Recently, Casey Strine (Lecturer in Ancient Near Eastern History and Literature at the University of Sheffield) wrote for the Huffington Post UK about “Ancient Christianity’s Opposition To Trump’s Proposal To Prefer Christian Refugees.” In the article, Strine musters different passages in the Bible that speak to early Jewish and Christian responses to refugees, relating them to the Trump administration’s recent order to ban refugees from America. But what about other Christian ideas of refugees, outside of the canonical Bible? Some remarkable examples appear in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, which I’ve written about before.
Those familiar with the life of Jesus from the gospels know about his family’s flight to Egypt because of Herod’s order to kill all children in Israel under the age of two. The Gospel of Matthew says (in the Douay-Rheims translation of the Latin Vulgate):
And after [the magi] were departed, behold an angel of the Lord appeared in sleep to Joseph, saying: Arise, and take the child and his mother, and fly into Egypt: and be there until I shall tell thee. For it will come to pass that Herod will seek the child to destroy him. Who arose, and took the child and his mother by night, and retired into Egypt: and he was there until the death of Herod: That it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet, saying: Out of Egypt have I called my son. Then Herod perceiving that he was deluded by the wise men, was exceeding angry; and sending killed all the men children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. (2:13-16)
Ancient and medieval apocryphal gospels drew on this same story, sometimes expanding it. Among these, Pseudo-Matthew largely follows this narrative, but adds several episodes about the journey. Jesus’ family leaves their homeland because of persecution and head to Egypt.
Along the way, the holy family is met by a curious amount of welcome. At one point, when they stop to cool off in a cave on the road, several dragons emerge:
And behold, suddenly many dragons went out of the cave…. Then the Lord, although he was not yet two years old, shook himself off and stood to his feet before them. And the dragons worshipped him, and when they had worshipped him they went away. (18:1)
Not long after this incident, other animals begin to join the crowd:
Similarly, both lions and panthers worshipped and accompanied him in the desert wherever Mary went with Joseph. And they went before them, showing the road and delivering obedience, and bowing their enormous heads with reverence they displayed their servitude by wagging their tails. (19:1)
Therefore, lions and asses and oxen and mules walked together, who carried their provisions, and wherever they made a stop together, they went to pasture. There were also tame rams who had come out of Judea together and followed them, and who walked among wolves without fear. (19:2)
All of this is included in Pseudo-Mathew as a way to link Jesus’ childhood miracles with prophecies in the Hebrew Bible. Yet the episodes also highlight the dangers of traveling: wild animals were certainly a hazard in the wilderness. Even these beasts show the decency of accepting the refugees.
Eventually, the family makes it to a city, and there the child Jesus performs a miracle of making the idols in an Egyptian temple bow down and venerate him. A local governor named Afrodisius brings a mob, intent to see who has defiled the pagan temple. But, when they arrive and see what has happened, the governor Afrodisius “immediately he went to Mary and worshipped the infant whom Mary held in her lap as Lord.” He then instructs all of the Egyptians to do the same. Clearly there are layers of theological content here, but one point of the story is to show how Christianity is meant to create unity, not division, between people from different ethnicities.
In the later Middle Ages, authors continued to expand the story of Pseudo-Matthew, adding further episodes to the core narrative. One of these expansions explicitly sets the story in Egypt, during Jesus’ time abroad with his family in exile:
When Jesus was three years old, he lived in Egypt in the home of a certain widow with his mother and Joseph. When he saw children playing, he began to play with them. And Jesus took a very dry fish and turned it to dust and ordered it to tremble. And again he said to the fish: “Reject the salt that you have within you, and go into the water.” And thus it was done. And seeing, the neighbors informed the female widow in whose home he lived. As soon as she heard about this, she cast them out of her home with great haste.
So not everyone treated the refugee holy family right in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. The story is an odd one, especially since the widow herself would have experienced a certain amount of being marginalized in the culture. Yet she looks down on Jesus and his family out of fear.
Again, the theological point behind the story with the widow is complex, here pointing to the fact that Jesus’ miracles can inspire fear. The widow also caves to societal pressure to see Jesus’ miracle as somehow threatening. This is often the case with the unknown, the Other. But, from a medieval Christian perspective, the text also has another implicit message: the unknown Other is not to be rejected, since we cannot presume to know the true nature of those who ask for refuge at our doors.
This semester I’m teaching a graduate seminar (the first since I’ve started at RIC). Over the course of the semester, I’ll be posting some reflections on the course and the material we’re covering, partly to sort through some of my own thoughts and also in solidarity with my students, who will also be blogging. So here is the inaugural post about the course, with some general information about it.
While the course on the books is “Topics in British Literature before 1660,” the main theme will be “Medieval Multimedia.” We’ll be starting the course with some introductions to medieval literature and media studies, then delving deeper into some theoretical readings alongside some Old English literature. One of my main focuses will be on how textual and manuscript culture intersected in the medieval period–how literature and manuscripts can be understood together. But we’ll also consider other “old media” artifacts like stone crosses, bells, monastic spaces, the Franks Casket, and (finally) printed books.
Throughout the course, we’ll look at many examples of material culture, ranging from digital facsimiles to actual artifacts. Fortunately, we’ll have access to a few hands-on examples: RIC owns two leaves, one from a chant manuscript and another from a book of hours; and I’ll bring in a page from a chant manuscript that I personally own. We’ll spend an entire class session examining these. But we’ll also spend time almost every class to look at digital representatives. What follows is a general description and an outline of the weekly readings and topics.
Here’s my course description:
We live in a world of rich multimedia—so much so that some argue that we live in an age of information overload. But what of the multimedia of past cultures? This course explores medieval British literature through the lens of media studies, encompassing technologies of verbal, visual, tactile, and other lived, sensory experiences. We will engage with classic works of media theory like Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media as well as more recent approaches in media archaeology, with a special focus on book history. We will use these theories to consider medieval media as a key context for understanding famous literature like Beowulf and William Langland’s Piers Plowman, along with less well known literature like anonymous sermons, saints’ lives, histories, and romances. Requirements include engagement in class discussions, reading responses, field trips to local libraries and museums, and a final multimedia project.
Week 1: No class
[Because our semester starts on a Tuesday, and this class meets on Mondays.]
Week 2 (1/23)
Treharne, Medieval Literature: A Very Short Introduction, Introduction & chapters 1-3 (1-54)
Getty Museum, Making Manuscripts (video)
Bischoff, Latin Palaeography, “Introduction” & section on “Codicology” (1-45)
McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Introductions, chapter 1
In class: An introduction to medieval literature and manuscripts
Rouse & Rouse, selections from Bound Fast with Letters:
“From Flax to Parchment: A Monastic Sermon from Twelfth-Century Durham” (translated text, 83-85)
“St. Antoninus of Florence on Manuscript Production” (translated text, 516-17)
Chaucer, “To His Scribe Adam”
“My Hand Is Weary with Writing”
Week 3 (1/30)
McLuhan, Understanding Media, chapters 8-10
From the following, choose one reading; be prepared to report to the class on it:
Goddard, “Opening up the Black Boxes”
Huhtamo & Parikka, Media Archaeology, “Introduction”
Mitchell & Hansen, Critical Terms for Media Studies, “Introduction”
Parikka, What Is Media Archaeology?, “Introduction”
Week 4 (2/6)
From the following, choose one reading; be prepared to report to the class on it:
Gitelman, Always Already New, “Introduction”
Guillory, “Genesis of the Media Concept”
Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, “Introduction”
Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media, “Introduction”
Old English The Dream of the Rood
Ruthwell Cross video (video; watch to get a material sense of the object)
The Ruthwell Cross (fully view the cross and its content on this 3D site)
The Brussels Cross (fully view the cross and its content on this site)
Explore the Digital Vercelli Book (opens to The Dream of the Rood)
In class: The media ecology network of The Dream of the Rood & the Vercelli Book
Week 5 (2/13)
University of Iowa Special Collections, If Books Could Talk, episodes 1-6 (videos)
From the “Manuscript Studies” folder, choose one reading from the “Primer” series and one from the “TextManuscripts” series; be prepared to report to the class on both of them.
In class: Meet in RIC Adams Library, Special Collections for a hands-on lab about manuscripts
Week 6 (2/20)
Theisen, The Rule of Saint Benedict: Introduction
Monasteriales Indicia (Anglo-Saxon Monastic Sign Language)
Batuman, “The Bells”
Poe, “The Bells”
Amalarius of Metz, “On the Significance of Bells”
Exeter Book “Riddle 4” & Commentary
In class: Monastic media
Watch part of Into Great Silence
Week 7 (2/27)
“Franks Casket” on Wikipedia (read this first)
Franks Casket item record at the British Museum (click “More views” for all photographs)
Old English The Whale
“Whale” in the Medieval Bestiary
Old Norse Lay of Volund (Wayland the Smith)
Adoration of the Magi in Matthew 2 & the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew 16
Choose one of the following to read; be prepared to report to the class on it:
Abels, “The Franks Casket and the Acculturation of Christianity in Early Anglo-Saxon England”
Klein, “The Non-Coherence of the Franks Casket: Reading Text, Image, and Design on an Early Anglo-Saxon Artifact”
Vegvar, “Reading the Franks Casket: Contexts and Audiences”
In class: Piecing together the puzzle of the Franks Casket
Week 8 (3/6) No class, spring recess
Week 9 (3/13)
“Introduction” to The Beowulf Manuscript (ed. and trans. Fulk)
Beowulf & Judith in The Beowulf Manuscript (ed. and trans. Fulk)
In class: Heroes and their media
Week 10 (3/20)
From The Beowulf Manuscript (ed. and trans. Fulk):
The Passion of Saint Christopher
The Wonders of the East
The Letter of Alexander the Great
Rust, “The Page in Comics and Medieval Manuscripts”
Optional: Treharne, Medieval Literature, chapter 5
In class: What binds the Nowell Codex together?
