Category Archives: Society and Social Structure

Slavery and Early Christianity

When I started reading about Medieval History, coming up on 20 years ago, I had buckets of misconceptions. If you’ve been reading this blog for long you’ll know that I’ve never been particularly shy about mentioning them. One of these had to do with the evolution of the institution of slavery as it pertains to the ancient and medieval west.

My thinking back then was that Christianity had a major impact on the reduction in the number of slaves in the medieval period when compared with the Roman Empire. My reasoning went something like this:

Most Pagan religious sects did not believe in the immortality of the soul. Even if they did, those religions were followed by elites who gave little thought to the spiritual well-being of the rest of the people, who made up about 95% of the population. There was no value placed on these individuals so it was easy for them to be seen as objects rather than people and to be enslaved. Christianity was different. No matter someone’s station, he or she possessed a soul that was capable of salvation. The soul of a slave was just as valuable to God as the soul of an Emperor. Christians did not view slaves as mere possessions or things but as people. As they viewed slaves as people, not owned things, Christians were less favorable to slavery and once they became the majority religious group in the Empire the institution began to decline.

Makes sense, right? Or maybe it doesn’t but it did to me. And as with so many aspects of history, I have come to believe that this opinion of mine was wrong. At the very least, it is not supported by the evidence. There appears to be no significant difference between how Christians and non-Christians viewed slavery as an institution, at least to the early fourth century. In fact, while there are some writings to the contrary, there doesn’t appear to be all that much of a difference between the opinions of Christians and non-Christians about slaves as individuals/objects/people.

Mosaic depicting Roman slaves from second century, AD Tunisia. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Mosaic depicting Roman slaves from second century, AD Tunisia. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As a starting point I’ll offer a quick summary of how Romans appeared to view slaves and slavery. Slaves were objects. They were property. They were possessions. They had no rights. Whatever use a Roman chose to put a slave to, it was legal, though at times socially frowned upon. A male slave-owner could use a slave sexually as he pleased. A woman did not have quite this level of freedom but while it was vehemently frowned upon when discovered, it appears to have been legal, so long as the woman was not married. Slaves could be bought and sold without regard to family relations. Slaves could only marry with their owner’s permission and the children of such marriages (or from sex with their owner) were able to be sold at will. While there are some protections afforded slaves in Roman law, these are relatively minimal and seem to only occasionally have been enforced. 1

As an institution, slavery was viewed as a normal aspect of Human society. Of everything I’ve read, this may be what I found most striking. As opposed to, for example, the United States in the 19th century, there was no debate about the moral evil of slavery or whether people should be able to be treated as property. I’m saying there wasn’t a whisper. It was a conversation that did not exist. There was plenty of discussion on how slaves should be treated, some of which I’ll talk about, but there was a complete absence of any thought that slavery was inappropriate or something people and society should not engage in.

It’s true that Christian doctrine viewed slaves as individuals and believed they had souls capable of salvation. It’s true that many Christian authors wrote on the need to treat slaves well. However these same authors wrote that slaves should accept their station in life. There is, quite simply, little evidence that Christians, at least in any number, disapproved of the institution of slavery. From what I’ve read, if you remove the labels “Pagan” and “Christian” attached to various authors, there is little difference in what the majority of them wrote regarding slaves and slavery. Writings of the two often contain cautions against beating a slave because of one’s own anger and that owners would be better served by controlling their own passions rather than responding rashly however each group seems to recognize the inherent validity of slavery as an institution. As with Romans, Early Christians provide no evidence that they believed that slavery was wrong – or that they even considered this question.

I’m going to offer a couple of examples and my first is from a very early source. In Matthew 26:51-52 One of Jesus’ disciples pulls out his sword and cuts off the ear of a slave of Caiaphus, the High Priest. Jesus tells the disciple, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword shall perish by the sword.”

There is a key point here beyond the obvious lesson. Note that Jesus’ concern is not for someone whose ear has just been cut off. A miracle worker, he does not touch the slave’s ear and heal him, or express any consideration for him whatsoever. His concern is for the person with the sword, that his act of anger and violence will, in the end, injure him. The author of this gospel does not consider the slave’s pain and suffering. The sword-wielding disciple is not punished by Caiaphus, so far as we know – cutting off a slave’s ear seems to not matter much at all. The slave only exists as an object by which the lesson may be demonstrated.

The Didache says, “Do not, when embittered, give orders to your slave, male or female, for they hope in the same God; otherwise, they might lose the fear of God, who is the Master of both of you. He surely is not coming to call with an eye to rank and station in life, no. But you, slaves, be submissive to your masters as to God’s image in reverence and fear.” Here we have recognition that slaves may receive salvation however slavery as an institution is accepted as part of society. The primary concern is that the slavemaster not act out of passion, or displace God as an object of fear, not the suffering the slave might endure. 2

Ignatius writes to Polycarp cautioning against manumission as the hope of freedom may both cause false conversion and detract from slaves seeking after God. “. . . let them submit themselves the more, for the glory of God, that they may obtain from God a better liberty. Let them not wish to be set free [from slavery] at the public expense, that they be not found slaves to their own desires.” Slavery is a part of society, something Ignatius appears to have no interest in changing. 3

And while the previous quotes at least show that slaves are considered individuals who might receive salvation from God, there are plenty of examples of Christians considering slaves to be worthless objects, of no concern. In 310, the recently defeated Maximian hatched a plot to assassinate Constantine by killing him in his bed. Lactantius recounts that instead of the Emperor, they placed, “a worthless eunuch who was to die in the Emperor’s stead.” I can think of other ways to catch Maximian red-handed but in this case Lactantius sees nothing wrong in sacrificing a slave for this purpose. 4

And then there’s the apocryphal, The Acts of Andrew. I covered this in detail in a post a couple of years ago. In this story Maximilla, the wife of Aegeates, on being influenced by Andrew decides to live an ascetic life and withdraws from her marriage bed. She bribes her slave, Eucleia, to lie with her husband instead(somehow Aegeates fails to notice that she’s not his wife). When Eucleia starts bragging to the other slaves and word slips out, Aegeates tortures her and, once she’s told him everything, cuts off her hands, feet, tongue, and tosses the head and torso into the street where she dies a few days later. The author considers this to be a just reward for Eucleia’s betraying her mistress. He evidently didn’t have much concern for Eucleia as a person, or consider someone sleeping with a slave to be improper (if it was, Maximilla would have been directly responsible for it and, by association, Andrew). As this story remained popular into the early Medieval period, it doesn’t appear that folks in the fifth century worried much about it either. 5

So my original belief was wrong, at least through the early 4th century. At the very least it isn’t supported by the evidence, and I was looking for it. Despite how frequently I’m wrong and how open I am about it, believe me – I’d prefer to be correct. I suppose my theory isn’t dead as Christianity could have had an impact in later centuries but I can’t say that I recall evidence in support of it then either.

