Monthly Archives: November 2011

Good Resource for Late Antique Sources

I recently finished Stephen Mitchell’s A History of the Later Roman Empire, AD 284-641. As I was reading it the thought was in the back of my mind that I might write a review but there are plenty of publicly accessible reviews out there already, ranging from people who are disappointed at the general track he took to those who are very pleased. For me, I’d say I’m fairly pleased. I have a few quibbles with areas he chose/didn’t choose to focus on and I thought he questionably used some sources but it is a good overview, shorter than AHM Jones and I think he covers most of the major issues, excepting a lack of emphasis on the last 40 years which is a bit perplexing.

The reason I want to talk about the book has to do with a small section. If you’re interested in finding English translations of sources for Late Antiquity, Mitchell’s bibliography makes a great starting point. Pages 426-9 (I have the paperback) include a wide variety of sources. What was most useful to me, in particular, was the section sub-headed “Collected Sources in Translation.” When I scan lists for books I might be interested in, titles such as, Pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity or Religious Conflict in Fourth-Century Rome don’t scream “Source Collection” to me. I’m at the point where I need to find a table of contents because I may already have many of the sources in these books but that doesn’t keep this from being a very useful method of arranging a bibliography.

While I’m sure Blackwell would love it if you ran out and bought the book (the paperback isn’t too expensive), my suggestion is that if you’re interested in finding English translations of sources but don’t want to read this volume, head to a library or use Inter-Library Loan and photocopy these four pages.

Jones, AHM, The Later Roman Empire, 284-602(2 volumes). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press (1986). ISBN: 978-0-8018-3285-7.

Mitchell, Stephen, A History of the Later Roman Empire, AD 284-641. Malden, MA/Oxford: Blackwell Publishing (2007). ISBN: 978-1-4051-0856-0.


Posted by on November 25, 2011 in Books, Resources


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Book Buying I: Pre-Black Friday

For those not familiar with US holidays, Black Friday directly follows the fourth Thursday in November which happens to be our Thanksgiving Holiday. It’s widely considered the official beginning of the Christmas shopping season. There’s a myth out there that the term originated because that was the day retailers generally thought they were “in the black” and anything sold from that point forward would be profit for the year. Not so. The term, at least as it is used in this context, originated among retailers (and public safety workers) because they knew this was going to be the craziest shopping day of the year, a terrible day if you worked in a store (from a workload/stress perspective anyway) but I’m sure the corporate people loved it. During Grad school I worked part time as mall security (I have lots of good stories from that) to make ends meet. This was a wild day and that was before things had gotten nearly as crazy as they are now.

Anyway, while X-box and Playstation and big screen TV’s seem to be the big deals, I’d rather buy books.

A little while back I mentioned a foray which resulted in my buying a bunch of books from David Brown. They were so happy with me that they sent me an e-mail about some damaged books being 85% off. I was so happy with them that I bought 6 of these. Happiness everywhere. Notre Dame also sent me a 40% off notice. I only bought one of theirs — and it’s Ambrose’s Patriarchs: Ethics For The Common Man by Marcia Colish, which fits right in with what I’m going to be looking into in the near future.

Next up is a used bookstore run either today or tomorrow. It’s been a while since I made the rounds. I want to get there before the hordes descend on Friday. If I get some good stuff you can be certain that I’ll come here to brag let you know about it.

NOTE: You’ll see that I’m going to start indexing my book buying posts (and may eventually go back and renumber all of them). I should have done this a long time ago but I had no idea I’d put as many of these up as I have. I’m leaving Kalamazoo book-buying out of the numbering; that’s a unique category.

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Posted by on November 22, 2011 in Books


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Cool Stuff on Other Blogs IV

You know how it is; you post something and immediately afterward a bunch of stuff comes out which makes you wish you’d waited a couple of days (I’ve had the same thing happen with publishing articles). This weekend appears to have been a profitable one for some of my favorite blogs.

Before I get to that I want to mention that I’ve updated my Kalamazoo page to include my posts from 2011. I’m not sure I’m thrilled with how it looks so I may tweak that a bit but the content is all there. I’ve been planning to do this for months and kept putting it off so I think this is more to brag about a relatively insignificant accomplishment than because it will matter to anyone right now. I must be in search of validation or something at the moment.

Also, I’ve put up the labels I’ve used for posts in the lower left of the blog. It looks messy and confusing to me – but it may be helpful to people trying to find stuff and by being stuck down there, they’re not overly visible. So I’ve also put a poll up, towards the upper right. If you feel the urge, please vote and let me know whether I should leave the labels in.

I’ve also added a button so you can follow this blog by e-mail, rather than having to log on to follow posts. I should have done this a while ago though it is a fairly recent add-in for Blogger. I believe once you go in it gives you options on when you receive the e-mails and I’m pretty sure it comes in digest form – if I post more than once in a day you’ll receive a single message. I’ve been told this is easier to read on mobile devices.

On to the blogs, in chronological posting order.

Michelle Ziegler has a really cool post on Heavenfield summarizing some National Geographic documentaries, as well as offering her own thoughts on the Staffordshire Gold Hoard.

Magistra et Mater has a great post recounting a seminar on the characteristics of Viking slavery. She also comments on how these characteristics compare with slavery in other societies as well as warning us all against over-generalization, a message I have increasingly come to appreciate (and to date have not grown tired of) over the past few years.

Moving a bit out of my period but something I’m increasingly troubled by, over at Modern Medieval, Scott Jenkins has put up a post which covers some broad turf; the current University funding situation in the UK, 60’s protests and a medieval institution – the “student university.” I enjoyed this post tremendously — extremely insightful.

This last is more contemporary than I usually post about but I’m having some real problems dealing with the images coming out of Cal-Davis over the past few days and I’m battling a strong urge to break my “this blog is for medieval stuff only” vow. I think I’ll get past it. There are far smarter people than I talking about it.

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Posted by on November 21, 2011 in Other Blogs


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My Early Christianity Journey: The Starting Point

WARNING! Everything in this post may be wrong!!!
(I just want to be clear)

This post, or at least the inspiration for it, started while I was on campus for an immigration seminar a few weeks ago. The 25 or so of us in the room were unaware that both the time and location for the seminar had been moved, very likely because it had never been announced (I was later told there were six people at the actual seminar — I wonder why). While waiting I began thinking of how I was going to be reading on Christianity and before we began talking among ourselves about whether this was going to happen (even a sign on the door of the room would have fixed this situation) I jotted down a few notes about what I thought of Christianity and its evolution.

I was just looking at these (during a bout of early morning insomnia so I suppose that should get some credit as well) and thought it would be interesting to save them so I could look at them a few months or even a couple of years from now and see how my thinking has progressed. But handwritten notes sometimes disappear when I go into one of my housecleaning frenzies (these typically take place about twice a year) and while I could type them into a word processor document, where’s the fun in that? So I figured if I posted things here I’d a) have a record and b) not be able to weasel out of realizing what massive misconceptions I once had.

