Category Archives: Medieval Stuff

Learning Paleography Site!

As more and more digital manuscript libraries come on line, I find myself doing more and more work with period (8th through 13th century) manuscripts. I used and mentioned a number of manuscripts and manuscript images in Honey of Souls because I felt it was necessary to give readers a sense of the feel of medieval psalters, commentaries, and other books. Thanks to a smart classroom, I used at least one (and usually more) manuscript images every class period in my Church History class last semester. However, as your typical New Testament PhD full-time IT guy who teaches early/medieval church history and writes on liturgical spirituality—I haven’t actually had a lot of formal training in codicology…

I’ve picked up quite a bit along the way, of course, from NT text criticism classes and Old English courses, but I feel a deficiency there. I do have on the To Read Next section of my bookshelf a nice line-up:

However, since I’m trying to finish up Psalming Christ and prep for a Spring semester seminar, it’ll be a while before I get around to them.

But—I’ve just found on Medieval Twitter what looks to be a great new resource to keep my eye on: Teaching the Codex: Pedagogical Approaches to Palaeography and Codicology

I haven’t explored it in depth yet, but it looks like a helpful hands-on way for people with the interest to learn how to use digital libraries and their manuscripts in a better and more sophisticated way!

The Forthcoming Book

Another thing that has been occupying my time is the Cassiodorus book projects. I’ve shared a certain amount of that here but not tons. A couple of dedicated readers of the blog helped me plow through the manuscript and tighten it up a bit, but then we entered the waiting phase when the publisher does their magic with what I sent in. Well—that time is almost up!

I received an email from the publicist yesterday that the new book is back from the printer and will be distributed shortly; Amazon is saying that it will be released on December 15th.

So—the forthcoming book is entitled Honey of Souls: Cassiodorus and the Interpretation of the Psalms in the Early Medieval West. Here’s what the blurb says:

The Honey of Souls is the first full-length study of the Explanation of the Psalms by Cassiodorus. While the Explanation became a seminal document for the monastic movement in the West and was eagerly read and widely quoted for centuries, it has languished in relative obscurity in the modern period. Derek Olsen explores Cassiodorus and his strategies for reading as a window into a spirituality of the psalms that defined early Western biblical interpretation.

While Cassiodorus and his writings were my main target, I found out fairly soon on that I couldn’t talk about him properly without backing up quite a bit and talking about the psalms, their place in Late Antiquity, and how literacy, technology, and the spread of the faith interacted with one another. As a result, this is a much more wide-ranging book than the title alone might indicate. I talk about why the psalms came to be so important, how they factored into the monastic movement and monastic education, and then wander through how a variety of interpreters from Origen to Hilary to Athanasius to Augustine talked about them.

Another thing that I focused on was materiality and physicality. We tend to think of Scripture and hermeneutics in abstract intellectual terms. I emphasize here the material nature of not just books and their tangibility but the process of scholarship as well. In fact, I make the case that one of the classically disputed points about Cassiodorus’s commentary—how it relates to Augustine’s sermon series on the psalms—is best solved by considering the conditions under which Cassiodorus encountered Augustine’s work and borrowed from it. In short, I suggest that he never owned the whole thing and, as a result, worked off notes taken down in dictation as a library copy was being read…

Unlike Reading Matthew with Monks which is an adaptation of my dissertation, this book was designed from the ground up to be a book for interested lay people or introductory college/seminary level. Although the content digs into some academic material, I don’t think of it as an academic book. In tone and readability, it’s designed for regular people. So—if you have an interest in the Psalms and how Christians have prayed them through the centuries, I urge you to take a look!

 

All that having been said, you would not be wrong if you noticed that I said “projects” up above. This book is part 1. This is the historical look at Cassiodorus suitable either for readers of faith or for readers of no faith at all. It’s a non-confessional historical study. Part 2 takes the next step and asks what modern practicing Christians can learn from Cassiodorus about praying the Psalms. That’s the one I’m working on now…

Office of the Holy Spirit

A Little Background

One of the reasons I have been so quiet recently is because I have been teaching a Masters level course at The Ecumenical Institute (EI) of St. Mary’s Seminary and University here in Baltimore. It was the first course in the history sequence which started from the time of the New Testament and went up to the Reformation—a span of some 1500 years and 12 million square miles in just a couple of months… While it’s wrapping up now, it was a fun class with a wonderful set of engaged students from a variety of backgrounds split between Roman Catholics, a few mainliners, and several nondenominational folks. In addition to teaching the main historical content of the course, I also offered a 1-credit spirituality component (as EI courses sometimes do).

Rather than trying to follow course content too closely, I decided to have this small group of students take some time with three spiritual practices fundamental to the age that we were studying. First, we spent several weeks doing Evagrian/Desert Father-style breath prayers taken from the Scriptures, especially the psalms. Then we spent several weeks exploring lectio divina. Naturally, I encouraged them to start with the psalms rather than have them tackle a larger book–and because of the prominence of the Psalms in-period. For our third section, I knew I wanted to do something relating to the Books of Hours.

There are all sorts of compelling reasons to focus on the Books of Hours. We had been working with psalms in the earlier parts of the semester—why not experience the psalms in their liturgical context? While not the only devotion used in the period, the Books of Hours were the central devotional locus for the literate laity. Also, Baltimore is the site of the splendid Walters Art Museum, home to one of the greatest collections of Books of Hours in the entire world. Furthermore, I could select something from the scope of the tradition that non-Roman Catholic students could embrace without theological reservations—and this was a live issue as none of the students in the spirituality portion were Roman Catholic. I finally settled on a relatively obscure choice, the Office of the Holy Spirit.

Hours and Offices: A Distinction

As you may know, late medieval books of hours have a fairly standard set of main contents. I’ve talked about these before. There are two chief sets Offices, the Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Office of the Dead, that generally follow the outlines of full-on monastic Offices but are shorter and much less variable. These Offices include psalms.

Then, there are several briefer Hours that may or may not appear: Hours of the Passion, Hours of the Holy Trinity, Hours of the Holy Spirit, and a variety of hours for specific saints (John the Baptist, Catherine, etc.). Largely speaking, these tend to consist of a Gospel canticle antiphon, a hymn or hymn portion, a versicle & response, and a collect. Note: no psalms. That’s because these were usually prayed as tack-ons to the end of the main offices. Since you’d already prayed some psalms, more were not necessary.

