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 www.medievalcookery.com. 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.

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Fighting the Vandals, Part 2

After Genseric of the Vandals took over Carthage and made it the Vandal capital, they started looting up and down the Mediterranean. Their domination of the sea was so thorough that an Old English name for it was Wendelsæ ("Sea of the Vandals").

This was obviously a challenge to Rome's power, but Rome was busy on another front: Attila the Hun and his brother Blaeda had been a problem for years. Worse, a request from Emperor Valentinian III's sister to Attila for help complicated matters: Attila thought Honoria was offering herself in marriage, and Attila wanted half the Roman Empire as dowry. Being informed by Valentinian that he had clearly misunderstood the situation, Attila attacked Gaul in 453. This was drawing Rome's military forces substantially inland and away from the Mediterranean coasts.

Rome had a stroke of luck in that Attila died not long after the invasion of Gaul. His three sons' eagerness each to rule a part of the Hun empire helped reduce its effectiveness. Rome could now turn its attention to Genseric and the Vandals—for all the good that did.

Valentinian decided on a diplomatic route, offering his daughter in marriage to Genseric's son. This might have satisfied both sides, but for something neither side saw coming: Valentinian was murdered on 16 March 455 by the senator Petronius Maximus. Maximus bribed the Senate to support him; he married Valentinian's widow, married Valentinian's daughter to Maximus' own son.

Maximus got to be emperor for two and a half months. Genseric, understandably enraged at this betrayal, headed to Rome. Valentinian's widow supposedly sent a message to Genseric or his son requesting saving from Maximus. Maximus requested help from the Visigoths, but it was not forthcoming. He fled Rome as the Vandals arrived, became separated from his retinue in the chaos of escaping, and was killed. The Vandals went on to sack Rome (illustrated above in a 19th-century painting).

The only contemporary account of the sacking of Rome comes from Prosper of Aquitaine (also one of the rare early sources of info on St. Patrick). Prosper says that Pope Leo I ("the Great") asked Genseric to satisfy himself with pillaging, but refrain from murder and destruction. The Vandals not only left Rome with many treasures, but also with Valentinian's widow and daughter.

It would seem that nothing prevented the Vandals from ruling that part of the world indefinitely. Their fortunes were about to turn, however, and we'll see how that happened next time.

Saturday, August 5, 2023

Fighting the Vandals, Part 1

The Germanic tribe the Vandals made their way across Europe, into the Iberian Peninsula, and then to North Africa. There they clashed with a Roman general, Bonifacius, who after a defeat on the Numidian border barricaded himself in the city of Hippo Regius. The Vandals, led by Genseric, laid siege to Hippo Regius. This was in May of 430CE.

Hippo Regius (on the coast of what is now Algeria) had a Christian bishopric, established about 250. It was significant enough that North African church councils and synods were held there. At the time of the siege, its most famous bishop and resident was Augustine. He would have been deeply dismayed at the approach of the Vandals, who were followers of Arianism. He and the residents feared death or forced conversion if the Vandals captured the city. He was 75 years old when the siege began, so it is not surprising that he died during it, on 28 August 430.

His age and poor health were no doubt exacerbated by the lack of food. Since the siege started in May, the fields around the city were untended and supplies of grain dwindled. News of Augustine's death drew the attention of Galla Placidia, regent of the Western Roman Empire. Galla Placidia was the daughter of Emperor Theodosius I, who died in 395. Next in line was her son, Valentinian III, who was only 11 in 430, making her regent during his minority.

The North African province was an important source of grain for the empire, and Galla realized something had to be done. Her nephew, Theodosius II, was ruler of the Eastern Empire in Constantinople. She asked him to send an army to join her Italian forces to deal with the Vandals. It was led by General Aspar.

The lack of food not only weakened the city, it was also affecting Genseric's army: in summer of 431 he left Hippo. This gave General Bonifacius the chance to leave Hippo for Carthage and join Aspar. In the summer of 432, Genseric's army met the joint force of Bonifacius and Aspar and, history repeating, defeated them. Aspar eventually negotiated a treaty with Genseric, whereby the Vandals would keep Mauretania and the western part of Numidia. Genseric made Hippo his capital.

On 19 )October 439, while the citizens of Carthage were all at the hippodrome for a racing event, Genseric entered the city without opposition and took control. Carthage became his new capital, and he started calling himself King of the Vandals and Alans (an Iranian nomadic people who had been with the Vandals in their migration across Europe and Africa).

Valentinian III was now emperor in his own right, and the Vandals were his problem, especially when Genseric started looting up and down the Mediterranean. We shall look at attempts to counter the Vandals tomorrow. And what about Attila the Hun?

Friday, August 4, 2023

Who Were The Vandals?

