Monthly Archives: December 2011

Those Embarrassing Amateur Moments

I’m going to file this in my Amateur Tips page.

I was going through my book review page and updating the links so the destinations would be on WordPress and not Blogger. I came across a couple of embarrassing errors on my part and decided this would be worth posting about to, hopefully, help other non-professionals. This post is applicable for fields other than history.

As an amateur there are a ton of things I don’t know. For the most part, I think I know I don’t know stuff, but sometimes I forget about my lack of knowledge and in a few cases this lack of knowledge makes me feel like an absolute idiot.

The motivation for this is Gillian Clark. A couple of months ago I posted some comments on Hagith Sivan’s Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress. During that discussion I referred to Dr. Sivan as male and a commenter kindly told me that Dr. Sivan is female. As I was updating my book review links my Romans, Barbarians and the Transformation of the Roman World review included a discussion of an essay by Gillian Clark where I again mistakenly referred to Dr. Clark as male. Uh-oh. I probably shouldn’t admit this because I never used a personal pronoun for this review but I did a web search and discovered that Beate Dignas is also a woman.

Pretty embarrassing, right? I’m going to need to read through all my reviews and make sure I haven’t made this mistake elsewhere.

This is not the only embarrassing thing I’ve ever done related to history. Now I don’t get embarrassed about just not knowing stuff, usually. However there are specific examples which are a bit more glaring than others:

Personal Names of Professionals: Sometimes I don’t know how to pronounce them. I get to exactly one medieval conference each year. I am not involved in medieval history department meetings, conference calls about history projects, discussions about organizing programs or conferences or, beyond this blog, much of any medieval history discussion. I do not know how to pronounce people’s names. I can’t recall this being a problem too often but it has happened. Just from a quick scan of my book reviews, I do not know, for sure, how to pronounce the last names of Roger Bagnall, Stephen Pollington or Bernadette Filotas. I have a pronunciation in my brain which I would use if forced, but I do not know if it’s correct. A side bit of advice; when introducing speakers or a panel at a conference always ask them how to pronounce their names. I continue to be astonished how often this doesn’t happen.

Pronunciation of Contemporary Historical Figures: Several years ago at Kalamazoo I attended several sessions which prominently featured Augustine of Hippo. To that point I knew (see, there was no question of this – I knew it) that his name was pronounced “aw-gus-TEEN”, with the third syllable emphasized. Imagine my surprise when speaker after speaker pronounced it “aw-GUS-tin.” (Sorry – I’m using caps rather than accents as would be proper). Now Augustine’s sort of an important person in history, right? And I didn’t know how to pronounce his name. I will note that one speaker did use my prior pronunciation so apparently this isn’t quite a slam dunk but the majority of folks used the second.

Pronunciation of Terms: Every now and then a term will come up, generally one used in a specific historical context, where I’ll find out I’ve been pronouncing it incorrectly. Sometimes it will be a Latin term, sometimes just common usage. A nice example (two actually) is that for both Merovingian and Carolingian I was using a hard g, similar to how you’d pronounce “linguist,” rather than a soft g as in “fringe.” I spent my first Kalamazoo, for the most part, pronouncing this incorrectly. Nobody laughed at or made fun of me or, to the best of my knowledge, decided not to talk to me because of it. Though again, I’m not sure this pronunciation is quite a slam dunk.

What’s my advice for other amateurs about this?


While you may suffer momentary embarrassment, most professionals a) won’t remember it ten minutes later and b) won’t make a big deal about it. The fact that you may not know something should not keep you from talking to people about this stuff.

There are a few historians who I suspect would make a big deal about it. A couple of years ago at Kalamazoo I was perusing some books (shocking, I know) and a well known Early Medieval Historian (EMH) and a colleague were near me. The colleague picked up a book and asked, “What about this?” The EMH responded dismissively, “That’s just some popular thing.”

I’ve run across this person before so it wasn’t just this overheard conversation but I know this individual does everything for his career based as if his entire professional existence is contained within his select field. He does not think educating the public at large is important and the only people whose opinion he cares about are other professional historians.