If I were to post about what really caused the decline of slavery during this period I would point to the loss of wealth. The giant rural villas and agricultural estates required a large, inexpensive labor force just as much as the farming of the Nile Delta in ancient Egypt and the large plantations of the pre-Civil War United States south did. With the loss of these large estates, there was no longer a need for slavery on this scale. Slavery didn’t decline because it was considered wrong but because it was no longer needed. 6

In essence this is an aspect of a larger issue. Christians didn’t come to dominate the Empire because they were different from traditional Romans but because they were similar to them. Christianity’s success and its conversion to a political institution didn’t occur because of some societal change requiring new leadership but because Christians were good Romans. Christianity’s impact on the later Empire is not one of change but of consistency. Christians didn’t want to destroy, or even change Rome any more than the Germanics did. But unlike the Germanics, these Christians were Roman and possessed the tools to ensure the continuity and continued prosperity of the Empire.

1 For example, Antoninus Pius decreed that slaveholders who killed a slave without cause could be liable for homicide however I am unaware of an instance where this was enforced.

2 The Didache, 4.10-11.

3 Ignatius’ Epistle to Polycarp, 4.3.

4 Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors, 30.3-5. My actual quote is from Jones (1978), p. 62. I prefer it to the one in Roberts and Donaldson (2004), p. 313.

5 There are a bunch of issues here I’m not going to explore. One is whether Paul the Apostle considered sex with a slave to be adultery (or if other early Christians did). Glancy (2006) covers this in some detail and says, “First, Paul instructed the (male) Thessalonian Christians to abstain from porneia or sexual immorality. Whether Paul understood porneia to encompass precisely the field of activities connoted by the modern concept of “fornication” is unclear and even unlikely.” And, “Paul’s advice could be Construed as instructions to the male Thessalonian Christians to find morally neutral outlets for their sexual urges. And in the first century, domestic slaves were considered to be morally neutral outlets for sexual urges – vessels, we might say.” p. 60.

6 There’s also the possibility that the Germanics who came to control what had been the Western Empire had a different view of slaves and slavery. I’m putting that thought on hold for now but will look for it when I get back to reading about them.

Glancy, Jennifer A., Slavery in Early Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2006). ISBN: 978-0-8006-3789-7.

Jones, A.H.M., Constantine and the Conversion of Europe. Toronto: Medieval Academy of America (1978). ISBN: 978-0-8020-6369-1.

Joshel, Sandra R., Slavery in the Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2010). ISBN: 978-0-521-82774-4.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 7: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, 2 Clement, Early Liturgies. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-084-X.

Schneemelcher, Wilhelm and Wilson, R. McL., eds., New Testament Apocrypha Volume Two: Writings Related to the Apostles; Apocalypses and Related Subjects. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press (2003). ISBN: 978-0-664-22722-7.


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Early Christianity: The Nature of Persecutions

This post will be something I’d classify less as history than sociology with a bit of anthropology thrown in. 1 There’s a reason for this which I hope will also serve as an explanation for why this blog has been silent for so long. To put it bluntly, the way I post is to first write a narrative with the general ideas and concepts I want to cover and then throw a pile of books on my desk and start plugging in references to, hopefully, support what I’m saying (occasionally I’ve discovered that sources were saying something different from what I initially thought but fortunately this is very rare). The writing of the initial narrative is easy. I just chuck words at the page. If that was all I did with a post I’d have a thousand words done in under an hour. The hard work is re-reading and citing the sources and multiple edits to make sure I have the words right. Real historians are trained to get the words right. I am trained this way a little but since most of what I write about in my real job is very different, some of the language rules are too, or at least not as critically important.

Over the past 10 months or so I’ve written several narratives of posts I want to get to but have run out of time to do the hard part. Since about Christmas I have had the time but whenever I sit down to get to it, the thought of the amount of work I’m about to face – typically 4-6 hours, depending on the post – has discouraged me. Regular posting is like many other things; a habit. So here I’m tackling a topic for which there isn’t a lot of textual evidence but relies more on human behavior and the nature of people. It won’t have a couple of dozen sources for me to chase down but is something I think is important for people to think about when reading accounts of the persecution of early Christians. And it’s the first step for me to get back in the habit of posting regularly.

For me, there are two sorts of persecutions that went on prior to 313. One is the larger scale, systematic (though likely less systematic than portrayed) government-initiated forms of suppression. The other is smaller-scale, localized, and sporadic. At some point I hope to tackle the former though each of these persecutions should be studied on its own terms as I don’t think there’s much of a pattern or model. However this post will discuss these smaller events.

If you sat down and read a bunch of Early Christian sources, particularly Apologies, you could be forgiven for thinking that persecution of Christians by the authorities was pretty much a constant state of affairs from the early second century until the Edict of Milan in 313. The unfair treatment of Christians is a prominent, in many cases dominant, theme. This appears not to be the case though of course it’s tough to prove a negative. However Romans were pretty famous for their record-keeping and there is little in the way of textual evidence indicating that persecution against Christians took place very often or that Christianity was something the authorities worried about very much. And while Christians often wrote that their numbers actually increased during persecutions, does anyone really think the religion would have become what it did if the Romans intensely, comprehensively, and systematically tried to shut it down?

One of the best examples of how early persecution, or what Christians called persecution, may have taken place comes from an exchange of letters around 110-112 AD between Pliny the Younger, as Governor of Bithynia-Pontus, and the Emperor Trajan. In this exchange, Pliny describes how accusations have been leveled against some as being Christians. He has those accused brought before him and asks if they are Christian. If not, and so long as they sacrifice, they are set free. If they are and they do not repent and offer sacrifice after a couple of opportunities, he has them executed. He seems to consider them to be basically harmless and followers of a debased superstition. Trajan’s reply is to congratulate Pliny and to state that Christians are not to be sought out but if brought before him, they must be punished. 2

So what does the preceding example indicate? First, the Roman government had no particular interest in going after Christians. Yes, being a Christian is illegal but Trajan seems to think his governor has more important things to worry about. While not evident from this exchange, the most important issue to many emperors was peace. As Christians were not engaging in activities threatening that peace, they should be left alone if possible.

Second, this appears to be something of a popular persecution. Christians are brought to the Governor’s attention by an informer. Pliny is then forced to investigate the matter. Why would someone make this sort of accusation? This is where we get into the sociology part of this post and start talking about things there isn’t firm textual evidence for. 3

These sort of popular persecutions seem to me to be based on human nature, particularly the whole concept of “us vs them.” To a traditional Roman, there were several behaviors which would have appeared strange and would have caused Christians to be considered a “them.” 4

The most obvious area of strangeness would have been religious activity. The rank and file Roman appears not to have spent much time in the process of worship. However he/she likely did a few things. Depending on the individual, he/she would have offered prayers to/for the dead, particularly their ancestors. He/she may have offered some form of obeisance or modest gift to images and statues of Roman Gods. He/she would also have been expected to offer prayers and sacrifices for/to the current Roman Emperor. 5 During public religious festivals he/she would have taken part in whatever form the festival took locally including but not limited to; parades and processions, public sacrifice, the feast which included sacrificial meat and; the games.

