Editing Leo’s Letters Someday

Back in March 2022, my book The Manuscripts of Leo the Great’s Letters: The Transmission and Reception of Papal Documents in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages came out. This is a book that does what it says on the tin — over 468 pages (plus bibliography and indices) I discuss hundreds of manuscripts that represent dozens of letter collections that include letters of Pope St Leo the Great. It is based on my PhD dissertation (Edinburgh, 2015) but expanded and cleaned up — errors fixed, manuscripts added, letter collections added, and so on and so forth. I found lots of really interesting material in the years of revision!

The reviews have started to come out, first in Plekos, where there’s some really valuable feedback for improving my work for the edition alongside general appreciation, and this, “He makes a compelling case that a new edition of the letters is long overdue.”

Most recently, it’s been favourably reviewed by The Bryn Mawr Classical Review as well, where the reviewer says, “We can only hope that a new edition of Leo’s letters, informed by the scholarship on display on this book, will appear before long.”

Mark DelCogliano — @MarkDelCogliano — retweeted BMCR’s link to the review the other day and tagged me, asking if I was planning on doing the edition. This Tweet got 5 likes. Coling Whiting — @CM_Whiting — also retweeted the BMCR review. So I ran a 24-poll as to whether I should go forward with editing Leo’s letters. This got 24 votes, 22 of which were Yes.

I’ve been thinking lately about a next major thing, next book project. There’s a recent invitation to translated Cassiodorus’ Institutiones for non-academics. I will do that. There are older book ideas — a companion to John Cassian, a book about the Rule of St Benedict, maybe rework my Christmastide lectures on the incarnation and become a theologian.

But the project I’ve been building towards. The thing that consumed me for so long was this. The Letters of Pope Leo the Great, sitting around with no complete critical edition since 1753. Now, there are partial editions since them, some of them very good — so far as they go. But none of them has the entire corpus of Leo’s letters, and none of them is perfect (so edition is, of course).

The correspondence includes 173 items sent to and from Leo. The largest edition since 1753 is that of Eduard Schwartz in the 1930s in Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum, vol. 2.4, bringing together 115 of the letters. Among the various different modern editions, however, twenty-three have received no critical edition. Helpfully, all twenty-three fall under a conceptual umbrella (potentially false, but I see no escape) of letters pertaining to church discipline and canon law. They would come together with twelve more letters on similar topics as a discrete set within the wider corpus and could, with prolegomena, form volume 1 of the complete correspondence for Corpus Christianorum Series Latina.

Everything else — the so-called “dogmatic” letters — would fill volume 2.

Straightforward, I guess. Except that I need to figure out which manuscripts to definitively eliminate. And then collate the texts of all the letters. And then work on redaction. And all of this in the midst of a highly contaminated tradition. And so forth.

The obstacle to doing this edition?

Time. I am a stay-at-home dad who teaches part-time online. I don’t have the time necessary to sit with Leo’s letters and let them sink into me to redact the text.

Do I?

Power metal and fantasy

I just got back from a trip to Toronto for surgery. Besides the surgery, there were some good times with family, including my cousin and me trying to explain to my uncle that “growling into a microphone” isn’t the only form of heavy metal. I extolled to him the virtues of power metal, for example. Here’s Rhapsody of Fire’s song Emerald Sword:

Power metal, unlike death metal, does not involve growling. It involves singing — big singing. Epic singing. Sometimes maybe shouting, but, like, shouting on the battlefield to your comrades for them to form a shield wall. It’s a form of metal that, musically and technically, is about hard virtuosity. So you’ll crisp, clear electric guitars in power metal, not as much distortion as in some other music (depending on what effect they’re going for). A band like Rhapsody/Rhapsody of Fire produces symphonic power metal, so they also have some strings.

One of the first things I want to drive at when I talk about power metal from a musical perspective is the power. This music is driven, and it’s designed to catch you up into it. It gathers you by the ear drums to escort you into another realm. It grabs you the way Wagnerian music (Wagner, later Bruckner stuff, you know?) can. Lohengrin brings you on a journey even if all you’re doing is listening. You can just turn the lights off and listen to Wagner.

I can, anyway.

Power metal is the kind of music that energises you, you know?

