Author Archives: MJH

About MJH

I have a PhD in Church History & Classical Studies with a research interest in Late Antique Christian Latin -- specifically Pope Leo I -- and an MA in Classics and an MTh in Church History. I live in British Columbia after 8 years in the UK.

Bodies beyond sex

I am just beginning to (finally) read Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. In my final trip to the library of St Paul University yesterday, I read Andrew Louth’s 1990 review of the book in question. The review was overall positive, but one note he struck is one that I sometimes feel as well.

Louth observes that “today” (that is, 1990), when you see a book with “body” in the title, you immediately know that it is going to be about sex. And so with this book. His concern with this modern preoccupation with sex is that it was not, in fact, always the main preoccupation of the ancient authors, which therefore produces something of an unintended distortion of their teachings. Yes, Brown may get their teaching on sex right, but without being fully situated, contextualised, and relativised to each author’s wider ideas about the body, we may believe that they were all very, even overly, concerned with sex.

I am at present working on an article about John Cassian’s Conferences, one of the early, foundational texts of Latin monasticism. Cassian’s fourteenth Conference — about chastity — is part of Brown’s concern, largely as a quiet response to Augustine. (In many ways, Cassian is a balancing force against medieval Augustinianism, both being read and copied innumerable times by the monks of the western Middle Ages.) As Brown notes, for Cassian, sexuality is not the heart of the person, but rather a symptom, and the deepest recesses of the person are where the true, most baleful sins lie — “anger, greed, avarice, and vainglory.” (p. 420, 2008 ed.)

Indeed, as Boniface Ramsey notes in the commentary of his translation of the Conferences, food was a much more pervasive concern of the Desert Fathers than sex — something that Brown, in fact, notes. (But Ramsey is not at hand, so I cannot give you a reference to either him or Brown.)

At the same time as all of this, we are reading Clement of Alexandria‘s Paedagogus over at Read the Fathers. In Book 2 of this work, Clement says that since we are rational and have submitted ourselves to God the Word as our paedagogus, we must keep our bodies in check. The chapters of Book 2 are as follows:

  1. On eating
  2. On drinking
  3. On costly vessels (against luxurious tableware)
  4. How to conduct ourselves at feasts (mostly about music)
  5. On Laughter
  6. On Filthy Speaking
  7. Directions for Those Who Live Together
  8. On the Use of Ointments and Crowns (garlands?)
  9. On Sleep
  10. On the procreation of children
  11. On clothes
  12. On shoes
  13. Against Excessive Fondness for Jewels and Gold Ornaments

These are all, in one way or another, matters to do with how we live as embodied human persons, are they not? Food, drink, the treatment of food and drink, the use of our mouths, sleep, etc. Sex does not emerge until chapter 10.

The embodied human existence is more than sex, and all of us know it. I believe a new generation of scholars is pointing us in this direction, not only John Behr, Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement, who is definitely of a generation prior to mine, but my colleagues as well.

If we wish to grasp the ancients as they saw themselves, we need to understand their treatment of the body in matters of sex as well as eating, drinking, sleeping, excreting, dressing, laughing, and so forth.


Behr, John. Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus and Clement. Oxford, 2000.

Brown, Peter. The Body and Society. New York, 2008 (20th anniversary ed., originally 1988).

Louth, Andrew. Review of The Body and SocietyJournal of Theological Studies ns 4 (1990), 231-235.

Ramsey, Boniface. John Cassian: The Conferences. New York.

Why I am lead admin at Read the Fathers

7th-c fresco from when Curia became a church, now in the museum at Cripta Balbi, Rome

There is a website called Read the Fathers, and it sets out a reading plan that renews every seven years to read big chunks of most of the significant ancient Christian writers, ordered according to the old Victorian Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series. The original seven-year cycle ran from December 2012 to the end of November 2019. In December 2019, there was interest (from my brother) to start the cycle again, but the original administrators did not want to carry on the job (understandably).

So I took it on.