How was a Christian expected to behave and how would this have appeared to other Romans? Christian worship took place secretly, until the 3rd century in someone’s home, out of sight of the rest of the community. They had secret, mysterious, and possibly evil rites (there are plenty of non-Christian sources claiming that Christians engaged in cannibalism, human sacrifice, mass orgies, etc.). They did not attend what in most communities was the biggest local social event of the year, the festival honoring the local God. 6 They stayed away from the games. They did not sacrifice or offer gifts to the Gods (or buy these items from local shops like everyone else did). They refused free food (sacrificial meat) which everyone else was eager to get. They seemed to ignore paying homage to the Emperor. 7 They hung out with and even worshiped (or so the Romans seem to have thought) the bodies of the dead, something most Romans likely found repulsive. In some places it is likely that they spoke a foreign language. 8

This abnormal behavior would have extended into other aspects of life and culture. Christians did not attend the theatre. Serving in the military was discouraged due to the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” They would have stayed out of many shops which sold items for traditional religious worship. As many civic roles had a religious component, they would have tried to avoid these. This must have impacted day-to-day life in areas such as employment, relationships, and possibly even casual conversation. 9

In other words, Christians were weird.

Much of the time this weirdness seems not to have mattered all that much. After all, they weren’t bothering anyone and if they decided they didn’t want free food, that meant there was more for everyone else. But every now and then something happened to get the local community excited. There is an absence of evidence regarding specific instances but it doesn’t take too much imagination to come up with reasonable ideas of what may have happened. Say, for example, there was a local harvest failure. Who was responsible for ensuring that there was a bountiful harvest? Of course people were expected to do their part by working and rewarding the Gods with the sweat of their collective brows but ultimately this depended on the favor of the Gods. How did a community ensure the Gods would look favorably upon it? By proper worship; sacrifices, rites, prayers, other gifts and offerings, etc. Who in the community did not work to gain the favor of the God(s)? Not only that, but if their numbers were large enough who, by their mere presence, despising the Gods, might cause divine anger and retribution?

You can come up with other negative circumstances/events such as disease, fire, floods, raids by barbarians and so on but in essence, if things went bad for a community, Christians became a convenient causal agent. Besides, they were weird which, depending on who you were and your tolerance level probably meant that you thought they were anything from a bit odd to dangerous and heretical agents of evil.

A local magistrate might have tried to hold out for a while but if the local population became enough of a threat to order he might act against the Christian community. This may have taken place in several ways. He might have tried to force them into exile. He may have chosen a few prominent leaders and decided to exile, imprison, or execute them or, as may have happened in Lyons in 177, decided to destroy the entire community. 10 Once the immediate crisis passed, the local authorities would probably ease up on things.

If something big came up and someone in authority was looking for someone to blame, Christians became a nice target. Nero’s blaming and punishment of Christians in the aftermath of the six-day fire of Rome in 64 AD is probably the most famous example. 11 These were not people the rest of the community was very eager to defend.

This characterization of these persecutions as scattered, sporadic, and infrequent is at odds with how they were portrayed by ancient Christian authors. Christians tended to emphasize these (particularly when promoting martyrs and martyrdom) however the lack of textual evidence from Roman sources indicates that, when looking at the entire Roman Empire over a 300-year period, it just didn’t happen all that often. This was a big deal in the Christian psyche, however on an empire-wide scale, or as a habitual state of affairs, the reality of persecution is significantly different from how it was portrayed in the sources.

OK, I still ended up with 11 footnotes and seven sources cited. Look at it this way – I could have cited 20. What can I say; as Marcus Aurelius wrote, it’s my nature.

1 Just so you don’t think I’m completely unqualified to discuss this, while at Cornell I took a bunch of sociology classes along with a couple in anthropology. In fact, if it wouldn’t have looked so weird I probably could have gone with a major in Animal Science and a minor in Sociology if I’d taken a few more core classes. And one of our anthro profs had been a grad student under Margaret Mead so that was cool. This is something I’ve always been interested in – the nature of people and group behavior. But it isn’t history.

2 See Pliny the Younger’s Letters, X.96-97. I was going to quote from them but you can find these two letters here.

3 Interestingly, Pliny references an edict where he outlawed secret brotherhoods. This may have raised awareness of Christians among the local population and led to their subsequent exposure.

4 For more of my thoughts on basic human nature including the concept of “us vs them” see my post, Were Medievals “Just Like Us?” from September, 2013.

5 For the most part emperors were not considered Gods but divinely empowered individuals entrusted by the Gods to ensure the safety and prosperity of the empire. Rives (2007), pp. 148-56 has a nice introductory discussion of how emperors were seen as both human and divine.

6 Here I use the term “local” to mean whatever deity the community believes offered it special protection, not that this was a God which only existed for the community’s benefit. Jupiter, Saturn, Apollo, Demeter/Ceres, Minerva, Hermes, and others were commonly believed to be divine patrons of communities.

7 Christian authors often stated that they offered prayers on behalf of the emperor but this would have taken place out of sight of others and of course they ignored images and statues as idols.

8 For example, it is believed that the Christian community in Lyons, Gaul, which was devastated by persecution in 177, may have been a small Greek-speaking group in a Latin community. From Parvis, “Who was Irenaeus” in Foster and Parvis (2012), “It [the Lyon Christian community] was a Greek-speaking community in a Latin-speaking city nestled in the midst of a Celtic-speaking countryside. They would in no small part have been outsiders, strangers in a strange land, alienated culturally as well as religiously from the life of the city around them. And they were, for that reason among others, mistrusted and despised.” p. 15.

9 To be fair, there are plenty of sources indicating that Christians got along fairly well with non-Christians most of the time. When we travel higher up the intellectual hierarchy, Christian and Pagan philosophers often trained at the same school or under the same teacher and remained friends as adults. Then again, this is sort of my whole point with this post – most of the time these differences didn’t much matter.

10 Moss (2012 ), pp. 100-21 provides a detailed description of the persecution as described by Eusebius in the “Letter of the Churches of Vienne and Lyons,” Ecclesiastical History, V.1-4. including why it may not provide an entirely truthful account of events.

11 See Tacitus, Annals, 15.44. Suetonius also discusses Nero punishing Christians but does not link this with the fire.

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

Moss, Candida R., Ancient Christian Martyrdom: Diverse Practices, Theologies, and Traditions. New Haven: Yale University Press (2012). ISBN: 978-0-300-15465-8.

Paul Parvis, “Who was Irenaeus? An Introduction to the Man and his Work” in Foster, Paul and Parvis, Sara, ed., Irenaeus: Life, Scripture, Legacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2012). ISBN: 978-0-8006-9796-9.

Pliny the Younger, P.G. Walsh, trans., Complete Letters. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2006). ISBN: 978-0-19-953894-2.

Rives, James B., Religion in the Roman Empire. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing (2007). ISBN: 978-1-4051-0656-6.

Suetonius, Gavorse, ed., Lives of the Twelve Caesars. New York: The Book League of America, Inc. (1937).

Tacitus, Michael Grant, trans., The Annals of Ancient Rome. New York: Barnes and Noble Books (1993). ISBN: 0-88029-024-2.