Now I’ve read a bit on Christianity. It wasn’t too long after I began this Medieval thing that I figured out I’d have to know something about it to have a clue about what was going on. I have a decent number of primary sources but need a bunch more. So I’m not completely clueless. But I have a feeling that quite a bit of what I know ain’t so.

Is it smart to post about your ignorance? I have no idea, but I’m about to do it. Usually I try to be careful about being able to support, with evidence (or at least by referring to something someone promotes as evidence), what I post. This will not be the case here. I have books on my shelves, which I have already read, where I’ve forgotten much of the content and I have deliberately avoided consulting any of these in writing this post, to the point of, for example, not looking up the date of Constantine’s developing a dual Christian/Pagan prayer for use by the Roman Army. Anyway, here are some thoughts I have as of now, November 2011, before I begin reading the 37 books on Early Christianity on my bookshelf, along with however many more I end up buying. I’m going to concentrate on characteristics of certain periods and some watershed moments. And I’m going to write as if these are cast-in-the-wall-I-believe-them truths even though I don’t generally write that way even about stuff (medieval stuff anyway) I’m much more familiar with. And some of them are concepts I’ve not seen elsewhere, such as Constantine’s Pagan background and its impact on the conversion of Christianity to a religion which placed much greater importance on space than it had previously — these ideas are beyond tenuous right now. I suppose I should add a second warning that this will be long.

Also, I intend to make no reference whatsoever to my personal belief system. This is unimportant (though as with anyone, my personal biases will inevitably color my perspective). If I want to discuss my beliefs, I will do so with people much closer to I than those reading this blog, regardless of how highly I regard many of you. I don’t think I’ve ever deleted a constructive comment (to date my deletions have been if the poster is linked to something like getviagraonlinedotcom). However if someone posts a comment which wants to take this in a “religion is a crock” or “Christianity is evil” or “Only God can save us” direction I will delete it as soon as I see it. This will not be about modern spirituality. I suggest, if you really want to talk about this, find some close friends and sit down and have a conversation. This will hold for any such comments anywhere, not just in this post. I’m not going there and neither is this blog.

I’m plugging a bunch of internal anchors/links into this so when I return to this some months from now I can find what I put where. There are a lot of them because I have a lot of concepts in this. I think it will read better if you ignore them the first time you read this. Besides, they give a false impression that you can divide concepts and examine them independent of each other, which you can’t. Also, as you begin reading please feel free to open a comment box and add other areas you think I’m missing and need to look at. I know I don’t know much about this and would love input from those of you who are knowledgeable. Just be warned – if what you post gets me looking closely at something you’ll get the blame/credit in my followups! Enough babbling — let’s get to it.

The Church before the 4th Century

Early Church and Space

Early Christians as Philosophers

Constantine’s Conversion

Issues Initially Facing a Divided Church

Enforcing Orthodoxy

Constantine and His Impact on the Church and Space

The Influence of Julian

Ecumenical Councils

Monasticism and Asceticism

The Development of Hagiography

The Merovingians

Eastern Developments


Prior to 300 the Church, starting out as an underground sect of a minority religion, was a collection of fairly loosely organized, related groups geographically located primarily in urban clusters throughout the Empire. While most of these clusters did communicate with one another, the lack of any sort of rigid social structure and hierarchy meant that Christian worship looked very different from one place to another, a situation which would cause a great deal of conflict later.

Christianity was not at all vested in locations of worship. In fact, one of the defining characteristics, testified to by early writers, including the Bible, was how, in contrast to paganism, Christianity was not vested in things and places. Things and places were neither worshiped nor revered where paganism had various items and temples which were considered holy. Christianity was vested in its people. A church was its congregation, a brotherhood of members. Place mattered little and much, likely most, worship took place in members’ homes, quite often among groups but frequently in private ritual. Of all objects of reverence(this term presents difficulties here), other than Christ and the Apostles, the most significant were the martyrs, people. Of course Christ was the ultimate martyr but many others followed during the various persecutions and conflicts. However even here, initially, martyrs (other than Christ, his disciples and Paul) were not revered in the same manner as later became common for saints, but as figures of honor who had paid the ultimate price as defenders of the faith. The evolution of martyrology will be an interesting concept to explore.

During the first three centuries AD most of the leading Christian minds were philosophers. Christianity appears to have been another philosophical branch which averred that the true deity responsible for the world was Christ and the Christian God. Those involved in these debates were individuals with a strong philosophical background, quite frequently trained rhetors. The arguments for Christianity, along with, for example, arguments for Platonism were conducted in a logical, reasoned, enthusiastic manner. Clearly these arguments were strong as a substantial minority of the population of the Empire (nobody can put a figure on that beyond an educated guess but around 15-20% is the figure that most appeals to me right now) was Christian by the beginning of the 4th century.

Constantine’s “conversion” initiated a chain of events which resulted in massive change. I’ll take a moment to speak of Constantine himself. While Eusebius paints him as a model of Orthodoxy (whenever I use Orthodoxy I’m going to use it in the context of whatever became the official belief or practice of the Church, or was at that time) many of his actions indicate otherwise. Constantine came from a Pagan background, which I think helped influence many of the subsequent characteristics of Christianity. I’ll cover some of them below. However, for example, the Arch of Constantine, commissioned in 315, three years after Milvian Bridge, contains no Christian symbology but includes references to Pagan Gods. Later (I’m blank on the year — early 320’s I believe) he instituted a new army prayer which would be perfectly acceptable to Pagans and Christians. He favored Christianity but he was quite tolerant and many of the doctrinal struggles which took place during the two decades following Milvian Bridge were areas where my impression has been that he likely thought, “What’s the fuss/big deal with this?” In particular this seems true for Arianism.

Because of the Church’s initial loose structure, entire segments of Christianity were virtually their own Church and followed different doctrinal beliefs. These belief differences were quite often in only one or two areas but these were often critical, such as regarding the nature of Christ. Manichee/dualism sects which adopted Christ as a central spiritual figure (typically later than this period but I wanted to plug it in here anyway) exhibited even more profound differences, for example, to drastically oversimplify things, having the world of matter being evil and created by a being which, if not precisely the devil, was at the very least not a benevolent God.

To me, Arianism and Donatism, and possibly the Coptic Church in Alexandria, at the time of Constantine’s conversion were already vibrant, functioning, nearly independent Churches. I do not believe that Arius himself created Arianism or that he was anything more than the foremost among a large number of adherents who had been in place for some time. Donatism may have been a bit younger, though I’m not certain of that, but even if this group had developed in response to Diocletian, their stricter, more rigorous system basically had become the North African Church by Milvian Bridge.

