Monthly Archives: January 2012

This is disturbing. Not that Oxford is going to be asking me to publish anything. What’s troubling is that I’ve seen terms which state that a press retains academic rights while still leaving the author with something. I like OUP books (among other things, for the most part they still have real genuine footnotes at the bottom of pages) and am going to have to figure out what this does for my purchasing habits. The kicker is, I’m not sure how different this is from what they already have – the terms I’ve received already stipulate press rights to publication in print and digital form but at least they leave you something, such as the ability to copy your own work to use in a class or program (this may still constitute fair use or do these terms specifically sign that away too?).


If you are reading this blog, this piece might be of interest. I heard about it via Steve Muhlberger. Given the extortionate prices of OUP’s books already — or extortionate compared to my salary, at least — this is especially outrageous. I love some of OUP’s textbooks. I really love the John Arnold Very Short Introduction to History. I’m less willing to use OUP, and now really have no wish to publish with them (not that it’s likely) if this is what they are up to. We get little enough direct remuneration for our scholarship — at the very least it seems fair to allow us to keep the rights to it, or at least to our own use of it.

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Posted by on January 23, 2012 in Uncategorized


2012 Kalamazoo Schedule is Up

The schedule for the 2012 International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University is available online. This year’s Congress will be held May 10-13 in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

As usual, I expect registration will be up on February 1 and also as usual, I expect to register within a day or two of being able to. I could subject all of you to yet another round of my geekery about this conference but instead I’ll simply say that even if you’re just getting started in learning about the Middle Ages, I think you should consider attending. It’s relatively inexpensive and the sessions provide a wide range of subject matter. For myself, I’m psyched that the first two Society for Late Antiquity Sessions are right in my wheelhouse as far as what I’m reading now.

If you really want to subject yourself to my previously referenced geekery, take a look at my Kalamazoo page.

Initially I thought I might wait a bit before registering but my hip surgery recuperation has gone far better than I expected. I may not be able to walk to sessions from Valley (though I might – hard to say) but I’m pretty confident that I can make my way from my car to any sessions and wander through the book exhibit without much trouble.


Posted by on January 21, 2012 in Conferences


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Stuff I’m discovering I Don’t Want to Learn

This will be something of a fluff post, possibly of interest to nobody but myself. Dear diary, right?

I’ve been reading some 4th century stuff which I’m discovering covers an area I’m really not all that interested in. This is not the first time this has happened. More than 10 years ago, when I started to really get into Medieval History, I realized I wasn’t that interested in warfare. This was a surprise. If you’d asked me right when I was getting started I’d have probably told you that learning about folks sticking each other with sharp, pointy objects and how they went about it would be high on my list. It hasn’t been, even though I realize that this is a very important aspect of history (and continues to be today, though the methods have changed – we are one violent species).

Up to the last month I’d have told you that the evolution of thought is something I’m very interested in. I still think so, but there’s a level of detail at which this does not seem to be true. 1

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading, Augustine’s Manichaean Dilemma I: Conversion and Apostasy, 373-388 C.E., by Jason David BeDuhn. This book discusses Augustine’s early life, his time as a Manichean, and his conversion to Christianity. In large part, it analyzes Augustine’s story, based on his The Confessions and other early writings to examine what was going on inside Augustine’s head during this period. How did he think about himself? Realizing that The Confessions was written about ten years after his conversion, how does Augustine’s view of himself compare with what was likely happening internally? What do these writings tell us about Augustine’s development of “self?”

Guess what – I’m not buying Volume II when it comes out. There appears to be a whole branch devoted to discovering what Augustine thought of himself and really picking apart his conversion. This is fine. He’s one of the most important figures in the development of Western thought so figuring out how this thought came about and how his personal development impacted it is useful. But I also found out that it’s not something I’m interested in, not to the point of wanting to read 300-plus page books devoted to a subset of the topic. I suppose there could be a discussion of whether this is really history rather than one of the “ologies” (psychology, sociology, etc.) but I’ll leave that to others – those are intermingled with history anyway, as is anthropology.

