Category Archives: Medieval Stuff

Revised Trial Offices for the Dead

The trial Offices for the Dead that I posted have been seeing some use, and I have received feedback on them. I’ve finally incorporated that feedback into a new pdf version which I’m calling Revision 1.1.

Here are the changes contained in this version:

  • Venite antiphon changed from “O come, let us worship” to “: Come let us adore him.” as in prayer book MP
  • “Rest eternal * grant unto them, O LORD/And let light perpetual * shine upon them.” changed from two bicola to one: “Rest eternal grant unto them, O LORD: */And let light perpetual shine upon them.”
  • Lord’s Prayer offered in Traditional language alongside Contemporary.
  • Minor punctuation corrections
  • In MP2/EP2 “soul of your servant” for “soul of thy servant” in Collect for Recent Dead
  • All occurrences of “LORD” regularized as “LORD”
  • MP2/EP2 Prayer for the Church “eternal” regularized as “ETERNAL”
  • Rite I versions added by request

The major item is the last (Rite I versions added by request). While I prefer to use Rite I when I pray, I recognize that it is not currently the norm across the Episcopal Church. My initial concern was that If I released these in Rite I, they might be seen as by and for a niche community rather than the church at large. 

However, one of the priests who was providing me with feedback said that she and her community would prefer to have them in Rite I. So–it made sense to include them in the revised form.

This PDF groups the contemporary language offices first–Morning & Evening Prayer-Form 1, then Morning & Evening Prayer-Form 2, then the traditional language offices: Morning & Evening Prayer-Form 1, then Morning & Evening Prayer-Form 2

If you do use these, please do give me some feedback on your experience of using them—what works, what doesn’t, what could be added or deleted.

The Liturgical Contexts of Julian of Norwich

The Liturgical Contexts of Julian of Norwich

Things have been quiet here, and this is one of the big reasons why. In addition to the Prayer Book Studies project, I’ve been putting together a talk for Julianfest, the gathering of Associates, Oblates, and Affiliates of the Order of Julian of Norwich. It took place this week and was a thoroughly delightful time—I finally met Fr. John-Julian in the flesh, as well as Marguerite and other long-time readers!

Here is the prepared section of my talk. It doesn’t contain the great questions during it or the musings that occurred as we looked through picture at the end. Before you read through this, you’ll also want to make reference to:

The Handout


The Slides with All of the Pictures

So, once you have those, here’s the talk…

The Liturgical Contexts of Dame Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love

1 Introduction

The Anglican turned Roman Catholic priest Ronald Knox is responsible for the quip that Mysticism begins with “mist” and ends with “schism.” And, indeed, the modern encounter with much medieval mysticism tends to treat it this way. God is a warm fuzzy ball of light—it says so right here in Meister Eckhardt or Mechtild of Madgeburg—or Julian of Norwich. As a result, our writers and thinkers get coopted by a syncretistic New Age mélange that draws on spiritual authorities of the ages in order to say, “I’m ok, you’re ok—or at least you will be once you’re as enlightened as I am…”

What modern people usually forget about the medieval mystics is that the majority of them were liturgical professionals. The order of their days was shaped by the appointed liturgies of the Church—the Mass and the Offices—and, that’s the correct context for understanding them. So, yes, they might write something that sounds like God is a big fuzzy ball of light, but you have to remember that they’ve already said or sung the Creed at least four times by that point in the day, and they’d likely say or sing it another four by the time they went to bed. And thus we read the mystics best when we read them through and in relation to the liturgies that they experienced on an almost constant basis.

2  The liturgical context of the anchoritic experience

2.1 Psalters and, later, books of hours as the premiere devotional materials for well-off Northwest European devotion

When we look at the lay spirituality of medieval England, we’ll notice that it takes part in a broader tradition that we see across northern France, Burgundy, and the Low Countries and, indeed, many of the resources for English spirituality were produced in artistic centers like Paris, Flanders, and Bruges.

Lay spirituality largely followed patterns laid down in monastic practice. As the mendicant movements took off, their forms of spirituality would be passed on to the laity as well, but at the heart of medieval spirituality lay the Psalter. We see psalters being translated in English for the use of the laity as early as the Anglo-Saxon period as part of Alfred’s flowering of English as a literary language, we see monastic style prayer services being adopted in the households of lay nobles in the writings of ælfric in the 10th century.