The result of this was a period of substantial, sometimes violent conflict of enforcing Orthodoxy. The Nicaean supporters were most numerous and eventually their beliefs became accepted as Orthodox however there were a LOT of people who believed differently and it took a long time for this to be worked out. One of my major differences with a framework for teaching Christianity recently proposed by Walter Goffart is that while Early Christianity did have a period of significant violence, the bulk of this violence was not focused on the conversion of pagans but in enforcing Orthodoxy among heretical groups. This would change with Justinian but it wasn’t until that point that forced conversion of non-Christians became a sustained official government policy. Prior to that it was enforced Orthodoxy and even that went in fits and starts with some Arians as Emperor.

This leads me back to Constantine and some characteristics of Christianity which, if not directly attributable to him, were strongly influenced by him. Constantine and his mother strongly influenced the development of Christianity in several areas. Of course Constantine’s involvement in the development of doctrine created a precedent which came to be more important in the East than in the West. However I believe Constantine’s background as a Pagan influenced the transition of Christianity to a religion which placed a strong value on the identification of places as sacred. He instituted a program of building Christian places — monuments to Christ and the Christian God — something the religion had never had before. Helena’s discovery of the One True Cross and the building of a sacred placed infused with holiness due to the fragment, provided a major impetus to the practice of finding relics and designating places as sacred by building them as a place to house such items. In fact, for a period of time Churches couldn’t be consecrated without a relic. This also began the conversion of Christianity from a religion which was often practiced in private places using rituals which, while related to one another were not always identical, to one which was practiced largely in public spaces, under the auspices of an approved representative of the Church, and using a standardized set of rituals and symbols.

I should add that I don’t believe you can attribute all of the monument building to Constantine’s Pagan background. The Tetrarchy and Diocletian had been involved in a massive monument-building effort, much of it proclaiming the greatness of Rome and the Tetrarchy itself. Constantine was a direct heir to this and transferring this monument building to his new favorite religion cannot be attributed only to his religious background. I don’t know if it is possible to quantify which influence was greater — I suspect not — but I think both were in play.

Emperor Julian represented another watershed moment. To that point Paganism and Christianity had coexisted fairly peacefully. While some financial support for Paganism and Pagan rites had been withdrawn and even transferred to Christianity, Paganism was allowed to continue, generally without interference. Pagan temples and holy places were not actively destroyed but, if no longer used, allowed to decline. Julian’s ability to so disrupt Christianity in less than two years, and his restoration of Pagan places, showed Christian leaders a new danger. Following Julian’s death, while Paganism itself was allowed to continue relatively unhindered (for a couple of decades anyway, until Theodosius), the use of Pagan places, and in particular acceptance of abandoned shrines and temples, was not. Christians became much more aggressive in restricting Pagan use of spaces and either destroying or taking over abandoned places, particularly from the time of Theodosius. Paganism continued to be practiced for another couple of hundred years and Pagans continued to hold high office in the Empire at least through the early fifth century (to be honest I think we’ll be able to push this into the early sixth looking at some of Theoderic’s high officials in Ostrogothic Italy and individuals who appear to have been pagans such as Procopius in the East) but their lot had become much more difficult.

The Ecunemical Councils were important, in particular for working out doctrinal issues. Quite a bit of conflict occurred over matters of faith such as Mia/Monophysitism and issues such as the Three Chapters. As you read this you’ll see that this is a particular weak area of mine at the moment but conflicts such as occurred in Eastern cities such as Alexandria or Antioch often occurred due to doctrinal disagreement (though issues such as the primacy of Rome and the perception of heavy-handed “outsiders” likely had a lot to do with this). And the Three Chapters Controversy seems to have been more important than I once thought. NOTE: Schism and Church Councils are something I read a fair amount on and knew substantially more about at one time. Unfortunately much of this was before my note-taking phase and I’ve forgotten most of it. But the books are still here.

In the middle of all of this was the rise of monasticism and asceticism. I have this loosely held belief that this received a great deal of impetus with the suppression of the more rigorist North African Churches. As it was no longer acceptable for people to officially practice these stricter forms of worship, individuals and then later groups went off on their own. This is something I really want and need to explore — the rise of monasticism — and I have a bunch of books on it.

I’ve been fascinated by hagiography for a long time. Once Christianity became an approved religion, opportunities for martyrdom virtually ceased. To that point martyrs were considered to have achieved the pinnacle of earthly Christianity, as individuals who had displayed the “purest” demonstration of belief in giving up their lives, or at least withstanding torture, in defense of the faith. However opportunities to die for Christianity had virtually ended. Aspects of hagiography and a portion of the impetus for asceticism and monasticism rose from people continuing to want to suffer for their faith. The concept of the spiritual desert and bloodless monasticism seems to me to have evolved from this desire for martyrdom. Virginity, particularly female virginity, had always been prized among many ancient sects, including Paganism (Vestal Virgins anyone?), however this also became a portion of the “desert” where people could experience sexual martyrdom for their religion as well as the more traditional view of becoming a bride of Christ (these two motivations were interrelated).

Personally, I believe that hagiography was a merging of martyrology and panegyric. Hagiographical conventions adopted their general structure from panegyric and their motivation from martyrdom accounts. Of course while the structure came from panegyric, the content did not as panegyric generally took place while the subject was alive, or at the very least shortly after death, as for a funeral oration, while much hagiography involved people who had been dead for a significant period of time so they were less dependent on recounting events which could be at least somewhat verified. The Lives of Antony and Martin seem to have been extremely influential in the development of hagiographical conventions but I will likely discover more sources for this.

Moving later, the Merovingians actively worked to reduce the authority and power of the Church however without realizing it, their desire to similarly reduce the development of an entrenched aristocracy which might threaten the Royals served to strengthen the Church. The Merovingians insisted on approving ecclesiastical appointments and could overturn wills donating property to the Church. However they donated plenty of property themselves and provided grants of immunity which helped the Church become a powerful member of the landowning aristocracy in its own right, an aristocracy which the Carolingians would later partner with.

In the East, beginning in the 5th century the Patriarch of Constantinople began to assert more authority resulting in a later situation where the Patriarch almost seemed to be a co-Emperor. Note: There are so many components of this and other Christian developments in the East that I know I don’t know. For example, did the Roman tradition of mob influence as a component of rule have something to do with religious developments, and how much? How about the (likely) higher level of literacy in the East? Different social class structures? Threat and uncertainty in the wake of the Arab Conquests? So much I don’t know.

Justinian’s aggressive, violent, militant conversion of pagans in the sixth century spelled the effective end of paganism. This was the first extensive, long-lasting (there had been prior brief efforts which had never lasted very long) forced conversion and it had its impact.

