lineage that there have been only three gestes in well-defended France (I think no-one will argue with me now). [...]

The lordliest is that of the kings of France. [...]

The next, it is right to say, was of Doon of the white beard, he of Mainz who had many lands. [...]

The third geste, which was much to be praised, was that of Garin de Monglane of the fierce countenance. [...]

Doon and Garin are not well-known to modern audiences, but Charlemagne turns up in every European history book. Their stories are different, but the heart of the Matter of France is Christianity (especially against Muslims, who are erroneously perceived as polytheistic) and feudal loyalty. The chansons were largely seen by the Middle Ages as reliable historical retellings.

The Matter of France evolved and spread to other countries. The Song of Roland became Orlando Furioso ("The Frenzy of Orlando") and Orlando Innamorato ("Roland in Love") in Italy in the early 1500s and late 1400s respectively. These works in turn influenced Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene in England.

More to the point for England and Spenser was the Matter of Britain, which I'll talk about next time.

Friday, May 12, 2023

The Song of Roland

In 778, Basques ambushed the rearguard of Charlemagne's army as it was going northward through the Ronceveaux Pass in the Pyrenees. They had good reason, and they destroyed the rearguard and the baggage train. In the process, according to Charlemagne's biographer Einhard, they killed the "prefect of the borders of Brittany," Hruodlandus. Hruodlandus is translated as the name "Roland."

In the 11th century, a poet writing in Old French produced a 4000-word epic poem, La Chanson de Roland ("The Song of Roland") that turned the incident mentioned briefly by Einhard into the foundation of a literary cycle called the Matter of France. It tells a very different story from Einhard's brief description.

Instead of being pursued by Basques whose chief city of Pamplona had its walls torn down by Charlemagne's army on his way home, the poem has Charlemagne's army fighting Muslims in Spain for seven years. The last holdout is the city of Saragossa, ruled by Marsile. Marsile promises treasures to Charlemagne and that he will become a Christian if Charlemagne will leave and go home.

Charlemagne is satisfied with this. His nephew, Roland, selects Roland's stepfather Ganelon to carry the message of acceptance to Marsile. Ganelon, afraid that Roland wishes him ill by sending him to where Muslims might kill him, betrays them all by telling the Muslims how to ambush Charlemagne's army as they pass through Roncesvalles. The rearguard, led by Roland with comrades Oliver and Archbishop Turpin, finds themselves overwhelmed.

Oliver tells Roland to blow his horn and summon reinforcements. Roland believes that would be an act of cowardice. Roland, however, loves Oliver's sister, so Oliver tells him that Roland will not be allowed to see his sister again if he does not summon help. It is Turpin who ultimately convinced Roland to blow his horn (in the illustration above). Emperor Charlemagne hears the horn and starts back, but takes too long because Ganelon delays him. With Roland's men dead or dying, he blows the horn one more time so powerfully that his temples burst. He is taken to Heaven by angels.

Charlemagne finally arrives, finds Roland and all his men dead, and pursues the Muslims into the River Ebro where they drown. While burying their dead, the Franks are attacked by Baligant, emir of Babylon, who has come to support Marsile. The armies fight, Charlemagne kills Baligant, the Muslims flee, and Charlemagne now conquers Saragossa, returning home with Marsile's queen.

Ganelon's betrayal is discovered, and he is imprisoned; he argues that he acted out of legitimate revenge against his stepson, not treason against the emperor. Although Ganelon's friend, Pinabel, will fight anyone who claims Ganelon is guilty of treason, Thierry convinces the council of Barons that it was treason, since Roland was serving Charlemagne at the time of the betrayal. Pinabel challenges Thierry to trial by combat, Thierry kills Pinabel, Ganelon is executed by having four horses tied to him, one to each limb, and set to gallop.

There are many improbabilities and impossibilities here, not least of which Charlemagne did not become an emperor until many years later, and an "emir of Babylon" is unlikely to appear in northern Spain, thousands of miles west of Babylon. The poem became an important literary and cultural touchstone for medieval France, however. I referred above to the "Matter of France." There were three great "Matters" in the Middle Ages, and I'll tell you more about them tomorrow.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Battle of Ronceveaux

Charlemagne thought trying to retake parts of the Iberian Peninsula back from the Moors was a good idea, so he accepted an invitation from Sulayman al-Arabi to join him in opposing the Umayyad Caliphate (Suleyman was a supporter of the Abbasid family tree, which eventually did succeed the Umayyads). The affair did not go smoothly, and before too long Charlemagne headed home. Along the way, however, he decided to harass the Basques of Pamplona and surrounding lands.

