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Medieval Religion and Political Engagement, Part 3: Monasticism

[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.


Saint Benedict of Nursia, from a fresco by Fra Angelico (c.1400–1455) in the Basilica San Marco, Florence.

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.

Geneva, Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. lat. 22, fol 3v

Hrabanus Maurus’ prefatory poem to Queen Judith of Bavaria, in Geneva, Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. lat. 22, fol 3v.

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. […])[1]

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.


Battle of Crécy (1346) between the English and French in the Hundred Years’ War.

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.

[1] Corpus Thomisticum: Sancti Thomae de Aquino, Summa Theologiae,; translation from New Advent,

Medieval Religion and Political Engagement, Part 2: Biblical Precedents

[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.[1]


Hats off to the Papa: Charlemagne and Pope Adrian I, by Antoine Vérard (fl. 1485–1512).

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”;[2] 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….)[3]

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.


The Magna Carta, British Library Cotton MS Augustus II.106.

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”).[4] 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.

[1] 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

[2] In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731.

[3] 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.

[4] The Latin text and English translation of the 1215 Magna Carta is available online at Orbis Latinus,

Medieval Religion and Political Engagement, Part 1

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.


The Maartyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket, from the Walters Art Museum, W.34.15V, used under a Creative Commons license.

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.)[1]

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.


The Song of Roland depicted in St. Petersburg, Hermitage fr. 88 (Grandes Chroniques de France), folio. 154v.

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.


The fifth circle of Dante’s Inferno, (canto VIII) as depicted by the Flemish artist Giovanni Stradanus (1523-1605) in 1587.

(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.)[2]

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.

[To continue reading, see Part 2 (on biblical precedents), and Part 3 (on monasticism).]

[1] 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,; 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,

[2] Both text and translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy come from the Princeton Dante Project, ed. Robert Hollander,

Viking Ships & Piracy

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.[1]


Harold Godwinson’s ship as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry

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.

[1] 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”).

CFP for Preach It, Sister! A Roundtable about Women and Homiletics

CFP: Society for the Study of Anglo-Saxon Homiletics at the 52nd International Congress on Medieval Studies
Western Michigan University (Kalamazoo, MI)
May 11-14, 2017

Preach It, Sister! A Roundtable about Women and Homiletics


Hildegard of Bingen receiving a vision and dictating to her scribe and secretary. From the Rupertsberger Codex Scivias.

For over ten years at the ICMS, the Society for the Study of Anglo-Saxon Homiletics (SSASH) has thrived in its aims to promote scholarship related to the sources, compositions, appropriations, and early studies of Anglo-Saxon homilies. In 2016, the session sponsored by SSASH gathered nearly 40 attendees, providing evidence for continued relevance and support. The session proposed for 2017 seeks to continue this presence at the ICMS, as well as the vibrant scholarship and collaborative discussions that Anglo-Saxonists have come to expect from the Society, with a specific focus on the work of women in the field.

2017 marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of Dorothy Bethurum’s edition of The Homilies of Wulfstan (1957), which remains a monument in the field. Yet this publication is just one representative of how women have been integral to the study of Anglo-Saxon preaching. For example, we also have the recent work of Mary Clayton, Mechthild Gretsch, Joyce Hill, Clare Lees, Joyce Tally Lionarons, Mary Swan, Elaine Treharne, Dorothy Whitelock, and Samantha Zacher. The past decade has brought about the publications of major books discussing sermons, such as Zacher’s Preaching the Converted: The Style and Rhetoric of the Vercelli Book Homilies (2009); Lionarons’s The Homiletic Writings of Archbishop Wulfstan (2010); and Treharne’s Living Through Conquest: The Politics of Early English, 1020-1220 (2012). The proposed roundtable, then, will feature a celebration of the work of women on Anglo-Saxon homiletics, allowing for not only showcasing past scholarship but also a forum for lively discussion of future possibilities within the field. Toward this end, the roundtable to be an all-female panel, in order to foreground women’s voices.

Please send abstracts of no more than 500 words with a completed Participant Information Form (available here) to Brandon Hawk by September 15, 2016. For more general information about the ICMS, please visit the conference website here.

Isidore of Seville & Old Media

Today marks 1380 years since of the death of Isidore of Seville (c.560-636), the famous sixth-/seventh-century Spanish archbishop and scholar. As a diverse writer, who synthesized ideas from the late antique world (including both pagan and Christian authors), his works were significant, influential, and highly popular touchstones for medieval thinkers. This British Library Medieval Manuscripts Blog post highlights some of his work. For the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Clement VIII canonized him in 1598, and he was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1722. In the twenty-first century, people might know Isidore as the patron saint of the internet–along with computer users, computer technicians, programmers, and students.

Isidore, his works, and their afterlife represent a fusion of several things that I love: a bridge between cultures (late antique and medieval periods), encyclopedic knowledge, and the possibilities of information transmission across the longue durée of media history. As a general characteristic of his scholarship, Isidore set out to capture, synthesize, organize, and preserve the knowledge of his predecessors for future thinkers. These impulses are particularly pronounced in his most famous work, the Etymologies–a striking case for considering how Isidore’s work represents old media practices in premodern manuscript culture.

Above (clockwise): Excerpts from Isidore’s Etymologies, Book VII, in St. Gall, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 230 (c.800), p. 93; beginning of Isidore’s Etymologies in Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 92 (13th c.), fol. 1r; and detail of “De caelo” from Isidore’s De natura rerum in Zofingen, Stadtbibliothek, Pa 32  (9th c.), fol. 62r. All images in this post are from e-codices: Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland, used under a Creative Commons License.