Week 11 (3/27)
Scase, “Editorial Introduction” to the Vernon Manuscript
Peruse the contents of the Vernon Manuscript
Gast of Gy
Joseph of Arimathea
Saint Kenelm from the South English Legendary
In class: Cracking open the Vernon Manuscript
Week 12 (4/3)
Treharne, Medieval Literature, chapters 6-7
Selections from The Minor Poems of the Vernon Manuscript (Part I ed. Horstmann; Part II ed. Furnivall)
In class: Navigating the Vernon Manuscript
Week 13 (4/10)
“Introduction” in the Norton Critical Edition of Piers Plowman
Explore visualizations for the Piers Plowman tradition by Angie Bennett Segler
Langland, Piers Plowman, Prologue & passus 1-4
In class: Piers Plowman Part I
Week 14 (4/17)
Langland, Piers Plowman, passus 5-7
Choose one piece from the “Criticism” section of the Norton Critical Edition; be prepared to report to the class on it.
Optional: Weiskott, “Prophetic Piers Plowman: New Sixteenth-Century Excerpts”
In class: Piers Plowman Part II
Week 15 (4/24)
Kennedy, Medieval Hackers
In class: Transgressing boundaries & resisting the print revolution
The latest news cycle brings a media storm about Tuesday’s (January 17) confirmation hearing for President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos: news stories, live-streaming of the event, video clips saved for later, tweets on both sides of the political divide, and of course hot-takes. Consider this one of the latter.
Specifically, I want to respond to one of DeVos’s historic comments, one that has been repeated over and over in various media: that public education is a “dead end.” During her hearing, DeVos gave no solid indication that her views have changed. For a few news outlets that have commented on her past statement and the hearing, check out these search results.
During the confirmation hearing, media figure and journalist Wajahat Ali tweeted the following to remind his audience of DeVos’s past comment:
Betsy DeVos says public schools are a “dead end.” They educate 90% of our kids. She’s Trump’s pic for Education Sec. Let that sink in.
— Wajahat Ali (@WajahatAli) January 18, 2017
Soon after, among others responding to Ali’s tweet, writer, director, and actress Justine Bateman retweeted with the following comment:
Retweet if you went to a public school. I did. https://t.co/mgxzJ3VxQa
— Justine Bateman (@JustineBateman) January 18, 2017
Between the time when Bateman posted that tweet and my time of writing this post, nearly 9,000 people have retweeted it directly. Additionally, a whole host of people have added comments about their own experiences to reject and resist DeVos’s claim.
I posted my own response to Ali’s tweet last night:
I attended public school pre-k through 12th grade; community college 1yr; public uni for MA & PhD; now teach at public college. I disagree. https://t.co/cNO1kN4w7M
— Brandon Hawk (@b_hawk) January 18, 2017
But, as I’ve reflected on my own education, I also realized that this tweet deserves elaboration. So here’s my own story–my own rejection of the claim that public education is a “dead end,” my own resistance to these types of attitudes, which can become all too normal when we encounter these kinds of statements from figureheads in the media.
My family was lower-middle-class, and lived for most of my childhood and adolescent life in rural upstate and northern New York. My father was a minister and full-time dad, my mother (among a variety of jobs) a cosmetologist, secretary, substitute teacher, and a full-time mom. Both of my parents attended public schools. I also have two siblings. Even if they had the money to send us to private schools, in a few places we lived the options weren’t there; I’m not sure they would have chosen that possibility anyway. I attended public schools from preschool through twelfth grade, in three different school districts in three different places–two of them rural, the other (in between) a small city, but all three places economically depressed.
These public school districts and individual schools didn’t have a lot of money, but I never felt like they failed me. I was often in accelerated classes in different disciplines. Much of my personal story–my love of fantasy and the beginnings of my forays into medieval literature–go back to the fourth grade. That year, my teacher, Mrs. Dreyfus, read J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit to the class. I was captivated, and fell in love with Tolkien. We also switched to another class for language arts, and our class read C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe with Mrs. Howe. I also remember a special section of Mrs. Howe’s classroom, where she had dozens of crates stacked with readings, and it was our duty to read a certain number of them. In those crates, I encountered Beowulf. I remember poring over the pages of a comic-book version of the story, entranced by the hero, his nemesis Grendel, the terror of Grendel’s mother, and the magnificence of the fight with the dragon. I knew then that there was something special about Tolkien, Lewis, and Beowulf, and I started to pursue the land of fantasy in which they all lived.
From fifth through twelfth grade, I participated in band and choir; in high school, I joined the show choir and jazz band; I acted in a few plays over the years; and I sometimes was part of different clubs.
I spent a lot of time at the local Wead Library, which is overseen by the public school district. I would get lost in the stacks–both the children’s and the adult sections. I learned to read voraciously. I learned that books change lives. I learned that books contain magic. I learned that books are my passion. I also built relationships with the library staff, especially the children’s librarian, Mrs. Wool (now the director), and Mrs. Trickey. In some ways, I owe my life to the Wead Library. In my senior year of high school I giddily took a job there, and it’s still the true love of my job life.
I fondly remember programs like Scholastic book club and the Book-It program for literacy; going to area all-state for band and choir; field trips to libraries, museums, the courthouse, a biodome, and other fun, educational places (at least, I see that they were in retrospect, even if the courthouse seemed boring at the time); weekend trips to compete in band and choir competitions (and sight-seeing and fun) in Toronto, Canada and New York City. Some of these a few or several hours away and meant parents helping financially, or students doing fundraisers.
It was on one of my field trips (to the biodome) that I first actually engaged with one of my middle-school history teachers, Greg Littell. While he seemed strict and had high expectations in the classroom, on that trip, getting to know him a bit better outside of the classroom, I realized that Mr. Littell wasn’t just a difficult teacher, but was fun, cared about students, and pushed us because he knew we could rise to his expectations. Hanging out with Mr. Littell was a pivotal moment for me.
I developed another important relationship in my senior year of high school, when I had the opportunity to take not only AP English but also another elective English course. Because I had room in my schedule, and was thinking about going to college for English, I took both classes. In the elective course, I met Brian Doe, who introduced me to Old English literature and rekindled my love of Beowulf, as well as Norse and world mythology, Arthurian legends, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and a host of other medieval subjects. That was where I found my love for Old English and Old Norse literature. I would often stop by Mr. Doe’s classroom in free periods or after school just to talk to him about our mutual interests. Over the course of the year, he gave me a few dozen books, including Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf with the Old English and translation on facing pages; The Sagas of Icelanders; the Poetic Edda and Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda; and The Saga of the Volsungs. In many ways, Mr. Doe put me on the path that led me to graduate school and my career as a professor of medieval literature. These were the core start of a library of medieval texts that I still own as it’s grown over the years. I not only still own these books but also remember who gave them to me. They came from a public school teacher who cared.
After high school, to save money and take a bit more time to decide where I wanted to complete my four-year BA, I spent a year living with my parents and attending community college–a local branch of the not-much-larger main campus about an hour away, part of the public college system of NY State. I also continued to work at the Wead Library, which gave me experiences that I carried with me into college. Through that year, and when I would return home on breaks, I substitute taught in the local public schools. This only fueled my desire to be an educator.
I decided to attend a private college for the remaining three years of my undergraduate education, but afterward I chose to attend the University of Connecticut, a public state school. There I completed my MA in Medieval Studies; then I applied to the PhD program, was accepted, and decided to stay. I had another offer, from a private university, but for a number of reasons, including a better funding package, I chose to continue at UConn. It was the best fit, and I don’t regret it. It was the best PhD program for me, personally, and I wonder if part of that was the fact that it is a public university.
Since I enrolled in my MA program at UConn, and for the past ten years, I have taught only in public education. For the first few years that I was in graduate school, at the end of each academic year, I substitute taught in local public schools in Connecticut. I loved working with the students, and the experiences helped me to understand learning much better, in a more general way. After UConn, I taught for a year at another public state school, the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
Since fall of 2015, I have taught at Rhode Island College, a public liberal arts college. Most of my students have grown up in public education. And many of them amaze me. Like me, they did not face a dead end. They continue to seek and strive for success.
I know that not all public education stories are like mine. My parents played a huge role in my education and success. I also have certain privileges as a white male.There are many other factors (systemic, social, cultural), and I acknowledge those, too. But my story also isn’t an aberration. I owe many thanks to the experiences and especially the teachers I had in public schools.
When I first started working on texts related to the biblical Judith in Anglo-Saxon England (which I discuss here), I had several goals: one of these was to provide more exposure to literature other than the Old English poem Judith. The sermon On Judith by Ælfric of Eynsham was one of the main texts that sparked my interest. Ælfric composed this sermon sometime between 1002 and 1005, after he had completed his translation of Genesis and during a period when he wrote narrative summaries of various biblical books included in or as extensions of his Lives of Saints. Among these, he wrote on Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Esther, Judith, and Maccabees.
When I posted my online anthology of texts related to Judith, I included translations for most of the contents, but not for Ælfric’s sermon because I never sat down and finished it. In the meantime, I’ve had a number of people contact me to ask if I know of a translation, or have one on hand to share. But, to my knowledge, there is no full translation in print or online. So I finally sat down to translate the entire sermon. I offer this translation under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.