Posted by on January 24, 2015 in Religion, Society and Social Structure


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Sanctuary in the Middle Ages

Most of us have either watched a movie or read a book set in the Medieval Period which includes a scene where the action runs something like this; Someone who has been accused (usually unjustly, particularly if he/she is Our Hero) is pursued by a (usually evil) group of people intent on bringing him/her to justice (we usually can hear baying hounds in the background). Our Hero, almost by accident, finds him/herself at the door of a church or chapel where, after pounding on the door until the pursuers are visible in the background (sometimes as arrows strike into the door), he/she is granted admittance. Collapsing to the floor in a paroxysm of exhaustion, Our Hero asks for, and is granted, sanctuary.

In my effort to read a bit of material outside of Early Christianity, I seem to have focused on a few books I’ve picked up about Medieval Law. Right now I’m reading Law, Sex and the Illicit in Medieval Europe and just finished an essay on sanctuary by William Chester Jordan. 1

The concept of sanctuary existed during the Middle Ages; this post is not a myth-buster. However, as with most aspects of the Middle Ages, the reality was more complicated than what most of us (myself anyway) have been exposed to through popular media.

My rather ignorant notion of sanctuary had been that any Holy Place would serve. Once the accused/pursued was granted entrance, he or she could hang out there, basically forever. He or she might be asked to work to help pay his or her way, but that sanctuary could, theoretically (if the pursuers were honorable which, of course, in these books and movies they were not) last forever. I’ll admit to being a bit fuzzy on what a “Holy Place” actually meant. Jordan’s essay provides a fair amount of additional information related to sanctuary.

The first and most significant aspect is that the concept of sanctuary in the Middle Ages was far from universal. Jordan states that it may have only officially been recognized in England and Northern France. He says that while the Iberian peninsula provides evidence indicating that it may have been in effect there, little evidence exists for it in Italy, Central Europe, or Scandinavia. (19-20) While the concept of sanctuary appears to have been around for a long time, it only became widely practiced in the 13th century, when laws recognizing and regulating sanctuary were written.

What was recognized as a place of sanctuary and who was eligible? I found the answers to these two questions the most interesting parts of the essay. Turning to location, not every church was eligible to be considered sanctuary. Fortified churches were often not considered sanctuaries, probably as they couldn’t be considered a place where blood was never spilled. Private chapels and oratories didn’t qualify; a criminal could not flee to a chapel on an estate. (20-21) A few locations were chartered as sanctuaries where an institution had been granted special privileges, however Jordan did not mention any specifics about what these privileges might be.

1894 plan of Westminster Abbey, a chartered sanctuary.
Note the area labeled “Broad Sanctuary” in the lower left (I am clueless as to what that means).
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The number of people ineligible to seek sanctuary far outweighed the number who could. First and foremost, it was only eligible for felons; those who might receive the death penalty. 2 Heretics, serfs, Jews, and those who had been excommunicated were also ineligible. 3

Things didn’t end once sanctuary was granted. In Britain, clergy were expected to inform officials that someone had taken sanctuary. The claimant had to confess their crimes before magistrates as well as participate in the sacrament of confession within the church. The term of sanctuary was not endless. If the individual was found to be deserving of sanctuary, he or she would take an oath agreeing to leave the kingdom and would be allowed to travel to a seaport to depart; in England this was usually from Dover. (25) If they did not leave they would become outlaws and would also forfeit the right to receive sanctuary a second time.

There’s more to this but I’m not going to re-create the entire essay. One of the most interesting things to me is that this is another sign of the systematization of the legal system which took place in England during the 12th and 13th centuries. If it was a part of custom or a generally recognized practice, folks started to write down and codify things. Sanctuary evolved from something of an informal practice governed by custom, to one written into and both protected and limited by law.

1 Jordan, William Chester, “A Fresh Look at Medieval Sanctuary,” pp. 17-32 in Karras, Ruth Mazo; Kaye, Joel and; Matter, E. Ann, eds., Law and the Illicit in Medieval Europe. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (2008). ISBN: 978-0-8122-4080-1.

2 I think it’s important to note that in the 13th century punitive imprisonment for the most part did not exist. This meant that more crimes were punishable by death but it also meant that those denied sanctuary would not face a long stretch in jail but rather fines or some type of forced servitude.

3 I read – somewhere – that Jews might be given the choice of converting and being granted sanctuary as a newly baptized Christian rather than being handed over. It’s been a long time since I read it and I’m not going to look for it in my books. I don’t recall what time period this was for or where but the same sort of condition accompanied expulsion from kingdoms at times so this would be consistent. I suppose this isn’t technically forced conversion.


Posted by on March 23, 2014 in Society and Social Structure


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Tertullian X: Women

Tertullian has often been called a misogynist, even by professional historians. I dislike labels of this sort. First, they’re prejudicial. This is an extremely value-laden term generally used when a strong emotional reaction is the desired outcome. This detracts from analysis. Labels are often used in place of argument. My disagreement with the use of labels is along the same lines as my discomfort with an overuse of models: it indicates a mindset of looking at something which has already been categorized. And sometimes – this is what really pisses me off – a writer will bring something up, label it, and never offer a reason why it fits under the label. That’s either lazy or sloppy, sometimes both, and the author’s treating me like a child. I don’t like it. Now I understand that part of the written word, really all language, is the necessity of identification and categorization. But I expect better from historians who should be sure to offer analysis. 1

For my money, being as my dictionary (Webster’s New World Collegiate Dictionary, Fourth Edition, 2005) defines mysogyny as, “hatred of women, esp. by a man.”, I don’t think Tertullian meets that standard. He definitely has a view towards them which comes across that way sometimes however he is very positive towards widows and virgins and writes affectionately to his wife. An, er, radical view of women and their role (at least compared to previous authors)? Absolutely. Misogynistic statements? I’d say he has at least one of these which I’ll discuss below. Outright hatred? He doesn’t go that far, not in a systematic way.

Now that I have that out of the way, it’s hard(impossible?) to deny that Tertullian had a negative opinion of women, or at least many roles which appear to have sometimes been taken by them. He wrote multiple treatises which were directed primarily toward women. In most of these he’d throw a qualifier in that everything he was saying also applied to men but over 90% of the text would be talking about women. For example, in On the Apparel of Women (De cultu feminarum) he spends a lot of time talking about women doing their hair, using makeup, wearing jewelry, etc.and how all of this is the opposite of humility which God commands. In II.VIII he includes men in a fairly short chapter, saying they should not dye their hair, be overly concerned with their beard, shave their body hair and so on. But this is one chapter out of 22 in two books. Based on what I’ve read, while Tertullian believes that all Christians are in need of guidance and correction, women are more in need of these than men.

There are quite a few places where he places restrictions on what women can do, such as teaching or even speaking in Church, performing baptism, and of course their dress. An interesting aside to his prohibitions on women teaching and performing baptisms is that this seems to indicate that, in at least some churches, they were performing these roles; otherwise, why would he feel the need to prohibit them?

