Category Archives: Monks and Monasticism

Oh, those Dark Ages again

Lindisfarne Gospels, opening of Matthew

I was out for coffee with a friend on Tuesday, and he mentioned that he’d read somewhere that the ‘Dark Ages’ were a creation of the Enlightenment. I can’t speak to the history of that term exactly, although ‘Middle Ages’ is a term created by the Renaissance. The question does arise as to the aptness or truth of such a name.

First, we have to say that it is by no means apt for the entire Middle Ages. If it is ever useful, it cannot be seen as holding meaning for the period of the later eleventh century and beyond. I find it hard to place Lanfranc and Anselm in a ‘dark age’, let alone Durham Cathedral. The twelve-century Renaissance, with its flowering of Latin poetry, developments in visual arts, the birth of Gothic architecture, the rise and organisation of the universities, the great Cistercian spiritual masters, the early scholastics.

So the Dark Ages must be before that, if they exist.

If any age is ‘dark’, the argument will have to be made about the decline in material comfort and cultural production attendant upon the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Long-distance Mediterranean trade ceased. Cattle got smaller. Pottery got worse. Western European cities grew smaller, as well. Fewer people were literate. There was a lot of small-scale, continual warfare in many places. If — I repeat the conjunction, if — we are looking for the Dark Ages, they will be here.

As soon as I say that, though, I don’t like it. What of Boethius, Venantius Fortunatus, Maximus the Confessor, and Bede for pity’s sake? What of the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels? What of the early mediaeval churches still standing in various Italian cities? What of Sutton Hoo?

And what about the Carolingians? Sure, their cultural programme may not have reached as far or long as desired, but lay literacy seems to have increased, along with manuscript production and other artistic goods associated with the Carolingian Renaissance?

Of course, the Carolingians coincide with Viking raids from the North and Saracen (Arab?) raids from the South for western Europe. But even then, political instability and death by the sword are a mainstay for most of European history. The ninth century is a wonderful example of bleakness alongside vitality. Vikings raid Lindisfarne in 793. Alfred commissions the Old English translation of Boethius several decades later.

The realities of history as we know them, and even as they were experienced, should make us eschew such terms as ‘Dark Ages’, because as soon as we have enough knowledge to give life nuance, things aren’t always as dark and bleak as we thought, even if we have to admit that they were sometimes pretty bad.

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The Interesting Times of Leo the Great’s pre-episcopal career

I wrote the following as I revise my Ph.D. dissertation into a book, but I have decided to excise it as extraneous. Nonetheless, I think it is material of interest, especially to the general reader (such as I assume reads this blog?), so I hope you enjoy it. This was a first draft, sort of stream-of-consciousness, and therefore It is a bit rough, and many more writers and events could have been added, but since I am cutting it out of the book, I’ve not taken the effort.

Fifth-century mosaic from San Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome

The years of Leo’s life before his accession to the Roman episcopate saw the ongoing dismemberment of the Western Roman Empire as well as intermittent civil war between the empire’s generals. The Vandals had been in Spain since around 410, and when they were driven out, they crossed to Africa. From 429 to 439, they conquered Roman North Africa, taking Carthage in the final year and defeating various Roman armies on the way. In 440, the Vandals raided Sicily. They had been driven out of Spain by Visigoths and Suevi, working in alliance with the Romans. Both of these groups began taking control of Spain, the Visigoths also taking power in southern Gaul. In 436, the Visigoths besieged Narbo but did not take the city. In 439, the Suevi, in Gallaecia in northwestern Spain, expanded their power base, coming to control most of Spain by 441. In 446 was the last Roman campaign in Spain, now divided by Visigoths and Suevi. In Gaul, besides the land being appropriated by Visigoths, a group called the bagaudae rebelled in Armorica in 435. Saxon pirates raided the northern coast of Gaul. Britain was already lost for all intents and purposes by 410. Besides these losses and engagements with non-Roman military groups, western generals were themselves frequently at odds during the reign of Valentinian III. Valentinian’s reign itself began as an eastern campaign to supplant the usurper John.