Peer review, respect, interaction, etc. is important in any field, academic or not. However any academic has a responsibility to the world at large. Or at least I hope we do – otherwise what the heck are we doing this for? Particularly if we’re getting paid and this is even more important if we’re at a publicly funded institution.

This individual might not be particularly forgiving over a slip-up. My guess is he’d think my blog is complete garbage. My advice is that if you run across someone with this mindset, don’t worry about it. At all.

In essence, if you go to a conference or have an opportunity to interact with a professional in some other way, don’t let this potentially embarrassing stuff limit you. It’s not a big deal, and the people whose opinions matter, by and large, won’t think it’s that important. There is a limit to this – being ignorant and trying to come across as knowledgeable will, rightfully, irritate people. And they’ll figure it out in a hurry. I think it’s important for non-professionals to understand how much time and effort a professional has put into his or her career. We’re talking, likely, over ten years of higher education, publishing a dissertation and all of the work that goes into remaining current in a field which changes fairly rapidly. That’s a big difference from myself, who’s interested in history and spends a fair amount of his spare time learning about it. History is important to me but it is far more important (I suspect) to someone whose career is based on it.

My preference is to be upfront to avoid misunderstandings. At Kalamazoo, whenever anyone asks me what my field is, I reply, “I’m very likely the least intelligent person here. I’m a complete amateur and this is what I do on vacation.” Feel free to use it. Some day I really want to answer, “Agronomy, Farm Management and Agrosecurity,” just to see what comes from that.

As an example of how I believe most professionals view the less knowledgeable, let me offer this as an example. I was at a National No-Till Farming Conference a few years ago and was seated next to a young lady who I later found out was a first-time attendee and was working one of the vendor booths. She didn’t know a lot but wanted to learn more, simply from the standpoint of being better able to communicate with people at future conferences. I ended up walking her through several basic concepts during the week. One in particular which I recall was related to no-till drills. She did not need to know specific settings for depth gauges, the types of press wheels to use in specific situations or whether to have wavy, fluted or smooth coulters (this all varies depending on manufacturer anyway). However she did need to know that you would set up and equip your no-till drill differently if you were planting in April in Minnesota on Clay soils vs in June in Tennessee on a sandy loam and, in general terms, why. I know I was able to help her out and it helped me out too.

In my experience most historians are no different. Keep in mind sometimes they’re busy, they may be in the middle of working on a project, at a conference they’ll attend a bookseller’s reception in hopes of getting published, not for free wine, etc. But they also have better things to do than worry about an embarrassing slip-up. Be up front about your inexperience, relax, and interact. I don’t know of a better way to learn.

NOTE: I posted an addendum to this in February, 2014 which you might find useful, or at least entertaining if you click on one of the links.


Posted by on December 31, 2011 in Amateur Tips


Migration Update III

This will be less an update than a couple of questions I hope people can help me with. I’ve just posted my final Blogger message detailing my move to WordPress. I’m locked into this and think it will be a positive for my blog but there’s still a learning curve.

Now for the questions:

1) Some of you are pretty familiar with my blog. Do you have suggestions for themes which will work well for what I do?

2) At this point I need to manually approve any comments – at least when someone comments the first time. Is this the standard WP format or is there a way to edit it? I don’t know if I will edit it – I just want to know if I can.

3) In Blogger I always manually deleted spam. I haven’t received so many comments that I couldn’t pick out a message from a user named getviagranow and delete it. WP seems to have this akismet which does this automatically. Should I use that? Has it ever identified legit comments as spam?

I’ll note that one piece of web design where I prefer blogger is that when you click on an archive for older posts, initially it provides a drop-down with post titles where with WP you have to load the entire month’s worth of posts. Minor thing but I figured I’d mention it. I also need to work on my tags vs categories. Tags are loaded already. Ten-fifteen categories, if I can group them that tightly, should work nicely.

Thank you to those of you who have already helped. Expect a return to posts with some actual historical content this weekend.


Posted by on December 30, 2011 in Blogology



Migration Update II

I’m suffering from trying to decide which side of the fence is greener – WP or Blogger.