On the Apparel of Women is the treatise which paints Tertullian as really being negative toward women. In his opening, after a passage discussing how Eve is guilty of the First Sin of Mankind and therefore all Human perdition he adds:

“And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert — that is, death — even the Son of God had to die.” On the Apparel of Women, I.I

He’s not done. Men are not responsible for their own lust. If a woman is the cause, then she shares in the guilt:

“For that other, as soon as he has felt concupiscence after your beauty, and has mentally already committed (the deed) which his concupiscence pointed to, perishes; and you have been made the sword which destroys him: so that, albeit you be free from the (actual) crime, you are not free from the odium (attaching to it)” On the Apparel of Women, II.II

Even if women are beautiful, though he tries to say that this isn’t their fault, he believes it is better for them not to be, even within their own home:

“As if I were speaking to Gentiles, addressing you with a Gentile precept, and (one which is) common to all, (I would say,) “You are bound to please your husbands only.” But you will please them in proportion as you take no care to please others. Be ye without carefulness, blessed (sisters): no wife is ‘ugly’ to her own husband. She ‘pleased’ him enough when she was selected (by him as his wife); whether commended by form or by character. Let none of you think that, if she abstain from the care of her person, she will incur the hatred and aversion of husbands. Every husband is the exactor of chastity; but beauty, a believing (husband) does not require, because we are not captivated by the same graces which the Gentiles think (to be) graces …” On the Apparel of Women, II.IV

These are the points where he goes above and beyond what most authors seem to believe. As I said above, he is quite restrictive on women’s roles in the Church and strongly believes women should be veiled and their heads covered whenever they are in public but he is not alone in making these types of comments. However his “guilt of Eve” statement goes beyond what others have written and I can’t argue with anyone who says that this is misogynistic. Theophilus of Antioch and Clement talk about Eve’s sin, however they do not make statements about how all women are contaminated by Eve. 2 Justin and Clement are specific in stating that women are as capable of virtue as men while Irenaeus introduces the concept that Mary redeemed Eve’s sin. 3

What was the impact of this? A common theme during the Medieval period was one where women were sexually insatiable and acted as Eve had, as seductresses. As Eve seduced Adam into sin with an apple, women seduce men into sin sexually. Tertullian’s the earliest author to write on this at length. As with other areas, I can’t say that Tertullian was the source of this attitude but it seems likely that he had some lasting effect. At the very least, the author of the Didascalia Apostolorum appears to echo many of his sentiments, though as that was probably written in Syria a couple of decades later it’s hard to say whether this was based on direct transmission or reflects a broader change in attitudes. 4

NOTE: This will be my last Tertullian post (I think) where I talk about a single subject. I have one more “cleanup” post where I’ll discuss some other issues he wrote on (hopefully none of those topics will become something I feel compelled to offer as a separate post) and then a final summary. I think 12 Tertullian posts is enough. I can’t help wondering what I’ll do with Augustine when I get there but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. Also, in my first post I mentioned putting up one final, huge post which would contain everything, mainly for my own use. I’ve decided not to. It’s over 20,000 words and everything in it will have already been covered. I’ll just save it to a Word document for my reference.

1 For an example of this sort of labeling, see, Davis, Stephen J., The Cult of St. Thecla: A Tradition of Women’s Piety in Late Antiquity, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2008), p. 52. Benjamin H. Dunning in Specters of Paul: Sexual Difference in Early Christian Thought, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (2011), tackles this issue head on, “Scholars have paid a great deal of attention to the question of whether the North African theologian Tertullian of Carthage was a misogynist.” p. 124 with discussion of this topic on pp. 124-150, or all of Chapter 5.

2 Theophilus, To Autolycus, XXVIII; Clement, Exhortation to the Heathen, I

3 Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho, XXXIII; Clement spends a fair amount of time on this, Stromata, IV.VIII and XIX. For Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III.XII.4, “… so also did Mary, having a man betrothed [to her], and being nevetherless a virgin, by yielding obedience, become the cause of salvation, both to herself and the whole human race.”

4 As a caution to those less familiar with the medieval period, while the anti-women rhetoric could sometimes be severe, it likely had less impact than its volume would imply. Women bore children, ran households; peasant women worked the fields, cared for livestock and did the housework. Just living was too hard for most people to worry about these sort of things. Even Tertullian was married and wrote affectionately to his wife.

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.


Posted by on January 25, 2014 in Religion, Society and Social Structure


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Medieval Prisons

NOTE: My apologies to anyone who may have wondered what was going on when an earlier version of this showed up a couple of days ago. I hit the “publish” instead of “save draft” button by mistake.

Most of us have probably seen something in the movies where; Our Hero is captured by The Bad Guys, gets thrown into some dank, windowless pit where his only contact with the outside world is when a slot opens up once a day and food, usually with maggots in it (protein!) is shoved at him. This before the Hollywood/New Zealand form of divine intervention rescues him so he can save the world/girl/his companions/the day. This is our medieval prison, right?

Wrong, at least according to a book I’ve just finished, The Medieval Prison by G. Geltner. In this book Geltner sets out to dispel some misconceptions about medieval prisons, using a case study approach for Italian prisons in Venice, Florence, and Bologna. I want to mention that this will not be a book review. I don’t know enough about late medieval Italy or medieval prisons to be able to assess the soundness of the information. I can say that I enjoyed it, it’s well written and his arguments, as constructed, seem solid. What I want to do is share some of the information Geltner provides because I found it interesting.

According to Geltner, the process of developing prisons, rather than having a few cells to hold people for trial or execution, began around 1250. Initially this was through the adaptation of existing structures by adding cells, as time went on structures were built designed to be used as prisons. These first prisons were primarily for debtors. By the early 14th century they began to hold other criminals though even by the end of this survey, in the 15th century, the vast majority of prisoners either owed someone money or were being held for trial.

Painting of the 14th century Florence prison Le Stinche, likely the first facility built
specifically to be a prison in Europe. By Fabio Borbottoni, image from Wikimedia Commons.

These prisons were located in the center of cities, near administrative centers. This resulted in them, and their prisoners, not being completely removed from the urban life of their respective cities. Visitors were allowed freely, they could speak to people through windows, and the debtors were often allowed to leave the prison by day to beg to both support their prison stay and help pay down their debt. These prisons were far more open, the atmosphere much more relaxed, than today’s American prisons which have largely been moved outside of the cities and are in many ways hidden.

Prisoners were one of the classes of people which it was considered appropriate for the wealthy to support. It was expected that the prisoner would pay for food and the salaries of those who worked in the prison. Those who were too poor to do so relied on benefactors. Those with money paid to improve their living conditions and it was from these higher paying prisoners that prisons could turn a profit. There seem to have been no restrictions, other than a prohibition on weapons, on what type of personal property a prisoner could possess, including a luxurious bed.

The incidence of illness, disease, and death while in prisons was fairly low. Geltner says, “… the medieval prison’s current image as a ‘hellhole,’ a view still shared and occasionally even perpetuated by medieval, let alone modern, historians, is simply untenable.” (101) Escapes were rarely attempted even though these prisons were pretty easy to break out of. Geltner believes one reason for this is that, except for the wealthier residents, conditions within the prison were likely no worse than they would have faced outside as violence rarely occurred and they had food and a place to sleep. Additionally, if someone escaped, where would he (or she) go? If a prisoner today manages to escape, if he or she evades capture a bus ticket will take them thousands of miles in a couple of days and there are large metropolitan areas to lose oneself in. These options were not available to medievals and while these three cities were large by medieval standards, they would have been dwarfed by a medium size modern city. An escaped prisoner would have had a tough time avoiding being found.