But the technically-difficult, crisp electric guitars, strings, and energising music are not all that define power metal. Do you want dragons, wizards, knights, monsters, glory, the brotherhood of warriors in your metal? Do you? Then power metal is the metal for you.

Power metal is most famous for putting together albums and singing songs that tell fantasy stories or are on fantasy themes. This is certainly not across the board — Running Wild sings pirate-themed songs, Sabaton focusses on actual war rather than fantasy, etc. — but it’s what a certain segment of power metal bands write about. And it’s what they’re famous for.

So what I’m thinking is that we need a sword-and-sorcery fantasy film with a power metal soundtrack. I’ve floated the idea on Facebook, and two of my friends like it. So that’s something. But I think that, given the thematic element and the musical drive of power metal, I think it’s the contemporary popular genre most suited to sword and sorcery.

First, consider what we’re thinking of in such a film. We’re thinking of “the days of high adventure”.

Conan the Barbarian (1982) is probably the best sword-and-sorcery film of all time; certainly, it’s the best-loved. This kind of fantasy is about adventure, about humans against the elements, against magic, and against fell beasts and dread monsters. It’s about the inescapable numinous that hides on the corners of lived reality, but we just can’t grasp it because we numb it with Netflix, air conditioning, and all the other trappings of civilization.

But our heroic forebears lived on the edge of numinous, and the numinous is not your friend. It is capricious. It is dangerous. It can destroy you. It can turn into a snake. It can suck the life out of you. So you face it, sword in hand, with a few friends. You seek survival. You seek revenge. And maybe — just maybe — you might become a hero in the process. I have to confess that Robert E. Howard is the only sword and sorcery I’ve read.

Power metal, with its driving energy, is perfectly suited to telling these stories. And the fact that they sing instead of growl means audiences beyond metal fans will tolerate it. 😉

Second, consider what we want to convey with music in a film. An argument has been made that the incorporation of contemporary music into A Knight’s Tale is part of what makes it one of the best medieval movies out there. Actual medieval music and dancing just won’t convey to us the emotional message the filmmakers wanted to bring, about the excitement and fun people were having. And grand, symphonic music commonly used for medieval films is equally anachronistic.

Of course, symphonic music for fantasy and sci-fi is part of what makes is great. Basil Poledouris’ soundtrack to Conan the Barbarian is the best supporting actor in the film. The intensity of the action, the grandness of the scope, everything about Conan the Barbarian is enhanced by that soundtrack.

Once again, power metal is perfectly suited to do this job for sword and sorcery. They tell stories. Rhapsody of Fire even incorporates harpsichord, organ, and medieval instruments into their music! A story about the liminal world of the numinous as it is met by warriors of high renown in the days of high adventure — power metal can deliver.

Let’s get ourselves one of these, shall we?

Review of Arthurian Legends of the Middle Ages

Arthurian Legends of the Middle Ages by George W. Cox

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m not sure how highly to rate this book. If you’re a 14-year-old kid in rural Alberta who loves Arthuriana and whose whole family is involved in the local production of the musical Camelot, this is a 5-star book. I loved it when I was 14 — and it’s definitely pitched at adults.

24 years later, I haven’t reread it.

Nonetheless, I will say this. It gave me a great framework for all the Arthuriana that has come since, and I enjoyed it tremendously. All the major stories are there, so all the famous knights and adventures you have some inkling about. But it takes way less time than actually reading a medieval romance, and it also saves you the angst and bad history of modern novelisations. What this book has provided me over the long term is the references necessary for slipping the romances and modern novels into place, sort of like reading a general history of Rome before moving on to Suetonius or a modern historian like Richard Burgess. Something like this, then, should be on every Arthur reader’s shelf.

But whether this particular volume is the one for anyone else, I have no idea.

View all my reviews

“Allora”, “Welcome” and other ANCIENT MYSTERIES

As you probably don’t know, I have been hired to be a Latin/Greek Fellow for the Ancient Language Institute (ALI), which means I’m back to teaching languages! One of the exciting things about ALI is the fact that they/we use active learning pedagogy, with comprehensible input and only using the target language — like my TESOL training. There are many benefits to this.

When you start having to speak a language, you start finding unexpected habits of mind and speech and/or gaps in knowledge you never worried about before. The Italian word allora comes in the first category for me, and the English word welcome comes in the second.

