Thursday, August 31, 2023

Tale of Núr al-Dín Alí and His Son Badr, Part 2
This will make more sense if you read Part 1.

Shams has brought his daughter, Sit, and her son, 'Ajib, to Damascus on their quest to find his nephew, Badr, the father of 'Ajib. Badr had been landed there by the genie and efreet, and taken in by a cook who brought him into the restaurant business.

The travelers pass the cooking shop where Nur has taken over after the old cook's death. 'Ajib convinces his tutor, a eunuch, that he wants to eat there. Even though his tutor feels the place is too low class for a vizier's grandson, they eat. Badr feels drawn to 'Ajib, who tells him that they are searching for his father. When they leave, Badr feels compelled to follow them, but 'Ajib feels Badr is being creepy and hits him with a rock.

The travelers continue to Basra, arriving at Nur's abandoned palace, where Nur's widow and Badr's mother still lives. Shams introduces himself and his family, and offers to take the widow with them back to Cairo. Along the way, they stop at Damascus. 'Ajib, remorseful at the way he treated the cook with the rock, goes to the shop with his tutor. Badr is pleased to see him, and cooks him a sweet pomegranate seed dish.*

Later, with the family at dinner, 'Ajib is not hungry, and explains that he went to the bookshop. His grandfather Shams is not pleased that he went to such a lowly place, but 'Ajib exclaims that the food there was much better than what his grandmother (Badr's mother) can cook. They insist that he bring them a dish from the cookshop, and when the tutor brings home a serving of the pomegranate dish, Badr's mother recognizes the style of her son's cooking.

[This story has many variations, especially the ending; here is a blend of several.]

Shams devises a plan to unite father and son. Shams tells Sit to arrange the bedchamber the way it was the night years earlier that she and Badr slept together, and to lay out his clothing. He has his people destroy the shop and arrest Badr for leaving pepper out of the pomegranate dish. Badr objects to the ridiculous charge, so Shams has him beaten and locked in a chest and delivered to Cairo.

The chest is taken into Sit's bedroom, where he is let out by Sit, who tells him he has been in the bathroom too long. Confused by the room and seeing his old clothing, he tells her what he has been up to; she tells him those years were a dream, but he shows the scar on his forehead made by a young boy. Sit confesses the charade. Shams enters and explains it was a test to see if he really was Nur's son Badr. He is reunited with his mother and his son, and all ends well.

This tale is curious in the 1001 Nights because it is a tale within a tale. It is told to Caliph Harun al-Rashid by his vizier, Ja'far ibn Yahya, in order to delight him and put him in a good mood so that Harun will spare Ja'far's servant who ultimately caused the murder in the tale "The Three Apples." More interesting is that Ja'far and Harun were real historical characters. We have few details about Ja'far, but Harun was quite famous, and I'll give him his due tomorrow.

*I include a pomegranate dish for the illustration, and here is the recipe.

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Tale of Núr al-Dín Alí and His Son Badr, Part 1

The full title of this tale, which is found in every version of the 1001 Nights, is "The Tale of Nur al-Din Ali and His Son Badr al-Din Hasan." It spans three generations, and is "introduced" in the tale called "The Three Apples" or "The Mystery of the Murdered Woman."

Two brothers share the position of vizier in Cairo: Shams al-Din and his younger brother Nur al-Din. Shams suggests to his brother that they should marry on the same day and consummate their wedding on the same night, so that they will have children born on the same day who can marry each other. They prematurely argue over a prohibitively expensive dowry, and part ways. Later, Shams has a daughter, and Nur a son, Badr al-Din.

Much later, Nur has become a vizier in Basra. On his deathbed, he tells Badr that he has an uncle in Cairo, and writes out his family story, which he gives to Badr. Badr later falls asleep on his father's sepulchre. Along come a genie and an efreet, who notice his handsome face and talk about getting him married. They are aware of Shams' plan for his daughter to marry Nur's son. They transport Badr magically while he sleeps to Cairo, intending to unite him with his cousin, Sit, so they can marry.

The king of Egypt, wanting to marry Sit and being rebuffed, decides to get revenge by forcing her to marry an ugly hunchback. The genie and efreet arrive at the wedding with Badr and tell him to join. the wedding party, promising him whatever gold he needs whenever he reaches into his pocket. The two supernatural creatures join the party and mock the hunchback; later, they trap him on the toilet and convince Badr to go to Sit's room, where Badr and Sit spend the night.

The next morning, they try to return Badr to Basra as soon as wakes up (leaving his clothing behind!), but they are attacked by angels, so only get as far as Damascus.* Landing at the gate of Damascus naked startles the locals, who don't believe his story of magical transport. Stranded in Damascus, Badr is taken in by a sympathetic cook.

Meanwhile, in Cairo, Sit awakens and cannot find Badr. She tells her father, Shams, that she did not sleep with the hunchback but with a handsome young man. She shows her father Badr's turban and clothes. In the clothing is a receipt with Badr's name, which Shams recognizes. Shams is delighted that his long-ago wish has providentially come true.

Sit gives birth to a son, 'Ajib. Ten years later, as a youth in school, 'Ajib is teased for not having a father, and Sit has to tell him the truth. Shams packs up his daughter and grandson and leaves Cairo to look for Badr. They happen to stop in Damascus.

This tale is one of the longest in the 1001 Nights, so I think I may be forgiven if I, once again, emulate Scheherazade and urge you to sleep well, and we will continue the tale tomorrow, O King.

*The illustration is "A street in Damascus" by Arthur Haddon, 1864-1941.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

A Murder Mystery, Part 2

This illustration and the post that follows will make more sense if you read Part 1.

So Caliph Harun al-Rashid has given his vizier, Ja'far ibn Yahya, three days to find the slave who took the apple or face execution. Once again Ja'far, the most reluctant of detectives, cowers in his home rather than confront an obviously impossible task.

On the third day, he bids his family goodbye, knowing he will never return. When he hugs his youngest daughter, he feels a round lump in her pocket. It is the apple! The girl says she got it from their slave, Rayhan. Ja'far realizes the culprit who caused a terrible calamity was his own household slave!

Ja'far takes Rayhan to Caliph al-Rashid and pleads for the slave to be forgiven, telling the caliph the "Tale of Núr al-Dín Alí and His Son Badr al-Dín Hasan." The caliph is amazed by the tale and pardons the slave.

Harun al-Rashid has one more magnanimous deed: he forgives the young man who murdered his own wife, gives him one of his own slaves to replace her, and showers him with gifts.

The Tale of the Three Apples, also known as the Tale of the Murdered Woman, is a quintessential murder mystery in that suspense is drawn out by a series of events that take unraveling over time. What makes it unusual, however, is that the character designated to solve the crime does little or nothing to do so, and actively avoids even trying to help. It is also interesting that, given that the fragments and manuscripts of the 1001 Nights have various collections of tales, this one is found in every version.

What, however, is "Tale of Núr al-Dín Alí and His Son Badr al-Dín Hasan" (besides a tale even more complex than the one we just finished?) and how did it help change the caliph's mind about punishing the slave? Well, that is a story for tomorrow.

Monday, August 28, 2023

A Murder Mystery, Part 1

One of the stories that is found in every fragment/manuscript of the 1001 Nights is called by two different titles: "The Three Apples" or "The Tale of the Murdered Woman." It's worth sharing, but is long and complex enough that, like Scheherazade, I will leave you waiting for the conclusion.

During the time of the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid, a fisherman discovers a large locked chest by the Tigris River which he sells to the caliph. Breaking it open, the al-Rashid finds the cut-up body of a young woman. Shocked by the crime in his domain, he gives his vizier, Ja'far ibn Yahya, three days to find the murderer; if he cannot find the murderer, Ja'far will be executed.