I have always been interested in how our current Western European society developed its thinking and how this can be traced back to ancient Greece. I’ve read a lot of Aristotle, Socrates and Plato (in translation of course). I’ve read a fair amount of books discussing this in relatively (I now realize) general terms. However right now I’m reading Kevin Corrigan’s Evagrius and Gregory: Mind, Soul and Body in the 4th Century. This is an extremely detailed examination of Evagorius Ponticus and Gregory of Nyssa and how their writings reflect a Greek classical origin. I’m fighting through this and recognizing that at this level of detail, picking through Evagrius’ Praktikos concept by concept and looking for its origin in Aristotle, Plato and Socrates, goes deeper than I want to go.

The funny thing is, I find the source material very interesting. But the analysis of this material (which is detailed and seems quite well done), at least to this level, has been boring me. I’m reading this in 5 page or so blocks, not a good way to get through something.

Let me provide an example from the introduction (you know – where general concepts are, uh, introduced) of Chapter 6, “Gregory and the Fall of Intellect”:

“The formulaic phomen, “we say,” indicates agreement among members of a school and what is agreed upon is a problem of interpretation in Plato’s Republic and Symposium. The Republic posits the good as the supreme mathêma, beyond both intellect and being. The Symposium, by contrast, in Diotima’s ladder of ascent, posits the beautiful as the goal of desire and vision. Are the two equivalent? The question remains open in Plato. But in Plotinus, the “beautiful” is ambiguous, indicating the beauty of intellect secondarily and that of the Good beyond it primarily (cf. EnneadI 6, 6-7; V 5, 12; and VI 7, 31-3), though this has been debated.” (103)

There are other aspects of medieval history where I love attention to detail but reading page after page of this makes my head want to explode. I believe (though I’m really not qualified to assess it) that Corrigan knows his stuff. But what I want to read would be something more along the lines of, “Gregory’s concept of beauty could be summarized as the mind as a mirror designed to reflect beauty and the body as a further reflective element, capable of receiving and sustaining the beauty of the mind. This concept can be traced to Plotinus, however its origin can be found in the writings of Plato.” Then give me footnotes (Corrigan footnotes the above anyway).

This is not to say that books such as this are not useful or even important. It’s just at a level of detail beyond what I want to explore (for now anyway – who knows where I’ll be a couple of years, or even months, down the road). This is the benefit of my doing this as a hobby. I can choose not to dive so deeply as Corrigan would take me. I love my real job but there are pieces of it which are quite tedious. Just yesterday I viewed a 2 hour webinar designed to introduce a FEMA technical guide (755 pages) on earthquake safety which I’ll need to mine for information on a publication I’m working on. These federal technical folks know their stuff but are not noted for giving the most thrilling presentation. But I’m being paid to do this and I will.

I’ll finish Corrigan. I have this stubborn thing which happens whenever I open a book and the only two times I’ve closed a book without finishing was over disgust at the crappy level of information provided, certainly not because it’s overly informative. I’m sure I’m going continue to gobble up source material, in particular Neoplatonist sources. But it reminds me that I do this as a hobby and my level of knowledge will never reach that of professionals (overall anyway). I can set aside critical areas because I choose not to investigate them thoroughly. It’s a flawed approach to true knowledge but for certain areas of history, it’s an approach I’m choosing to take.

1 Understanding that Medieval (and Ancient) folks thought differently from us (moderns) is a fundamental concept which I think should be one of the first things anyone interested in either period should explore. The best general survey on this which I’ve read is; Lindberg, David C., The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1992). ISBN: 0-226-48231-6. For those familiar with this book, the level of detail I want to explore is somewhere between it and Corrigan.

BeDuhn, Jason David, Augustine’s Manichaean Dilemma I: Conversion and Apostasy, 373-388 C.E.. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (2010). ISBN: 978-0-8122-4210-2.

Corrigan, Kevin, Evagirus and Gregory: Mind, Soul and Body in the 4th Century. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing (2009). ISBN: 978-0-7546-1685-6.


