Monthly Archives: October 2010

Why Study History?

I’ve debated posting on this almost since I began blogging. As I started this blog the issue of King’s College London eliminating the Palaeography Department was a very significant item of discussion among medievalists. This relates to the whole, “What good is history?” conversation that seems to come up whenever higher education is facing budget cuts. It even became one of my first blog posts though I didn’t really know what I was talking about.

One of the reasons I haven’t made this post is I’ve been unable to think of a way to do this effectively that won’t relate strongly to what I do in my real job. When I began this blog I considered anonymity. I understand why many bloggers choose to do so however I did not (and do not) intend this blog to be about that part of my life and I also love my job. Is it perfect? Hardly. Are there things I might gripe about from time to time? You bet – you find the perfect employer and I’ll be convinced you’re removed from reality. But I enjoy what I do tremendously and can’t think of a situation where I’d engage in a negative discussion of my employer. So I wasn’t worried about being identified. However I am also a boring person. I want people to come to this blog to read and discuss history. People won’t be interested in reading about me and this topic is deeply rooted in my personal experiences in “nothistory.”

To be brief, I work at a major US research university which has traditionally focused more on the sciences than the humanities. I am a member of one of these more science-based schools and departments. I believe our humanities are very solid with many outstanding faculty members and students, but they don’t receive the recognition the sciences and engineering do. And I think history and the study of history is very important.

What finally urged me to make this post (I always figured this would happen – it’s been trying to burst from me for a long time) is Guy Halsall’s recent post on the value of studying history. It should be obvious that our perspectives will be different. He’s one of the foremost research historians on the planet, at least for the period I’m most interested in. I’m, well, I’m what I wrote in the above paragraph and, as I state in the upper right hand corner of this blog, I have no formal history training and haven’t taken a history course since my junior year in high school. Dr Halsall has chosen to focus on the value of studying history as it relates to current events and making informed decisions about what’s going on in the world. I’m going to choose a different aspect and illustrate it with an anecdotal example – me.

Several years ago we did a survey study of what the major employers hoped they were getting when they hired graduates of one of our departments. This has been presented publicly so I’m not divulging any secrets. They found that the vast majority of employers were looking for graduates who fit into one of two categories. For one category, they wanted new hires with technical knowledge and ability. These employees could walk into the workplace, understand the processes/procedures used and possess the skill set to “hit it” and immediately set about doing whatever the employer wanted them to do. The second category were employers looking for graduates who possessed critical thinking skills. These companies expected their workforce to be exposed to a constantly changing business environment where the ability to learn, think, and assess information was (and is) essential. I don’t recall which of these two categories was larger but they dwarfed the other responses. So having students in the sciences take substantial coursework in the humanities, or at least classes that require the analysis of sources of information (there are courses like this within science departments), is a very reasonable and, IMO, desirable program of study.

Does this mean I’m arguing that, the next time we find ourselves forced to make retrenchment decisions based on limited resources, we should cut the sciences instead of humanities? Hardly – folks further up the food chain who are smarter than I and have access to much more information will be making that call. What I’m saying is I don’t buy the argument that the humanities are unimportant or should automatically be discounted in favor of the sciences. They form an important part of a balanced course of study which will benefit students in all academic programs. This must be considered.

This brings us to the section of this post which will be substantially about me – sorry folks. As Dr. Halsall said, the vast majority of history students will not spend their lives employed in history. Most won’t be professors or high school history teachers. They won’t be museum curators or work for the History Channel. They’ll work in some other job, as a college/university graduate.

Overwhelmingly, we live in an information age. We are exposed to a massive amount of information originating from a tremendously varied selection of sources. How do we decide which sources are valid, viable, reliable and may be used to make quality, informed decisions? How will, say, a corporate purchasing director decide between the information presented by the representatives of multiple product lines? Which research and promotional material(s) is/are valid? Which sources can you trust? The ability to critically examine and assess source material, so essential to historical study, will be invaluable here as well as in a lot (I can’t quantify this – hundreds? thousands?) of other jobs and careers.

I am not going to try to describe my job because the system in which I work is somewhat unique and takes far more than a blog post to explain. As a woefully inadequate description, I help people and communities solve problems, address issues and take advantage of opportunities utilizing the knowledge of the university (and other universities) as well as my own knowledge and skill set. I have recently become highly involved in a new opportunity that has come to Indiana. This was not an area which my university had engaged in extensive research in so I was unable to use this as a major source of information (this has been changing but even here, our engineering school is not looking into those aspects I needed information on). Instead I had to look elsewhere to educate myself and those I worked with regarding a host of issues related to this.

By engaging in this process I helped develop our local community’s response to this and now I travel around the state helping other communities deal with the issues related to this topic. This area has become somewhat controversial. Various individuals, groups and stakeholders have offered a wide variety of opinions and papers, research reports, etc. on the topic. Without the ability to critically assess the validity of these information sources through an understanding of research methodology and textual analysis, I would have been unable to help with this effort, at least to this extent. And this is important; something which has the potential to transform a community for decades to come. We have to get this right, or as right as we possibly can. My study of history – completely as a hobby and without any grounding in formal study or, even, much methodological knowledge – was and continues to be an invaluable aid. This is not the exception, but rather the rule. I use these skills, those I have gained from a completely informal interest in history, on an almost daily basis.*

So in the end, though my focus is different, I’m 100% with Dr. Halsall. This is the information age. We are bombarded with thoughts and opinions on all sorts of topics. How are we – all of us – to decide what’s worth listening to and what should be ignored? The study of history; training in the examination of sources of information and the ability to critically assess their validity; is a wonderful addition to an individual’s toolkit of skills which will help him or her get along in the world. I encourage people to consider this and, for the student charting a course of study in higher education, don’t just bury yourself in the technical courses. Use your electives wisely and take some coursework which will help you to learn and practice critical thinking skills. I think you’ll find this useful as you move through life, whatever your career choice.

*I should mention that I have colleagues who are excellent at what they do but do not have my interest in history. They have developed a skill set they use effectively but for me, what I’ve picked up through my interest in history has played a large role in how I approach information gathering as a step toward addressing issues and solving problems.