Allora is a word that means … well, I guess it means “then” or “next”, maybe, depending on the context, “so” — so as it is used by Seamus Heaney to translate Hwaet! in Beowulf‘s opening. “So.” Full stop. We’re done that. Now it’s a new thing. It really depends on context. If I really had to gloss the Italian word allora, I would say it signifies the same res as alors. (Immensely helpful, I know. For my discussion of res and signa, dependent on Augustine of Hippo, look here.)

I have discovered that when I speak in Latin, I want to use this word allora. This isn’t really surprising. Probably the greatest number of times I have heard a person say allora in a single hour was in Italian class — and here I am, working at teaching Latin. Moreover, there is a tendency to say, “Bene!” in both contexts. Finally, Latin and Italian have the same cadence if you learn how to sound out Latin properly with long and short syllables and stress accents in the right places.

Like any good modern, I took to Facebook today to try and determine if anyone had a good Latin word that signifies the same linguistic res as allora. The answer was basically, “Non. Nihil habemus.” The closest lexical answer was tunc. But the best answer, from my PhD supervisor and former boss (but not current boss, so this isn’t sucking up), was an answer (in lingua latina, scilicet) that said that, actually, we should probably not be asking these questions — not even using “bene!” without a verb for it to modify, so that, basically, we can speak more like the ancients did, and try to turn few modern words into Latin.

This is a good point.

It leads me to the second category of things you discover in speaking a language — stuff you never had to know before. I use the example of “welcome” because it is indicative of our attempts to be both polite in a modern European sort of way on the one hand and idiomatic on the other. Most modern European languages have a word that means welcome. Actually, based on signs at airports, most languages of any sort have such a word. Welcome, bienvenue, willkommen, bouzhou, እንኳን ደህና መጣህ, स्वागत हे, benvenuto, receber, Fàilte, 환영하다, and so forth.

It only stands to reason, then, that Latin must have a word that we can use to say “Welcome!”, thereby being polite in our classes. The answer, it seems, is “Bene uenisti!” But is it? I have it on good authority that, in fact, it is not. “Bene uenisti!” is only found in the Vulgate (nothing wrong with that). In the Vulgate, the context is not what you say to someone who has simply walked through the door (or clicked “Play” on your YouTube video), but what you say to someone who has arrived as they should — as in, literally, “You have arrived well!” My authority says, more colloquially, “Looks like you had a good trip!”

I have not read all the Latin there is, but I have yet to meet a Latin signum that points to the English res “Welcome!”

Of course, there are other gaps in one’s linguistic knowledge that can be filled. But part of the difficulty here, I believe, is that we are trying to replicate a one-for-one Latin version of what we would say in our own English idiom. Yet many of our contemporary colloquial and idiomatic phrases may not have an equivalent in Latin; that is, they may not (perhaps cannot, at times) have something that “means” the same thing.

(Another question, I suppose — do Latin uerba actually mean the same thing as the English words we use to translate them?)

In posing these questions, I betray my interests. There are people who want to speak conversational Latin, and so they require means of speaking in an informal manner to their Latin conversation partners. These people will need to think hard about all the idioms and colloquialisms they use anglice so as to speak Latine. I used to think that was a cool goal, and I think it is cool, but not for me. My goal in studying and teaching Latin is accessing Latin literature — that I and my students are able to sit down with Cicero or St Bernard, Claudian or Alan of Lille, Tacitus or Erasmus, Virgil or Ovid or Horace or Leo or Augustine or Pliny or Pliny or any of the thousands of other Latin writers and read it and appreciate them both for their content and for their artistry.

And so, until William Shatner helps us uncover the truth, the ancient mysteries of allora and welcome will remain unsolved. It’s an ignorance I’m willing to live with.

The Return of Arthur in 2021

Growing up, stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were among my favourite things. I remember sitting just inside my bedroom door at night in Grade 3, illuminated by the hall light, reading, reading these stories. In junior high, I read T H White’s The Once and Future King, and my family was involved in the local music and drama society’s production of Camelot a few years later. I have all four issues of the Black Knight miniseries by Marvel Comics.

Eventually, it would come to pass that I wasn’t reading very much Arthurian literature or consuming other King Arthur media, although throughout the years I would still read something here or there.

2021 saw the return of King Arthur.