In the Etymologies, Isidore aims to collect and transmit knowledge in something like a comprehensive encyclopedia, covering topics ranging from classical liberal arts like grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, medicine, laws, science, and music, as well as notes on the Bible, God, angels, saints, languages, peoples, geographies, animals, elements, earthly and heavenly topography, urban and rural spaces, natural resources, agriculture, military, maritime navigation, and domestic subjects. While Isidore never completed his massive work, it nonetheless contains 20 books with a total of 448 chapters, relying on around 475 texts from over 200 authors. (For an excellent overview of Isidore’s life and his Etymologies, see the “Introduction” in The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, trans. Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach, and Oliver Berghoff, with the collaboration of Muriel Hall (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006), 3-28.)

Considering Isidore’s task and accomplishment with the Etymologies, it is no surprise that he has been deemed the patron saint of the internet. Thinking in terms of our own information-overloaded digital age, we might consider how he set out to distill the “big data” of knowledge passed on from his predecessors–indeed, the vast learning of the information-overloaded classical world–into pieces that could be taken in, retained, and used in smaller parts. For these reasons, medieval people often turned to the Etymologies for quick facts or the starting points of learning, just as many of us turn to Wikipedia.

Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 92 folV7

Index to Isidore’s Etymologies from Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 92, fol. V7.

Medieval means of wrangling big data may be seen beyond Isidore’s production of his Etymologies, as part of the later transmission and use of this text. One example appears in Cologny, Bodmer 92 (pictured left, folio V7), a copy of the Etymologies produced in the early thirteenth century. On folios V7-V11, a user of the book from the later thirteenth or early fourteenth century has added a series of index tables meant to facilitate looking up and finding specific subjects in Isidore’s encyclopedia. Subject terms are alphabetized and keyed to specific references (e.g. “f.33.A. biblioteca” and “f.2.0.A. celestis”), which may be found by following the apparatus of the text throughout the codex. The index and textual references, then, work much like hyperlinks, allowing users of the Etymologies to find information about specific topics, rather than reading the whole book from cover to cover. In fact, as an abundance of evidence from medieval manuscripts shows, readers were likely just as used to jumping around books as we are with engaging in non-linear reading. This indexical feature in Bodmer 92 is one framework that users created for navigating the platform of knowledge in front of them. It is, in other words, a means of information management. This example demonstrates how later medieval users valued, revalued, adapted, and worked with Isidore’s Etymologies for their own needs. It also represents one way in which Isidore’s work–and medieval manuscripts generally–presaged certain later practices in the ages of print and digital media.

Once we start looking for such structural and organization frameworks in medieval media, even basic examples may be understood as part of the desires for book producers and users to come to terms with big data like the vast amount of topics covered in Isidore’s encyclopedia. Old media reveal how medieval platforms of knowledge were further manipulated for key content management. Bodmer 92 contains another example of such a technique in its basic rubrication. On folios 2r-v (pictured below), the scribe has provided a compact but decorated list labeled “Capitulum,” with the titles of the numbered sections appearing again as rubrications for chapter headings in the following pages.

For instance, the contents lists “III. De gramatica.” and the section headed with this title is found on the other side of the leave, on folio 2v (pictured above). What makes this system all the more striking as assistive is the use of different colors of ink: while the main text is generally written out in dark ink, the list of contents on folios 2r-v is signaled by the use of red and blue inks, and the headings for each section throughout the manuscript are rubricated in red. The start of each new section is also marked by a decorated initial, making the division more pronounced for browsable use. Additionally, the tops of pages are marked with alternating numerals to indicate the book (recto, in blue) or section (verso, in red) of the content in relation to the whole of the Etymologies. Although these various paratextual features are common in medieval manuscripts, the creator(s) of Bodmer 92 harnessed them to facilitate user-friendliness, to build readerly success into the book itself in the face of the big data of this voluminous encyclopedia.

I end this post with the start of a set of verses attributed to Isidore known as Versus in bibliotheca, which offers an exhortation to continual education as he saw fit for a world filled with innumerable knowledge. The following verses, in fact, seem as fitting in a world with the internet as they were some 1380 years ago, when even the information contained in books was more vast than a single person could master in a lifetime.

Versus in bibliotheca

These bookcases of ours hold a great many books.
Behold and read, you who so desire, if you wish.
Here lay your sluggishness aside, put off your fastidiousness of mind.
Believe me, brother, you will return thence a more learned man.
But perhaps you say, “Why do I need this now?
For I would think no study still remains for me:
I have unrolled histories and hurried through all the law.”
Truly, if you say this, then you yourself still know nothing.

(Translation from The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, trans. Barney, et al., 16.)

Ælfric’s Genesis and Bede’s Commentarius in Genesim

My article “Ælfric’s Genesis and Bede’s Commentarius in Genesim” has been accepted for publication in Medium Ævum, forthcoming within the next year. In this article, I suggest that one contributing factor to Ælfric’s decision to stop translating Genesis halfway through (at chapter 22) is his knowledge of and use of Bede’s Commentarius in Genesim, which also concludes after the story of Isaac. With this basis in mind, I trace connections between Ælfric’s Preface to Genesis and Bede’s commentary, the tradition of Genesis exegesis, and a textual crux in the manuscript texts of the Old English Heptateuch. The implications suggest a more nuanced understanding of Ælfric’s reasons for concluding his project where he did, his fusing together of translation and exegesis, and problems that later scribes faced in reconciling Ælfric’s Genesis with various other Old English versions of the Heptateuch as a whole.