The translation is based on Stuart D. Lee’s online critical edition, Ælfric’s Homilies on Judith, Esther, and the Maccabees (1999). I have also consulted the previous edition, Angelsächsische Homilien und Heiligenleben, ed. Bruno Assmann, Bibliothek der angelsächsichen Prosa 3 (Kassel: Georg H. Wigand, 1889), 102-16. I have normalized names to modern standard forms, and I have supplied notes about biblical sources in square brackets.
Here begins On Judith, how she killed Holofernes
Now we tell first that in these writings there were two kings named Nebuchadnezzar in Latin, both very famous in name. One was the Chaldean who killed the people of God in the land of Judea for their unbelief, when they wrongly lived in heathen and demonic idolatry; they performed injury to their Lord. Then the king overthrew their happy city, named Jerusalem, and that holy temple, which Solomon built with marvelous craft, and cast them to the ground, and slew the people of God, and then those left from the battle he drove to his land, to Babylon, their great city. And there they lived in his cruel servitude, to know their sin against the true God. For seventy years they lived there in servitude, until King Cyrus sent them to return back to the land of Judea, from where they were led, and commanded them again to raise up that single temple, so that the almighty God sent it from his heart, that he was merciful to his people after such great misery.
Now the other king who was named Nebuchadnezzar in Latin was in the land of Syria, the son of Cyrus whom we said before, and his nickname was given as Cambisus. So, then Cambisus declared to fight against Arfaxad, the king of the Medes, and he slew him, and through that victory he raised himself into a very proud spirit, and he sent his messengers from every side of him to all of the realms of people which lay within his kingdom. He desired that they all should bend to him alone, so that he alone would be their king. But all the realms of people spoke against him together, and they sent his messengers back again quickly, without dignity, very unworthily.
Then King Nebuchadnezzar was angered, and swore by his throne that he certainly desired to avenge all of them who scorned his messengers and himself. Then he gathered his counselors, and consulted with all of them all; he said that he thought that he desired to bend all the earth to his rule, and they answered him that he spoke singularly. Then the king sent a certain war-leader, named Holofernes, with a great army, and commanded him with these words: “Do not turn away from anything, nor show mercy to any kingdom nor any city region. But establish each city you bend to me!”
Then Holofernes went with an immense army, just as the king commanded, and broke each city, and slew those who stood against them, so that fear of him sprang up over all peoples. Twelve-hundred thousand warrior men were in his army, and twelve thousand bowmen went forth together with them. And no people could stand against his army, but they came to a distant land, taken with fear, asking for peace. They said that it was dearer to them that, living, they should serve the great King Nebuchadnezzar than that they, dying together, should be destroyed. And so they bowed to the famous army with all their possessions to the sole rule of the king. Then he [Holofernes] went with a fighting force against many peoples, and won their lands, until the Jewish people learned of his army, and they were afraid of his army. Nevertheless they prepared themselves for battle on that greatly surrounded high mountain, and closed off every way up to the mountain, and with one mind they all cried out to God, asking for his help so they would not be destroyed.
Afterward Holofernes came with his army to the land of the Jews, who believed in God, and the people of Israel together prepared to fight against his army, so that they might destroy them. But it became said that they themselves prepared for battle against him, and desired to stand against him. Then Holofernes asked his eldest champion who those people were, who dwelled on the mountain, who scorned him so, and would not seek him out, nor ask for peace, bowing down to him. Then a certain war-leader named Achior, of the Ammonite people, said with great belief: “Beloved, I will tell you the truth about these people. This race formerly came from the Chaldean tribe, and ever they worship one almighty God, he who dwells in heaven, believing in him.”
“When the great hunger went over all the earth, then their fathers went to the land of Egypt where they found food for themselves, and long they dwelled there, four-hundred years, until this race was grown so great that a man could not reckon them. Then Pharaoh, the Egyptian king, desired to afflict them evilly; and he set them in servitude to his wall-works, so that they made his city. But they cried out together to the almighty God in whom they believed so that he freed them; and soon he sent a wondrous wise man to the land of Egypt, until they let his people go free from that land to their own land.
“Then their God led all of them from the land over the Red Sea, journeying along the ground, so that the water stood like stonewalls on each side of them, there where they went in. And Pharaoh the king went to stop them; he desired to have them back in his servitude. But God drowned him in the deep sea, so that of all his army not one man remained.
“Those people of God then went up from the ground, praising their Lord who so freed them. And so they dwelled for forty winters in the wastes, there where no man before could dwell; and, through a sending of the Lord, food from the heavens came daily to them for all that race of men; and then bitter wellsprings became sweet to them; and also from a hard stone had running water. Afterward they won with victory this land, and their God helped them and fought for them; and no man could own this people, so long as they rightly held onto their God. So often as they bent from worship of him to the heathen gods, they became harried and turned to blasphemy through heathen peoples. So often as they turned back with true repentance to their God, he immediately made them mighty and strong to stand against their enemies. Truly their God hates unrighteousness!
“Now, for many years, when they neglected the heavenly God, they became harried, and some slain, and some led to distant lands, dwelling in captivity, until they turned back to the heavenly God in whom they believed; and now they have again inhabited their land and the city Jerusalem, where their temple is.
“Now I bid you, Lord, that you find out if this people now have worked any unrighteousness or sin against their God, and if they are subject to your one ruler. Then if they have no unrighteousness nor have angered their God, then we will all be finished by reproach from their lord, who guards them, just as is his custom.”
Then immediately after this speech Holofernes became very angry at him and with boasting said: “Now you know, Achior, that you shall be slain with our swords, when we slay them all to a man, that you may know that our king and lord Nebuchadnezzar is truly God, and how he will easily destroy all Israel.”
Then he [Holofernes] commanded to bind him [Achior] and to bring him into that land and be taken to the people so that he might be destroyed with them. Then he was bound, just as the famous one commanded, and led to that land; and they left him there, disgracefully bound to a tree. Then he was found by the people there, and he told them all about his journey in order, and then immediately after his speech the people fell to the earth, with flowing tears, crying with lamentation: “See, heavenly Lord, their pride and our humility; and reveal, Lord, that you despise no one who trusts in you with true belief, and that you humble those who rely on their glory.” Then they comforted the aforesaid Achior, and Ozias their leader had him with him, and then they all prayed for God’s mercy and for his protection against the Syrian army.
So, then Holofernes desired to besiege them out, and he beset their ships with guardsmen for twenty days altogether around the city; they said that they [the Israelites] hoped in the mountain more than in weapons or in any battle. Then the people of Israel became uneasy in mind for want of water, and truly there was not in all the wells in the city so much water that it might be enough for everyone. But then they had a counsel because they desired to bend to the famous war-leader in homage to him, so that they might live. Then Ozias said to all the people: “My brothers, be patient and with even minds wait still another five days for the will of our Lord, and if then no comfort comes for our people, nor any loosening of our needfulness, then we may bend to the famous war-leader in homage to him, that he might protect us.”
Then, at the same time, in that city was a singular woman in widowhood named Judith, from the race of the patriarchs, one who strongly believed in the living God, famous in servitude, rightly living by the law of Moses, a remnant of Manasses. He was her husband, but he was slain by the heat of the sun in harvest time, out with his reapers who reaped his corn. He left that widow not a little in wealth and in other possessions, according to his great birthright of wealth in many possessions; and she dwelled in cleanness after her husband in her upper floor with her maidservants. She was very beautiful, and of fair appearance, and she always fasted except on feast-days, always clothed with hair against her body, in the fear of God, without ill-fame.
This Judith learned how Ozias spoke, and said that it was truly bad counsel that one should set such an appointed day for God, so that within five days he should help the people or they would seek out the Syrian army and the nobleman in his sole rule: “These words do not gladden God into mercy for us, but they provoke him to fierce anger. We should be mindful to his mercy, because we know no other god but him alone. Let us await with humility his singular comfort. Abraham and Isaac and our patriarchs were tested in their perils and in sufferings. They were true to the almighty God, who always freed them. We should pray to him, so that he blesses us, and save us from this suffering.”
After these words, and other prayers, she cast off her haircloth and her widow’s clothes, and adorned herself with gold, and with purple, and with singular apparel, and afterward she went out, with one maidservant, out of the city. And she asked the people and the aforesaid Ozias that they not worry about her going, but they remained in prayers and prayed for her; and they all wondered at her great beauty.
Then, in the early morning, she came to the guards, said that she desired to seek the nobleman and to instruct him in his own desires how he might easily betray that race, without peril to his own people, so that not one man in his troop might be destroyed. Then they wondered greatly at her beauty, and her wise words, and with honor they led her to their leader into his tent. As soon as he [Holofernes] looked on her shining countenance, he became taken by the lust in his inconstant heart; and she lay down at his feet, said that she knew a certain thing, that the people of Israel were so badly held with sharp hunger, and great thirst, for their sins against the true God, that they could all together be destroyed, unless they bend to his rule immediately.
Again she [Judith] said other words: “I will worship my God just as well with you, and in a set time I shall pray with bended knees to him and learn from him when you might easily come to the people, with all your army, into the middle of Jerusalem, by my instruction, and you will have them all just as shepherdess sheep. For this I came to you, so that I might tell you this.”