Posted by on January 18, 2012 in Blogology, Books, Historiography


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Semi-Random Thoughts: Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine and Books

Now that I’m removing pain-killers from my diet I find myself wanting to post more (this may end tomorrow when I find out how much I have waiting for me at work) but I’m still having some issues sitting for long periods which is having an impact on my finishing more technical stuff such as my Cameron review. This may actually be a good thing in the long run as I’ve been scribbling notes on a pad while reclining but it’s not doing much for getting the post out. When I’m doing serious work, I perform at my best sitting upright, balanced, focused on my computer, keyboard and whatever references I’ve surrounded myself with. I don’t consider a post such as my recent one on Ambrose to be completely non-formal but it was based on, mostly, one reference and composed more of my impressions than a load of facts. For much of it I was leaning back with my keyboard on my lap. So today I’m going to throw out a few things that I’m looking into and hope I don’t bore everyone to death.

As I began looking into my Christianity reading project I decided to begin by reading a bit more on Jerome, Ambrose and Augustine, then work backwards. I’m now thinking this is the wrong approach. The primary impacts of these three are on what came after rather than their output reflecting what came before. My very rough idea of these impacts could be summed up as; Augustine impacting future doctrine; Ambrose impacting Church organization and the role of the bishop and; Jerome impacting asceticism. I am certain that the previous sentence is an extreme oversimplification however I also think there’s some truth at its core. In many ways Jerome may be the most interesting as he was something of a contemporary fringe figure who gained importance as time went on. I’m afraid that once I start reading him I’ll find myself following up with all the stuff I have on asceticism, monasticism, desert fathers, etc. This is fine but it’s not the “start at the beginning of the 5th century and work backwards” method I originally had planned.

I’ve read a bit on each of these and have more on my shelves. The question I’m asking myself at the moment is how much of their source material; their writings, letters, sermons, etc., should I read? For Jerome and Ambrose this may not be that big of a deal. There’s a good amount of source material out there but not so much that I can’t go through a fairly high percentage of it. Augustine is another issue. I’ve read his Confessions and City of God. The first seven volumes of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series consists of his material. This is several thousand pages. How much of this do I need to read? (I don’t expect an answer here) I imagine that On Christian Doctrine, his various works on will and grace, and his stuff against the Donatists will be on my list. What about On the Soul, On Patience, On Virginity, etc.? I’ll figure it out. Hopefully I won’t figure wrongly.

Kudos to my friends who are getting smarter (see footnote 1 for details). This year several of my gifts have been cards for booksellers. Yesterday I used a couple of them to order some Symmachus and Libanius. I have two more which I’m going to hold off on using for a bit but at this moment I’m looking at Macrobius’ Saturnalia and Emperor Julian. I have to come up with some pretty distinct thank-you’s so they remember this for next year. Or maybe I just need to schedule major surgery every year around Christmas.


Posted by on January 8, 2012 in Blogology, Books, Religion


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A Few Thoughts on Ambrose of Milan

When I say I think this Medieval History stuff is fun (I say this quite often along with other technical terms like cool and neat) I kind of wonder if people understand what that means to me. For me, fun means I come across something which does one of two things. It may be a concept, idea or event which makes me sit up, blink and say to myself, “Huh, I had no idea.” Or it may be something where I go through the same physical response and the thought is, “You mean that’s how that works/what that means?”

As most folks familiar with Medieval History are probably aware, there are some popular concepts out there about religion and religious change which, once you really look at the evidence, don’t hold up. Among these are characterizations of the evolution of Western Europe to a Christian society being one of a violent, militant process just short of (or for some people equaling) a “convert or be killed” period. I run across this all the time and in most places, such as open discussion groups on Usenet, I just avoid the conversation. The amount of work required to change people’s minds would be monumental and in many cases, people engaged in the discussions have no interest in their minds being changed. They’re just looking for a place where they can pronounce their opinions.

