Next Stop: Kalamazoo

I’ve been waiting to get excited about this year’s Congress. It finally happened this afternoon while I was mowing pasture. I have no idea why.

Yup, this is the source of my finally getting fired up for Kalamazoo. It's funny - I bought a new tractor last fall. All the bells and whistles, but I still like put-putting around on this one to mow.

Yup, this is the source of my finally getting fired up for Kalamazoo. It’s funny – I bought a new tractor last fall. All the bells and whistles, but I still like put-putting around on this one to mow.

The plan for tomorrow is as follows. My truck is all packed, with trash to haul to the landfill. Need to do that, run a few errands in town and I still have a few hours’ worth of grass to mow, about 6 acres or so. Once that’s done I’ll clean up and head north. I have no idea what time I’ll get in. And other than the blogger meet-up, I have zero social plans.

And this year’s book goal? No more than 20. I have a mortgage again.

Hopefully I’ll see some of you there.


Posted by on May 12, 2015 in Conferences


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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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Kalamazoo Registration is Up!

What’s more, after a two-year absence, I’m registered. For those interested, here’s Western Michigan University’s Congress page. The registration link is on the left menu bar.

For those wondering what this is about, each May a couple of thousand medievalists, along with a scattering of ignorami such as myself, attend the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan. This year’s Congress will be held May 14-17. Click on the Sessions link on the left menu bar of their page to get an idea of the program. Plus there are all those books …

If you want an idea of what I think of it, you can take a look at my Kalamazoo page on this blog. There’s a lot there but this post from 2010 captures why I like it as well as any of them. There have been a few changes over the past few years (the free wine used to double as furniture polish, I’m certain of it, and now it’s fairly passable) but most of it’s reasonably accurate.

I’ve been to 8 or 9 of these since my first Congress in 2001(I think) and always enjoy myself. I had a hot streak from 2009-2012 where I made four in a row but missed the last two years. I’m looking forward to this year though I need to control my book-buying. Unfortunately, I’ve said that before.


Posted by on February 3, 2015 in Conferences


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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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A Post About Guilt

I’ve been making a lot of posts about Early Christianity lately so based on the title you can be forgiven for thinking that this post is about that.

It isn’t. I’m currently sitting at home waiting on some deliveries and feeling bad because I’ve neglected this blog for so long. Interestingly, my traffic has stayed fairly high, though for some strange (and slightly disturbing) reasons – you would be amazed how often people have come across this blog using a search term which includes some variant on how to self-castrate. I mean, I want this blog to be helpful but that isn’t a direction I really thought I’d be taking it with this post.

I have a bucketfull of draft posts where I’ve written the framework but haven’t done the detailed reference/citation checking. I also have a review copy of a book where the publisher’s likely beginning to believe they wasted an effort (you haven’t – I’ve read it, it’s good, and I’ll get there). However based on my recent output, you could be forgiven for believing that this blog is dead, or at least terminally ill.

So here’s my excuse. I touched on it a few months ago and since I’m finally seeing the finish line, I thought I’d provide a couple of details.

In short, for the past 20 years I’ve been living here:

By the start of next week (I’m also currently waiting on the builder to stop by so I can sign the paperwork) I’ll be living here:

This may not look like much but I’m pretty much quadrupling my living space (the old house was about 900 square feet, the new is over 1800 with a full basement) Since I’ve never built a house before this has been a new experience. Now there’s a fair amount of work yet to do and I’ll be moving belongings (other than books I really don’t have many belongings) this weekend but in a little while – say a month or so – I should be able to give this blog a bit more attention. If nothing else, I suspect I’ll be very ready for something to give me a break from house-related issues.

So happy medievaling everyone. I’ll be with you shortly.


Posted by on July 2, 2014 in Blogology, Not Really Medieval


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Death and Disease as a Christian Recruiting Tool

It’s nice when mainstream media utilizes people who actually know what they’re talking about. This morning CNN had an article from early Christian historian Candida Moss, “How an Apocalyptic Plague Helped Spread Christianity” in which she talks about a significant disease (she mentions smallpox, I’ve also seen measles proposed) affecting the Roman Empire during the middle of the third century.

In the article she discusses some themes I’ve talked about over the past few months. Chief among them is that Christians saw the terrible death from this disease as a sign that the apocalypse was imminent. As non-Christian Roman Emperors died from the disease, and with Christians believing that death from this was a gateway to heaven, this may have inspired many conversions. And it’s not hard to believe that a period where death by disease was so common made it easier for Christians to endure martyrdom during the Decian persecution. 1

I’ve been waiting for something to come up which I could quickly comment on so I could apologize for my long absence. The house thing is continuing but winding down as I expect to close at the end of this week. But that will still leave me with a bunch of buying furniture, landscaping, putting in a lawn, etc., to work on. I estimate that it will be a month or so until, when I have a few spare hours, I’ll feel that I can put a post together rather than do something house-related (I am currently boxing up books – there’s a surprise). However I haven’t retired from blogging, am currently reading up on Neoplatonism, and have a bunch of half-started posts to finish up, some of which should be pretty cool.

1 The persecutions of Christians was real and did happen but was almost certainly far less widespread than Christian sources portray. Once I get past Diocletian I figure this will make a nice post. The Decian persecution, beginning in 250, appears to be the first formal, systematic persecution in the Empire.


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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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