Posted by on October 30, 2010 in Amateur Tips


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Medieval Movies

More correctly I should probably title this, “Movies About the Middle Ages” but hopefully people don’t think I’m promoting the idea that a film-making industry existed during the Medieval period.

The motivation for this is a recent post by Steve Muhlberger about historical movies. This was excellent – I really enjoyed Paul Halsall’s article which Steve included.

I spend a lot of time thinking about public perceptions of the Middle Ages. There are a lot of misconceptions out there. Some are pretty simple and easily countered if you find someone willing to listen, such as the Agincourt “Pluck Yew” story, (this is still a really cool story – I wish it were true!) or that Medievals engaged in mass infanticide when girls were born. Others are more complex, sometimes because historians haven’t exactly figured things out (exactitude in history is relative anyway), or because it’s a matter of, “it was true in some places and times but you shouldn’t generalize this to cover all of Western Europe for a millennium,” such as people thinking of The Church as some sort of monolithic, power-hungry, repressive agency which actively discouraged intellectual thought and discovery. You can find specific instances where this last happened and if you decided to write every case down it would look pretty impressive (sort of like if I made a list of Stupid Things I did before the Age of Twenty-five) but overall it doesn’t work. This would take a series of posts to go through, or more – books have been written about it. I suggest David Lindberg’s The Beginnings of Western Science as a good starting point for this one.

Part of this whole issue is related to the role of modern popular depictions. These encompass a wide realm of forms including web pages, “popular” histories, historical fiction – and movies. I haven’t devoted a lot of time to this because, quite frankly, historical fiction doesn’t interest me and I haven’t read a lot of the popular histories – in order to critique I should read it. 1

I’ve come up with something of a mantra for all of these; If a book/movie/web page gets people interested in the period, it’s a net positive. If it’s the last thing they ever read/watch and leaves them with a bunch of misconceptions, it probably isn’t. That’s why a book like A World Lit Only by Fire is so bad – I can’t see where William Manchester’s depiction of the period would encourage anyone to engage in further study. OTOH, a lot of people have said that Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror was one of the first things they read and it helped inspire them to further study. The errors of fact and characterization historians point to in this don’t seem to be so egregious as to be beyond correcting.

One of the areas I haven’t critiqued is that of film. I haven’t always felt that way. When I first saw Braveheart I quickly learned NOT to watch these in a theater but wait for the DVD (VHS back then). I spent the entire movie mumbling under my breath how Isabella was 10 when William Wallace was executed or about the whole “Right of First Night” thing, or that Edward II had a bunch of kids so if he was gay, indications are that he wasn’t all gay, etc. My gf was not happy. Fortunately the place wasn’t full so I don’t think I bothered other people too much – at least my griping was fairly quiet. Now I wait for the DVD, watch it the first time and gripe about it, then watch it a second time a couple of weeks later for entertainment. I gripe a lot less than I used to – the latest Robin Hood starring Russell Crowe didn’t bother me at all even though Richard’s death wasn’t depicted as the sources indicate, the whole Magna Carta thing was completely ahistorical and Philip never invaded England (though he intended to).

Movies, even those advertised as historical (this is a peeve – what’s wrong with “historically based”?), have a different purpose. They’re designed first and foremost to entertain (I think I may be disagreeing with Dr. Halsall here) and to get people in theater seats – or at least renting the DVD. Movies generally impose modern sensibilities into the plot. The audience needs to sympathize with the characters (at least one) and it’s hard to get them to do that if they have no idea where they’re coming from. Historical facts take a back seat to dramatic effect.

One of the things I really enjoyed about Paul Halsall’s essay that Dr. Muhlberger posted is the discussion of how we can examine popular contemporary sources for bias; how does the 20th/21st century view/depict the medieval period? What contemporary values and beliefs color popular depictions of the period? This would make a great exercise for an introductory history class; to use what we’re doing, right now, in depicting the Middle Ages as an introduction into why it’s so important to examine source material while taking into account the chronicler’s/author’s background, motivations, and so on. How does, say, Ridley Scott’s and William Monahan’s depiction of the Crusades in Kingdom of Heaven compare with the 12th century’s depiction of King Arthur, complete with equipping a 6th century figure with 12th century values, clothing and armor, etc.?

16th Century sculpture of King Arthur from Innsbruck, Austria, wearing a whole bunch of stuff that didn’t exist in the 6th century. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Ultimately, what I’ve come to do with popular history is to be prepared to counter the factually incorrect aspects if asked. More important is to be prepared not just to rattle off a list of inaccuracies (this often has the dual result of boring people to death and their thinking you’re trying to show off your knowledge at their expense) but to really discuss the period (mis)represented. How close does the film/book come to what we understand about the period? Could a medieval Count/Lord behave as barbarically as they are often depicted and not face a wholesale revolt, assassination or, at least, complaints taken to another authority such as a bishop or king? Were religious leaders really first and foremost concerned with power rather than the spiritual well-being of their “flock”? 2

I have a group of people I eat lunch with 2-3 times a week and I love it when something like this comes up. Part of that is because these folks seem to actually enjoy when I go into some depth on a topic (though I’ve come to recognize the glazed look in their eyes as a sign that enough is enough). In any case, I think that rather than providing a blanket condemnation of a film or book, we’re far better off using this as an opportunity to engage people in a discussion. 3

1 A recently formed academic organization devoted to studying how the Middle Ages is perceived today is The Society for the Public Understanding of the Middle Ages or PUMA. There’s also The Virtual Society for the Study of Popular Culture and the Middle Ages. I couldn’t say if the two entities are related. I’ve debated signing up for them but I doubt I have much beyond anecdotes to offer.

2 There have been efforts to correct factual missteps in popular media. Tim O’Neill, who I’ve known online from way back on soc.history.medieval, goes after The Da Vinci Code and Dan Brown. I haven’t read the book and while I saw the movie, it made so little of an impression on me that I think I’d forgotten it by the next morning. Sharon Krossa, an independent scholar, has pointed out factual errors in just the first couple of minutes of Braveheart. I’m sure the same has been done for other films and books.