Although heavily motivated, Ja'far knows it will be impossible to carry out the caliph's orders, and so he hides away at home for the three days before presenting himself to al-Rashid. Just before he is about to be executed, however, two men appear—a young and handsome man and an older man—both confessing to the crime and each calling the other a liar. Finally, the young man proves himself the killer by accurately describing the chest, and he explains.

The young man was her husband, and the old man her father who tried to save his son-in-law by taking the blame. The woman was a faultless wife and mother with three children, but one day she fell ill and requested a special kind of apple. Her husband left Baghdad for a two-week journey to get it from an orchard; he took three. Returning home with them, he found his wife too ill to eat, so he left the apples with her and went to his work.

While at his shop, he sees a slave walk by with an apple that bears a remarkable resemblance to the apples he left with his wife. The slave tells him that he got the apple from his girlfriend. Returning home, the husband asks his wife where the apples are, and discovers that she only has two. He kills her for her infidelity, then cuts up the body and stuffs the parts into a heavy chest which he leaves by the Tigris. Coming back from the river, one of his children tells him that he took an apple and then it was taken by a slave. The husband realizes that his wife was not unfaithful. He tells Caliph Harun al-Rashid that he deserves death.

The caliph sympathizes with the young man. He tells his vizier Ja'far to find the slave who took the apple. If he cannot find the slave within three days, Ja'far will be put to death.

...and with that familiar phrase, I will leave you until tomorrow.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

1001 Nights

Yesterday I mentioned that you would know who Jaʿfar ibn Yaḥyā al-Barmakī, an Abbasid vizier, was, even if you did not recognize the name. You have probably heard a story about him. It is fictional, but here it is:

He was powerful ruler who, learning that his sister-in-law had been unfaithful to his brother, decides that all women are destined to be unfaithful. He has his wife killed, and proceeds to marry a virgin, only to have her killed the next morning. He continue this practice, marrying virgins each day and having them executed the next morning. The person whose job it is to find virgins for the ruler eventually runs out of virgins except for his own daughter. He reluctantly offers his daughter to the ruler, who marries her.

That night, the young bride tells her new husband a story, but she does not tell him how the story ends. His curiosity forces him to keep her alive the next day, because she promises to finish the story. The second night, she finished the story but starts a new one, also refusing to tell him the ending. A pattern starts, of consecutive nights of story-telling that must be completed the next day, and last for 1001 nights. The daughter's name, according to the legend, was Scheherazade.

This legend and the stories told were collected during Islam's Golden Age, and are called 1001 Nights; an English language edition in the early 1700s called it simply Arabian Nights. From this collection we get the tales of Aladdin and the magic lamp, of Ali Baba and the 40 thieves, and of Sinbad the Sailor—except that they were not part of the original: they were added by the creator of the first French translation, who got them from a Syrian writer visiting Paris.

The collection is first mentioned in a 9th century fragment, and then in 947CE in a discussion of legends from Arabic, Greek, and Iranian tales. In 987, Ibn al-Nadīm (the biographer who talks about Jabir ibn Hayyan, and who connects him with the ruler at the center of the 1001 Nights) says the author who began collecting the tales died when only 480 were complete.

Characters include the historical Barmaki (see the above link) and Harun al-Rashid, jinn, sorcerers, and ghouls. Story elements include comedy, romance, tragedies, burlesques and erotica, and historical tales. The tales mentioned above that were added have drawn attention away from the fantastical ideas found in the originals:

  • a quest for immortality that lads to the Garden of Eden
  • travel across the cosmos
  • an underwater society that is the opposite of society on land
  • a flying mechanical horse that can go to outer space
  • an expedition across the Sahara to find a brass container used by Solomon to trap a jinn
  • mermaids, talking serpents, talking trees, jinns
The oldest manuscripts and fragments have different collections of the tales, but there are a handful that appear in all versions. I will share one or two of these next time.

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Jabir ibn Hayyan

The previous post mentioned the man who discovered the combination of chemicals that dissolved gold. He could not have done that haphazardly; he had to have gained extensive knowledge of chemicals first. As it turns out, his works include the oldest known system for classifying chemicals.

His name was Abū Mūsā Jābir ibn Ḥayyān, and he lived in the 8th century...we think. To be fair, he does not get mentioned until the 10th century by a  Baghdad bibliographer who said Hayyan was a disciple of the Shi'ite Imam Ja'far al-Sādiq (who died in 765; Haiyan's writings refer to al-Sādiq as "my master"). That biographer assured his audience that Jabir existed, and made a list of his works, although many later Shi'ite biographers never mentioned Hayyan, and it is considered unlikely that he wrote the many hundreds of texts attributed to him.

Someone had to create the writings attributed to Hayyan, however, and perhaps the name was a pseudonym used to avoid the potential negative publicity because it looked like alchemy, which was rejected by many. Also, the works attributed to him are so many and varied that it is difficult to believe they were the work of one man. He may have inspired a "workshop" of students and followers who produced many of the works. Despite the confusion about his existence, a 271-page biography was written in the 20th century, and is readable at the Library of Congress website (if you can read Arabic, that is).

The body of work includes many techniques that are familiar to any high school student who has taken Chemistry: precipitation, crystallization, and distillation. It also teaches procedures for making apparatus (see the illustration) and equipment, for improving the quality of products such as steel, and how to reduce oxidation in metals. We learn from them how to dye and waterproof cotton and leather, the purification of gold, and how to treat cinnabar to extract pure mercury.

You may notice, in large sheets of glass used for, say, store fronts, that there is a greenish hue (most visible if you look at the edge of the glass sheet). Hayyan's writings explain how manganese oxide can be added to glass production to eliminate the greenish hue, resulting in a perfectly clear pane. These writings provide most of what is known about chemical analysis until the 16th century.

I want to go back to the question of Haiyan's identification. One of his writings implies an association with a certain family, the Barmakids. His 10th century biographer, Ibn al-Nadīm (c. 932–995), reports that Hayyan was devoted to Jaʿfar ibn Yaḥyā al-Barmakī, an Abbasid vizier. You may not recognize that name, but I promise you that you have heard of him. In fact, I promise 1001% that you have heard of him. With that teaser/clue, I'll see you tomorrow.

Friday, August 25, 2023

Magical Metal

Yesterday mentioned the gold and silver cramp rings used in the Middle Ages in England to avoid cramps and epilepsy. (The sample here—alas!—is a later iron version.) Gold and silver were precious not only for their rarity and beauty; it was the reason for their beauty that made them magical.

Gold and silver do not oxidize like iron and copper. This "metallic immortality" surely helped to enhance the idea that they were special in a magical way. In fact, gold was considered medicine by many early authorities.

An 11th century lecturer at Salerno, Constantinus Africanus, claimed:

Gold is more temperate than the other metals. It has the property of relieving a defective stomach and comforts the fearful and those who suffer from a heart complaint. Galen confirms that it is effective against melancholy and baldness.

 Obviously gold needed to be ingested for it to work. To do so required very small pieces, and the Arab physician Abulcasis explained the method for preparing gold for consumption:

Take a piece of good and pure gold; and have a plate with pure sweet water in front of you; and have a rough clean cloth of flax, one end of which you keep in your hand. The other end should stay soaking in water on the bottom of the plate. Then rub gold with the cloth, always moistening the cloth with water, and fine filings descend to the bottom of the container. Do so as long as much of that gold as you want to have been shaved. Then leave for an hour; and mix water speedily and wash three times and dry up and preserve it.

