Tag Archives: Book discussion

A Few Thoughts on Ambrose of Milan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proulx, Michael, “Patres Orphanorum’: Ambrose of Milan and the Construction of the Role of the Bishop,” in Frakes, Robert M., Digeser, Elizabeth DePalma and Stephens, Justin, eds., The Rhetoric of Power in Late Antiquity: Religion and Politics in Byzantium and the Early Islamic World, pp. 75-97. New York: Tauris Academic Studies (2010). ISBN: 978-1-84885-409-3.


Posted by on January 7, 2012 in Religion


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Good Resource for Late Antique Sources

I recently finished Stephen Mitchell’s A History of the Later Roman Empire, AD 284-641. As I was reading it the thought was in the back of my mind that I might write a review but there are plenty of publicly accessible reviews out there already, ranging from people who are disappointed at the general track he took to those who are very pleased. For me, I’d say I’m fairly pleased. I have a few quibbles with areas he chose/didn’t choose to focus on and I thought he questionably used some sources but it is a good overview, shorter than AHM Jones and I think he covers most of the major issues, excepting a lack of emphasis on the last 40 years which is a bit perplexing.

The reason I want to talk about the book has to do with a small section. If you’re interested in finding English translations of sources for Late Antiquity, Mitchell’s bibliography makes a great starting point. Pages 426-9 (I have the paperback) include a wide variety of sources. What was most useful to me, in particular, was the section sub-headed “Collected Sources in Translation.” When I scan lists for books I might be interested in, titles such as, Pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity or Religious Conflict in Fourth-Century Rome don’t scream “Source Collection” to me. I’m at the point where I need to find a table of contents because I may already have many of the sources in these books but that doesn’t keep this from being a very useful method of arranging a bibliography.

While I’m sure Blackwell would love it if you ran out and bought the book (the paperback isn’t too expensive), my suggestion is that if you’re interested in finding English translations of sources but don’t want to read this volume, head to a library or use Inter-Library Loan and photocopy these four pages.

Jones, AHM, The Later Roman Empire, 284-602(2 volumes). Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press (1986). ISBN: 978-0-8018-3285-7.

Mitchell, Stephen, A History of the Later Roman Empire, AD 284-641. Malden, MA/Oxford: Blackwell Publishing (2007). ISBN: 978-1-4051-0856-0.


Posted by on November 25, 2011 in Books, Resources


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Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress – a Few Comments

I just finished reading Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress by Hagith Sivan. I ran the gamut with this book – started reading just to read, decided partway through I was going to review it and changed my note-taking accordingly, then reversed myself and decided not to. As a compromise with myself I decided to comment briefly.

First, any book which mentions the Pseudo Society at Kalamazoo can’t be all bad. Sivan detailed the contents of GP’s secret diary at the 2002 International Congress on Medieval Studies. Unfortunately that was one I did not attend. 1

Sivan takes an interesting approach in this book, one which grew on me as I went along. While she provides some details of GP’s life, what she uses are events from her life to illustrate the life of aristocratic women. For example, she and Athaulf had a young son, Theodosius III who died in infancy. Other than the fact that the child’s body was placed in a small, silver reliquary, almost no details have survived about his initial burial in 415 (as opposed to the translation of his body to the family mausoleum in 450). Sivan uses other examples from Late Antiquity such as late 4th century letters from Ambrose, homilies from Gregory Naziansus and Gregory of Nyssa, poems from Paulinus of Nola and accounts of funerals to describe what likely happened. She provides similar examples for GP’s weddings, her son’s accession as Emperor and other key moments in her life. Where they exist she uses surviving evidence such as texts and inscriptions.

In essence, this is much more a book on aristocratic women in the later Empire than a biography of Galla Placidia. There are biographical elements but in many ways, this is the weakest part of the book. It is more valuable as a study of the status of women. My two main criticisms of the book are how it serves as a biography and with how Sivan approaches some of the more controversial modern interpretations of some of the evidence.