First, Malcolm Guite began making videos on his YouTube channel wherein he read aloud his new Arthurian ballads. Irresistible. Probably the best things on the internet in 2021. Stop reading my blog and go watch his Arthurian videos. Seriously.


Then I stumbled upon a copy of The Burning Stone, a prequel to Jack Whyte’s series A Dream of Eagles. A Dream of Eagles is set in late and post-Roman Britain, imagining a plausible series of events that would lead to the rise of Arthur. I read The Burning Stone in the spring, and finally finished off Whyte’s Arthurian novels in the summer, reading the two-part series The Golden Eagle, Clothar the Frank and The Eagle. Clothar represents Lancelot, and the two books are good enough, but I wish I’d read them when I first got them ages ago because I know too much fifth-century Roman history at this point. Timelines are confused, and Whyte seems to think the entire population of Gaul was Frankish (although this was also a bit confused, too).

However, between The Burning Stone and Clothar the Frank, I also read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (trans. JRR Tolkien) and The Quest of the Holy Grail (trans. Pauline Matarasso). I had read both of these before, and in those translations. Sir Gawain was my first piece of medieval literature back in junior high, as part of a Tolkien kick (and an ongoing love of Arthuriana). My brother gave me The Quest of the Holy Grail some years ago, and it’s always worth reading and rereading. I made a YouTube video about its allegorical, spiritual meaning, in fact. And, on further reflection, I also made this YouTube video about King Arthur.

Despite my misgivings about some of his history, Jack Whyte’s The Golden Eagle series was not the most disappointing Arthurian moment of 2021. That would be The Green Knight. I can’t even … The film upends the meaning of the poem by changing the most important elements of the plot and undermining the way the original poem questions chivalry and courtly love. From being a story that questions secular virtues (amongst other things) as well as a coming-of-age story about a young knight, it becomes a travesty that subverts all virtue whatsoever about a sex-hungry fool in a world where there are no heroes. It does not seem to question what a real hero is the way the poem does but, rather predictably, it falls in line with today’s “art” and questions whether heroes are even real.

Nonetheless, the summer was redeemed by the fact that I started reading Lancelot of the Lake (trans. Corin Corley) with a friend. It went in fits and spurts through the Autumn, so I actually finished it in December. This book is part of the Vulgate Cycle that also includes The Quest of the Holy Grail that I read earlier in the year. It sets up the character and prowess of Lancelot, his love of Guinevere, and ultimately those flaws in character that will bar him from achieving the Grail Quest.

For Christmas, my wife gave my Isaac Asimov’s The Complete Robot and Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan (trans. A T Hatto). I finished Tristan early in 2022. Gottfried’s version is not technically Arthuriana because he sets it a generation after Arthur — as Hatto notes in his introduction, this actually smoothes out some of the problems involved in making Tristan a knight of the Round Table.

Finally, this year I have also read Stephen R Lawhead’s Pendragon and Grail. I liked Grail more than Pendragon, and not only because of Lawhead’s misconception of who the Vandals are, but because I think my tastes have been shifting away from war stories for a while now.

Overarching all of this has been an insistence from my sons that I tell them King Arthur stories in the car. I did get away with telling bits of Orlando Furioso for a while, and then stories of Odysseus, but the gravitation towards Arthur continues. Roger Lancelyn Green has helped with this! And I’ve made up a couple of stories featuring knights with their names. I also got out Robert D San Souci’s Young Lancelot from the library to help sate their appetite.

That’s it for now, but I will be reading Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain soon, so I’m not finished with the Matter of Britain just yet!

Nothing is lost (when you write a book)

I have written a book, called The Manuscripts of Leo the Great’s Letters: The Transmission and Reception of Papal Documents in the Middle Ages. It is a transformed, expanded, sifted, revised, revised, revised version of that which was once my PhD dissertation. It is over 500 pages of words, including the index that I made for it. Brepols will publish it this year, DV.

In a sense, this book has been eleven years in the making, since I started my PhD in 2011, and now it is 2022. In another sense, it took from 2015 when I graduated until today for this book to be completed, for it to be transformed and revised and made ready for public consumption. I once felt like there was a certain amount of “wasted time” because I wasn’t actively working on this book.

However, that is false. It is true that I had no plans to publish a book based on my dissertation until some time in 2018-19 when I was employed at UBC as an Assistant Professor Without Review in Latin Language and Literature. But those years were not wasted, as far as the book is concerned (they weren’t wasted in other ways, of course).