I have chosen to be the lead admin at Read the Fathers for a few reasons: my research and teaching, the usefulness of the project, and a desire to adapt the website to promote greater engagement with ancient Christianity.

My research and teaching

I research ancient Christianity for a living. The medieval manuscripts I read are not chosen willy-nilly. While I often focus on papal letters or canon law, the main thrust of the texts I research is that they are in some way related to the lived religion of late ancient Christianity. My Ph.D. dissertation was a study of over 300 manuscripts, all of which transmit letters of Pope Leo the Great (pope, 440-461), one of the chief agitators for the Council of Chalcedon in 451. My first post-doc was an analysis of manuscripts containing select letters of a few of Leo’s predecessors. Besides Leo, I have an article about the sixth-century Syriac historian John of Ephesus, and I am working on an article about the reception of Evagrius of Pontus’ demonology by John Cassian in the 400s.

I am a Classicist: a Latinist and Roman historian. The focus of my research is late antique Christianity.

It just makes sense, then, that I should read as many late antique Christian texts as I can. By reading more and more ancient Christian writings, I become better able to integrate the texts I focus on directly in my research — usually canon law or monastic — into their own context and the history of ideas. By reading more of these writings, I see what distinguishes one writer from another more clearly. I become a better reader of Leo, Cassian, John of Ephesus, by becoming a reader of Irenaeus, Clement, Tertullian.

Furthermore, I even get to teach ancient Christianity sometimes. As a Ph.D. student I taught “Christianity Before Constantine” and “The History of Christianity As a World Religion Before 1453”. As Teaching Fellow in Late Roman History, I taught one explicitly religious course — “The Bishop and City of Rome in Late Antiquity” — but ancient Christianity was part of “The Emperor in the Late Roman World” and “Crisis, Continuity, and Culture in the Fifth Century,” besides the lecture I gave on early Christianity in the survey course about the Roman Empire.

Reading “the Fathers” will do nothing but profit such teaching. Indeed, it even gives valuable context and discussion for teaching Greek and Roman mythology!

Choosing to be the lead admin will give me impetus not to put reading and re-reading these texts off to another day.

The Usefulness of the Project

I have always been something of a “Classics evangelist.” I love ancient (and medieval) literature. I love Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Euripides, Sophocles, Seneca, Plato, et al. I think they are worth reading in and of themselves. I also think that understanding the classics helps us understand our own culture, since we are in some way heirs of the ancient Greeks and Romans (neither are we the only heirs, nor are the ancient Greeks and Romans the only ancestors of “western” culture — but the point stands).

So also for the Church Fathers. If you are interested in intellectual history and how “we got here”, you can’t just jump from Aristotle to Descartes, or (if you’re a Protestant of a certain variety) from the Apostles to Martin Luther, or, indeed, from Augustine to Aquinas. Knowing the movers, shakers, and shapers of the ancient Christian tradition puts the medieval and modern traditions into clearer focus, I believe.

For Christians, reading ancient Christianity is a way of coming to grips with one’s own heritage, with the thoughts and lives of the people involved in forming a New Testament canon, in articulating the foundational doctrines of Christian theology, in bodying forth liturgy, monasticism, canon law. Whether one accepts the forms of ritual, living, and believing of the ancient Christians is, in a certain way, beside the point. I know a Catholic who says that one must first know “orthodoxy” before rejecting it if one is to be a proper heretic.

Since I believe in the project — read seven pages of Patristics a day for seven years and good things will happen to you — I am willing to keep it running.

The Future of the Project

I have taken on this project, finally, because I want to give it a future. Right now, we are trying to come up with solutions for setting the calendar free so that new readers can join with the Apostolic Fathers whenever they want, and start the seven-year cycle as they please.

My other desire for the project is to slowly transform it into an open access encyclopedia of ancient Christianity. To that end, I have attempted recruiting my Patristics network to write introductory posts that will serve as the heart of the encyclopedia (only one person has said yes). It strikes me that it would be great to have an up-to-date, high-quality, scholarly website that not only gives readers a reading plan for the Fathers and a blog to discuss the Fathers but also solid information on the Fathers.