The book offers a fair amount of detail of GP’s life, or at least the progression of the later Western Empire, through 425 when she becomes regent for her son, Valentinian III. A fairly detailed account of the Goths, their movements through Gaul and settlement in Spain and various conflicts and power struggles are provided. The death of Constantius III, GP’s exile during the brief – 423-425 – reign of John, a Notary, and her and her son returning to Ravenna in 425 receive substantial attention. This drops off for the years 425- 437, the period of her regency, and even less is given for 438-450. Some details of the conflict between Aetius and Boniface are provided however little is spoken of the erosion of the Empire’s territory, the impact of the Vandal conquest of North Africa or how the Empire struggled to respond to these threats. This was disappointing to me, largely because those kinds of details are given through 425 and honestly, if the book’s about Galla Placidia, wouldn’t an account of when she was the ruler of the Empire, and her son’s rule (at least through 450 and if you’re going to do that you might as well get to 455) be included?

My other issue is when Sivan discusses events which have been interpreted in contrasting ways by modern historians. This may be more of a personal peeve. This book is what I would consider a fairly light read and does not engage in the dense, technical examinations of evidence that more academic books contain. However when Sivan mentions that she has chosen one source interpretation over another, I believe she should at least summarize the two arguments. One of these is for the dating of the Ashburnham Pentateuch to the fifth rather than sixth or seventh century. (129) Her selection of the earlier date may be perfectly valid – it likely is – however a brief foray into the arguments would be appropriate. Likewise, she provides an interpretation of Merobaudes’ Carmen I which portrays the child Valentinian III as a weeping exile in search of assistance before the Eastern Emperor, Theodosius II, while in the translation I have this is depicted as the joyful betrothal of Licinia Eudoxia and the then (in 423) exiled young emperor. (122-3) Sivan does footnote that her interpretation differs from others (I have the Clover translation) but she goes into no detail regarding how or why she reached this conclusion, or even what the Clover translation describes.

By necessity I have spent considerable time detailing a couple of criticisms. However I do not want this to give the impression that this book is not useful. It is geared more toward the beginner than the historian. In particular, I believe a specialist in this period and region will find little of value. I do think it will make a very nice introduction to the early fifth century of the Western Empire, though I will need to consider a more narrative type of book to suggest as a companion.

In the end, this is a good book, though with a few holes. The status of aristocratic women in the later Empire is explored through an interesting examination of source material and in using Galla Placidia as something of a case study. It is not a straightforward biographical account and some of the details of the fifth century, particularly from 438-450, are unfortunately absent. However if someone is interested in learning more about medieval women; their roles, challenges, and ability to influence events, this book would make a good starting point.

1 The Pseudo Society presentations at Kalamazoo are purely humorous depictions of the Middle Ages.

Clover, Frank, trans. Flavius Merobaudes: A translation and Historical Commentary, Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society (1971).

Sivan, Hagith, Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2010).


Posted by on October 30, 2011 in Books


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Readings on the Roman Empire I: Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire

I’m just back from a week in KC and completely exhausted (when I restore myself I’ll respond to some of the comments that have been posted over the past few days). It’s not because I over-partied or anything (did party a little but not much) but because of ice. Yup – ice in August. My hotel room was situated near the elevators, which was great, I thought. Between myself and the elevators were only a utility room for housekeeping and the vending alcove. And then there was the bane of my existence, the ice machine.

I’m a light sleeper. I’ve mentioned before how, when I drive, I bring a small fan with me for white noise (I flew this time). When someone filled their ice bucket, the resulting sound reaching my room (at least when my head was on the pillow) resembled the primordial roar of a beast intent on destroying whatever had dared to approach its lair. There had to be an echo factor. And when it recharged, it produced more of a warning growl as if it was within its burrow. Tuesday and Thursday nights must have been the party evenings (Thurs. was the last night). I think I woke up six times Tues. and four or five times on Thurs. Fortunately, I managed to restrain myself before I ran into the hallway to confront whoever was agitating the ice machine beast (the thought entered my mind more than once as I woke in a soporific haze). At least, based on the evals & questions, my presentation was well-received and my booth received a lot of traffic. But next time I’m housed next to an angry vending machine, I’m asking to change rooms.

As is my usual custom, I took something to read which I wouldn’t feel compelled to take copious notes on. This was William A. Johnson’s Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study of Elite Communities, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2010). ISBN: 978-0-19-517640-7.

This is a good book. What Johnson set out to do was explore and discuss elite literary culture during the Roman Empire from the late 1st century BC into the early 3rd century AD. He used detailed examinations of sources in a case-study format to illustrate the characteristics of literary elites and their peers which formed a restricted, (relatively) closed social circle in the Empire.

