Category Archives: Hagiography

Book Review: The Historical Jesus in Context

The Review

Before I get to the review for this book I want to throw in a few quick comments (click on the above link if you want to skip this). First, it has been over a year since I posted a review. The reason for this is fairly simple. Ever since I began a concerted effort to read about Early Christianity I have largely encountered books I feel unqualified to write a review of. I’ve offered comments as something has caught my attention but for the most part I haven’t felt myself able to give an opinion on the quality of a book.1

Second, more related to the review which will follow is that I have never doubted the existence of a historical Jesus. My reasons, not being a Biblical scholar or even highly familiar with first century AD religion or source material discussions, have centered around one basic fact. He is too frequently mentioned in sources dating from a period too close to his death for him to not have existed. I have read/heard arguments such as, “We have nothing he wrote himself,” or, “There are no monuments or inscriptions dating from when he was alive with his name on them,” or even, “Nothing was written about him by someone who knew him personally.” This last is more debatable but it’s generally believed that the Gospel and other source authors were not among Jesus’ disciples.2

These are unrealistic standards. If we were to judge the existence of all people mentioned in source material similarly, history would be an empty thing. Non-elites didn’t write, or have monuments built to them. If we need to strike Jesus from history as someone who actually lived, then history will need to be rewritten in terms that will eliminate the existence of most non-elite individuals, and many elites. By the standards used to judge the probability of someone’s existence, there is plenty of evidence that a man named Jesus, a traveling teacher/preacher/rabbi in Judea, existed near the beginning of the first century. Within 10-15 years of his death, accounts of Jesus were told to large numbers of people who would have had every reason to be skeptical of this individual’s existence if they had not been pretty certain that he had lived. From a historical perspective, there are literally buckets of references to Jesus, chronologically close enough to when he lived to make his existence highly probable.

This does not mean that he is identical to the person we meet through the Gospels. As with any other source of that period, particularly written several decades after the subject lived, we have almost certainly been presented with an idealized Jesus(though I don’t buy arguments that he didn’t at all resemble this portrayal). The Gospel authors had their biases and must be evaluated with this in mind. Much of what is included in them is likely based on oral traditions which are generally less reliable (though numerous oral traditions that generally agree with one another should be viewed as another factor in favor of his having lived). Individuals in the 2nd or 3rd centuries may have redacted the Gospels to add additional details. And I have never had any urge to publicly debate the miracle stories. If you were to ask me if it is possible for a person to walk on water, feed thousands of people from a few loaves of bread and a couple of little fish, heal people without ever meeting them, or rise from the dead I would say no. I would also say I have no problem with anyone who wants to believe these things(and for all you know I may believe these things). Those are matters of faith and I try very hard never to argue with someone over faith, except very close friends.

When it comes to Jesus, I find myself more interested in questions such as whether he actually ran the moneylenders and shopkeepers out of the Temple (let’s face it – he did something to piss the establishment off, to the extent that they executed him). How radical was he, with his devaluation of some matters of Jewish Law? And I enjoy discussions of how apocalyptic Jesus was or whether much of this was entered into his life by the authors of the Gospels, writing as they did (likely) shortly following the destruction of the Temple by Roman authorities.

So with all that out of the way, let’s get to the review.

The Review


Levine, Amy-Jill, Allison, Dale C. Jr. and Crossan, John Dominic, eds., The Historical Jesus in Context, Princeton, Princeton University Press (2006). ISBN: 978-0-69100-992-9.

This is a collection of 28 essays designed to, as the title says, provide a context for Jesus’ life. As Levine says in her introduction, this book, “… provides information on cultural contexts within which Jesus was understood and perhaps even understood himself.” (1) How does Jesus, the man, teacher, rabbi and messiah fit into first-century Jewish and Roman society? Is he a radical outlier or can parallels be drawn between him and others of his time? How do the concepts, themes and ideas found in the Gospels compare with prominent themes from Jesus’ period? Where might some of these concepts, themes and ideas have originated from?

The essays in this volume are as follows:

  • Introduction by Amy-Jill Levine
  • 1. “Archaeological Contributions to the Study of Jesus and the Gospels,” Jonathan L. Reed
  • 2. “Josephus on John the Baptist and Other Jewish Prophets of Deliverance,” Craig A. Evans
  • 3. “Abba and Father: Imperial Theology in the Contexts of Jesus and the Gospels,” Mary Rose D’Angelo
  • 4. “Miraculous Conceptions and Births in Mediterranean Antiquity,” Charles H. Talbert
  • 5. “First and Second Enoch: A Cry Against Oppression and the Promise of Deliverance,” George W. E. Nickelsburg
  • 6. “Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Peter Flint
  • 7. “The Chreia,” David B. Gowler
  • 8. “The Galilean Charismatic and Rabbinic Piety: The Holy Man in the Talmudic Literature,” Alan J. Avery-Peck
  • 9. “Miracle Stories: The God Asclepius, the Pythagorean Philosophers, and the Roman Rulers,” Wendy Cotter, C.S.J.
  • 10. “The Mithras Liturgy,” Marvin Meyer
  • 11. “Apuleius of Madauros,” Ian H. Henderson
  • 12. “The Parable in the Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic Literature,” Gary G. Porton
  • 13. “The Aesop Tradition,” Lawrence M. Wills
  • 14. “Targum, Jesus, and the Gospels,” Bruce Chilton
  • 15. “The Psalms of Solomon,” Joseph L. Trafton
  • 16. “Moral and Ritual Piety,” Jonathan Klawans
  • 17. “Gospel and Talmud,” Herbert W. Basser
  • 18. “Philo of Alexandria,” Gregory E. Sterling
  • 19. “The Law of Roman Divorce in the Time of Christ,” Thomas A. J. McGinn
  • 20. “Associations in the Ancient World,” John S. Kloppenborg
  • 21. “Anointing Traditions,” Teresa J. Hornsby
  • 22. “The Passover Haggadah,” Calum Carmichael
  • 23. “Joseph and Aseneth: Food as an Identity Marker,” Randall D. Chesnutt
  • 24. “The Pliny and Trajan Correspondence,” Bradley M. Peper and Mark DelCogliano
  • 25. “Imitations of Greek Epic in the Gospels,” Dennis R. MacDonald
  • 26. “Narratives of Noble Death,” Robert Doran
  • 27. “Isiah 53:1-12 (Septuagint),” Ben Witherington III
  • 28. “Thallus on the Crucifixion,” Dale C. Allison Jr.

Each chapter follows a similar pattern. It discusses a particular facet of ancient Jewish or Roman life, talks about source material related to that facet, and then provides translated sources demonstrating what was discussed. Occasionally these may be full sources but more often they are a selection. These materials are then compared and contrasted with how Jesus was portrayed, primarily in the Gospels.

The book is not what I’d call a popular history but it is written at a fairly basic level. I don’t know for sure but it looks like something designed for use in an introductory undergraduate course on source and textual analysis in Early Christianity. A negative of this book is it’s not footnoted though most sources are referenced in the text. As I do not intend to deeply explore issues related to this topic, this was less of a negative for me than it would be for some books.

As can be seen from the Table of Contents, the breadth of topics is considerable. The portrayal of Christ as a messianic figure, his use of parables as teaching tools, comparing his miracle stories with others of the period, exploring Jesus’ knowledge of Jewish scriptures and how he uses them, and discussions of his lack of concern with Jewish ritual impurity (compared with moral impurity) are covered, as well as other topics. I will briefly touch on some of the topics and essays which were of most interest to me.

Craig Evans analyzed the writings of Josephus to determine how prominently messianic figures appear in first-century Jewish culture. Josephus is negatively disposed to these individuals however he mentions several of them and, in contrast, he discusses John the Baptist in favorable terms. In essence, Jesus as a messiah is not out of place during this time and place.

Charles Talbert’s chapter was one of my favorites. He discusses multiple cases of miraculous conception in ancient literature, some of them fairly prominent such as Achilles as the son of the God Thetis and Hercules as the son of Zeus. Of more interest, and possibly more applicable to the portrayal of Jesus, are figures such as Pythagorus, Alexander the Great, and Plato. Talbert spends some time discussing how divine begetting was often attributed to an individual who had lived a particularly notable life. Arrian, in Anabasis 7.30 says of Alexander, “And so not even I can suppose that a man quite beyond all other men was born without some divine influence.” (84) In discussing a passage from Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 3.45 Talbert says, “One could not do what Plato did had he not been the offspring of a God! One reason the ancients used stories of miraculous conceptions and births was as an explanation of the superiority of the individual.” (85) For me, while I was certainly aware of miraculous conceptions in ancient literature, I had never grouped the birth of Christ with these.