Thus, if a set of thematic prayers contains one or more psalms we refer to it as an “Office;” if it didn’t, we refer to it as an “Hour.” (And let me note that—like many conventions—this is a modern scholarly convention that you may or may not find in manuscripts of the period.)

The Office of the Holy Spirit

While Hours of the Holy Spirit are not terribly uncommon in the surviving corpus of Books of Hours, the Office of the Holy Spirit is not common at all. Indeed, as far as I know (so take that with a big grain of salt!), the Office of the Holy Spirit did not make the jump into the age of printing. So, I had kind of an issue. The Office of the BVM was out on content-grounds; didn’t want to make my Protestants do Marian devotions without their consent. The Office of the Dead could be interpreted as being on the line too given Reformation concerns, but it also isn’t a full office—it only contains Matins, Lauds, and Vespers. The Hours and attendant Office of the Passion tend to be quite anti-Semitic, and I didn’t have time or opportunity to edit those to make them suitable for modern prayer. However—everybody can get behind the Holy Spirit!

Fortunately, there is a well-written copy of the Office of the Holy Spirit in one of the manuscripts here in the Walters. Walters Ms. W.86 was written in Arras, France, sometime between 1275 and 1300. It’s not a terribly pretty book especially as far as these books go, but it is legible. Much of the material is either biblical or is drawn from standard liturgical materials for Pentecost, so I adapted standard English materials as needed and translated what I didn’t find. I put it all into contemporary English so, at the current time, these Offices are only present in a “Rite II” format.

I wanted my students to have the full experience of a Book of Hours, though, so I brought in some pretty pictures from another Walters manuscript: Walters Ms. W.196.  This is a book with some fantastic images painted in Bruges, Belgium around 1470. Unfortunately, some of the images were cut out of the manuscript, including those for Lauds and Prime of the Holy Spirit and also the Matins of the Blessed Virgin (which would have depicted the Holy Spirit descending on Mary at the Annunciation). As a result, I borrowed a picture from before the Penitential Psalms of David praying for Lauds, and recycled the image from Nones for Prime.

The Site

The site offers the traditional eight-hour sequence of the Office of the Holy Spirit. It is an alternative cycle to the usual Daily Office. Or, of course, the internal hours can be used to supplement a prayer book office if that is your desire. The site structure is very basic: there is a home page which links to the hours and an About page; each of the hours is on its own page and has a link at the bottom back to the home.

I’ll be interested to hear about your experience of this site. I’m trying out some new graphical elements (as you’ll see). The primary purpose was to, again, give the students a feel of what the Books of Hours were like and the kinds of visual cues they used. Books of Hours generally tended to be small-format books so I intentionally designed it to give that kind of feel for tablet/phablet/phone sized screens. A secondary ulterior motive was to explore some new ways of doing image layout and font.

Ok—that’s enough talking; here is the site itself:

The Office of the Holy Spirit home page

On Boethius

In 522, another great Roman aristocrat was showered with honors. Theoderic in Ravenna selected one of his sons to be the consul of Rome representing the West while Justin in Constantinople selected his other son to be the consul representing the East; he himself was tapped for the high position of Master of Offices. Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, a scion of one of the two great Roman senatorial families, the Anicii, was a philosopher as well as a public servant. As far as we know, he was the single greater intellect in the West than Cassiodorus—certainly the only one from whom we have writings. He wrote treatises on music, theology, arithmetic, and geometry. As fluent in Greek as he was in Latin (an achievement becoming more and more rare in this time), he translated the only texts of Aristotle from Greek into Latin that the Medieval West would know until the Crusades brought the Arabic editions of Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina to light. In the introduction to his Commentary on Aristotle’s De Interpretatione, Boethius lays out a plan for how his philosophical work would unfold:

I wish to translate the whole work of Aristotle, so far as it is accessible to me, into the Roman idiom and conscientiously offer his complete utterances in the Latin tongue. Everything Aristotle wrote on the difficult art of logic, on the important realm of moral experience, and on the exact comprehension of natural objects, I shall translate in the correct order. Moreover, I shall make all this comprehensible by interpretive explanations. I should also like to translate all Plato’s Dialogues, and likewise explain them, and thus present them in a Latin version. When this is accomplished, I will furthermore not shrink from proving that the Aristotelian and Platonic conceptions in every way harmonize, and do not, as is widely supposed, completely contradict one another. I will show, moreover, that they are in agreement with one another at the philosophically decisive points. This is the task to which I dedicate myself, so far as life and leisure for work are vouchsafed to me[1].

Unfortunately for him and for the unfolding of the Western philosophical tradition, the leisurely fulfillment of this ambitious plan of work was not to be for philosophy was not his only ambition. For somewhere in the year 522 or 523 also came the death of Eutharic, the strong and appointed heir of Theoderic, the presumptive next king in the West.

The Master of Offices was—just below the Praetorian Prefect—one of the two highest civil posts in the Empire. The Master of Offices received his title because his position oversaw four offices which handled all of the imperial correspondence and all foreign envoys who came to address the Emperor. All information about doings in the Empire and relations with its neighbors flowed through this office. If a wealthy, intelligent, well-connected man of ancient birth steeped in Plato’s Republic and its vision of philosopher-kings wanted to subvert the Empire, this was the perfect place from which to do it.

We do not have clear visibility into what happened next. Our usual source for government dealings of the time is entirely silent upon the events; there is one Eastern-leaning history by an anonymous hand that gives one take on events, and then we have Boethius’s side of the story. In short, he was arrested on a charge of treason in 524 or 525. He was accused of conspiring with other members of the senatorial class and of holding treasonous correspondence with the Emperor in the East. Imprisoned within a church in Pavia—a city in northern Italy—Boethius embedded his side of the story in a book that would become the most important work of philosophy for the Early Medieval West behind the Bible, the Consolation of Philosophy. In a dialogue between himself and Lady Philosophy, a personified woman hearkening back to the figure of Wisdom in the biblical books of Proverbs and Ecclessiasticus, he pours out “a long and noisy display of grief” (his words!) where he explains that he was set up by means of forged letters by a cast of ne’er-do-wells unhappy at his attempts to reign in corruption[2]. However, even his self-defense does seem a bit weak at important points: “I am accused of having desired the safety of the Senate. . . . But the fact is that I did desire the safety of the Senate and will never cease to. . . . Should I count it a crime to have desired the safety of the Senate[3]?”

