A Post About Guilt

I’ve been making a lot of posts about Early Christianity lately so based on the title you can be forgiven for thinking that this post is about that.

It isn’t. I’m currently sitting at home waiting on some deliveries and feeling bad because I’ve neglected this blog for so long. Interestingly, my traffic has stayed fairly high, though for some strange (and slightly disturbing) reasons – you would be amazed how often people have come across this blog using a search term which includes some variant on how to self-castrate. I mean, I want this blog to be helpful but that isn’t a direction I really thought I’d be taking it with this post.

I have a bucketfull of draft posts where I’ve written the framework but haven’t done the detailed reference/citation checking. I also have a review copy of a book where the publisher’s likely beginning to believe they wasted an effort (you haven’t – I’ve read it, it’s good, and I’ll get there). However based on my recent output, you could be forgiven for believing that this blog is dead, or at least terminally ill.

So here’s my excuse. I touched on it a few months ago and since I’m finally seeing the finish line, I thought I’d provide a couple of details.

In short, for the past 20 years I’ve been living here:

By the start of next week (I’m also currently waiting on the builder to stop by so I can sign the paperwork) I’ll be living here:

This may not look like much but I’m pretty much quadrupling my living space (the old house was about 900 square feet, the new is over 1800 with a full basement) Since I’ve never built a house before this has been a new experience. Now there’s a fair amount of work yet to do and I’ll be moving belongings (other than books I really don’t have many belongings) this weekend but in a little while – say a month or so – I should be able to give this blog a bit more attention. If nothing else, I suspect I’ll be very ready for something to give me a break from house-related issues.

So happy medievaling everyone. I’ll be with you shortly.


Posted by on July 2, 2014 in Blogology, Not Really Medieval


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Death and Disease as a Christian Recruiting Tool

It’s nice when mainstream media utilizes people who actually know what they’re talking about. This morning CNN had an article from early Christian historian Candida Moss, “How an Apocalyptic Plague Helped Spread Christianity” in which she talks about a significant disease (she mentions smallpox, I’ve also seen measles proposed) affecting the Roman Empire during the middle of the third century.

In the article she discusses some themes I’ve talked about over the past few months. Chief among them is that Christians saw the terrible death from this disease as a sign that the apocalypse was imminent. As non-Christian Roman Emperors died from the disease, and with Christians believing that death from this was a gateway to heaven, this may have inspired many conversions. And it’s not hard to believe that a period where death by disease was so common made it easier for Christians to endure martyrdom during the Decian persecution. 1

I’ve been waiting for something to come up which I could quickly comment on so I could apologize for my long absence. The house thing is continuing but winding down as I expect to close at the end of this week. But that will still leave me with a bunch of buying furniture, landscaping, putting in a lawn, etc., to work on. I estimate that it will be a month or so until, when I have a few spare hours, I’ll feel that I can put a post together rather than do something house-related (I am currently boxing up books – there’s a surprise). However I haven’t retired from blogging, am currently reading up on Neoplatonism, and have a bunch of half-started posts to finish up, some of which should be pretty cool.

1 The persecutions of Christians was real and did happen but was almost certainly far less widespread than Christian sources portray. Once I get past Diocletian I figure this will make a nice post. The Decian persecution, beginning in 250, appears to be the first formal, systematic persecution in the Empire.


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Sanctuary in the Middle Ages

Most of us have either watched a movie or read a book set in the Medieval Period which includes a scene where the action runs something like this; Someone who has been accused (usually unjustly, particularly if he/she is Our Hero) is pursued by a (usually evil) group of people intent on bringing him/her to justice (we usually can hear baying hounds in the background). Our Hero, almost by accident, finds him/herself at the door of a church or chapel where, after pounding on the door until the pursuers are visible in the background (sometimes as arrows strike into the door), he/she is granted admittance. Collapsing to the floor in a paroxysm of exhaustion, Our Hero asks for, and is granted, sanctuary.

In my effort to read a bit of material outside of Early Christianity, I seem to have focused on a few books I’ve picked up about Medieval Law. Right now I’m reading Law, Sex and the Illicit in Medieval Europe and just finished an essay on sanctuary by William Chester Jordan. 1

The concept of sanctuary existed during the Middle Ages; this post is not a myth-buster. However, as with most aspects of the Middle Ages, the reality was more complicated than what most of us (myself anyway) have been exposed to through popular media.