Then he believed her words and promised her well, and his warriors said that no such woman was so fair of beauty in all the earth, and so wise in speech; and the nobleman commanded them to go into his treasure-chamber and remain there until he should send word, and he commanded his officers to serve her from his own meals and his luxury foods. However, she did not desire to eat his meals because of his heathenism, but she had brought in her maidservant’s bag her own food, until with works she fulfilled the intention of her mind.
Then Judith asked the nobleman that she might by his leave, in the long night, go to her prayers to pray to her lord outside of the treasure-chamber on her bended knees, and he gave her leave so that she might do so; and she did so ever into the night. She asked the almighty God that he instruct his people to freedom in their peril.
Then, on the fourth day, the nobleman gave a feast for his officers in his tent with much joy, and commanded his chamberlains that they should bring the aforesaid Judith into his feast, and so they did. Then she came adorned with no lust, and stood before him very fair in beauty, and his mind immediately became very kindled with desire for her in his lust; and he commanded her to be joyful in his feast, and she promised him that she so desired it.
Then Holofernes became wondrously joyful all the day, and made himself drunk with the strong wine through his custom, and all his warriors were also drunk; and they hastened into the evening in their great wickedness, and the chamberlains brought the nobleman to his own bed with Judith, and did not care much for their lord.
Then, when he was asleep, Judith saw that the way forward was opened up fully for her; and she commanded her maidservant to hold the doors, and she took his own sword and struck into his neck, and with two strikes cut him in the throat, and she wound the body with the bed-sheets. Then she took the head, and his bed-sheets, and she went out with her maidservant with such prayers, just as her custom was, until they came to the city gates.
Then Judith cried out and said to the guardsmen: “Undo these city gates! God himself is with us, he who might free the people of Israel.” And they quickly undid the gates, and together they came to her with a light, because they did not believe that she came back again. Then she ascended up to the high city, and showed the head to them all, saying: “I bid you, with joy praise our lord, who did not abandon those believing in him and those who trust in his great faithfulness; and through me he fulfilled his mercy, which he promised to the house of Israel; and now, tonight, through my hands he slew the enemy of his people!” And unafraid she said: “Truly the angel of God shielded me against them, so that I came back to you unblemished; and God himself did not allow that I should be shamed, but without defilement he sent me back, rejoicing in his victory and in your freedom.”
Then they beheld that head with great wonder, and Ozias their leader, and all of them together, blessed Judith with this blessing: “The Lord blessed you in his lordly might, he who turned our enemy to nothing through you, and he who magnified your name today, so that your fame might not cease in the mouths of men.” Then came Achior, the servant of Holofernes, he who earlier spoke the testimony of God, and it happened to them, just as he said, although he [Holofernes] commanded him [Achior] to be bound with disgrace, and caused him to be slain with the [Israelite] people. Then at first he became very afraid at the sight, when he beheld the head. But soon he rejoiced, and blessed Judith, and afterward believed in the living God, through the law of Moses, the famous war-leader.
Then Judith commanded the city-dwellers thus: “Set his head on the highest wall, and go with weapons, trusting in God, now in the early morning, out of this city. Then your enemies will be afraid of you, when they find their nobleman headless, when you may make your word over them.”
Then they did so, early in the red of day, and with weapons they went out with a troop, making a very loud noise at the unbelievers, until the Syrians saw their army; and then they desired to arouse their nobleman. But no man dared to unlock the door, so they desired to awaken him with loud noise. When this did not happen through their loud speech, then they sent in one of this chamberlains and he found his lord lying headless. And then he went out again with lamentation, seeking Judith, and said to the people: “A woman has now disgraced us all and our people’s lord! Here lies the nobleman headless in bed soiled with his blood!”
Then they all became afraid in wonder, and without any counsel they fled disgracefully toward their land, and abandoned the gathering with their enemies into the hands of those who followed in the back, and ever they [the Israelites] hounded them from behind with weapons. And from all their cities Ozias sent great help, and together they followed from their land so that they [the Syrians] did not return again. Then the people of Israel turned themselves homeward with singular victory, and dealt out those left from the battle between themselves as dear treasure, so that they became very wealthy; and they all gave these things from Holofernes for Judith to have, and then they praised God with very great rejoicing in song and in joy.
Their eldest priest was named Joachim. He came from Jerusalem with all his priests to the city of Bethulia with great joy, so that he saw Judith; and they all greatly blessed her with these words: “You are truly a glory to our city Jerusalem and the joy of Israel, worthy among our people, because you dwelled as a woman in cleanness after your husband, and God strengthened you for your cleanness, and therefore you yourself will be blessed in the world!”
Then Judith greatly praised the heavenly God with a hymn-song, as it tells us in Latin, and they all joyfully offered their sacrifice to God in Jerusalem for the victory. Then Judith dwelled in her widowhood famously for God in great honor; she lived one hundred years, and she freed her maidservant, and the people of Israel all dwelled in peace for all her life, and also long afterward.
This is no lying story! It stands in Latin, so in the Bible. Those scholars who know Latin know that we do not lie. In her was fulfilled the Savior’s saying: “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.” [Matthew 23:12, Luke 14:11] She was humble and clean, and overcame pride, little and not strong, and laid down the great one. Therefore she signifies the faithful with works, the holy congregation who now lives in God, that is the church of Christ in all Christian people, his one clean bride who with keen belief cuts off the head from the old devil, ever in cleanness serving Christ. Judith first promised the bloodthirsty noblemen that she would bring him inside to her people. But it was not at all a lie, that she promised him that, when she bore his head within the walls and showed the people how God helped her. Glory be to him forever! Amen.
She did not desire to have, just as the story says, the bloodthirsty one’s war-spoils, which the people gave her; but she accursed all his clothes, she did not desire to wear them, but cast them off from her—she did not desire to have any sin because of his heathenism. Certain nuns are living disgracefully, believing it so little a sin that they might fornicate and that they might easily atone for so little. But she is not a virgin afterward, if she fornicates once; nor might she have the hundredfold reward of increase. Take for yourselves an example from this Judith, how cleanly she lived before the birth of Christ, and do not deceive God in the time of the Gospel in the holy cleanness that you promised to Christ, because he damns the secret fornicators and he scorches the foul shameful ones in hell, just as it says in Latin according to the teaching of Paul: “God judges fornicators and adulterers.” [Hebrews 13:4]
I also desire to say, my sisters, that virginity and cleanness have great power, just as we read everywhere in the passions of the martyrs and in the Vitas Patrum, just as Malchus…. Then Malchus went out of the cave with his companion, greatly astonished, and they took the horses that they had brought there, and then they were riding although before they were walking, and they came to Syria, where lived afterward always in cleanness in servitude to Christ. May glory and praise be to him forever and ever! Amen.
 Here there is a gap in the manuscript record: the main witness, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 303, contains only up to line 321; and the fragmentary witness in London, British Library, Cotton Otho B.x ends here due to damage during the fire at Ashburnham House in 1731. Lee reconstructs the end of the text based on Humphrey Wanley’s transcription of the explicit from Otho B.x in Librorum Veterum Septentrionalium Catalogus, printed in George Hickes, Linguarum Veterum Septentrionalium Thesaurus (Oxford: Theatrum Sheldonianum, 1705); see Lee’s edition for details.
Just before Christmas, Mark Hay published a piece over at Vice about certain accounts of Jesus’ miracles as a child. Specifically, Hay discusses apocryphal (extra-biblical or non-canonical, different terms for these stories that aren’t in the Bible) stories in which (in his words) “Lil’ Jesus used his divine powers to terrorize teachers, kill Jewish children, and be an all-around butthole.” While I disagree with a few points or interpretations of the material, the link-filled article is worth checking out.
In the article, I’m cited and quoted for my thoughts on the popularity of these stories in the medieval period. When he was putting the piece together, Hay emailed me with several questions about these apocryphal accounts, but since he was only able to include a few of my responses, I wanted to share my more general thoughts now that the article is published. Below is an edited version of my full response to his questions, accompanied by images from a manuscript that exemplifies some of my points: the Klosterneuburger Evangelienwerk (Schaffhausen, Stadtbibliothek, Gen. 8). This manuscript contains the oldest copy of a German synthesis of biblical and apocryphal stories about Jesus and the apostles, with over 400 drawings to illustrate the text, created in Austria around 1340.
Recently I’ve been working on a new English translation of the Latin Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and related, later additions (to be published in the Early Christian Apocrypha Series by Polebridge Press). Pseudo-Matthew is a translation, adaptation, and expansion of the Greek Infancy Gospel of James (also known as the Protevangelium of James), and was likely composed sometime in the seventh century. But in the later Middle Ages (from the twelfth century onward), other pieces kept getting added on to the main narrative. Some of these pieces were various episodes translated into Latin from the Greek Infancy Gospel of Thomas, or taken from lost sources that don’t otherwise survive.
Some authors also translated or adapted Pseudo-Matthew and its additions into other languages and forms (the German Klosterneuburger Evangelienwerk is a noteworthy example) like poetry and sermons that people would have heard in church. Sometimes these authors transformed or added to the content in their own innovative ways. These stories also became popular in art like manuscript illuminations, sculptures, stained glass, and wall paintings. So there were a lot of these types of stories about Jesus’ childhood in medieval culture–we might think of apocryphal stories about Jesus as just another part of the multimedia of the Middle Ages.
These stories probably captivated medieval people for the same reasons they captivate us: they’re entertaining. Medieval people were no different from us in the fact that they craved good stories. In a lot of ways, stories about Jesus’ childhood were like the next good Netflix series. People wanted to know more about Jesus, and they found more in apocryphal narratives. All of these stories have layers to the points the authors want to make, and some of these are deep theological ideas; but, on the surface, they’re also compelling stories.