The Consolation itself—entirely apart from the guilt or innocence of its author—is a splendid work. A Neo-Platonic meditation composed alternately in prose and verse, Boethius explores his situation, his rise to tremendous heights and his tragic fall to the depths, and offers later ages two related themes that wrestle with questions around the unfolding of history, the justice of God, and the lament—old in the days of Job—that bad things do indeed happen to good people. The first theme is a differentiation between Providence and Fate/Fortune (he uses the two terms interchangeably). God, who stands outside of the flow of time, knows, sees, and directs the big picture—Providence—in order that all will end well. This is the plan in the mind of the all-knowing and all-loving God. The big picture is therefore fixed; we know its happy end. The route by which this plan is accomplished, however, is far more sketchy. This is Fate. Thus, “the simple and unchanging plan of events is Providence, and Fate is the ever-changing web, the disposition in and through time of all the events which God has planned in His simplicity[4].” You could say that Providence is the plan while Fate is its execution.

What Boethius gets out of this formulation is the ability to say that God is good and just and can affirm alongside St. Paul that “all things work together for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28). In the end, he will affirm alongside the future words of Julian of Norwich that all things will be well. But, thanks to Fate, that doesn’t mean that everything is guaranteed to turn out okay for you! In the various vagaries and improvisations of Fate towards the irresistible end of Providence, even the wisest, the wealthiest, the most powerful person is but Fate’s pawn. And that brings us to the second major theme of Boethius of which all of America has heard—but maybe not in the sense he intends: the Wheel of Fortune.

The famous television game show is named after an ancient concept that reached its finest formulation with Boethius. He was not the first person to come up with the concept and other thinkers had written similarly about Fortune before, of course. The 2nd century BCE tragedian Pacuvius had said:

Philosophers claim that Fortune is insane, blind, and savage,
That she stands on a rolling and treacherous stone—
Whichever way chance tips that stone, fortune falls nearby.
They say that she is insane because she is merciless, unsteady and faithless.
They repeat that she is blind because she does not see where she goes;
she is savage because she makes no distinction between a worthy or worthless man.

Boethius makes a more subtle but not fundamentally dissimilar argument. As he sits in his dungeon bemoaning his fall from glory, Lady Philosophy essentially shakes him and asks him what he thought was going to happen:

You are wrong if you think Fortune has changed towards you. Change is her normal behaviour, her true nature. In the very act of changing she has preserved her own particular kind of constancy towards you. She was exactly the same when she was flattering you and luring you on with enticements of a false kind of happiness. You have discovered the changing faces of the random goddess[5].

As Lady Philosophy concludes her discourse she breaks into a ditty that will be graphically illustrated in dozens of medieval manuscripts and even find its way into the trump cards of the tarot deck:

If you are trying to stop her wheel from turning you are of all men the most obtuse. For if it once begins to stop, it will no longer be the wheel of chance:

With domineering hand she moves the turning wheel

Like currents in a treacherous bay swept to and fro

Her ruthless will has just deposed once fearful kings

While trustless still, from low she lifts a conquered head;

No cries of misery she hears, no tears she heeds,

But steely hearted laughs at groans her deeds have wrung.

Such is the game she plays, and so she tests her strength;

Of mighty power she makes parade when one short hour

Sees happiness from utter desolation grow[6].

The standard depiction of the wheel throughout the middle ages depicts a spoked wheel set upright: a king robed in splendor is perched at the top while the same figure appears at the bottom, clad in rags and crushed with pain—sometimes with the crown toppling from his brow. On one side he is clothed in finery as he makes his ascent; on the opposite side he is in beginning his fall into despair. The point is that Fortune is inherently fickle. No matter how high or how low people rise or fall, the condition is temporary for change is inevitable.

The story of Boethius does not end well. Both he and his guardian/father-in-law Symmachus were executed at the order of Theoderic. The brilliance of his Consolation ensures that his side of the story is never forgotten, though; it’s easy to buy the caricature of the noble Roman philosopher unjustly accused and killed by a thuggish barbarian ruler. We’ll probably never really know the true story and Cassiodorus never tells us. But, then, he’s not entirely a neutral observer either…

[1] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, xv-xvi.

[2] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 1, 16.

[3] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 1.4, 11-12.

[4] Boethius, Cosolation of Philosophy 4.6, p. 105.

[5] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 2.1, p. 23.

[6] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 2.1, p. 24

Love Song to a Psalter

Here’s a section from the manuscript. The poem stays in, but I’ve trimmed away most of the supporting material…


People who are familiar with the Bible are usually aware of the rather scandalous contents of the Song of Solomon (also known as the Song of Songs): it’s erotic love poetry narrating an unnamed woman’s quest for her lover, King Solomon. Clearly some of the more prudish interpreters in the Christian tradition have sought to downplay the literal sense of the text and have interpreted it in a spiritual direction. Thus, to some it is the soul’s quest for God, or perhaps the personified Church’s quest for God, or the Blessed Virgin Mary’s quest for God. And, thanks to the power of multi-level reading, at can be all three at the same time!

But readers formed in a modern Protestant perspective may not know that there is a complementary style of lyrics tucked away in the Wisdom Literature where a man is portrayed questing and lusting after a woman. While there are references and early forms of it in the books of Proverbs and Job, it reaches its apex in the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus (also known as The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach). To medieval readers, these two books were simply “Bible” but Protestant reformers placed them in the Apocrypha, a section of literature dating from between the Old and New Testaments, and even most faithful Bible readers never read them.