First, 2015-2016. I was employed as Ralegh Radford Rome Fellow at the British School at Rome. My research program was focussed on a particular selection of manuscripts of early papal letters (some of Leo’s predecessors). I spent months lurking in the Vatican Library and made trips to the Biblioteca Vallicelliana in Rome, and Lucca, Vercelli, Milan. I also analysed a few of the Vatican Library’s Leo manuscripts I hadn’t had time for during the PhD. All of this research informs the book, in fact, even the material not related to Leo because it enables me to better situate Leo and the transmission of his letters in the wider context of papal letter transmission in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.

Then 2016-17, a year certainly not lost in the most important areas of life, for my eldest son was born in 2017! This year I was a Teaching Fellow in Late Roman History at the University of Edinburgh. I thought I was on intimate terms with Late Roman History when I finished my PhD. After teaching it for a full year, I definitely was. I revised the chapters on late antique history with great confidence. Moreover, my ongoing research into matters related to Leo and his letters further strengthened the knowledge base when I got around to revising the book.

Then 2017-18, the year I was Barker Priory Library Fellow at Durham University. My research project was a study of the canon law manuscripts of Durham Cathedral Priory Library, particularly from the time of William of St-Calais onwards. This is when my knowledge of medieval canon law really went deep. Manuscripts I viewed that year are in my book precisely because of this opportunity, manuscripts of Collectio Lanfranci and Gratian’s Decretum as well as a few other unique items from Durham Cathedral Priory, and a deeper, richer appreciation for the High Middle Ages.

And then I went to UBC, during which time I began revising the thesis into a book in earnest.

Everything has been useful. All of my teaching and research inform what I do and how I do it and what I know and how I argue and what makes the cut to be included in my final writing.

Nothing has been lost.

Provided by Durham Priory Library Project – a collaboration between Durham University and Durham Cathedral

Reaching for the real: St Augustine and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

I just gave a lecture about St Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana (I assigned RPH Green’s translation, On Christian Teaching) on Monday, and, since that text has been cited as the place where Augustine invents semiotics, semiotics has been on my mind a bit. And a couple of weeks ago, when choosing my next piece of fiction to read, I decided to finally crack open my copy of Umberto Eco’s 2004 novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.

First, semiotics is the study of signs and symbols (but not, I hasten to add, the domain of “symbologists”, whether from Harvard or elsewhere). So, in De Doctrina, Augustine talks about how there are signs (signa) and things (res). All signa happen to be res, but not all res are signa. A signum is something that represents to us a res. Some are natural, such as where’s there’s smoke, there’s fire, and others are human inventions, such as language. The signa of language are sound events representing res, and these disappear as soon as they come into existence (which makes one think of the later books of Confessions with their discussion of time and memory, written not long after these books of De Doctrina). Written words consist of physical, written signs that represent the res that are the spoken signs that represent the res of the rest of the world.

Ultimately, though, Augustine does see all the res we encounter as signa, and that to which they point is the res that is God (but is God a res? [wonders Augustine] Can we really say that? God is ultimately unspeakable, after all…). As we seek ourselves or the great transcendent God, we find that what we seek is almost uncatchable, ungraspable (consider the discussion of the interior self as a vast cavern in Confessions 10).

This, of course, is something that Basil of Caesarea had thought upon in the 360s and 370s, arguing that we think we can know the essence (ousia) of God, when we cannot even know the ousia of other creatures but only their activities (energeiai). In a dangerous move, I wonder if it’s not the case that our energeiai, like those of God, are not, as far as others are concerned, ultimately signa that represent the irreducible res that is each self.

Anyway, in Confessions in various ways, St Augustine engages in a great seeking for himself, found only when he finds the incarnate God and joins the community centred around Him. And along the way, we enter the great mind palace of the memory — itself, to transpose terms from De Doctrina, filled with signa representing various res in which we have been involved throughout our lives.

Can we ever have an unmediated encounter with a res? Or will we always have mediating signa that stand as filters between ourselves and reality? Even between ourselves and ourselves?

There is an argument in semiotics that such is the case.