3 The next step is to not just recommend that people read something, but hand them a book along with notes about sections they might want to look at. You hand someone a 500-page book without suggesting they read through, say, a 20-page section and they’ll look at you like you have two heads. If you’re very lucky, people will find the section so fascinating that they’ll read the whole thing.

Lindberg, David C., The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1992). ISBN: 0-226-48231-6.


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Sixth Century Climate Change?

The new issue of Speculum showed up in the mail last week. The first article was by Paolo Squatriti titled, “The Floods of 589 and Climate Change at the Beginning of the Middle Ages: An Italian Microhistory.” I read the title and thought it would be a really good article, in part because this is an area I’m pretty familiar with. One of the things I do is when I’m at a Medieval Conference and introduce myself, when someone asks me what my field of study is, my usual response is, “I’m a pure amateur, I believe I’m the least intelligent person here.” Obviously I know there’s a difference between intelligence and knowledge but I’m shooting for humor – I don’t want people to think I’m whining about the situation. If the person I’m talking to is interested enough, I might invite him or her (humorously) to a Conference I’m presenting at and say, “Don’t worry – there are places where I’m actually fairly intelligent. Feel free to come and then I can be the smart one.”

So I read the title and thought this might be an opportunity, on my blog, to demonstrate that yeah, there are things I’m actually competent in. The first few pages of the article did nothing to alter my thoughts. Dr. Squatriti tracked how the flood event in 589 that impacted Rome has frequently been pointed to as a symptom of climate change, including statements such as, “The result [of climate change described by historians] was a post-Roman Italy of scraggly forests and soggy marshes, traversed by wild torrents that Muratori [an 18th century historian] repeatedly contrasted with the agricultural order he and his contemporaries in Modena could see around them.” (799) He continued to track the evolution of this position to “. . . the phenomenon modern historians usually call the ‘rotta della Cucca,’ or ‘the Cucca Breach.'”

The Cucca Breach is a title given to a series of alterations in the landscape of sixth century Italy resulting from heavy rains and snows. This changed watercourses, caused the abandonment of previously productive agricultural lands in the Italian peninsula and the growth of swampland. On first reading, I didn’t sense that Squatriti was going to do anything but fine tune this concept – add some details regarding the 589 event but subscribe to the overall theory. By this time I had mentally crafted a blog post in response discussing the abandonment of lands due to loss of population from the Plague, Justinian Wars, Lombard Invasion and Merovingian raids and wars. I planned to download some Italian data layers (or maybe not – I have 20 Gigs of worldwide GIS data on CD’s) including forests, soil types, waterways, throw them in ArcMap, combine them with some of my own layers related to land use, soils and drainage, and describe why some other options may be more feasible than climate change to explain the growth of swampland. This was gonna be good.

 Artificial drainage structures for a Central Indiana County necessary to keep it from being a swamp

Imagine my disappointment when I arrived at this statement, “In this essay I will . . . disengage the extreme weather events recorded for late 589 from the so-called climactic worsening of late antiquity.” (802) I then woke up, realized this article was not about me – or at least not a means by which I could demonstrate my brilliance through my blog, went back to re-read the first few pages, and regained a bit of sense about this.

The severe weather events of 589 are mentioned in multiple sources. The sources describe a massive flood whereby the banks of the Tiber were breached causing massive destruction in Rome. Some of the sources are a bit more creative. Gregory of Tours was quite analytical, describing a chain of events resulting in the election of Gregory the Great as Pope. 1

The Liber Pontificalis is less colorful, “At that time the rains were so great that everyone said the waters of the Flood had overflowed; so great was the disaster that no one could remember anything ever like it.” 2

Paul the Deacon recounted events much as Gregory did (you kind of have to assume that, writing at Charlemagne’s court, Paul had access to Gregory’s Historiae) complete with snakes, dragons, pestilence and Gregory the Great becoming Pope. 3

Gregory the Great himself refers to this event in his Dialogues though his account was much less dramatic than those of Gregory of Tours and Paul. 4

In any case, what we have here is a big flood, remarkably well-dated to the fall of 589, sometimes(according to Gregory of Tours and Paul) accompanied by rain and storms, which did substantial damage to Rome.

Here’s where this article gets interesting. After tracing the 589 Flood historiography and its mentions in sources (I haven’t listed all of them – just those I have) Squatriti enters into a discussion of whether this can be seen as an event accompanying climate change. He believes it should not. First – and I have a hard time believing a historian would do this – he restates the caution against the cardinal sin of using an isolated weather event, however severe, as a symptom of longer-term, broader climate events. He then begins to separate 589 from a series of events which could be linked to describe this broader event.

He makes several points leading up to this however his ultimate and most interesting comments related to this involve regional or micro-climates. He recognizes that there is some evidence to suggest that Europe was becoming cooler and wetter during the 6th century – but that this evidence is not from Italy but from areas to the north and west. He further discusses Italy as part of the “Mediterranean isoclimactic area” rather than continental Europe, where so much of the climate data originates. (813)

He relates several periods where climate impacting the remainder of Europe does not seem to have impacted Italy, such as the lack of tree ring alteration during the Medieval Warm Period and suggests that this indicates that a cooler wetter continental Europe in the 6th century does not necessarily indicate the same in Italy. Finally he points to alluvial deposits (deposits from flooding) and delta growth. The Tiber delta was relatively stable during the 6th century, as were its deposits from flooding, indicating that nothing remarkable was going on. (815) The Adige River is much more interesting as, south of Verona, in some areas there is evidence of increased flooding – and in some areas the flooding appears to be reduced from the norm. (816-7) Overall, Squatriti does not see evidence for major climate change in 6th century Italy, or that the 589 flood should be used as evidence of this.