Isidore of Seville (c.560 - 636) wrote Historia de regibus Gothorum, Vandalorum et Suevorum ("History of the Kings of the Goths, Vandals and Suevi"). From him we learn about some of the Germanic peoples that existed in the 7th century. They were noted earlier by Pliny the Elder, who used the term Vandilii generically for a lot of the Germanic tribes, as did Tacitus.

The Vandals appear on the "world stage" in 405CE when, moving long the Danube, they are stopped in their westward expansion by the early Franks. Gregory of Tours, with typical (we assume) medieval historian literary license, tells us that the ensuing Vandal-Frankish War resulted in the death of 20,000 Vandals, including their current king Godigisel. Godigisel's eldest son, Gunderic, then led the Vandals over the next few years into Gaul and thence to Iberia. In fact, some theorize that the term Al-Andalus used by the Umayyad rulers of Iberia from c.715 on may be an Arabism based on the word "Vandal."

Their swift advance through established kingdoms turned their name synonymous with ruthless destruction of anything good and beautiful.

They went into North Africa in 429, then led by Gunderic's half-brother Genseric, when the Visigoths entered the Iberian Peninsula. Genseric ruled the Vandals until 477, during which time he controlled the Roman province in Africa, as well as Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, Malta, and the Balearic Islands Mallorca, Ibiza, etc.). Procopius, whose accuracy of reporting gave the West the secret of silk, wrote that the Vandals were actually invited to North Africa by the Roman general Bonifacius—unlikely, since he had previously fought them and was defeated by them again and again in the years to follow.

At one of these conflicts, a defeated Bonifacius barricaded himself and army inside Hippo Regius ("Royal Hippo" was so-called because it was one of the residences of Numidian kings). One of its most famous citizens, named for the place, was living there at the time; then he died, and the death of St. Augustine of Hippo was a turning point for the Western Roman Empire. Something had to be done about the Vandals in North Africa. I'll tell you what they did tomorrow.

Thursday, August 3, 2023

Maghreb Jews

When Jews were expelled from England (1290) and Sephardic Jews from Spain (1492) and other locations in Europe, many of them wound up in North Africa, where there were already communities of Maghrebi Jews.  Maghrebi Jews are those who migrated to North African areas that are now Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. "Maghrebi" or "Maghreb" means "western" and refers to the western Arabic world. Sometimes Egyptian Jews are included, but there were distinct cultural differences between those in Egypt and the Maghrebi to the west.

The illustration is a synagogue off the coast of Tunisia, on an island called Djerba. It was partially built with stones that were brought from Jerusalem, and is still visited by North African Jews.

There were likely Maghrebi Jews living in ancient Carthage (the Carthaginians were also a Semitic people). Simon of Cyrene, mentioned in three of the Gospels as a man chosen to help carry the Cross on the way to the Crucifixion, was Maghrebi: Cyrenaica was a Greek colony in eastern Libya. The Roman general Titus deported Jews to Mauretania (Northern Africa) after the Jewish-Roman War of 70CE, adding to the Jewish population.

The Vandals established kingdoms in Northern Africa early in the 5th century. They were tolerant of the different peoples in their territories. This allowed the Jewish population to grow and thrive, so much so that the Christian churches decided to curtail their influence with restrictive laws. Moreover, when Justinian I's armies overthrew the Vandals, he issued an edict that lumps Jews with Arians and heathens.

Muslim rulers tolerated Jews, but when the Visigothic king Sisebut invaded the Iberian Peninsula and persecuted those he found there, many Iberian Jews fled to Northern Africa. The influx of Sephardic Jews eventually changed the local customs of the Maghrebi Jews to a more Sephardic manner. Fez in Morocco and Tunis in Tunisia became important Sephardic rabbinical centers right up until the 20th century, when many Jews emigrated to Israel, France, and Canada.

Once again I have found that I have referred to Vandals a handful of times without ever explaining who they really were. Let's fill in that gap tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

The Illustrated Receipt

In the earliest days of this blog, there were no illustrations. I eventually decided there were some posts that would be enhanced by an appropriate image. In some cases, however, there was no image available specific to the subject of the post; for instance, there are some individuals about whom I've written that were no important enough to have an image created in their lifetime that has survived, if it existed at all. In those cases I would find something—a picture of a manuscript, a woodcut of folk doing some related work—that links however tangentially to the subject.

In today's case, however, the illustration is the subject. I have enlarged it at the risk if throwing off the formatting of the web page to let you see it more clearly.

This is a unique document: it is a sketch that was made at the top of a 1233 receipt from the Exchequer, listing tax payments from the Jews of Norwich. Illustrating an Exchequer receipt was unnecessary, but the unknown scribe/accountant was making a point, a point that provides us with the earliest visual caricature of Jews in a negative light.