And thinking these things, I sat down to read some more of The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana last night. This novel is about a man called Yambo who has lost his personal memories, but he does remember most of the books he has read. The novel thus begins with a barrage of intertexts about fog — a recurring theme both in the book and in Yambo’s life. Throughout the rest of the book there will be allusions interwoven into the text as well as great quoted chunks of intertext and images interspersed as Yambo seeks to discover the self he has lost with his memories.

Yambo has only the filter left.

The self composed of memories and experiences on the other side of the filter is gone.

Elsewhere in Eco’s work, the idea of reality being mediated by the signa we have mapped into our minds and hearts surfaces. In Foucault’s Pendulum, for example, the characters’ entire existence is essentially mediated by literature, to such an extent that a simple drive in the Italian countryside is not a direct encounter with nature and beauty but, rather, with literature about the countryside as it is called forth from memory unbidden.

I recall the day I thought, “My sons lives are a web of intertextuality,” as the elder boy at two-and-a-half stood naked with a plastic tub on his head and said, “Do you like my hat?” Maybe I’m the one caught in the web, as I immediately thought of Go, Dog! Go! by P D Eastman. But their lives have certainly blossomed forth into a variety of allusions to and quotations from their books.

I can’t think of any of them right now — but my intertexts have certainly become theirs, as those nights with them running up and down the hall, the elder boy yelling, “I’m Batman! I’m not wearing hockey pants!” over and over again.

I certainly can’t hear, “Do you like my hat?” without either, “I do! I do like that party hat!” or, “No I do not.” I can’t hear, “Someone’s banging on a drum,” without saying, “Dum ditty dum ditty dum dum dum,” in response. How many times at the end of fun for the day have I said, “Today was fun but now it’s done, tomorrow is another one”?

I can’t even hear someone say a two-syllable word with emphasis on the first syllable and a lengthened second syllable without my mind flipping a White Christmas switch, “Pine Tree! Coming in to Pine Tree!”

This entrapment in a web of intertextuality, this inescapable mediatedness of reality, has so many repercussions I don’t know where to go from here. I mean, at some point, we have learned all the things we know, even things we don’t think about having learnt — how to open a doorknob, what a doorknob is, in fact. And so we have this filter of language hovering between us and the door, without which we would possibly have trouble managing our existence.

But there must be a way to truly encounter the things, the res, of reality, to truly meet with the door and the doorknob.


The small consolations of ancient “consolatio”


A friend recently passed away from as-yet unknown (to me) medical causes. He was 37, going on 38. Lots of thoughts and responses have been going through my mind and heart, of course. At the same time, professionally, I am starting to work on a book chapter about ancient letters and the science of historical study, so various thoughts about ancient letters have been emerging.

These two facets of my reality meet in the ancient letter of consolation, unsurprisingly simply called consolatio in Latin. These letters and the philosophical themes they bring up dance on the periphery of my existence. I feel that they are a good reminder of two things:

  1. Ancient people are different from us.
  2. There’s very little anyone can say to console you in the midst of the loss of a loved one.

Typically, the author of one of these expresses his own grief at the death in question. Then, if the dead person was known to the writer, he expresses his admiration for a life well-lived. At some point, there is some consolation in the fact that we all die, and a reminder that the person in question has been removed from the toils of this mortal life — whether of illness or that person’s particular misfortune or political circumstances.

I cannot, for the moment, find the specific letter from Cicero, but in one of his Ad Familiares (given by D R Shackleton Bailey in English as “To his friends”), Cicero consoles someone on the loss of a son by saying that at least the poor boy didn’t have to live through the evident troubles awaiting the Roman Republic.

Seems cold comfort to me.

Pliny writes a letter (1.12) lamenting the death of a friend who had committed suicide at age 67, asking for some consolation better than the fact that Corellius had lived a good life, was old, and had been ill with gout in his feet since age 32.

In the 400s, Sidonius Apollinaris writes consolatio to the effect that one should not weep for someone whose great and good name lives on after him (Ep. 4.11.6). He also strikes a Christian tone that good deeds buy heavenly reward. This is the new addition, found in Gregory the Great (Ep. 1.11) and Ruricius of Limoges (Ep. 2.3).

One of the new tones besides the hope of heaven is finding comfort in Christ, expressed by Gregory in Ep. 1.11 and Ruricius in 2.3 and 2.39. Ruricius also points out that bodily death is not a true cause of grief but, rather, spiritual death (2.46).