Below are the introduction and a few brief excerpts (minus some footnote references) to tantalize readers:

Sometime between 992 and 1002, the Anglo-Saxon monk Ælfric (c.955-c.1010) translated part of the Latin Vulgate version of Genesis into Old English and wrote a vernacular Preface to his work. During this same time period, he also translated the Quaestiones in Genesim by Alcuin of York (c.735-804) and composed an Old English Hexameron on the six days of Creation. With such concerted interest in Genesis, Ælfric became one of the earliest translators of the Bible into the English language and joined the legacy of patristic and medieval scholars who had previously written about the biblical book. Prominent figures in this legacy who wrote works on Genesis influential for Ælfric include Basil of Caesarea (329/30-379), Ambrose of Milan (c.340-397), Augustine of Hippo (354-430), Bede of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow (672/3-735), and Alcuin—authors whom Ælfric judiciously echoes at the same time that he supplements them with his own contributions, synthesizing biblical exegesis up to his own time. This article examines one aspect of Ælfric’s engagement with sources, arguing for his use of Bede’s work on Genesis as a model for his own exegesis and translation.

In his Preface to Genesis, Ælfric gives a clear statement about his reason for translating only the first part of the biblical book. According to his claims, the practical reason is that his patron Æthelweard already had possession of a translation for the latter part of the book. Yet there is good reason to believe that Ælfric’s assertions in such instances have more complicated explanations behind them. […] I propose that another suitable explanation for Ælfric’s translation stopping point is found in reference to Bede’s Commentarius in Genesim and the author’s note about this text at the end of his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. The implications of this proposed source allow for exploring two related aspects of Ælfric’s work on Genesis: first, a set of relationships between Ælfric’s work on Genesis and previous exegesis on the biblical book; and, second, a textual crux in the manuscripts containing the longer and later (eleventh-century) translation project known as the Old English Heptateuch.


As evidence for Ælfric’s thinking on the topic of Bede and where to end his translation of Genesis, a number of other related texts may be brought together. Bede and Ælfric, in fact, stand in a long line of those who worked on Genesis but never addressed the whole book. For all of their popularity and influences on later authors, Basil’s Hexameron (translated into Latin by Eustathius) and Ambrose’s work by the same title constitute commentaries only on the first six days of Creation. Augustine famously wrote multiple commentaries on Genesis (De Genesi contra Manichaeos, De Genesi ad litteram imperfectus liber, and De Genesi ad litteram), none of them explicating the latter part of the book. Bede used all of these works throughout his corpus. In the preface to his own Commentarius in Genesim (a letter to Acca, Bishop of Hexham [c.660-740/2]), Bede cites Basil, Ambrose, and Augustine by name, referring to their commentaries on Genesis as chief among his sources, and including further references to Augustine’s Confessiones and Contra aduersarium legis et prophetarum. As already noted, Ælfric’s sources for work on Genesis include Alcuin’s Quaestiones in Genesim, which he knew directly since he translated it into an Old English text now known as Alcuini Interrogationes Sigewulfi. Alcuin’s treatise has a complicated relationship of reliance on Augustine’s De Genesi ad litteram and Bede’s In Genesim, since Alcuin echoes both authors but thoughtfully reworks their exegesis in ways that make it difficult to distinguish his dependence on one or the other. Even before Ælfric’s time, exegesis on Genesis that he would have read and relied on is already a complicated network of scholarly interplay.


The correlations I have proposed so far may be further considered to explore the implications of the present argument by turning to a crux in manuscripts of the Old English Heptateuch. Whereas Ælfric translated only part of Genesis, other, anonymous Anglo-Saxon translators also worked to render the first seven books of the Bible into Old English. The collective, cumulative work of Ælfric and other translators is represented in a combined text now known as the Old English Heptateuch. […]

The conventional view is that Ælfric’s translation of Genesis as it survives in the Old English Heptateuch ends at xxiv.22 or xxiv.26, based on the text ending at this point in Cambridge Ii.1.33. Yet there are reasons for reassessing the end-point of Ælfric’s translation, particularly regarding the suggestions I have posed. […]

Notes on a Manuscript Fragment

Several months ago, wandering through the large Antique Flea Market in Brimfield, Massachusetts, I came across a surprise. Sitting on the ground, leaning against an old clothes trunk out in the sun, I saw from a distance a large page of antiquated musical notation and text in an old frame. As I walked closer, I recognized it as a liturgical manuscript, containing musical staves and notation with Latin text. I discovered that the frame was not closed in the back but had glass on both sides, to allow viewing both sides of the page. Examining it some more, I became sure that the page was vellum, and it looked late medieval or early modern.

While looking it over, the vendor approached and asked if I knew what it was. I told him generally what I could–that this looked like a medieval musical manuscript, and that studying objects like this is my job, although I was unable to tell him much more without researching it. He was surprised, since he previously had no idea what it was. The manuscript had come into his hands, along with many of the other objects he had for sale that day, as part of an estates sale from the home of a wealthy doctor in Hartford, Connecticut. Beyond that, the vendor knew very little–nothing more about the doctor, not even his name–and he told me that he had found the framed manuscript sitting in the basement of the house when he purchased part of the estate at auction.

We quickly settled on a deal. As little as he was asking, I was sure that I could not pass up the opportunity to buy the manuscript. I did feel some guilt at buying a manuscript fragment, knowing the terrible histories behind codices being ripped apart by booksellers. But it was clear to me that the original manuscript had been broken up years before it came into the hands of the vendor I met, and well before the Hartford doctor owned it. (The frame was old enough to be held together in the back by old brown paper glued around the edges of the glass, rather than modern ways of holding glass in place.) I spent several minutes asking the vendor different questions (sometimes similar questions different ways) about the fragment, how he acquired it, and his potential involvement in book destruction; it was clear he had no idea about its history before finding it in a basement. I even gave him my views on how sad it is to see fragments like this, and warned him about these types of pages as a vendor. By buying the manuscript, I hope that I am contributing less to the problem of breaking up manuscripts and more to preserving cultural heritage by caring for the fragment and using it to teach students. Indeed, I have already found it useful in a medieval literature class for teaching about medieval text technologies, their modern afterlives, and the sad outcomes for some broken books.