The top center shows a three-faced figure labeled "Isaac fil jurnet." This is Isaac of Norwich, probably the richest moneylender in Norwich. We know he was owed a lot of money by the abbot and monks of Westminster, taking them to court to force repayment. This was decades after Richard I established the Exchequer of the Jews and the Ordinance of Jewry that should have made his lawsuit easier, but King Henry III was not Richard and did not so carefully protect the Jews in his realm from anti-semitism.

Isaac is shown with a forked beard, a sign of the devil. There are two other Jews represented, one just below Isaac and one to the left. Both have long, hooked noses, and a demon between them is pointing a clawed finger at each of their noses, indicating that they have noses like the demon's. The Jew to the left is labeled Mosse Mokke, who was a collector of debts for Isaac. The one below Isaac is labeled Abigail, who some believe was married to Mosse Mokke and also worked for Isaac.

To the far left is a monk with scales full of coins, representing the money owed by Westminster. A demon behind him has an arrow coming from his mouth to the back of the monk.

To the right of Isaac is a demon in a tower labeled "Dagon," the pagan god of the Philistines from the Old Testament. He is accompanied by a demon with a horn who is summoning several other demons to come to Isaac's aid. All the demons have horns and hooks noses and claws.

Considering that a scribe took the time to indulge in the unusual step of creating such a detailed negative portrayal of Jews in an official document of the Exchequer, the likelihood for anti-semitism "on the street" must have been enormous.

Was it the same everywhere? Jews had scattered all over Europe and on all parts of the Mediterranean Coast. What was going on with other Jewish communities in the Middle Ages. Tomorrow I'll tell you about the Maghreb Jews.

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Exchequer of the Jews

In 1194, Richard I of England created a system by which all financial transactions by Jews would be documented by the Crown. This system created an office that was subordinate to the Royal Exchequer, and became known as the Exchequer of the Jews.

His motivation was the Massacre at York, as well as the anti-semitic riots that took place at his own coronation.

I think it would be interesting to see part of the actual (translated) decree (ellipses and italics are mine):

All the debts, pledges, mortgages, lands, houses, rents, and possessions of the Jews shall be registered. The Jew who shall conceal any of these shall forfeit to the King his body and the thing concealed, and likewise all his possessions and chattels, ..., and there shall be appointed two lawyers that are Christians and two lawyers that are Jews, and two legal registrars, and before them and the clerks of William of the Church of St. Mary's and William of Chimilli, shall their contracts be made.
And charters shall be made of their contracts by way of indenture. And one part of the indenture shall remain with the Jew, sealed with the seal of him, to whom the money is lent, and the other part shall remain in the common chest: wherein there shall be three locks and keys, whereof the two Christians shall keep one key, and the two Jews another, and the clerks of William of the Church of St. Mary and of William of Chimilli shall keep the third. And moreover, there shall be three seals to it, and those who keep the seals shall put the seals thereto. 
... For every charter there shall be three pence paid, one moiety thereof by the Jews and the other moiety by him to whom the money is lent; whereof the two writers shall have two pence and the keeper of the roll the third. 
And from henceforth no contract shall be made with, nor payment, made to, the Jews, nor any alteration made in the charters, except before the said persons or the greater part of them, if all of them cannot be present. And the aforesaid two Christians shall have one roll of the debts or receipts of the payments which from henceforth are to be made to the Jews, and the two Jews one and the keeper of the roll one.

Moreover every Jew shall swear on his Roll, that all his debts and pledges and rents, and all his goods and his possessions, he shall cause to be enrolled, and that he shall conceal nothing as is aforesaid. And if he shall know that anyone shall conceal anything he shall secretly reveal it to the justices sent to them, and that they shall detect, and shew unto them all falsifiers or forgers of the charters and clippers of money, where or when they shall know them, and likewise all false charters.

The three sets of locks and keys eliminated the chance of tampering, since the chest holding the official documents could only be opened if all three possessors of the keys were present.

There were two major benefits to this decree: one to the Crown, and one to the Jewish population. The Crown would have records of every transaction and could use them to tax the Jews involved. The Jewish moneylenders also benefitted, because any debtor wishing to accuse the moneylender of unfairness, or who tried to get out of repayment, now had to deal with a moneylender with the full weight of the Royal Exchequer behind him.

An additional benefit to the Crown was that the death of a moneylender without heirs meant a faithful accounting of all the moneylender was owed was known and therefore could be collected ... by the Crown, of course.

Documents from this office are extant for 1219-20, 1244, 1253, and 1266-87. (In 1290, all Jews were expelled from England by Edward I, or made to convert.)