My rather ignorant notion of sanctuary had been that any Holy Place would serve. Once the accused/pursued was granted entrance, he or she could hang out there, basically forever. He or she might be asked to work to help pay his or her way, but that sanctuary could, theoretically (if the pursuers were honorable which, of course, in these books and movies they were not) last forever. I’ll admit to being a bit fuzzy on what a “Holy Place” actually meant. Jordan’s essay provides a fair amount of additional information related to sanctuary.

The first and most significant aspect is that the concept of sanctuary in the Middle Ages was far from universal. Jordan states that it may have only officially been recognized in England and Northern France. He says that while the Iberian peninsula provides evidence indicating that it may have been in effect there, little evidence exists for it in Italy, Central Europe, or Scandinavia. (19-20) While the concept of sanctuary appears to have been around for a long time, it only became widely practiced in the 13th century, when laws recognizing and regulating sanctuary were written.

What was recognized as a place of sanctuary and who was eligible? I found the answers to these two questions the most interesting parts of the essay. Turning to location, not every church was eligible to be considered sanctuary. Fortified churches were often not considered sanctuaries, probably as they couldn’t be considered a place where blood was never spilled. Private chapels and oratories didn’t qualify; a criminal could not flee to a chapel on an estate. (20-21) A few locations were chartered as sanctuaries where an institution had been granted special privileges, however Jordan did not mention any specifics about what these privileges might be.

1894 plan of Westminster Abbey, a chartered sanctuary.
Note the area labeled “Broad Sanctuary” in the lower left (I am clueless as to what that means).
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The number of people ineligible to seek sanctuary far outweighed the number who could. First and foremost, it was only eligible for felons; those who might receive the death penalty. 2 Heretics, serfs, Jews, and those who had been excommunicated were also ineligible. 3

Things didn’t end once sanctuary was granted. In Britain, clergy were expected to inform officials that someone had taken sanctuary. The claimant had to confess their crimes before magistrates as well as participate in the sacrament of confession within the church. The term of sanctuary was not endless. If the individual was found to be deserving of sanctuary, he or she would take an oath agreeing to leave the kingdom and would be allowed to travel to a seaport to depart; in England this was usually from Dover. (25) If they did not leave they would become outlaws and would also forfeit the right to receive sanctuary a second time.

There’s more to this but I’m not going to re-create the entire essay. One of the most interesting things to me is that this is another sign of the systematization of the legal system which took place in England during the 12th and 13th centuries. If it was a part of custom or a generally recognized practice, folks started to write down and codify things. Sanctuary evolved from something of an informal practice governed by custom, to one written into and both protected and limited by law.

1 Jordan, William Chester, “A Fresh Look at Medieval Sanctuary,” pp. 17-32 in Karras, Ruth Mazo; Kaye, Joel and; Matter, E. Ann, eds., Law and the Illicit in Medieval Europe. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (2008). ISBN: 978-0-8122-4080-1.

2 I think it’s important to note that in the 13th century punitive imprisonment for the most part did not exist. This meant that more crimes were punishable by death but it also meant that those denied sanctuary would not face a long stretch in jail but rather fines or some type of forced servitude.

3 I read – somewhere – that Jews might be given the choice of converting and being granted sanctuary as a newly baptized Christian rather than being handed over. It’s been a long time since I read it and I’m not going to look for it in my books. I don’t recall what time period this was for or where but the same sort of condition accompanied expulsion from kingdoms at times so this would be consistent. I suppose this isn’t technically forced conversion.


Posted by on March 23, 2014 in Society and Social Structure


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Why This Blog May be Quiet and Why I’ll Likely Miss Kalamazoo

I have quite a bit to post about but am having real trouble finding the time, at least to make the kind of posts I want to make. I have a fair amount to write on Origen, though this will not approach the time I spent on Tertullian. I’ve had a draft post on Irenaeus sitting around since last August and I think I may be ready to offer a few thoughts on some of the ways in which ancient philosophy impacted the evolution of Christianity.

There’s a reason for this. I was going to wait until the project was finished and then apologize after the fact but I’ve had a couple of e-mails this week asking me if I would be at Kalamazoo. I’ve been debating my attendance and finally have decided this would be foolish. The reason can be summed up by the following image.


Eventually things will be placed on top of what you see here – wood and shingles and bricks and wires and other stuff. The problem, related to Kalamazoo, is that the house is due to be finished in late May. That means that when Kalamazoo is going on is about the time when I’ll be talking to the builder to finalize things like fixtures in the kitchen and baths, the placement of lights and outlets throughout the house; all of the detail sort of things which I might actually have something to contribute to. If they’d be in the middle of framing or placing trusses it would be a different story but for this I need to be on site.