Some of these tales were outrageous, and they raise other types of questions. For instance, in a few episodes from the Infancy Gospel of James, Jesus curses other children or even a rabbi for interfering with him, and they end up dead. Medieval people wouldn’t have necessarily viewed Jesus’ acts as “malevolent” or even as “vengeance” the way we do. In many cases, the stories have something to do with someone insulting or affronting Jesus. Since medieval Christians recognized Jesus as divine, they would have also understood these stories as demonstrating some larger theological point about his holiness.
Similarly, Jesus’ actions would also be understood as mysterious, beyond human understanding in the same ways as God’s unknowability. In one story, a boy destroys a series of pools and trenches that lead the water from the River Jordan; this is described by the author at first as play, but Jesus calls it his work. So when the other child destroys it, it could be seen as symbolic of human disrespect for God’s work. And many of these stories aren’t about Jesus hurting others, but various episodes exhibiting his super-human powers through miracles–often emphasizing Jesus’ actions as fulfillments of Old Testament prophecies (see the image to the right). One example is the story of a boy who was pushed off a roof by another child, but Jesus brings him back to life to bear witness to the fact that Jesus didn’t do it.
There is, however, another possible interpretation of some of Jesus’ childhood miracles in the additions to the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and other sources: namely, that they point toward anti-Judaism.* In the series of episodes commonly found in later medieval manuscripts of the expanded apocryphal gospel, the stories often draw attention to antagonists as Jewish, hostile to the Holy Family. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are confronted by their Jewish neighbors because of Jesus’ miracles; in his education, Jesus challenges the Jewish rabbis who attempt to teach him; some scenes mention the formation of a Jewish mob; and some episodes feature members of the Jewish community going to the Pharisees to report the unlawfulness of Jesus’ miracles on the Sabbath.
Much of this attitude toward Jewish characters has to do with the text’s concern with the relationship or disjuncture between the Hebrew Law of the Old Testament and the New Covenant symbolized by Jesus and as discussed in the New Testament. Taken to an extreme, these issues led to negative, anti-Jewish attitudes in medieval texts. Some of this is at work in the details of Jesus’ childhood miracles in apocryphal stories. The unwillingness of the Jewish characters to recognize Jesus as Christ, or to understand his miracles, is thus meant to defame them.
We have to be careful not to view these stories as wholly separate from biblical stories in the medieval period. Medieval circulation, reception, and attitudes toward apocrypha were complex, and often they ran parallel to the circulation, reception, and attitudes toward the Bible. It can be easy to create a false dichotomy, though. Extra-biblical stories about Jesus and his followers were just as popular and prevalent as some of the biblical stories, often included together in the same places: just pages away in a manuscript, or in the same series of stained glass depictions in a church. (Again, the Klosterneuburger Evangelienwerk serves as one example among many.) Biblical and apocryphal narratives were part of the same overall store of knowledge about “biblical history,” even though the stories ultimately come from different sources.
Generally, infancy gospels began to lose interest in Western Europe during the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This is especially true of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and later versions based on it. Protestants began to reject it for its non-canonical status, and especially for its associations with the veneration of Mary (which was a major sticking point for Protestants). A lot of questions arose about evaluating the Bible from original language manuscripts, and this led to new discussions about the canon of the Old and New Testament. While the rejection was mainly pronounced on the Protestant side of these debates, Catholics wishing to implement their own reforms also called for a return to the Bible. Over time and because of many factors, apocrypha were left behind in these debates about the Bible, doctrine, and theological points. Later, of course, scholars of religion in the nineteenth and twentieth century created new interest in them for understanding the history of Christianity in late antiquity and the medieval period.
* Pamela Sheingorn has discussed this issue in relation to illustrations of certain episodes in two manuscripts: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 2688 (made around 1270) and Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, SP II 64 (made around 1400)–in her article “Reshapings of the Childhood Miracles of Jesus,” in The Christ Child in Medieval Culture: Alpha es et O!, ed. Theresa M. Kenney and Mary Dzon (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2012), 254-92. These issues are clearly present in the textual sources of these illustrations, too.
[Edit 12/29/16: Since posting, I have become aware that my own title might be offensive and off-putting, even though I meant it to be subversive to the title of the original article. Since I want to reach as many people as possible, and don’t really care to be inflammatory, I’ve changed the title of this post.]
During the season leading up to Christmas known as Advent, the Christian story of Jesus’ birth is often a centerpiece of Western culture. Yet many Christians also celebrate another miraculous story during this time: the Conception of the Virgin Mary, Jesus’ mother. The feast day is traditionally observed on December 8, exactly nine months before the celebration of the Nativity of Mary on September 8. And at the root of this holiday is a fascinating case of the representation of women in Christian apocrypha.
Since little is told about Mary’s life in the Bible, many of the traditions about her conception, birth, and childhood come from extra-biblical literature known as apocrypha. One of the earliest and most important stories in this category is the Greek Proto-Gospel Gospel of James, written sometime in the second century. Later, medieval writers in Western Europe used this story as the basis for adaptations. Among these, the most popular is the Latin Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (composed in the seventh century), which expands the narrative; and a later text based on Pseudo-Matthew, the Latin Nativity of Mary (composed in the ninth or tenth century). While told with different details, in all of these, the main story revolves around a couple named Anna and Joachim, their daughter Mary (the mother of Jesus), and her life before she is betrothed to Joseph and gives birth to Jesus. All three are worth reading for a full understanding of the historical veneration of Mary in Christianity.
In these apocrypha, Joachim goes to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice, but is turned away because he and Anna have not been able to have any children. After his sacrifice is rejected, Joachim spends some time away from his wife as a shepherd, but finally returns after an angel visits him and promises that Anna will bear a child. One of the striking features of all of these accounts is the significant focus on women. In fact, all three place a heavy emphasis on female agency–first with the character of Anna, then (later) with Mary. Pseudo-Matthew and the Nativity of Mary especially present intriguing scenes.*
In Pseudo-Matthew 2:2-3, after Joachim has been absent for some time, we find Anna in a garden by herself, lamenting her situation and reflecting on her possible widowhood:
Yet she wept in her prayers and said: “Lord, you have given me no children; have you also taken my husband from me? For behold, five months have passed and I have not seen my husband, and I do not know where he might be dead, or where I might make his tomb.” And while she wept in the garden of her house, lifting her eyes in prayer to the Lord, she saw the nest of a sparrow in a laurel tree and sent her voice to the Lord with lamentation and said: “Lord, God Almighty, who has given children to all your creatures, and animals, and beasts of burden, and reptiles, and fish, and birds, all rejoice over children. Do you exclude me alone from your kindness? You know, Lord, from the beginning of my marriage I vowed that, if you give a son or daughter to me, I would bring it to your holy Temple.” And while she said this, an angel of the Lord appeared before her saying: “Do not be afraid, Anna, for your offspring is in God’s design, and that which is born from you will be given admiration in all ages to the end.” And when he said this, he disappeared from her sight. But trembling at having seen such power and hearing such words, she entered her room and threw herself onto her bed and as if dead she remained in prayer all day and all night.
Later, an angel appears to Joachim and gives him the news about Anna’s conception of Mary, telling him to return to his wife. Upon his return (3:5):
Anna ran to meet him and hung onto his neck, giving thanks to God saying: “I was a widow and behold, now I am not, I was sterile and behold, I have conceived.” And then there was joy among all their friends and family, so that all the land and people rejoiced about this news.
In the later, adapted Nativity of Mary, Anna’s prayer in the garden is omitted, as the author revised certain pieces of the story. But Anna is not relegated to a smaller role, as the author also adds a scene in which an angel announces the conception of Mary to her directly (4:1-3):
Then [the angel] appeared to [Joachim’s] wife Anna saying: “Do not fear, Anna, nor think that what you see is a ghost. For I am the angel who has brought your prayers and offerings before the Lord. And now I am sent to you to announce that you will give birth to a daughter, who will be called Mary, blessed above all women. Immediately full of the grace of the Lord from her birth, she will stay at home for three years of nursing. Afterward, dedicated to the service of the Lord, she will not depart from the Temple until her adult years, serving God in fasting and in prayer night and day, abstaining herself from anything unclean. She will never know a man, but alone without example, without stain, without corruption, without intercourse with a man, as a virgin she will give birth to a son; as a servant of God, she will give birth to the Lord; excellent in name and in deed, she will give birth to the Savior of the world.”
Again, Anna and Joachim are reunited soon after this scene (5:2-3):
Then mutually joyful at seeing each other and comforted by the certainty of the promise of offspring they gave thanks owed to the Lord, the uplifter of the lowly. Therefore, having worshipped the Lord, they returned home and awaited the divine promise in certainty and joy. So Anna conceived and gave birth to a daughter and, according to the angel’s command, the parents named her Mary.
While these accounts are considered “apocryphal gospels” by modern categorization, they are quite unlike the biblical gospels because they spend so little time relating Jesus’ life. Instead, Anna and Mary are brought to the foreground.
These features especially highlight the roles of Anna and Mary as major characters in a long line of biblical women (like the genealogies of Jesus’ family in the New Testament) without whom there would be no Messiah. There are certainly parallels here with the story of Sarah’s long-lasting infertility in Genesis (made explicit in one angel’s expanded speech to Joachim in the Nativity of Mary), and the fulfillment of God’s promise to give her and Abraham a son. In many ways, the conception of Mary also foreshadows the later conception of Jesus, related in the narrative as a parallel to the canonical Gospel of Luke. Both Anna and Mary undertake the primary act of advent: waiting.