This image of a troubled early fifth-century West in decline is a persistent one that is not untrue. To demonstrate the social impact of the economic and political hardship of the western Empire in these decades, the work of Salvian of Marseilles, written in the early years of Leo’s pontificate has frequently proven useful, discussing the oppression of the weak and poor by the rich and powerful. Some of Salvian’s observations can be borne out by the letters of Leo the Great, in fact. Alongside this, aristocratic culture in Gaul, Italy, and Spain continued despite the worsening political climate. Gaul is particularly rich in sources for this ongoing aristocratic culture of living in villas, writing letters to familiares; this life is portrayed in the Eucharisticon of Paulinus of Pella. The latter half of the century will see some notable collections of letters, especially that of Sidonius Apollinaris, but also Ruricius of Limoges and others. Therefore, when we want to consider the state of the Roman Empire in the age of Leo, we need to consider not only the important disaster narrative and sources such as Salvian, but also the works of the more comfortable classes, such as Paulinus and Sidonius. Neglecting either will create a distortion. Somehow, both must be kept in mind.

Salvian is not the only ecclesiastical writer in Latin of the first half of the century, and social, economic, and political crisis does not always equal cultural stagnation. Restricting ourselves to the reign of Valentinian III, we cannot miss the fact that the giant of ancient Latin Christianity, Augustine of Hippo, died in 430. In 426 he published his masterpiece De Civitate Dei contra paganos and added material to De Doctrina Christiana and De Trinitate—these three works comprise a sort of Augustinian trilogy. Augustine is not the only Latin Christian writer active in the first decade and a half of Valentinian’s reign. Before leaving Africa, the two immediately pre-Vandal bishops of Carthage, Aurelius and Quodvultdeus, should not be overlooked. Aurelius had been a main figure in the Pelagian Controversy and died around the same time as Augustine; various of his letters survive. Quodvultdeus was a more active writer, producing a particularly fine commentary on the creed. Quodvultdeus was deported by the Vandals in 439 and died in Italy.

In Gaul, the early years of Valentinian’s reign saw two major figures in early Latin monasticism, John Cassian and Vincent of Lérins. Both of them had some relationship against Nestorianism and thus with the story of Leo and theology. But they were both more focussed on the internal, spiritual life. Cassian’s work, for example, is an adaptation for a Latin audience of the spiritual theology of Evagrius of Pontus. Gaul at this period, in religious terms, is most famous for asceticism on the one hand and the predestinarian debate on the other. These two movements within Christian thought are related, for the question cannot escape the person dedicated to a life of askesis, discipline, whether that discipline is what saves him or her, and whether that discipline is itself a product of grace or the ascetic’s own will. To what degree, that is, are we responsible for our own morality and discipline, and to what degree is it the work of God? John Cassian, in Conf. 13, came down somewhere in the middle, seeking—perhaps unsuccessfully—to argue something that allows for both. Prosper of Aquitaine was also active in the predestinarian debate in Gaul as well as being a lay promoter of asceticism himself. Another notable Gallic writer whose career overlap with Leo’s pre-episcopal career include Faustus of Riez (abbot of Lérins, 433-459, bishop of Riez 459-495), who was yet another ascetic involved in the predestinarian debate.

Italy was not unproductive, either. Peter Chrysologus was bishop of Ravenna from 433 to 450. He has left a significant corpus of sermons, and his name alone tells us the esteem he held as a rhetorician, a conscious adaptation of the famous Antiochene preacher, John Chrysostom, who was always well regarded in the Latin West.