The problem’s not money, though a Kalamazoo book bill in the thousands probably wouldn’t be the wisest move (considering I just splurged on Oxford’s annual spring sale I wouldn’t let this stop me though) but I need to be here.

When it comes to impacting this blog, as an example, I spent most of yesterday walking through various shops looking at furniture, art, and antiques. I’m not normally an antique-er but I’d like the place to have a bit of character. On finishing this post I’m heading to Indianapolis to visit a home show (technically a flower and patio show but there are plenty of interior booths there too) to look at kitchen and bath items. I’ve sort of decided where I’m going in those areas but nothing’s final until it’s final so I’ll take my plans with me and talk to some folks.

So I apologize both for missing Kalamazoo which really disappoints me, as well as for my expectation that this blog will be relatively quiet for a while. The one consolation I have is that if this is finished by the end of May, I might be able to head to Saint Louis University for their conference in June. We’ll see. There is a possibility of a significant delay (no reason to expect it, but there is always a chance something may come up) which might change my Kalamazoo plans but this is where I’m at right now.


Posted by on March 9, 2014 in Not Really Medieval


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Embarrassing Amateur Moments Supplement

Lately life’s been getting in the way of me making substantive posts. I’d say that’s unfortunate but it’s actually good; just not for this blog.

However the other day I was driving and heard something on the radio which applies perfectly to a post I made a couple of years ago about Embarrassing Amateur Moments. In that post I mentioned that one of my problems is not knowing how to pronounce things. I read a lot but I don’t attend a lot of seminars and am not involved in regular discussions with historians. I don’t know how to pronounce a variety of things; historical figures, place-names, even names of modern historians. At one time this bothered me until I adopted a policy of figuring that most historians had better things to worry about so I wouldn’t overly concern myself with it either.

In the US (and these days I’m sure it’s available internationally) a sports network, ESPN, has a morning talk show called Mike and Mike, featuring a retired (American) football player, Mike Golich and a sportswriter, Mike Greenberg. I was listening to it the other day and heard an actor/comedian, Kevin Hart, discussing an issue he had pronouncing the word “facade.” Here’s a link to the audio. The facade conversation begins about 3:30 into it.

Let’s face it, pronouncing something like “Amalasuintha” isn’t easy. And what the heck do you do with Welsh? Seriously – Rhwng Gwy a Hafren? Gwynfardd Brycheiniog? I’m sure there are rules and once you learn them it’s simple but speaking as a layperson, I consider Welsh to be significantly lacking in vowels.

So as a supplement to that earlier post, if you ever get into a conversation with someone (doesn’t have to be a historian, any subject matter specialist will do) and find out after the fact that you butchered a pronunciation, go back and listen to this. It’ll make you feel better.


Posted by on February 23, 2014 in Amateur Tips


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Did Origen Castrate Himself?

The story that Origen, in a fit of piety, castrated himself, was well known during the Middle Ages. Carl Pyrdum on his (now defunct?) blog, Got Medieval, has a brief discussion of this which includes an image of Origen and his severed genitalia(I decided not to include an image here).

This account comes to us from Eusebius. In his Ecclesiastical History, VI.8 he relates how Origen decided to, er, separate himself from his sexual bits because he either misread scripture or because he was teaching female catechumens and wanted to either be free from temptation or let everyone know that it was impossible for any hanky-panky to be going on, or maybe a combination of the two. 1

So as sort of a warmup to discussing Origen’s theology I thought it would be interesting to explore this question; Did Origen castrate himself?

A fair amount of this will involve a discussion of Origen’s life so I guess I might as well include relevant parts of his biography. Origen was the son of a prominent Christian who was martyred around the start of the third century. His career began in Alexandria where he quickly became a favorite of the Bishop, Demetrius. As an educated layperson, Origen was qualified to give instruction to catechumens which he did, as well as write. At some point Origen’s teaching turned into actual preaching (I’m a bit fuzzy on the distinction myself) which Demetrius opposed.

As a result, around 230 Origen was driven out of Alexandria and moved to Caesarea. There he was ordained as a priest, which Demetrius opposed and wrote against, and stayed there for the rest of his life, preaching and writing.

In looking at Origen’s self-distesticulation, which was certainly a no-no for Christians, especially for priests who were expected to be free of blemishes, the discussion has to center upon the possibility that this was an invention of his critics, particularly Demetrius. Eusebius specifically attributes the story getting out to the Alexandrian Bishop who, as he was nearing death, seems to have developed a hatred of Origen.