This is not to say that prisons were paradises. Freedoms were restricted which would have been burdensome for the wealthy, boredom was a problem, and torture was a legitimate way of extracting information. While many prisoners were allowed to roam at will within the walls and some were even allowed outside, some were chained. However the vision of a dank tower into which someone was thrown and never seen again does not seem to have been the situation here.

Sentences were fairly short. There was public perception that penal or punitive incarceration was wrong and that prisons should be reserved for debtors. Authorities got around this by fining people for unlawful behavior, then jailing them when they were unable to pay the fine. However even this could backfire if the prisoner was so poor that he couldn’t pay the debt or even prison expenses such as food and employee salaries. There was some thought that it was useless to imprison destitute debtors as they would never be able to pay anyway. Unpaid debt was typically covered by a benefactor after a sentence of two years at the most and prisoners were commonly freed on religious days.

I’ve stuck with general information with this post. Geltner provides a fair amount of specific details on topics such as penalties for specific crimes, mortality numbers (which were quite low) and financial figures. I think it’s also important to remember that Geltner’s survey covers a very small portion of the medieval world and that Italy was somewhat unique in its development. I’m not convinced that what he says about Italian prisons in the Late Middle Ages can be applied to England, France, or Germany.

In any case, I found this to be an enjoyable book and I learned a fair amount from it. Medieval prisons, at least in Italy, weren’t the worst places in the world. They were located in the centers of cities where urban residents could see and interact with prisoners, and were concerned for their well-being. Prisoners remained a part of their world, not hidden away from sight, and were considered deserving of pity and assistance. Prisons had hospital wards and free legal aid was often available. This is not the image of a medieval prison found in the movies. It’s also much more interesting.

Geltner, G., The Medieval Prison: A Social History. Princeton: Princeton University Press (2008). ISBN: 978-0-691-13533-5.

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Posted by on January 23, 2014 in Society and Social Structure


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Tertullian VI: Marriage, Re-Marriage, and Military Service

This is a post which is a bit out of place, at least in order, as its purpose is to discuss how Tertullian’s thoughts changed over time and also how he viewed participation in aspects of life and society; in this case showing the difference in how he viewed mixed marriages and military service where these institutions are entered into by a Christian compared with someone who converts while already in a mixed marriage or the military. Tertullian doesn’t have much long-term impact on these issues but I think they reveal quite a bit about him.

I have additional areas to post on where Tertullian seems to have substantially impacted doctrine. However the next issue of this type I’m planning to address is complex and isn’t close to being ready. The other problem with this post is it addresses two aspects of Tertullian which overlap somewhat. Topically I consider it a bit sloppy but I can’t figure out how to separate them. It’s also quite long.

Marriage and Remarriage

This section is included more because I think this makes a nice example of how Tertullian’s thoughts changed over time than something which had a lasting impact. In his earlier writings Tertullian is on the ascetic side of the continuum but not so far as to be out of the mainstream arguing that while chastity is ideal, marriage is good:

“For we[Montanists] do not reject marriage, but simply refrain from it. Nor do we prescribe sanctity as the rule, but only recommend it, observing it as a good, yea, even the better state, if each man uses it carefully according to his ability; but at the same time earnestly vindicating marriage, whenever hostile attacks are made against it is a polluted thing, to the disparagement of the Creator. For He bestowed His blessing on matrimony also, as on an honourable estate, for the increase of the human race; as He did indeed on the whole of His creation, for wholesome and good uses.” Against Marcion (adverus Marcionem, I.XXIX

Note that in the above section he discusses Montanists as avoiding, but not condemning, marriage. Very suggestive of a monastic order. As I was reading this I thought Tertullian was the wrong person to choose to make an argument condemning Marcionites for prohibiting marriage.

A bit “cleaner” is:

“Concupiscence, however, is not ascribed to marriage even among the Gentiles, but to extravagant, unnatural, and enormous sins. The law of nature is opposed to luxury as well as to grossness and uncleanness; it does not forbid connubial intercourse, but concupiscence; and it takes care of our vessel by the honourable estate of matrimony. This passage (of the apostle) I would treat in such a way as to maintain the superiority of the other and higher sanctity, preferring continence and virginity to marriage, but by no means prohibiting the latter. For my hostility is directed against those who are for destroying the God of marriage, not those who follow after chastity.” Against Marcion V.XV

Contrast these with a passage written after the Montanist-Church conflict had reached its height:

“Finally, when he (Paul) says, ‘Better it is to marry than to burn,’ what sort of good must that be understood to be which is better than a penalty … If, on the other hand, comparison with evil is the mean which obliges it to be called good; it is not so much ‘good’ as a species of inferior evil which, when obscured by a higher evil, is driven to the name of good. Take away, in Short, the condition, so as not to say, ‘Better it is to marry than to burn;’ and I question whether you will have the hardihood to say, ‘Better (it is) to marry,’ not adding than what it is better. This done, then, it becomes not ‘better;’ and while not ‘better,’ not ‘good’ either, the condition being taken away which, while making it ‘better’ than another thing, in that sense obliges it to be considered ‘good.’ Better it is to lose one eye than two. If, however, you withdraw from the comparison of either evil, it will not be better to have one eye, because it is not even good.On Monogamy (de monogamia), III

Tertullian doesn’t quite come out and say marriage should be condemned, but this is pretty darn close.

A similar evolution exists regarding remarriage. Traditionally, a single remarriage was considered OK following a legal divorce. I believe adultery is the only reason which was usually considered valid at the time and in some cases this is available only to men whose wives strayed, not to women. A single remarriage is also acceptable following the death of a spouse though again, some authors only allow this if the widow is young. If not prohibited, it is at least often strongly discouraged that a woman over a certain age – often 50 – remarry; better that she become a member of the Order of Widows.

This is actually more a defense of the practice of divorce but it also allows for remarriage, however tepidly:

“I maintain, then, that there was a condition in the prohibition which He [Christ] now made of divorce; the case supposed being, that a man put away his wife for the express purpose of marrying another. His words are: ‘Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery; and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband, also committeth adultery,’ — ‘put away,’ that is, for the reason wherefore a woman ought not to be dismissed, that another wife may be obtained. For he who marries a woman who is unlawfully put away is as much of an adulterer as the man who marries one who is un-divorced. Permanent is the marriage which is not rightly dissolved; to marry, therefore, whilst matrimony is undissolved, is to commit adultery. …” Against Marcion IV.XXXIV

Similarly to marriage, remarriage suffers when Tertullian writes during this period of conflict:

“Therefore if those whom God has conjoined man shall not separate by divorce, it is equally congruous that those whom God has separated by death man is not to conjoin by marriage; the joining of the separation will be just as contrary to God’s will as would have been the separation of the conjunction. … A divorced woman cannot even marry legitimately; and if she commit any such act without the name of marriage, does it not fall under the category of adultery, in that adultery is crime in the way of marriage?” On Monogamy, IX

and for widows:

“Accordingly, it will be without cause that you will say that God wills not a divorced woman to be joined to another man “while her husband liveth,” as if He do will it ‘when he is dead;’ whereas if she is not bound to him when dead, no more is she when living. ‘Alike when divorce dissevers marriage as when death does, she will not be bound to him by whom the binding medium has been broken off.’ To whom, then, will she be bound? In the eye of God, it matters nought whether she marry during her life or after his death. For it is not against him that she sins, but against herself.” On Monogamy, IX

The Christian Entering Into a Mixed Marriage vs a Married Person Who Converts

One additional aspect of marriage is something which at first can appear contradictory (or at least I initially read it this way) which is what he thinks of marriage between a Christian woman and a non-Christian man.