I’ve always looked at the Christianization process which occurred from the early 4th century through the 6th century to be a fairly gradual process largely lacking in the sort of violent forced conversion these folks like to promote. This does not mean there weren’t pressures, incentives and penalties involved. However these were largely along the lines of Christians being named to most high government posts or Christian places of worship receiving taxation benefits.

So when I give my very rough, general overview statements of the process I say something along the lines of, “By and large the conversion to Christianity was achieved with relatively little bloodshed. Justinian’s 6th century forced conversion is a significant exception and individuals such as Cyril of Alexandria and Ambrose of Milan took a more aggressive approach but these were mostly exceptions, rather than the rule.”

This brings me to Ambrose. In reading overviews of the late 4th century, three events regarding Ambrose have stood out for me. First, he went toe-to-toe with Symmachus regarding restoring the Altar of Victory in the Senate House. Second, in violation of Roman Law that one Church in each city would be reserved for other Christian sects, he did not allow a Church in Milan to be used by Arians. 1 Third, when a Catholic Bishop led a mob in the destruction of a Jewish Synagogue, he singlehandedly prevented that synagogue from being rebuilt and paid for by the Catholics.

These three events had me mentally classifying Ambrose as outside the norm; a more aggressive, almost militant opponent of non-Christian religions, to the extent where he would defy Roman leaders and incite mobs to pressure the Empire and Emperors to ignore the law. In essence, I looked at Ambrose as something of a zealot, determined to have his way in everything without much regard for anyone else.

I recently finished reading Neil McLynn’s, Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital. I now have a different opinion of Ambrose and his role. As always (I’m unable to think of an exception) historical events and characters are more complex once I learn more about them. With Ambrose, the nuances become quite interesting. 2

When it comes to Ambrose a great deal of what we know about him comes from Ambrose himself. Towards the end of his life he published or organized writings and collections of writings recounting his role in various events. I recently read an essay by Michael Proulx discussing how Ambrose basically fabricated a role for himself as the protector of Valentinian during the usurpation by Magnus Maximus.

So I was already somewhat aware of how Ambrose engaged in self-promotion and later revisions of his roles. McLynn took this to a whole new level. For each of the above events he discusses how the event actually transpired when considering various aspects and players, and contrasts this with Ambrose’s later portrayal of them. I’ll try to briefly summarize McLynn for each of these.

Symmachus and the Altar of Victory. Prior to reading McLynn, my (admittedly crude) understanding of this issue was that in 384, while Prefect of Rome, Symmachus had requested that the Altar be restored and Ambrose went toe-to-toe with him, writing a detailed response to Symmachus’ request and pressuring Valentinian II into denying it.

This is far from what actually happened. Symmachus’ request was heard and denied before Ambrose had much to say on the matter. The Imperial Court denied it fairly quickly, for a variety of reasons. As McLynn says, “… there was never a debate on the subject [of the Altar of Victory] at all. Symmachus’ relatio was short-circuited in the imperial consistory, and Ambrose’s detailed rebuttal of the urban prefect’s arguments was compiled after the question had been settled. The issue has been transmitted to posterity in a framework devised by Ambrose …” (264)

Use of a Milanese Church by Arians. I have no idea how to briefly summarize this. In essence, my prior opinion had been that Valentinian and in particular his mother Justina wanted a Milan church to be diverted from Catholic to Arian control. Instead, this event was over a much more limited issue (though Ambrose’s later portrayal would be highly influential in the Church-ruler dynamic). Valentinian, an Arian, wanted to celebrate Easter in a Milan Church, not take over a Church entirely. Ambrose argued that this constituted an invasion of one of his churches and organized popular resistance to its use for this purpose. The combination of public pressure and arguments resulted in Valentinian (likely) celebrating Easter with the Imperial Court in a makeshift church. There is likely more truth to my prior perception of this than for the other two instances but there are some important distinctions. First, Valentinian wanted the Church for a single day. Second, this ended up being much more of a demonstration of the Valentinian government’s lack of power. Their government was based in Milan but Ambrose and the Church had been there much longer. Finally, Ambrose himself, while arguing against this use of his Church, did not directly oppose Valentinian so much as organize mass opposition. He certainly managed the event but he was careful to position himself so as not to be looked at as the ringleader.