This was not entirely arbitrary on Charlemagne's part. His father, Pepin the Short, had trouble with Basques, who were a significant part of the Aquitainian army that Pepin fought and defeated. The Basques had submitted to him in the late 760s. Charlemagne perhaps wanted to express his frustration at accomplishing nothing from the agreement with al-Arabi, and used his army to "blow off some steam" by tearing down the city walls of Pamplona.

What Charlemagne should have realized was that the Basques would not just sit back and lick their wounds. As he headed north, the Basque army followed him. To get through the Pyrenees, the Christian army chose the Ronceveaux Pass. The rearguard was led by Roland, warden of the Breton March.

Curious point about Roland: in all recorded history, he is mentioned only once. Einhard in his "Life of Charlemagne" tells the story of what happened when the Basques caught up with the tail end of the army at Ronceveaux on the evening of 15 August 778:

That place is so thoroughly covered with thick forest that it is the perfect spot for an ambush. [Charles's] army was forced by the narrow terrain to proceed in a long line and [it was at that spot], high on the mountain, that the Basques set their ambush. [...] The Basques had the advantage in this skirmish because of the lightness of their weapons and the nature of the terrain, whereas the Franks were disadvantaged by the heaviness of their arms and the unevenness of the land. Eggihard, the overseer of the king's table, Anselm, the count of the palace, and Roland, the lord of the Breton March, along with many others died in that skirmish. But this deed could not be avenged at that time, because the enemy had so dispersed after the attack that there was no indication as to where they could be found. [source]

The attack was completely unexpected, and the Frankish forces were in disarray. The lightly armored Basques had the high ground, and were successful at cutting off the rear guard from the main part of the army. The Franks fought as well as they could, and arguably succeeded in keeping the Basques focused on them, allowing the main part of the army to survive, but Roland and his part of the army was slaughtered by the Basques. In the 8th century, that was the end of the story.

In the 11th century, however, a French poet would compose an epic poem that would turn this once-mentioned Roland into a national hero in a highly fictionalized re-telling of the Battle of Ronceveaux. Tomorrow we will have "story time." See you then.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

The Reconquista—Abbasid Alliance

I have mentioned before the disagreements, after the death of Muhammad, over which direction the faith should go. The Rashidun Caliphate was the successor to the Prophet, followed by the Umayyads. Not everyone approved of the Umayyads, however, and there was a third caliphate ready to be "born": the Abbasid, descended from Muhammad's uncle. As it happens, in the second half of the 9th century, there were Abbasid-leaning Muslims in the northern part of the Iberian Peninsula who were willing to ally themselves with Christian kingdoms if it meant getting rid of Umayyad rule.

Sulayman al-Arabi, the Abbasid-preferring governor of Barcelona, sent a message to Charlemagne in 777, offering his submission to Charlemagne's rule if he could get military aid against the Umayyad emir of Córdoba, Abd ar-Rahman I. Sulayman had allies: Husayn of Zaragoza and Abu Taur of Huesca. Charlemagne was all too happy to bring an army south to reconquer territory from Muslims.

Reaching Barcelona, Sulayman welcomed him, and their two armies marched next to Zaragoza to add Hosayn's military forces. Reaching Zaragoza, however, they found that Husayn would not allow them into the walled city. He had just recently defeated Abd ar-Rahman's general and taken him prisoner. Husayn was willing to rely on his own power to deal with further Umayyad threats, and no longer was willing to risk his autonomy being usurped by a Christian ruler.

Charlemagne settled into a siege of Zaragoza. After more than a month, however, an agreement was made: Husayn would pay Charlemagne some gold to go away. This he did, but on his way back north Charlemagne decided to make an example of the Basques, whom he suspected of being allied with the Moors. He spent some time destroying villages, tearing down the walls of Pamplona, and setting up his own garrisons. Satisfied, he set off for home through the Pyrenees.

Unknown to him, the angry Basque forces organized and pursued. Not only had this attempt at Reconquista come to naught, but Charlemagne was about to be handed a terrible defeat that would be immortalized in literature. Details tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

The Reconquista—Covadonga

Long before the Crusades in the late 11th century decided to take control of the Holy Land, Christians and Muslims were clashing in the western end of the Mediterranean, in the Iberian Peninsula. The Umayyad Caliphate in Iberia had largely been a positive force in uniting the territories under organized rule, but the attempt in 721 to expand northward across the Pyrenees into Gaul led to the 721CE Battle of Toulouse, considered by many to be the first major clash between Muslims and Christians. A decade later, the Battle of Tours, fought by Charles Martel (see parts one and two), stopped the Muslim northward advance. Further attempts were thwarted by Charlemagne's establishing of the Marca Hispanica, the "Spanish March" ("march" in its political/military meaning of a "border").