Tertullian works through First Corinthians VII.12-16 discussing this issue. Here Paul advocates that if the two partners are willing, this type of mixed marriage is OK and, “Wife, for all you know you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife.”

I am unaware of any earlier authors addressing this issue. If they did, I missed it. 1 Tertullian argues that this clause applies only to existing marriages, one in place when one partner converts. A woman finding herself married to a Pagan man should remain married to him, if possible. However it is strictly forbidden that a Christian woman enter into a marriage with a Pagan man. His logic in this is pretty solid. The Bible commands that a woman submit to her husband as the head of the family. Yet the Bible also commands that the Christian serve God. How can someone who marries an unbeliever serve both?

“Any and every believing woman must of necessity obey God. And how can she serve two lords – the Lord, and her husband – a Gentile to boot? For in obeying a Gentile she will carry out Gentile practices, – personal attractiveness, dressing of the head, worldly elegancies, baser blandishments, the very secrets even of matrimony tainted: not, as among the saints, where the duties of the sex are discharged with honour (shown) to the very necessity (which makes them incumbent), with modesty and temperance, as beneath the eyes of God.” To His Wife (ad uxorem), II.III

Anyone who takes such action is to be cast out from the Church:

“If these things are so, it is certain that believers contracting marriages with Gentiles are guilty of fornication, and are to be excluded from all communication with the brotherhood, in accordance with the letter of the apostle, who says that ‘with persons of that kind there is to be no taking of food even.'” To His Wife), II.III

He carefully makes a distinction between this and someone who converts after marriage. These unions are valid and, if both parties agree, may continue and may even be beneficial by, possibly, persuading the husband to convert:

“If these things may happen to those women also who, having attained the faith while in (the state of) Gentile matrimony, continue in that state, still they are excused, as having been ‘apprehended by God’ in these very circumstances; and they are bidden to persevere in their married state, and are sanctified, and have hope of ‘making a gain’ held out to them. If, then, a marriage of this kind (contracted before conversion) stands ratified before God, why should not (one contracted after conversion) too go prosperously forward, so as not to be thus harassed by pressures, and straits, and hindrances, and defilements, having already (as it has) the partial sanction of divine grace? ‘Because, on the one hand, the wife in the former case, called from among the Gentiles to the exercise of some eminent heavenly virtue, is, by the visible proofs of some marked (divine) regard, a terror to her Gentile husband, so as to make him less ready to annoy her, less active in laying snares for her, less diligent in playing the spy over her. He has felt “mighty works;” he has seen experimental evidences; he knows her changed for the better: thus even he himself is, by his fear, a candidate for God. Thus men of this kind, with regard to whom the grace of God has established a familiar intimacy, are more easily ‘gained.'” To His Wife), II.VII

It is interesting throughout his discussion of this issue, which involves all of Book II of To His Wife, that some portions of it seem to apply equally to men and women but many to women only. While he doesn’t come right out and say it, I suspect he thinks that a Christian man could command his wife to convert, or at least to refrain from traditional Roman religious practices.

Military Service

Tertullian’s views on military service by Christians are contradictory but in the end he comes to the same conclusion as with marriage; the Christian should not join the military, but the military man who converts may continue to serve. His Apology was the first thing I read and in it he discusses the army as being an aspect of Roman life which Christians participated in alongside non-Christians, “We sail with you, and fight with you, and till the ground with you; and in like manner we unite with you in your traffickings — even in the various arts we make public property of our works for your benefit.” Apology, XLII.

Later he becomes stricter:

“In that last section, decision may seem to have been given likewise concerning military service, which is between dignity and power. But now inquiry is made about this point, whether a believer may turn himself unto military service, and whether the military may be admitted unto the faith, even the rank and file, or each inferior grade, to whom there is no necessity for taking part in sacrifices or capital punishments. There is no agreement between the divine and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be due to two masters — God and Caesar. And yet Moses carried a rod, and Aaron wore a buckle, and John (Baptist) is girt with leather and Joshua the son of Nun leads a line of march; and the People warred: if it pleases you to sport with the subject. But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away?” On Idolatry (de idolatria), XIX.

To me the two above passages are contradictory. In the first the fact that Christians serve militarily is a reason to consider them to be Roman and not to be persecuted. In the second, to me he forbids military service outright. However he spends substantial time in The Chaplet on military service and finally settles on a middle ground, sort of.

In The Chaplet he articulates a viewpoint similar to his opinion on marriage; that a Christian should not enter military service, but a military man who converts may continue in it. Tertullian clearly has difficulties with this. Similar to a woman in a mixed marriage having to serve two masters, here a man is forced to serve both God and Caesar. The New Testament specifically states that he who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword so Christians are strictly forbidden from taking life. Christians are forbidden from swearing oaths, yet entrance into the army requires this. Various Pagan rites accompany the military and warfare; even if the Christian does not actively participate, his passive acquiescence indicates acceptance of and even support for these heathen activities. Yet with all that, Tertullian finally says that, despite all of his misgivings and wafflings, a soldier who converts may continue in military service, recognizing that his soul will constantly be in peril and he must tread very carefully:

“Of course, if faith comes later, and finds any preoccupied with military service, their case is different, as in the instance of those whom John used to receive for baptism, and of those most faithful centurions, I mean the centurion whom Christ approves, and the centurion whom Peter instructs; yet, at the same time, when a man has become a believer, and faith has been sealed, there must be either an immediate abandonment of it, which has been the course with many; or all sorts of quibbling will have to be resorted to in order to avoid offending God, and that is not allowed even outside of military service; or, last of all, for God the fate must be endured which a citizen-faith has been no less ready to accept. … Suppose, then, that the military service is lawful, as far as the plea for the crown is concerned.” The Chaplet (de Corona), XI

This endorsement of military service by Christians isn’t lukewarm and it isn’t tepid. It’s frigid. But it is an endorsement, barely, and indicates a point in his life where Tertullian was able to make some allowances, however small, for the needs of the state, the realities of life, and public perception. Without this concession, military conversions would be minimal, almost eliminated – at least among those who had nearly completed their term and could look forward to retiring with a nice grant of land from the state. It is an indication that there was a time where Tertullian displays some flexibility, however slight.