Issues discussed include; what were the characteristics of this culture; who were considered members; how might one gain admittance; what type of hierarchy existed within this circle; what were acceptable and unacceptable behaviors of members and; how did members of this circle view themselves and the circle?

I found this to be an interesting and informative book. I knew this literary group existed and that membership in it was fairly restricted, however I was less familiar with specifics such as how a student who was not considered “experienced” might be viewed if he chose to comment on a reading (rather than raising a question), or how a literary elite might respond to a perceived threat or challenge to the group.

I have always known that I must become fairly familiar with and knowledgeable about the Roman Empire to learn about the 4th century and beyond, including the transition to the Medieval Period in Western Europe. This book is very beneficial to me for this purpose. As I finished it, I find myself with a few issues I would like to explore. The continuation of classical literary culture beyond the ending of the Empire is one of the characteristics of Late Antiquity. Ralph Mathisen has argued that the end of this culture can be viewed as an endpoint for Antiquity. I’m familiar with most of the Late Antique “players” and have many of their writings, in translation. I’d like to look into how they continued to view themselves. My sense is that, as their numbers dwindled, they became more open to new admissions to their group, but were unable to find individuals capable of joining.

Another interesting comparison is the contrast between this and Carolingian Literary Culture. I don’t think there’s much of an argument that this existed in the late 8th and 9th centuries. How does this compare with the Roman culture? Was it as restrictive? Were the hierarchies and patterns of acceptable behavior as strict? Most importantly, I think, is; How did members of the Carolingian literary culture view themselves and it? I don’t believe there’s much (any?) evidence for direct continuity between them and the Romans. Did the Carolingians believe there was? Did they view themselves as recreating the Roman culture or did they recognize that this was something new? Did they recognize it as something at all or was this simply an aspect of their environment? Right now I have 22 books on the Carolingians on my “to-read” shelf. I have a sheet of paper with issues I want to be sure to explore tucked in there. The above questions have been added to it.

I don’t have the knowledge to provide a detailed review of this book however I found it useful and an enjoyable read. It’s fairly pricey but if you can find a copy in a library, it’s definitely worth a look.

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Posted by on August 13, 2011 in Books, Education and Literacy


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Empires and Barbarians, Part II

At long last I’m ready to follow up my Empire and Barbarians Part 1 post of well over a year ago in which I discussed a portion of Peter Heather’s Empires and Barbarians: Migration, Development and the Birth of Europe. If that initial post had died a quiet death I would have happily left this alone. However it has consistently been the second most read post on this blog, after my World Lit Only By Fire review. 1

I need to start this post by explaining why I did not follow up in a more timely manner. I’ve previously mentioned that I tend to review one of two types of books; those I really enjoyed and those that really ticked me off. In the case of this book, I really enjoyed the first three chapters. Heather provides a great deal of evidence, he copiously cites sources, and while I disagree with some specifics, I was willing to accept that the Barbarian groups were moving toward greater cohesion during the later Roman Empire and that this had been at least somewhat through their interactions with the Empire itself.

And so I made a mistake. This blog was about three weeks old, I had nothing that was leaping at me to talk about and I didn’t want to begin my blogging existence by waiting several weeks between posts. So, after reading three chapters and enjoying them, I decided I’d post comments in sections. I will not do this again. It’s fine for books which are essay compilations, not for a single book written by one author centered around a dominant theme or themes. After finishing the book, I ended up with the “just OK” feeling about it. I still think the first three chapters were solid. The next four, however, have substantial problems and for the final three chapters he covers Eastern Europe, for which I’ll recommend Florin Curta’s The Making of the Slavs, and Scandinavia. I lost my impetus for finishing the review when this book which started off as very good ended up being what I consider to be mediocre. I’ve started this post several times and I think I’ve finally figured out how I want to finish this off.

I will not be providing a detailed examination of chapters 4-7 in this post. Instead I’ll point out a couple of serious issues I have with Heather’s arguments and how these have impacted my opinion of the book.

There are two pretty substantial problems with chapters 4-7 (I’m ignoring 8-10 – please read something by Curta or someone with more expertise in that area). One is Heather’s use of evidence which often involves conjecture and sheer appeals to logic, without much basis in evidence. I’m not going to cover this here because I hope one day to do a series of posts about how different historians see and use the same evidence to reach (often) very different conclusions.