As you can see from the above, I am certain there are things I believe right now that are quite wrong and there are areas, such as an in-depth knowledge of the impact of the various Church Councils, Eastern developments (I’m interested in the East but to date the bulk of my reading has been on the West) and the cause of and result of schism are, not quite nonexistent, but extremely thin. There’s also a place in here — somewhere — for a discussion of the transition where leading Christian authorities no longer came from a classical, philosophical background but I’m not sure this fits in its own category as this took place over a long period of time, gradually. I think it should instead be looked at from a perspective of how this influenced other developments. And if I started to write about the impact of all this on secular life and society I’d end up with 10,000 words.

If you’ve gotten this far and read the whole thing, I congratulate you on your endurance. I suspect that as I get into my reading I’ll pull bits and pieces from this to compare them to what I’m learning. This will likely be of interest to nobody but me but this is my blog and me is who it is for, first and foremost, so I won’t apologize for this. And as I’ve said before, I think this will be fun.


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Cool Stuff on Other Blogs III

I should subtitle this, “and Cool New Blogs.” Meaning blogs I just found out about, not newly created.

At the moment I have nothing to say but some time to say it. This is a perilous situation but I will attempt to avoid boring you all.

My first kudos goes to Michelle Ziegler. Michelle has her excellent blog on the Early Medieval British Isles, Heavenfield. She also has a second blog, Contagions. I happen to not have this on my blog list because about 80% of the content is well over my head. I mean, I took Epi in college but along with Physics and Advanced Calculus I seem to have eradicated it from my brain. But every so often she posts a Round-up. These are very interesting, even when none of my stuff is mentioned, and this time it introduced me to four new blogs I’m planning to pay attention to.

First up is Kristina Killgrove’s Roman DNA Project Blog. There are a couple of reasons I’m interested in this, even though it’s before my period. First is that how the Empire was populated is interesting in and of itself. Second is that DNA evidence is coming up quite frequently in Medieval research and by following a project from its beginning (If I can – I didn’t donate) I should be able to learn a lot about methodology. As I’ve said before, this is not so I can go out and do my own research, which I expect to never do, but so I can better assess the validity of an argument when I read it.

Rosemary Joyce has a blog, Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives which seems (I’ve just started reading it) to be about archaeological evidence disclosing the roles of gender, in particular women, in ancient societies. I’ve always been fascinated in trying to find out (from a reading what other people write perspective) what happened to two massively underrepresented groups, peasants and women. While for her blog ancient does indeed seem to cover the ancient period, women were just as underrepresented in pretty much all of history and going earlier will still be very interesting.

Senchus is a blog about Early Medieval Scotland authored by Tim Clarkson and I’ll just say that I’m a bit embarrassed that I didn’t already know of it.

I think I’m going to enjoy reading Bones Don’t Lie. Katie Meyers is a PhD student at Michigan State and it looks like she knows her stuff.

So thanks Michelle!

Gabriele from The Lost Fort always has excellent posts with great pictures. She has two posts which cover historic sites including a lot of reconstructed Germanic (sorry Goffart!) buildings, bridges, etc. Really good stuff.

As always, it seems, I can’t do one of these without mentioning Jonathan Jarrett. Even though I don’t know enough about it to comment, his opening report on Leeds has some fabulous pictures of Whitby Abbey. If Jonathan ever gets tired of this Medieval stuff he might do pretty well as a photo journalist (He could get some serious competition from Gabriele). He does far better with images than I could ever hope to and these are particularly good when he breaks out his camera.

And yet again, one of the things I got from this post, based on clicking on the links for some of the comments, ended up being two things; new blogs to follow. I really need to mine Jonathan’s Blogroll one of these days.

First up is L’Historien Errant. Christian Opitz says his main focus is Late Medieval which makes it several hundred years later than mine but I was impressed enough by the quality of the posts to want to start reading what he has to say, whether I understand much of it or not.

Slouching Towards Extimacy looks to have an Anglo-Saxon focus. I couldn’t find out who the author was so either he/she wishes to remain anonymous or I couldn’t figure out where to look. Of course I had to look up what “extimacy” means but it’s such a cool word. Looks like a pretty cool blog too. And give me a break – 15 years ago I didn’t know what exegesis meant. 1

I wasn’t going to focus on Jonathan’s most recent post about Richard Hodges’ book on the Vikings but it was through comments on that post that I found Norse and Viking Ramblings authored by Viqueen. I have not read a ton on them but I have several books on the Vikings and am interested in them and figuring out their impacts on Western Europe, in particular (for now, I always find more to be interested in when I start reading) on the evolution of fortifications in Western Europe. From scanning the first page of posts I think this is another gold mine.

So thanks again Jonathan – not just for the great posts but for helping me find some other terrific blogs.

I had a bit more to add but this seems long enough for now. I may follow up in a couple of days with a bit more. But reading three posts and finding seven new blogs? That’s a pretty good couple of days there.

1 Another broken vow. I swore when I started this blog to never use “exegesis” or “exegetical” in a post. I suppose I’ll just have to remember not to use it in a historical context or in a review while discussing how the author examines texts.


Posted by on November 19, 2011 in Other Blogs


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Book Review: The Rhetoric of Power in Late Antiquity

Frakes, Robert M., Digeser, Elizabeth DePalma and Stephens, Justin, eds., The Rhetoric of Power in Late Antiquity: Religion and Politics in Byzantium and the Early Islamic World. New York: Tauris Academic Studies (2010). ISBN: 978-1-84885-409-3.

This book contains 11 essays covering a variety of topics and geographic regions. The most prominent theme, as one would expect in a book dedicated to Professor Harold Allen Drake, is that divergent religious and political entities could and did peacefully coexist during the Later Roman Empire. This theme is not universal as is obvious for a book in which one essay discusses Ireland, however it is predominant.

Following a forward by John W. I. Lee and and an Introduction by the editors, the essays are divided into four broad thematic areas, as follows:

Part I: The Image of Political and Episcopal Authority

  • 1. “The Adventus of Julian at Sirmium: The Literary Construction of Historical Reality in Ammianus Marcellinus,” by Eric Fournier
  • 2. “Butheric and the Charioteer,” by Robert M. Frakes
  • 3. “Calming an Angry Enemy: Attila, Leo I, and the Diplomacy of Ambiguity, 452,” by Michael Blodgett
  • 4. “‘Patres Orphanorum’: Ambrose of Milan and the Construction of the Role of the Bishop,” by Michael Proulx

Part II: The Function of Roman Tradition in Emergent Societies
  • 5. “‘Your Brothers, the Romans’: Early Islamic History as a Turn of the Classical Page in Early Muslim Thought and Literature,” by Thomas Sizgorich
  • 6. “Spiritual Landscapes: The Late Antique Desert in Ireland,” by Jim Tschen Emmons

Part III: Civic Elites in the Byzantine East
  • 7. “The World of St. Daniel the Stylite: Rhetoric, Religio, and Relationships in the Life of the Pillar Saint,” by Miriam Raub Vivian
  • 8. “Two Philosophers from Gaza”:
    “Timotheos of Gaza and the Grande Caccia of Piazza Armerina” by Frank J. Frost
    “Choricius of Gaza, Oration XIII: Religion and State in the Age of Justinian,” by Roberta Mazza