When I first had news of my friend’s death, my position was far more Plinian than anything. What does it matter that he does not have to live through whatever fresh hell COVID-19, racial unrest, and a tanking economy have to offer? What does it matter that he lived a good life and will be fondly remembered by his family, friends, and colleagues? He is gone, never to return.

As time passes, though, and especially as I see some of the strength of his sister’s posts on Facebook, there is comfort in Sidonius, Gregory, and Ruricius, that Andrew lived a good life, that he had fled to Christ for his trust in the resurrection.

Knowing that Andrew will be with us at the resurrection day, St Ambrose’s funeral speech on his brother Satyrus now comes to me, infusing the themes of consolatio with abundant Christian theology and the great solace that comes of knowing what awaits him. Change a few details, and this can apply as well:

He had no need of being raised again for time, for whom the raising again for eternity is waiting. For why should he fall back into this wretched and miserable state of corruption, and return to this mournful life, for whose rescue from such imminent evils and threatening dangers we ought rather to rejoice? For if no one mourns for Enoch, who was translated when the world was at peace and wars were not raging, but the people rather congratulated him, as Scripture says concerning him: “He was taken away, lest that wickedness should alter his understanding,” with how much greater justice must this now be said, when to the dangers of the world is added the uncertainty of life. He was taken away that he might not fall into the hands of the barbarians; he was taken away that he might not see the ruin of the whole earth, the end of the world, the burial of his relatives, the death of fellow-citizens; lest, lastly, which is more bitter than any death, he should see the pollution of the holy virgins and widows. (On the Death of Satyrus, ch. 30)

10 books, no. 3: The Philokalia

My third of ten books (sorry I fell behind on this) was The Philokalia, vol. 1:

The Philokalia is a five-volume anthology of Greek-language (plus a Greek translation of bits of John Cassian) ascetic/mystical texts focussed on the art of prayer, the prayer of the heart, pure prayer — viz., the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

It was compiled in 1782 by Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain (that is, Athos) and Makarios of Corinth, drawn from a selection of Athonite manuscripts of Greek-language spiritual masters that were themselves what the compilers thought of as “paterika” — anthologies of the “fathers”. In the Orthodox world, the “fathers” do not end in 749 with the death of John of Damascus (as in western assessments of “patristics”) but potentially extend until today. The “fathers” selected here run from the fourth through fourteenth century.

I call these “Greek-language” texts because simply saying “Greek” will give the wrong idea to a modern reader — the monks herein are from Egypt, Mt Sinai, Judaea-Palestine, and Syria as well as from the “Greek” Mount Athos. They do not provide a vision of the entire Christian life or all of Orthodox spirituality, but simply an approach to pure prayer and the union of the mind with the heart, focussing largely on the Jesus Prayer, as noted above.

A shorter anthology emerged around the same time, and it may not be a shortened Philokalia, according to recent research, but actually an independent text based on the same or similar manuscripts. It is often called the shorter or little Russian Philokalia, and it is the book in the popular anonymous novel The Way of a Pilgrim. Along with the Russian translation of Isaac the Syrian, it was influential on the Optina Fathers and nineteenth-century Russian spiritual masters such as Theophan the Recluse.

Volume 1 is all that I’ve read of The Philokalia. It is entirely ancient, mostly fourth- and fifth-century authors, going possibly up to the later seventh. Not all of the authors are securely dated. It includes: Isaiah the Solitary; Evagrius Ponticus; John Cassian; Mark the Ascetic (or the Monk); Hesychios the Priest; Nilos of Ancyra; Diadochos of Photiki; John of Karpathos, and a pseudonymous text of Antony the Great.

In the first volume, the prayer of the heart and the conditions for it are charted to the emergence of the name of Jesus and the Jesus Prayer in the fifth century. It is a powerful, challenging book of a more than historical interest.

Finally, this translation is a version of The Philokalia in the spirit of Nikodimos and Makarios rather than a translation of The Philokalia as printed in Venice in 1782. The translators translate the same selections from the authors, but they reattribute them where we know better who wrote a text, and they translate them from modern critical editions. Moreover, they also produce their own general introduction to the volume besides introductions to each author and an invaluable glossary at the back.