Peter Flint compares how Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels with passages found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Essenes had several messianic figures and in many ways their lives parallel the account of Jesus. However they differ in a couple of key points and Flint disagrees with prior analyses which describe an Essene precedent for either a killed Messiah or a sacrificial crucifixion to redeem man from sins.

Gary Porton, Bruce Chilton and Herbert Basser discuss prominent Jewish literature elements and their use by Jesus in the Gospels. Porton discusses parables found in rabbinic literature and believes that, “… one would expect the ‘historical’ Jesus to have taught throughout his life by parables.” (209). Chilton talks about a type of literature known as Targum. These are scriptural paraphrases where the general meaning of Hebrew scripture is rendered into the Aramaic most commonly in use in first-century scripture. He demonstrates that Jesus was well aware of and extensively used this literary form, indicating an extensive knowledge of Hebrew scripture. He also discusses one particular instance where the Greek translation provided by Luke misrepresents the Aramaic original. In Luke 4:16-30 Jesus is nearly stoned after speaking in a synagogue. Based on Luke, Jesus appears to provide a fairly traditional interpretation of Isiah however based on pronoun confusion, he is actually proclaiming himself not just as a divinely inspired preacher but as a full-on messiah who will personally see to the redemption of the souls of men from captivity. (252-4) Interestingly, Chilton describes a Jesus who knew and used Targum however he almost never used identical language and how he used scripture, “… shows that an innovative tendency is characteristic of his style of teaching.” (252) Basser describes how Jesus followed talmudic and rabbinic forms of teaching and argument, however his message in the Gospels is different from Judaic teachings.

A very useful chapter for me was authored by Jonathan Klawans. He discusses the difference between ritual purity and moral purity and how Jesus emphasized the importance of the latter but was not as concerned with the former. Ritual impurities are those which do not represent sin. For example, a woman is ritually impure during menstruation, however this does not demonstrate sin, just that she should avoid the temple during these times (interestingly, male genital emissions are also considered ritually impure). An individual who helped bury someone is ritually impure but not sinful – the dead must be cared for and buried – he or she must ritually cleanse him- or herself before entering the temple. In contrast, moral impurity such as sexual transgressions, bloodshed, and idolatry are sinful and result in long-lasting defilement which may not be removed simply by a ritual cleansing. Throughout the Gospels, Christ expresses little concern for ritual impurity. He and his disciples eat without first washing their hands, heal on the Sabbath and gather grain to eat on the Sabbath, all items prohibited under Jewish Law. Yet he is very concerned with greed, murder, adultery, etc. Klawans provides a useful analysis of Mark 7:1-23 in discussing this.

There were a few essays I considered less useful. I found Dennis MacDonald’s argument that the Gospels made extensive use of Greek epics unconvincing. The fact that Hector and Christ both died is certainly true however I do not see where the denial by Achilles to grant Priam his body resembles the account of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, similarly the death of Turnus in the Aenid. Marvin Meyer’s discussion and translation of the Mithras Liturgy was interesting, however he failed to adequately connect it to first-century Judaism which left me wondering what the point of the chapter was.

This is a good book. For me, it did what it was intended to do – provide me a contextual basis from which I could draw more insight into Jesus’ life, or at least his life as it is portrayed in the Gospels. Jesus comes across as a man of his times, a preacher/teacher who uses traditional Jewish literature, teaching methods, and whose messages are, in many cases, traditional. However he also comes across as a remarkable individual, even accounting for possible later redactions of the Gospels. While he uses traditional methods, much of his message is innovative. While bathing to remove ritual impurity is an every day aspect of Jewish life, the Gospel accounts provide a new, one-time-only, “baptism for life” for the remission of sins. Jesus breaks with Jewish authorities on what constitutes impurity. Once one recalls that in Rome, Emperors were commonly worshiped as deities, Jesus’ famous “Render unto God what is God and unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” becomes a subversive denial of the Emperor’s divinity. Christ, depending on your viewpoint, was either an innovator or a radical, perhaps both. He was enough of each to earn the enmity of the Jewish establishment to the point of being executed.

There are areas left unexamined. In particular, I would have appreciated an account of Roman judicial practice in Judea during the period and an examination of how Christ’s trial, sentence and execution compared with normal judicial procedures. I have read where the trial and sentence is considered to have taken place very quickly and would have enjoyed a discussion of this. I would have also enjoyed more discussions such as Bruce Chilton’s discussing Aramaic/Greek translations and how this impacts determining the origin of Gospel accounts.3

This book will be valuable for a person who is just beginning his or her examination of first-century Christianity. My one recommendation is that you first read the canonical Gospels. These are frequently referred to and the Gospel accounts are compared and contrasted with other examples of ancient literature throughout.

1 It’s sheer coincidence that I’m posting something about Jesus on Christmas Day. I happened to finish this book over the weekend. Funny how that works out.

2 This is the biggest change in my preconceptions; that the Gospel authors were not Jesus’ companions. In essence, while some believe that Mark (considered the earliest Gospel) may have been written around 50 AD, most place it closer to about 70. The real disqualifier is that the Gospels were written in fairly high quality Greek. Jesus’ companions are unlikely to have known Greek and even more unlikely to have been able to write it.

3 One of the ways historians try to figure out when something in a Gospel account originated is by trying to reverse translate it from Greek into Aramaic. There are passages in the Greek which make no sense in Aramaic demonstrating, probably, something which was added a bit later, up to when the Gospel was written (later redactions are an entirely different matter). And there are stories which appear to make much more sense in Aramaic, indicating a fairly early origin. Of course most make sense both ways. And quite often the Gospels and Paul retain an original Aramaic word or phrase.


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Nicholas of Myra – Santa Claus – and the Council of Nicaea.

In case the world really does end Friday I wanted to throw a quick, slightly Christmas-themed post up about Nicholas of Myra. Nicholas later became Saint Nicholas and later morphed into Santa Claus. Along the way he pardoned condemned criminals(innocent condemned criminals BTW), chased screaming demons all over Anatolia while destroying pagan temples and threw a few bags of gold through a window at three young women so they wouldn’t become prostitutes. And at some point he moved North and domesticated a few reindeer. He also was a victim of the Diocletian persecutions and a Bishop at the Council of Nicaea, if you believe the summaries of his life you can find on the web.

So what’s really known about Saint Nicholas? Not much. He is supposed to have been born in the later 3rd century and died in the middle of the 4th. His vita was composed by Michael the Archimandrite in the early 8th century, about 350 years after his death. It’s almost certain that this was composed of oral traditions, particularly those which were associated with his cult, along with hagiographical conventions. You can find a partially translated version here.

I’m willing to accept that he lived, was likely Bishop of Myra (located in what is today southern Turkey), and was either a good guy or had folks who were willing to promote him as a good guy beginning shortly after his death (his cult appears to have developed fairly quickly). Beyond that we’re mostly in the dark. Various aspects of the Nicholas story would need to be explored to determine their likelihood and you’d be left with considering the probabilities.

4 T
Russian icon of Saint Nicholas from Lipnya Church of St. Nicholas in Novgorod.
Image from Wikimedia Commons

I’m going to pick at one single piece of Nicholas and look at it from the perspective of a recent reading of mine. The question is, Was Nicholas at Nicaea?

This is one of the better online biographies of Saint Nicholas. Near the end, this page discusses whether Nicholas was at Nicaea or not, as his name does not appear on most of the lists of bishops in attendance. Rather than trying to rephrase the argument, I’ll copy the section in full.

Perhaps there is some positive evidence for Nicholas’ presence in Nicaea. Although the original minutes of this council were destroyed, people have tried to reconstruct the list of bishops who agreed to the orthodox formula to describe the Trinity, a brief text that became famous as the Nicene Creed. This list is known from eleven medieval copies. Only three of them mention Nicholas, but one of these is considered to be among the best copies.

This means that at a comparatively early stage, the name of Nicholas was either added to or left out from the list.

In the first scenario, a copyist was surprised that the popular and famous bishop of Myra was not mentioned in the list, and corrected what he believed to be an error. (The popularity of the cult of Nicholas can be deduced from the rapidly increasing number of boys called Nicholas.)

Alternatively, someone thought that it was better to forget that Nicholas had been among the bishops.