One of the features of Blogger is Gadgets. With Blogger you select a theme and then add any gadget you want from their selection. This includes RSS and e-mail feeds, reading on mobile devices, text boxes to include anything you want, lists of anything you want, etc. Any gadget can be added to any theme.

With WP you select a theme which has these items (or some of them) already. If they aren’t already embedded in the theme, you can’t add them in (that I can see anyway – there is a very limited selection of widgets).

This is discouraging. Not necessarily fatal and I may be able to go get code and embed it myself. Somewhere. I need to really investigate the themes though to see what they do and don’t have.


Posted by on December 28, 2011 in Blogology



Migration Update 1

OK – the post title is NOT meant to fire Guy Halsall up or anything (run away, run away!) ;) I’ve decided to throw in some short notes as I go through the process of moving my blog from Blogger to WordPress. The main reason is that as I prepared to move I didn’t come across a lot of advice on how to do this, pitfalls, etc. Not that I expect to end up as a font of wisdom, an old man sitting with a bird on his head, a Sybilline Oracle(such would require a sex-change operation), or even the blog equivalent of the Mirror of Galadriel. However someone looking at doing something similar down the road may find some pieces of this useful. I intend (once I figure out how) to include this under the category “Blogology” with a tag/label of “WordPress Migration.”

Let me open with a review of why I decided to move – I’ll not be linking to the posts where these issues have come up. Trust me, they all have at one time or another.

1) Comments. There have been various times where commenting on my blog has been a problem and people have either given up or had to resort to creativity, commenting anonymously, etc. even to comment. I LOVE comments, even when people tell me I’ve messed something up, so long as they’re polite about it. This has been a huge issue for me when it’s come up.

2) Html formatting. I manually write in my own html code. For whatever reason, blogger has some issues with various codes. Use of lists has tended to mess everything up below the list, and I haven’t even been able to do a numbered list. Blockquotes are a nice way of setting off sections of text, particularly large quotes. This has been a mess as well. I’m hoping these work better in WP. And maybe I’ll be able to use tables?

3) Miscellaneous bugs/glitches. For as long as Blogger’s been around, I keep running into little bugs. The latest was a bunch of my “follow list” not showing up. WP has a follow feature (I’m not positive how it works just yet – I think it’s via e-mail which is fine if it’s in digest form) which I hope works better.

4) Preview Function. In Blogger, there is an option to preview your blog so you can view it as it will appear. Again, this screws up html – not the very simple things such as bold, italics or a link but anything above this level such as lists gets completely messed up. I like seeing how my blog (or anything I write) will appear before I publish it. With Blogger what I end up having to do is publish it, then look at the post, as published and keep returning to the composing page to make edits. Not very efficient.

This is not to say that Blogger is garbage or anything. It’s relatively simple to use, I’ve never had a post lost in the ether which is a BIG plus, and I can’t recall it ever having spontaneously edited anything I’ve put up(beyond the html issues).

When I finally decided to move, it was the culmination of something I’d been considering for a while. In addition to the above negatives against Blogger, WP blog authors have been pretty unanimous about how good their platform is. According to them there are many more options and these sort of bugs don’t show up.

However I did – and continue to – have some concerns, as follows:

1) Audience. Number one is I have some loyal regular readers receiving the blog through various formats – straight reading, RSS, e-mail subscriptions, etc. Moving the blog means all of those folks, in order to keep reading, will have to change their settings. Folks, I apologize. I know it’s a pain but I very much hope you’ll keep reading.

2) Blog recognition. For some reason, my blog has received some recognition as being pretty good via various sources on the web. Here is one example. From this point on, people clicking these links will come to a dead blog – or at least a page saying, this blog has moved to “this URL.” I get some traffic from these sources and hate to give it up.

3) Searchability. Blogger happens to be run by this outfit called Google. Which happens to run a search engine. Does having a blog on Blogger increase your chances of it coming up on a web search? I do not know for sure but it may.

4) Links. I’m hoping to find a tool which will save me from having to do this but any link within a post which points to another of my posts will be wrong once I delete the old blog. I have to go in and manually change those links. I won’t be doing that with every one of the 150 or so posts I have up but I intend to review my stats and do this for any post which has received a certain amount of pageviews at some point after I posted it (maybe after it’s been up a week?). I don’t yet know how many this will be but it will be tedious.