1 While I don’t recall earlier Christian authors addressing this, later ones certainly did. A notable case is the marriage of Clovis and Clotild. While Gregory of Tours doesn’t give her full credit for Clovis’ conversion around the start of the 6th century, he clearly believes she has an impact. History of the Franks, II.30

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 January 12, 2014 in Religion, Society and Social Structure


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Tertullian V: Purgatory

I have a few books here which talk about the evolution of the Doctrine of Purgatory and one of these days I really should read them. It’s possible I missed something with earlier authors (I seem to have focused on their arguments for bodily resurrection) but most seemed to feel that when you die, your path is set and your soul sleeps. Once awakened, you will either be judged worthy of heaven or be sentenced to hell. Some authors believe Saints and Martyrs will ascend to heaven immediately while normal believers sleep.

Painting by Cristobal Rojas (1890), depicting purgatory.
Image from Wikimedia Commons

Tertullian believes otherwise. In his Treatise on the Soul (de anima) he proposes that while in Hades, souls are aware. As a background to this, Tertullian adds some properties to souls which I’ve not previously come across (or if I have I didn’t note them). Unlike other authors, Tertullian believes that souls are corporeal and have substance. This happens to be one of the few areas where he agrees with ancient philosophers and even uses them as evidence. Treatise on the Soul, V-IX

As with other topics, Tertullian builds towards his argument that souls are awake in Hades and subject to punishment. I’m going to provide passages which will, I hope, help you understand the meticulous way he constructs this. He begins with a discussion of what happens to the soul during sleep. Sleep, he says, “is the very mirror of death.” (Treatise on the Soul, XLII) During sleep, the soul is alert and active:

“Our only resource, indeed, is to agree with the Stoics, by determining the soul to be a temporary suspension of the activity of the senses, procuring rest for the body only, not for the soul also. For the soul, as being always in motion, and always active, never succumbs to rest, — a condition which is alien to immortality: for nothing immortal admits any end to its operation; but sleep is an end of operation. It is indeed on the body, which is subject to mortality, and on the body alone, that sleep graciously bestows a cessation from work. … But yet it[the soul] dreams in the interval. Whence then its dreams? The fact is, it cannot rest or be idle altogether, nor does it confine to the still hours of sleep the nature of its immortality. It proves itself to possess a constant motion; it travels over land and sea, it trades, it is excited, it labours, it plays, it grieves, it rejoices, it follows pursuits lawful and unlawful; it shows what very great power it has even without the body, how well equipped it is with members of its own, although betraying at the same time the need it has of impressing on some body its activity again.” Treatise on the Soul, XLIII

He continues on this topic for several more chapters but hopefully this is enough to show where Tertullian was going with this. Sleep is akin to death. The soul is active through death as is evident from dreams. What’s left is to discuss what happens during death itself.

Hades is not just for the evil. All souls are consigned to it, but possibly to different regions. An interesting argument is when he asks how the soul of an infant, if it is not allowed to develop further, can be prepared to fully participate in God’s kingdom?

“Suppose it be an infant that dies yet hanging on the breast; or it may be an immature boy; or it may be, once more, a youth arrived at puberty: suppose, moreover, that the life in each case ought to have reached full eighty years, how is it possible that the soul of either could spend the whole of the shortened years here on earth after losing the body by death? One’s age cannot be passed without one’s body, it being by help of the body that the period of life has its duties and labours transacted. Let our own people, moreover, bear this in mind, that souls are to receive back at the resurrection the self-same bodies in which they died. Therefore our bodies must be expected to resume the same conditions and the same ages, for it is these particulars which impart to bodies their especial modes. By what means, then, can the soul of an infant so spend on earth its residue of years, that it should be able at the resurrection to assume the state of an octogenarian, although it had barely lived a month? Or if it shall be necessary that the appointed days of life be fulfilled here on earth, must the same course of life in all its vicissitudes, which has been itself ordained to accompany the appointed days, be also passed through by the soul along with the days? Must it employ itself in school studies in its passage from infancy to boyhood; play the soldier in the excitement and vigour of youth and earlier manhood; and encounter serious and judicial responsibilities in the graver years between ripe manhood and old age? Must it ply trade for profit, turn up the soil with hoe and plough, go to sea, bring actions at law, get married, toil and labour, undergo illnesses, and whatever casualties of weal and woe await it in the lapse of years? Well, but how are all these transactions to be managed without one’s body? Life (spent) without life? But (you will tell me) the destined period in question is to be bare of all incident whatever, only to be accomplished by merely elapsing. What, then, is to prevent its being fulfilled in Hades, where there is absolutely no use to which you can apply it?” Treatise on the Soul, LVI

Now the souls of those who will spend eternity in heaven may go to a different region of Hades, but this is their destination while they await judgement:

“So then, you will say, it is all the wicked souls that are banished in Hades. (Not quite so fast, is my answer.) I must compel you to determine (what you mean by Hades), which of its two regions, the region of the good or of the bad. If you mean the bad, (all I can say is, that) even now the souls of the wicked deserve to be consigned to those abodes; if you mean the good why should you judge to be unworthy of such a resting-place the souls of infants and of virgins, and those which, by reason of their condition in life were pure and innocent?” Treatise on the Soul, LVI

OK, so we have a soul which must be alert and spend time in Hades. We’ve been told that if it’s a very young soul, it’ll have the opportunity to age a bit. What about the rest of them? Tertullian doesn’t have them sitting around playing cards:

“All souls, therefore, are shut up within Hades: do you admit this? (It is true, whether) you say yes or no: moreover, there are already experienced there punishments and consolations; and there you have a poor man and a rich. And now, having postponed some stray questions for this part of my work, I will notice them in this suitable place, and then come to a close. Why, then, cannot you suppose that the soul undergoes punishment and consolation in Hades in the interval, while it awaits its alternative of judgment, in a certain anticipation either of gloom or of glory?” Treatise on the Soul, LVIII

There is no reason to think that a soul, on entering Hades, is worthy of entering Heaven, but neither is it lost:

“Now really, would it not be the highest possible injustice, even in Hades, if all were to be still well with the guilty even there, and not well with the righteous even yet?” Treatise on the Soul, LVIII

The solution is for the soul to be corrected, to learn and grow, in order to be worthy of resurrection:

“It is therefore quite in keeping with this order of things, that that part of our nature should be the first to have the recompense and reward to which they are due on account of its priority. In short, inasmuch as we understand ‘the prison’ pointed out in the Gospel to be Hades, and as we also interpret ‘the uttermost farthing’ to mean the very smallest offence which has to be recompensed there before the resurrection, no one will hesitate to believe that the soul undergoes in Hades some compensatory discipline, without prejudice to the full process of the resurrection, when the recompense will be administered through the flesh besides.” Treatise on the Soul, LVIII

I’ve bolded for emphasis what I consider to be the key passages. For Tertullian, a soul destined for resurrection may still be made to suffer. He was a strong believer in penance as being necessary for the remission of sins during life; here he believes that this continues after death. Again, until I read further I won’t be able to assess how important Tertullian was in the development of Purgatory, but he’s certainly an early advocate for its existence.

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.


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