There is a late source that appears to confirm the last-mentioned scenario. According to this legend, Nicholas was so angry at an advocate of Arianism that, overcome by apostolic zeal, he struck his opponent. Not everyone appreciated this blow for Arianism, and the presidency of the Council decided that Nicholas was no longer allowed to wear the ornaments of a bishop. Therefore, Nicholas is shown without mitre on Greek icons. In fact, this anecdote is embarrasing, and this is a reason why it is unlikely to have been invented.

I recently posted a discussion I found in Sara Parvis’ Marcellus of Ancyra and the Lost Years of the Arian Controversy, 325-345. In it she argues, persuasively in my opinion, that Arianism really didn’t exist until about 340, over 15 years following Nicaea, and was largely created by Athanasius and Marcellinus. Arius and Arianism are never mentioned at Nicaea. The story in most of the online bios I’ve seen is that Nicholas didn’t slap just any old Arian proponent, but Arius himself. But if bishops were the primary proponents, why get mad at a presbyter?

Even if he did, I have a hard time seeing how Nicholas would have lost his robe at Nicaea. The anti-Arian group won, at least on paper. Would they have removed a bishop’s name from the lists (and taken his robe) over slapping a presbyter from the opposing camp? This seems unlikely. What seems even less likely, bordering on the inconceivable, is that no record of it would have survived in any text for 350 years after Nicholas’ death.

Deposing a bishop back then was a big deal. Read about Athanasius if you want to get a sense of how big. The Eusebians, with the backing of a sympathetic Emperor, worked for years to depose Athanasius. And it took a lot of effort for Athanasius to return. The thought that this could have taken place at Nicaea, without any record being kept of it, is just about impossible for me to believe.

It’s possible Nicholas was at Nicaea, but that he was not yet a bishop. His death is placed anywhere from 343-356 so this is plausible. After all, it is generally agreed that Athanasius was there, but as a deacon and so his name doesn’t appear anywhere. But to me, the argument that Nicholas was present as a Bishop doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The other problem I have with the quoted argument is that I don’t believe that depicting someone as such an opponent of Arianism that he lost control on hearing blasphemy would be considered embarrassing, certainly not from the 8th century on, or even after 381 when Theodosius declared that the Nicene statement of faith was the only proper one. There would have been nothing to hide there, not in a setting where Ambrose was celebrated for organizing opposition to an Emperor over this same issue.

I will note that I’m unfamiliar with the arguments over which were the best lists of Bishops at Nicaea but still – deposing a bishop with nobody saying a word about it in any text for the next 350 years? I don’t buy it.

Parvis, Sara, Marcellus of Ancyra and the Lost Years of the Arian Controversy, 325-345. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2006). ISBN: 978-0-19928-0131.

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Posted by on December 19, 2012 in Hagiography, Religion


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The Danger of Historical Models

I received my first issue of The Journal of Early Christian Studies a month or so ago. I can already see that this will be an interesting and enlightening publication. The $50 I paid to join an organization I’m not qualified to intellectually contribute to and receive a journal I have free electronic access to may seem foolish but I think it will easily be worth it. The other really cool thing? (self-back-patting tangent to follow) Ten years ago, maybe even five, I wouldn’t have understood what the article authors were talking about and today I find the topics very interesting. Maybe I am actually learning something. Oh frabjous day! (love that poem, whatever it’s supposed to mean)

I’ve previously mentioned my dissatisfaction with historians (IMO) wrongly trying to fit historical events into a favorite model. We all(I’m going outside history here – this applies to all disciplines) have our pet theories about various things but just because we find a model valid and useful, it doesn’t have to be universal and there’s no need to try to shoehorn items which don’t fit into it. A few outliers does not invalidate a model or theory. Most importantly, evidence should be looked at and evaluated on its own terms, without contamination from other evidence, models or, as much as possible, our own preconceptions (this last is the hardest for me).

Ann Marie Yasin includes an article, “Reassessing Salona’s Churches: Martyrium Evolution in Question” which calls into question, not the model itself (not completely anyway – see below) but the propensity of historians to assign an evolutionary process to a model, even when the evidence doesn’t support it. In this case, the model is the development of churches centered around the tomb of a saint or martyr. “The accepted model for the birth of Christian sacred architecture traces a line of evolution marked by successive stages of increasing monumentality: martyr’s tombs were transformed from ‘ordinary’ graves to small shrines, and then from modest cult centers to focal points of large, communal basilicas.”(63) While the specifics, including the number of intermediate steps, will vary, in essence this model states that what was once a martyr’s or saint’s tomb becomes a church with the tomb as a centerpiece.

In this article Yasin chooses to focus on three archaeological case studies from Salona, in what once was Dalmatia. Salona is useful for this purpose as, “… more recent scholarship regularly treats Salona’s burial churches as ‘textbook’ cases of martyrium development and deploys them as models with which to reconstruct the architectural developments at other sites.”(62) Salona has a fairly large number of churches housing relics, with substantial remains available for archaeological examination.

Three sites are chosen for closer examination; Kapljuč, Marusinac and Manastrine. Significant problems exist with each of these in reconciling the archaeological evidence with the martyrium evolution model. I will examine Yasin’s argument for each of these. 1

For Kapljuč, considered a focal site for the cult of St. Asterius, in essence there is no evidence that the basilica was built after the tomb – the tomb could as easily have been added after the structure was completed. In fact, the tomb may not initially have been a tomb at all. Yasin says, “Given the current state of the evidence, it is just as possible, or perhaps even more likely, that the pit was not a tomb that pre-dated the church but a reliquary deposit constructed at the time of the building’s foundation, or even added later.”(81-2) While there is evidence that Asterius was venerated at the site, the inscription stating this was added after the church was built and there is nothing to indicate that his remains were ever contained within the church.(85-6) Yasin does not disqualify the possibility that Kapljuč may have contained the remains of one or more saints, simply that there is not enough evidence either way and that applying the martyrium model, as has consistently been done, is,”… because they enable the site to mesh comfortably with, and in turn persuasively reinforce, the evolutionary structure of the conventional model for cult expansion.”(89)

Marusinac is an interesting case where historically, hagiography has been used as the authoritative source for the development of the site, rather than relying on archaeological evidence. Based on a later (possibly tenth-century) text, the area was originally the rural dwelling of a wealthy family which included a cemetery. According to the text, Asclepia, a wealthy member of the family, interred the remains of Anastasius (martyred under Diocletian at the start of the fourth century) and was later buried nearby with her husband. The martyr’s tomb inspired the development of a cemetery area around it and later his remains were translated to a church built on the site. Unfortunately, archaeology does not support this, according to Yasin, “The reading [hagiographic tradition] does not grow out of the material remains uncovered at the site so much as form the framework into which the archaeological evidence has been inserted. This triumphant, evolutionary narrative of cultic and architectural monumentalization thus prescribes rather than describes (my emphasis) the evidence …”(94). There is considerably more evidence for this site which Yasin discusses but the above is the essence of it; archaeologically, there is no basis for considering Marusinac to be a Church built due to the presence of a martyr’s relics. Instead hagiographical tradition has been used to provide a framework of development which fits with the martyrium evolutionary model. As with Kapljuč, there is not enough evidence to say with certainty that Marusinac’s development didn’t follow this model, however there isn’t enough to state that it did either.

The site of Manastrine is different from the above two because not only is there not enough evidence to support the traditional model, in this case evidence exists which contradicts it. This is the site of a large, three-aisled basilica which according to tradition was built in the mid-fifth century over the tomb of Domnio, martyred under Diocletian. Recent excavations have revealed that the portion of the basilica built over what was considered the martyr’s tomb was not the first portion constructed. Instead, the earliest built portions housed the tombs of a line of Salona’s bishops. It is possible that these tombs were constructed in some relation to the (supposed) tomb of Domnio, however this relationship is not obvious and even if this were so, one would expect the section over Domnio’s tomb to have been built first. Based on the date of construction of sections of the basilica, as well as the relative lack of emphasis placed on the (supposed) martyr’s tomb, there is no evidence for the traditional martyrium model (this does not, strictly speaking, eliminate the possibility). The construction seems to indicate that its focus was to celebrate the bishops rather than to highlight the single tomb of a martyr.(107-11)

Where this article appealed to me is that it is an example of how important it is to examine evidence independently, without preconceptions, and to not allow other, unrelated evidence to influence findings and conclusions. 2 Yasin does not specifically deconstruct the entire model, however she does infer that it is possible that with enough additional site examination, the model may be invalidated. At this point she says, “Moreover, not only does the conventional model for martyrium evolution provide an overly confident and homogenous picture of cult development, it also narrows the range of inquiry to a single trajectory. Because the model cannot account for anomalous aspects of the sites, it steers investigation away from them.“(111)(my emphasis) She believes more sites need to be examined critically without relying on this model, either to deconstruct it if necessary, or at the very least to update it and account for sites which don’t fit. 3

NOTE: OK, I’m embarrassed. I just did a search of Bill Caraher’s Blog to get the link for his review/summary of Yasin(2009) to include in note 3 and came across his discussion of this very article. So I suggest you read it and, where he and I disagree, if we do – as I’ve just spent three hours putting this post together I’ve obstinately decided not to edit mine but to post it and THEN read his – you should probably go with him. In my defense, I did mention that I was behind on reading blogs.