In the medieval West, both the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the Nativity of Mary were pivotal in the development of saint’s cults for both Anna and Mary. As their veneration began to flourish in the tenth and eleventh centuries, these apocrypha gained in popularity. For many religious women in the Middle Ages, the literary representations of Anna and Mary were important models of devotion to God. For Christians, both also remain examples of women who had major roles to play in world history. During the season of Advent, the apocryphal stories of Anna and Mary are important reminders that women have for centuries been seen as an integral part of the Christian tradition.
* Passages from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the Nativity of Mary are my own translations from the Latin texts in Libri de nativitate Mariae, ed. Jan Gijsel and Rita Byers, 2 vols., Corpus Christianorum Series Apocryphorum 9-10 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1997).
[This post is part of an ongoing series, inspired by the upcoming presidential election in the United States, seeking to answer the question: What does the medieval period have to tell us about Christianity and political engagement? For previous posts, see Part 1 and Part 2.]
When we think of the medieval period and religion, one of the most enduring symbols is that of the monk: the figure pursuing religious devotion and prayer, promising to follow a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience to God, separate from society, behind the walls of a monastery. With this popular conception, monasticism represents a separation from the world, one that seemingly yields little for considering religion and political engagement in the medieval period. Yet monasticism provides a number of rich examples that challenge what we might think of as a “separation” between church and state in the Middle Ages.
In early Christianity, many ideas of religious asceticism emerged, including holy men and women escaping to solitude in the desert, becoming hermits, or joining together in small communities outside of cities. As more people sought lives of religious asceticism away from common society, with the biblical Acts of the Apostles chapters 2 and 4 as models of communal life, monasticism emerged.
Much of Western monasticism owes its debt to Benedict of Nursia (c.480-543). He established the organization of a communal life for those seeking to seclude themselves from everyday life in religious pursuit in what is now known as the Rule of St. Benedict (composed c.530-43). For Benedict, the dual purposes informing all monastic life were “ora et labora” (“pray and work”), which manifested variously over the following centuries. In many ways, the politics of Benedict’s view of monasticism are biblically communist in the sharing and distribution of wealth and the social goals of cloistered living. This view became the basis of Benedictine monasteries in the medieval West, as well as later outgrowths based on the same set of rules.
But none of this is to suggest that monks were wholly disengaged from political questions. As the most literate class through much of the medieval period, monks were the ones writing and copying many of the books that survive, including those that address the issues I have outlined so far. Sometimes, those who sought out a cloistered religious life were those who had been heavily involved in government: sons and daughters of nobles, even former kings and queens. Monastic communities also relied on the generosity of benefactors like weatlhy, powerful nobles; and, in return, many monks wrote propaganda for their patrons.
In one instance, the English monk Bede (672/3-735) was very concerned about politics in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. He offers a wide-ranging history encompassing kings, clerics, and popes, intertwined in a polemical argument for the greatness of the English and their place in the wider world of medieval Europe. Even Bede’s title speaks to the nuances I have mentioned in this series, as he conceives of religious affiliation (“Ecclesiastical”) and political identity (“English People”) entwined together into a coherent view of history.
Another notable case is the Frankish monk Hrabanus Maurus (c.780-856), who wrote commentaries on the biblical books of Judith, Esther, and Maccabees for the Carolingian Queen Judith of Bavaria (795/7-843). In a prefatory poem, Hrabanus calls on God’s favor for the queen, with the prayer, “Dona beata da Deus illi arce coronam” (“Give blessed gifts to her, God, the crown on high”). Implicit in this hymn is his hope that, as Queen Judith is blessed, so Hrabanus and his monastic community would be also. Thus, Hrabanus ingratiated himself into the court culture of the Carolingian nobles, with all of the political associations (for good and ill) that came with that.
The nature of living as a monk changed in the central Middle Ages, when new sets of mendicant orders were established, like the Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians, and Carmelites—further complicating what we might say about how monastics engaged with the world. Whereas most monks had previously remained dedicated mainly to a single monastery (or to solitary asceticism), in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries monks began to leave monasteries to participate in preaching and evangelizing to the people. They continued to practice poverty, chastity, and obedience to God, but rather than living in common with other monks, they lived as itinerants dependent on the good will of others, especially in urban areas. Thus, in contrast to the earlier model of monasticism based on cloistered retreat, mendicants viewed their role as needing to be actively engaged in social justice, as they sought to aid the homeless, sick, and other marginalized citizens of society.
Perhaps the most famous monastic author to modern people is Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), the Dominican friar who synthesized much of Christian philosophy into a systematized scheme in his Summa Theologiae. For part of this systematic theology, Aquinas presented what has become known as the theory of just war, concerned with determining if waging war is allowed for the greater good. For example, in Part II.2, Question 40, Article 1, Aquinas lays out his views:
Respondeo dicendum quod ad hoc quod aliquod bellum sit iustum, tria requiruntur. Primo quidem, auctoritas principis, cuius mandato bellum est gerendum. […]
Secundo, requiritur causa iusta, ut scilicet illi qui impugnantur propter aliquam culpam impugnationem mereantur. […]
Tertio, requiritur ut sit intentio bellantium recta, qua scilicet intenditur vel ut bonum promoveatur, vel ut malum vitetur. […]
(I answer that, in order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. […]
Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault. […]
Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil. […])
Throughout his defense of these tenets, he relies on the writings of Augustine of Hippo (354-430), who first set forth various models for justifying war from a Christian perspective. Aquinas also turns to the Bible, finding support for violence when it is necessary for defense.
Of course, Aquinas’ system in his Summa rests on a complex system of questions and answers necessary to determine rational, logical justification for waging war for the good of society. He is clear that some acts of war are to be avoided and condemned altogether: such as “inordinata exercitia et periculosa, ex quibus occisiones et depraedationes proveniunt” (“those which are inordinate and perilous, and end in slaying or plundering”). Even Aquinas notes, leading up to his arguments, that there are also biblical justifications for pacifism and avoiding violence (citing Matthew 26:52 and 5:39, as well as Romans 12:19). And, even more, there have been detractors to his type of justification, during Aquinas’ lifetime and up to the present.
From these examples, medieval monasticism poses distinct reasons for believing that seclusion is not a clear-cut way to escape politics after all. These cases perhaps reveal that we are always political in some way, even in drawing away from engaging directly (which is, after all, a political act); politics have the power to deeply affect, inside and outside of cloistered religious life. The point for medieval monks, then, was not to disengage from politics, not to escape, but to do so from a different perspective—whether that was through intellectual discourse, propaganda for patrons, social justice toward equality, or a combination of all of these aims.
[This post is part of an ongoing series, inspired by the upcoming presidential election in the United States, seeking to answer the question: What does the medieval period have to tell us about Christianity and political engagement? For an introduction to the series, and some general examples, see Part 1; for the next post in the series, see Part 3, on monasticism.]
Contexts for the issues I posed in the first part of this series do not originate in the medieval period, but stretch back in time, to the authorities that medieval people themselves consulted: the Bible and early Christian writers. And yet medieval Christians looking back to the Bible as the ultimate authority found questions about religious political engagement in scripture, with varying answers and no clear resolution.
Medieval people found various justifications for war and colonization in the name of God throughout the Old Testament. This begins with God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would be the chosen people, and continues through the narratives of the Pentateuch and beyond, as the Israelites invaded and conquered the Promised Land. Such a model allowed for various medieval powers to justify notions of colonialism and empire, just as it still fuels some thinking in modern politics. Here we might consider the eighth-century monk Bede’s (672/3-735) view of the English people as an extension of the Israelites as God’s “chosen people”; or Charlemagne’s (r.768-814) view of a pan-geographic kingdom that led to the emergence of the Holy Roman Empire as a type of Christian extension of the earlier Roman Empire.
Regarding earthly kingship, it is salient to revisit 1 Samuel, in which God negotiates with the Israelites (through the prophet Samuel) about establishing a monarchy. At first, when the Israelite people request a king because they want to be like neighboring peoples, God and Samuel are skeptical. In the end, however, a human monarchy wins out over theodicy. This scheme was only compounded with further complexity for early Judaism and Christianity when they were colonized by imperial powers like the Assyrians, Greeks, and Romans. Thus, rebellion against imperialism also takes center stage in early Jewish stories like the books of Judith and 1-2 Maccabees. In many of these texts, the notion of a Christ or Messiah is propped up to push back against imperial powers in a type of liberation theology where God’s people are ultimately the victors. These same ideas also permeated the New Testament, since the earliest Christian authors were very familiar with this view of salvation history. In this way, New Testament authors appropriated political terms like evangelion (gospel) for religious proclamations, setting up Jesus as the divinely sent Messiah who would topple all earthly rulers and kingdoms.
Models of kingship and empire would need further negotiation after the decline of the Roman Empire in the West, as new monarchical powers emerged across Europe, giving rise to the early foundations of our modern nation-state governments. Rulers like Charlemagne and Henry II (to name just two famous examples) saw their kingships as God-given rights, handed down from the same divine anointing that they found in the Israelite monarchy. Charlemagne was so fond of the biblical books of Kings (including 1-2 Kings and 1-2 Chronicles) that he refers to them as his own model for kingship in his collection of legislation known as the Admonitio generalis. In a famous passage from the prologue to this document, we find:
Nam legimus in regnorum libris, quomodo sanctus Iosias regnum sibi a Deo datum circumeundo, corrigendo, ammonendo ad cultum veri Dei studuit revocare: non ut me eius sanctitate aequiparabilem faciam, sed quod nobis sunt ubique sanctorum semper exempla sequenda….