What follows are a series of notes I have compiled about the manuscript, with some information and references about what I learned so far from some initial research. I took all photographs under natural lighting with my iPhone, after removing the manuscript from the frame.

Physical Description

The full page measures approximately 760-80 millimeters (30-30.75 inches) in height by 545-50 millimeters (21.5-21.6 inches) in width. The page is foliated as “99” in dark ink in upper right corner of the recto.

On the verso, the edge on the far right is discolored where it would have been bound into the spine of the original codex. Upon further examination, the discoloration turns out to be a strip of vellum folded over approximately 10-15 millimeters (0.4-0.6 inches) of the page; this is ostensibly part of the other half of the full bifolium as it would have been bound into the book–which was cut but left attached to this fragment when the codex was disassembled. As it had been framed, the verso would have faced outward for display, while the recto would have faced the wall. The verso, after all, has a more elaborate layout, containing more diverse elements. (See more on the layout below.)

MyManuscript_detail_holeA few distinctive features helped me to decide that this piece is vellum when I first saw it. The first was a conspicuous hole that had been sewn up, measuring approximately 25 millimeters (1.13 inches) in length, with five stitches with white thread.

The second were speckles from follicles on the hair side (verso), more noticeable toward the portion of the page that would have formed the gutter of the book. As usual, the flesh side (recto) is whiter and softer, while the hair side (verso) is darker and more coarse. The whole page is more stiff than pliable, with many wrinkles, likely from less than ideal storage, climate, and moisture in the display frame.

Concerning the mis-en-page, there are a number of noticeable characteristics. While the recto has five consistent lines of text and music above, the verso has a more complex layout. A more qualified musicologist could say more about the staves, notes, and their significance. For now, I only note that the music is consistently written out, on five-line staves drawn in red. I would be grateful for other thoughts on these traits.

The layout of the verso is fundamentally different because of the use of an inset block of seven lines of smaller text without music, including a versicle and response; these lines intrude on the text and staves for the third and fourth lines in the overall layout. The majority of text is written in dark ink, with a few exceptions. Indications of the psalms to be sung (ps.) as well as notations for the versicle and response (V. and R.) are written in red. Three red punctus marks appear in the middle of moriemini on the bottom line of text on the verso to indicate note changes on the single syllable e. The fragment contains two decorated initials, a yellow Q for “Quae est ista” on the recto and red O for “Omnes moriemini” on the verso.

The text is written in a Gothic Southern Textualis (see Albert Derolez, The Palaeography of Gothic Manuscript Books: From the Twelfth to the Early Sixteenth Century (Cambridge, 2003)). Without giving a full paleographical assessment, I will note a few features. In general the page shows a consistent, clean script, following the guidelines. Letters are generally rounded, conforming to southern rather than northern characteristics. The scribe uses both long-s and short-s, reserving the latter for terminal positions. The digraph æ is used consistently (as in quae and caeli). The words Dominus and Deus are always capitalized. While it is difficult to generalize from such a short text, the scribe clearly distinguishes between u and v, as in -stravit, the indication for the versicle as V, and Vere directly following. Overall, only a few abbreviations appear, for psalmus (twice), Dominus regnauit (both words), and Cantate.

A few manuscripts with comparable features include:

Burlington, University of Vermont, Robert Hull Fleming Museum, 1971.10.4, from a sixteenth-century gradual

New Haven, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library 485.3, from a sixteenth-century antiphonary

New Haven, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library 627, from a fifteenth-century (?) antiphonary

Based on comparable manuscripts, I believe this folio is from the sixteenth century, although that is only a tentative conclusion. I will discuss a possible origin below.


The following is a transcription of the manuscript fragment, as well as a translation noting biblical sources according to the Latin Vulgate (edited by Robert Weber, Biblia sacra vulgata; translations are from the Douay-Rheims). Because I provide photographs, I have not indicated line breaks, but I present each chant as a new item. I silently expand all abbreviations, while retaining manuscript capitalization and punctuation (except for one case: a dash for a line break in the middle of aliud on the verso). I provide some reconstructions in brackets for the text on the previous and following pages, based on close parallels from other sources.

/99r/ [Ferculum fecit sibi rex Salomon de lignis Libani: columnas eius fecit argenteas, reclinatorium aureum, ascensum purpureum, media charitate con]stravit.
psalmus. Dominus regnauit.
Quae est ista, quae progreditur quasi aurora consurgens, pulchra ut luna, electa ut /99v/ sol, terribles ut castrorum acies ordinata.’
psalmus. Cantate.
Vere Dominus est in loco sancto isto; et ego nesciebam.
Non est hic aliud, nisi domus Dei, et porta caeli.
Omnes morie…mini, quia in [Adam peccavistis….]

King Solomon hath made him a litter of the wood of Libanus: The pillars thereof he made of silver, the seat of gold, the going up of purple, the midst he covered with charity. (Canticles 3:9)
Psalm. The Lord hath reigned.
Who is she, that cometh forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in array? (Canticles 6:9)
Psalm. Sing.
Indeed the Lord is in this holy place; and I knew it not. (Genesis 28:16)
This is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven. (Genesis 28:17)
All die, because in Adam you all sin…. (1 Corinthians 15:22)

This liturgy is for the Third Nocturn of the Office for the Conception of Mary, celebrated on December 8. The chants on this manuscript page are a close parallel to the office that F. E. Gilliat-Smith from the (unreformed) Roman Breviary of 1481, in “Some Notes Concerning the Earliest Known Office of the Immaculate Conception,” The Ecclesiastical Review, Sixth Series, 5 (1916), 605-22, at 616-17. Other early modern breviaries (to which Gilliat-Smith did not have access to search via Google Books) contain closer parallels, some with the exact wording of this manuscript (indicated with asterisks), as in the following books.