In these poems, the sage is questing after wisdom, personified as a beautiful woman. She is to be preferred above all else, and he will spend his time, effort, and wealth in order to woo her. There is a long section from chapter 6 to 9 in the Wisdom of Solomon that recounts Solomon’s wooing of Lady Wisdom in terms parallel (although not as explicit) as the Song of Solomon:

Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her. She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her. One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty, for she will be found sitting at the gate. . . . I preferred her to scepters and thrones, and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her. Neither did I liken to her any priceless gem, because all gold is but a little sand in her sight, and silver will be accounted as clay before her. I loved her more than health and beauty, and I chose to have her rather than light, because her radiance never ceases. All good things came to me along with her, and in her hands uncounted wealth. I rejoiced in them all, because wisdom leads them; but I did not know that she was their mother. I learned without guile and I impart without grudging; I do not hide her wealth, for it is an unfailing treasure for mortals; those who get it obtain friendship with God, commended for the gifts that come from instruction. I loved her and sought her from my youth; I desired to take her for my bride, and became enamored of her beauty. She glorifies her noble birth by living with God, and the Lord of all loves her. For she is an initiate in the knowledge of God, and an associate in his works. (Wis 6:12–14; 7:8–14; 8:2–4)

Needless to say, monks were quite familiar with these texts and often cast themselves in this same role: forsaking all else in search of wisdom and in service to the Gospel.

These wisdom lyrics are the necessary context for a poem written by an old monk at the furthest range of the time period we are considering. The Irish monk Mael Isu O Brolchain died in 1086 in a monastery in Armagh having received the title “chief sage of Ireland.” At some point, he wrote a poem which for many years was assumed to be about an elderly nun in a kind of ascetic marriage. However, James Carney, a specialist in medieval Irish poetry, recognized the true object of the poet’s affections:

The problem lay upon my mind for many years before the easy and natural solution suggested itself: it was a poem written by a religious in his old age to an old and tattered copy of the Psalms which had been his first lesson book. The solution, which has found general acceptance by scholars, emerged quite clearly when I noted that in early Ireland a boy destined for the Church began his education at the age of seven, and that the Psalter, from which he learned Latin, reading, singing and religion , was his first lesson book. This book which he had used in his youth in its virgin freshness passed through four generations of young scholars before by some chance it came back into the old priest’s hands again.[1]

We have talked at some length in these two chapters about the Psalter and about when and how a student would have encountered it. What this poem reveals, though, is what they felt about it. Here, with the sages’ songs to Lady Wisdom echoing in our heads, we see the thoughts of an old man taking in his hands again the book of his youth:

 

Crinóc, lady of measured melody,

not young, but with modest maiden mind,

together once in Niall’s northern land

we slept, we two, as man and womankind.

 

You came and slept with me for that first time,

skilled wise amazon annihilating fears

and I a fresh-faced boy, not bent as now,

a gentle lad of seven melodious years.

 

There we were then on that firm Irish earth

Desirous, but in pure and mystic sense;

Burning with love my flesh, still free from fault

As fool of God in smitten innocence.

 

Your counsel is ever there to hand,

we choose it, following you in everything:

love of your word is the best of loves,

our gentle conversation with the King

 

Guiltless you are of any sin with man,

Fair is your name, and bright, and without stain,

Although I know that when you went from me

Each in his turn, four lay where I had lain.

 

And now you come, your final pilgrimage,

Wearied with toil and travel, grimed with dust,

Wise still but body not immaculate:

Time it is that ravished you, not lust.

 

Again I offer you a faultless love,

A love unfettered for which surely we

Will not be punished in the depths of hell

But together ever walk in piety.

 

Seeking the presence of elusive God

wandering we stray, but the way is found,

following the mighty melodies that with you

throughout the pathways of the world resound.

 

Not ever silent, you bring the word of God

to all who in the present world abide,

and then through you, through finest mesh,

man’s earnest prayer to God is purified.

 

May the King give us beauty back again

Who ever did his will with eager mind,

May he look on us with eagerness and love,

Our old and perished bodies left behind.[2]

 

In Mael Isu’s poem, Lady Wisdom—the beautiful, the desirable, the beloved—is none other than the Psalter itself. Images of fleshly intimacy are cooled with a spiritual admonition, but the monk paints with exquisite colors a lover who initiates him into the arts of love and directs him to ultimate love in God: the Psalter is his Diotima.

Of course, this is one look at the Psalter from the far end of the learning process. Undoubtedly other young Irish lads did not feel this way while slowly learning the text. The second earliest evidence of the Psalms we have in Ireland is a student’s tablet, wooden boards covered with a layer of wax, into which has been scratched with a stylus Psalms 29-31 in the Gallican translation. This artifact is known as the Springmont Bog Tablets because that is where they were recovered. While we will never know how they came to be there, I like to imagine a particularly willful student hurling his tablet into the bog in a fit of pique after a difficult time with his lesson!

[1] James Carney, Medieval Irish Lyrics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), p. xxviii.

[2] Carney, Medieval Irish Lyrics, p. 75-79.

An Age goes Dark

It’s hard focusing on writing today.

Somehow I need to find the motivation to write about a Christian author, watching his society crumble around him into chaos and barbarism, as he tries t chart a course for the intellectual and spiritual development of those who would come after to kindle lights in the darkness.

If only this historical stuff were relevant to the modern situation…

In any case, here’s a historical section on the falling of a dark age from the start of chapter 3:


Historians like the term “Dark Ages” even less than they like the term “Middle Ages.” Both of these terms were invented as value judgments so that writers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment could look down on the age that came before them and that separated them from the luster of Classical Antiquity. Conventionally speaking, the term “Dark Ages” usually gets applied to the general time period that we’re looking at. One end of the period is bounded by the loss of central authority in the Roman West at some point in the fifth century (usually referred to as the Fall of Rome); the other end is conveniently anchored by the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The term “Early Medieval” is a better way to refer to this span of time because, even though the word “medieval” is simply a Latin translation of “middle ages” it does not carry the same overt value judgment with it. Migration Period is another term for the fourth through the eight century that focuses on the mass movements of tribal peoples around and into Europe, basing the title on a description of events.