So was this story invented? It’s a plausible theory. Religious conflict could be messy and Alexandria would later develop a reputation as a place where things could get particularly dirty. Someone could have spread this story around, once Origen was in Caesarea and not on hand to be examined, or engage in public flashing, to dispute it. The story would have had an added benefit of keeping Origen away because even if the story wasn’t true, it would be a pretty good indication of what he’d face if he returned.

To me the above is a wash. Demetrius could have made this up but we have no evidence of this other than the fact that Origen had enemies(this could have been invented by someone else and then used by Demetrius). So how do we resolve this?

Well, first of all, we don’t. There’s no “the answer” unless someone finds where Origen was buried, can definitively prove it was him, and finds testicles(and I suppose to really remove doubt DNA would have to show that the testicles belonged to the rest of the body). However I want to explain why I consider Origen’s self-castration to be unlikely. I’m going to do this by examining two areas; his role within the Church and his writings.

OK, Origen was a teacher in the Church, educating catechumens at the Catechetical School of Alexandria, which he revived while a young man. This school was operated as a philosophical branch. One of the traditions of philosophy was that teachers should inspire students to want to emulate them. Would castrating oneself be something students would find desirable? Would this help attract students?

At that time a catechumen was a person who was interested in Christianity and was engaged in learning enough about it to make an informed decision before being baptized which would (at least in theory) result in a radical change in the catechumen’s lifestyle. Again, would the fact that one of the teachers and the head of the school had castrated himself out of religious piety encourage people to convert? I know I recently cautioned everyone not to make assumptions about folks from historical periods thinking like us but I’m going to take a leap here and say that having a teacher who cut his own junk off for religious reasons would not be a strong selling point when trying to attract new Christians.

So this is the first reason I consider this unlikely. A prominent teacher at a school designed to educate people about Christianity and convince them to convert would likely not have been someone who had engaged in self-mutilation. I don’t care if he was educating girls, boys, or snow leopards. I think it unlikely, though we have to give at least some credibility to the idea that he had done so, regretted it, and managed to conceal it.

However the real reason why I have serious questions about this is because of Origen’s writings. Eusebius relates that in addition to avoiding suspicion while teaching girls, Origen castrated himself because he misunderstood Matthew 19:12 where Jesus advocates people becoming Eunuchs for the Church.

The problem is, Origen constantly cautions people not to read scriptures literally. He states, many times, that the Bible (he’s also the first person I recall to say the Bible should be considered a single book, not a collection) includes figurative and spiritual, as well as literal, meanings. Now Eusebius says Origen did this while very young, however he also says one reason was to help him teach girls. Clearly we’re not talking about Origen the teenager. We’re likely discussing him while in his 20’s. Unless his thinking was very different from when he wrote On First Principles beginning from when he was about 30, he would have known not to take scripture literally. 2

Of course a counter to this is that cutting one’s own testicles off, then finding out this isn’t what the Bible meant, might cause someone to radically alter his opinion of how scripture should be read. I’d say that would rank pretty high on any list of OSM’s. 3

So I want to offer a specific quote which I consider the key piece of evidence, for my opinion anyway. In On Prayer, XX.1, Origen writes:

Let us suppose there is a difference between church and synagogue. In its proper sense the church has no spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but is holy and blameless. Into it enters no bastard or eunuch or one castrated …

On prayer was written after Origen had moved to Caesarea. Unlike much of his material, the entire work survives in Greek, meaning it was not changed by Rufinus. Would Origen, by this time certainly aware of Demetrius’ accusation, have written about this and drawn attention to it if he himself had violated this prohibition on castrated people entering the Church?

Ultimately, there’s no way to know for sure if Origen castrated himself. However the above passage is the deal breaker for me. I think it unlikely.

In the end, is this important? Not terribly but a little. When folks talk about historical religious fanaticism, Origen’s self-mutilation comes up and makes a rather impressive factoid. The Church had its fanatics (or folks we’d consider fanatics today, back then those people were often considered to be doing their job). People left behind everything they had to live their life on top of a pole or in a cave. They engaged in self-flagellation and deliberately inflicted pain upon themselves in the name of religion. However after thinking this over, considering what he wrote, specifically the passage from On Prayer, I think Origen’s castration should not be included in this list of fanatical acts.

1 When you read Eusebius’ account, it comes across as contradictory. Eusebius says he did it partly to be free from slander and then says he couldn’t hide it, however hard he tried. If the reason for becoming a Eunuch was to avoid slander, wouldn’t you have to let folks know about it?