*Breviarium romanum: ex decreto Sacrosancti Concilii Tridentini restitutum, S. Pii V Pontificis Maximi jussu editum, Clementis VIII et Urbani VIII auctoritate recognitum (Dionysius Thierry, 1669), 601 [and in various later reprinted versions, e.g. 1798 and 1831].

Die VIII Decembris. Officium proprium cum octava Inmaculatae Conceptionis Beatae Mariae Virginis: In hoc Mysterio Hispaniarum, & Indiarum Principalis Patronae: ex Breviario Franciscano desumptum (Ignatius Frau, 1762), 48-50.

Breviarium Romano-Monasticum, Pauli V et Urbani VIII PP. MM. jussu editum, oro omnibus sub Regula S. Patris Benedicti militantibus, praecipue nunc ad usum Congregationis Hispanae (J. Ibarra, 1779), 732.

*Officia sanctorum á summis pontificibus, tam pro Hispaniarum regnis, quam Pro Universali Ecclesia (Agustinus Figaró, 1827), 480-81.

Also from the closest parallels, I have gathered that the liturgy would often include the gospel reading from Luke 11:27, followed by a homily on this passage by Bede. The reading and homily would follow the lines derived from Genesis 28:16-17, preceding the line from 1 Corinthians 15:22.

Leonardo de Nogaroli

As Gilliat-Smith mentions, this liturgical office is credited to a certain Leonardo Nogaroli. Although Gilliat-Smith was unable to identify this figure, sixteenth-century sources relate that he was a cleric for the household of Pope Sixtus IV (pope 1471-84). A number of early modern accounts present information about Nogaroli composing a mass expressing the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which had gained growing support and was authorized and promoted by Sixtus IV. Irénée Henri Dalmais, Pierre Jounel, Aimé Georges Martimort present a brief overview in “The Veneration of Mary,” The Church at Prayer: An Introduction to the Liturgy, New Edition, Volume IV: The Liturgy and Time, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (Collegeville, MN, Liturgical P, 1985), 130-56, at 140. The following are some sources closer to Nogaroli’s own lifetime, as well as a few interesting later retellings.

Rodolpho Hospiniano on the “Conceptionis B. Mariae festum,” in De origine progressu, ceremoniis et ritibus festorum dierum Iudaeorum, Graecorum, Romanorum & Turcarum Libri tres (Zürich: Ioannem Wolfium, 1592), 107v: “Anno Domini 1466. Sixtus 4. decretum edidit, qod extat in Extrauagantibus libro 5. de Reliquijs & vener. Sanct. in quo constituit festum de mira conceptione B. Mariae, cum peculiari officio, quod composuit Leonardus Nagarolus Italus, in eoq, docet, sine peccato originali Mariam conceptam, ab omnibus fidelibus celebrandum esse, additu ijsdem indulgentijs, quas consequuntur homines in Corporu Christi solemnitate.”

Adriano Moerbecio, Scala Purpurea in sex gradus divisa (Antwerp: Hieronymus Verdussius, 1634), 134: “Ad tempora Sixti quarti R. P. D. Leonardus Nagarolus Protonotarius Apostolicus, composuit Officium de immaculata Conceptione, quod iam pene per centum annos decanatum est.”

Bartholomaei Carrana and Dominico Schram, Summa Conciliorum: Dudum Collecta Cum Additionibus Francisci Sylvii, Tomus III (Augsburg: Rieger, 1778), 640: “Joannes Gnesnensis in Polonia Archiepiscopus An. 1510. Concilium Provinviale celebravit, in quo Festum Conceptionis B. M. V. cum Octava, & Officio a Leonado Nagaroli composito celebrari jussit.”

Don Antonio Lobera y Abio, El por qué de todas las ceremonias de la Iglesia y sus misterios (Mexico: Libreria de J. Rosa, 1846), 465, in a question and answer dialogue about the Conception of Mary, between a Vicario and Curioso:
“Cur.– Qué oficio rezaba y tenia nuestra madre de Iglesia?”
“Vic. — Aquel rezo quo compuso Leonardo de Nagaroli, clérigo Veronense, el qua aprobó Sixto IV.”

Carl Joseph von Hefele and J. Cardinal Hergenröther, Conciliengeschichte. Nach den Quellen bearbeitet, Aahter Band (Freiburg: Herder, 1887), 542, for the year 1510: “Das Fest Mariä Empfängniß ist mit Octav zu feiern nach dem vom Papste approbirten Officium des apostolischen Protonotars Leonardo Nagaroli, und zwar in der ganzen Provinz.”

Ideas about the Immaculate Conception ultimately derived from apocryphal gospels and an accumulative tradition reaching back to early Christianity, and during the Middle Ages the concept was hotly debated. Ambivalence about the feast continued for centuries after the medieval period. Pope Pius V (pope 1566-72) reacted against the term “Immaculate” and did away with the special mass for a more general feast-day liturgy.