Part IV: Addressing Challenges to Sacred Texts and Rites
  • 9. “Origen on the Limes: Rhetoric and the Polarization of Identity in the Late Third Century,” by Elizabeth DePalma Digeser
  • 10. “A Stranger Consensus: Daemonological Discourse in Origen, Porphyry, and Iamblichus,” by Heidi Marx-Wolf
  • 11. “Torah, Torah, Torah: The Authorship of the Pentateuch in Ancient and Early Modern Times,” by Paul Sonnino
  • “Conclusion,” by Elizabeth De Palma Digeser & Robert M. Frakes

In the opening essay Eric Fournier examines the welcome given to Julian at Sirmium, during the civil war with Constantius II, and how it was portrayed by Ammianus Marcellinus. According to Ammianus, this welcome was a formal adventus given by the city which would have basically amounted to formal recognition of Julian as Emperor. Fournier discusses Sirmium and whether it might have been expected to so readily support Julian. Fournier tells us that Constantius may have been born in Sirmium. Additionally, “The emperor also resided there for most of the 350’s and continually from 357 to 359.” (24) Despite this, Fournier believes Ammianus to have been basically truthful in his account. He discusses some issues, in particular Constantius helping depose Photinus, Bishop of Sirmium, which may have turned the city against him. (270 Ultimately, Fournier cautions that one must be careful in assessing Ammianus’ use of rhetoric when discussing Julian but believes that, while certain elements may be exaggerated “… the overall description of the event was not too far from what might have happened.” (29)

In “Butheric and the Charioteer,” Robert M. Frakes takes a look at the events which led to Theodosius I’s massacre at Thessalonica. This massacre of civilians was in response to the killing of a Roman General, Butheric. Frakes takes a close look at the various sources and concludes that Butheric unlawfully arrested a popular charioteer, either in response to an insult or due to homosexual jealousy. The detailed investigation of the sources is interesting as well as this closing statement, “It is insightful that no pagan source, even ones hostile to Theodosius, mentions the episode of Butheric and the charioteer, or even the massacre. To non-Christian writers, an emperor punishing his own citizens for killing a general might simply have been business as usual.” (53)

Michael Blodgett examines the embassy of Pope Leo I to Attila following the Hunnic invasion of Italy in 452 and its impact on the Huns’ decision to abandon the invasion. Through an examination of Hunnic losses due to disease and famine and an exploration of Hunnic beliefs, Blodgett believes that Leo may have been viewed as something of a shaman by the Huns and that his embassy provided Attila with the justification he needed to call off his Italian campaign, a decision he wanted to make anyway.

The essay by Michael Proulx examines methods by which Ambrose helped transform the role of bishop while revising his own role in events. In examining his Letter 30, Proulx discusses how Ambrose assigned to himself a far larger role than he actually had in the embassy to the usurper Maximus in 383, in particular his claim to be protector of Valentinian and basically fabricates a confrontation between himself and Maximus in 386. Proulx believes that rather than looking at this letter for an accurate representation of the embassies of 383 and 386 it should be looked at as a means by which Ambrose strengthened the relationship between himself and Valentinian’s court. Along with his funeral oration for Valentinian in 392, Letter 30 provided an opportunity for Ambrose to construct his image and role in the events of the late 4th century. Very interesting essay.

Thomas Sizgorich provides an essay which is absolutely fascinating to me. In it he examines how early Islam likely looked on the Romans as kindred in their struggle as monotheistic believers against the polytheist Persians. Sizgorich provides Arab sources which describe sorrow at the initial Roman defeat, as they are a people of the book. However the Arabs believed that due to their monotheism, Rome would eventually triumph. (109-10) The early Islamic texts repeatedly show respect for the Romans and attribute the eventual Arab triumph to a combination of Roman arrogance and a lack of understanding regarding their place in the course of human events.

The essay by Jim Tschen Emmons explores an area which is both familiar and unfamiliar to me. He discusses the Irish “desert” in hagiography. I am fairly familiar with this literary convention however I am not well versed in Irish hagiography. Using the Life of Martin and the Life of Antony as well as the writings of John Cassian as background, Emmons examines the Vita Aidi to discuss the use of forests and swamps as deserts in Irish hagiography.

Daniel the Stylite’s Vita is examined fairly straightforwardly by Miriam Raub Vivian. She takes us through various aspects of this life and believes that it can reveal much about Late Antique Roman society. I found this essay to be interesting but I am concerned that Vivian goes too far in accepting aspects of the vita. I’ve argued myself that many aspects of society can be revealed through this type of literature however looking at this, for example, to present an accurate depiction of the relationship between a monk and Emperor Leo may take this too far.

Essay number eight presents some difficulties in evaluating as it consisted of two sections written by different authors. Frank J. Frost opens with a brief discussion of the portrayal of tigers and griffins in a Sicilian mosaic. I suspect art historians may find more in this however other than describing the images I found little of value. This contrasts to the second part of the essay regarding Choricius of Gaza by Roberta Mazza. Choricius is a figure worthy of study and I was fortunate to pick up Robert Penella’s book on him (including translations of his declamations) this year at Kalamazoo.1 Mazza uses Chrocius’ Oration 13 to briefly examine a variety of sixth century issues including the relationship between a peripheral Byzantine territory and the imperial court. An interesting aside is the discussion of the evolution of a Byzantine festival, the Brumalia.

Elizabeth DePalma Digeser provides an in-depth view of Origen by placing his Christian rhetoric within the framework of third century philosophical debate. She briefly summarizes the discussion of whether there were two Origens before concluding that there was likely only one. Following this she examines Origen and his role as a Christian philosopher. The most significant aspect of this is that Christianity appears to be another branch of philosophy prevalent in the third century. Disagreements rooted in divergent opinions of the fundamental natures of the deity between Christians and Platonists, while sometimes vehement, come across as rhetorical, philosophical arguments. However subsequent individuals such as Porphyry and Eusebius preferred to characterize Origen in terms of black and white, depending on their respective viewpoints; attitudes which point to an increasing polarization of society as the third century drew to a close.

It is always interesting to consider whether two complementary essays in a volume are included by choice or by chance. In any case, Heidi Marx-Wolf’s essay is an excellent companion piece to Digeser’s. Marx-Wolf looks at divergent opinions regarding blood sacrifice between Origen and pagans. I was struck again by how the Christian outlook appears to be one among several philosophical branches in existence at the time. For this period, discussions among these branches were conducted in a reasoned manner, as opposed to the hostility which would develop later.