All that having been said, there are some times and places that have earned the label “Dark Age” due to the amount of destruction, devastation, and death focused in a particular place at a particular time. By any reckoning the Italian sixth century earns that label due to the amount of mayhem and human misery that occurred there. If the four horsemen of the apocalypse are rightly reckoned as War, Famine, Plague, and Death, all four were certainly present then.

The fifth century had opened with a massive influx of barbarians across the Rhine River, and an angry federate army led by Alaric sacking Rome as recompense for a slaughter of thousands of Gothic hostages—mostly women and children—by Roman mobs. The mobs had themselves been angered by the apparent inaction of the army against a large Gothic force lead by Radagaisus plundering Northern Italy. Thus, the barbarian sack of Rome in 410 was more about an epic failure of internal affairs than the usual conventional construction of barbarians hating civilization. By the mid-fifth century, the power of the Western Roman Empire was largely limited to Italy itself as migrating tribes took over Spain, Roman Gaul, and tribes clashed with the Eastern Roman Empire in the Balkans and Greece. The capital of the West had been moved out of Rome to the more defensible Ravenna and by the end of the fifth century Rome was but a pale shadow of itself; it had started the fifth century with a population around 800,000 souls and ended it with a count somewhere around 100,000. That’s the numerical equivalent of the population of San Francisco dropping to that of Billings, Montana over the course of a century.

A turning point that set up the horrors of the sixth century was the deposition of the last Emperor of the West in 476 by Odoacer. To call the deposed Romulus August the last Roman emperor of the West would be a little misleading if by “Roman” we mean born of Italian stock; that ship had sailed as early as ad 193 when the Lybian-born Septimius Severus had emerged victorious from the disaster of succession known to history as the Year of Five Emperors. From that point on, the emperors tended to be descended from North African or Syrian stock until the rise of powers in Pannonia and Moesia, the provinces on the Danube that were a hotbed of motion as tribes from Asia moved into Europe and North European tribes migrated into Southern Europe.

However, in 476 Odoacer did something different and proclaimed himself king (rex) rather than emperor. The Roman Senate at his behest sent the imperial regalia back to Zeno, the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire centered in Constantinople, requesting that the Empire be unified and that Odoacer be formally recognized as the Empire’s regent in the West. Zeno, despite his Greek name, was himself a borderland barbarian of the Isuarian people; he recognized Odoacer, but never trusted him. Zeno had his own Gothic problem as two warlords named Theoderic warred against each other and him in the East. However, after Theoderic the Amal came out victorious, Zeno persuaded him that his true future lay in the West. Agreeing, Theoderic swept into Italy and in 493 personally killed Odoacer at a banquet that was supposed to have celebrated a peace treaty between the two.

Despite this rocky start, the rise of Theoderic the Amal was a bright spot in an otherwise troublesome time, and earned himself the name “Theoderic the Great.” Theoderic inherited an Italy that had suffered decades of invasion and depredation, but which still had a Roman bureaucratic system intact. As he settled into his new position, three different groups emerged as power players in the new order. The first group was, clearly, the barbarian might of the military. The Gothic nobility retained control of the military. Then there was the old aristocracy of Rome. Most of the senatorial families had either died out or fled and in the sixth century there were two great clans, the Decii and the Anici, who wielded the ancient authority of the Roman Senate. The third group were provincial nobles, large landholders outside of Rome some of whom who had come into Italy relatively recently and were disdained as nouveau riche newcomers by the ancient Roman clans. Theoderic gave these provincial nobles important places in his Ravenna-centered government, giving himself leverage against the old Roman aristocracy by playing the two off against one another and these two against the Gothic military.

The delicate balancing act was disrupted by events in the East. Zeno had died and on the death of his successor the imperial purple was seized by Justin, a career military man who had started life as a Thracian swineherd. But he was old and power quickly passed to his nephew Justinian. An ambitious man, Justinian—the last Latin-speaking Emperor of the East—proclaimed his presence on the world stage as a recovery of Romanitas. At his direction, his skillful generals Belisarius and Narses began great campaigns against the Persians and Vandal-held North Africa, seeking to recapture what Justinian considered the proper extent of the Roman Empire. The senators of Rome began casting hopeful eyes East and, whether warranted or not, two top Western administrative officials lost their heads when Theoderic suspected them of plotting with the East.

The final nail in the coffin was the Gothic succession. Theoderic’s only legitimate daughter Amalasuntha was married to the Visigoth Eutharic who was proclaimed Theoderic’s successor. But disaster struck with his death in 522. His young son was named heir in 526—the year of Theoderic’s death—and he ascended the throne with his mother as regent. However, Athalaric proved unfit and died young, prompting a traitorous cousin Theodahad to imprison the queen mother, murder her, and declare himself king in 535. These instabilities provided the perfect pretext for Justinian and he commanded his best general, Belisarius, to recapture Rome from the barbarians.

The stage was now set, and hell itself was unleashed upon Italy.

For the next five years, armies trampled the length of Italy, killing, burning, and pillaging. Two different Eastern armies were in the field against the Gothic forces while forces of Franks and Burgundians intermittently popped over the Alps to aid one side or the other, each time sating their own appetites for plunder. Several Gothic kings rose and fell over the course of the war until Ravenna, the Gothic capital in the north fell to Belisarius in 540. The Gothic king, Witiges, and his immediate court were sent to Constantinople where he died shortly thereafter.

Wars bring famine. Growing fields are trampled by marching boots and drenched in blood, supplies are horded, stolen, or burned as armies seek to feed themselves and deny food to their enemies. The peasantry is conscripted as cannon fodder and put to the sword. War on its own is bad enough. But a strange weather event—likely caused by the eruption of one or more volcanoes in the Americas—devastated harvests across the globe in 536. Procopius, the Eastern chronicler of the Gothic Wars, recounts that the sun’s brightness was dimmed and it seemed like a constant state of eclipse. Irish chronicles report failure of the harvests from 536 until 539. Chinese chronicles report not only crop failures but snow falling in August. In Italy, food already scarce thanks to continuing violence became ever more scarce. But worse even than the famine was a virulence somehow aided by the unseasonal weather.