What he does believe the 589 event can be used as evidence of is something I had never considered before and relates to how it was referenced by the sources. Squatriti believes the emphasis this event has received in the sources is related to Gregory the Great, not the flood itself. He argues that the flood was viewed as a direct precursor and in fact as something of a triggering event in the elevation of Gregory as Pope. “Its [the 589 flood] unusual memorialization is certainly related to the renown of Gregory the Great in the Middle Ages, much more, I would suggest, than to any sense that the floods were especially devastating.” (819)

He argues that Gregory of Tours’ account relates to his view that good may come from even the worst occurrences and that Paul the Deacon uses it to point out that the Lombards were not the enemies of God. (820-1)

One issue he doesn’t raise which I think should be considered is that Gregory of Tours would likely have considered the flood a necessary cleansing event where evil is washed out from the city, as represented by the serpents and dragon, to prepare the way for good, in the person of Gregory the Great, to lead the Catholic religion and faithful. Perhaps it’s just that I’ve recently read so many of Gregory’s miracle stories but his propensity to relate a cleansing purge; as indicated by the ejection from the body of blood, pus or vomit; with healing seems to me to have a very strong parallel with a flood washing away evil serpents in order to cleanse Rome.

In any case, though I wasn’t able to show everyone how smart I am, (grin) I found this to be an interesting article. To a certain extent I think the climate change in 6th century Italy issue is still a bit up in the air with some contradictory evidence however I found Squatriti’s argument persuasive; that the prominence of the 589 flood in sources was related to the importance with which the authors viewed Gregory the Great.

1 Historiae X.1; Gregory’s deacon, Agiulf, told him about an event on November of 589 where a flood destroyed several churches and large stores of grain. The flood was accompanied by a bunch of snakes swimming downstream, including “. . . a tremendous dragon as big as a tree-trunk . . .” The snakes and dragons washed up on shore, died, began to rot and caused a plague which killed the current Pope, Pelagius, resulting in Gregory the Great’s elevation to the papacy.

2 Liber Pontificalis 65

3 Historia Langobardorum III.24; Unlike Gregory, Paul neglects to connect rotting carcasses with the onset of disease.

4 Dialogues, 3.19; How dramatic is a bit objective. If you’re interested in the Church of the martyr Zeno, Gregory’s account had plenty of drama. If you’re into serpents and dragons, not so much.

Davis, Raymond, trans., The Book of Pontiffs (Liber Pontificalis), 2nd ed. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (2000). ISBN: 9-780853-235453.

*Gardner, Edmund, ed., Warner, P. L., trans., The Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great. Merchantville, NJ: Evolution Publishing (2010). ISBN: 9-781889-758947.

Peters, Edward, ed., Foulke, William Dudley, trans., Paul the Deacon: History of the Lombards. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (2003). ISBN: 9-780812-210798.

Squatriti, Paolo (2010). “The Floods of 589 and Climate Change at the Beginning of the Middle Ages: An Italian Microhistory”, Speculum 85, 799-826.

Thorpe, Lewis, trans., Gregory of Tours: The History of the Franks. London: Penguin Books (1974). ISBN: 9-780140-442953.

*This is not the greatest edition. I’d recommend getting the Deferrari (1939) edition if you can find it. Unfortunately it’s out of print and used copies are very high priced. I finally picked this up so I’d at least have something.

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Posted by on October 17, 2010 in Environment


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Of Gregory, Miracles, Daily Life and Flatulence

I hope folks think this post is filled with very little of the last but I needed a catchy name – my readership has been down the last few weeks and I’m not venturing into the world of cool marginalia just yet.

I’ll get to the important stuff later but Gregory has a thing with bodily fluids. Not every time, but quite frequently when someone is healed something is expelled as a sign of healing. He gives us blood flowing from the eyes of the blind, vomiting up of blood and pus for those with stomach pains, more vomiting of blood and/or pus for mutes – when folks get healed, the badness leaves their bodies in a very tangible manner.

The same holds true for demons – they are usually vomited out. And in one case, I had to chuckle. Apparently the oil from St. Martin’s tomb was pretty potent stuff. Aredius of Limoges is cured of a sharp pain by smearing some on himself. A man with an infected hand, a woman possessed of a demon and a blind man were healed. One man was possessed of a demon by the nail of his thumb – expelling this demon drew blood. One of my favorites is, “Since the oil had restored many possessed people to health, he [Aredius] placed some of it on the head of one man who possessed, I think, a more hideous demon. Immediately the man expelled the demon in a blast of air from his bowels.” This brings to mind so many juvenile jokes that if I started with it I might never stop. But the next time I have too much bean dip . . . 1

Gregory’s miracles have much more to say – I just decided to start from the bottom. (OK, they also inspire bad puns). I found it interesting that some of his miracle-workers engaged in a very limited form of healing; effective, apparently, against limited, specific illnesses. For example, Saints Venerandus and Nepotianus take care of people with chills. 2 Bishop Medard of Soissons had a tree growing over his tomb which, if you grabbed a splinter from and used as a toothpick, cured toothaches. 3 Romanus calms the waters of the Garonne River and rescues those about to perish. 4

But that’s not what’s important about the miracle stories, not to me anyway. There are some aspects of history – who did what to whom when and where – but as I mentioned before, I think the most valuable aspects of these is what they tell us about society in 6th century Gaul.

A lot of the time when I jotted down my notes for these the object was fairly simple. Next time I get into a conversation with someone about the Medieval Period and they bring up the; medievals didn’t wash, read, love their children, love their husbands/wives, give two cents about women, etc., I have information to counter them with. This isn’t the only thing I noted, but it’s a big part of it. So while I have notes about the Doctrine of the Bodily Assumption of the Virgin, faith being equated with sustenance, evidence of Bubonic Plague, religious patronage impacting individual advancement, and so on, what I’m going to focus on with this post are those mythbusting talking points.

Abbreviations used in footnotes (Latin name in parentheses):

VM – The Miracles of the Bishop St. Martin (Libri de virtutibus sancti Martini episcopi)
VP – Life of the Fathers (Liber vitae Patrum)
GC – Glory of the Confessors (Liber in gloria confessorum)
GM – Glory of the Martyrs (Liber in gloria martyrum)
HF – History of the Franks (Historiae)

Evidence of Love

Regarding love, one I often hear is, “People in the Middle Ages didn’t love their children.” This is often rationalized as reasoning that because children had such a high mortality rate that people inured themselves to the death of the young by not becoming too attached to them. The obvious counter to this (at least when this reasoning is given) is arguing whether folks in the 19th century didn’t love their children or whether people in very poor countries don’t today. But Gregory provides some ammo too.