The second area, which I believe will be much simpler for me to summarize, is where Heather decides to group aspects of migrations where, to me, the evidence for this grouping is thin. I hope this will give people a clear idea why I am fairly lukewarm on this book. It’s OK to read, but read it with some other volumes covering the same period/event. You will find very different uses of evidence and conclusions by different historians. I’ve found this to be very interesting which is why I hope to explore it further one day.

To summarize, in this book Heather’s overall theme is to argue for a fairly robust theory of barbarian migrations occurring toward and immediately following the end of the Roman Empire. These migrations involved large, relatively cohesive groups which include family units; not just small raiding parties or large military forces, but women, children, and a relocation of cultures. Others have argued a variety of alternatives for this, among them that these forces were largely military, did not bring their families with them and, once in the lands of the Empire, developed new family units from the resident population.

So leaving aside the actual evidence itself, I’m going to take two examples for what I consider to be flawed logical arguments.

Goths: This is the group which included Alaric’s force which sacked Rome and set up shop in Southern Gaul in 418 where they remained until 507 when they were defeated by Clovis and driven into Spain. Heather argues that this was a very substantial group involving family units and was a large-scale migration of most of the Goths who had lived in Thrace. He then chooses to equate this group, for which we have a fair amount of evidence, with various other groups, for which evidence is lacking. These groups include the Vandals, Alans and Sueves. In essence his argument is that we can reasonably conclude from the evidence that the Goths comprised family groups so it is reasonable to conclude that the same holds true for these other barbarians.

I disagree. While there are serious and substantive disagreements with Heather’s thesis for the family grouping of Alaric’s Goths after leaving Thrace, let’s set those aside for the moment. A significant problem with how Heather presents his argument is, to me, “Many of these points [regarding the Goths] also apply to those other great practitioners of repeat migration: the Rhine invaders of 406,” and, most damning, “Whatever view you form of Alaric’s Goths, therefore, will tend to spill over into your understanding of the Vandals, Alans and Sueves.” (202)

Why? Why must an argument about the Goths, where a fair amount of evidence exists, be automatically applied to these other groups, where evidence is lacking? Why would you take a single example and extrapolate to include multiple other groups? I can accept having evidence for three or four examples and applying it to one or two others where some similarities exist, but don’t give me an argument that because we know a fair amount about one example, this creates a model which must then be applied to multiple others. That line of reasoning is a big problem for me. It’s an attempt to shoehorn everything to fit a single theory, something which to me is a real issue with some historians. 2

And are these other groups so similar to the Goths as to deserve this type of comparison? I don’t believe so. The Goths were allowed to peacefully enter the Empire under a treaty and settle in their lands. There were serious problems after this settlement, but their entrance was permitted by Rome. These other groups had to invade militarily, by force, though in many cases they met with little resistance. To me there’s a substantial difference between the potential makeup of a group entering the Empire peacefully, under terms, and those entering by military means. I think it would be reasonable to believe that these Goths included family units (I have more problems with whole family units following Alaric around) however why would they have accompanied these other groups on a military invasion? I don’t think this comparison works. Now I want to be careful to say that evidence should always trump logic, however Heather’s argument is based on the logic of comparing the Goths with the 406/07 invasion force which crossed the Rhine. So I’m choosing to use logic as a counter. 3

Anglo-Saxons: OK, so I disagree with Heather’s applying his argument based on a single barbarian group, the Goths, to other groups, for the reasons I stated above. But I can at least see where you might get to that point, though I think the reasoning is flawed and inadequate. However Heather also provides a basis for assessing the Anglo-Saxon invasions which I consider very strange, “It starts by thinking a bit harder about that classic case of elite transfer, the Norman Conquest of England.” (298)

Wha-huh? This was the point at which I became disenchanted with this book. Why bring them into this? I know Heather uses them as a contrast (at least here), not a comparison, but this doesn’t work. There is no basis for using two such disparate events in such a way – one might as well use the American invasion of Iraq. Yes, the Norman invasion was different and resulted in different impacts on England, but the two events are so disconnected that I can’t find a reason for using the two together, beyond making a huge stretch to find a way to fit an argument together. If you want a different sort of invasion to compare and contrast, find something which is at least related to the A-S event and involves peoples, including the lands and culture being “invaded”, with some similarities, beyond that of geography.

