History Meme

Both Jonathan and Michelle tapped me for this one so here goes…


  1. Link to the person who tagged you.
  2. List 7 random/weird things about your favorite historical figure.
  3. Tag seven more people at the end of your blog and link to theirs.
  4. Let the person know they have been tagged by leaving a note on their blog.

Of course, I wouldn’t be up to my usual pedantic standards if I didn’t preface something interesting with a whole pile of boring verbiage.

Let’s think for a second about the Benedictine Revival! In the mid-tenth century, King Edgar decided that England was in need of a religious revival. There a number of reasons in back of this–one was the decimation of monasteries and monastic life by the past several centuries of viking depradations, a concomitant loss of learning, bad morale (and maybe morals too), and there was probably something in there too about transferring land-ownership to grateful clergy rather than scheming eorls. While monks can cause problems they rarely raise up armies to overthow you… In any case, he kicked of the reform on the secular side of things. On the sacred side it was begun by the work of three great now-sainted monastic bishops: St. Dunstand, St. Æthelwold, and St. Oswald. This was the first generation of the reform. The second generation is characterized by two men with extant writings, Archbishop Wulfstan of York and Abbott Ælfric of Eynsham. Ælfric was the greatest catechist of his day who embraced the notion that religious reform and revival would occur by promoting sound religious teaching in the vernacular—including a host of sermons and sermon-like materials in Old English, over 150. And yes, he’s the hero of my dissertation. But I’m not writing about him today! (Well—any more today…) No, I’m writing about the author of one of the few surviving documents we have from the third generation of the reform, one of Ælfric of Eynsham’s students, Ælfric Bata.

And yes, the similarity between the names has confused an awful lot of people over the years.

Ælfric Bata’s surviving work is the Colloquies. When you studied foreign languages, did you ever have to stand up in front of the class and act out lame dialogues about buying cheese or whatever in that language? Well, that’s what ÆB’s Colloquies is. Remember, the goal here was to get Germanic-speaking yokels to be able to converse fluently in Latin. ÆB’s Colloquies take us from intermediate level to truly advanced-level conversational Latin. Ok—enough pedantry: onto the good stuff, seven wierd or random facts.

  1. Bata isn’t a last name—it’s a descriptor that probably refers to a barrel of beer. Scholars are split as to why this was applied to him but the leading suggestions were either that he was overly fond of emptying said barrels—or that he was shaped like one. Of course, I see no reason why they can’t both be right.
  2. ÆB’s teacher, my Ælfric, was a serious, pious kind of guy. Not ÆB. The conduct recorded in his Colloquies has been used by historians as evidence of the state of moral decay in English monasteries in the time before and at the Norman Conquest.
  3. For example—one of the dialogues (#3) takes place in a classroom before the teacher arrives. In it, students learn how to ask how to cheat off another’s homework.
  4. In another (#6), the students get beaten for not being able to recite their homework. (Which does give the previous point a bit more urgency…)
  5. Several of them contain an interesting insights into liturgical life, especially the part played by the adolescents who would have been learning these dialogues. In one (#5) a student describes for the master a quick sketch of what the boys have been up to that day—primarily liturgical duties. Another (#18) teaches students how to rent out their services copying liturgical books. According to this colloquy, a well-written missal could fetch up to two pounds of pure silver. The final selling price, though, is twelve mancuses. (If only I knew how that compares to two pounds of silver… What’re the odds that an expert on medieval numismatics might wander along shortly…?)
  6. The point of one of the colloquies (#25) is (apparently) to learn how to insult someone in Latin.
  7. This treatise (still #25) is partly agricultural in nature, going through a variety of plants and trees. However, it seems as if a far greater weight is given to learning the various specialized names for the kinds of manure. If it comes out of the rear of a domestic animal you’ll find it listed here! And yes, I suspect this connects far more to the abuse topos than the agriculture one…

So, if you ever wanted to read some fascinating vignettes of tenth-century monastic life—or how to call somebody cow-poop in Latin—Ælfric Bata’s your man.

[The Colloquies in both Latin and Modern English can be found in a great edition edited by Scott Gwara, translated by David W. Porter called Anglo-Saxon Conversations: The Colloquies of Ælfric Bata (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1997).]

I’ll tag bls, Anastasia, the Postulant (now that GOEs are over), Christopher, LutherPunk, the Lutheran Zephyr, Caelius (are you still alive?) and anyone else with a hankering to do it.

12 thoughts on “History Meme

  1. Michelle of Heavenfield

    Monks behaving badly, you can’t get better than that. :-) When I first saw Ælfric Beta, well first I thought it was your star, and then maybe beta (second). Go figure… similarity or familiarity to a beer keg…

    Btw, to those Derek tags, its not necessarily a medieval meme. Any historical figure from any time period will do. So far two spontaneous meme branches from my initial meme have done a half-brother of Alexander the great, and another mutates off in a literary direction.

  2. bls

    You don’t have to leave a note. That’s what Bloglines is for.