A young boy, about a year of age, is starving to death after his mother died. When the boy contracts a fever his father runs to the Church carrying him where he is baptized. As the father weeps, the child appears to die when St. Martin heals him. 5

A girl, aged 12, has been completely paralyzed for six years and has been cared for by her parents for the entire time. After prayer and offerings, Martin heals her. Hard to believe her parents didn’t love her if they cared for her for six years as a paralytic. 6

In another account a boy still at his mother’s breast (but evidently a few years old) becomes severely ill and is cured by Martin. What’s striking about this account is the grief of the parents. The mother wept continuously and the father was so overcome with grief that he couldn’t bear to remain in the church while she prayed. 7

Another woman is so overcome by the loss of her son that she can’t stop weeping for days until she is visited by Saint Mauricius. 8 Another little boy, about three years old, is carried for days while ill and his parents are crushed when he dies, later to be revived at the tomb of Maximus of Riez. 9

His stories of marital love are less frequent but equally compelling. One case is of a chaste marriage; an anonymous couple known as “The Two Lovers.” When a husband and wife who lived their entire lives as virgins while sharing the marriage bed die, their tombs are placed on opposite sides of the church but move next to each other in the night. 10

The other two cases Gregory mentions are more traditional – husbands and wives who love one another and have honorable marriages. In one case, the husband predeceases his wife. On dying a year later, as she is placed in the same tomb his arm reaches out and embraces her. 11 Reticius’ wife dies and soon thereafter he becomes bishop of Autun. Later, after his death as he is placed in her tomb he “regained his spirit and addressed his wife.” 12

Of course Gregory uses these stories as ideals however they were almost certainly told as part of his sermons. He wouldn’t have included them unless he thought people could relate to them. Most of the folks who read this blog have never thought otherwise (not recently anyway) but if you want some other evidence on love to toss someone’s way, Gregory has it.

Schools and Lay Education

Gregory also mentions schools and from the way he portrays them in these two stories, they weren’t a rarity or even that hard to get access to.

Leobardus, a contemporary of Gregory’s from Auvergne was born, “. . . not of senatorial family, although he was of free birth.” The way his schooling is portrayed suggests that it was normal for the free to attend – or at least not unusual. “When it was time he was sent with the other children to school, where he learnt some of the psalms by heart, and without knowing that he would one day be a cleric he unknowingly prepared himself for the Lord’s service.” 13

There are a couple of things I read into this. First, it doesn’t appear that the school was restricted to boys. Also, the fact that his learning the psalms appears not to have been the norm and that he didn’t go to the school planning to become a cleric seems to indicate that this wasn’t a church school, though it doesn’t eliminate the possibility.

Patroclus was another non-noble free boy from Berry (Bourges region) and got into an argument with his brother who went to school while he tended sheep. Patroclus, “. . . left his sheep in the field and hastened to the boys’ school . . .” This school, while gender-restricted, also doesn’t appear to have been a clerical school as after receiving his education he went to work for Nunnio, a close acquaintance of Childebert and his mother believed that he would marry right up until he was tonsured and entered the clergy. 14

Gregory is surprisingly (to me anyway) matter-of-fact about education. He doesn’t portray non-noble free boys attending schools as anything unusual, or offer any discussion about needing a patron to gain entrance. He provides at least some evidence that non-nobles were often educated during the 6th century.

The final miracle story I think will make a useful piece of armament relates to plumbing. Another of the myths I always hear is that after Rome fell (because for these folks the world crashed and burned – I shouldn’t make fun since 15 years ago I believed the same thing) almost all technological knowledge was lost. This is plainly ridiculous and there have been plenty of books written about it. One of the items people often discuss as lost was plumbing. People’s excrement now evidently lay wherever it was deposited. Medievals lost their olfactory senses and apparently didn’t understand that stuff flows downhill, especially when a little water’s added. This one is easily countered. Charlemagne’s Aachen complex and baths is the one I like to use but Gregory has a nice one for the 6th century.

Located in the Plain of Osset near Seville was a Christian shrine including an artificial pool which miraculously filled each Easter Sunday. The Visigothic King Theudigisel, an Arian, thought the filling of the pool was some sort of trick. For three years he tried to cause the miracle to fail, the first two years by sealing the door to the shrine and posting guards around it, the third year by ordering trenches to be dug around the church to prevent underground pipes from filling the pool. Obviously, if plumbing was unknown in Gregory’s day, he wouldn’t be telling a story about folks digging to find it. 15

I’m starting on Gregory’s History of the Franks now. I doubt I come across anything someone else hasn’t already found but I was struck by two blatant errors in his narrative from Book 2. He portrays a persecution of Christians in Africa by the Arian King of the Vandals, Huneric, as resulting in thousands of deaths. 16 Victor of Vita doesn’t say anything of the kind, though he does discuss some fairly vicious acts, including yanking the scalps off people. Now for Victor this wasn’t the cheeriest of times but his account of a large-scale exile of Catholics shows that Huneric didn’t want to create a bunch of martyrs, he just wanted them out. 17

Gregory also talks about the Visigoth Euric engaging in a slaughter of Christians and references a letter of Sidonius Apollinarus as evidence. 18 The problem is, in the letter, (at least the one Thorpe footnotes in the Penguin edition, to Basilius, Bishop of Aix) Sidonius doesn’t talk about this either. He speaks of persecution and of Catholics not being allowed to fill vacant clerical positions including bishoprics, but he doesn’t describe any kind of widespread murder. 19 Is Gregory’s propensity towards exaggerating violence here something which continued when he described events of his time? Gregory’s been pointed to as evidence of widespread feuding and violence among Merovingian royalty but I can’t help wondering if he may have overblown this, even beyond just focusing on it. Or maybe he was just mistaken about things that for him weren’t current events.