2.2 Psalters generally

Liturgical psalters, originally the same versions used in monastic liturgies, were either gifted to or created for lay nobles. We see liturgical psalters fusing with devotional psalters by the time we begin heading into the High Middle Ages. Now, a liturgical psalter is more than just a collection of the 150 psalms. Certainly it has those, but it also includes a liturgical calendar, it includes the canticles and hymns used in the full Daily Office, the litany, suffrages to saints, and it also includes the shorter devotional offices that developed following the model of the regular offices.

The earliest of these is the little Office of the Blessed Virgin which developed in Benedictine circles in the mid eighth century and filtered out into broader monastic and lay use by the 10th century. The basic format was copied for a variety of other supplementary offices like the Hours of the Passion, the Hours of the Trinity, and the Hours of the Holy Spirit. These had the traditional seven plus one hours (sometimes fewer) for use at specific times of the day. Also dating from the 7th or 8th century is the Office of the Dead which consisted of only three hours in two blocks, Matins and Lauds of the Dead (which were often said together) and a Vespers of the Dead.

There’s a distinction I want to draw your attention to here: there are two kinds of these cut-down Daily Office “things.” There are “Offices”: These contain psalms and other parts and are longer. The “Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary” and the “Offices of the Dead” are the two most common of these. Then there are “Hours”; these don’t have Psalms and tend to be said either in place of or after a full-on Office which don’t have Psalms and are usually just Opening Versicles, a stanza of a hymn, then a Memorial which is a little liturgical packet composed of an antiphon/versicle & response/collect packet. Usually the materials for the Trinity, The Passion and the Holy Spirit are just Hours with no psalms, but you will also find some books from some periods that will have full-on offices for these devotions as well.

2.3 The Carrow Psalter, Specifically

The book that kicked off this whole topic is a Psalter that lives in the Walters Art Museum which is a mile away from my house in Baltimore. If you’re an expert in all things Julian, you may well recognize the first part of the name. Carrow Abbey is a Benedictine priory in southeast Norwich founded in the year 1145. According to some theories, Julian may have been trained at Carrow Abbey; of course, that’s not Fr. John-Julian’s take on it, and I’m not about to dispute his expertise! However, he does note that Carrow Abbey played a role in Julian’s life as they were had some authority over the parish.

The Carrow Psalter was created in East Anglia in the middle of the thirteenth century. At some point thereafter it arrived at Carrow Abbey from which it gets its name. In all likelihood, it was there during Julian’s lifetime. Could she have seen it? Who knows… It’s a tantalizing thought. We’ll never know for sure, but there’s no doubt that even if she never held or looked at this particular book, she certainly would have seen others just like it. As a result, this is the perfect book from which to get a sense of the kind of liturgical manuscripts Julian would have known and used.

2.3.1  Overview of the Contents

This is a typical liturgical psalter of the period, meaning that it contains not only the psalms but a full complement of the liturgical extras needed to properly pray a high medieval cycle of offices and additional devotions.

It contains an initial section of saints with full-page images, devotions and collects; two cycles of biblical images; a Kalendar; the 150 Psalms; Canticles; the Litany, petitions and collects; the Office of the Dead; the Hours of the Virgin; and the Psalter of the Virgin. So—no Hours of the Holy Spirit or the Trinity, or even the Passion. But, it does have the two cycles of images which are quite interesting. Let’s take a look at some of these sections…