Destruction of the Jewish Synagogue at Callinicum. In 388 a local bishop led a mob which plundered and destroyed a Jewish Synagogue. Initially, Theodosius’ ordered that the synagogue be rebuilt and the costs of doing so paid for by the bishop. Ambrose took this incident on directly and, over a period of time, eventually got the Emperor to drop the entire matter. The interesting item here is that, based on McLynn, Theodosius appears to have ended up on top in this conflict. “The loser in this unhappy affair was Ambrose. Theodosius had been forced to concede clemency in a case he felt deserved exemplary punishment; but such concessions were an occupational hazard of the imperial office. As compensation, moreover, he could enjoy the gratitude and admiration which he had no doubt inspired among the Christians of Milan.” (308) McLynn also relates that Ambrose later wrote a revised version of the event which placed him as the victor at the emperor’s expense. Ambrose would not regain his influence with Theodosius until the massacre at Thessalonica two years later. 3

Does Ambrose still fit in my original characterization as a zealot? Maybe – but less so than I had once believed, which was based largely on the way he portrayed himself. He was an ardent defender of the Church, more so than many contemporary bishops. More than anything, he seems to be a man who excelled in two areas. First was an understanding of the political realities of the day and how to influence the imperial court and emperors. Second, and something which this post does not cover, he was able to inspire tremendous loyalty in the residents of Milan. His congregations went to great lengths to support and defend him. McLynn does not cover this in any depth but on a personal level, Ambrose must have possessed characteristics which inspired people to follow him.

For me this is fun. My opinion of Ambrose has changed, somewhat. More than a zealot, he was also a man who understood the imperial government and how to influence events. Zealotry may still be present, but it included an ample mix of ability and intelligence. This was not a man engaged in blind passions but in measured, concerted, detailed actions to defend his rights and those of the Church.

1 To be honest, I’m not certain this was a law so much as a policy of toleration but this is my original impression so I’m going with it. I need to look into it further. A brief search while writing this post didn’t give me anything.

2 I am unaware of anything more recent which substantially refutes McLynn however as this book was published in 1994 there may be something out there. If there is, I’d appreciate folks letting me know.

3 The Thessalonica event is also an interesting revision, which I’ve left out because it didn’t play into my initial Ambrose perception. This has come to be viewed as Ambrose denying Theodosius access to the Church until he engaged in an act of public penance. McLynn characterizes this as much more of a cooperative venture where Ambrose and Theodosius were able to develop a solution whereby the emperor was able to defuse a public relations disaster and regain his popular standing.

McLynn, Neil B., Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press (1994). ISBN: 978-0-52008-461-6.

Proulx, Michael, “Patres Orphanorum’: Ambrose of Milan and the Construction of the Role of the Bishop,” in 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, pp. 75-97. New York: Tauris Academic Studies (2010). ISBN: 978-1-84885-409-3.


Posted by on January 7, 2012 in Religion


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Medieval History Geek 2011 Year in Review

I’d like to wish everyone a Happy New Year and offer you all my best for 2012.

I’m currently in the middle of putting together a review of Alan Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome. If you’ve been reading this blog a while you know I have a tendency to overwrite. This review is testing my limits. It’s a thousand-page book with loads of information and containing some interesting methods of argument which I can’t figure out how to explore without going into a fair amount of depth. I believe that, for the first time, I simply will be unable to say what I want to about it in a simple review but will need to resort to a review essay. This is an entirely different level of analysis, one which I expect will get me into the 2500-3000 word range. It’s coming, I’ll have a lot to say, and I suspect some of it will (hopefully) inspire debate.