The Reconquista—Spanish for "reconquest" and the term given by historians in the 19th century to the Christian attempts to reclaim lands from Muslim rulers—actually started a few years before the better-known Toulouse, with the Battle of Covadonga in 718. Covadonga is in northwestern Spain, and it is the site where the Umayyad Caliphate encountered the Visigothic prince Pelagius. Pelagius incited a rebellion against the Umayyads.

His army was filled with Visigothic and Hispano-Roman "refugees" migrating northward to get away from Umayyad rule. Finding themselves of common mind, they began their rebellion by refusing to pay the jizya, the tax on dhimmi (non-Muslims), required by Sharia Law. They also began harassing the smaller Muslim garrisons, eventually ousting a provincial governor, Munuza. Pelagius founded the Kingdom of Asturias, on the northwest coast. Occasional inroads made by Muslim forces were either repelled, or their control was thrown off again once they left the area to go back south. The capital in Cordoba was more focused on forcing its way into Gaul; Asturias was not at first a significant point of trouble.

Eventually, however, Asturias had to be dealt with. Munuza and a General Alqama took an army to Asturias. Pelagius' army retreated to a narrow mountain pass, where they were able to throw stones and rain arrows down on the Muslim army. The narrow pass and poor tactics led to great loss of life among the Muslims. Munuza retreated, and tried again with a larger army, but was once again defeated.

This was the first time a Muslim-controlled territory had been reclaimed by Christians. The Umayyads had a presence in southern Gaul, however, and leaders in Europe decided that had to change, leading to a large battle and the oldest surviving work of French literature. I'll explain tomorrow.

Monday, May 8, 2023

The Family of Saints: Fulgentius

Severianus and Theodora were members of well-to-do Hispano-Roman families in the 6th century who bore four children, all of whom became saints. The family lived in Cartagena, or Carthago Nova ("New Carthage"), on the southeast coast of Spain. The family moved to Seville about 554 CE, but their parents died before the children were all grown up.

The second-born was Fulgentius; the few personal details we know about him come from the writing on religious life that his brother Leander wrote for their sister, Florentina. Leander mentions that he (probably in his role as Bishop of Seville) sent Fulgentius to Cartagena, and asks Florentina to pray for his safety.

It was probably through Leander's support that Fulgentius (sometime between 590, when we have records of a Bishop Pegasius presiding there, and 600, when Leander died) became Bishop of Astigi (now Ecija), in the province of Seville.

The Second Council of Seville in 619, presided over by Fulgentius' brother Isidore, by then Archbishop of Seville, dealt with diocesan rights, non-canonical ordinations, and territorial disputes. Fulgentius, as Bishop of Astigi, claimed a certain church was in his territory, but it was also claimed to be in a parish belonging to the diocese of the Bishop of Córdoba. Roman common law was applied. It turned out that the church had been following the dictates of the diocese of Astigi for 30 years, and this was considered sufficient to declare it part of the Astigi diocese.

Because we know there was a Bishop Marcianus of Astigi in 633, Fulgentius must have died by then. In the 14th century, his remains were found (along with those of his sister) in the village of Berzocana in the Sierra de Guadalupe, where they had been carried for some reason (perhaps out of concerns about the non-Christian occupation of Iberia?). Some of the remains are still in Berzocana, but the majority of bones are interred in the Cathedral of Murcia in Cartagena. Fulgentius is venerated as a patron saint of that diocese.

Was there concern about Muslim-Christian relations? Here I mentioned their tolerant co-existence, but obviously the Crusades at the far end of the Mediterranean were creating a very different relationship. There is a phenomenon historians call the Reconquista that refers to attempts by Christian rulers to retake Iberian territories. We'll start down that road tomorrow.

Sunday, May 7, 2023

The Family of Saints: Florentina

Severianus and Theodora were members of well-to-do Hispano-Roman families in the 6th century who bore four children, all of whom became saints. The family lived in Cartagena, or Carthago Nova ("New Carthage"), on the southeast coast of Spain. The family moved to Seville about 554 CE, but their parents died before the children were all grown up.

