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Monthly Archives: February 2014

Embarrassing Amateur Moments Supplement

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted by on February 23, 2014 in Amateur Tips

 

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Did Origen Castrate Himself?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted by on February 9, 2014 in Religion

 

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What do I do With Origen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted by on February 8, 2014 in Historiography, Religion

 

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2014 Kalamazoo Registration is Up

The online registration for the 49th annual International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University is open. This year’s Congress will be held May 8-11 at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Great conference which I always enjoy though I wasn’t able to make it last year and it’s questionable if I’ll get there this year, though I have hopes.

If anyone wants way more information than you probably want to read, you can check out my Kalamazoo page for recruitment posts, tips, and summaries from the past three times I’ve attended. Wonderful event and a lot of fun. I encourage you to attend if you can.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2014 in Conferences

 

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Reading Christianity Interregnum Number 2

With Tertullian finally out of the way, this is something of a “catching my breath” post. I have a couple of more books on Origen to read and I imagine a post will follow shortly. I have about 25 more Christian authors to read before I get to Lactantius, my final pre-Nicene author. This is not as scary as it sounds as several of these are minor authors. The person I have my sights set on is Cyprian of Carthage.

But it will be some time before I get to him. I have a few authors who predate him such as Hippolytus and Julius Africanus. Once I finish them and before I get to Cyprian I plan on tackling the neo-Platonists; Iamblichus, Plotinus and Proclus (and any others I find to be important).

All of that won’t take so long but I have some secondary sources on second and third century Rome and early Christianity which I should go through. When I add all of them up, I think I have 23 books to read before Cyprian.

Usually when this happens I caution that this blog may become quiet for a while. I’m going to try to avoid that. I have a couple of basic, general posts on the way I view some things which I think may be interesting and if not, I want to mention them anyway. I’ve also started using well-out-of-my-period books as “what I read before I go to sleep” material. I don’t have to concentrate on them as much but, as with Medieval Italian prisons, I am hoping I’ll come across other stuff interesting enough that I’ll want to post on it. And somewhere in the middle of all this, if I can figure out how to summarize it in a couple thousand words, I want to talk about philosophical influences on Early Christianity. But I need to get through the neo-Platonists first.

 
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Posted by on February 5, 2014 in Blogology

 

Tertullian XII: Summary

I’ve re-written this section several different times and am still not sure it captures what I want to express but I’ll have a go anyway. There are some things about Tertullian which are very intriguing. One of these is trying to assess how influential he was during the Medieval period. As I’ve tried to relate, he is the first to offer some concepts which later became prominent themes in Christianity. His thoughts on Original Sin and the way he defines the Trinity are significant advances over anyone who wrote earlier, at least that I’ve come across. It’s difficult to say whether these were innovations of his, or if his writings reflect what was already believed in the Church, at least at Carthage. I expect I’ll learn more on this as I continue and I also expect to find that it was a mix of the two.

As I’m now in the middle of Origen I’ve found it interesting that he, not Tertullian, seems to have drawn more attention from modern historians. Is this because Tertullian’s writing style is so harsh and unappealing? Is Origen considered a better example of the merging of philosophy and Christianity? Is it because much of Origen has been lost and historians are trying to recreate what he may have contributed based on fragments and subsequent developments? Or is Tertullian just simpler to understand where modern historians look at him and what’s already been written and don’t think there’s much more to be said? Origen’s influence is more subtle. At this moment in time I’d say that of the two, Tertullian was more influential though I have a lot yet to read and may change my mind.

I’ve written enough on him that I think you can figure out what I thought was important. I have been struck by his inconsistent consistency and my summaries of his thoughts on marriage and military service capture this, I hope. The change in tenor and content in these areas is a nice micro-example of how people often respond when threatened, by retreating even more strongly into their core beliefs. I think Tertullian’s fate points to an important difference between the pre- and post-Nicene Church. Tertullian’s group, the Montanists, appears to have been labeled as heretical. Yet they were not cast out of the Church, at least not all of them. Even at his most strident, Tertullian writes as a member of the Church, to misguided colleagues, not to enemies. Two centuries later and I think it likely that he would have been cast out of the Church and anathematized.

My focus on specific concepts may have detracted from, or at least lacked enough emphasis on, an area where I think Tertullian profoundly influenced those who would follow. Perhaps even more than his thoughts on specific aspects of dogma and doctrine, where Tertullian had a great detail of impact was by introducing a new type of dialogue; one less interested in debate and discussion and a search for truth but focusing instead on the certainty of belief and providing defined, stricter guidelines regarding what it meant to be a Christian. To this point Christian authors had been engaged in discussion and debate. They had points upon which they were beginning to reach agreement. Christ certainly was the Son of God, he was crucified, died and was resurrected. Men could be saved, body and soul. Those who lived sinful lives would be punished. However there remained points of debate. Did God intend that men would reside in Hell permanently or might they also be saved after a period of punishment? How did Adam’s sin impact Humans, particularly after the resurrection; was this sin redeemed by Christ’s death so that men and women were born with a “clean slate” or did this open a path for redemption despite people being weighed down by Adam’s transgression? Should Christians live as part of Roman society or separate themselves from it? These and other issues were points for discussion and debate, so Christians might draw closer to understanding God and the truth.

Tertullian didn’t bother with that. There was fact and falsehood, truth and lies. He believed what he believed and this was what all Christians should believe. Once a Christian believed and understood, the need for further investigation was ended. I have profound doubts as to whether this was good for the development of Western Civilization but good, bad, or indifferent, it certainly was there. Tertullian comes across as far more Medieval in his outlook than Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, or even Irenaeus. In fact he comes across as less interested in debate and discussion than many Christian writers of the fourth and fifth centuries. This is an essential element of his legacy.