1 I’ll apologize for the length here rather than in the text. Initially I was only going to look at Yasin’s argument for one of the sites but this will allow me to expand on and summarize my notes. This very well may be more useful to me than readers but one of the functions of this blog is to include information I’ve come across so I can come back to it later.

2 Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2006). ISBN: 9-780199-212965. was the first to show me that regional development must be examined independent of other regions and without preconceptions. Guy Halsall took this one step further for me in Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2007). ISBN: 978-0-521-43543-7. He provided a statement I haven’t forgotten related to possible Barbarian settlement in Roman regions, “The archaeological data permit no association of these graves with trans-Rhenen settlers. Without assumptions based on the simplistic use of written sources no archaeologist would assume these were the graves of immigrants.”(159) Every now and then I read something which wakes me up, almost like a slap in the face. Halsall’s statement did this regarding the need to evaluate evidence on its own merits first before turning to other evidence be it textual or, as with this article, a preconstructed model. These made it on my most influential books list for those reasons.

3 If you want to go into more depth on sacred space-making two books I’d suggest are Yasin’s Saints and Church Spaces in the Late Antique Mediterranean: Architecture, Cult, and Community. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2009). ISBN: 9780521767835. This was reviewed/summarized by Bill Caraher a little while back. The other is Kim Bowes, Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2008). ISBN: 978-0-521-88593-5. For a review of this one, I’m going to recommend me. (No, I’m not at all pretentious!)

Yasin, Ann Marie, “Reassessing Salona’s Churches: Martyrium Evolution in Question,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 20(2012), pp 59-112.


Posted by on May 2, 2012 in Archaeology, Hagiography, Religion


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Conference Report: Vikings, Nosectomies, and a Saint

I’ve been horribly delinquent in my blogging lately. I’d like to say that will change in the near future but I fear this is not so. However it will change at some point. I’m equally behind on keeping up with the blogs I usually read.

On February 24 I went to campus for the second day of the Purdue Comitatus Annual Conference, subtitled, “North Atlantic Connections: Texts and Interpretations of the Medieval North.” Comitatus is a Purdue Medieval studies student group. I’ve been meaning to get to this conference for several years and the stars finally aligned so I could make it.

Based on the conference title I knew this likely wouldn’t be a program right in my wheelhouse however it was a bit closer than I expected. Most of the papers dealt with the Early Medieval Period and while the protagonists generally spoke Old English, Old German or Old Norse rather than Latin or Greek (not to say that I know Latin or Greek, just more about the people who spoke them) I was somewhat familiar with most of the topics.

Chad Judkins, a Purdue PhD student, opened with, “Writing the Viking Invasions and King Alfred’s Educational Program.” For the most part this was a continuation of the “Vikings received an overly bad reputation in historical sources” theme which has become prominent over the past couple of decades. Rather than bloodthirsty invaders in horned helmets intent on nothing more than killing folks for pleasure, it’s pretty widely recognized that their raiding was, mostly, economically motivated. Judkins expanded on this. 1

Judkins reviewed a variety of sources including Alfred’s preface to Gregory’s Pastoral Care, Alcuin and Asser. He showed that while Vikings were profoundly disliked, an economic decline seems to have been in effect well before their arrival. Alfred mentions a decline in literacy while Asser discusses how monastic life had become corrupted by wealth and was in decline prior to their arrival. As much of the destruction involved religious institutions including icons, books and churches, the ecclesiastical writers of the day will have believed both that a great deal of damage was done and that this was an attack on religion. Alfred implies that Vikings were a divine punishment, sent by God because of a decline in morality, virtue, monasticism and literacy, and Alfred is willing to use their return as a threat if this is not reversed. While this is a fairly standard type of paper, it was interesting and pointed out some specific sources I wasn’t aware of.

Next up was Phil Purser of Landers University, “Vapn-Wyf: Valkyrie Reflexes in Old English Literature.” He discussed how the Valkyrie was perceived in England and how she evolved from her Scandinavian origins. He believes that Valkyries were portrayed in three ways; as warriors, from a religious perspective, and from a contemporary popular perspective, particularly with laborers. How they were portrayed can provide some clues to their evolution from their Scandinavian origins.

As warriors, Valkyries are described as warrior women. As warrior women their role was not generally to carry a sword or spear but to provide wisdom and encouragement. He drew a parallel between Wealtheow in Beowulf and Valkyrie depictions, such as in the Old Norse verse, Eriksmal and in Danish visual representations of women resembling Valkyries bearing horns. Purser termed this as providing benevolent battle aid. 2

In religious representations Valkyries are depicted as horrible hags. Wulfstan (which I’ve not read) uses them in various ways to depict the evil of the Norse and gives them a relationship with witches. This is a distortion of the Danish Valkyrie who is something of a gatekeeper rather than a death-dealer, choosing men in their final hours for inclusion in Valhalla.

For the English working class the Valkyrie were invisible and harmful. Various charms are used to prevent or dispel their evil. Hag-shot, which is a source of mysterious physical pain is a Valkyrie affliction and flying “stinging women” were believed to cause side-stitch.

Marianne Kalinke from the University of Illinois gave a paper, “Tracking a Werewolf Through Space and Time” to discuss an example of manuscript transmission to Iceland. She uses the werewolf tale of Bisclaret to argue that this story came to Iceland directly from France rather than including a Norse intermediary. In the Icelandic tale Bisclaret is Tiòdel’s Saga. The general theme of the story is that a knight periodically disappears for several days at a time. After questioning from his wife he reveals to her that he is a man while clothed and a wolf while naked. He also tells her where he hides his clothes when he’s out wolfing it. The wife’s not too thrilled to find that she’s been spending her nights next to a wolfman and she coerces another knight to steal the clothes, trapping Bisclaret/Tiòdel in wolf form. When Bisclaret/Tiòdel doesn’t appear for some time he is declared dead and she marries the other knight. Later the king happens to come across an exceedingly friendly wolf which he takes back to his castle. To cut out several parts of the story, the wolf, while in the King’s company encounters his former wife and attacks her, tearing off her nose. As this behavior is very out of character for the wolf the wife is tortured (whole lot of things revealed about contemporary attitudes toward women but I won’t go into that here) and confesses her crime and reveals where the clothes have been hidden.

The common understanding of the original manuscript transmission has been that the story came to Iceland from an Old Norse source. Kalinke argues that it came directly from France rather than having a Norse intermediary. Her argument, which is very persuasive, at least to someone not familiar with other arguments, is based on elements of the story being common to the French and Icelandic versions and missing from the Norse version. The two elements she used were details of shapechanging and what happened to the wife when Bisclaret attacks her. I’ll focus on the wife. In the Old Norse version Bisclaret/Tiòdel tears off her clothes and leaves her standing naked in front of everyone. In the French and Icelandic versions her nose is torn off. Based on the original transmission route, she would have gone from having her nose torn off (French) to having her clothes torn off (Norse) back to losing her nose(Icelandic). Kalinke’s transmission directly from France to Iceland with a consistent nosectomy account is more logical.

There are obviously other areas to explore with this. For example, it’s possible that two versions went from France to Scandinavia and the clothes version is the only one from there which survives. But based on current manuscript evidence, Kalinke believes that a direct France to Iceland transmission makes the most sense.

Ben Wright, a Master’s student from Western Michigan University, used hagiography to illustrate Norse depictions in Early Medieval manuscripts in, “Illuminating the North: Northmen in Manuscript Pictures from Paris and Monte Cassino.” He focused on the evolution of the Life of St. Maurus. Hagiography has been one of my primary medieval interests so I’m afraid my notes do not reflect the main point of Wright’s paper.