As time has gone on the reasons for staying with Blogger have increased with every post. If I’m going to move this thing, I need to move it ASAP. Waiting will just make each of these issues larger.

So far the migration has been fairly simple. Importing all my posts from Blogger was simply a matter of importing them. I was not able to import my blogroll and don’t expect to be able to import my links. In fact, at this point I need to figure out how to add items I like such as these links, my current reading list, and so on. I’ll also have to manually add in individual pages, such as my Kalamazoo or Book Review pages. Copy/Paste will do some of this but I’ll have to manually edit the ones which are a pile of links.

So the migration continues. Over the next few days expect the appearance to change several times while I figure WP out. I’ll be working through posts to fix the internal links and start building pages. I also need to figure Categories out. I have until Jan 3 where I’ll have a lot of time to do this. It’s still not terribly comfortable sitting at my desk for extended periods but it is improving.

Again, if any WP bloggers, in particular fellow migratees, have any words of advice. PLEASE let me know.


Posted by on December 27, 2011 in Blogology



Welcome to my WordPress Blog

Welcome to the WordPress version of my blog, “Medieval History Geek.”

Over the next few days I will be working on updating the site content, settings, appearance, and becoming familiar with WordPress itself. If you are an experienced blogger and have any comments or suggestions, please include those in a reply to this message.

I can already see that there will be two types of initial edits; those I consider essential and those which are in the “I’ll get to them when I have the chance” category. For example, I need to put up my blogroll fairly soon. However WordPress imported all my Blogger labels as categories, not tags – that’s gonna take a lot longer and I may not get to it for a while.

Leave a comment

Posted by on December 26, 2011 in Blogology


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Cool Stuff on Other Blogs V and Miscellaneous Thoughts

I’m in the situation of wanting to blog but not being comfortable in my office chair for extended periods (though I’m getting there). I’m starting to work on a couple of long-ish posts but for the moment I’m going to substitute by offering a collection of what others bloggers have said over the past month or so.

I’m going to open with a few not-quite-random thoughts. Before I get to those, let me offer a quick “out” if you want to skip this section.

Take me to the collection of posts

Today’s a big day for me. My recovery from hip replacement surgery (HRS) has gone far better than I ever could have anticipated. I’m pretty much going wherever I want on crutches and can stand in place without them, easily. The only reason I can think of for this is that my HRS followed an injury, not a progressive arthritis condition so my leg has not been weakened over a period of years. Today happens to be a landmark – First Shower Since Surgery! Oh frabjous day!

One of the useful features of Blogger is following. Following allows me to select blogs I’m interested in so that whenever I log in I receive a link and the first few words of new posts from my follow list. I can select a specific blog and receive a chronology of recent posts in this summary form. About a month ago I mentioned several new blogs I’d found. Several of them have had recent posts which definitely qualify as Cool Stuff. This morning, when I started putting this post together, I realized that while these blogs are on my blogroll they are not on this “Blogs I Follow” feature. OK – I’d entered them before but Blogger had a glitch so I re-entered the six missing blogs. All looked fine until I returned to the login page (called Dashboard) and they had been re-deleted.

That’s it. The proverbial camel is in intensive care filling out disability forms and getting fitted for a wheelchair. This blog will be migrating to WordPress after January 1. I have the time over the next couple of weeks to (hopefully) do this right. Over the next couple of days expect a followup post with more details about this which will include some requests re anything to pay attention to from others who have made this move and WP Bloggers. Sorry Blogger – enough is enough.

These posts are listed mostly in alphabetical order, by blog title (with one exception). Also, while several of these have more than one worthy post, I’m only putting up one per blog – sorry folks!

Jonathan Jarrett always has good info on his blog but he also frequently throws in fun content. His Christmas Gift Formulary is flat out awesome! Someone out there in the reenactement world needs to be contacting Dr. Jarrett for permission to use this in their activities. I think I have a new poster child for what I’m talking about when I say “other blogs have cool stuff.”

Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives has an interesting post which nicely illustrates the hazards of jumping to quick conclusions regarding the “meaning” of material remains. In this post the case in question concerns whether a mummified cat discovered walled into a house meant this was the domicile of a witch.

I bet 5th Century Romans and the Gallo-Roman Aristocracy would have loved to have been able to call Attila an alien. Bones Don’t Lie has a nice post detailing some of the finds of cranial deformation and how these are, even today, sometimes interpreted as extraterrestrial remains. The Huns are not specifically mentioned however this gives an idea of how widespread this practice was, and some links within it show how it continues today.

From the Garden into the City has a post on Justinian’s wife, the Empress Theodora. There are several interesting messages in this post. One is to read Procopius carefully. Much of his material contains veiled insults directed toward the Imperial Couple. Justinian marrying Theodora always makes me think of the modern advice to not fall in love with a stripper.

Michelle Ziegler at Heavenfield has a post discussing Paul the Deacon’s account of the devastation of the 6th century Italian Countryside following the plague. Quite the apocalyptic vision there and, as Michelle says, it found its use well before books and movies began appearing during the past century discussing Humanity’s capacity to end itself.

There have been several Leeds reports recently which I’ve been following however of them all, I’m only going to include one here. Magistra et Mater opens this post with a summary of a presentation by Walter Pohl related to ethnogenesis. This is a nice subsection of this topic, one in which the tone of conversation has often left me feeling as if trying to really learn about this just isn’t worth what you have to wade through. I’m paid to have to deal with that kind of invective in my real job; I’m not going to spend time on it in my hobby.

I am continually amazed at the contributions of Roger Pearse. Very recently he provided an annotated edition of Galen’s mentions of Christianity and Judaism. You can find the content through this blog post of his. I couldn’t begin to summarize everything Roger has done (I doubt I’m aware of half of it) but if you ever want to begin finding out, start at

Though a bit later than my usual focus, The Lost Fort has an interesting post on The Hansa League. This network has some intriguing Early Medieval precursors and is another example of how exchange networks worked during the Middle Ages. As usual, Gabriele has supplemented her post with some great pictures.

Over at Historian on the Edge, Guy Halsall recently put up a series of posts (more correctly, one article split into four posts) titled, “The Genesis of the Frankish Aristocracy.” I’m not going to comment on the quality because, quite simply, I haven’t read this yet. I have it printed off and once my leg’s a bit more up to par I intend to go through it, check it against what sources I have, and see what I think (and am left wanting to learn more about). I anticipate that, knowing the general quality of Dr. Halsall’s work, these will be quite good and useful and I have no qualms about offering the links here though I can’t quite give it a recommendation yet. The links are below:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Merry Christmas Everyone!


Posted by on December 24, 2011 in Blogology, Other Blogs


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A Different Sort of Christmas Present

I’ve mentioned before how, after not receiving something I really want for Christmas I typically go splurge on something for myself.

This year’s “present for me” takes this to a whole new level and is something I think I can only really capture through song.

With apologies to Don Gardner.

Every body pauses and stares at me
My walk is a lurch as you can see
I don’t know just who to blame for this catastrophe!
But my one wish on Christmas Eve is as plain as it can be!

All I want for Christmas
is my new left hip,
my new left hip,
see my new left hip!

Gee, if I could only
have my new left hip,
then I could wish you
“Merry Christmas.”

It seems so long since I could climb,
Teotihuacan pyramids!
Gosh oh gee, how happy I’d be,
if I could only saunter

All I want for Christmas
is my new left hip,
my new left hip,
see my new left hip.

Gee, if I could only
have my new left hip,
then I could wish you
“Merry Christmas!”

My office chair is not yet terribly comfortable so posts will have to wait for a bit. I suppose I could move my laptop elsewhere and type something up but at the moment the process of unhooking and hooking up the cables, crawling under the desk to unplug stuff, etc., seems a bit daunting.