Hopefully in the next seven years I’ll get that sorted out.

Some reasons to read Beowulf

Here are just a few reasons why you might want to read Beowulf. First, it is a famous example of literature from the Early Middle Ages. Second, it represents English-language literature in its infancy. Third, it has had impacted modern literature since its rediscovery.

The Early Middle Ages, although politically fractured and certainly with a lower standard of living than the Later Roman Empire or the High Middle Ages, are a period of great creativity and transformation within western Europe, as the post-Roman world resettles itself into something new. Beowulf is, in many ways, indicative of the Early Middle Ages. Culturally, the Early Middle Ages see the introduction of literacy and Christianity to more and more ‘barbarians’—the English, Irish, Scots, Dutch, various continental Germanic peoples, Danes, and more. As a poem about the pagan past being told from a Christian perspective, Beowulf encapsulates the early medieval world, not simply by showing us aspects of Anglo-Saxon society (the beerhall with the lord bestowing gifts upon his thegns—the world of Sutton Hoo), but of European society more broadly (the transformation of barbarian pagans into literate Christians).

Beowulf is one of the earliest long-form English poems. It shows, in a certain way, the foundations of English literature. This is a lofty claim; Beowulf certainly exerted no direct influence on Chaucer, who certainly had closer English poets as well as French and Latin literature to hand. Nonetheless, Beowulf was written in the English vernacular, composed from the stuff of the oral legends that existed as part of the cultural inheritance the English brought with them from the Continent. Its intrinsic interest, then, is that it is a so-called ‘primary’ epic, such as Gilgamesh, the Homeric epics, and The Song of Roland, as opposed to Apollonius of Rhodes, Virgil, Dante, or Ariosto. It depicts a pre-literate, warrior society, yet is itself cast in a beautiful, lyric form. Beowulf carries with it not just daring adventure and heroism, but also the hope of heaven and high ideals of loyalty and honour. These are ideals that are known to capture the hearts and minds of most people. Reading Beowulf shows us English poetry when England was barely English.

Finally, Beowulf has a strong influence on modern literature and art. Like most, if not all, early medieval vernacular literature, it lay dormant for many years. But nationalism, romanticism, and the rise of vernacular philology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries meant that this Old English epic has found new life, being ushered back into the canon of English-language classics. Immediately, of course, J. R. R. Tolkien, Oxford’s first Professor of Anglo-Saxon and critic of Beowulf comes to mind—especially since the publication of his translation with notes in 2014. It is widely known that Tolkien was influenced by Beowulf in crafting his fantasies, and The Hobbit in particular. From my own experience, many young people have been ushered into classic literature through the twofold gateway of Tolkien and Lewis. Beowulf also inspired the later portions of Eaters of the Dead (filmed as 1999’s The 13th Warrior) when Michael Crichton takes the story beyond Ibn Fadlan’s surviving narrative.

Furthermore, modern adaptations have made Beowulf a known entity, but—like the famous Victorian trio of horror stories, Frankenstein, Dracula, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—very little read. It has been unfaithfully adapted multiple times for the cinema, as well as a more faithful animated version with the voice talents of Derek Jacobi and Joseph Fiennes. In print, John Gardner has given us Grendel, telling the tale from the perspective of the monster, and Gareth Hinds produced a vivid and captivating graphic novel. One of my favourite adaptations of Beowulf is the stilt play! There has also been an anthology of short fiction about the character inspired by the epic.

So, if you take C S Lewis’s advice and read an old book after every new book, why not pick up Beowulf next time? I’ve read and recommend the translations of Liuzza, Crossley-Holland, and Tolkien, but I expect Heaney’s is more than worth your time.

Virgilian opera!

Today, to drown out the noise around me, I decided to play Berlioz’s opera Les Troyens on iTunes, and I realised that here was one aspect of the Virgilian tradition I had completely neglected in my recent post! Opera! I am astonished at myself, quite frankly.