“Quae est ista, quae progreditur”

From searching the CANTUS Database, I discovered some significant features of this version of the Office. The first striking feature is the chant “Quae est ista, quae progreditur” (CANTUS 004425). As Rachel Fulton discusses, the biblical Canticles (Song of Songs) was central to medieval conceptions about the Virgin Mary, and this particular chant from Canticles 6:9 became a defining feature in the Office of the Assumption. (“‘Quae est ista quae ascendit sicut aurora consurgens?’: The Song of Songs as the historia for the Office of the Assumption,” Mediaeval Studies 60 (1998), 55-122. My thanks to Yvonne Seale for helping me get a hold of this article.) This use of Canticles in the Assumption liturgy is surely the starting point for its inclusion in the Office of the Conception. The rendering of this chant with the verb progreditur is especially significant in comparison with other uses in the liturgy, since this rendering follows the Vulgate, not the form with ascendit as found in other liturgical texts (the version Fulton discusses).

Other parallels between the manuscript fragment with the Office of the Conception and other feasts also appear in medieval liturgy. Fulton notes parallel uses of Canticles for the feasts of the Assumption and the Conception, as well as connections between offices for the Assumption and the Dedication of a church (see esp. 65, n. 27). Of the other chants in the manuscript fragment discussed here, CANTUS lists both “Vere dominus est in loco isto” (006540a) and “Non est hic aliud nisi domus” (003913) for the Dedication of a Church in a host of manuscripts. In addition, “Quae est ista…” also appears for the Feast of Anne, Mother of Mary (July 26) in Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, lat. 15182 (c.1300, Notre Dame Cathedral), 508v; Common of Several Virgins in Piacenza, Basilica di S. Antonino, Biblioteca e Archivio Capitolari, 65 (s. xii, Piacenza Cathedral), 431v; and memorial chants for Mary in Karlsruhe, Badische Landesbibliothek – Musikabteilung, Aug. LX (s. xii, Zwiefalten), 272r. All of these parallels point to the interrelated nature of liturgical elements for various feasts related to the Virgin Mary.

“Omnes moriemini”

In the last element of the fragment, the rendering of 1 Corinthians 15:22 as “Omnes moriemini quia in [Adam peccavistis]” is also anomalous. This phrasing is not found in Vulgate (neither the textus receptus of Jerome nor the Clementine revision, which read “in Adam omnes moriuntur”) or Vetus Latina versions. It comes closest to the phrasing “in Adam omnes morimur” used by Irenaeus and Augustine (Pierre Sabatier, Bibliorum sacrorum latinae versiones antiquae seu Vetus Italica, 3 vols. in 4 (Rheims, Reginald Florentain, 1743), 3:715), although further research could reveal even closer parallels outside of Sabatier’s sources. In addition to the breviary parallels already noted, this particular chant appears in the Office for the Conception of Mary in Cardinal Gousset, La croyance générale et constante de l’Eglise touchant l’Immaculée Conception de la Bienheureuse Vierge Marie (Paris: Jacques Lecoffre, 1855), 801, in extracts with reference to Leonardo Nogaroli.

Notably, this specific rendering of the verse appears in explicitly Spanish texts. For example, I have already cited parallels in the 1762 Die VIII Decembris and the 1779 Breviarium Romano-Monasticum, both of Hispanic origins. Similarly, “Omnes moriemini” is also used in other early modern religious texts regarding the Conception of Mary, as in the following.

A. P. F. Pedro de Alva y Astorga quotes this verse in his Spanish-Latin treatise Militia Immaculatae Conceptionis Virginis Mariae, contra malitiam originalis infectionis peccati (Immaculatae Conceptionis Lovanij, sub signo Gratiae, 1663), col. 927.

In Sermones panegíricos de varios misterios, festividades y santos, Tomo Segundo (Madrid: La Administración del Real Arbitrio de Beneficiencia, 1801), 180, Miguel de Santander also quotes it in a sermon on the Conception composed in 1786:
Pero apartad, señores, de la Concepcion de María la idea de estas desgracias, calamidades y miserias. Todo quanto intervino en ella, decia San Gerónimo, fue pureza, justicia, santidad, verdad, gracia y misericordia. Es innegable qu el decreto estaba dado, y la sentencia de muerte se habia executado con todo el rigor de la ley: Omnes moriemini quia in Adam peccavistis. Vió el mundo á algunos nacer ya santificados; pero ninguno fue concebido que dexase de ser inficionado con el mortífero veneno de la serpiente.

Angelino Brinckmann quotes it, invoking Pope Sixtus IV, while discussing the doctrine of original sin in his Theologia Universa Speculativa, Moralis, Polemica (Wetzlar: Nicola Ludovic Winckler, 1733), 209.

Finally, from slightly later, the Spanish Bishop Hipolito Antonio Sanchez Rangel de Fayas uses this verse rendering in a discussion of death in Fracmentos de una pastoral escrita en Mainas en la fuga de su primer obispo (Madrid: E. Aguado, 1825), 44, 49, and 53.

From these correspondences, it might be possible to associate the manuscript fragment with a Spanish provenance, or a copy of the Office as it was used in Spain. Additional circumstantial support for this is one manuscript already mentioned, Beinecke 485.3, which is from Spain and has similar features (and is bound with other Spanish and Italian liturgical fragments; see the description here). Still, these are only tentative conclusions. By posting these notes, and with further research, I hope others might have more to tell me about the manuscript fragment’s contents, origins, and possible provenance.

As an added bonus, while researching all of this, I also came across a recording of a sixteenth-century arrangement of Quae est ista quae progreditur by Giovanni Palestrina (c.1525-1594), which is well worth a listen.

Reflecting on the Significance of Studying the Middle Ages

Several weeks ago, Kisha Tracy (at Fitchburg State U and co-founder of the MASSMedieval blog) sent out a message soliciting fellow medievalists to share some of our ideas about what we value as the significance of studying the Middle Ages (that link will take you to her own post about this). She set up a public Facebook group for this, with the plan to invite her students to read the posts, write reflections of their own, and to discuss them in class at the start of the semester. Since this sounded like such a great idea, I took her cue and asked students in my British Literature through the Eighteenth Century course to do the same.