2 On First Principles(de principiis) IV.9. I’ll be talking about this in more detail when I discuss Origen’s theology. As evidence that this was Origen’s thought, not something added by Rufinus, this passage is one of those which Jerome did his own translation of. The idea is also included in the Philocalia, provided by Gregory Nazianzus and Basil of Caesarea, in Greek. This, along with considering how many times he returns to this theme, is very strong evidence that the concept is Origen’s own.

3 OSM stands for “Oh Shit Moment.” I try to avoid profanity here but occasionally its use does legitimately advance an argument.

Eusebius of Caesarea, C.F. Cruze, trans., Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (1998). ISBN: 978-1-56563-371-7.

Origen, George Lewis, trans., The Philocalia of Origen: A Compilation of Selected Passages from Origen’s Works Made by St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. Basil of Caesarea. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark (1911).

Origen, Rowan A. Greer, trans., Origen: An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer, First Principles: Book IV, Prologue to the Commentary on the Song of Songs, Homily XXVII on Numbers. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press (1979). ISBN: 978-0-809102198-4.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 4: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, Part Fourth: Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

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Posted by on February 9, 2014 in Religion


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What do I do With Origen?

This is not the first time this question has been asked. Heck, the Church asked it for a couple of centuries before Justinian had him condemned in 553 at the Council of Constantinople. My perspective’s a bit different.

If you’ve been following my reading/blogging on Early Christianity posts you know that at the moment I’m reading forward from first century Christian origins (though many will say the date of the true origin is the same as for Judaism). I’m planning to do this fairly intensely until I get to Nicaea. My post-Nicaean level of knowledge is quite a bit higher so from that point I’ll be in more of a gap filling mode rather than this wholesale gobbling up of everything.

So here we have Origen. He’s prominent. He wrote from the early to the mid-3rd Century. He started his career in Alexandria and ended it in Caesarea. I should be able to go through his stuff and use him as another example of what Christians were thinking during that period, right?

Not so fast. Most of Origen’s writings come to us through early 5th century Latin translations by Rufinus of Aquileia. Rufinus has been roundly criticized by various folks, as early as his contemporary, Jerome, for mistranslation to the point of making wholesale changes to Origen’s text and completely altering his meaning.

To provide a little background, Rufinus’ Orthodoxy came into question in the late 4th century. One of the criticisms leveled against him was that he had not been a strong enough critic of Origen. There was this whole conflict between Jerome and Rufinus which I’ll need to read more on to fully discuss. I have read Claudian and he hates Rufinus passionately, though this has much more to do with Claudian being Stilicho’s panegyrist and the conflict between East and West/Arcadian and Honorius than religious reasons. 1 In any case, with his Orthodoxy still an open question, Rufinus was accused of amending Origen’s text. Jerome had access to the Greek and provided some translations of his own demonstrating these changes(these amounted to a small fraction of Rufinus’ translations).

There’s a LOT more to this but the essence is I don’t know what to do with Origen. I don’t think I can use him as an example of 3rd century Christian thought, not reliably, as what we have from him isn’t (probably) completely his own words and ideas. At the same time, Rufinus didn’t totally rewrite him so we can’t use him as an example of early 5th-century thought either.

What can be done, since Rufinus’ translation is what was handed down to posterity, is talk about Origen’s influence on Early Christianity or, more correctly, the influence of Origen-Rufinus. I can touch on this a little but as I haven’t completely gone through Jerome and Augustine (and other writings of Rufinus) I can’t assess this all that well either. In the end, I’ll probably limit myself to a single topical post on Origen’s writings, then hope to link back to them once I begin reading up on the late 4th/early 5th centuries. I’ll mention prominent concepts and areas were he got himself into trouble but the caution has to be made that it may not be that he got himself into trouble but that Rufinus got him in trouble (150 years after he died).

One area this highlights is the importance of critically analyzing sources. I think, though I have questions about my qualifications to do so, that I’ll probably put together a post on the use of sources. And for Origen, I’m going to focus less on specific ideas, as I did with Tertullian, and spend more time talking about broader concepts. I’m not terribly happy about this but I’m less happy about picking something specific which Origen talks about and say, “This is what 3rd century Christians thought.”

1 See Claudian, Against Rufinus(In Rufinum). He sprinkles criticism in elsewhere too.

Claudian, Maurice Platnauer, trans., Claudian (2 Volumes). Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library (1922).

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Posted by on February 8, 2014 in Historiography, Religion


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