This has been fun. I’m not sure if anything will come up worth posting about in the rest of Gregory’s Histories but if so, I’ll throw it in. Those have been pretty well analyzed though so I don’t know as I’ll come up with anything new. Of course I haven’t read about Gregory’s Victor/Sidonius misrepresentations anywhere else either but I’m sure it’s been done.

1 GC 9

2 GC 36

3 GC 93

4 GC 45: Romanus didn’t exactly rescue Gregory but calmed the river so he could cross.

5 VM 2.43: This account could be interpreted as more of a fear of the boy dying unbaptized than love but first, it doesn’t read that way to me and second, even if the father’s primary fear was of his son dying unbaptized, wouldn’t this also show his love for the boy?

6 VM 3.2

7 VM 3.51

8 GM 75

9 GC 82

10 GC 31

11 GC 41

12 GC 74

13 VP 20

14 VP 9: Interestingly, both Patroclus and Leobardus were expected to marry by their families. Leobardus even went so far as to perform all the usual pre-marriage ceremonies until he was “freed” by the deaths of his parents.

15 GM 23-4; Gregory has Theudigisel ruling for three years when his reign was actually from 548-9. Gregory wasn’t always up to snuff when discussing things outside his period. This story makes a nice example for why I believe his miracle stories are of less value for telling “what happened” than what Gregory believed and what he thought would make a good message for his audience. The pool and shrine may or may not have existed (I’m unaware of archaeological or other textual evidence confirming it) but it’s almost certain that subsurface pipes and plumbing did in Gregory’s day and that he believed his audience would be at least somewhat familiar with it.

16 HF II.3

17 Victor of Vita, History of the Vandal Persecution, 2.8 mentions that many Catholics served in the royal household dressed as Vandals so perhaps the mass killing Gregory discusses is in reference to them – Victor doesn’t read that way to me though. For hair-pulling, which is a very mild term for what Victor describes, see 2.9. In 2.15 Victor discusses Huneric killing thousands on taking the throne from his father Geiseric however this was in an effort to consolidate his rule and it’s not apparent that most of those killed were Catholic. It’s possible; perhaps his father was willing to overlook his administrators’ religious beliefs so long as they helped him run his kingdom and Huneric was “cleaning things up” but Victor doesn’t discuss this, with the possible exception of linking this to the household members referred to in 2.8. See 2.26-37 for details of the exile.

18 HF II.25

19 Sidonius Apollinarus, Epistolae, 7.6

Anderson, W. B., trans., Sidonius Apollinarus: Sidonius II, Letters III-IX. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (1965). ISBN: 9-780674-99462-0.

James, Edward, trans., Gregory of Tours: Life of the Fathers. 2nd ed. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (1991). ISBN: 9-780853-233275.

Moorhead, John, trans., Victor of Vita: History of the Vandal Persecution. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (1992). ISBN: 9-780853-231271.

Thorpe, Lewis, trans., Gregory of Tours: The History of the Franks. London: Penguin Books (1974). ISBN: 9-780140-442953.

*Van Dam, Raymond, Saints and Their Miracles in Late Antique Gaul. Princeton, NJ:: Princeton University Press (1993). ISBN: 9-780691-021126.

Van Dam, Raymond, trans., Gregory of Tours: Glory of the Confessors. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (2004). ISBN: 9-780853-232261.

Van Dam, Raymond, trans., Gregory of Tours: Glory of the Martyrs. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (2004). ISBN: 9-780853-232360.

*Contains The Miracles of the Bishop St. Martin.


Posted by on October 13, 2010 in Hagiography, Literature


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Evidence for Y. Pestis as cause of the Black Death

Paul Gans recently posted an interesting message to Mediev-L, an academic mailing list.

A whole bunch of people from a whole bunch of collaborative institutions (this is my excuse for not properly citing the article at the bottom of this post) published an article on their research into the causal organism for The Black Death of 1347-50 in Europe, “Distinct Clones of Yersinia pestis Caused the Black Death.”

Basically, through DNA analysis they found that variants of Yersinia pestis was the pathogen responsible for the Black Death. I’m not an epidemiologist (the closest is hearing classmates in college gripe about their epidemiology course) and am not going to detail the argument. However if you’re interested in the debate over the cause of the Black Death, this seems to provide pretty strong evidence that it was the Bubonic Plague and Y. pestis.

If you look at Table 1 you’ll see that their examination was not strictly limited to the 14th century but that the evidence for Y. pestis is much stronger for that event than for the Justinian plague. Someone more familiar with microbiology will have to explain their discussion from page 5 of the PDF before I understand it exactly.

I’ve never been particularly convinced by arguments that something else was the cause but this article appears to refute it fairly strongly.

BTW – as a caution, and a reminder that I am indeed The Master of the Blatantly Obvious I think there will still be individual disease events in communities that were not caused by the plague. There were plenty of other diseases affecting communities during the Middle Ages and I’m sure that when plague was raging, at times the Bubonic Plague received credit for some of them. No reason there won’t be inconsistencies in accounts and in some cases a village will probably have been affected by something else.


Posted by on October 10, 2010 in Disease and Medicine


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The Disgusting Miracles of Gregory

Well, a couple of them anyway. To be honest, this post is inspired by one by Jonathan Jarrett from a few months ago. In this story a girl is healed when her mother runs to a manse where St. Marcel of Die has been staying, scrapes some of his saliva off the walls, and cleans the girl’s nose and mouth with it. 1

Gregory has a fondness for saliva himself. I was reading the Life of the Fathers (Vita Patrum) last night and came up with two spit stories. Neither is quite as good as Jonathan’s but hey, you gotta do what you can to contribute to the conversation.