Here is what I originally posted in the Facebook group:

In general, I firmly believe that the most significant reason to study the Middle Ages–or to study any culture–is to learn critical thinking. If we can learn to critically think about medieval culture, we can learn to critically think about any culture. When we encounter medieval culture, we simultaneously encounter both alterity and familiarity. Reflecting on the similarities and differences is important, but so too is considering how we face them and what we do in response.

Medieval people were, in many ways, like us, wrestling with the same questions we do, even if on different terms or in different contexts. Medieval people reflected on and wrote about their everyday lives, their relationships, their place in the world, their beliefs, their fears, their hopes, as well as cultural issues like religion, race, sexuality, and politics. Some students might cry at the death of Marie de France’s Nightingale; others might embrace the portrait of heroism created by the Beowulf poet; some might champion the proto-feminism in The Wife of Bath’s Tale. What we learn from all of these is how to empathize. Yet, in our empathy, we can also learn to be critical, to see the problematic even behind texts that we like or want to embrace.

As much as we might empathize, studying the medieval period also forces us to face the Other in many ways. Studying the Middle Ages causes us to wrestle with very different perspectives that emerged from very different assumptions. Some students might find the Christianity of The Dream of the Rood very foreign, even disturbing; others might find the irreverence and wit of the mystery plays offensive; some might decry the xenophobia in representations of Jews or Muslims in various texts. All of these issues offer opportunities to discuss why we react in these ways, and how we should harness these reactions critically. While we do not need to embrace medieval perspectives or assumptions (and in many cases we should not), we do need to consider them critically, to discuss and write about them in ways that help us to understand the past. Indeed, critically understanding that past can also help us to critically understand our present.

Students came to class with great ideas. They found ways to incorporate what they had read by others in the Facebook group, their own ideas, and connections to the two pieces of literature they read for today (Bede’s account of Cædmon’s Hymn and The Dream of the Rood).

The list generated by our discussion (that does disservice to students’ engagement and discussion) includes the following:

Significance of Studying MAs.jpeg

Critical thinking
Influence on later people & authors
Gender, “connected to time”
Language (especially rhetoric)
Socio-cultural issues
Similarity of the modern & medieval
Social/class status
Technological and scientific advances in the period
The “uniqueness” of the period (not pictured above)
“Magic” & “superstition” (as evidence of belief systems)

With these ideas, and the expanded thoughts attached to each bullet-point on the board, we established a host of themes to which we will return. In their discussion, students set up basic questions to follow throughout the course. And, as one student pointed out early on in the discussion, these are not exclusive to studying the medieval period; they are notions applicable to literary study, the humanities, and reflecting on culture generally.

Medievalism in The Force Awakens

This week, one of the most highly anticipated pop culture events hit theaters everywhere: Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens. I saw the film as early as I could, and have a lot to say about it. Most specifically, as a medievalist, I was struck by a certain amount of medievalism built into this movie.

Medieval Twi-lek

Is this a medieval Twi’lek? Panotti depicted in the Wonders of the East, from the eleventh-century London, British Library, Cotton Tiberius B.v, folio 83v (image courtesy the British Library).

I’m not the first to consider Star Wars and the Middle Ages together. Peter Konieczny has previously discussed a number of parallel ideas on Bryan C. Keene used Star Wars as a lens to think about the “close link between the celestial and the spiritual” in medieval manuscripts at the Getty’s online magazine The Iris. A while back, there was quite a bit of interest in a Yoda-look-alike from a medieval manuscript, London, British Library, Royal 10.E.iv–which isn’t the only image like it, as Erik Kwakkel noted another in London, British Library, Royal 2.B.vii, and Discarding Images found figures similar to both Yoda and Gandalf in Warszawa, Biblioteka Narodowa, Rps 8002 III. The British Library Medieval Manuscripts Blog has collected a host of other images from medieval treasures with characters resembling various aliens (including the one above). With another perspective in mind, Tom O’Donnell has recently retold the story of Episode IV as an Irish saga.

In this post, I want to focus on how some ideas and themes from The Force Awakens resonate as parallels to medieval European culture.

[While the following discussion is somewhat general, some spoilers do creep in, more notably at the end. I’ve marked some of the more egregious ones, but read at your own risk!]

The trajectory of the Star Wars films (and the expanded universe beyond them) is, in many ways, similar to the general history of Rome, especially in late antiquity. In the pre-cinematic Star Wars universe, there was the development of the Old Republic–the golden age of classicism, when learning, philosophy, peace, justice, and culture flourished. The prequel films (Episodes I, II, and III) portrayed the rise of the Galactic Empire, with the autocratic rule of an emperor and expansive colonization. In the original film trilogy (Episodes IV, V, and VI), we see the Empire at its height as well as the civil war raging as colonized peoples fight to reconcile their own cultures in the face of new imperial rule over them. In many ways, these events mirror the supposed golden age of the Roman Republic, the rise of the Roman Empire, and its decline as the colonized (insiders as well as outsiders) resisted expanding imperial control. No doubt George Lucas was aware of these parallels in his conceptions of the larger narrative.


The Roman Forum in ruins.

With The Force Awakens, we encounter a world thirty years later, in the middle of a civil war, as the Galactic Empire fights to hold on despite its seeming decline–similar to the late antique and early medieval period after the Roman Empire has receded from its once-expansive boundaries. In both trajectories, legends circulate as reminders of the past and people’s connections to it; oral stories are the vehicles for memory as people seek to collect fragments of knowledge; people seek relics of the past to root themselves in a larger narrative; figures–both would-be colonizers and colonized–struggle to reconcile the old world with the new as they also struggle to understand it all.