As the Eastern reconquest of Italy seemed complete, the situation destabilized further. Plague swept across the known world in a toxic wave. Starting from rats in China, the first recorded transcontinental pandemic swept across the Eurasian continent initially killing somewhere around 25 million people, roughly 13% of the global population. Constantinople was hammered, and Justinian himself fell ill but recovered. The bacterial culprit, Yersina pestis, is the very same bug responsible for the Black Death in fourteenth century Europe and the English Plague Year of 1666. Just as the Black Death upended European society and set a new course for the Late Middle Ages, so the Plague of Justinian (as it came to be known) caused similar repercussions across the Early Medieval world.

The plague swept through Italy in 542; the Eastern armies were hit hard. This event, combined with renewed hostilities with Persians on their Eastern borders drawing off troops and generals, inspired a Gothic revolt. The war in Italy rekindled and would continue to burn for another twelve years. Eastern armies returned to tramp the length of Italy, devastation reigned unchecked, and the Italian aristocracy largely fled to Constantinople for safety. Finally, in 554 Justinian issued his Pragmatic Sanction restoring lands in Italy to the Roman aristocracy displacing barbarian landholders, and in 555 the final fighting force of Goths surrendered.

At one point in the renewed fighting, during a Gothic recapture of the city, Procopius gives us another glimpse of the population of Rome: “Among the common people, however, it so fell out that only five hundred men were left in the whole city, and these with difficulty found refuge in sanctuaries. The rest of the population was gone, some having departed to other lands and some having been carried off by the famine, as I explained” (Procopius, Wars 7.20.19-20). That’s a drop from 800,000 people in the fourth century to 500 in the middle of the sixth century.

Italy was once again in Roman hands. The Empire, though now securely centered in the East, once more claimed Rome, its ancestral home. But at what a cost! The death toll has been estimated to be as high as five million souls. In terms of resources, one estimate puts the cost of the war on the Eastern treasury at 300,000 pounds of gold. James O’Donnell offers a look at the financial cost from another direction: Justinian inherited a treasury containing 28 million solidi; his wars cost about 36 million solidi with 21.5 million of that going to the war in Italy. Indeed, the final two years cost roughly half of the full amount. And this account doesn’t even factor in his spending on building campaigns back in Constantinople. Since, in a good year the Empire would bring in 5 million solidi, his warlike pretensions left the East deeply in debt. A veritable fortune in finances but even more so in human lives was squandered in this largely symbolic recapturing of the Roman homeland. And the last indignity was yet to be suffered.

Only three years after the death of Justinian, in 568, the Germanic Lombards moved south en masse and stripped Italy from its nominally Roman masters. A new flood of pillaging and killing undid any reconstruction since the end of the Gothic War. While Eastern control would linger in some regions for hundreds of years, the Lombard conquest permanently finished the Eastern dream of a renewed Roman Empire around the Mediterranean basin. Weakened by fighting in Italy and by ravages on its northern and eastern borders by barbarians and Persians alike, the Eastern Empire never attempted to retake Italy and focused on its own survival.

Truly, the Italian sixth century deserves the label of “Dark Age” as misery upon misery swept through the peninsula.

Historical/Fantasy Authors Take Note

Alice Hicklin tweeting as @AngloSaxonist is one of my favorite medieval tweeters. She sends out terrific images of mostly Early Medieval artifacts, and if you have any interest in the material culture of this period or just like pretty things, I definitely recommend you follow her!

This one came across today:

 

Here’s the point I want to make.

It’s November so everybody and their brother who thinks they can write a historical fiction or fantasy novel is toying with the idea of doing so. Please, learn an important lesson from this beautiful reliquary. While gemstones could be polished, cutting and faceting is a relatively late technology. Some crystals do appear in natural shapes that look like or suggest faceting, but the actual cutting of gems didn’t happen until the late medieval period and the Renaissance.

Pretty sparkly gems in your story are fine, but if the technology level is Early Medieval, gems would be in the cabochon style seen here, not faceted cuts!

I’ll save my rant on the ridiculous paucity of bucklers in historical fiction and fantasy (as in the end of this post) for another day…

Radegund and the Psalter

I’m focusing a lot of energy right now on my Cassiodorus/Psalms book and not getting a whole lot else done… I’m hoping to post here more regularly, but at the moment, most of my thoughts are occupied in the early medieval psalter… So here’s something from that!

I’ve been pondering why non-fiction books like The Art of Fermentation and Salt: A World History can become NYT Best Sellers. It has to do with well-told stories and effective hooks.  Reflecting on this, the story that I want to tell here is about far more than a single late patristic commentary on a single book of the Bible. Thus, I’m doing some experimenting with a starting hook to draw readers is, suggesting why this topic might actually be interesting after all… Here’s a shot at it—let me know what you think!


Radegund was furious. Of this, there can be no doubt. Her husband had crossed her for the last time, and she set a plan in motion to free herself from him once and for all. Within a short time she had the two letters that she needed: the one giving her leverage and the one that confirmed her spiritual path.

Sixth-century France was a hard place to be a woman. The land was in turmoil, Franks, Burgundians, and Lombards struggled for power, and violence spilled out from Italy as the Roman Emperor in the East tired to reassert his authority over his lost lands in the West. In addition to the perennial dangers of sickness and death in childbirth, war brought increased threat of rape and violent death along with its constant companions, famine and pestilence; the Plague of Justinian, one of the first recorded worldwide pandemics, swept through the Mediterranean world in the 540’s devastating Constantinople, Italy, and ravaging Gaul. While war and its effects are always hardest upon the poor, nobility was no guarantee of safety: Radegund’s life was proof of that.

Born a Thuringian princess, her uncle betrayed and slaughtered her father and took her into his household while she was yet a small child. But her uncle’s betrayals bore bitter fruit as spurned allies, the four sons of the Frankish king Clovis, sacked Thuringia, and Radegund—now 11—was carried off, fated to be the wife of one of the victorious brothers, Chlothar. Imprisoned in a villa in the north of modern France, Radegund learned reading, writing, and religion before she was married to Chlothar as his sixth wife in the year 540 at the age of 20.