In the meantime, I’m going to do something of a 2011 blog review. This will be very different from last year’s which was not exclusively blog-oriented. This year I’m going to focus on stats. The main reason for this is that once I completely switch over to WordPress, I’ll lose my Blogger stats and this will provide me with a record which I’ll be able to recall more easily than something stuffed in my files. I’m also something of a stats geek – in our office I’m one of the two people who ends up putting data tables together and doing analysis, which is fine if I get enough lead time.

I try to avoid posting about my personal/professional life here as I try to keep those separate from my medieval hobby (at least professional – personal’s obviously integrated but who wants to know about, for example, my current exercise routine to get over hip surgery?). I think I’ve been pretty successful. However this past year my professional life had a pretty large impact on my posting habits so I need to touch on a bit of that.

I was involved in two substantial projects in 2011 which resulted in extended stretches where I didn’t come close to posting once a week. One of those was a national project where I was Purdue’s rep collaborating with Auburn University and the University of Tennessee. The project itself didn’t take up my time so much as various other state-level activities related to this project which I became involved with. I was also selected by Purdue to participate in a National Leadership Program which took me out of the state for about 25 days last year. The first project is continuing but the second ended in late September. My putting up six posts over the three months from July-September is a direct result of the final few months of this second project. Other things may come up this year but I will be surprised if they require that kind of time commitment. I made 75 posts this year, identical to my number of posts from 2010. This was actually pretty good when I think of how much time I spent away from home but I still have hopes of getting to around 100 per year. 1

For the year, I had a total of 25,330 pageviews on my blog. This comes to a touch under 70 per day, a substantial increase over last year’s 40-50. This doesn’t come close to some other blogs but it’s OK for me. Gratifyingly, these numbers increased as the year went on. Through April the monthly pageviews ranged from 1,234 to 1,641. Beginning in May they went up, ranging from 1,583 in July to 3,634 in December. My daily high was 211 pageviews on December 10. I don’t have a date for this (it was too depressing to look for) but back in April there was a day when I had just 9. This traffic increase both encouraged and discouraged me from moving to WordPress. It discouraged because with my readership getting to around 120 views/day I hate to take a chance on losing/alienating those readers. However it also gave me something of a “now or never” perspective, which ended up winning out. 2

Within these numbers are some interesting phenomena. Until December, August had the most site traffic, about 100 hits/day. This seemed strange considering it was in the middle of my six posts in three months stretch. However August and early September were absolutely dominated by people reading my review of A World Lit Only by Fire (WLOBF). Based on the search terms used, in particular, “A World Lit Only by Fire Sparknotes,” it appears that high school AP students were looking for help either with essays or exams. Happily, my high November and December numbers were not heavily William Manchester-generated. And at least it wasn’t a University search for “Gregory of Tours Cliff Notes” which was also a common term.

I’ve pretty much resigned myself to WLOBF being the number one traffic generator, much as I wish it were otherwise. In 2011, of the top ten search terms used, nine of them were some variant; “A World Lit Only by Fire Summary,” “A World Lit Only by Fire Review,” “A World Lit Only by Fire Sparknotes,” etc. The only interloper among the top ten search terms was “Medieval History Geek.” In fact, 26 of the top 31 search terms were WLOBF related. It isn’t until the 32nd most popular that other terms become prevalent.

It will be no surprise that WLOBF was my most visited post in 2011; 5,747 views, or about 22.7%. This was much higher in August (56.5%) and much lower in other months – for December it was 200 views, less than 6% (though still highest, barely).

One of the other ways WLOBF skewed my stats is in something called “bounce rate.” This is when someone visited my blog, saw one page and left, never to return. Over 80% of my WLOBF page viewers came to that page, looked at it briefly, then went elsewhere. If this post is removed from the stats, the average visitor to my site looked at a touch over 3 pages per visit. Add these in and it’s just over 2. Evidently, most HS AP students didn’t find what they needed in my review.

This appears to be a good place to start to close this. From a numbers perspective, my top ten pages visited in 2011 were my home page first and WLOBF second.

The other 8 posts (not pages – both my Kalamazoo and Book Review pages received a lot of traffic) most frequently visited were, in order:


Posted by on January 1, 2012 in Blogology