Gold-based preparations were called aurum potabile ("drinkable gold"), written about by Michael ScotRoger Bacon and others. Making it drinkable was no small trick, but it could be made into a liquid by combining hydrochloric acid and nitric acid. This mixture was one of the only ways to dissolve gold, and inspired alchemists to believe that an actual, pure aurum potabile was possible. Paracelsus (1493 - 1541), who was adamant that one could improve upon Nature, and his contemporary Johan Isaäc Hollandus were certain that pure liquid gold could be achieved and would have unbelievable curative properties.

The consumption of gold over time, however, far from enhancing health produced "auric fever": fever, profuse sweating, excess urination, gastrointestinal problems, and kidney damage. Evidence of death by gold has been found.

In 2013, The Geological Society published a collection of essays called A History of Geology and Medicine. One article, "Pharmaceutical use of gold from antiquity to the seventeenth century," points out that there is at least one modern medicine that includes gold: Myocrisin, an injectable used for rheumatoid arthritis.

Back to the subject of liquid gold: who figured out that hydrochloric and nitric could dissolve gold? That was a 9th century writer who produced the oldest known classification system of chemical substances. His name was Jabir ibn Hayyan, and you'll learn more about him next time.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Epilepsy in the Middle Ages

Anglo-Saxon England called it "devil-sickness" and felt that lupins were an effective treatment, and they might have been right. What did the rest of the world think of epilepsy?

Stone slabs dated to 1067 - 1046BCE in Babylon describe "falling sickness" caused by demons and ghosts. A 600BCE Persian text on health, the Avesta, mentions Zoroaster's advice to use sacrifices to prevent convulsions. Chinese health systems in 770BCE described acupuncture as a treatment.

It was the Greeks who coined the term "epilepsy" ("to seize" or "to attack") because they thought it was an attack from a god or demon. A Hippocratic collection of manuscripts called "The Sacred Disease" actually hit the target:

I am about to discuss the disease called “sacred”. It is not, in my opinion, any more divine or more sacred than any other diseases, but has a natural cause … Its origin, like that of other diseases, lies in heredity … the fact is that the cause of this affection … is the brain …

The cause he identified was an excess of phlegm in the blood. Plato agreed, but Aristotle believed it was vapors from certain foods that went into the brain during sleep. (The idea that epilepsy was a disorder of the brain would not be explored medically until the 1700s CE.)

Seizures in Medieval Europe were usually attributed to demonic possession, requiring exorcism and religious rituals. They drew this conclusion logically from Jesus curing a boy from seizures in Mark 9:14-16. It was also thought in England that the king had healing powers, even over epilepsy. Part of this cure was the handing out of rings.

These rings were called "cramp rings" because they were a preventive against cramp and epilepsy. Legend has it that the first cramp ring came from Jerusalem and was given by a pilgrim to Edward the Confessor. It was supposed to have miraculous healing powers. After Edward's death, it was given to the abbot of Westminster, who used it to try to cure people. It became known as St. Edward's Ring. Eventually this led to a Good Friday practice of the heirs of Edward blessing a number of gold or silver rings that would be handed out to prevent epilepsy. This ritual survived until the reign of Queen Mary I (1553 - 1558).

Cramp rings were not the only magical metals or magical charms in the Middle Ages. Tomorrow we'll have a brief exploration of more.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

The Lupin

When Pietro De Crescenzi wrote his ground-breaking (pun intended) work on soil management and agriculture, he showed a special interest in the lupin (that is the British English spelling; American English spells it lupine), a plant of the pea family. Although it wasn't until the 20th century that steps were taken to transform the lupin from a semi-domesticated crop to a modern crop plant, lupins have been cultivated for millennia. The seeds of one species have been found in an Egyptian tomb dating to the 22nd century BCE.

The lupin had a couple strikes against it. Although edible, it had a bitterness due to alkaloids; some varieties with less alkaloid content are called "sweet" lupins. Also, it had a bad reputation for "devouring" all the resources needed by other plants. The name comes from Latin lupinus, "of the wolf," the adjectival form of lupus, "wolf."

Despite this, Romans spread lupin use throughout the empire, soaking it in water before feeding it to humans or livestock. Failing to soak them in water long enough to leach out the alkaloids would lead to poisoning symptoms. (It is possible that our understanding of the name is less about devouring resources and more about what improperly prepared beans did to the consumer. Consider that the same Latin word for wolf also gives us the modern lupus to refer to a wasting disease. I cannot find a corroborating source for this theory, but it makes me wonder.)

On the other hand, the lupin was prescribed in Anglo-Saxon England for "devil-sickness." Lupins are high in manganese, and manganese deficiency is linked with recurring seizures. Is it possible that Northern Europe discovered the lupin as a treatment for epilepsy? This does not appear in any Mediterranean medical sources.

De Crescenzi saw value in the lupin as part of crop rotation:

Better still was the lupine. When raised for seed as one of the crops in a rotation, it was sown in October or November and harvested in June or July. When it was raised for fodder, it was cut somewhat earlier, but in either case it protected the land against winter rains. Several species were native to Italy, but Crescenzi made no distinction as to their use or method of cultivation. Some varieties of beans or vetch were occasionally substituted for lupine in rotations. [from Pietro De Crescenzi: The Founder of Modern Agronomy, Lois Olson, Agricultural History, Vol.18, No.1]

These days, the lupin/e (of which there are hundreds of varieties) is used for high-protein, high-fiber, and low-fat livestock feed, as well as for a nutritious flour substitute; and let's not forget its place in many gardens!

Its application as a treatment for epilepsy is an interesting twist, though, and makes me wonder how else the Middle Ages tried to explain and cure this particular ailment. Let's take a look at that next time.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Pietro De Crescenzi

Knowledge of proper agricultural techniques waned in the thousand years following the fall of Rome, except in monasteries, where texts on soil and crop management were preserved and studied. Into this setting, in the 13th century, came a Bolognese jurist named Pietro De Crescenzi.

De Crescenzi (c.1230 - c.1320) practiced as a layer from 1274 until 1300, during which time he traveled from city to city in the Lombard League. Traveling jurists were important, due to the concern that local lawyers would not be impartial. As he traveled, he took note of farming practices, comparing them to what he observed at the Dominican monastery in Bologna (his brother and several friends were members there, and its head was his confidant).

He retired at the age of 70 in c.1300 to his own farm in a suburb of Bologna. His application of efficient farming practices earned him such a reputation that King Charles II of Sicily asked him to write a treatise on the subject.

De Crescenzi produced the Liber ruralium commodorum ("Book of rural benefits") between 1304 and 1309, dedicated to Charles. It was so well received that Charles V of France ordered a French version in 1371. It was translated into Latin in 1471; 57 editions in different languages followed.

This was the first serious work on agronomy in a millennium, and borrowed heavily from the "lost" classical works on the subject. The structure is based on the De re rustica ("About rural things") of the 1st century Roman writer Columella, and De Crescenzi was clearly able to get a copy of the agricultural work of another Roman, Taurus Palladius, but he makes his own point in the introduction about soil that is fundamental to all farming:

The power of the soil should be investigated, and when it is discovered it is like an inestimable treasure that should be conserved with humility and patience.

He argued that a field giving poor yields should be left alone for four or five years until planted again. He recognized the need for crop rotation, "green manure" by plowing under what was growing wild, and regular fertilization—practices that make sense to us today, but that had fallen out of use for centuries.