Metaphorically, the protagonist Rey’s search for the truth about her identity amid legends and ruins of the past in The Force Awakens is not all that different from how some medieval people viewed their world. Someone like Bede (672/3-735), for example, saw himself as sifting through his sources to understand connections between ancient Israel, Christian Rome, his own Germanic ancestors, and what that meant for the identity of the inhabitants of Britain (himself included). We learn early in The Force Awakens [minor spoiler] that Rey is an orphan, left on the desert planet Jakku at a young age. Although it might be anachronistic (and a bit simplistic) to call Bede an orphan because he was sent to the monastery of Monkwearmouth at the age of seven, there is a curious parallel. Indeed, the medieval example of sending children into monastic life is a clear link to children entering Jedi orders in the Old Republic era of the Star Wars galaxy–and one reason, presumably, why Yoda uses the excuse that Luke is “too old to begin the training” in The Empire Strikes Back. To push parallels further, Bede spent his life exploring the ruins of culture in written books to find historical and religious truth; whereas Rey has spent much of her life and the plot of The Force Awakens (true to classic Star Wars, following the archetypal hero’s journey) exploring ruins of the legendary past to sort out the truth about herself and her place in the galaxy.

Relics also play a central role in The Force Awakens, as a sort of thematic and material link to the previous films. Familiar from the trailers, the two most prominent material objects used as relics are the melted helmet of Darth Vader and the lightsaber once owned by Anakin Skywalker and then his son, Luke. In one scene, we see the main antagonist Kylo Ren praying to the remains of Vader’s helmet, seeking guidance to follow in his path as a Sith lord. Throughout the film, it becomes clear that Kylo Ren venerates Vader as a type of spiritual father and Dark Side anti-saint. In another scene [minor spoiler], Rey finds the Skywalker lightsaber, has a series of visions linked to its history, and learns about it from the character who has had it for years, Moz Kanata. After initially rejecting the lightsaber, Rey later embraces her connection to the weapon and its spiritual heritage. The lightsaber remains a contested artifact through the movie, as it shifts hands and Kylo Ren seeks to take it for himself–presumably to add it to his Vader shrine. Not in the trailers, another relic featured in the film [bigger spoiler] is a fragmented map (many connections could be raised here about manuscript and digital media) that leads to the secret hideout of Luke Skywalker, who has gone missing. As the impetus for the whole plot of the film from the beginning, this object is also contested and sought by both sides of the war.


Mummified head of Simon of Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury, in St Gregory’s Church in Sudbury.

With both Vader’s mask and the Skywalker lightsaber, it is hard not to see similarities with the veneration and spiritual meaning afforded to relics in the medieval period. Relics from the Middle Ages may be found in churches across Europe, including items claimed to be corporeal objects, clothing, and possessions of certain saints or even Jesus himself. Some famous examples are pieces of the True Cross on which Jesus was crucified; the Veil of Veronica or the Shroud of Turin that represent Jesus’ burial; even the foreskin of Jesus from his circumcision. In other cases, churches and holy places had shrines with bodies, mummified skulls, fingers, or vials of blood supposed to be from saints. All of these drew pilgrims from local and distant places.

Like Kylo Ren, medieval people regularly prayed to such relics, either at the shrines of saints or in the churches where they were held, for physical and spiritual assistance. Like the Skywalker lightsaber and the map to Luke’s location, relics were often hot items, as their possession was contested, debated, and some were even stolen and traded for their value (see Patrick J. Geary’s Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages). After all, relics in both the medieval world and the Star Wars universe are not only objects but also vessels for greater spiritual power and meaning.

Finally, a convergence between the plot and production of The Force Awakens reveals another aspect of medievalism connected to monasticism. Even during the movie’s production it became known that part of it was filmed on location in Ireland’s beautiful Skellig Michael, an island on which a secluded Christian monastery was founded in the early medieval period, perhaps as early as the sixth century.


Stairs on Skellig Michael, Ireland.

As already mentioned, echoes of monasticism are especially prominent in relation to the Jedi. These include common ideals of peace and justice, emphasis on spiritual life and beliefs, a certain amount of asceticism, even simple clothing to represent simple lifestyles (just look at the robes on this Yoda look-alike!).

Yet the use of Skellig Michael for The Force Awakens evokes stronger resonances between medieval monasticism and the Jedi than simple parallels. [Major spoilers abound in this paragraph.] In the last scene of the film, we finally see Luke at his haven, confirming earlier rumors that he has followed his predecessors Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda in taking up the ascetic life of a hermit on a secluded outpost. Yet this life of seclusion echoes more than only Jedi models, as similar figures range from the early centuries of Christianity through the Middle Ages: Anthony the Great in the desert (like Obi-Wan on Tatooine), Guthlac of Crowland in the marshy fens of England (like Yoda on Dagobah), and especially Irish monks who sought out lives as homeless drifters or in complete seclusion from society on islands like Skellig Michael. In seeking his own isolation–for spiritual, personal, or psychological reasons–Luke joins in a long line of religious ascetics through the medieval period.

In all of these parallels, a strong thematic thread between the medieval and The Force Awakens is the notion of looking back in time to make meaning of the present. This idea is, really, at the heart of medievalism, in making the medieval modern through adaptation. And, like medievalism, as with much science fiction, this is partly the appeal of Star Wars: while set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” it resonates with our own perspectives. Indeed, these resonances reach much deeper, into early foundations of our own culture in the medieval period.

Updates (12/31/15): See now Terry O’Hagan’s post about Skellig Michael and medieval archaeology in relation to the film; and Howard M. R. Williams’s post on Vader’s mask as an archaeological crematifact.