One of Gregory’s subjects is Leobardus. Leobardus was a recluse and contemporary of Gregory’s who, “. . . obtained so much grace from God that with his saliva alone he could banish the poison from malignant pustules.” (Gregory, Vita Patrum 20.3 in James, 1991 p. 129) 2

Better, though still not quite up to the standard of the mother washing her daughter’s mouth out is St. Lupicinus. Lupicinus had this self-mortification thing going on where, “And he wore on his neck, all through the day, while he sang the praises of God in his cell, a large stone, which two men could hardly lift. . . . Towards the end of his life his chest was so crushed by the weight of the stone he wore that blood began to come from his mouth; he used to spit this out against the walls.” (Gregory, Vita Patrum 13.1 in James, 1991 pp. 86-7)

This blood-spit was valuable enough to fight over after his death. With his body still lying in his cell, ” . . . others collect from the walls the blessed blood that he had spat out. And indeed scuffles break out among them . . . The wall today still witnesses to what we have just said, for it has as many little holes as it had merited drops of spittle from the mouth of the blessed man. . . . I have indeed myself seen many who had scraped from the wall the spit which had come from that sanctified mouth, who have had the honor of relief from several illnesses.” (Gregory, Vita Patrum 13.2 in James, 1991 p. 88)

Not quite the detail of what was done as with Marcel’s, er, fluid, but still interesting, I guess. I’m going through Gregory’s The Miracles of the Bishop St. Martin right now and I think I might have something on bloody pus to offer in the near future.

1 It would be interesting to know if Marcel’s story was inspired by either of Gregory’s. More likely that all of these originated with John 9:1-12 where Jesus spits on the ground, mixes the dirt and spit into clay and puts it on a blind man’s eyes to restore his sight.

2 I know – incorrect method of attribution but since this blog is geared toward amateurs – I hope – I didn’t want to just reference Gregory or add a bunch of footnotes.

James, Edward, trans., Gregory of Tours: Life of the Fathers. 2nd ed. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (1991). ISBN: 9-780853-233275.

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Posted by on October 4, 2010 in Hagiography, Literature


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Gregory of Tours

I recently mentioned a need to re-read Gregory. I thought before I got started on this that I’d offer a brief overview of him. I should preface this by saying you can get a better bio of Gregory in the introduction to just about any translation of his work but this will help me frame my thoughts. 1

Georgius Florentius Gregorius, commonly known as Gregory of Tours, was born in the later 530’s in Clermont, in the Auvergne region of Gaul. His family appears to have been of some significance in the Gallo-Roman aristocracy. Throughout his works Gregory references relatives and ancestors who held important posts. To a certain extent, the Bishoprics of Clermont and Lyons had become “family sees” and Langres wasn’t far behind. Gregory’s family seemed to be first in line for these posts.

Gregory did not, it appears, receive a classical education. He himself notes a gap in the literary abilities between himself and his friend, Venantius Fortunatus, who was trained as a Roman rhetor and was known as a poet. It’s hard to tell exactly how much of Gregory’s ignorance was feigned and how much was real – the ecclesiastical education he received was likely light on the classics and concentrated on religious works, the Bible, Psalms, Sermons and the writings of the Fathers such as Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine. To at least some extent Gregory appears to have lacked literary ability however he also tried to write in such a way that common people could understand it.

Gregory’s youth and early adulthood took him up the ladder of religious advancement in a fairly straight line up to his becoming a Deacon in c. 562-3. In the early 570’s he ran into trouble though. In 571 the bishopric of Clermont became available. Gregory would have been a logical choice to take over but he didn’t get it, though it did go to Avitus, a friend of his. Two years later the Bishopric of Lyons, where Gregory was Deacon, became available when Nicetius, Gregory’s patron and great-uncle, died. This would have been an even more logical post but he did not get it either; possibly because his brother Peter became involved in a dispute in Langres where he was accused of plotting against another priest in order to become Bishop, possibly because Nicetius had been something of an abrasive individual who’d antagonized some important people. Whatever the reason, it seems that at the time these Bishoprics became available, the reputation of Gregory’s family was at a low point.

Tours was a more interesting situation and what happened there seems to be the result of a mixture of luck and Gregory becoming more aggressive in asserting his rights. The Bishopric was held by a distant relative of Gregory’s, Eufronius. Tours is some distance from where Gregory’s family had its greatest influence and he cannot have been considered a favorite to take over after Eufronius’ death. However Gregory cultivated the patronage of several influential individuals in the area including King Sigibert, Radegund and the Bishop of Reims. Against the odds and the resident Archdeacon, Riculf, Gregory was named to this fairly important see.

Gregory as Bishop

Gregory had some serious problems when he first became bishop. Tours was a disputed city, both between Neustria and Austrasia and between Sigibert and his brother, Chilperic, as they engaged in a civil war. Early in his Bishopric Gregory allied himself with Sigibert who had the upper hand in the conflict, most of the time. This backfired when he died in 575 and his brother took over.

Chilperic wasn’t Gregory’s only opponent however if we were going to name a “nemesis” for Gregory, he’d be the choice. Gregory writes extensively of their disagreements and his personal animosity for the King comes through. But Gregory was smarter by now and he actively strengthened his position. Some of this was by his activity as Bishop including actively opposing Chilperic at a Church Council, however to me it seems that his greatest ally was a dead man.

Other than as the author of his History of the Franks, Gregory’s claim to fame was as a promoter of miracles in general and, specifically, the Cult of St. Martin of Tours. From the beginning of his episcopacy Gregory began recording the miracles of St. Martin and worked to promote the Saint. By the late 570’s, the Cult of Martin was very strong, strong enough, apparently, to provide Gregory with the ammo he needed to hold onto his see. His position appears to have become fairly solid by 580, even more so when Chilperic was assassinated in 584.

As Bishop, I have a hard time figuring out exactly how much influence Gregory had. It’s clear that he was a person of some significance. He had a strong core of patrons and was a friend of Fortunatus, one of the most respected clerics of the time. He was an active participant in Church Councils and engaged in theological discussions (though sometimes using flawed arguments). Kings and nobles used him as an envoy. At the same time we have to look at the accident of survival. Gregory’s our number one source for the history of the period and he will have appeared more prominent than he likely was, despite the fact that his works do not engage in a high degree of self-promotion. At the same time, the fact that so much of his work has survived and that he was later named a Saint indicates that he was well-respected.

For my money, while I can’t say that he was one of the leading theological minds of his era, his active promotion of miracles and various Saints’ cults, in particular Martin but others as well, speaks of his influence. He wasn’t a Gregory the Great whose works influenced doctrine for centuries, but his advocacy for Saints and miracles ensured that he would be remembered and, I believe, makes it likely that he was well-respected by contemporaries. In particular, the Cult of St. Martin, already significant, expanded to where he was easily the most famous Saint in Gaul. Gregory must receive the credit for this.