Les Troyens is my preferred Virgilian opera. It was composed by Hector Berlioz between 1856 and 1858, and Berlioz wrote his own libretto for it. Berlioz is probably most famous for Symphonie fantastique (and rightly so). He is a master of the Romantic ability to capture emotion in music — when he attended a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with his music teacher, he was thrilled to bits. His teacher felt that music should not be that exciting!

Well, Berlioz writes exciting music. He was the sort of person who is struck by inspiration, hears the music in his mind, and then meticulously orders it into something beautiful that fulfills the inspiration that came. Les Troyens captures the rich emotions of the first half of the Aeneid, binding them up in music and drawing you along.

My copy is the recording of the London Symphony Orchestra from 2000, with Ben Heppner, Michelle DeYoung, and Petra Lang, and Sir Colin Davis conducting. Many thanks to Uncle Ted who gave me it! Here it is:

The only other Virgilian opera I’ve listened to is Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. From the 1680s, this Baroque opera is from an entirely different era of music from Berlioz. What Purcell does here is create less an atmosphere, if you will (as Berlioz), but more of … a musical staging, if that makes sense. This epic retelling is, as the title suggests, only the part of the Aeneid where the Trojans are in Africa.

My copy of Dido and Aeneas is the 2004 recording by Musica ad Rhenum, from the Netherlands, Jed Wentz conducting, featuring Matthew Baker, Francine van der Heijden, and Nicola Wemyss. Rather than that recording, however, I thought you might enjoy the BBC film adaptation of Purcell instead:

Other Virgilian operas include Francesco Cavalli’s Didone (1640), Domenico Sarro’s Didone abbandonata (1724), and Niccolo Piccini’s Didon (1783) . There may be more — I am not sure. Gavin and Uncle Ted probably know. 😉

The neverending story of Leo’s manuscripts

I recently asked a senior academic who’s been helping me out to order two library catalogues through interlibrary loans for me (working at the uOttawa library gives me some privileges as an alumnus, but not ILLs). I remarked that I keep finding more manuscripts of Leo’s letters.

His response was that it may never end.

My ever-growing list of Leo manuscripts is the result of new catalogues with proper indices being published, new and old databases running well, and me having access to old catalogues. I suspect that those manuscripts necessary for editing the text of Leo’s letters were already identified when I finished my Ph.D. dissertation in 2015.

However, I just discovered another ninth-century codex today, hitherto unknown to me: Vat. Reg. lat. 423. This manuscript contains material from Gallic councils (Gaul = France geographically), the Concordia canonum of Cresconius, and then two of Leo’s letters, Epp. 14 and 7, followed by a letter of Damian of Pavia, then fragments of Priscian the grammarian. It has also, it turns out, been digitised.

For your viewing pleasure, folio 62v where Leo begins:

But the story of transmitting Leo’s letters has never simply been about establishing the text (it has been that, of course). It has also been about discovering who owned, copied, and read the letters, where and when. Maybe sometimes even why. It is about the journey of texts from Leo’s utterance to his notarius to printers in the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Era.

For example, I am going to have to revisit the Council of Florence, for besides manuscripts belonging to Bessarion, Nicholas of Cusa, Juan de Torquemada, and Domenico Capranica, I have also discovered the copy made for Pope Eugenius IV himself! Vat. lat. 1326, also digitised.

This manuscript is exciting not only because of the ownership but also because it contains a collection of Leo’s letters I did not know about, and there are two more manuscripts of that collection, one of which was made for Angelo Capranica, also a cardinal, brother of Domenico! This is Vat. lat. 1328, another digitised manuscript.

Moreover, more careful examination of library catalogues has ferreted out copies of Leo belonging to Popes Nicholas V (successor to Eugenius IV) and Paul II (a couple popes later). These Renaissance popes at least owned copies of Leo. I imagine Eugenius IV, if not the others about whom I know little, actually read him, based on said pope’s activities.

I have found a few more eleventh-century manuscripts, as well as some homiliaries that contain the Tome (Ep. 28 to Flavian) amongst the homilies.