Posted by on December 21, 2011 in Not Really Medieval


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My Particular Form of Age Discrimination

I’m writing this on the morning of December 17. If I have any clue as to how to time-delay posts, by the time you read this I’ll be on a hospital table getting my first new body part (prepping my life for this has reduced my time to post or comment the past few days). I’ve thought of bringing my laptop to the hospital and have about decided not to. Anyway, for the next couple of weeks one of three things may happen; I may be bored once I get home and send out buckets of posts; I may send out buckets of posts but be so narc’d on painkillers that once I sober up I’ll read what I wrote in my drug-induced state and delete them in horror or; I won’t be posting much of anything for several weeks. Much of this will depend on how comfortable I am sitting in my home office chair. Though I have an air card, wireless keyboard, wireless mouse and the thought of hooking my laptop up to my big-screen TV so I have full computer access from my recliner has crossed my mind (to this point I’ve rejected that option – I think it would qualify me as the laziest man in the world).

Anyway, I’m about a hundred pages from finishing Alan Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome. I’m hoping to put up a review if I’m sober enough and wanted to get something off my chest before I put it together.

I have a tendency to purchase, almost exclusively, newer books on history. At this point in time my wishlist numbers 881 books. I have various criteria I use when I’m considering what to buy (my to-read list of books on my shelves is 159 so whether I need more books is another topic for discussion). Among those is how recently it was published. At this point, if a book, other than a primary/contemporary source, was published prior to 2000 it’s highly unlikely that I’ll end up buying it (new – used is another story). I want the most recent information. I’ve mentioned before how this has resulted in my neglecting to buy books which I’ve found to be extremely valuable. It has also occasionally resulted in a situation I’ll use Cameron to illustrate.

Much of Cameron is concerned with debunking what he considers to be an inaccurate depiction of pagan revivals; periods after 382 where pagans organized some sort of concerted resistance to Christianity. I’ll discuss the specifics (hopefully) in more detail in the review.

The problem is that I’ve never read anything which has argued for this sort of revival. Now I haven’t read a ton of secondary stuff covering the early part of this time period (for Cameron this mostly covers from Gratian’s removal of the Altar of Victory from the Senate House in 382 to Macrobius’ Saturnalia written around 430) but I have read some. And I’ve read several sources from the period (in translation) such as Prudentius, Ausonius, and Claudian. I don’t recall them as being overly concerned with a Pagan revival. In fact, without checking my notes, the foremost impression Prudentius’ Contra Symmachus has left me with is the level of respect the author shows for Symmachus, though he disagrees with Pagan beliefs.

Based on what Cameron footnotes, it appears that this type of thinking was more prevalent among historians in the 1990’s and earlier. If it has been at the forefront of more recent books, it hasn’t been in what I’ve read. This may change as I read more deeply into the period but when I began reading Cameron and found out what he intended to argue, or counter-argue to be more precise, my initial response was, “Huh?”. I simply had not read anything arguing for a pagan revival during the 50 years after Gratian removed the Altar of Victory (and removed public support for Pagan rituals).

This has occasionally happened before. The main reason I decided to post on it is that I don’t want to talk about it in any detail later as I think it will detract from my review, but I know I’ll have the urge to say something. This has now been said and is not something I need to cover in depth later.

I’ll catch you folks on the other side after I gain the ability to set off airport metal detectors (and walk rather than lurch).


Posted by on December 19, 2011 in Blogology, Books, Religion


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How Much do You Know About Vikings?

David Beard posted a link to a Viking quiz on his Archaeology in Europe Blog. It’s pretty tough. I’m too embarrassed to say exactly how I did but let’s just say I didn’t pass. In my defense, I took it closed book. I have quite a few books on Medieval Scandinavia and the Vikings which I intend to read when I start on the Carolingians (likely several months from now). Hopefully once I do that I’ll score a bit better.

Here’s the link to the quiz


Posted by on December 9, 2011 in Humor and Games


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The Problem With Paganism

Actually, there is no problem with paganism itself, I’m becoming concerned with the term, in particular the “ism” part.

A long while back, when I was first getting started on this Medieval History thing, I read Susan Reynolds’ Fiefs and Vassals. This was very much a revision of what was often called feudalism or the feudal system. To contract a book of over 500 pages into a couple of sentences, she argued that there was no such thing as a feudal system, or feudalism. Land tenure arrangements varied widely from place to place and over time, making use of terminology such as “system or “ism” flawed. Good book and if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. Or at least read Elizabeth Brown’s 1974 American Historical Review article. I consider Reynolds one of the most influential Medieval History books I’ve read.