I am going to cover the final essay by Paul Sonnino in a relatively cursory fashion. This essay analyzes arguments for whether Moses authored the Pentateuch and takes us from the fifth century BC to the 17th century AD. He discusses the various arguments and uses them to contrast ancient attitudes with those of early-moderns, to the point of characterizing the former as obtuse and the latter as perverse. (265) For me, his discussion of how the ancient Hebrews contributed to historical methodology and their adherence to law and emphasis on legal documents influencing us to this day was the most interesting aspect of the essay. (242) I will need to become more familiar with the extent to which their outlooks were adopted by Rome before assessing the validity of these statements.

This is a very good collection of essays and I expect that Professor Drake is pleased. Perhaps some of the authors have moved too far in the direction of peaceful coexistence in Late Antiquity however they all provide evidence for their assertions, such that their opinions will at least need to be considered in the future. While the essays by Frost and Vivian lack analytical depth, overall the quality was very good. The essays by Digeser and Marx-Wolf provide an excellent lens through which to view Christianity as a component of the vibrant philosophical debates of the third century. Thomas Sizgorich’s examination of Islamic opinions of Rome through an examination of Arab sources is something I would enjoy seeing more of. I would have appreciated a bit more of an effort to tie the entire volume together. The introduction was brief and largely consisted of a summary of the essays while the conclusion was even shorter. With these relatively minor caveats, I believe this book is a valuable contribution to Late Antique scholarship and I recommend it to those interested in the issues discussed in the essays.

1 Choricius, Rhetorical Exercises from Late Antiquity: A Translation of Choricius of Gaza’s Preliminary Talks and Declamations, Robert J. Penella, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2009). ISBN: 978-0-521-84873-2.
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Posted by on November 17, 2011 in Books, Religion


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Reading Plan: Early Christianity

For the past few weeks I’ve started feeling like I’m actually in charge of my life. From January through mid-October I thought my job was running things. For the past month I’ve been knocking off books like crazy, have had more time to post, and have really made progress on my “to-read” stack. I’ve pretty much finished my non-religious Late Antiquity books. I have two left; Steven Mitchell’s A History of the Later Roman Empire, AD 284-641 and James J. O’Donnell’s The Ruin of the Roman Empire. Mitchell’s book comes highly recommended, including by Jonathan Jarrett, whose opinion I respect very much. I’m less certain about O’Donnell. I picked up the hardcover for under $10 at a book store (the sticker says for $9.98) which makes me question its quality. But I’ll read it and see.

Following Kalamazoo I took stock of what was sitting on my shelves to be read. At the time I knew I was going to read LA but was uncertain if I’d follow up by reading the 20 or so books I have on the Carolingians or move to earlier religious history. I’ve decided it will be religion. I’m going to start with Alan Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome. There are several reasons for this. It’s the largest book on my to-read shelf (except possibly for Tyerman’s God’s War) and I had to work pretty hard at Kalamazoo to get it. Also, it promises to be both an overview and something of a revision. Nice way to jump in feet first, with something that, if it lives up to its billing, will either surprise me or that I’ll disagree with. From there I’ll move backwards, finishing with a review of the New Testament, particularly Paul. I’m not sure how much I’ll dive into doctrinal evolution as opposed to social impacts, Christian-Pagan conflicts, martyrology, monasticism, etc. Some doctrine is inevitable. To date I’ve not wanted to deeply explore this (reading Jaroslav Pelikan’s series about fried my brain 10 years or so ago) but I might feel different about it now.

I’ve always found it interesting how I read history. It’s probably not the recommended learning method but it works for me. I start with a time period I’m familiar with and then work backwards, trying to figure out how things evolved and developed to that point. When I go Carolingian (I have 37 on my LA/religion shelves and still haven’t received my recent Oxbow order so this may be a while) I’ll be doing the opposite; working from early to later. This will be interesting once I get there.

You may think that with 37 books I won’t be buying more until I finish what I have. Not so – if I run across a reference to something I think I need and it’s within my price range, I know I’ll buy more, and they won’t all be focusing on religion. I already know I need Libanius, Symmachus and the translation of the Panegyric Latini, among others. And I’m keeping an eye out for the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series. I have a promising lead on a set but likely won’t make that purchase until after the first of the year. And before anyone tells me, yes, I know these aren’t always the best translations available but they are in my price range and some aren’t available anywhere else.

So for the next few months expect more posts focusing on the evolution of religion; particularly Christianity, but I also have some books on early Islam. I’d guess it’ll be about a 50-50 split between the Roman West and East. Should be fun.


Posted by on November 14, 2011 in Books, Religion


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Coding Problems

Some of you may have noticed that the internal anchors on some posts are taking you to the wrong place. If you scroll down to, say, my Rutilius Namatianus post and click on the hyperlink for footnote 1, it takes you to the note in my most recent Medieval Medicine post. I just noticed this and the anchor/destination codes are correct. If this happens and it annoys you (I consider the notes important or I wouldn’t put them in), if you click on the post title and read it as a standalone, they seem to work the way they’re supposed to.

I don’t have time to work on this more right now because I have to go to work. Hopefully this will fix itself. If not, I’ll work on it more this evening. Anyway, I apologize and am aware of it.

EDIT: I’ve done this before – I’m going to need to save each post as a draft, then re-load it to the blog. Those of you receiving this blog through e-mail or RSS notifications might be told I’m making new posts. Again, I apologize. Hopefully these will stay in the correct order.

Second Edit: Tried that, didn’t work. Sorry folks but for the time being people will just have to scroll down to see the correct fn.

Third Edit: Fixed re my comment below. At least for the first page worth of posts – you click on “older posts” and beyond and I make no promises. I swear this hasn’t happened before – just like my UL tag issue with my latest book review.


Posted by on November 14, 2011 in Blogology, Books


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Early Medieval Law Codes and Medicine II

Warning! This Post Contains Graphic Content!!!

OK, to me the graphic content in this post isn’t as bad as in my first post on the topic, but it still has some so I thought I’d repeat the warning. I have a more serious purpose with this post than discussing a wound which would leave you unfit for anything other than the lead if Jethro Tull dusted off one of their songs to make a new music video.

In reading Lisi Oliver’s The Body Legal in Barbarian Law I was struck by her mention of several instances where a value is placed on injuries which at one time I would have considered to be pretty much an automatic death sentence before modern medicine, particularly without the availability of antibiotics to counter sepsis. Evidently, as a value which is less than a person’s full wergild is assigned to these injuries, people could sometimes recover from them. I thought I’d take a post to discuss this in a bit more detail.