One final victory was identifying a manuscript whose shelfmark as recorded by the last editors of Leo in 1753 (brothers by the name of Ballerini) seems no longer to exist — Vat. Chig.C.VII.212, a sixteenth-century copy of Leo’s letters with acts of the Council of Chalcedon as compiled and translated by Rusticus a millennium earlier. Despite its late date, this manuscript may be worth investigating because of how few manuscripts of Rusticus exist.

Eventually, I may quit hunting these manuscripts. As I say, most of what I’ve found in the past week or so will not affect my edition. But they affect the story! And I love the story.

The Virgilian tradition

The famous 3rd-century mosaic of Virgil from the Bardo Museum, Tunis, Tunisia

Some time ago, back when I was a Master’s student, I wrote a little piece called You Should Read the Iliad, and then another called simply The Odyssey. I finally wrote my third in the series, Why read the Aeneid of Virgil? in July of 2018. Having written about the Age of Augustus, and how we who study later Rome also know earlier Rome, my mind keeps circling back to the Virgilian tradition, a vast literary heritage that begins as soon as Virgil’s work is produced. Virgil is an instant classic, as seen in Propertius 2.34.59-66:

My pleasure to languish with yesterday’s garlands,
Whom the sure-aiming god touched to the bone;
For Virgil the power to tell of Actium’s shores
In Phoebus’ guard and Caesar’s gallant ships,
Who now wakes to life the arms of Troy’s Aeneas
And walls cast down on Lavinian shores.
Surrender, writers of Rome, surrender, Greeks!
Something greater than the Iliad is born.
-Trans. A. J. Boyle, ‘The Canonic Text: Virgil’s Aeneid’, in his own Roman Epic, p. 79

For Late Antiquity, Virgil is the single most important Latin poet. This is true not only for the obvious writers, such as Servius with his commentary on Virgil, or Macrobius’ Saturnalia, nor only for the poets — Virgilian intertexts are inevitable in Claudian — but even for those men dubbed ‘Fathers of the Church’ — Virgilian quotations and allusions abound in Augustine of Hippo. I’ve not read much Jerome yet, but I suspect the same will prove true. This use of Virgil as a source of wisdom is a Latin parallel of how Greeks treated Homer.

The Virgilian tradition, then, is vast . I have beside me The Virgilian Tradition: The First Fifteen Hundred Years by Jan M. Ziolkowski and Michael C. J. Putnam. It is 1024 pages long, not including the endmatter. Here are some highlights …

The Virgilian Middle Ages

The explicit intertext, signalled in its title, of Alan of Lille’s Anticlaudianus (1182) is the invective of Claudian. Yet here we also find various Virgilian intertexts, not to mention an explicit naming of Virgil.

Chrétien de Troyes, Erec et Enide (1100s), makes use of Dido and Aeneas.

But the most famous medieval reader of Virgil is the Supreme Poet of Italy, Dante Alighieri, whose Inferno has Virgil as guide not only of the character Dante in the poem but of the poet Dante who wrote the poem.

Where else to turn in the 1000-year medieval reception of Virgil? Well, at the very least Petrarch (1304-74), whose works are littered with Virgil, and Chaucer, particularly The House of Fame which draws on Virgil’s own personification of Fama in Aeneid 4.

The Early Modern Virgil

For the early modern era as for the Middle Ages, Virgil was very much a powerful presence, in both Latin and vernacular literature, such as the Portuguese Lusiads by Camões, the Italian Gerusalemme liberata by Torquato, and in English, Milton’s Paradise Lost.

It should come as no great shock that various aspects of the Virgilian tradition are also in Ariosto, Orlando Furioso. Besides his ongoing use of epic similes and set-piece descriptions (ecphrasis in the singular, ecphraseis in the plural), Ariosto has a number of scenes modelled on or inspired by Virgil. Early in the epic, for example, Bradamant is dropped into a cave by a mortal enemy of her family. The cave turns out to be Merlin’s tomb, and a sorceress dwells there, who proceeds to show Bradamant the parade of her descendants — including Ariosto’s patron, whom Ariosto compares to Augustus, saying that he even has his own Virgil! (Quite the boast.)