The Life of Maurus was likely written by Odo of Cluny (Odo argued that it was written by a 6th century contemporary of Maurus) in the second half of the 9th century. In this vita the Devil is equated with Northmen and they are banished by Maurus.

What’s more interesting to me is how this vita evolved and its relative importance. Maurus ended up being used to provide additional ammo for various entities to make territorial claims. In particular a conflict between Monte Cassino and Saint-Maur-des-Fossès over control of Glanfeuil developed. In the story Maurus, a disciple of Benedict, founded Glanfeuil and his relics had been transported from there to Fossès when Odo and the monks were driven out by Northmen in 862. So Fossès had the relics. However Monte Cassino had been founded by Benedict.

In order to strengthen its claim, in 1033 Monte Cassino acquired an arm of Maurus as a relic. In 1071 Desiderius, the Abbott of Monte Cassino, had a richly decorated and illustrated book, the Codex Benedictus produced. However none of that worked. Fossès exerted control over Glanfeuil from 1058-86 however in the early 12th century Glanfeuil began to assert its independence which it achieved in 1133.

The Codex Benedictus.
The Codex Benedictus (photo from the University of Arizona)

Wright provided a slideshow which included various illustrations of how Northmen were depicted in various manuscripts and he discussed how up to 1133 Maurus had been shown as a Greek cleric (Monte Cassino would have been heavily influenced by the Eastern Empire) however after 1133 he was depicted in Western dress. This part of the presentation was good but for me the use made of Maurus in a power struggle was more interesting.

There was one final paper on the uses of humor in sagas which I won’t report on because I took really crummy notes, unfortunately (the paper and presentation were quite good). The day closed with some Old Norse readings (one of the grad students invited me to join their group – is there an unmet Ag School quota? – but I declined. I have enough trouble with Latin.)

1 A couple of months ago I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep. In flipping through the channels of very bad late night television, I came across a Viking movie where everyone, except Lee Majors who was the hero, wore horned helmets. I ended up watching the second half of it simply to marvel at how bad it was. Worst. Movie. Ever. At least dealing with Medieval History. And kind of funny.

2 In Eriksmal, “I stirred the Einherjar/Bade them Rise up,/Stir to their benches/Ready their ale-horns/For the Valkeries come bearing wine/at the coming of the prince.” This compares fairly well with Wealtheow’s role in lines 612-41 and 1161-1231 of Beowulf where she serves as hostess, cupbearer, and encourages the men.


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The Case of Radegund’s Missing Brother

As I mentioned in my first Radegund post, I originally intended to discuss this issue there. I’m interested enough in this item to give it its own space.

As I’ve read accounts of Radegund, one item has begun to trouble me. Radegund left Clothar because he murdered her brother. 1 I’ve read a theory that he was a threat because he was last of a royal Thuringian line and that he may have been active in a revolt against Clothar.

Here’s my problem with the brother. He has no name. Gregory and Fortunatus both mention him, but he’s an anonymous figure. A substantial poem, “The Thuringian War,” was written either by Radegund or by Fortunatus with Radegund’s input. A large portion of this poem, written from Radegund’s point of view, laments her dead brother, yet he remains nameless. 2 As I’ve read more books on the Merovingians, Radegund is consistently mentioned and each time I’ve read, “Radegund left Chlothar after he murdered her brother,” I asked myself, “And who was this brother, exactly?” For some time I’ve been wondering; Did he really exist?

I have two reasons for questioning this. First and what really stands out for me is the simple fact of his namelessness. Gregory and Fortunatus wrote after Radegund’s death, roughly 40 years after she left Clothar. They were both well acquainted with Radegund. Gregory was bishop of Tours, just down the road from The Convent of the Holy Cross and conducted her funeral, even though he wasn’t her bishop. Fortunatus corresponded with her regularly and wrote poems for her. In the decades the two of them knew her, with this being the trigger; the single key, life-altering incident by which she entered into a religious life, she never mentioned him by name to either of them? If her brother’s murder bothered her enough to drive her from her husband, you’d think he would be important enough to be named.

Second, leaving one’s husband was a big friggin’ deal. It was highly frowned upon. There are plenty of cases of women seeking to leave their husbands for a religious life and being forced to return. 3 For whatever reason, Clothar didn’t seem to try to get her back very hard and in fact helped her establish The Convent of the Holy Cross. All I can do is conjecture but he’d been married to her for 10-15 years, she’d had no children, he had either other wives or a houseful of concubines, depending on the account you read, and she didn’t seem to be very interested in sex or even very affectionate toward him. When given a choice she’d rather lie stretch out on an unheated stone floor in a hair shirt next to the privy than lie in bed with him. Beyond this, he never knew when she might chuck money at poor people or stir up his entire household whenever he decided to execute a criminal. 4 Maybe he decided that her being gone was OK by him.

But 40 years later, there had to be a reason. Gregory and Fortunatus, in promoting her as a Saint, had to come up with a darn good explanation for why a woman could legitimately leave her husband for the Church. They would also have scrupulously tried to avoid any implication that it was OK to just leave one’s husband without a very good reason. An anonymous Thuringian brother would do just fine for these purposes. Thuringia was a new addition to the Frankish holdings and people wouldn’t be very familiar with it. But if you mentioned a name, there was a chance someone might say, “Huh? Who was that? I fought in Thuringia and I don’t remember him. You say he was heir to the Thuringian throne?” But a nameless brother from an obscure region? That stood a much better chance of passing muster. 5

A bigger issue is the poem, The Thuringian War, generally attributed to Radegund but sometimes to Fortunatus. This gives me the same problem. Writing decades later, this reads very much as an ode to Radegund’s brother, a lament that she had not honored him more – and she doesn’t mention him by name? This namelessness of a loved relative is huge for me. Names are how people were remembered. People were entered into prayer rolls by name – not as, “the brother of Radegund” (for this, I won’t say this never happened but I’m unaware of it). Panegyrics, which Radegund and Fortunatus would have been familiar with, are remembrances of a person with a name. Yet in 34 lines about her brother he is not named one time. This of course brings Radegund inventing her brother rather than Gregory or Fortunatus into the picture, if she was indeed the author. She would have had sound reasons for doing so, including explaining to Constantinople why a fragment of The One True Cross should be entrusted to someone who had deserted her husband. 6

An additional but relatively minor argument is that Baudonivia makes no mention of a brother in her account of Radegund’s taking the veil. She would have read it in Fortunatus’ account but chose not to include it in hers. This seems somewhat odd as the reasons for Radegund’s entrance into religious life is a pretty vital aspect of her story. However I consider it minor because a counter argument is that Baudonivia would have considered Radegund to be acting from a purer motivation if she left for the love of Christ, not from bitterness over the loss of a loved one – altruistic vs. selfish reasons. 7

As always, this is not completely one-sided. Chlothar killing a Thuringian noble who may have been a threat to him is hardly shocking and may even be considered legitimate if Thuringians were involved in a Saxon revolt. Of course if we take that to the next logical step, Radegund’s leaving loses legitimacy if her husband was acting against her brother in a justifiable manner to secure his control over the kingdom. 8

The simple fact that the brother exists and was written about by at least two and perhaps three separate authors also must be taken into account. However I believe that, as close as these three were with one another based on the source evidence, it is reasonable to posit one of the three as the initial source with the other two not questioning the account but adding it to their writings. And when we come to the possibility of this being an invention, I’ve previously said that I do not believe Gregory was a liar. I’ve not studied Fortunatus as closely but I have no reason to consider him as anything other than basically truthful. However I doubt that either of them would consider embellishing a story in promotion of a Saint’s cult to be lying. This seems to be a well accepted hagiographical convention.

Finally, there’s the potential fallout from Fortunatus and Gregory, and possibly even Radegund, making up a story that would portray Chlothar in a negative way. They would not bring this up if they thought doing so would seriously threaten their own safety and welfare. (I don’t believe so anyway, though Gregory had shown a fair degree of bravery in his conflicts with Chilperic and Leudast.)

This last is the most difficult aspect for me to evaluate. Chlothar had a bunch of kids and some of them were pretty powerful. However all were dead by the time the Radegund accounts were written, though not the The Thuringian War, if we accept its inclusion in the Byzantine mission. There were plenty of grandchildren living, some of them also powerful but it’s difficult to say how they would perceive the killing of a Thuringian, last of a royal line that their grandfather had gone to war with. And it’s very possible they wouldn’t have known enough about events from forty years past to even raise a protest against the account of the murder. I don’t see a lot in the family line which would have prevented Gregory or Fortunatus from making up this part of the story. Maybe Fredegund would have been concerned with the reputation of Chilperic’s father, Chlothar, but Gregory’s writings already reveal that he didn’t much care what she thought of his writings. Another option is that Radegund herself started the story with her poem, The Thuringian War. By around 570 (when the poem is believed to have been written) she was largely immune from threats. And keep in mind, the poem went to Constantinople. No one in Francia needed to have known about it, if the poem actually went there and wasn’t something written by Fortunatus and not disseminated until his poems were published.