I’m just getting started on reading on Early Christianity but before I even get going on this, it seems to me that the term “paganism” suffers from the same problem. First, there was no “ism” about it. Different people revered different Gods and Goddesses and each of these cults had their own rituals (though I’m certain some were very similar). Some pagans revered one deity, such as Sol Invictus, others several. Some pagan cults engaged in ritual sacrifice (animal — claims of Human sacrifice, at least during the period of the Empire — should be considered baseless accusations, often by Christians who misinterpreted what went on at games) others used incense and/or wore laurel wreaths. An initiate into the cult of Mercury would have undergone a very different ritual from one entering that of Mithras. And this is before we get into all of the local cults and designated Gods for specific cities, or private ritual.

The only time this “ism” seems to be appropriate is in a discussion of how contemporary Christians viewed things. They do not seem to have made much of a distinction between one form of pagan practice and another. Otherwise, lumping all pagan practices under one label is a gross oversimplification of the multiple cults and practices that were followed and engaged in during the Roman Empire.

This is a problem, but IMO it isn’t the largest one. This “ism” infers, at least to me, that there was some sort of cohesiveness to pagan practice. In my mind, the term suggests the concept of large pagan congregations highly involved in their cult, receiving lessons in doctrine and worship and actively promoting their beliefs.

This wasn’t the case. Active paganism was largely the concern of the elites who were selected for various offices and priesthoods within their respective cults. State support was used for maintenance of temples and the “professionals” involved in promoting the cults (Vestal Virgins are probably the most well-known of these – their maintenance wasn’t free, or cheap). Until the later 4th century state funds supported temples and rituals. Large-scale participation among the populace was largely restricted to festivals. One of the reasons paganism (see — I’m doing it too — tried substituting pagan practices and it just didn’t seem right) sort of just faded away without any sort of epic battle against Christianity is that large numbers of the populace weren’t that concerned with it. This contrasts with Christianity with its organizational system based on bishops, involving the widespread teaching of doctrine and practice, and the ability to influence large numbers of people. The large scale religious responses seen in the fourth and fifth century were largely restricted to Christianity, an ancient form of “get out the vote” which could be translated to “take it to the streets.” The populace was very capable of demonstrating about other things. Food shortages, closure of games (they didn’t seem to much care if games were to honor a God or not so long as they were held), and opposition to/support for an Emperor all brought people out. But paganism was unable to inspire this sort of reaction.

I don’t have a substitute term for paganism — I wish I did. As I learn more about this I may find that someone has written on this, an Ancient History version of Elizabeth Brown’s article. For me the use of the term paganism carries the risk of oversimplifying the wide range of polytheistic and monotheistic practices carried out in the Empire as well as implying that there was a high degree of cohesiveness among practitioners and followers. Neither of these is true. There should be something better, or, unless used in the context of what contemporary Christians believed about non-Christians, these beliefs should be explained in more detail rather than being summed up with an imprecise 8-word term.1

I shall now tell my pedantic self to go sit in a corner. He may escape again though. Unfortunately, I’m reasonably certain I’ll use paganism myself from time to time, as I have in this very post. Might be a case where I’ll need to resurrect my self-policing through fines.

1 There are a couple of exceptions to this. A statement such as “Symmachus wrote a letter defending paganism and urging Theodosius to restore state support for the temples as well as the Altar of Victory.” seems OK because it would be an instance of referring to the entire scope of practice, where the specifics are relatively unimportant. Another acceptable use would be if used in a discussion of specifics. For example, “Paganism associated with Jupiter included …” or “The form of paganism most strongly favored by the Symmachi involved …” However even in these cases, substituting “pagan practices” (or something) for “paganism” seems preferable to me.

Brown, Elizabeth A. R., (1974). “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe”, The American Historical Review 79, 1063-1088.

Reynolds, Susan, Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1996). ISBN: 9780198-206484.


Posted by on December 6, 2011 in Historiography, Religion


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