I feel as if my use of large chunks of quoted text rather than picking things apart in more detail was a bit of a shortcut and maybe more exposition on my part would have been helpful. But that takes more time and once I was several thousand words into this I began to realize that the only way I’d ever finish would be to let Tertullian speak for himself. Fortunately, while he often took a long time to come to his concluding statements, once he got there he didn’t mince words. This type of tactic works much better for him than for those who were more nuanced. I don’t think I’ll be able to use this method when I talk about Origen.

That’s it for Tertullian. I wish I could say that’s all I have but it isn’t. I could probably add another 10,000 words. And as I finish this up I’m wondering what will happen when I get to Augustine. Tertullian’s source information was a full volume and another hundred pages or so in the Ante-Nicene Fathers Series. Augustine gets 8 books all to himself and his influence is so much greater. Yeesh.

I haven’t been able to come up with a succinct statement to wrap all of this up. Instead I’ll defer to Eric Osborn who quotes J. Danielou:

Tertullian’s achievement was not merely cultural and linguistic, but above all intellectual. For ‘despite his obvious originality, he displays those characteristics which are to be found throughout Latin Chistianity: a realism which knows nothing of the Platonist devaluation of matter; a subjectivity, which gives special prominence to inner experience; and a pessimism which lays more stress on the experience of sin than on transfiguration’. 1

NOTE: Below I’m including all of the sources I used throughout these twelve posts even though I used very few of them for this one.

1 Osborn (1997), p. 7, quoting J. Danielou, The Origins of Latin Christianity (London, 1977) I finished Osborn while I was in the middle of writing this series of posts and as much as possible stayed away from using him. His book is a detailed discussion of what Tertullian meant in his various writings. Well, I had my own ideas about what he wrote and wanted to share them, even if they’re wrong. This is a good book though a bit pricy. I don’t think he said I was wrong too often.

Coogan, Michael D., ed., The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Edition With the Apocrypha. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2010). ISBN:9-780-195-28955-8.

Kleist, James A., trans., The Didache, The Epistle of Barnabas, The Epistles and the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, The Fragments of Papias, The Epistle to Diognetus, Ancient Christian Writers Number 6. New York: Newman Press (1948). ISBN:0-8091-0247-1.

Osborn, Eric, Tertullian, First Theologian of the West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1997). ISBN: 978-0-521-52495-7.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-083-1.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 2: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (entire), Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-084-X.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 3: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian: I. Apologetic; II. Anti-Marcion; III. Ethical. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

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

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 3: Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus: Historical Writings, etc. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012), ISBN(for series): 978-1-56563-116-8.

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 6: The Principal Works of St. Jerome. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012), ISBN(for series): 978-1-56563-116-8.

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

 
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Posted by on February 3, 2014 in Religion

 

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Charlemagne and His Bones

For the past few days reports have been circulating about analysis of bones found in Aachen Cathedral. I’m not going to offer much discussion of this or what it means here other than to repeat what others have found. Basically, analysis of the remains, on top of previous investigation, has provided pretty strong confirmatory evidence that the bones found in Charlemagne’s sarcophagus are indeed those of Charlemagne.

The remains interred at Aachen are those of a tall, thin man who likely walked with a limp as there is evidence of bone deposits related to injury in his heels and kneecaps. The full results of this investigation haven’t been published yet so it will be interesting to see what the results of an expected DNA analysis will provide.

Karlsschrein
The Karlsschrein, where Charlemagne’s remains (most of them) were interred.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

For me, I think this makes a nice transition to briefly talk about my current level of knowledge of the Carolingians, sort of a precursor to when I get out of Early Christianity and start reading up on Western Europe from the end of the 7th century to about 1000 AD (and very possibly later).

The Carolingians have always fascinated me. I’ve mentioned how when I first started reading on Medieval History, now approaching 20 years ago, within a few years I found that what interested me the most was the concept of a large, cohesive society (the Roman Empire) falling, breaking up into total chaos, then reforming itself. Keep in mind this is what I thought at the time. Once I started reading up on it it didn’t take long to find out that the reality was very different from the previous process and that I had a lot of misconceptions which I’d need to correct.

This leads me to a major misconception I likely have/had; my willingness to buy into the Carolingian myth. How well does what came to be believed about them match with what actually happened? This will be a main point of investigation for me. I don’t want to detract from the “pre-study level of knowledge” post I’ll likely put up, similar to what I wrote as I was beginning to look at Early Christianity. However the Carolingian Empire was highly romanticized after its dissolution. Subsequent rulers frequently used the Carolingians as justification for their own rule as they claimed to be direct inheritors of the divine right first acknowledged by Pope Zachary and later confirmed by Pope Leo III’s coronation of Charlemagne. Part of this justification likely meant portraying the Carolingian Empire as far more cohesive than it was. How much of this myth-making have I retained? How much of it reflects reality? How did this process take place and what were its impacts? Above all; where will this lead me (and how long will it take)? I guess another question is to wonder when I’ll finish up with Early Christianity and get to this but that is unanswerable.

I’m going to close this post here and offer a couple of links which discuss the recent evidence regarding Charlemagne’s bones:

From Medieval Histories, an online magazine about Medieval History: Bones of an Emperor

From The Local, an English-Language German news source: Charlemagne’s Bones are (probably) Real

 

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