Before I get started, for those of you less familiar with Germanic (sorry Goffart!) law codes, I want to give a very brief explanation of the concept of wergild. Every person in a given Germanic society is assigned a value. This value is usually equal to the amount a murderer would be required to pay the victim’s family to avoid possible repercussions, or from being “handed over” to the family. These are interesting in and of themselves as they help indicate how valuable that society considered members of a certain social class to be, as well as revealing what skills/abilities/characteristics were important. For example, in Frankish society a free woman of childbearing age had a wergild of 600, the same as that of a nobleman and three times that of a normal freeman, indicating the value of the ability to produce children. Penalties for lesser crimes are sometimes set at a percentage of wergild. For example, among the Alamanni, if someone is killed by a dog then the owner of the dog owes half the man’s wergild (though there is an interesting clause in this case requiring the dog to be hung over its owner’s door until it rots away and the owner must enter and leave his home only through that door until decomposition is complete). However sometimes the price for these penalties is a flat value. Returning to the Alamanni, if someone causes a woman to abort, he or she owes 12 solidi if the child is male, 24 if it is female. 1

This type of system has often been characterized as primitive. To me the civil court system, at least in the US, functions very similarly. In an early medieval case an assessment was made of a person’s value, how much the injury or death was worth and a punitive penalty was sometimes assigned. Items such as potential earning ability, impacts on quality of life, cost of medical care, etc., were factored in. The conflict may have been settled out of court by agreement of the two parties but if they chose the judicial route there were fairly strict criteria for selecting a judge and witness testimony was highly valued. I don’t see a lot of difference between these medieval cases and a modern lawsuit (once you accept the lack of scientific evidence available back then).

I had always been of the opinion that certain injuries from those days would have been pretty much a death sentence. After all, while they had some pretty solid herbal remedies, they didn’t have antibiotics and while they had knowledge of the general concept that clean was better than dirty for injuries, they had no concept of germs. It’s apparent that simple injuries, amputations, or even abdominal wounds which didn’t damage internal organs could be recovered from. The assignment of penalties to these wounds, at rates below full wergild, indicates that survival could be expected.

There are certain wounds I would have considered extremely serious but sometimes survivable. Among these would have been non-penetrating trauma which caused serious internal injuries and wounds which penetrated the peritoneum but did not damage internal organs. Interestingly, the former receives almost no mention in the law codes. There’s nothing pointing to, say, coughing blood because a rib punctures a lung, urinating blood because kidneys are damaged (this is particularly surprising to me because of how common it should have been) or excreting blood due to lower GI injuries. Apparently, if there weren’t visible, external signs of injury, it didn’t matter. Wounds to the abdomen do receive mention in many of the codes. The Franks have some provisions discussing if the wound doesn’t heal but continuously seeps. 2

There are some wounds mentioned by the law codes which I would have expected survival from to be extremely rare, nearly nonexistent. Two of these involve the abdomen. In one, the abdomen is cut so the internal organs spill out and must be replaced. Now folks back then had a pretty decent knowledge of anatomy and they would certainly have known to clean things up before stuffing everything back in but I would still expect this sort of injury to introduce foreign matter into the body cavity, something I understand to be pretty much a death sentence. A related wound is one to the abdomen which also damages the intestines so that excrement comes out. Again, this is contamination with foreign matter, in this case material which is loaded with bacteria. A medieval surgeon would have had the choice of sewing up the intestines with stitches which couldn’t be removed or tucking the excrement-leaking intestines back in. I probably need to read Galen or Hippocrates but I can’t imagine they’d leave the body open while the intestines healed and wait until then to close the wound. These two types of wounds are such that I would have expected near certain death, however values at less than full wergild were assessed for them, so evidently they were survivable at least some of the time. 3

The other wound category involves those to the head. And not just a head wound but those which expose the brain. Again, there are two categories. In one the brain is simply exposed. I can see how this might be survived though I’d expect this to be rare. The other involves a head injury such that the brain protrudes out of the skull. This is another I’d expect to be almost always fatal, but it is dealt with in the law codes so evidently the medievals had ways of treating it. In fact, in the Alamannic code this is portrayed as relatively common, “If, however, the brain protrudes from the wound, as often happens, so that a physician mends (the skull) with medication or silk and afterwards (the patient) recovers, and this is proved to be true, let him (the giver of the blow) compensate with forty solidi.” 4

Clearly I’m underestimating either; the ability of the body to fight off infection caused by exposure to or introduction of foreign materials or; the ability of medievals to treat such injuries. Or both. I don’t have a ton of medieval medical manuals and this isn’t something I’ve read a lot on. Thanks to Stephen Pollington(2008) I do have a few Anglo-Saxon sources. Bald’s Leechbook includes a treatment for wounds of the head where the bones are broken. The Leechbook also contains instructions for “… if one’s bowels be out …” but I suspect this refers to a prolapse. Examples of trepanation known through archaeological finds are fairly numerous so they were willing to drill holes in someone’s head if necessary. 5

Herbal remedies were also available. The Old English Herbarium suggests that, “If a man’s head be broken …” the patient should drink a concoction made of bishopswort and hot beer. Drink enough of it and I bet you would feel better. 6

This is something I need to read more on and it appears that early medieval medicine is more sophisticated than I have given it credit for. I suspect a reading of Galen and Hippocrates would be useful. I’m not sure how available these would have been to early medieval doctors however Galen’s Therapeutics to Glaucon, Hippocrates Aphorisms and a text, The Wisdom of the Art of Medicine were, among others, in circulation. I also want to get a copy of the Frisian laws. According to Oliver, they were very concerned with specifics of anatomy.

Once again, even after all the reading I’ve done, I’ve come across something which surprised me. This is really cool, happens fairly often, and if it ever stops happening I have a feeling I’ll have to find a new hobby. Of course it also leaves me with the sense of how much I don’t know but that’s OK too.

The following abbreviations will be used to identify law codes in the notes:

PLA – Pactus Legis Alamannorum
LLA – Alamannic Laws from the Lantfridana Manuscripts
BL – Bavarian Laws (from the Ingolstadt Manuscript)
PLS – Pactus Legis Salicae (Salic Law)
LSK – Lex Salica Karolina (Charlemagne’s update to the Salic Law)

1 For being killed by a dog, see LLA, XCVI.3. For abortion, LLA, LXXXVIII.1. I should also mention that when an offender was handed over to the victim’s family, general opinion is that this would usually be to serve the family as a slave until it is judged that the debt is paid, not to be killed. See Oliver(2011) pp 49-51 for a discussion of this. One of the main points of the wergild system was to reduce violence by providing non-violent means of compensation. I doubt they would have legalized turning someone over to be tortured and/or killed which would only serve to continue the violence/retribution cycle.

2 Oliver (2011), p 59 in discussing a poisoning case, “The resulting harm, in any case, would have damaged the internal organs which (except in Frisia) were not protected by law.” For non-healing abdominal wounds see PLS, XVII.7, LSK, XV.6.

3 Oliver (2011), p 129, “Frisia includes a fine for causing the intestines to spill out such that they have to be replaced.” The Alamans, LLA, LVII.57, include a fine for, “If, however, he mutilates the intestines so that the excrement comes out, let him compensate with forty solidi.”