In the end, I think the existence of Radegund’s brother is in question, with the balance of the evidence against it. He is unnamed even in a poem where he is a major character, there is a real need, in the eyes of the biographers (and Radegund herself), to come up with an explanation for Radegund’s leaving her husband, and I can’t find a compelling reason why Gregory, Fortunatus, or Radegund would be threatened by coming up with this story – in fact the grandchildren may not have known enough to call it into question. I think Radegund’s brother was a literary invention to provide justification for her leaving her husband for the Church in order to aid in the promotion of her cult. (I could go on – I have more – but this is a blog post, not a paper.)

It puzzles me that I’ve not run across this argument before. If someone knows of anyone discussing this, please let me know. 9 The historicity of Radegund’s brother seems to be unquestioned by modern historians.

Abbreviations used in notes:

VR I – Vita Radegundii by Venantius Fortunatus
VR II – Vita Radegundii by Baudonivia (These are usually referred to as books I and II of her Vita) Both found in McNamara, et al. (1992).

1 VR I.12, “Thus her innocent brother was killed so that she might come to live in religion.”

2 For Gregory, Historiae III.7

3 Rather than listing names, let me quote James Brundage (1987), discussing the 6th-11th centuries, “Discussions of this possibility [leaving one’s spouse for religious life] emphasized that the decision must be mutual; no one could unilaterally terminate a marriage in order to enter a monastery or convent. Anyone who attempted to do so should be refused admission to the religious life and required to resume co-habitation with his or her spouse.” p. 202.

4 For Radegund’s sleeping habits see VR I.5. For condemned criminals see VR I.10.

5 I’ve seen secondary accounts that say Radegund’s brother was also captured and held as a hostage. If true, this would be much harder to hide but I haven’t seen this in any of the source material.

6 McNamara, et al.,(1992) contains a translation of the poem on pp 65-70. They indicate that the poem is commonly believed to have accompanied the mission to Constantinople to recover a fragment of The One True Cross to be delivered to a relative of Radegund’s, but it was found in an appendix of Fortunatus’ verses. p 65, n 22

7 VR II.3

8 The theory about Radegund’s brother being involved in a revolt or other treacherous activities is only mentioned in secondary analyses of the incident. I am unaware of any source material calling this anything but a murder. For Gregory, Historiae III.7, he was murdered by assassins. For Fortunatus, see note 1, above. In The Thuringian War he is referred to as murdered.

9 I went six pages deep with a Google search using the term, “Did Radegund’s brother exist?” without finding any discussion of the question.

Brundage, James A., Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (1987). ISBN: 9-780226-077840

George, Judith, trans., Venantius Fortunatus: Personal and Political Poems. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (1995). ISBN: 9-780853-231790

McNamara, Jo Ann, Halborg, John E. and Whatley, Gordon, ed. and trans., Sainted Women of the Dark Ages. Durham and London: Duke University Press (1992). ISBN: 978-0822312000

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


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If You Couldn’t Live as a Virgin at Least You Could Die as One

I originally had written a much longer post but I have one significant aspect of Radegund’s portrayal (or at least I consider it significant) that I decided deserves its own post, which will follow soon. Don’t worry, it’s mostly written since I simply copied it from this one.

One of my favorite Saints is Radegund. There are a lot of reasons for this. First and foremost, she’s a Merovingian woman and women and peasants are, IMO, the two most underrepresented groups in the Middle Ages, even more so in the Early MA. Second, we have a lot of source material for her. 1 Third, some of the source material says different things. And finally, it’s just a good story. She ranks high on my list of favorite Dead Holy People.

I recently finished reading Transformations of Late Antiquity: Essays for Peter Brown by Philip Rousseau and Manolis Papoutsakis. It’s a good book with some pretty solid essays. So I’m reading along and I get to Essay XVI, “Radegundis peccatrix: Authorizations of Virginity in Late Antique Gaul,” by Julia M. H. Smith. Good deal – I know Radegund pretty well. Then Dr. Smith writes, “Because she read about virginity, wrote about it and, although not herself a virgin, was extensively written about in virginal terms, she should be evaluated in the context of late antique virginity literature.” (304-305) Cool.

The remainder of the essay talks about how Radegund was portrayed by her various biographers – Gregory of Tours, Venantius Fortunatus and Baudonivia. The vita written by Fortunatus is equated with that of Eugenia who underwent symbolic martyrdom. Good essay.

But I’m going to go in a bit of a different direction and offer my own interpretation of Radegund and how she was portrayed. I can do that because this is my blog and also because I’m not a historian so I can chuck words around when the topic is fun and not damage my professional reputation too much. And I think the Radegund story is fun, from an analytical point of view – there’s a lot to work with.

A brief bio is probably the first order of business. Radegund was born around 520 in Thuringia and was captured around 531 by Clothar/Lothar. She received schooling and became a Christian before marrying Clothar around 540. Somewhere around 550-555 Clothar killed her brother and Radegund fled to Menard where she was consecrated as a deaconess. Around 560 she founded the Convent of the Holy Cross in Poitiers and was named Abbess. She ruled the convent until her death in 586/7 with two notable accomplishments; adopting the rule of Caesarius of Arles and being given a fragment of the One True Cross by Justin II.

We have three main sources for her. Gregory of Tours provides most of his information in his Histories but she also is mentioned in Glory of the Confessors and Glory of the Martyrs. Venantius Fortunatus wrote a vita and she is mentioned frequently in his poems. Baudonivia, a nun from Radegund’s convent, also wrote a vita. All of these, except the poems which are often addressed to her, were composed after her death. These sources have some interesting things to say about Radegund and I think they are very enlightening as to how biographers would portray a subject to promote his or her cult.

Fortunatus’ vita is of most interest to me. While it is never claimed that she is a virgin, virgin references fill the account. It starts early on, “Therefore, though married to a terrestrial prince, she was not separated from the celestial one … she was more Christ’s partner than her husband’s companion.” 2 And, “Because of this, people said that the King had yoked himself to a monacha rather than a queen.” 3 Also, “Who could believe how she would pour out her heart in prayers when the king was away? How she would cling to the feet of Christ as though He were present with her and satiate her long hunger with tears as though she was gorging on delicacies! She had contempt for the food of the belly, for Christ was her only nourishment and all her hunger was for Christ.” 4

So, though trapped in an Earthly marriage, she was at heart a bride of Christ. Of course once she moved into a convent that eased off and the martyrdom began. Even while living with the king she would wear a hair cloth for religious holidays and would regularly lie on the stone floor, praying, under a hair cloth. 5

Once she moved to the convent, things began in earnest. She ate no meat, fish or eggs and gave up bread and drank very little water during the Quadragesima (Lent). 6

But it gets better (or worse). Once during Lent she encircled her neck and arms with iron bands and inserted chains into them. Her body swelled around these to where the chains were embedded in her flesh. 7 During another Lent she took a brass plate “shaped in the sign of Christ,” heated it and pressed it against herself so her flesh was roasted. Another time she took a basin full of burning coals and, “She drew it to herself, so that she might be a martyr though it was not an age of persecution.” 8

Of course mixed in with the burning and freezing and starving and hair cloths were a bunch of acts of charity and miracles. I won’t go into these because they’re pretty standard fare but Radegund’s re-virgination and martyrdom are very interesting, particularly because, while virginity was prized, married Saints, even with kids, are known. 9

In contrast, while Baudonivia mentions the hair shirts and fasting, as well as other acts of abstinence and asceticism, she doesn’t say anything about the self-mutilations Fortunatus relates. Fortunatus chose to portray her as removed from the world but Baudonivia, who knew of his vita and wrote hers as a complement to it, discusses her letter writing, her actions on behalf of the Church and individuals, her traveling to collect relics and, most importantly, her efforts to gain a fragment of The One True Cross from Justin II, the Byzantine Emperor.