The work is in 12 parts:

  1. Siting and layout of a manor, villa or farm, considering climate, winds, and water supply; also the duties of the head of the estate
  2. Botanical properties of plants and horticultural techniques
  3. Agriculture of cereals and building of a granary
  4. Vines and winemaking
  5. Arboriculture—trees useful for food and medicine
  6. Horticulture—plants useful for food and medicine
  7. Management of meadows and woodland
  8. Pleasure gardens
  9. Animal husbandry and bee keeping
  10. Hunting and fishing
  11. General summary
  12. Monthly calendar of tasks

You can see how extensive and thorough a guide for farming on a large and a household scale it is.

One of his emphases is on the utility of a particular plant, so I thought we'd talk next about its history and about what De Crescenzi has to say about it: the misnamed lupine.

Monday, August 21, 2023

Medieval Agronomy

It occurs to me that, in order to explain the importance of Pietro De Crescenzi, I should explain the thousand years that preceded him.

With the fall of Rome and barbarian invasions, farming started to suffer. That may be an unexpected statement, but there were reasons. With the loss of the Pax Romana ("Roman Peace"; formally, it refers to a 200-year span that ended in 180CE, but its influence lasted longer), invasions led many rural communities to migrate to cities for safety. Farmers who remained outside cities were focused on safety and managing their land with perhaps fewer farmhands. Marching armies devastated the arable land.

Roman irrigation systems were not maintained, both those that brought water to where it was needed and those that drained water from lowlands. Italy became increasingly swampy and a breeding ground for malaria, driving farming into smaller hilly areas where fields were overworked and erosion was more likely.

Classical Rome understood about erosion and soil management—Cato and Vergil had written about farming, and there was an expert named Taurus Palladius who wrote definitive Roman works on agronomy in the 5th century—but as civilization faltered, so did education and the knowledge of efficient agricultural practices. 

The Moorish lands maintained good practices, but Western Europe did not know about them, except in one area. Knowledge of the writings of Palladius and Mago the Carthaginian (whose 28 books written in Punic are lost, but we have Greek and Latin fragments) could be found in the enclaves that valued and collected and copied books: the monasteries. Monasteries in the Middle Ages maintained model farms, with the resources, knowledge, and manpower to get the most from the land without exploiting it.

In fact, it was the observation of farming techniques throughout Lombardy, and especially how monasteries managed their land differently, that got a jurist from Bologna thinking about agriculture. Although an expert in law with a reputation for fairness and legal knowledge, he started to take an interest in the differences he saw in farming techniques. When he retired to Bologna in his 70s, he decided to do something about what he had observed.

Tomorrow, we will see how this retired lawyer kick-started modern agronomy, the science of soil production and crop management.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Medieval Grains

We cannot underestimate the ubiquity of grain in the medieval diet. This was, of course, not a medieval discovery: different grains had been used for thousands of years (at least 75,000, according to this) and adapted to the climate and culture of the consumers. Grain was used three ways: turned into bread, drunk as beer, and eaten as pottage.

Finding out what grains medieval England had access to comes from a surprising source: extant thatched roofs, some of which have "roots" going back to the 14th and 15th centuries. The stalks used for thatching—in many cases preserved by fireplace soot—show the presence of bread wheat, rivet wheat, rye, barley, and oats. It was important to cultivate different varieties of grain because their different ripening times and grain yields ensured a steadier supply than cultivating a monoculture.

Bread wheat was the most common wheat grown. Rivet wheat is not grown so much today (although it is considered ideal for pasta), but it made higher quality straw for thatching. Different varieties of wheat were not differentiated in manorial harvest records, however, the word frumentum ("crops" or "grains") being used for any grains meant for consumption. But rather than discuss bread again, or beer, let's talk about pottage.

Pottage, also spelled potage (the word is from Old French pottage, meaning food cooked in a pot), is a thick soup or stew made by boiling grains and whatever vegetables were at hand. If available, meat could be added, but the base was grains in liquid boiled until it became a thick sludge or slurry (those are not culinary terms, but they seem appropriate to me based on my imagining the pottage process).

The boiling would take several hours, and in fact the pottage could be kept on the fire for days, adding liquid and ingredients over time to keep the meal going indefinitely. Upper classes could afford to add meat, but without meat this was a staple peasant dish from the 9th through 17th centuries. The constant boiling ensured it was not only safe to eat but made it easier to eat, the grains being reduced to a porridge-y consistency.

Richard II's cookbook The Forme of Cury had a few pottage recipes, including meat of course, but peasants could alter it with egg yolks, with bread crumbs, or with spices. Frumenty was made by boiling wheat grains until they burst, allowing the mixture to cool, then boiling with broth and milk or almond milk; it could be thickened with egg yolks and have sugar and spices added. Different types of pottage had names like egerdouce, brewet, the thinner ronnyng, and (what I think would be my favorite) mortrews.

The word "pottage" these days may bring to mind the story of Jacob and Esau and the "mess of pottage" given to the hungry Esau in exchange for his birthright. A "mess of pottage" is now used to denote a short term bargain that is detrimental in the long term. Technically, it was a red lentil stew. Interestingly, the knowledgeable Dioscorides warns that lentils were hard to digest and caused nightmares, sentiments that were repeated by medieval authors like the 14th century Pietro de Crescenzi.

Pietro de Crescenzi might have been wrong about lentils, but he has a place in history as the first "modern" agronomist, and it is in that context that I will tell you about him tomorrow.

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Culinary Oddities of the Middle Ages

Let's start with garbage. My hometown of Rochester, NY, lays claim to the invention of the "garbage plate." I will leave it to the reader to click the link and learn about it. It might interest Rochester to know that the "garbage plate" existed in the Middle Ages. (The illustration is of a more wholesome beef stew from here.)

"Garbage" refers to, basically, kitchen scraps: the things you would normally take out of or off the food you were preparing to serve. Here is a 15th century recipe called "Garbage" (my translation):

Take garbage of chickens, as the head, the feet, the livers, and the gizzards; wash them clean, and cast them in a pot, and cast thereto fresh broth of beef or else of mutton, and let it boil; and ally it with bread, and lay on pepper and saffron, mace, cloves, and a little verjuice [juice of unripe grapes or apples] and salt, and serve as a stew.

Okay, more of a bowl than a plate, but you get the idea.

Le Ménagier de Paris ("The Parisian Household Book") from 1393 is a guide to a women's management of her household. It includes a recipe for squirrel (translation by Jane Hinson; original text here):

Squirrels are singed, gutted, trussed like rabbits, roasted or put in pastry: eat with cameline sauce or in pastry with wild duck sauce.

What could be simpler? (cameline was a sauce of cinnamon) There were different kinds of cinnamon, and we don't always know which was used in old recipes; a discussion of them can be found here.

The idea that spices were used to cover the taste of rotting meat needs to be discussed, since no spice would prevent the ill effects of consuming rotten meat! It is ridiculous to assume that techniques for preserving meat have not existed for thousands of years. Drying, smoking, salting (and in extreme northern climes simply burying in the snow) were available methods of extending the "shelf life" of meat. The salting method meant re-hydrating, and this excellent website offers a modern experiment on the process with venison. The author notes at the end that the version is still a little salty and the process was tedious, but I imagine in the Middle Ages he would have had a servant to manage the process of rehydrating, which would have resolved both those issues.

If you want a Catalan recipe for roast cat from a 1520 cookbook (which I will not print here for the sake of any readers who like cats), go here and search for recipe number 123.

One more, from a 1400s German cookbook, tells us of the health benefits of hedgehogs:

The meat of a hedgehog is good for lepers. Those who dry its intestines and grind them to a powder and eat a little of that are made to piss, even if they can not do so otherwise.