  • Quick look at the Image and prayers for Barnabas and John
  • Biblical Cycle
    • OT focuses exclusively on Adam & Eve, then directly to Christ
    • The handing of the shovel calls to mind the long chapter 51 of the Showings where Julian talks about the lord and the laborer; the Lord dressed in blue with brown hair sitting on the ground and the laborer in his dirty white tunic who is a gardener.
    • I’m not trying to say that there’s any direct connection between this picture and that showing. What I am pointing out is the visual connection and correspondence between Adam the laborer and Christ the Lord who is giving him direction. This picture is certainly representative of the kinds of pictures that would show up in these kinds of books.
    • The life of Christ moves through the Incarnation to the Temptation directly to Holy Week.
    • It’s a little hard to see some of the details so I’m blowing up the Arrest and Flogging, and also the Crucifixion itself.
    • This is definitely a Gothic crucifixion as opposed to an early medieval one, the central difference being that there’s no question that this is a dead Christ on the Cross
    • Then we have the Deposition, the Empty tomb, the Harrowing of Hell, then the moment of resurrection itself with Jesus actively stepping from the tomb.
    • Then we have the resurrection appearances: Thomas touching the side-wound of Christ, The Ascension, Pentecost and then a final image that we should look at more closely
    • Before we get there, here’s a detail of the Harrowing of Hell and the Moment of Resurrection. I want you to notice something here—that is, this is definitely a bloody Christ. Even as a resurrected body, the wounds of Christ are still conspicuously bleeding. And we’ll continue to see this as well.
    • On the left we have Pentecost with the dove descending; on the right we have an image known as the Throne of Grace. This is an image that you will see a lot when looking at depictions of the Trinity in this period and going forward. This is going to be one of the most dominant images of the Trinity. This is an early version as it just shows God the Father holding the Cross containing the crucified Son. In later periods, we’ll see the Spirit as a dove hovering right above the head of the Son—but that’s not in the picture quite yet.
    • The last image from this cycle is the Last Judgement.
    • That’s the end of the first cycle of images. Think about it for a minute: This is an attempt to convey the entire span of the biblical salvation narrative in 34 images. We have Adam—we have Christ. Of these, we have only two full page images where a single folio is devoted to one image—the first is the angel giving Adam the shovel and Eve the distaff; the second is the Last Judgment. This is biblical interpretation at work—this act of selection is a weighing and parsing of what events are the most fundamental, the most significant. Furthermore, the choices about layout and size are interpretive decisions. This framing of the narrative of salvation is going to have an impact on the people who are using these books, looking at these images day after day, week after week, decade after decade.
    • There’s a second cycle that follows the first—this is just scenes from the life of Christ which hit just the high points of Incarnation and Redemption: the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, the Presentation in the Temple, Carrying the Cross with a display of the instruments of the passion, the nails and the crown of thorns. We’ll just glance at these two images.
  • The Calendar
    • Then we’ve got the Calendar—this is a pretty standard one, that is localized to the East Anglia area. Folks like Botulph of Bury, Felix of Durwich, Withburga, Edmund, and Sexburga let us know that this manuscript is written in the general area. No real surprises here; there are a lot of English saints, so May has Dunstan and Aldhelm and Augustine of Canterbury; it’s also got the old Roman and North African saints, so all in all, what you’d expect from a native English calendar.
  • The Psalter
    • The bulk of the manuscript is occupied by the Psalms. This is the start of Psalm 27 (The Lord is my light and my salvation)—as is normal in historiated initials like this one, David indicates his eye referencing the “light” mentioned in the text. The text is clear and well written; verses are indicated by small initials that alternate between blue and gold. The mediant is indicated either by a point or by a punctuation mark that looks like an upside-down semi-colon. There are a few abbreviations but nothing too crazy. Psalms that don’t start with a historiated initial get a large gold one. Clear—easy to pray from.
  • After the initial color and decoration of the beginning of the manuscript, there’s not a whole lot of it in the later section. After the Psalms, the Canticles, Litany, and the Little Offices don’t have a whole lot of decoration to distinguish one from another.
  • The Canticles follow on immediately after the Psalms with no indication of a break. Just like the psalms, you have alternating marginal initials and each new Canticle is indicated by a large gold initial
  • The Litany of Saints
    • After the saints the litany moves into the abs, the pers, and the uts just as ours does
  • The Office of the Dead also contains no clear visual signals that it has started
  • When we finally get to the Little Office of the BVM, we do finally get some splashes of color but instead of the normal sequence of images, we just get some heraldic insignia representing a family who owned the book in the sixteenth century, likely modifying some original images.
  • Finally, the book concludes with the Psalter of the BVM, a Franciscan devotional creation attributed to St. Bonaventure and his circle. With that we do get one more image—and it’s a historiated initial with a man kneeling before the Virgin and child. This is likely the original owner of the manuscript, the guy who commissioned it.
    • This is something I want to comment on: we see this a lot—patrons included in a scene with Christ or Mary or—more normally, Christ and Mary. And, not in this case, but especially in later works, we see them holding the book itself.
    • What these images are getting across is the mentality of the prayer book—the book serves as a vehicle to bring the pray-er into the direct presence of Christ and his mother. This is a powerful and important claim.
  • So—the Carrow Psalter: This is a book that Julian might have seen and it certainly stands as representative of the kind of devotional psalters that were in favor amongst the nobility in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
  • Now, we can both compare and contrast that with another Psalter—this is the Burnet Psalter
    • If I had to remark on the differences, it’s that we see the entrance of three big pieces: Indulgenced prayers, Franciscan, and Brigittine affective spirituality.
  • After that we see a shift to a new kind of book which will take these themes and run with them.