Two very different accounts and it’s pretty clear from the use of language and from the incidents mentioned that Fortunatus wanted Radegund to be considered a virgin, or as close to this as someone who had been sexually active could be, and he also wanted her to be considered a martyr. Neither was a requirement to be named a Saint but Fortunatus was clearly a big fan.

Radegund is a great figure to examine. Her vitae and other accounts have everything. You have your violence, you have a martyrdom account, re-virgination – the only thing you don’t have is sex and for that, check out Gregory’s account about what happened to the Convent after Radegund died. 10

Abbreviations used in notes:

VR I – Vita Radegundii by Venantius Fortunatus
VR II – Vita Radegundii by Baudonivia (These are usually referred to as books I and II of her Vita) Both found in McNamara, et al. (1992).

1 Of course it would be nice to have even more. Radegund wrote a lot of letters but unfortunately only one has survived.

2 VR I.3

3 VR I.4 According to McNamara, Halborg and Whatley(1992), the word monacha is a term which later fell out of usage to be replaced by sanctimonial which they translate as nun.

4 VR I.6

5 VR I.5,6

6 VR I.22. At one time Quadragesima could mean any Christian ritual of fasting and prayer but as Fortunatus consistently identifies this as if it were the only one, without providing additional information, it seems almost certain that this was the Lenten Fast.

7 VR I.25

8 VR I.26. This type of self-abuse is rare in hagiography. Saints almost always engaged in some sort of ascetic, strict lifestyle which is portrayed as unpleasant and quite frequently they wore hair shirts or engaged in self-flagellation however behavior such as Fortunatus portrays Radegund as engaging in is unusual.

9 For example, Monegund and Chrothilda. Also, Angela Kinney recounts several of these, though later than this period, in her paper, “The Elusive ‘Happy Marriage’ in Hagiography,” given at the 2010 International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

10 What you basically had was a Medieval version of Girls Gone Wild. A revolt in the nunnery, prostitution, pregnant nuns, etc. Gregory gives quite the account. See, Historiae IX.39-43 and X.15-17.

Special Note: Sometimes events happen that slap you in the face. This post had mostly been written when the news story about women undergoing “virginity checks” in Egypt came out. I scrupulously steer clear of current events in this blog. However I want to stress that though I am somewhat light in my use of the term “re-virgination” and with the title of this post I am not, in any way whatsoever, as light about the abuses and atrocities committed upon women in the name of sexuality and sexual reputation. In a world where “honor killings” are committed because a woman has the temerity to be sexually active, where women go to prison for being raped, where female genital mutilation and operations to restore hymens are commonplace, it is impossible for these things to be taken lightly. I’m going to leave the post as written (I considered a total re-write) because I do think the examination of how biographers portrayed their subjects is fun however these things happening in our world today are atrocities. I hope the tone I wrote this post in will not offend anyone. This note may well take some of the fun out of it, and that’s OK.


George, Judith, trans., Venantius Fortunatus: Personal and Political Poems. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (1995). ISBN: 9-780853-231790

McNamara, Jo Ann, Halborg, John E. and Whatley, Gordon, ed. and trans., Sainted Women of the Dark Ages. Durham and London: Duke University Press (1992). ISBN: 978-0822312000

Rousseau, Philip and Papoutsakis, Manolis, eds., Transformations of Late Antiquity: Essays for Peter Brown. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company (2009). ISBN: 9-780754-665533

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


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Hagiography or "What I’ve been doing since my TV Blew Up"

Well, this no TV thing has had unexpected consequences. Strangely, I haven’t been reading more – I’ve been working more, both on my work-work and my play-work. On Saturday I started putting together a list of all of the saints’ lives in my possession – and yes, I know not all of these are saints; I’ll get to that in a minute. I spent the better part of the day on this, never getting dragged away to watch a college football game, or much of anything. In the end I found out I had 149 saints’/non-saints’ lives in my possession (sort of), as well as a few lives of royalty. If you’ve been following this blog for a while you know I enjoy hagiography but I had no idea I had this much of it.

Why did I do this? To save $19. I think, after finishing this post, this paid out to something like $1.50/hour. I was looking at buying a book which allowed you to look into. So I’m checking the Table of Contents and I think that I have most of the vitae already – but I can’t remember where, and the prospect of looking through my books for them isn’t particularly attrective. The thought also crossed my mind, Gregory’s History has several discussions of people covering several pages which amount to vitae, gee I wish I’d noted them. So I decided I needed to database my saints.

Once I finished this I thought I should post it. That wouldn’t take much, would it? Problem: Blogger will let you post tables but won’t widen the browser window. That was pretty useless. I tried several other ways and was discouraged and finally figured it out this afternoon when I got home. Unfortunately it isn’t what I’d hoped it would be which is a table anyone could paste into their own spreadsheet but I’m posting it anyway. It was a vendetta or something by this point.

I offer you a truncated, adapted for this blog, version of the database. The excel file, which I’ll happily send on to anyone who e-mails me, includes items such as the date the subjects lived, date vitae were authored, where said saint/non-saint lived and, once I get to it, will include if they actually are saints and in which church. There’s also a column for the name of the subject of each vita but fortunately, all of the subjects have their name in the title. Nice of Sulpicius Severus not to write one titled, On this holy dude who left the army to become a bishop famous enough to likely save Gregory of Tours’ ass nearly 200 years later. Now that I think of it, listing the original language might be cool too.

I beg everyone’s indulgence for the many errors, above all improper source citation. All I can say is that this is from a spreadsheet for my own use and adding publication information wasn’t important; I can look at my bookshelves to find what I need. Also, within a given book, the saints/non-saints are ordered alphabetically, not the order in which vitae appear in the book. Titles are entered as they are listed in the respective books. Because I was interested in the subjects as well as their vitae you’ll see, for example, two listings of Gregory of Tours’ “About Romanus and Lupicinus, abbots” as I listed both names in my spreadsheet. If an author isn’t listed for a vita, it’s anonymous (entering “anon” for all these seemed a bit tedious). And I know some of these aren’t exactly vitae, but they all include at least some hagiographic elements. I also debated listing the names of, for example, all of Jerome’s “Illustrious Men” and decided that would send me into prosopography, a place I definitely do not want to go.

I’m going to add a new section to my blog titled, “Resources” which will be (at least for now) solely for things I’ve put together myself, not a list of stuff available on the web or elsewhere. This will allow me to post brief notices when I update something. Or at least this thing if it leads a lonely life on that page.

Oh, and the book? I bought it. The Willehad’s, Willibald’s and Willibrord’s had me confused. Lucky I didn’t end up with a book on wildebeest. Or Willy Wonka.

Anyway, here it is:

Chevallier, Temple, trans., A Translation of the Epistles of Clement of Rome, Polycarp and Ignatius, and of the First Apology of Justin Martyr. ISBN: 9781432677879
“A Relation of the Martyrdom of Ignatius”

Crossley-Holland, Kevin, trans., The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology. ISBN: 9780192835475
“The Passion of St. Edmund” by Aelfric of Eynsham

Davis, Raymond, trans., The Lives of the Ninth-Century Popes. ISBN: 9780853234791
“Benedict III”
“Euguene II”
“Gregory IV”
“Hadrian II”
“Leo IV”
“Sergius II”
“Stephen V”

Davis, Raymond, trans., The Lives of the Eighth Century Popes. ISBN: 9781846311543
“Gregory II”
“Gregory III”
“Hadrian I”
“Leo III”
“Stephen II”
“Stephen III”
“Stephen IV”

Defarrari, Roy, et. al., Early Christian Biographies. LC#: 64-19949
“Life of St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan” by Paulinus the Deacon
“Life of St. Anthony” by Athanasius
“Life of St. Augustine” by Possidius
“Life of St. Cyprian” by Pontius
“Life of St. Epiphanius” by Ennodius
“Life of St. Hilarion” by Jerome
“A Sermon on the Life of St. Honoratus” by St. Hilary
“Life of Malchus, the Captive Monk” by Jerome
“Life of St. Paul, the First Hermit” by Jerome

Dutton, Paul Edward, ed., Carolingian Civilization: A Reader. ISBN: 9781551110035
“Benedict of Aniane: His Life and His Times” by Ardo
“Life of Charlemagne” by Einhard
“The Life of Saint Leoba” by Rudolf of Fulda
“Life of Louis” by Thegan

Eusebius, Cameron & Hall, trans., Eusebius: Life of Constantine. ISBN: 9780198149248
“Life of Constantine” by Eusebius of Caesaria