Later he equates the Norman invasion with barbarians as a whole, including using “Norman analogy” in his discussion of benefits bestowed on immigrants. (350) Here he decides to equate events of the fourth and fifth centuries with those of the 11th; “Among the immigrant groups of the late fourth and the fifth century direct landed rewards from the king may well not have gone further down the social scale than leading members of the higher-grade (free?) warrior class, though its lesser members and even some or all of the lower-status warriors are likely, on the Norman Conquest model, [my emphasis] to have received something from the higher-status warriors to whom they were attached.” (351) Here his error is even more severe as he turns from using the Norman invasion as a point of contrast to a point of comparison. I’m not particularly fond of using pejoratives but this just seems strange, given the disparity in so many specifics between the groups and events involved. Maybe “sloppy” would be the better term. Is it appropriate to compare and contrast events, strategies, tactics, economic/social/legal/political structures, etc., between two cultures or events? Absolutely – but the cultures/events must have some basis, some commonalities which make these comparisons logical. I don’t see these commonalities here.

These are two examples showing why I found this book to contain some serious flaws. Examining Heather’s use of the evidence will reveal others. He disagrees with Florin Curta, who has considerable experience with Eastern Europe, over the Slavs. There may certainly be cases where invading groups contained family units and was more of a migration than others have argued, but this tactic of Heather’s in applying this to all such groups doesn’t work for me, and any equation of the Anglo-Saxon “invasion” and Norman Conquest, even as a point of contrast, seems strange.

Does this mean the book is useless? Absolutely not. As I opened with, this book did not become something I felt compelled to post about based on disgust. I continue to believe that the opening chapters were comprehensive and well done, and that it is reasonable to believe that barbarian groups had become larger, more cohesive and more militarized over time, at least partly due to their interaction with the Empire. Throughout the book Heather provides numerous mentions of primary sources which helped me to develop a reading list. He is also willing to discuss arguments which disagree with his, though I’d suggest that, rather than relying on his portrayal of these arguments, you read them for yourself. In any case, I hope these comments have served two purposes; to explain why these follow-up comments are so late and; to describe some of the substantial flaws I found with later sections of the book.

In essence, do not read this book in a vacuum. I strongly suggest adding Burns(2003), Halsall(2007), Goffart(2006), and James(2009) to your reading list if you are deeply interested in the subject of how Western Europe evolved in the wake of the Roman Empire.

1 I keep hoping a post will replace this as consistently being the most read on this blog. Instead my review is now the number one result when you Google either “A World Lit Only by Fire Review” or “A World Lit Only by Fire Summary.” I suppose I should be happy I’ve done the world or at least some portion of it a service but really – IMO I have many much better, more substantial posts.

2 For another example of this shoehorning, see Walter Goffart’s argument for how barbarians were settled in Roman lands, as argued in Barbarian Tides, pp 119-186. I won’t go into his argument in detail however in essence he argues that this settlement involved barbarians receiving tax revenues rather than lands. He based this in large part on a discussion of the various barbarian law codes. I have most of these (in translation) and read through them while reading this section and while I believe his argument holds up for many successor kingdoms; unless Katherine Fischer Drew (1972) completely screwed up the translation, I don’t see how you can get there for the Burgundians. Just because it doesn’t work for them does not invalidate Goffart’s entire hypothesis however it seems very important to him for all barbarian settlements to have followed the same “tax revenue” model.

3 There are some serious problems, based in evidence, with Heather’s believing Alaric’s force included family units. A glaring example is that once the Visigoths settle in Southern Gaul, they disappear. Not in textual sources, where they are frequently mentioned, but archaeologically. There is almost nothing to distinguish them from the native Gallo-Roman population. They appear to have adopted Roman customs and lifestyles wholesale. If this group had included family units, wouldn’t they have retained their own customs and lifestyles? Wouldn’t women have continued to create their, Gothic, handspun pottery for use in homes? Wouldn’t they have continued their traditional patterns of dress? Their level of integration into Roman society, to the point of becoming archaeologically invisible, is a powerful argument against the Visigoths of 418 being comprised of family units. See, for example, p. 306 of Patrick Périn and Michel Kazanski, “Identity and Ethnicity during the Era of Migrations and Barbarian Kingdoms in the Light of Archaeology in Gaul” in Mathisen and Schanzer, eds., Romans, Barbarians, and the Transformation of the Roman World. Surrey, UK: Ashgate (2011). ISBN: 978-0-7546-6814-5.