One of these documents, in 1233, has an unusual feature: it is illustrated. The illustration above is part of it. The whole drawing is interesting as one of the earliest examples of Jews shown in a negative depiction. We're going to look at it very carefully next time.

Monday, July 31, 2023

Ordinance of the Jewry

When Richard I of England was kidnapped coming back from the Third Crusade, the ransom was going to be enormous: 100,000 pounds of silver. This was 2-3 times the annual income to the English crown from taxation. Richard's mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, worked hard to raise the money. Churches were taxed for one-quarter of the value of their property. William Longchamp, Richard's chancellor, raised 5000 marks from the Jewish community of England alone, which was more than three times what the City of London was required to offer.

When Richard got back to England, he looked at an anti-semitic massacre that happened in York, and decided to do something about it. That situation seemed to have been started deliberately by Christians who owed money to Jews and chose to start a pogrom to avoid having to settle their debts properly.

To be fair, Richard saw such situations as financial losses for himself. Lost revenue of a citizen meant being able to tax that citizen less. Richard decided that all transactions with Jews needed to be recorded by the Exchequer. His Ordinance of the Jewry in 1194 led to a new division of the Royal Exchequer called the Exchequer of the Jews.

This Exchequer required each transaction to be documented with a chirograph (literally "hand-written"). One part would be kept by the creditor, one part would be kept at the Exchequer. The benefit to the Jewish creditor was that a record of the debt was stored in a safe place and the person to whom the money was leant could not get out of repayment. There was a benefit for the Crown, as well. All transactions were liable to taxation. Moreover, Richard mandated to receive 10% of all debts collected with the aid of his courts. Curiously, with the king acting as "silent partner" to Jewish moneylenders, they had an advantage over Christian moneylenders whose accounts were not protected by the Exchequer. 

The Exchequer expanded beyond just debts, which we can look at tomorrow.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

William Longchamp

William Longchamp (or "de Longchamp") achieved success the old-fashioned way: he paid lots of money for it. That's not fair; best to start at the beginning.

Little is known of his background, except that his family came from Longchamp in Normandy. A rival of his, Hugh Nonant, Bishop of Coventry, claimed William's grandfather was a peasant. This seems unlikely, since William's father Hugh held a knight's tenancy in Normandy, also land in England. (Nonant was Longchamp's opposite on many issues, such as the Becket affair and loyalty to Henry II's children.)

Near the end of Henry II's reign, Longchamp entered royal service for Henry's son Geoffrey (not Geoffrey Plantagenet, Duke of Brittany, who would join the rebellion against their father; the illegitimate one, who became Archbishop of York under Richard). That did not last long. Soon he was working in Henry's chancery, writing up documents, and later was working for Richard I, who made Longchamp Chancellor of Aquitaine, of which Richard was then the Duke. During a dispute between Richard and Henry's envoy, William Marshall, Longchamp was sent to Paris to represent Richard at the court of King Philip II.

When Richard became king, it might have seemed inevitable that he made the trusted and competent Longchamp Chancellor for England—once Longchamp paid £3000 for the privilege, that is. Longchamp would manage England's business while Richard ruled. One of those bits of business was the use of the Great Seal to authenticate documents, whose control and use was now in Longchamp's hands. Stamping a chancery document with the Great Seal incurred a fee, paid to the keeper of the Seal. The price of the Seal's use was raised at this time, perhaps to help Longchamp recoup the £3000 pounds.

Longchamp was also made Bishop of Ely, as well as Justiciar, able to act in the king's name in certain matters. He clashed with a co-justiciar, Hugh de Puiset, Bishop of Durham (who paid £1000 for that office), and so Richard split the country, giving Hugh authority over everything north of the Humber. (Hugh was a bit of a problem, exercising too much authority because the position of Archbishop of York had not been filed for awhile; once Richard placed his brother there, Hugh had a higher authority to whom he was forced to submit.)

One of Longchamp's first challenges after Richard left England was the Massacre at York, when about 150 Jews died after seeking refuge in Clifford's Tower. Richard had made it clear after the anti-semitic riot at his coronation that Jews were to be left in peace. Angry at the insult to the king's command, Longchamp marched to York and imposed heavy fine on 52 of its citizens. He banished Richard de Malbis and members of other families who had been leaders of the riot and massacre. Evidence showed that these individuals owed debts to the Jews, giving them motivation for their crimes.

There are some who blame Longchamp for harassment of the Jews, and yes, there was financial inequity because of Richard's kidnapping, but ultimately that led to Richard creating a system that he intended would stop the attempt to eliminate debt by eliminating the Jew to whom one owed the debt. In fact, Richard's plan gave Jewish moneylenders a slight advantage over Christian moneylenders. We'll go into all this next time.