(For we read in the Books of Kings how the saintly Josiah, by visitation, correction and admonition, strove to recall the kingdom which God had given him to the worship of the true God. I say this not to compare myself with his holiness but because it is our duty, at all times and in all places, to follow the examples of the saints….)
And while Charlemagne (the presumed author) waves aside comparison with himself, he also subtly implies that this is precisely the parallel that should be drawn: he stands in a line of divinely chosen kings going back to the Old Testament.
When considering how medieval people might have viewed their responsibilities to the powers that be, we might recall Jesus’ words in Mark 12:17, “Reddite igitur quae sunt Caesaris Caesari et quae sunt Dei Deo” (“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s”; cf. Matthew 22:21). Whatever this might have meant in the first century, for medieval Christians, the commandment is made more convoluted by complicated loyalties: for example, splitting belongings between tithes to churches, alms to the poor, donations to monasteries, taxes to governments, feudal payments to lords, and gifts to patrons. Of course, peasants, clerics, lords, and kings alike were all concerned with what freedoms and rights they could enjoy, and there was much discussion of these issues in the growing legal traditions of the Middle Ages. Surely medieval people felt just as offended when taxes went up as we do.
One key example is the English Magna Carta signed by King John in 1215, which addressed a host of issues, part of which were freedoms, taxes, and feudal payments to the English Crown. This same document, in fact, begins by establishing the separation of church and state: “In primis concessisse Deo et hac presenti carta nostra confirmasse, pro nobis et heredibus nostris in perpetuum quod Anglicana ecclesia libera sit, et habeat jura sua integra, et libertates suas illesas; et ita volumus observari” (“In the first place we have granted to God, and by this our present charter confirmed for us and our heirs forever that the English church shall be free, and shall have her rights entire, and her liberties inviolate; and we will that it be thus observed”). Since this document in some ways influenced modern legal traditions, it should cause some pause to consider the implications of these separations for religious and non-religious alike.
Chosen people, imperialism, divine rights of kings, rebellion, and separation of church and state—all of these rested in biblical precedents. They certainly resist any clear or monolithic system for negotiating views of politics from a Christian perspective. Instead, biblical contexts and various interpretations only add to the bigger picture that makes sense of some of the competing tensions presented in part 1 of this series. And, in many ways, the multiplicity of such views make for a much more interesting sense of the medieval period than simplicity.
 References are to Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, the dominant text in medieval Western Europe, as in Biblia sacra iuxta Vulgatam versionem, ed. Robert Weber, 4th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2005); translations are from The Holy Bible: Douay Version Translated from the Latin Vulgate (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1956). A parallel presentation of the Vulgate and Douay Rheims translation is available online at http://www.latinvulgate.com.
 In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731.
 Capitularia Regum Francorum, ed. Alfred Boretius, MGH, Capitularia regum Francorum, 2 vols. (Hanover: Hahn, 1883), 1:52-62 (no. 22), at 54; translation from Charlemagne: Translated Sources, trans. P. D. King (Kendal: P. D. King, 1987), 209-20, at 209.
 The Latin text and English translation of the 1215 Magna Carta is available online at Orbis Latinus, http://www.orbilat.com/Languages/Latin/Texts/06_Medieval_period/Legal_Documents/Magna_Carta.html.
I recently had a conversation with two of my pastor friends, Andrew and Rick, about the tensions between religion and politics, both in America and across history. A large part of this conversation revolved around the upcoming presidential election in the United States. At one point in the conversation, Andrew posed a question to me about the historical angle: What does the medieval period have to tell us about Christianity and political engagement? My reaction was to say that there’s quite a lot. And the more I considered the question, the more I realized how much I had to say about the subject.
Over the next couple of weeks, as a lead-up to the US election, I plan to post a series of examples to answer to the question. In this first post, I pose some preliminary thoughts by way of three different cases from the medieval period. In two future posts, I will consider more examples through the lenses of biblical precedents and monasticism as key models for how some medieval people thought about these issues. First, a few general remarks.
The Middle Ages were a hotbed of back-and-forth conflicts between ecclesiastical and governmental leaders as well as discussions of issues still relevant to current disputes about “church” and “state.” To call one side “religious” and the other “political” is disingenuous, since medieval people would balk at such false distinctions as much as politicians who claim their own public stances on government policies stem from their personal religious affiliations. A nuanced consideration poses questions about the interactions, potential separations, and inevitable tensions between Church and State still under discussion. No single, monolithic model emerges, but a variety of possibilities offers room to consider our own views in light of the past. Three examples serve as representatives of some of these issues.
When Andrew initially posed his question, the first answer that came to mind was the English Archbishop Thomas Becket (c.1120-1170), who was murdered for his conflict with King Henry II (r.1154-1189) about the rights and privileges of the Church versus the secular courts. The story, in fact, presents parallels with our own current moment, since tradition reports that Becket’s murderers took their cue from Henry’s vexed question, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?”—much like some have interpreted Donald Trump’s comments about Second Amendment rights activists taking care of his opponent Hillary Clinton as a nod toward assassination.
The martyrdom of Becket could be understood as a cautionary tale just to stay away from politics altogether. The struggle between the two leaders could, in some ways, be seen as a tale of escalation ending in a zero-sum game: Becket hurled threats of excommunication and church trials, while Henry volleyed back with charges of contempt against royal authority, sending the Archbishop into exile for a time and causing Pope Alexander III to get involved as mediator. But this conflict also underscores the gray area of tensions between church and state. Becket never fully denounced the rights and responsibilities of the Crown, as much as he wanted to demarcate clear boundaries; and Henry never denied the importance of Church authority, as much as he wanted to find his own role in ecclesiastical politics. In other words, both actors in this drama found themselves trying to navigate what it means to be both Christian and politically engaged at the same time.
Another example of how religion and political engagement intertwines is in warrior clerics, as with the figure of Bishop Turpin in the French poem The Song of Roland (composed c.1040-c.1115). This chanson de geste relates the events surrounding the historical Battle of Roncevaux in 778, waged between the Emperor Charlemagne’s Christian army and King Marsile’s Muslim army, focused on the heroic protagonist Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew. Among those at Roland’s side is Turpin, whose battle deeds are celebrated in stanza 121:
Par le camp vait Turpin li arcevesque;
Tel coronet ne chantat unches messe
Ki de sun cors feïst […] tantes proecces.
Dist al paien: «Deus tut mal te tramette!
Tel ad ocis dunt al coer me regrette.»
Sun bon ceval i ad fait esdemetre,
Si l’ad ferut sur l’escut de Tulette,
Que mort l’abat desur le herbe verte.
(Swift through the field Turpin the Archbishop passed;
Such shaven-crown has never else sung Mass
Who with his limbs such prowess might compass;
To th’pagan said “God send thee all that’s bad!
One thou hast slain for whom my heart is sad.”
So his good horse forth at his bidding ran,
He’s struck him then on his shield Toledan,
Until he flings him dead on the green grass.)
To modern audiences, it might seem odd to find a church leader in the heat of battle, but this was not uncommon in the medieval period.
In many ways, the figure Turpin speaks as much to a representation of the events of in 778 as it does to the religious politics surrounding the First Crusade (1095-1099) contemporary with the poem’s composition and popularity, as many clerics took part in the Crusades not only as prayer warriors but also on the battle-field and strategizing tactics. Surely the setup of the poem’s action as a great battle between the Christian Franks and the Muslim “Saracens” resonated with eleventh- and twelfth-century readers. Much more could be said about the Crusades —and has been said by others more qualified—especially in the disturbing parallels of rhetoric used by recent politicians regarding wars in the Middle East. But even when considered briefly, the example of Turpin in The Song of Roland demonstrates the close ties between theological conviction and military action that might coexist within a single ideological perspective.
For a third case, we might turn to the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (c.1265-1321), author of, most famously, the Divine Comedy. Both his biography and bibliography attest to Christian political engagement. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Italy was swept by internal struggles for power between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire, a high point for tensions between church and state in the Middle Ages. Factions of family loyalties developed between the Guelphs, who supported the Pope, and Ghibellines, who supported the Holy Roman Emperor. Even among the Florentine Guelphs, however, tensions were hot, and the faction eventually split into two sides known as the White and Black Guelphs. The Alighieri family had a long-standing loyalty to the White Guelphs, and Dante fought both on the battle-field and in his writings to support their causes. His allegiance, in fact, led to exile from his hometown of Florence in 1302, during which he wrote his magnum opus, which he called the Commedia.
In the first part of the Divine Comedy, known as Inferno—a fictionalized travelogue through hell—Dante uses scathing satire as his mode of political engagement. Throughout his tour of hell, Dante recounts many encounters with various political figures from legend, history, and his own time, offering scathing depictions of certain rivals. For example, while traveling through the fifth circle of hell, reserved for the wrathful, Dante and his spirit-guide Virgil are accosted by a famous Florentine politician named Filippo Argenti:
Mentre noi corravam la morta gora,
dinanzi mi si fece un pien di fango,
e disse: “Chi se’ tu che vieni anzi ora?”
E io a lui: “S’i’ vegno, non rimango;
ma tu chi se’, che sì se’ fatto brutto?”
Rispuose: “Vedi che son un che piango.’
E io a lui: “Con piangere e con lutto,
spirito maladetto, ti rimani;
ch’i’ ti conosco, ancor sie lordo tutto.”