Well, since we are on the subject of hedgehog (also from Le Ménagier de Paris):

Hedgehog should have its throat cut, be singed and gutted, then trussed like a pullet, then pressed in a towel until very dry; and then roast it and eat with cameline sauce, or in pastry with wild duck sauce. Note that if the hedgehog refuses to unroll, put it in hot water, and then it will straighten itself.

These are some culinary bits and pieces that you probably have not seen before. There are numerous websites and books that cover medieval cookery. One of the most thoroughly informative is I highly recommend it for its information and the erudition of its creator. There has not been an update to it in almost two years, and the contact link created a 404 error, so I do not know if the creator is still managing it regularly. Even without updates, it is a treasure trove.

As promised, next we will talk about medieval use of grains.

Friday, August 18, 2023

Vegetable Recipes

Vegetables were widely grown and consumed in the Middle Ages. Archaeological evidence suggests that meat was not usually part of the daily diet, so they must have had ways to prepare vegetables in different ways to avoid boredom. Let's look at a few.

The Middle Ages did have salads, collections of uncooked plants eaten for the flavor, but they did not have tomatoes and the types of lettuce we usually see in modern salads.

Purslane was a common ingredient, and is packed with vitamins and minerals. To this they might add primrose, mint, parsley, fennel, garlic, leeks, and the aromatics rosemary and sage, and top it with violet blossoms and rose petals.

Artichokes would be soaked in cold water that had been boiled with pepper, cinnamon, and ginger. The artichokes would then be baked with butter and vinegar and served with a sprinkling of sugar.

A recipe called "compost" was for root vegetables, and is found in the Forme of Cury, the cookbook from the kitchens of Richard II. It includes parsley roots, parsnips, carrots, radishes, turnips, a small cabbage, and a pear. A modern description of their preparation goes like this: 

Peel vegetables and chop them into bite-sized pieces. Parboil them until just tender, adding pears about halfway through cooking time. Remove from water, place on towel, sprinkle with salt, and allow to cool. Then put vegetables in large bowl and add pepper, saffron, and vinegar. Refrigerate for several hours. Then put wine and honey into a saucepan, bring to a boil, and then simmer for several minutes, removing any scum that forms on the surface. Let cool and add currants and remaining spices. Mix well and pour over vegetables. Serve cold. [link]

The illustration above is of compost from this page.

Here's a 14th century French recipe for a vegetable tart in translation [note: "bray" mans grind]:

To Make a Tart, take four handfuls of beets, two handfuls of parsley, an handful of chervil, a sprig of fennel and two handfuls of spinach, and pick them over and wash them in cold water, then cut them up very small; then bray with two sorts of cheese, to wit a hard and a medium, and then add eggs thereto, yolks and whites, and bray them in with the cheese; then put the herbs into the mortar and bray all together and also put therein some fine powder. Or instead of this have ready brayed in the mortar two heads of ginger and onto this bray your cheese, eggs and herbs and then cast old cheese scraped and grated onto the herbs and take it to the oven and then have you tart make and eat it hot. [link]

An excellent website that covers medieval cookery and links to other cookery sites can be found here. The recipes are translated and updated to make them easier to follow. Although I said we would talk about grains after today, the aforementioned website has a section on "Oddities" which I would like to share next.

Thursday, August 17, 2023

Vegetables in the Middle Ages

By "vegetables" we are going to include any plant matter grown for food and not just flavoring (such as herbs and spices), because so much of what was grown for consumption in the Middle Ages was not "leafy greens." So what did they have?

Squashes and parsnips were mentioned by Pliny; the Roman cook book of Apicius has over a dozen recipes for squash. If you hollowed out certain squashes and dried the skin, they could become containers, utensils, ornamentation like masks, and even birdcages and musical instruments. Parsnips were common in European gardens until the 16th century.

Turnips were grown for consumption for thousands of years, important to the Classical and Medieval Eras, and making their way to Japan by 700CE. 

Cabbages were cultivated Before the Common Era, and were known in the Middle Ages as an inexpensive food that had an unfortunate odor when cooked and an unfortunate side effect when consumed. 

The wild pea was found all around the Mediterranean and have been eaten for millennia. Charles the Good, the Count of Flanders, wrote how the consumption of peas was a staple that staved off a famine in 1124-25.

Brussels sprouts were cultivated extensively in Brussels in the 13th century, but were known in Northern Europe since the 5th century.

Onions, garlic, fennel, shallots, leeks, carrots, beans, artichokes, lentils—all were known to the Romans and made use of in Medieval Europe.

Tomorrow I will share some vegetable recipes, and then later look at the more widely used grains.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Medieval Vegetarianism?

Modern stereotypes about medieval feasts suggest images of boars with apples in their mouths and giant turkey legs. Without adequate preservation techniques such as modern canning provides, the assumption is that fruits and vegetables would not survive the winter, but animals could be slaughtered at any time for food, and preserved by drying or with salt.

Recent research, however, has challenged the idea that meat was a significant portion of the daily diet. Early Christian thought questioned meat-eating. John Chrysostom, Origen, Jerome, and others were vegetarians. Many hermits renounced meat as part of their asceticism, and of course the Church during Lent forbids eating meat in order to make a personal sacrifice while contemplating the upcoming commemoration of the Crucifixion. The Rule of St. Benedict allowed fish and fowl, but meat from quadrupeds only to aid in illness.

Outside of strict Christian communities such as monasteries, how common was meat-eating? Here's an example: during the reign of Ine of Wessex (688 - 726), there are 11 surviving lists of what was served at feasts. They mention beef, mutton, salmon, poultry, some bread and cheese, along with honey and ale. The absence of vegetables on the lists does not necessarily mean vegetables were not present. As likely an explanation is that vegetables were so commonplace and expected that they were not worth mentioning.

There are few cookbooks from the Middle Ages, but there is a way to determine diet other than written lists of recipes: archaeology, and not just from finding the remains of trash heaps in excavated villages. There are answers in the bones.

If early medieval rulers consumed copious amounts of meat on a regular basis, that would likely be reflected in their remains. But an isotopic analysis of 2,023 skeletons from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds “found no evidence of people eating anything like this much animal protein,” says co-author Sam Leggett, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Edinburgh, in the statement. “If they were, we would find isotopic evidence of excess protein and signs of diseases like gout from the bones. But we’re just not finding that.” [link]

We are realizing that during centuries when 90-99% of the population was agrarian, the people were not just raising livestock. There must of course have been vegetables grown and used extensively, composing the largest part of the daily diet—the evidence of bones confirms it.

Let's explore a typical medieval vegetable garden next time and see what they were growing for food.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Medieval Christian Vegetarianism

The modern Christian—any modern reader, in fact—might never have thought of vegetarianism as a practice with a Biblical or Classical history. When I think of a Christ-era menu, the story of the feeding of the 5000 with loaves and fishes (John 6:1-14) comes to mind, as well as lamb at a Seder.

Despite hanging out with fishermen, however, and the supposed ubiquity of a fish-based diet, there was a strong strain of vegetarianism in the early Church. It did not originate with Christianity:

As long as Man continues to be the ruthless destroyer of lower living beings, he will never know health or peace. For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seed of murder and pain cannot reap joy and love. [Pythagoras]

There is a passage in Luke, however, that says this:

34 “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. [Luke 21:34, English Standard Version

Nothing unusual there. The King James Version uses the phrase "surfeiting, and drunkenness"; the New International Version calls it "Carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life."

If we go back further, however, we find something interesting in the Curetonian Gospels. William Cureton in 1848 published a set of manuscripts from a Syrian monastery in Lower Egypt. These Gospels were in Aramaic and the manuscript dated (it was theorized) from the 5th century CE, a copy of a 2nd century original. It is a version that was never translated to Greek. This very early version has a different reading of Luke 21:34, namely:

Be on guard, so that your hearts do not become heavy with the eating of flesh and with the intoxication of wine and with the anxiety of the world, and that day come upon you suddenly; for as a snare it will come upon all who dwell upon the surface of the earth.