Fear, A.T., trans., Lives of the Visgothic Fathers. ISBN: 9780853235828
“The Life of St. Aemilian the Confessor” by Braulio of Saragossa
“Life and Martyrdom of Saint Desiderius” by King Sisebut
“The Life of St. Fructuousus of Braga”
“Lives of the Fathers of Merida”
“On the Lives of Famous Men” by Ildefonsus of Toledo 1

Gardner, Edmund, ed., The Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great. ISBN: 9781889758947
“Of the Life and Miracles of St. Benedict” by Gregory the Great
“The Dialogues of Saint Gregory, surnamed the Great, Books I and III” by Gregory the Great 2

James, Edward, trans., Gregory of Tours: Life of the Fathers. ISBN: 9780853233275
All of the following are authored by Gregory:
“About St. Abraham, an abbot”
“About St. Aemilianus and Brachio, abbots”
“About St. Aemilianus and Brachio, abbots”
“About St. Caluppa, a recluse”
“About St. Friardus, a recluse”
“About St. Gallus, a bishop”
“About St. Gregory, a bishop”
“About St. Illidius, a bishop”
“About Leobardus, a recluse”
“About Ursus and Leobatius, abbots”
“About Romanus and Lupicinus, abbots”
“About St. Lupicinus, a recluse”
“About St. Martius, an abbot”
“About Monegundis, a nun”
“About St. Nicetius, bishop of Lyons”
“About St. Nicetius, bishop of the Trevari”
“About St. Patroclus, an abbot”
“About St. Portianus, an abbot”
“About St. Quintianus, a bishop”
“About Romanus and Lupicinus, abbots”
“About St. Senoch, an abbot”
“About Ursus and Leobatius, abbots”
“About St. Venantius, an abbot”

Kardong, Terrence, trans., The Life of St. Benedict by Gregory the Great. ISBN: 9780814632628
“The Life of Benedict” by Gregory the Great

Keynes, Simon and Lapidge, Michael, trans., Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources. ISBN: 9780140444094
“Life of King Alfred” by Asser

Kleist, James A., trans., Ancient Christina Writers 6: The Didache, The Epistle of Barnabus, The Epistles and the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, The Fragments of Papius, The Epistle to Diognetus. ISBN: 9780809102471
“The Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp Bishop of Smyrna”

Klingshirn, William, trans., Caesarius of Arles: Life, Testament, Letters. ISBN: 9780853233688
“The Life of Caesarius” by Cyprianus, Firminus, Viventius, Messianus, Stephanus

Martyn, John R. C., trans., King Sisebut and the Culture of Visigothic Spain, with Translations of the Lives of Saint Desiderius of Vienne and Saint Masona of Merida. ISBN: 9780773450332
“The Life and Passion of Saint Desiderius” by King Sisebut
“The Life of Saint Masona”

McNamara, Halborg & Whatley, trans., Sainted Women of the Dark Ages. ISBN: 9780822312000
“Aldegund, Abbess of Maubeuge” by Hucbald of Saint-Amand
“Here Begins the Life of the Holy and Blessed Anstrude, Virgin of Our Lord Jesus Christ”
“Austreberta, Virgin and Abbess of Pavilly”
“Here Begins the Life of the Blessed Queen Balthild”
“Saint Bertilla, Abbess of Chelles”
Burgundofara – Begins in chapter 11, no title given by Jonas of Bobbio
“The Life of Saint Clothildis”
“Saint Eustadiola, Widow of Bourges”
“The Life of Genovefa, a Virgin of Paris in Gaul”
“Gertrude, Abbess of Nivelles”
“Saint Glodesind, Virgin of Metz in Belgica Prima”
“Monegund, a Widow and Recluse of Tours in Gaul” by Gregory of Tours
“The Life of the Holy Radegund” Venantius Fortunatus
“The Life of the Holy Radegund Book II” by Baudonivia
“The Life of Rictrude, Abbess of Marchiennes” by Hucbald of Saint-Amand
“The Life of Rusticula, or Marcia, Abbess of Arles” by Florentius of Tricastina
“Saint Sadalberga” by Jonas of Bobbio
“Waldetrude, Abbess of Mons”

Murray, Alexander Callander, ed., From Roman to Merovingian Gaul: A Reader. ISBN: 9781551111025
“The Life of Lady Balthild, Queen” (incomplete)
“The Passion of Leudegar” (incomplete)

Noble, Thomas & Head, Thomas, eds., Soldiers of Christ: Saints and Saints’ Lives from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. ISBN: 9780271013459
“The Life of Saint Augustine” by Possidius
“The Life of Saint Benedict, Abbot of Aniane and of Inde” by Ardo
“The Life of Saint Boniface” by Willibald
“The Life of Saint Gerald of Aurillac” by Odo of Cluny
“The Life of Saint Germanus of Auxerre” by Constantius of Lyon
“The Life of Saint Leoba” by Rudolf
“The Life of Saint Martin of Tours” by Sulpicius Severus
“The Life of Saint Sturm” by Eigil
“The Life of Saint Willehad”
“The Hodoeporicon of Saint Willibald” by Huneberc of Heidenheim
“The Life of Saint Willibrord” by Alcuin

Pizarro, Joaquín Martínez, trans., The Story of Wamba: Julian of Toledo’s Historiae Wambae regis. ISBN: 9780813214122
“The Story of Wamba” by Julian of Toledo

Schaf, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume III: Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus: Historical Writings, etc.. ISBN: 056709412X
“Lives of Illustrious Men” by Jerome
“Lives of Illustrious Men” by Gennadius 3

Stouck, Mary-Ann, ed., Medieval Saints: A Reader. ISBN: 9781551111018
“St. Antony the Great” by Athanasius
“The Life and Miracles of St. Benedict” by Gregory the Great
“Christina the Astonishing” by Thomas de Cantimpré
“Lives of St. Christopher: The Irish Libar Breac” by Murchadh Ó Cuindlis
“Lives of St. Christopher: The South English Legendary” by Jacobus de Voragine
“The Trials and Execution of Cyprian” by Pontius
“Life of St. Edmund, King and Martyr” by Aelfric of Eynsham
“The Passion of SS. Perpetua and Felicitas”
“The Conversion of St. Francis of Assisi and the Founding of His Order” by Thomas of Celano
“Life of St. Francis: The Stigmata” by St. Bonaventure
“St. Gall” by Walahfrid Strabo
“Godric of Finchale” by Reginald of Durham
“Life of St. Maiol, Abbot of Cluny” by Odilo of Cluny
“St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland” by Turgot
“Life of St. Margaret of Antioch” (Old French edition)
“Life of St. Martin of Tours” by Sulpicius Severus
“Mary of Egypt” by Sophronius
“St. Paul of Thebes” by Jerome
“Paul the Simple” by Palladius
“The Passion of SS. Perpetua and Felicitas”
“The Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp Bishop of Smyrna”
“Life of St. Radegund” by Venantius Fortunatus
“Symeon Stylites” by Theodoret of Cyrrhus
“Umilta of Faenza” by Margaret of Faenza
“St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins” by Herric
“The Martyrs of Lyons and Vienne” by Eusebius of Caesaria

Thorpe, Lewis, trans., Einhard and Notker the Stammerer: Two Lives of Charlemagne. ISBN: 9780140442137
“The Life of Charlemagne” by Einhard
“Charlemagne” by Notker

Van Dam, Raymond, Saints and Their Miracles in Late Antique Gaul. ISBN: 9780691021126
“The Miracles of St. Hilary” by Venantius Fortunatus
“The Miracles of the Bishop St. Martin” by Gregory of Tours
“The Suffering and Miracles of the Martyr St. Julian” by Gregory of Tours
“The Suffering of the Martyr St. Julian”

Webb, J. F. & Farmer, D. H., trans., The Age of Bede. ISBN: 9780140447279
“The Voyage of St. Brendan”
“The Anonymous History of Abbot Ceolfrid”
“Life of Cuthbert” by Bede
“Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow” by Bede 4
“Life of Wilfrid” by Eddius Stephanus

White, Carolinne, trans., Early Christian Lives. ISBN: 9780140435269
“Life of Antony” by Athanasius
“Life of Benedict” by Gregory the Great
“Life of Hilarion” by Jerome
“Life of Malchus” by Jerome
“Life of Martin of Tours” by Sulpicius Severus
“Life of Paul of Thebes” by Jerome

1 Contain various short lives and miracle stories.
2 Each of these contain various short lives.
3Each of these contain various short lives.
4Contains various lives.


Posted by on November 15, 2010 in Hagiography


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