Burns, Thomas S. Rome and the Barbarians, 100 B.C. – A.D. 400. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press (2003). ISBN: 978-0-8018-7306-5

Curta, Florin. The Making of the Slavs: History and Archaeology of the Lower Danube Region c. 500-700. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2001). ISBN: 9-780521-036153.

Drew, Katherine Fischer, trans. The Burgundian Code: Book of Constitutions or Law of Gundobad; Additional Enactments. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (1972). ISBN: 0-8122-1035-2.

Goffart, Walter. Barbarian Tides: the Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (2006). ISBN: 978-0-8122-3939-3

Halsall, Guy, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2007). ISBN: 978-0-521-4353-7

Heather, Peter, Empires and Barbarians: Migration, Development and the Birth of Europe. London: MacMillan (2009). ISBN: 978-0-333-98975-3

James, Edward, Europe’s Barbarians, AD 200-600. Harlow, UK: Longman (2009). ISBN: 978-0-582-77296-0.


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Good Anglo-Saxon Medicine Resource

Since I don’t seem to have any thoughts bursting to be released from my brain, I think I’ll return to talking about stuff I’ve read. I just finished another book which I think deserves a mention. After reading Pagan Survivals by Bernadette Filotas I decided now would be as good of a time as any to tackle the books I have on Medieval Magic. My “to read” shelf is actually three shelves; over 90 books. Several of them fit into categories fairly easily. For example, I have five books on Medieval women, seven on Anglo-Saxons and nine on Carolingians. Heck, I even have three to read on Medieval prisons. I’ve read three books on magic/medicine since Filotas. The first two didn’t do much for me but I just finished Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing by Stephen Pollington. This is a very good book and will make a useful reference.

This book can be divided into three sections; an opening section discussing Anglo-Saxon medicine; a middle section consisting of translations of Old English medical sources and; a final section, divided into appendices, where Pollington discusses specific aspects of source material.

The opening section includes substantial background information. A brief overview of Anglo-Saxon medicine, uses of herbs in medicine and a discussion of sources is included. This last was the most useful part of this section for me. The focus is on the origination of plant-names, whether they are from Germanic, Latin or Old English (or quite often a combination of these). I’ve always found these kind of discussions interesting and consider them important in discussions of the evolution of cultures though I’m woefully ignorant of the basics of linguisitics or philology. He closes this section with an encyclopedic catalog of all of the plants named in the Lacnunga, Old English Herbarium and Bald’s Leechbook. He does the same for all other materials used in medicine.

The second section is the translations. These are in facing-page format with the Old English on the left, the English translation on the right. The manuscripts include the Lacnunga, Old English Herbarium and Bald’s Leechbook. I am, of course, unable to comment on the quality of the translations but I’m looking forward to having these to refer to when I run across citations.

The book ends with another encyclopedic section. As appendices, Pollington lists and describes the uses of the following in Anglo-Saxon medicine: 1) amulets; 2) causes of disease; 3) charms; dreams, omens, 4) fate and well-being and; 5) tree lore. He organizes this section by the materials they were made from for physical objects, and by theme for the non-physical. For example, he discusses amulets made from antler, teeth, amber, quartz, etc., and for tree lore by species. For causes of disease he has included dwarfs, elves and elfshot, flying venom, and worms and serpents.

I think this will be a good reference for me. Interestingly, when it comes to the Late Antique/Early Medieval period I am less familiar with Anglo-Saxon/Britain than continental Western Europe (which is why this post is much more a description than an analysis). I need to work on that, fairly soon – in looking at the Kalamazoo program, I noted a lot of Anglo-Saxon sessions that I’ll likely be attending.

Pollington, Stephen, Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant Lore, and Healing. Hereward: Anglo-Saxon Books (2008). ISBN: 978-1-898281-47-4.


Posted by on March 20, 2011 in Books, Disease and Medicine


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Early Medieval Paganism Resource

I have been absolutely neglectful of this blog over the last few weeks. Real world, work, etc., all getting in the way, at least for posting anything beyond a quick foo-foo post. (foo-foo is a scientific term for “uselessly frivolous”). Hopefully I can get back to it but no promises.