Gregory as Historian

His influence as a historian is pretty indisputable. Gregory is our preeminent source for 6th century Gaul. Only Fortunatus can be considered another “major” source for the period (there are some other, brief Vitae and sources but nothing approaching the scale of these two). The question has always been: How reliable is Gregory?

The answer to this varies among historians. I have never seen anything where he has been considered to be an out-and-out fabricator. I have seen summaries where he is considered to have engaged in much embellishment and had such a narrow world view as to not have much historical value.

This view is not currently at the forefront. Gregory is considered a man of his times. The miracle stories are viewed as ahistorical, of course, but does this mean that Gregory himself did not believe them and deliberately constructed them? I don’t think so. He was a product of his times and his writings indicate a deep belief in the active participation of the Saints in his world, and that they were truly a force with great power and influence.

And for those who believe he pretty much made up his miracle stories, I don’t believe this is a necessary explanation. There is no doubt that sometimes people get sick and then get better. There is little doubt that in 6th Century Gaul, seeking the aid of a Saint was a fairly standard response to misfortune, including sickness. If an ill person went to St. Martin’s Church, prayed at his tomb and touched a tapestry or drank a little tomb dust water and then recovered, I don’t think we need to believe in a miraculous reason for this, or be surprised when Gregory attributes this to the Saint. Or, if a terrible storm rages and people in a house pray to Martin and find their house spared while nearby trees are uprooted and barns blown over, we don’t have to look very far to see how tornadoes behave – I can go look at damage within ten miles of where I live. By the same token, if someone was at sea, crossing a river or on a lake and a storm came up and they were afraid they might die, praying is not an unusual response and Gregory claiming the Saint’s efficacy shouldn’t be either. Of course the folks whose ship sank or who were killed by raiders wouldn’t be running around talking about how ineffective their prayers were.

Maybe if there had been a 6th century Celsus or Porphyry we’d have some texts telling us about the dozens of corpses carried out of St Martin’s Church when their prayers failed them, or hear how a slave taken by raiders watched his entire family killed despite their prayers. We don’t and when you consider the belief system of the time and that Gregory was particularly strong in his faith in the power of miraculous intervention, I don’t think we need to accuse Gregory of deliberate falsification.

One of the areas in which Gregory tells us the most about his world is through his miracle stories. A while ago I read Barbara Hanawalt’s The Ties that Bound (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986). In it she examines fourteenth and fifteenth century coroner rolls to glean information about the life of peasants in Late Medieval England. Their lives may have largely been hidden but by examining the manner of their deaths Hanawalt was able to learn a great deal about the daily lives of peasants.

I would argue that we can do the same for Gregory’s miracle stories. The stories themselves are less interesting than who came to Martin’s tomb and why. Clearly parents loved their children in the sixth century, as so many carrying their children for miles for healing, sometimes after nursing their withered bodies at home for years, attests. They work on the sabbath, if need be, though occasionally they end up with a cramped hand. And they will travel at need, sometimes considerable distances even when they lack any social standing. There’s a lot to learn from the miracle stories.

When it comes to his contemporary civil wars, conflicts, activities of Kings, Queens and nobility; there is little to flatly point to and say, “Gregory was right here – so-and-so corroborates it,” or that archaeological evidence confirms something. At the same time, there isn’t much to contradict him either and while I think we can safely credit Gregory with emphasizing the power of the saints and the Church over that of lay rulers, I also think it likely that, as far as he was able, he accurately represents what went on during his time. This is disputable of course, but there’s substantial detail and some cases where Fortunatus backs him up. In his History he is also very explicit about where he gathered his information about what occurred in the earlier period covered, including copying entire passages from other works and attributing where he found this information. Would he have done this and then made up most of what he said about his own times, when people reading his works would have their own memories to contradict him with? I don’t consider this plausible. Without evidence to the contrary and taking into account his point of view and motivations, in particular his tendency to favor ecclesiastical sources of power and influence, I think we can give him some credibility. His was not a world view but when it comes to the regional conflicts, it appears that we can consider Gregory reasonably reliable.

One of the reasons I’m about to dive into Gregory is that over the last 10 years or so he’s been receiving much more mention in books I’m reading and in sessions at Kalamazoo. I should be able to assess what he has to say a little better now than I did a decade ago. Also, everyone says to read Gregory’s works together which I didn’t do the first time. 2

ADDENDUM: Since this post seems to be drawing a bit of traffic, I want to mention that I wrote two other posts based on this reading project:

The works of Gregory I have and am about to read/re-read are:

James, Edward, trans., Gregory of Tours: Life of the Fathers. 2nd ed. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (1991). ISBN: 9-780853-233275.

Thorpe, Lewis, trans., Gregory of Tours: The History of the Franks. London: Penguin Books (1974). ISBN: 9-780140-442953.

*Van Dam, Raymond, Saints and Their Miracles in Late Antique Gaul. Princeton, NJ:: Princeton University Press (1993). ISBN: 9-780691-021126.

Van Dam, Raymond, trans., Gregory of Tours: Glory of the Confessors. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (2004). ISBN: 9-780853-232261.

Van Dam, Raymond, trans., Gregory of Tours: Glory of the Martyrs. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (2004). ISBN: 9-780853-232360.

* This includes translations of Gregory’s The Sufferings and Miracles of the Martyr St. Julian and his four books of The Miracles of the Bishop St. Martin.

1 Personally I think Van Dam (1993) offers the most complete background on Gregory but any of the introductions to the translated works provide some information.

2 Most of this has been written from memory which I think is pretty much correct. As I go through Gregory’s books I may add a bit to this, including some footnotes. I read a lot of Gregory a decade or so ago. His The History of the Franks was one of the first primary sources I ever read after I became interested in Medieval History. I have not read either the Glory of the Martyrs or Glory of the Confessors before, for some reason.


Posted by on October 3, 2010 in Hagiography, Literature


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