Younger than Leander but older than Isidore, Florentina was being raised by Leander. His embracing of the monastic life probably influenced her to do the same, so she and a number of virgins banded together to form a religious community. Leander wrote for her a guide to living an ascetic life away from the world; since he died in 600 or 601, she must have chosen the cloistered life prior to that year.

Among his "rules" were to avoid interactions with men, especially young men; and to avoid interactions with women who were still living in the world. The women should be temperate in their eating and drinking. They should read Holy Scripture and meditate on it. Those living in the community should hold each other in equal love and friendship.

She died about 612, and her feast day is 20 June. She is considered the patroness of the diocese of Plasencia. The statue above is from the Cathedral in Seville. Her bones are interred in two places in Spain: a few are in the cathedral of Murcia, but most of her remains are in Berzocana, along with those of her brother Fulgentius, of whom I will have more to say next time.

Saturday, May 6, 2023

The Family of Saints: Leander

Severianus and Theodora were members of well-to-do Hispano-Roman families in the 6th century who bore four children, all of whom became saints. The family lived in Cartagena, or Carthago Nova ("New Carthage"), on the southeast coast of Spain. The family moved to Seville about 554 CE, but their parents died before the children were all grown up.

Leander (shown), the eldest, became a Benedictine monk about 576, and a few years later was appointed Bishop of Seville. The co-ruler of the Visigoths in Spain, Liuvigild, had arranged for his son Hermenegild to marry the 12-year-old Ingund, sister of the Merovingian Childebert II, who became King of Austrasia. While Ingund traveled through Gaul to Iberia, she met a Catholic bishop who warned her not to accept Arianism, the heresy still practiced by many Visigoths, such as her new husband and his family. Hermenegild's mother, Queen Goiswintha, tried to baptize Ingund into Arianism, but the girl refused. Gregory of Tours tells us what Goiswintha did next:

the Queen lost her temper completely ... seized the girl by her hair and threw her to the ground: then she kicked her until she was covered with blood, had her stripped naked and ordered her to be thrown into the baptismal pool.

Liuvigild sent the two to rule in Seville and get them away from his wife. In Seville, however, Ingund encountered Leander. Leander, like his parents and his siblings, was a powerful voice against Arianism. Seville had a strong catholic population. No doubt from the influence of his wife (no doubt "transitively" from Leander, although from 580-582 Leander was traveling to Constantinople and back), Hermenegild converted to Catholicism in 582.

Hermenegild's father was not pleased: he saw Catholicism as "Roman" and Arianism as part of the Visigothic identity. Liuvigild besieged Seville, capturing it in 584, along with his rebellious and (to Liuvigild) heretical son. Leander fled eastward to Constantinople. Hermenegild was imprisoned and urged to renounce Catholicism, which he steadfastly would not do, refusing the Eucharist from an Arian bishop at Easter. His father had him beheaded on 13 April, 585, making Hermenegild a martyr in the Catholic Church.

Depending on the chronicle, Ingund had one of two different fates. One story from Gregory of Tours is that she fled to Constantinople with their son, Athanagild. She did not survive—at this time, plague was going around the Mediterranean—and was buried in Carthage, but Athanagild was delivered to Constantinople where he was raised by Emperor Maurice II. The other version is that she returned to her family in Gaul where Athanagild was raised by her and her mother, Brunhilda.

Leander remained in the East, preaching and writing against Arianism. After the death of Liuvigild in 589, Leander returned to Seville, where he remained bishop until his death in 600 or 601. In 589 he held the Third Council of Toledo, in which Visigothic Spain (or at least its representatives at the Council) renounced Arianism for good.

His younger brother Isidore said of him "This man of suave eloquence and eminent talent shone as brightly by his virtues as by his doctrine. By his faith and zeal the Gothic people have been converted from Arianism to the Catholic faith."

Two of his writings survive: one is an essay about his triumph of the church on the conversion of the Goths. The other is a monastic rule composed for his sister, Florentina, whom I shall talk about next.

Friday, May 5, 2023

The Etymologies of Isidore

The Etymologiae of Saint and Bishop Isidore of Seville (c.560 - 636) is an early encyclopedia that summarizes in 20 volumes all the knowledge that he considered important. It is most remembered and mentioned for the section on etymologies, but he also wrote about (or quoted from Greek and Roman sources) the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy), law and medicine, the Church and various heresies, buildings and roads, materials and tools, war, foods, clothing, languages, pagan philosophers, architecture, and more. (Pope John Paul II named Isidore the patron saint of the Internet.)