If you are interested in Eastern Orthodox spirituality or a certain tradition of the ancient Desert, this book is a difficult but worthy place to begin.

Was Late Antiquity an age of spirituality?

Before I launch into this post, I’d like to make it clear that I greatly admire the work of Kurt Weitzmann and have enormously profited from the book Age of Spirituality, which the Metropolitan Museum Art has available as a free download. Now, onto the show.

Sometimes, when I read titles of articles and books about Late Antiquity, and sometimes even the content, I get the impression that there are people out there who imagine Late Antiquity to have been uniquely religious, or particularly “spiritual” — that there was a spiritual ferment in the years 284-641 (or earlier, if you take on the timeline of Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity).

I am not sure that this is true. (And I hope I’m not constructing a strawman. Hopefully my academic colleagues are aware of this. It’s mostly just an impression.)

When I say that, I am not saying that Late Antiquity is not an age of spirituality. I mean that the designation is misleading. When we talk about this as an age of spirituality, there is an unspoken assumption that “classical antiquity” was not. Allow me to articulate, first, why we might think this, and second, why I think “classical antiquity” was as “spiritual” as Late Antiquity.

Why might we think that Late Antiquity was more spiritual?

The nature of the evidence for religious activity in Late Antiquity leads us to think this way, I believe. One of main cultural events of Late Antiquity was the Christianisation of the Roman Empire, and hot on its heels came the rise of Islam. Cultural historians have to deal with these two facts, and, since Islam and Christianity are both still lived religions, the evidence for each in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages is still available.

I know Christianity a lot better than Islam, and its history in the period is better documented, anyway. Two things about evidence for late antique Christianity give it an edge over other ancient religious traditions. First, it neither went underground nor ceased existing. The traditional Roman priesthoods all died out in Late Antiquity. No more sacrifices were made. No new hymns were written. The monuments were no longer maintained. Christianity, on the other hand, kept going.

Second, in the Early Middle Ages, the gatekeepers of knowledge were monks. Now, as anyone who has read Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, knows, monks loved them some Virgil and Ovid. They read and copied the “pagan classics.” But, by and large, given the expense involved in making a book, they read and copied Bibles, liturgical books, ascetic/mystical treatises, and the Church Fathers. As a result, we simply have more knowledge about the religious experience of Late Antiquity because people were copying it down.

Related to this is the fact that, although many things about Late Antiquity are foreign to us (very few people have any desire to live on a pillar in the Syrian desert, for example), because of Christianisation, the spiritual texts of Late Antiquity seem familiar to us. Their religious experience looks like what we expect religious experience to look like because, even if fewer and fewer of us in western academia are professing Christians, we frame our religious language and experience in these same terms — or in an explicit rejection of them.

Ancient pagans, on the other hand, don’t fare nearly as well. Most surviving ancient Latin texts are Late Antique in the first place. More Augustine survives than any other ancient Latin author. I believe St Jerome comes in second place. Late Antique Latin texts dwarf their classical predecessors for quantity. As a result, even if pagan religious experience were not foreign, we simply have less of it to deal with.

Another reason, however, has to do with our own prejudices, Christian on one hand and Enlightenment on the other. Neither position does justice to non-Christian religious experience in antiquity. The Christian prejudice, for example, explains the relatively rapid Christianisation in Late Antiquity because paganism was empty and dead, just a bunch of formal rituals and such. Now, not only is this untrue of late antique paganism (consider the Neo-Platonist experience), it is untrue of classical religion as well.

The Enlightenment, on the other hand, discounts the religious element of classical antiquity. My first-year philosophy professor completely disregarded the religious elements of Plato, downplaying them as having any real bearing upon his philosophy. We like talking about people who challenged traditional religion without acknowledging that perhaps they have their own distinct religious experience from which their challenge arises. Instead, we imagine the Greeks and Romans as a bunch of Enlightenment rationalists (E R Dodds has put this to rest in The Greeks and the Irrational).

It is my contention — and it certainly needs more research to be proven and publishable in an academic forum — that classical antiquity, and archaic antiquity, had its own meaningful, distinct religious experience. It was every bit as spiritual as Late Antiquity.


Another angle is: What about unspirituality in Late Antiquity? What do we say of authors who seem largely secular such as Ammianus? Or Christians like Sidonius who write verse populated by pagan deities?