By all accounts, the marriage was not a happy one. And, indeed, why would it be? Chlothar had been part of the original alliance that had killed her father, and he was marrying her largely to legitimate his claim to Thuringia. While Clothar was an indifferent Christian at best, Radegund was fiercely devoted to her faith and ascetic ideals—including virginity. While Chlothar’s women bore him seven legitimate children and there were rumors of many more unacknowledged offspring, Radegund remained childless. The joke around the palace was that Chlothar’s latest wife was a nun, not a queen.

The last straw came right around the year 550. Chlothar’s men murdered the last surviving male member of the Thuringian royal line: Radegund’s brother. Radegund was furious, and refused to put up with it any more. She fled the palace, triggering a set of events that she had apparently thought through beforehand and cultivated strategically as she suffered through her unhappy marriage. She wrote letters to the most influential bishops in the area—undoubtedly some of her almsgiving in the years before had predisposed them in her favor whether for pious motives or base ones—and shortly she had in hand a letter that history still possesses. She proposed the establishment of the first religious community for women in the Frankish Empire where she would live according to Rule of Caesarius of Arles. The letter, signed by a host of prelates, supported her plan. It included the most dire threats for any woman who took religious vows and then wished to forsake the community and return to the world and marriage. Conversely (and more to the point) it likewise threatened anathema and damnation to any man who would attempt to remove any of the women from the religious enclosure.

The other letter that Radegund had been looking for was the blessing of Caesaria II of Arles. Caesaria, abbess of a convent in the Visigothic city of Arles, was the successor of the the first Caesaria who had been the sister of the influential bishop and theologian Caesarius of Arles. Caesarius had written a rule of life for his sister’s community, and in this letter, Caesaria II not only sends her community’s rule to Radegund as the queen had commanded, but also gave her advice based on her experience. In commending the rule, Caesaria wrote this line which neatly captures three central themes, not just of Caesaria and Radegund’s lives and spirituality, but of the time and place that we will be considering. She wrote: “Let none of those [women] entering [the community] not learn letters; let all hold the psalter in memory and, as I have said, be zealous to carry out in all things what you read in the gospel.”

The first key element here is the emphasis on the psalms. This phrasing here—“hold the psalter in memory”—could simply mean something like “don’t forget about the psalms” or “don’t forget to say the psalms,” but it doesn’t. Instead, it means “make sure that everybody has all of the psalms memorized.” Looking back over the rest of Caesaria’s letter it’s quite obvious that she was following her own advice. The letter is littered with Scripture quotations; over half of these come from one book of the Bible: the Psalms. Likewise, she wasn’t telling Radegund anything new, either. The brief “Life of Radegund” written by her friend and correspondent Venantius Fortunatus mentions the psalms early and often as a part of her spiritual life as well as her devotion to singing the “hours,” a form of liturgical prayer grounded in the recitation of the psalms. Fortunatus gives us glimpses of Radegund’s future describing how, as a child, she would organize the other children and lead them into the chapel in a procession singing the psalms. Later, she would duck out of royal banquets to attend the worship of the hours, singing psalms as she left and checking to make sure the leftovers would be given to the poor.

You can only imagine how the psalms would have spoken to Radegund and sustained her as she endured her situation, married to the man responsible for the deaths of her father, uncle (however traitorous), and brother. How many times might Psalm 94 (“O Lord God of vengeance, O God of vengeance show yourself. Rise up, O Judge of the world; give the arrogant their just desserts…”) have passed through her head as she lay in bed next to her husband.

The second key element in Caesaria’s letter was the emphasis on literacy. While the phrasing sounds a bit odd in English, “Let none of those [women] entering [the community] not learn letters,” the double negatives have an emphatic sense in Latin, underscoring the importance that everyone—no matter what their origin or social station—be taught how to read. As we continue, we’ll explore the close connection between the psalms and literacy in the early medieval world. Indeed, one of the terms for being literate was to be psalteratus: knowing your psalms. In a world where literacy was not common, and where women’s literacy in particular was not prized, the insistence on making sure that women of all classes within the community are able to read is a fascinating one.

The third key element is the mention of the gospels in relation to the psalms. Modern Protestants in particular may have a number of assumptions about the early medieval church, one of which is that the Bible was rarely read and even more rarely understood. Yet Caesaria makes it plain that she expects Radegund and all of the women to be reading the gospels as their most fundamental source for instruction:

Though it be holy and good and laudable that you desire to live by the Rule, there is no greater, better, more precious nor more splendid doctrine than the reading of the gospel. See this, hold this, which our Lord and master Christ taught by words and fulfilled by example, who made so many miracles in the world that they can not be counted, and sustained so many ills from his persecutors through patience, that can scarcely be believed.

The words and examples of Jesus are central to the ideal this holy woman lifts up.

Out of all of Scripture, these two sections—the psalms and the gospels—are given special attention. Coming from a liturgical perspective this is hardly surprising because in commending these texts to Radegund, Caesaria is highlighting the two central texts of the two central forms of worship in the church of that time. The Liturgy of the Hours (also called the Divine Office) centered around the psalms; the Eucharist (or the Mass) centered around the gospels. But, coming from a spiritual perspective, Caesaria and Radegund would have both deeply believed that the two sections of Scripture were inextricably bound together: the heart and soul of Jesus was not just laid plain by the Gospels but was complemented and completed by the psalms. The Gospels made manifest his outward words and deeds; the psalms made manifest his inward thoughts and feelings. We will see exactly how this logic works as we go, but understanding and appreciating this link is crucial for grasping the medieval perspective on Jesus.

And Radegund? She got her community. In fact, her husband even donated the land the land for it. (After a friendly bishop had threatened him with excommunication if he wouldn’t come through!) Originally named the Abbey of St. Mary, you may have heard one of the songs celebrating its name change. In 567, Radegund and her abbey received a relic of the True Cross from the Byzantine Emperor. In honor of the event the name of the community was changed to the Abbey of the Holy Cross and Radegund’s friend Fortunatus wrote a hymn for the occasion, Vexilla regis prodeunt, translated in many hymnals as “The royal banners forward go.” When Radegund died in 587, she was buried in a chapel near the abbey. Soon venerated as a saint, the chapel was renamed the Church of St. Radegund and remains a parish church today in Poitiers.