Ebionites—early Judaeo-Christian Gnostics—maintained that Jesus, James the Just, and John the Baptist were vegetarians. Irenaeus and Eusebius, early Christian writers, discuss the feeding of the 5000 and mention bread but do not mention fish. Matthew 16:9 has Jesus saying to the Apostles "Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered?" No fish are mentioned.

It would appear to some that fish were added to the original story, but less-than-meticulous editing forgot to change Jesus' later reference to the event.

What changed? Was there a deliberate attempt to suppress the idea of vegetarianism, and if so, why? I don't believe it was an economical decision to avoid upsetting some early Medieval butchers' guild. We will never know exactly why things were altered to add meat eating (maybe it would be more accurate to say "animal eating"?) to the Christian diet. Maybe it was an attempt to make conversion more palatable to the Roman world? Maybe the idea was to adapt Christian ideas to a European diet?

That last theory, of course, assumes that the European diet was meat-based, which is a good thought to set up the next post ... tomorrow.

Monday, August 14, 2023


Priscillianism was considered heretical partially because its origin was in gnostic beliefs coming from Egypt. Gnosticism, from the Greek γνωσις (gnōsis, "having knowledge), was developed by Christians and Jews in the late 1st century. It relies on personal knowledge of the divine and not just orthodox teachings. Not only was this in opposition to those authorities who were the experts on orthodox teachings, such as Scripture, but it could lead to exotic theories with no end in sight.

Gnosticism was not a single set of beliefs, and different gnostics developed different ideas which they preached to those who would listen. Most gnostic texts were successfully destroyed in the early centuries CE by Christian authorities (the illustration shows a surviving 8th century Coptic gnostic codex), but since 1945 and the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts, gnosticism has taken on renewed interest for scholars, some of whom feel it should be considered an early form of Christianity.*

Some of the gnostic beliefs that challenged Christian orthodoxy were:

  • That there is an unknown higher supreme being than the god of the Bible.
  • Less of an emphasis on sin and punishment/atonement and more on enlightenment.
  • The vrigin birth and resurrection were not literal events, but symbolic images to a "higher" understanding.
  • Jesus was not God-made-into-Man but an avatar of the supreme being meant to inspire humans to recognize the divine spark inside them.
  • The material world was evil; your goal was to pursue special knowledge and avoid material things.
  • Serpent imagery was strong in gnosticism; some sects were literally "snake handlers."
  • God did not create the earth; God created angels who created other angels and other beings who created the material world.
  • Jesus did not die on the Cross; Simon of Cyrene was made to carry it and, by accident, was crucified instead. The Jesus who appeared to disciples later had never been on the Cross.

Gnosticism is a varied and weighty topic, and the typical 400-500 word count of these posts cannot do it justice, so let's instead turn to an aspect of gnosticism that survived as a question into the Middle Ages:

Was Jesus a vegetarian?

See you tomorrow.

*There is one gnostic religion that survived into the Modern Era. Mandaeism (from Aramaic manda, "knowledge") has about 100,000 followers and is found in Iraq, Iran, and other places where Persians migrated.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

The First Excommunicate

Priscillian (c.340 - 385) was a good enough theologian that he was made Bishop of Ávila Spain in 380, but controversial enough that he had many enemies among his fellow bishops. His preaching of a life of strict asceticism—including fasting on Sundays and Christmas, avoiding meat and wine, celibacy, etc.—especially annoyed Bishop Hyginus of Corduba (Cordova) and Bishop Hydatius of Augusta Emerita (Mérida, Spain), who accused his ideas of being Gnostic.

In fact, Priscillian did get his ideas from Marcus, a native of Memphis in Egypt, who came to Spain and taught Gnostic theories. We don't know if Marcus and Priscillian had direct contact, but apparently Priscillian was converted by two of Marcus' followers, a woman named Agape and a rhetorician named Helpidius. Priscillian's rhetorical gifts helped convert others to take an oath to follow his lifestyle, including a couple bishops, Instantius and Salvianus.

A synod of 380 held by Hyginus and Hydatius pronounced Priscillian, Helpidius, Salvianus, and Instantius as rejected from the faith of Christianity. This is the first known example of excommunication in the Christian church. A Bishop Ithacius of Ossonoba (Faro, Portugal) was given the task of making the heretics mend their ways. He failed, and this was the motivation for Instantius and Salvianus to defy the synod and elevate Priscillian to bishop.

In retaliation, Ithacius appealed to Roman Emperor Gratian, who had recently along with Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica, making Nicene (Catholic) Christianity the only approved form in the Roman Empire. Gratian deprived the Priscillianists of their churches and sent them into exile. The persecuted bishops decided to go to Rome and appeal to Pope Damasus I who, like them, was from Iberia. Damasus denied them an audience, however, so they went to Milan to appeal to the popular St. Ambrose, who had a reputation for standing up to the emperor, but he likewise would not meet with them.

Their next step was bribery at the Imperial Court, which did work: they got their churches back and the exile lifted. They also got Ithacius exiled from Iberia; Ithacius appealed to Gratian, but before he could get help, Gratian was killed and Magnus Maximus became emperor. Maximus wanted to have the orthodox bishops on his side, so he called for a synod in Bordeaux in 384 during which Ithacius was so vehement in his condemnation of Priscillian et alia that St. Martin of Tours got involved, annoyed that what he considered an ecclesiastical issue was being dealt with by a secular authority. Martin got the emperor to agree that the synod would not result in shedding blood.

Martin left the synod, however, and the emperor's prefect Evodius was appointed judge in the case. Evodius decreed that Priscillian and the others were guilty of practicing magic (possibly because of the Gnostic origins of Priscillianism), and the Priscillianists were condemned to death. Priscillian may well be the first excommunication and the first execution for heresy.*

Priscillianism was not done with, however. St. Martin returned to the emperor and stopped him from sending military to Iberia to exterminate the heretics they would find.Ambrose sternly denounced the handling and result of the situation.Some of the Gallican bishops denounced Ithacius and his behavior. A synod of Iberian bishops eventually deposed Ithacius; Hydatius was compelled to resign.

The executions (some would say martyrdom, of course) caused Priscillianism to grow. A synod in 400 in Toledo actually reconciled some Priscillianist bishops to the Church, one of whom wrote a moral treatise from the Priscillianist viewpoint. The advance of the Vandals into Iberia helped spread Priscillianism as the adherents fled before the invaders. Attempts by Augustine and Pope Leo I to suppress the movement failed. It took the 561 First Council of Braga that specifically targeted its doctrines to get it to die out.

So what was so dangerous about Gnostic ideas? Let's talk about that next time.

*And now I have fulfilled the promise ibn the footnote of that post.

Saturday, August 12, 2023


Priscillian was the first person to be excommunicated and executed (that we know of) because of his "heretical" beliefs. I use the quotation marks because this was a time (4th century) when official church doctrine was still in a state of flux and because some of his writings were perfectly acceptable and even embraced for awhile.

He was born in Gallaecia (now northern Portugal) c.340, to a noble family. He preached and practiced a strict form of asceticism starting about 370. This involved celibacy—women were treated equally as men and praised for being virgins—and fasting on Sundays and Christmas Day.