His etymologies were worthy of the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding who linked every concept to a Greek word. (The evidence suggests that Isidore was not well-versed in the Greek language.) Examples are that dominus (master) begins with "D" because so does domus (house), and a dominus is the master of a domus. Also, the Latin verb "to teach" is docere, which is related to docile (compliant) because compliant people can learn easily. He finds the origin of mendicus, the Latin word for beggar, in the Latin phrase manu dicere, "to speak with the hand," because (he says) there was an ancient custom for beggars to close their mouths and hold out their hand for food. Prostitutes (fornicatrix and fornicarius) are named from fornix, "arch," because they would hang about under an arch waiting for a client.

Among his other offerings:

—A table that explains family relationships ("Who is your second cousin twice removed?") and the terms for each family member.

—The classic "T" map of the world, the mappa mundi.  (The illustration is from a 10th century copy, showing such a map.)

—How the four elements make up the body:

But flesh is composed of four elements: earth is in the fleshy parts, air in the breath, water in the blood, fire in the vital heat. The elements are mingled in us in their proper proportions, of which something is lacking when the conjunction is dissolved.

—Bodily functions:

The mouth is compared to the door of the belly which receives and passes on food to the intestines through the esophagus which is near the windpipe, and which is closed off by the epiglottis during deglutition. 

The intestines are arranged in long circular entwinings so that food can be gradually digested. The abdominal viscera are separated from the heart and lungs by the diaphragm and covered by the omentum. Food, when first passed into the small intestine, is called jantaculum. The large intestine, the “blind gut,” is identified and it is pointed out that the gastrointestinal tract is open at each end. The rectum and anus are turned away from our faces to spare us the indelicacy of witnessing their evacuation.


The poppy is the sleep-bearing herb, of which Vergil says [Georgics 1. 78]: Lethaeo perfusa papavera somno, ‘Heavy sleep, pressed out of the poppy,’ since it stupefies the sleeper. Some poppies are common; others are stronger, namely those from which flows the juice called opion.

...and many other topics, as mentioned above.

His Etymologiae was studied and copied and illustrated through the Middle Ages, and many versions of the manuscript exist in various museums.

One of the other notable things about Isidore is his family. His parents died early in the life of Isidore and his siblings, but all four children became saints; three became bishops. His older brother Leander has been mentioned, but not the rest. A brief look at his family next time.

Thursday, May 4, 2023

Isidore of Seville

Isidore of Seville was probably born about 560, in Cartagena, Spain. His devout parents were both members of influential families that were involved in the conversion of the Visigoths to Catholicism from Arianism. The upbringing provided by his parents inspired Isidore and his siblings to enter the religious life, all of whom became saints.

He was educated at the liberal arts Cathedral school at Seville, learning the trivium and quadrivium. He mastered classical Latin and learned some Hebrew and Greek. Records are scarce about his early life and whether he ever joined a monastery, but in 619 he declared anathema harassing a monastery or monks. When his brother Leander, bishop of Seville, died in 600 or 601, Isidore was named his successor. He set about to eradicate any remaining traces of Arianism among the Visigoths, and was largely successful. He presided over a couple synods and a Council of Toledo.

His influence on the following centuries came more from his writings than his efforts against heresy. One was the De fide catholica contra Iudaeos, ("On the Catholic Faith against the Jews"). Like Augustine of Hippo, Isidore recognized the importance of the Jews because of their role in the Second Coming of Christ. In the Fourth Council of Toledo, however, he advocated removing children from the parents of "Crypto-Jews": Jews who were hiding their Judaism by acting as Christians. His argument was that the parents had probably had the children baptized as part of their subterfuge, and so educating the children as proper Christians was appropriate. (The Summa Theologica of Aquinas in the 13th century would state "it was never the custom of the Church to baptize the children of Jews against the will of their parents.")

He also wrote Historia de regibus Gothorum, Vandalorum et Suevorum ("History of the Kings of the Goths, Vandals and Suevi"), covering from 265 to 624.

He was the earliest Christian writer to try to summarize the knowledge of the world. His encyclopedic work, the Etymologiae, compiled his own thoughts with pieces from numerous Roman handbooks and miscellanies. It was so extensive (20 volumes with 448 chapters total)—one bishop described it as "practically everything that it is necessary to know"—that some of the works he drew from were no longer thought to be necessary to be copied and preserved.

The Etymologiae deserves its own treatment, which I will give it tomorrow.