Despite the hardships of her life—perhaps because of the hardships of her life—Radegund’s faith remained strong and powerful. Her life story recounts episode after episode focused on care for the sick, the poor, the hungry, and the neglected. She used her power to create a safe space for herself and other women—rigorous and not without its own challenges to be sure—but a place where learning and faith and female authority would be respected for centuries to come. And her experience of the psalms lies at the center of it all.

Early Medieval Reading and the Derivative Charge

I wrote this chunk of text this morning for the Cassiodorus books. It’s a work in progress. I don’t think it’s fully decided what argument it’s tackling and I have the feeling that it might be astride two related but different topics. In any case, I thought I’d float it out here…

[rule style=”rule-shadow” ]

My middle-school aged daughter plays a literary game with her friends. One person will write a paragraph, then they will pass the paper along to the next person. They, then, write the next paragraph of the story before passing it to another. As young, undisciplined writers, each person often only brings their own ideas and preoccupations and ideas about what makes a story good or fun or funny. As you can imagine, it doesn’t take long at all before the evolving story becomes quite silly! Characters appear and disappear at a whim and act with no consistent motives or plans. The attempted tale is usually a disjointed band of paragraphs whose unity is largely based in the fact that they occupy the same sheet of paper, not because of any true storyline or coherent idea.

On the other hand, I used to play that same game with some of my English-major friends in college. One would start with a paragraph and hand it off to the next—just as in the middle-school version. But what happened next would be quite different. A new paragraph would appear, yes, but its construction would arise from the paragraph before it and would interweave themes or structures or details from the previous paragraphs grounded in a knowledge of the previous allusions and intentions and based in a familiarity with the person passing round the page. Sophisticated narratives would arise within minutes as each person brought depth, insight, and an awareness of where the other people were coming from. Not simply a game, these could be experiences of surprising intimacy as we shared our own thoughts and sought to blend our own ideas and feelings with what had gone on the page before us.

The difference between the middle school version and the college version is intentionality, sensitivity, and skill. In both cases each subsequent author is building on the work that has come before. The middle school version usually disregards what has come before or engages it in a cursory fashion—the authors are usually more interested in shaping the story according to their own ideas and desires. The college version allows the plot to unfold as it will, and skillful authors will temper their desires to put their own mark on the story by discerning where the communal plot seems to be taking it, and permitting it to flower in that direction.

Early medieval scripture interpretation is often accused of being “derivative.” That is, it is simply copying that which came before, usually the works of the Church Fathers which are conventionally defined as the writers of the first 500 years. Sometimes the last of the western Church Fathers is identified as Gregory the Great, the reforming pope who died in 604. Others reckon the final Western Father as the Venerable Bede who died around 735.

Is this a fair charge? Well—there’s derivative and then there’s derivative… Some early medieval authors were little more than copyists. And before we dismiss copyists, we’ll remember again that the work of preserving the wisdom of former times was an essential activity in a time where the only books that would survive were those that got copied in the first place!  Others were editors. Yes, they might only have copied down the words of others, but they made intelligent decisions about what material to copy and for what purpose. A skillful digest or extract can preserve the genius of an earlier authors work in far less space particularly if that writer had a tendency to ramble. Cassiodorus recognized his contemporaries Eugippius and Dionysius Exiguus in his own day as doing this kind of work. However, other early medieval interpreters had the skill and sensitivity to enter into the work of their earlier partners in reading. They communicated what they found there but also allowed the flowering of the plot line of holy Scripture that their predecessor had noticed.

Relegating early medieval interpretive work to the derivative bin is a modern judgment based on the modern condition. Merely communicating things that other people said is not necessary in our time and place. We can always go back to the original text or look it up on the Internet. There was no such luxury in the early medieval world.Communicating wise things that other people said will always have value. Identifying something profound and bringing it to the attention of others is an important work of communication. In the early medieval world, such work prevented wisdom from being lost when the destruction of written documents was a real danger. In the modern world, careful curation prevents wisdom from being drowned out in an environment of constant communication where the noise-to-signal ratio conspires to fill our ears with the static of frivolity or venality. But building intelligently off the work of our forebearers is just as essential now as it was then. In order to do this well, though, we must steep ourselves in the wisdom of our forebearers, test the wisdom against our own insight and our own repeated experiences of reading and prayer, and then allow the plot of holy Scripture to unfold and flower according to its ways, rather than attempting to force it in the direction we would have it go.

If the modern world accuses the early medieval of being derivative, the early medieval world would charge the modern with the error of novelty: that we are constantly coming up with something new simply for the sake doing something new. In our lust for the new and different, we frequently fail to take deep stock of what has come before us and to consider why some paths were taken and others avoided, which avenues will lead to human flourishing and the flourishing of our actual embodied communities rather than games that serve only for intellectual diversion. It’s the difference in attentiveness between the paragraphs of middle schoolers who can’t wait to put their own mark on a narrative rather than a more mature and substantial reflection to see where the plot is unfolding of its own accord.
When we look at early medieval writing, we have to see it against its own environment and understand the pressures that conspired against the handing on of wisdom. We must judge the works we have received with an awareness of the challenges of the time. But—more than that—studying these writings will attune us to that sensitivity of spirit that enters into the forebearers’ works and continue them rather than simply introducing novelty into the discussion for novelty’s own sake.

This is the struggle that faces us and—in truth—the task that I invite you into. As readers of the Scriptures, as interpreters in our own right, we will read better, clearer, deeper, when we learn how to do two things. First, we must learn to listen to our own voices as readers and interpreters, and trust our own abilities to hear with sensitivity the Word within the biblical text itself. We can be channels for the Holy Spirit and to fail to listen to our own interpretive voices may be an unintentional means of muffling the voice of the Spirit echoing within us. Second, we must engage the tradition we have inherited in such a way in order that our own insights will confirm, strengthen, and clarify the directions in which the plot of Scripture—the relationship between God and God’s people—is unfolding in our own places and times. Not coming up with something new for the heck of it or presenting a novel interpretation for its shock value and its ability to scandalize the faithful (a game in vogue in the twentieth-century academy), but building on the generations and generations of faithful witness before us for the enrichment of the whole Body of Christ.