Allor distese al legno ambo le mani;
per che ’l maestro accorto lo sospinse,
dicendo: “Via costà con li altri cani!”
Dopo ciò poco vid’ io quello strazio
far di costui a le fangose genti,
che Dio ancor ne lodo e ne ringrazio.
Tutti gridavano: “A Filippo Argenti!”
e ’l fiorentino spirito bizzarro
in sé medesmo si volvea co’ denti.
(VII.31-63: While we crossed the stagnant swamp
one cloaked in mud rose up to say:
“Who are you that you come before your time?”
And I to him: “If I come, I do not stay.
But you, who are you, now become so foul?”
He answered: “As you can see, I am one who weeps.”
And I to him: “In weeping and in misery,
accursèd spirit, may you stay.
I know you, for all your filth.”
When he stretched both his hands toward the boat,
the wary master thrust him off, saying:
“Away there with the other dogs!”
Soon I watched him get so torn to pieces
by the muddy crew, I still give praise
and thanks to God for it.
All cried: “Get Filippo Argenti!”
And that spiteful Florentine spirit
gnawed at himself with his own teeth.)
This moment is surely fueled by personal animosity between the men, since Filippo is assumed to be among the family who both supported Dante’s exile and seized his belongings when he was cast out of Florence. But beyond personal issues, this scene also represents the ways Dante used his literature to strike out at the political leaders of the day. We might even see him as a type of literary John Stewart of the fourteenth century. While this episode is not (on the surface) overtly Christian in its aims, the very framework and details of Dante’s Comedy necessitate reevaluating any neat separation between “religious” and “secular” worlds for medieval people. Dante still used the theological concepts of hell and the deadly sin of wrath to pose his satire. These facets of people’s lives were not separated, but just as complexly connected as the various facets of our own lives in the twenty-first century.
In these three preliminary examples, we find three very different types of political engagements and implications that come out of them. No clear way of synthesizing Christian and political views emerge; and that in itself is a clear suggestion for considering the complexity at work in questioning how these two issues have been navigated historically and how we should navigate them now. Even more, these cases are only a few examples of the many to be found in medieval culture. We will see more instances of the myriad ways that medieval people juggled both religious convictions and political affinities in the posts to come over the next few weeks.
 Les textes de la Chanson de Roland: La version d’Oxford, ed. Raoul Mortier (Paris: Éditions de la Geste Francor, 1940), available online at Bibliotecha Augustana, http://www.hs-augsburg.de/~harsch/gallica/Chronologie/11siecle/Roland/rol_intr.html; translation from The Song of Roland: Done into English, in the original measure, trans. Charles Scott Moncrieff (London: Chapman & Hall, 1919), available online at Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/songsofroland00chesuoft.
Scrolling through my social media feeds this morning, I was reminded that today is #InternationalTalkLikeAPirateDay; and, serendipitously, I’m reading various accounts of Viking ships and sea-battles as I prep for my class on Vikings. When I made the schedule, I didn’t realize this happy coincidence, but I am glad for it. This is one of our first major readings in primary sources (we read “The Tale of Thorstein Shiver” and “The Tale of Audun from the Westfjords” early in the semester to get a taste for the subject matter), after a few weeks of reading modern perspectives on Scandinavian peoples during the Viking Age. Vikings remain some of the most popular pirates from the Middle Ages–as I noticed is noted on the Wikipedia page for “Piracy”–and later medieval literature looking back to the Viking Age provides some great accounts of their nautical exploits.
First, we learn a lot about Viking Age ships, their construction, and what was valued in the best of them. A few passages stand out from a description of the Long Serpent of King Olaf Tryggvason (c.960-1000) in The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason (chapter 88; number 32 in Somerville and McDonald), included in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla:
During the winter after his return from Halogaland, King Olaf Tryggvason built a ship at Hladhamar. This ship was bigger than any other in the country and the stocks on which it was built survive as visible proof of this. Thorberg the Woodcarver was responsible for the stem and stern, but there were many others involved in the work as well. Some of them felled trees; some shaped the wood; some forged nails; and some hauled timber. All the materials used were of the best quality, and the ship was constructed with large timbers. It was long and broad and stood high above the water.
[E]veryone agreed that such a large and beautiful ship had never been seen before.
King Olaf named it the Long Serpent…. The Long Serpent had thirty-four rooms, or rowers’ benches [with room for sixty-eight men]. The dragon’s head at the prow and the coiled tail at the stern were both heavily gilded and the sides stood as high above the water as those of ocean-going ships. The Long Serpent was the best and most costly ship ever built in Norway.
This passage seems to be a sort of prototypical description of a ship, as other literary accounts (including Snorri’s own description of King Harald Sigurdarson’s ship, also in the Heimskringla) mimic, allude to, or even comparably rely on this passage as a type of reference point.
But perhaps more fascinating–from the perspective of looking for pirates and piracy in literature about the Vikings–are accounts of sea battles. One particularly fascinating narrative occurs in The History of the Earls of Orkney (chapters 87-88; number 37a in Somerville and McDonald), which describes the journey of Rognvald Kali Kolsson, Earl of Orkney (c.1103-1158), to Rome and the Holy Land. In one episode, Rognvald and his troops wage battle against a group of Muslim merchants on a ship called a dromond in the Mediterranean. Rognvald’s men see the dromond first, and Rognvald is able to call together his ships to formulate a plan for attack. After consulting with his advisors, a bishop (unnamed in this section) and a warrior named Erling, he seems rather confident in his strategy, saying, “If it turns out to be Christian merchants, we can make peace with them, but if they’re heathens, as I think they are, then almighty God in his mercy will give us victory. We’ll give the poor every fiftieth penny of whatever booty we take.” With that, the men from the Orkneys set their plan into motion, drawing their ships up alongside the enemy dromond to attack.
One of the problems with such an attack, as the bishop had previously mentioned, was the danger of a larger, taller ship pouring down hot pitch on a longship that sat lower in the water. As the battle starts, “The crew of the dromond began pouring burning sulphur and pitch over them, but most of it fell beyond the ships as Erling had predicted, and so they had no need to shield themselves from it.” With multiple ships drawn up beside the dromond, a few ships retreat farther out, and the bishop directs the men on these ships to fire arrows toward the enemies: “This attack was very effective. The people on board the dromond were so busy protecting themselves that they paid little attention to what the Norsemen at the sides of their ship were up to.” The Norsemen hack at the sides of the merchants’ ship, and soon begin to find ways to climb aboard while the enemies are distracted–in a series of adventuresome and even humorous moments involving a pile of burly Viking men climbing up an anchor onto the ship. The text even offers a brief anecdote about Erling’s neck injury, earning him the nickname “Wry-Neck” for his inability to hold his head upright afterward.
As Rognvald had guessed, the text identifies the enemies as non-Christians, but not until the battle is well under way. There comes a pause in the middle of the battle to describe the enemy warriors: “The men on the dromond were Saracens, whom we call Mohammed’s heretics. There were many black men too, and they put up the strongest resistance.” Pitting Christians and Muslims against each other is a rather widespread trope in later medieval literature, and it isn’t all that surprising to find this type of polemic here, with the common term “Saracens” used for the Muslim warriors. Given the complex and widespread networks of travel end trade in the twelfth century, it also isn’t difficult to accept the plausibility of this type of encounter between Muslims and Norsemen in the Mediterranean during the time. But the detail that some of the enemy merchants were “black men” is intriguing, since it adds another layer of racial sentiments as well as some sort of distinction from the Muslim men. All of these details distance the merchants, othering them for medieval audiences. Another curious detail occurs just a few lines later: “The Norsemen noticed that one man aboard the dromond was taller and handsomer than the others and they thought for sure that he must be their leader.” No mention is made, however, of the religious, ethnic, or racial identity of the leader, here or elsewhere in the passage. What makes him handsome to the Norsemen? Is he one of the Muslims, or one of the black men? What marks this man as leader is his physicality, but the text offers no specific detail to solidify his identity; this devil is not in the details, but purely in his otherness as a non-Christian, non-Viking, and presumably non-European.
Once the onslaught is over, and the Vikings have predictably won the battle, one last, strange moment is recorded at the end of the episode. Taking what they wanted from the dromond, the Norsemen set the whole ship on fire:
When the tall man they had captured saw this, he started and grew pale and agitated. They tried to make him talk, but no matter how much they threatened or cajoled, he didn’t say a word or make a sign. When the dromond was completely ablaze, they saw something that looked like a burning stream flowing into the sea. This greatly affected their prisoner. They concluded that they hadn’t searched carefully enough for treasure and that metal, either gold or silver, had melted as the fire took hold.
The narrator seems more interested in the loss of treasures like those known to the Vikings–gold and silver objects valued across the medieval world. But perhaps the reason this treasure escaped the notice of the men from Orkney is because it was easy for them to overlook, not knowing it was precious cargo, despite its seeming value to the merchant. Could this “burning stream flowing into the sea” be oil, catching fire as it leaked out of whatever containers held it on the ship? Oil of various types were part of the mercantile world of the Mediterranean by the twelfth century, as it was known not only in the Middle East but also to Western Europe by way of Islamic Spain. Perhaps this passage provides one glimpse of its presence, a casualty of Viking piracy on the high seas.
 All passages discussed in this post come from selections in The Viking Age: A Reader, ed. Angus A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald, 2nd ed. (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2014), 151-80 (chapter 6, “Fjord-Serpents: Viking Ships”).