He taught that not only Holy Scripture should be read and studied, but also some of the texts that were considered apocryphal—not because they were inspired revelation like the canonical works, but because they could be helpful in discerning truth from error. He wrote his own commentary on the Pauline epistles, organizing them according to their theological points and writing an introduction to them. They include the call to asceticism and abstinence from meat and wine. Some Spanish manuscripts of the Epistles have Priscillian's writing still attached. The ideas are the same, but the text differs from any of Priscillian's original works; they were apparently re-written by a Bishop Peregrinus. (His originals were thought lost, but a copy was discovered in 1885 at the University of Würzburg.)

His ideas caused him to clash with others, however. His major opponents were Bishop Hyginus of Corduba (Cordova) and Bishop Hydatius of Augusta Emerita (Mérida, Spain). They accused his ideas of being gnostic. Hydatius spoke out so much that he drew more attention to Priscillian's teachings than condemnation of them. 

Hydatius convened a synod in 380 at Caesaraugusta (Zaragoza/Saragossa), with 10 bishops from Spain and two from Aquitaine. Priscillian was not invited. The synod declared, without mentioning Priscillian or his ideas, that one could not assume the title "doctor" of the church, that women were not to be called "virgin" un til they were 40 years old, that clerics were not to embrace the monkish life just because they were motivated to live more perfectly. 

Living an ascetic life and promoting celibacy made Priscillian look good, however, and he was made Bishop of Ávila, Spain in that same year. That's when things really got contentious, but we'll save that for tomorrow.

Friday, August 11, 2023

Vincent of Lérins & Heresy

Vincent of Lérins lived at a time when there were many different factions preaching different versions of Christianity. No one wanted this confusion, and everyone wanted to know that they were "right," so opposing what you considered to be heresy was a holy calling. Vincent took this seriously.

He was born in Toulouse, Gall, and is believed to be the brother of Saint Lupus of Troyes, who accompanied Germanus of Auxerre to Britain to combat Pelagianism. Vincent entered Lérins Abbey where, c.434, he wrote the Commonitorium (Or Commonitory, "Of Things in Common"). The 5th-century priest and historian Gennadius of Massilia recorded that the Commonitorium was written in two volumes, of which the second was stolen from Vincent, who never bothered to re-write it.

This work declared what Christians had in common:

I have continually given the greatest pains and diligence to inquiring, from the greatest possible number of men outstanding in holiness and in doctrine, how I can secure a type of fixed and, as it were, general, guiding principle for distinguishing the true Catholic Faith from the degraded falsehoods of heresy.

...and he lays out the problem, listing the common differing doctrine of the day:

Here, it may be, someone will ask: "Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and is in itself abundantly sufficient, what need is there to join to it the interpretation of the Church?" The answer is that because of the profundity itself of Scripture, all men do not place the same interpretation upon it. The statements of the same writer are explained by different men in different ways, so much so that it seems almost possible to extract from it as many opinions as there are men. Novatian expounds in one way, Sabellius in another, Donatus in another, Arius, Eunomius and Macedonius in another, Photinus, Apollinaris and Priscillian* in another, Jovinian, Pelagius and Caelestius in another, and latterly Nestorius in another. Therefore, because of the intricacies of error, which is so multiform, there is great need for the laying down of a rule for the exposition of Prophets and Apostles in accordance with the standard of the interpretation of the Catholic Church.

His simple and straightforward guide was the proper interpretation of Holy Scripture must be judged by three qualities:

  • Universality (they must be believed by the whole Church)
  • Antiquity (they must be held from the earliest times, not new-fangled ideas)
  • Consent (they must be supported by all—or almost all—of those who are considered authoritative

This idea is abbreviated in the scroll he holds in the illustration above, which can be translated "We hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, and by everyone."

And just like that...if the idea has been held since the beginning, if it is (almost) universally agreed upon, and if it has the support of (almost) all the doctrinal experts, then that is what we call the proper interpretation.

*I find that I have lied to my readers. Six years ago here I said in a footnote "'Priscillianism'" will be covered in the near future." It was created at the extreme western end of the Mediterranean from Gnostic doctrines coming from the extreme eastern end of the Mediterranean. It's time I fulfilled my promise...tomorrow.

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Pope Celestine I

The earliest mention of the man who became Pope Celestine I was a reference to "Celestine the Deacon" in a 416 document by Pope Innocent I. We don't really know anything else factually except that he became the Bishop of Rome in 422, either on 10 September or 3 November. (Currently the Vatican dates the start of his pontificate as 10 September. The Liber Pontificalis ("Book of Pontiffs"), started in the early Middle Ages and occasionally updated, starts him on 3 November of 422.)

His election involved an "antipope situation." An archdeacon named Eulalius was recognized as pope by the emperor prior to Celestine's election, but once the proper election took place, no arguments ensued. 

In the decade while he sat the Throne of Peter, he had to deal with various questions of proper doctrine and fighting heresy. Fighting Pelagianism was an ongoing concern. He sent Palladius to the Scots of Ireland to deal with heresy, according to Prosper of Aquitaine. He may also have been the reason for St. Patrick's mission. Four letters from Celestine, all dated 15 March 431, went to African bishops urging them to fight against Nestorianism. Closer to home, the Roman Novatians denied the opportunity for any lapsed Christians to be re-welcomed into the faith. Celestine confiscated Novatian churches, arguing that reconciliation should never be refused to one who truly wants it.

The Gallic monk St. Vincent of Lerins in 434 explained Celestine's policy as a strict adherence to the tradition of his predecessors:

Holy Pope Celestine also expresses himself in like manner and to the same effect. For in the Epistle which he wrote to the priests of Gaul, charging them with connivance with error, in that by their silence they failed in their duty to the ancient faith, and allowed profane novelties to spring up, he says: "We are deservedly to blame if we encourage error by silence. Therefore rebuke these people. Restrain their liberty of preaching."

He had a long-distance relationship with Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa. Augustine was aware of him prior to his election, calling him "My Venerable Lord and Highly Esteemed and Holy Brother" in a letter of 418. Augustine wrote to him again shortly after he became pope with an unusual problem: his own mistake:

I am so racked with anxiety and grief that I think of retiring from the responsibilities of the episcopal office, and abandoning myself to demonstrations of sorrow corresponding to the greatness of my error.

What was the error? Augustine had recommended Antony of Fessula to become the bishop of that town, and now recognized that Antony was corrupt. Augustine wanted the new pope to help him deal with the problem.

Augustine's was one of the strongest voices against Pelagianism, and sent Prosper of Aquitaine (one of his most fervent disciples) to Rome to deliver his arguments to Celestine in a way that they could not easily be done by letters. This changed Prosper's career, since he stayed in Rome working for the papacy as Augustine's "man on the inside" to make sure the anti-Pelagian stance stayed foremost in papal policy. When Augustine died during the Siege of Hippo Regius by the Vandals, Celestine forbade attacks on Augustine's memory that were being made by the Semipelagians, who stated that humans could reach salvation through the choice of Free Will, as opposed to Augustine's teaching that God's Grace was necessary and predestination meant the conclusion was foregone. Semipelagianism was on the rise due to the works of John Cassian.

The early Church generated a lot of different ideas about how salvation was to be achieved and how the relationship between Good and Evil worked. For future reference, let's take a look at the major "heresies" (quotation marks because they simply failed to become official doctrine, but who knows what might have happened?) next time, and we'll talk about Vincent of Lerins who did his best to distinguish between Catholic doctrine and heresy.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Prosper of Aquitaine

Much of the history of the second half of the 5th century is known to us because of a disciple of Augustine of Hippo named Prosper. Born about 390 CE in the Roman province of Aquitaine, the Gothic invasions of Gaul drove him to Marseilles in 417. By 429 he was corresponding with Augustine, and in 431 went to Rome to speak to Pope Celestine I on behalf of Augustine.