2.4 Books of Hours generally

Now—the thing about these early psalters is that they’re big. In form factor, they’re large. The original ones had to be because they had to be big enough for a couple of monks to share them while they were singing in choir. They drop in size as they become books for lay use; so 10 inches by 7 inches is fairly standard for devotional psalters by the end of the thirteenth century but they’re still thick. We see a shift in the fourteenth century in lay spirituality from full Psalters to the Books of Hours which are the direct descendants of the liturgical psalters.

When it comes to contents, the Books of Hours—as the name implies—doubles down on the Little Hours and Little Offices as the primary locus for lay spirituality. Again—there’s lots of variation here, but here are some of the standard contents for a high medieval book of hours:

  • The Little Office of the BVM
  • the Gradual Psalms
  • the Penitential Psalms
  • Litany of the Saints
  • the Office of the Dead
  • additional prayers, devotions, and memorials

They’re certainly spiritually continuous with the Psalters but with three major differences. First, they only have some of the psalms instead of all of them. Second, they’re a lot smaller. These are books for individuals to pray from and with individually. Third, these tend to be highly decorated art objects with full page pictures of biblical events and saints with all manner of additional materials packed into the initials and borders of the pages. These are important devotional objects—but they’re also an important form of medieval bling. They could be hung off the belt in a cloth or a little mesh bag so they could be appreciated and a lady could casually take it out and page through it, showing off the beautiful artistry and fine borders, in a display of not just her piety but also her wealth and good taste. So—in addition to being spiritual texts they were also a form of conspicuous consumption.

2.5 The Loftie Hours, Specifically

Now, there are some really rich and sumptuous Books of Hours. Any owned by Jean, duc de berry qualify for that. I’ll probably sprinkle in some material from the Bedford Hours a little later and show you what that looks like. But not all of these were totally high-end manuscripts. There was some basic stuff too, so I’m going to show you a more simplistic version to start with called the Loftie Hours. This one was written in the mid-fifteenth century—so, probably within 25 years of Julian’s death or so. And it was written in the Netherlands. There are two main ways that we know that. The first is that the calendar is of the Use of Utrecht. The other way we know is because the book is written entirely in Dutch. There are a few reasons I want to show you this one. I’ll give you two right off. First, the artistic style is quite interesting. Second, the particular devotional material pulled together here is very pertinent to our topic and I think connects in some clear and interesting ways to what Julian is up to.

We’re not going to walk through everything here, rather I want us to hit the high points. Let’s start with a look at the contents…

  • Table of Contents
    • Pretty Basic for a Book of Hours
  • Calendar
    • Simple and clear, not nearly as embellished as what we see with others
  • Hours of the Cross
    • The grisaille style: drawn with lamp black then colored in. It’s not because they didn’t have colors, rather, it gives it a certain effect.
    • The first time I saw the deposition in this grisaille style, I immediately thought of Julian’s description of the drying out of the body of Christ
  • Imago Pietatis: The Image of Piety and the Man of Sorrows. We’re going to take this up as a major topic in just a little bit…
  • Last Judgement is in the midst of a set of prayers to Christ
  • The Vernacle—Julian specifically mentions this at the start of the description of the Second Showing in chapter 10
    • She didn’t have to go to Rome or have anyone else go—it’s a very common image in the Books of Hours.
  • The 5 wounds.
  • Office of the Dead
    • This one is pretty tame; there will be some much wilder and more colorful images associated with this later like the 3 living and the 3 dead. (What you are, we were/ What we are, you will be)
    • Reminds me of the Showing of the dead body in Chapter 64. There are many of these: dead bodies with souls coming out of them and also angels and demons fighting over souls that have just left their bodies.

Here’s why this is important. The prayer of the anchoresses, as far as contemporary sources show us, is grounded in the use of the Little Offices as we find them in both the psalters and the Books of Hours. These are their central liturgical texts that they’re praying day in and day out. In the Carrow Psalter the images petered out after the Psalter—with the books of Hours you’re going to see a lot more of images and they are going to be much more thoroughly integrated across the volume and within the text. The images that the anchoresses would have seen in these kinds of books would no doubt have shaped their devotional sense of the life and death of Jesus, specifically, the events of the passion.

2.6 The liturgical pattern as reflected in the Ancrene Wisse

One of the surviving sources that tells us about anchorite liturgical practice is the Ancrene Wisse. Written in Middle English sometime between 1200 and 1230 (so—a good 150 years before Julian), the initial chapter of the work lays out the liturgical work of the anchoress.