Virgil Today

Sometimes it may feel like the ancient Classics have fallen on hard times. But new translations of the Aeneid keep appearing, including the potent translation of Book VI by Seamus Heaney. Moreover, epic retellings find their ways onto our shelves, if less often onto our screens — I think particularly of Ursula K. Le Guin’s masterful novel Lavinia.

One potential reception of Virgil that is, in fact, disputed, is Battlestar Galactica, which both Peggy Heller and Charlotte Higgins argue has Virgilian elements. Chris Jones’ arguments against the two are not entirely convincing. Intertextuality is not the same as adaptation; Ronald D. Moore could very well have had some basic Virgilian-Aeneid structures in mind without creating a perfect sci-fi adaptation. I like the idea, that is, of Virgil as intertext, if not as inspiration or source for BSG. It would, in fact, be entirely fitting for the poet whose masterpiece is in many ways the ultimate intertext of both Homeric epics and the Latin epic of Ennius to be used as an intertext for TV shows today.

What I want to see in the Virgilian tradition is a good graphic novel — Roy Thomas gave us The Iliad and Odyssey for Marvel; Gareth Hinds, after a splendid Beowulf, has also given us The Iliad and Odyssey. Could one of them give us the Aeneid as well? Please? (I know nothing about Agrimbau and Sosa’s — is it worthy?)

Scholars of later Rome know earlier Rome, too

Nothing says ‘Later Roman Empire’ like giving the Tetrarchs a hug

I was thinking about how a certain amount of knowledge of earlier Rome is an important ingredient in being able to interpret the Later Roman Empire and the fall of its western portion. As my previous post about the Age of Augustus observes, knowing Augustus helps you interpret Constantine.

This point illustrates itself very well in Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. In order to demonstrate that the sort of complex society and economy that typified the Roman world ceased to exist as a result of the dismemberment and manslaughter of the western Roman Empire at the hands of invading barbarians, Ward-Perkins had to marshal the evidence for just such a complex society. By showing what sort of economy and standards of living people had before the fall of the Roman Empire, Ward-Perkins is able to show us the final years of Late Antiquity and on into the Early Middle Ages were less economically stable with a lower standard of living.

But you need the evidence from earlier, imperial Rome to be able to do that.

For example, to discuss common, everyday literacy in the Roman Empire, you need evidence of common, everyday literacy in the Roman Empire. And Ward-Perkins finds it, from Pompeii to Britain.

If your concern is not the fall of Rome, the rest of the Roman world is still important for understanding Late Antiquity. One of the realities that stands out in late antique Latin verse, for example, is its awareness that it is not ‘classical’. Even if they might at times wish to rival the greats of the past, the poets of the Later Roman Empire know that they live in a different age. There is perceptible distance between them and Virgil, and they make it known.

If you don’t know Virgil, it is much harder to interpret Prudentius and Claudian, let alone Macrobius.

If you don’t know Cicero, Jerome is harder. If you don’t know Livy, Augustine’s City of God is interpreted differently. And on it goes.

Furthermore, Elsner’s art history book Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph makes an important point about the monumental art of Late Antiquity — it has models and precursors from the High Empire, at least as early as Antoninus Pius. That is to say — reading Late Antiquity as a hermetically-sealed cultural entity will miss the connections it has with the Roman past.

I do hope this is no surprise for anyone else who studies Roman history! It would be a great shame if colleagues who study Republican Rome or the empire from Augustus to the third century thought we knew nothing of those epochs of the grand Roman story. It is also worth mulling over if you want to get into the history and culture of the Later Roman Empire — how well do you know what came before it? This, I think, has sometimes contributed to some of the clashes over interpreting the fall of the West.

Anyway, we late Romanists enjoy the rest of Roman history! It’s part of our education and training, essential to our research.