4 LLA, LVII.7. The Alamans, LLA, LVII.6 also include compensation of 12 solidi where, “… the brain appears and a physician can touch it with a feather or a cloth …”. This is the most specific account but the Bavarians, Frisians and Franks all include compensation for injuries in which the brain is exposed. In addition to those quoted see Oliver(2011), p 86 referencing the Frisians and; BL, IV.6, V.5 and VI.5; PLS, XVII.4 and XVII.5; LSK, XV.4; PLA, I.1. Another interesting aspect to head injuries which I’m not going to cover here is that of compensation being established by determining if a piece of bone broken off was large enough to hear it strike a shield when you threw it.

5 Bald’s Leechbook, III.33 for the head and III.73 for bowels.

6 Old English Herbarium, 1.Bishopwort/Betonica.

Drew, Katherine Fischer, trans., The Laws of the Salian Franks. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (1991). ISBN: 978-0-8122-1322-5.

Oliver, Lisi, The Body Legal in Barbarian Law. Toronto: University of Toronto Press (2011). ISBN: 978-0-8020-9706-4.

Pollington, Stephen, Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant Lore, and Healing. Hereward: Anglo-Saxon Books (2008). ISBN: 978-1-898281-47-4.

Rivers, Theodore John, trans., Laws of the Alamans and Bavarians. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (1977). ISBN: 0-8122-7731-7.

Wallis, Faith, ed., Medieval Medicine: A Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press (2010). ISBN: 978-1-4426-0103-1.


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Early Medieval Law Codes and Medicine I

WARNING: This Post Contains Graphic Content!!!

Now that I’ve helped increase site traffic sufficiently warned everybody, I should clarify that this doesn’t contain any nudity but there may be some items which have a certain yuck factor.

NOTE: I originally intended this to be a single post but after the length of my tangential digression I decided to split it into two parts. The second part will discuss some of my thoughts on the kinds of injuries which folks in Late Antiquity might have a reasonable prospect of surviving, some of which I would once have considered to be pretty much a death sentence. Click here for Part II.

I finished reading Lisi Oliver’s The Body Legal in Barbarian Law a week or so ago. She uses evidence from the various laws/law codes of Roman successor kingdoms to evaluate, based on the value placed on injury to various parts of the body, what the barbarians (I’ll use her terminology here) reveal regarding the importance of the physical form. For example, she takes some time to discuss what parts of the body are most important functionally vs which are most important aesthetically. By looking at whether a law assigns greater value to damage to a functionally or aesthetically important body part she can look at what’s more important to one of the barbarian groups and does this vary with social status. For example, is an aesthetic body part valued more highly for an elite female as opposed to a slave male. This is an interesting book and if the subject intrigues you, I encourage you to take a look at it.

But this is not a review of this book. As I was reading her account she discusses some injuries which, 15 years ago, I would have thought would have been an automatic death sentence before the advent of modern drugs to counter sepsis, particularly antibiotics. She also mentioned one injury which absolutely freaks me out.

I’m going to open with my gross-out tangent which really isn’t relevant to the second part of this post as the injury is neither life-threatening or fixable (back then anyway). I’m going to begin with an anecdote. In Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four one of the most important scenes – perhaps the most important – occurs towards the end of the account of Winston’s being broken by O’Brien. Winston’s had the dog beaten out of him – he’s been starved, beaten, tortured, but there’s still a piece of him, at his core, that remains intact. Leading up to this there have been occasional references to a specific room which the other prisoners say is “the worst place in the world” (I’m paraphrasing – the book’s here somewhere but I haven’t found it). So O’Brien takes Winston in there. Winston defiantly tells O’Brien that despite everything that’s been done to him, he hasn’t betrayed Julia, his lover. We’ve previously had hints (though I hadn’t made the connection to this point) that Winston is very frightened of rats. O’Brien pulls out some sort of cage device which holds some huge, starving, ravenous rats. He places it on Winston’s head and describes how, once released, the rats will go for his eyes and burrow through his cheeks to get at his tongue. As O’Brien’s about to release the catch and Winston can hear the rats scrambling around trying to get at him, Winston screams, “Do it to Julia! Tear her face off! Eat her eyes!” or something like that. The final breaking of Winston.

In thinking about this when I read it the first time (I was in my teens) I was pretty sure that the worst place in the world for me would have been being fitted with a similar helmet, but one filled with yellowjackets. Any social bee or wasp would have done but the yellowjackets would have been the worst. When I was 9 I stepped in a ground nest, got stung a bunch of times and had to be taken to the hospital. Ever since then I’ve had a pretty strong fear of bees. At one time I considered it overwhelming. I’m better now – if I see the bees/wasps I can deal with them rationally. I know what sets them off and how to behave. And I’ve been stung since and it’s not that bad. But if a sudden buzzing happens in my ear, I still have a moment of panic.

Lisi Oliver has given me a new, not place but worst thing in the world, at least for a little while. In discussing wounds to the nose she writes of Ripuarian and Alamannic laws that, “If, however, a sufficient amount has been struck off so that mucus dribbles from the stump; a fine equal to the full penalty for eye or ear is required. This legislation addresses the physical task of the nose to contain mucus.” 1

OK, I’d never once considered a wound which would expose the sinuses to such an extent that snot would be constantly running down your face. This first passage of hers was bad enough but she becomes a bit more explicit later.

In Ripuarian law, a damaged nose that can still contain mucus must be compensated for with fifty solidi, but if the stump cannot hold mucus (mucare non possit), the penalty is doubled to 100 solidi – 50 per cent of a freeman’s wergild. Certainly these rulings consider the greater degree of injury to the dribbling stump; however, it seems at least possible that in setting the assessment for the perpetual drip, the Ripuarian legislators may also have taken into account the visual embarrassment. If this hypothesis is true, the punitive surcharge would not seem to have been assessed in Alamann law, in which restitution for slicing off a sufficient portion of the nose so that mucus flows freely is a mere twelve solidi, or 6 per cent of wergild.2

That one did it for me. I’ve often found humor in folks who express a desire to have lived even a couple of hundred, let alone a thousand or more years ago. I suspect what they would (in the vast majority of cases anyway) like is to visit and then come back home. I like camping for a few days at a time but this does not mean I want to live my entire life without electricity or flush toilets. For me, the new worst thing in the world would be to have my nose sliced off so that mucus would constantly be running down my face because my sinus cavities would be exposed to that degree, and in a world without the prospect of cosmetic surgery to fix it. I suspect that this is a temporary condition and that with time my phobia will return to stinging wasps, however this was a powerful enough visual image for me that I felt it my duty to share it with anyone who reads this blog.

Feel free to thank me. ;)

1 Oliver (2011), p 93.

2 Oliver (2011), p 168.

Oliver, Lisi, The Body Legal in Barbarian Law. Toronto: University of Toronto Press (2011). ISBN: 978-0-8020-9706-4.

Orwell, George, Nineteen Eighty-Four, originally published in 1949. There are various editions out there including inexpensive paperbacks. If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to.


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