I just finished reading Pagan Survivals, Superstitions and Popular Cultures in Early Medieval Pastoral Literature by Bernadette Filotas. I originally planned on posting a review but there are at least two good ones out there. For anyone, James Bugsglag from the University of Manitoba wrote one which is available online from The Medieval Review. Michael Bailey also wrote one for Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft. 1 So I’m going to restrict myself to a few comments.

I started reading this thinking it would consist of a lot of analysis, similar to but more recent than Valerie Flint’s The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe. I was wrong about that through nobody’s fault but my own. 2

This book is overwhelmingly a survey of mentions of paganism by Western European Christian authorities between roughly 500-1,000 AD. Filotas uses Caesarius of Arles’ sermons and letters as something of an early bookmark and Burchard of Worms’ Decretum for the end of her period. In between we have a comprehensive discussion, in a very structured, methodical manner, of all mentions of paganism in religious documents.

There are nine chapters in the book; her introduction where she discusses her methods and sources, and eight which are topical. The topical chapters are:

2. Idolatry, Gods and Supernatural Beings
3. Nature
4. Time
5. Space
6. Magic – Magicians and Beneficent Magic
7. Ambivalent and Destructive Magic
8. Death
9. Alimentary Restrictions

Within each of these chapters she has followed something of an encyclopedic formula where she lists a term, or group of terms with equivalent meanings, and describes how often the respective term(s) were used and in what context. Once I got myself into a rhythm of reading it I found it quite interesting. The book’s filled with information but I ended up not taking a ton of notes because on scanning the index I could see that I would be able to use it fairly easily to find a given term.

There isn’t a lot of analysis beyond discussing the context of the use of terms however I was struck by one statement near the end which I’ll quote at length due to its importance: “Our sources then show significant insights into beliefs and practices of the faithful. Nonetheless, it must be admitted that they have disappointingly little to offer on the subject of popular culture. The immense volume of legislation, penitentials, sermons, letters and tracts yields about two thousand mostly short passages dealing with practices that may be considered to be pagan survivals and superstitions. This is not much, considering the extent of time and expanse of space covered: over 500 years and most of Western Europe. Moreover, few contain material not drawn from earlier sources; there is little to be found at the end of our period that was not there at the beginning.” (359)

“Even if we can accept that the texts are repetitive because they continued to describe permanent features of beliefs and practices, we are left with the question as to why they mention so seldom areas of life which were untouched in earlier texts. . . . The magic used by weaving women is cited repeatedly. But there is not a word about any other occupation, about charcoal-burners, wood-cutters, miners, fishermen, sailors (a notoriously superstitious crew), smiths (with their strongly magical antecedents), potters, tanners, wheelwrights, peddlers, beggars, thieves and prostitutes, all of whom undoubtedly engaged in magical rituals adapted to their unique circumstances.” (359) 3

Her message is clear; while we can glean some information about daily life from the concerns of religious authorities, we can learn far more about what was important to these authorities. However she believes that information on culture may be out there. “Other contemporary written sources, such as histories, liturgy, customary law and, in particular, hagiography, should be studied systematically to see if they shed light on each other and on broader cultural questions.” (360)

If you’re interested in what the Church and Christian authorities thought about pagan practices in Western Europe during the Early Medieval period, I can heartily recommend this book. There is a LOT of information in it. I have a feeling I’ll be using it quite a bit as a reference.

1 Bailey, Michael, Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, Volume 2, Number 2, Winter 2007, pp 206-209.

2 Flint receives more mention in the introductory chapter than any other secondary source. I read Flint about ten years ago and enjoyed it quite a bit. Even wrote my first ever review on it. Flint ventures much more into an analysis of the survival of pagan practices, regarding both frequency and in examining why certain practices survived.

3 This is distressingly close to the same quotes Bailey used in his review but I think these are essential for understanding where this book fits, or at least where Filotas believes it fits, in Medieval Studies.

Filotas, Bernadette, Pagan Survivals, Superstitions and Popular Cultures in Early Medieval Pastoral Literature. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies (2005). Pp. 438, xii. ISBN: 0-88844-151-7.

Flint, Valerie, The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press (1991). Pp. 452, xiv. ISBN: 0-691-00110-3.


Posted by on March 5, 2011 in Books


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