Leo’s predecessors in the Roman see dealt with Pelagianism and Nestorianism, both of which figure in Leo’s correspondence. The Pelagian controversy had involved Innocent I and Zosimus, and Celestine I (422-32) obtained a condemnation of Pelagius at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Celestine’s involvement in the Nestorian controversy has recently been argued to have been more independent than previously thought. The standard narrative most of us know is that Cyril began his anti-Nestorian campaign and enlisted Celestine to join him. Celestine supported Cyril at Ephesus and obtained an ecumenical council’s condemnation of Pelagianism in turn. However, George Bevan has recently demonstrated, through a close analysis of the documents associated with the Nestorian controversy, that early in 430, Celestine had already called a local Roman synod and condemned Nestorius before Cyril contacted him. Why was Celestine anti-Nestorian? There is a possibility that it was simply a matter of the dossier being sent to him being quite condemnatory, providing all of the scandalising statements that make Nestorius seem to teach that Christ is two persons. It is also possible that Nestorius was perceived as being himself tainted by Pelagianism. Not only is this a connection that John Cassian makes in De Incarnatione contra Nestorium, but Nestorius’ friendliness with Theodore of Mopsuestia was known in Rome, and Theodore was himself tainted by Pelagianism because of his own friendliness towards Pelagius and Caelestius years previously. When both factors are taken into play, it comes as no surprise that Celestine acted independently of Cyril. It also turns him into an agent in Mediterranean geo-ecclesiology and not a passive observer and responder to the agency of others.

Xystus III (432-440) was Leo’s immediate predecessor. He witnessed the ongoing progress of the Nestorian debate after Ephesus, and letters he sent to Cyril and other eastern bishops after the reunion of Cyril with John of Antioch in 433 show us that the bishop of Rome was still taking an interest in these faraway events. Moreover, his rededication of the Liberian Basilica as Santa Maria Maggiore in a prominent location on the Esquiline Hill also demonstrates his commitment to anti-Nestorian, Ephesine Christology, for the rallying cry of anti-Nestorian polemic was the term Theotokos, God-bearer, usually Latinised as genetrix dei.

This is the context when, in 440, Xystus III died while Leo was on a diplomatic mission to Gaul to reconcile the general Aëtius and Albinus, Praetorian Prefect of the Gauls.

Late Antiquity in Medieval Durham

My latest post at the Durham Priory Recreated Project blog is about the various different Late Antique texts found in the priory library. In many ways, medieval Christianity is just a 1000-year reception of ancient Christianity. Enjoy!

Late Antiquity in Medieval Durham

Patristic homilies for a medieval Christmas

My latest post on the Durham Priory Library Recreated project blog looks at Durham Cathedral Library B.II.2, a copy of Paul the Deacon’s homiliary of patristic sermons arranged by feast:

Christmas in the Codices

Anselm’s human face

Anselm; image from Wikipedia

In his Life of St Anselm, Eadmer tells of a time when they were staying in a church in Italy, outside of which was a cistern with a hole in the top:

One night, when we were sleeping in this church, Anselm happened to get up with a gentle step, as his manner was, lest he should disturb us. But when he had got outside, he forgot the hole, and, making his way towards it in the darkness, he fell in, crying with a loud voice as he fell, ‘Holy Mary.’ At this noise, we and our companions who were sleeping in the tents, leaped up from our beds in a panic and ran to him. When we saw him at the bottom, we were almost beside ourselves with fear and anguish of spirit. Seeing this, he at once raised his head and with a courteous air and cheerful look told us that he had come to no harm. Some of us therefore climbed down on the side opposite to the sheer drop where there was a way of descent, and brought him out of the place altogether safe and sound. -Book 1.32, Trans. R. W. Southern p. 110

It’s the cry, ‘Sancta Maria!’ that gets me.

Everything a monk needs: My latest post on the Durham Priory Project blog

I have just posted a wee discussion of the book donation list of William of St Calais and how it includes precisely the sort of books monks need to live by the Rule of St Benedict. It’s linked below. Enjoy!

The Book Donation List Of William Of St Calais: Everything A Monk Needs?