At the heart of it is the recitation of the Hours of the Blessed Virgin, the Office of the Dead, and a set of devotions that draw from the Hours of the Trinity, the Hours of the Passion, and the Hours of the Holy Spirit. The Penitential Psalms and the Gradual Psalms are interspersed with liturgical sections meditating on the Passion of Christ giving us, essentially, an Office directed to each of the 5 wounds of Jesus.  The Litany is included as well as the 5 Joys of Mary which is a long and substantial Office in and of itself as well. [See the slides for the layout…]

2.7 The liturgical pattern as reflected in the Myroure of Oure Layde

We see a similar—similar, not identical—set up in the Myroure of Oure Layde which was written for the Brigittine Sisters of Sion at Isleworth on the Thames established in 1415, within Julian’s lifetime. John Blunt, the 19th century liturgist and antiquarians who edited this work for the Early English Text Society in 1873, put its composition sometime between 1415 and 1450, most likely in the 1430’s but—again—around the same time period as Julian.

The Sisters of Sion prayed the Hours of the Blessed Virgin together in choir in Latin—but not all of them understood Latin. The Myroure was written to solve that particular problem. It goes line by line through the liturgy, explaining what it means in English and also giving a variety of liturgical and ritual directions complete with reasons why these things are done. Now—many of these are quite fanciful but their purpose is to explain and instruct so that the sisters can pray more profitably.

I’m not going to go into much detail on the Myroure at this point, but I do want to make a few points about it. First, Brigittine spirituality is a major strand of lay English spirituality, especially women’s spirituality. The Fifteen Oes of St. Brigit are going to become huge and they are an important means of affectively meditating on the Passion of Christ and seeing it from the perspective of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Second, note the emphasis on the presence of the vernacular for the understanding of the women. They wanted to make sure that the women understood the Latin texts they were praying so they put it into the vernacular.

I know this seems out of place, but let me jump back to the Loftie Hours for just a moment. When I was looking at this book, thinking about the kinds of images it had, and the liturgies it had, thinking about the fact that it was in Dutch—in the vernacular—I found myself wondering if it belonged to a woman… It really seemed to fit with what we see in the Ancrene Wisse and the Myroure so I approached it from that direction. Well, lo and behold, there’s a partially erased inscription that has been partially reconstructed…

“Hof” means “court” or “courtyard” in Dutch. Who knows if we’ll ever figure out exactly what that means. However—if we’re left free to speculate—might this women live in or by a courtyard because she’s enclosed there? Could this be an anchoress’s book of hours? It’s entirely possible…

3    The Julian Turn

At this point I want to transition into the directly Julian items which means that, I need to make a confession. I am not a Julian scholar. To be totally honest with you, I’ve never read the full Revelations of Divine Love, and the time that I’ve spent with it preparing for this talk is my longest sustained engagement with it ever. Prior to this I’ve read about it and have read a few short excerpts in college and seminary, but not an engagement of this length.

What this does mean, though, is that my encounter with Julian is thoroughly framed by this liturgical background. I’m only coming at it from the lay liturgical perspective. As a result, the major themes that I see coming out of Julian are very much in coherence with the main body of devotional materials I find in the books: A strong emphasis on the Passion of Christ and the way that is bound up with the Blessed Virgin Mary. The consistent emphasis on the Trinity. Things like the Hours of the Trinity and the Office of the Trinity really emphasize devotionally what we’re used to encountering doctrinally. The affective encounter with the Trinity is different from just thinking theological thoughts about it. The Presence and language around the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a person of the Trinity that does not get left out in Medieval devotion. We’re kinda scared to talk about the Spirit too much now—I mean, we’re good Episcopalians, why would we ever talk about the Spirit? People who do that are weird, aren’t they?! And also intercession and intercessors and how those fit into the divine economy.

So the way I’d like to proceed is to just start throwing some pictures up here. I’ve got observations on some of them, I invite you to make observations and we’ll keep it fairly free-flowing…

[At this point, this is exactly what we did—looking through a set of images and commenting about them. Broadly speaking, the main topics we covered were the Imago Pietatis and Christ as the Man of Sorrows, Julian’s understanding of intercessors and ways that images in the Books of Hours communicate this concept, images of and devotion to the Wound of Christ and how that connects to Julian’s understanding of the Motherhood of Christ, and—finally—a discussion of the 3 showings of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Julian and how these are part of standard representations of the BVM in the Book of Hours tradition.]

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.