From that point Prosper appears in no records until 440, when he is a secretary in the papacy of Leo I. He never took orders, but he was thoroughly involved in religious institutions.  He wrote De vocatione omnium gentium ("The Call of all Nations"), in which he urges all Gentiles to embrace Augustine's idea of God's Grace. He wrote a 1000-line poem in which he attacked Pelagianism.

Prosper left us the Epitoma Chronicon ("Ultimate History"), a continuation of a history by St. Jerome, in which he covers the Belgian controversy and world history. He first composed it in 443, but released several subsequent editions with updates. The final edition was in 455 and covers the death of Valentinian III, which is traditionally given as the year of Prosper's death. (The historian Marcellinus Comes mentions Prosper in the year 463, but Marcellinus was in Constantinople and was not an eyewitness to events in the Western Empire.)

It is Prosper who tells us that, when the Vandals approached Rome to sack it in 455, Pope Leo the Great met with their leader, Genseric, to request that he refrain from burning and killing, but content himself with pillaging.

Prosper's other focus, besides Pelagianism, was the shameful behavior of certain Roman generals, such as Magnus Maximus:

Maximus was made emperor in Britain in an uprising of the soldiery. He soon crossed to Gaul. Gratian was defeated at Paris owing to the treason of Merobaudes the magister militium, and was captured in flight at Lyon and killed. Maximus made his son Victor his colleague in power.

The tyrant Maximus, despoiled of his royal garments by the emperors Valentinian and Theodosius at the third milestone from Aquileia, was called forth to judgement and condemned to death. In the same year his son Victor was killed by Comes Arbogast in Gaul.

Prosper is also our chief source for the details of the Vandal invasion in Europe and North Africa. He blames the general Castinus for losing against the Vandals in Spain, allowing them to conquer the province of North Africa and leading to the death of St. Augustine. (Of course, Augustine was 75 at the time of his death, so it is not quite fair to blame the Vandals.)

Among other writings of his were the Sententia ("Sentences"), 392 maxims supporting the writings of Augustine, and Epigrammata ("Epigrams"), 106 short verses drawn from other sources. The Epigrammata exist in 180 manuscripts from the Middle Ages.

But why did Prosper have to go to Rome to speak to the pope about Augustine? Wasn't Augustine one of the respected fathers of the Church? Let's look at Celestine tomorrow and see why that might have been.

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

The End of the Vandals

The Roman Empire ultimately decided that fighting the Vandals was not in their best interests, and made peace treaties, hoping the Vandals would keep to their current boundaries. Those involved in the treaty need to act in support of one another, however. When King Hilderic was overthrown by his cousin Gelimer—partially because Hilderic was too tolerant of Catholics (Nicene Christians) for the taste of the Arian Vandals, partially because his approach to military endeavors led to a defeat by the Moors—the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I chose to come to his aid.

With the intention to restore Hilderic to the throne, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I sent  an army to North Africa. This was the start of the 533-34 Vandalic War, Justinian's attempt at reconquest of the Western Roman Empire. The Byzantines had a stroke of luck: the Vandal army wasn't home.

The Vandal army was on its way to Sardinia to deal with a rebellion there, led by Gelimer's brother. Seeing the Byzantine army approaching, Gelimer tried to gather what remaining forces he had, but they were insufficient to stop the Byzantines, led by Belisarius, from conquering the vandal capital of Carthage. 

On 15 December 533, the two armies met again 20 miles from Carthage. When the Vandal leader Tzar (Gelimer's brother) fell, the army scattered. Belisarius advanced to the Vandal second capital of Hippo Regius, occupying it with little resistance. Gelimer surrendered in 534, and the Kingdom of the Vandals was  no more. North Africa was once more a Roman province.

So what happened then? Gelimer was offered estates in Galatia (Hilderic had been killed in prison). He was offered the rank of patrician, but he would have had to convert to Catholicism, and so refused. The Vandal soldiers were shipped to Constantinople to become a unit in the Byzantine army. The best warriors became a cavalry regiment called the Justinian Vandals, or Vandali Iustiniani, and were sent to the Persian frontier. With Byzantine soldiers staying in North Africa to maintain the imperial presence, many married Vandal women.

Some Vandals migrated back to the Iberian Peninsula. One of them, Guntarith, came back in 546 with Moorish support and killed the proconsul of the African province in Carthage. His takeover of Carthage did not last long: he was assassinated by resident Byzantines and his Moorish counterpart, Stotzas the Younger, was taken to Constantinople and executed. That was the last gasp of the Vandal Kingdom that harried Europe and Rome.

One of the only contemporary accounts of the Vandal interaction with the Roman Empire is by Prosper of Aquitaine, who is relied on for the late 4th to mid-5th century. I'll tell you more about him next time.

Monday, August 7, 2023

Fighting the Vandals, Part 3

The sacking of Rome by the Vandals motivated the Roman Empire to prepare to deal with them like never before. It certainly made the Vandals themselves feel invincible. Their king, Genseric, sent a fleet of 60 ships to attack Gaul and Italy in 456. They landed on the southern coast of Sicily at Agrigentum, where they met Ricimer.

Ricimer was a Roman general, but like many Romans, he was not Latin, but German. He is usually described as a Goth by his contemporaries, but sometimes as the product of a Suevic father and a Visigothic mother. Some surmise that he was the son of a marriage alliance between the two Germanic tribes. His sister married a Burgundian king, Gondioc, giving Ricimer additional powerful ties. The chaos that followed the sacking of Rome allowed Ricimer to consolidate military hold over much of the Western Empire.

The Battle of Agrigentum was a success for Ricimer: the Vandals retreated to their ships to escape, but Ricimer followed and defeated them in a naval battle off the coast of Corsica. A year later, a Vandal army after looting Campania (the "shin" of Italy) was ambushed and defeated by forces of the Western Emperor Majorian. Majorian was a full-blooded Roman who had been a general and achieved the throne with the support of Ricimer and another general.

Majorian made it a primary goal to defeat the Vandals decisively. His first attempt, an attack on Cartagena in 460, failed. An alliance between the Western and Eastern Empires in 468 sent (supposedly) over 1000 ships and over 50,000 soldiers. The Vandals used fireships—ships filled with combustibles, set on fire, and sent into the opposing flat to do damage and cause chaos—to disrupt the Roman navy. Over 100 ships and over 10,000 Romans died. Rome's chances of achieving any kind of domination over the Vandals faded after that.

In the 470s, Ricimer negotiated a treaty with the Vandals. Genseric ruled the Western Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Tripoli.  The Vandals started minting their own coinage, although it was only low-denomination bronze and silver coins. They adopted Roman coinage when higher value was needed. When Genseric did in 477, his son Huneric took over.

Huneric was married to Eodocia, the daughter of the Roman Emperor Valentinian III. A fervent Arian, he nonetheless allowed some tolerance to other groups, allowing the Catholics to elect a bishop (a position that had not been filled in 24 years). He did persecute Manichaeans, however, and later in life returned to harassing Catholics, exiling their bishops and trying to force conversions to Arianism.

Under Huneric and his successors, the Vandals lost much of the territory that had been conquered under Genseric. The Ostrogoths took most of Sicily. The rising presence of Moors in the Iberian Peninsula chipped away at Vandal control of the Western Mediterranean. The Vandal King Hilderic (523 - 530) was too tolerant to Catholics, creating a civil war when a strong Arian faction overthrew him, making Hilderic's cousin Gelimer king and throwing Hilderic into prison.

The Byzantine Emperor Justinian then stepped in on Hilderic's behalf. Tomorrow we'll see the result, and the dissolution of the Vandal Kingdom.