    But Oh, my God. I’m not up to this; I have pretty much Disney knowledge of most historical figures – and ain’t much that’s weird happening there.

    Well, I’ll do my best….

  3. Jonathan Jarrett

    I’m not an expert on medieval numismatics, but I’m probably as good as you’ll get. A mancus is usually accepted to be an Arabic dinar, which comes in at about 4·2 g of gold. In the medieval west gold was usually reckoned as twelve times the value of silver, but in the Islamic world it was considered at more like fourteen times. So twelve mancuses would be in the region of 50 g of gold, about 1·8 oz, which multiplied at Western rate to silver comes to 24 ounces, which I believe is a pound and a half? Sorry, my Imperial measurements are pretty weak. So about half a pound of silver in costs, if I follow you correctly…

    For mancuses, your first point of reference should be Philip Grierson (in fact, for medieval European coins generally), and his article “Carolingian Europe and the Arabs: the Myth of the Mancus” in Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire Vol. 32 (Bruxelles 1954), pp. 1059-1074. Things have moved on in the debates he tried to settle there, but not conclusively in any given direction.

  4. lutherpunk

    Ok, I got a pirate post up…

    I do like point #6. I have a book in my library about how to insult and insinuate in Latin that sounds like a modern (and less heady) version of what you speak of.

  5. John-Julian, OJN

    Well, I’m not tagged, but recently found the following for my book on Julian — and I thought t qualified as “weird”. Julian speaks of St. John of Beverley as one who had been holy, then fell into sin, and was restored to grace. Here’s the story:

    A chapbook in Dutch entitled Historie van Jan van Beverley, printed in Brussels circa 1512.
    Here’s a translation:

    “There once lived in England a rich and powerful man, the Earl of Beverley, a widower who have been left two children – a son named Jan and a daughter Colette. On reaching manhood and acquiring a knowledge of Good and Evil, Jan decides to reject and escape the blandishments of this world. His father is upset at this loss of an heir but cannot change his son’s mind, who prays for his father and then departs to live a hermit’s life in a cell in a wood. There he receives a visit from his sister, to whom he explains his decision. She thanks him and leaves, promising to visit him more often.

    “The Devil then appears to Jan in the form of an angel, telling him that to avoid eternal damnation for having prided himself on his piety. He must commit one of three sins: drunkenness, inchastity, or murder. Jan chooses drunkenness, thinking it to be the least of the three evils. At the next visit of his sister, he asks her to bring some wine, which she does, staying with him while he drinks it lest evil befall him. Thoroughly drunk, he rapes and then murders her, burying the body to hide the evidence.

    “Sober again he repents and decides to make confession to the Pope in Rome rather than despair. Having heard his [anonymous] confession, the Pope is unable to fix a suitable penance and advises the unrecognized sinner to go to England and seek the advice of the pious hermit Jan van Beverley.

    “At home again, Jan decides [to assign himself a penance:] to walk only on all fours, drink [only] water, and eat [only] grass like an animal, and not utter a word until a child is born who at the age of one day will tell him that God has forgiven him.

    “Seven years pass. Jan’s father has died and a new earl has been chosen. To celebrate the birth of his child, the earl goes hunting. Some of the hunters find Jan whom they take to be a new species of wild animal. He is captured and taken to the earl’s court, where the new-born child absolves him, upon which occasion the Bishop [sic] of Canterbury is brought to Beverley to hear Jan’s confession.

    “[Jan] then returns to Colette’s grave, opens it to discover his sister still alive and describing the joys of paradise which she has been experiencing in the company of angels since her murder. They go off together praising God and in search of the Bishop in order to receive the holy Sacrament.”

    And, well, it is ALL weird, so I won’t bother to list seven weirdities, but the one that I enjoy is the pope sending Jan back to himself (as it were) for a penance! Both Julian and I love the implications that a supposedly and overtly holy person is actually a grievous sinner, but even that doesn’t mess up God’s redeeming love!

    (By the way, I am indebted to Dr. Alan R. Deighton, Professor of German and Director of the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Hull for this discovery.)

  6. meg

    I am, as always, ridiculously late to the convivium, but I can’t help but point out that Jerome is also a good source for learning outrageous insults in Latin. It’s great fun reading assorted tidbits to students… often they revise their entire view of the LA/P period.

  7. Derek the Ænglican

    Jerome’s letters are great! His keen observation of society was always in service of his keen wit—directed unsparingly at his opponents. Reading him has given me a much better sense of life-on-the-ground in that era—and the blessed comfort that great saints sometimes fall short of acting saintly themselves… ;-)

  8. RFSJ

    Oh dear, I don’t really have a fave historical figure. Often it’s whosever biography I’ve been reading most recently, and for various tiresome reasons that hasn’t happened in a while. Oh well!

    BTW, there was a fun book published a while back called _Latin for all Occasions_ and as I recall (I have my copy at home somewhere) it has an entire chapter on insults.



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