Category Archives: Words

An allusion to Leo the Great in Anselm of Canterbury

Anselm; image from Wikipedia

Today I found a convergence between my current reading and my Ph.D. (plus my 2016 article in Studia Patristica). Anselm of Canterbury, in his philosophical discussion of the ‘supreme essence’, and shortly before attempting to use logic to prove the Trinity (a dubious task at best), writes:

Videtur ergo consequi ex praecedentibus quod iste spiritus, qui sic suo quodam mirabiliter singulari et singulariter mirabili modo est, quadam ratione solus sit, alia vero quaecumque videntur esse, huic collata non sint. (Monologion 28)

Therefore, it seems to follow from the preceding that that spirit, who exists in a certain marvellously singular and singularly marvellous way, for some reason, exists alone; although everything else seems to exists, it does not exist compared to it [that is, the supreme essence].

The phrase that catches the eye is, ‘mirabiliter singulari et singulariter mirabili‘, which I have translatedm ‘marvellously singular and singularly marvellous.‘ Although in the ablative, this is a direct quotation of Leo’s Tome (Ep. 28):

singulariter mirabilis et mirabiliter singularis

It’s a nice turn of phrase, a happy little chiasmus. The context of the phrase is different in Leo; he is talking about the Incarnation, that Christ’s birth was ‘singularly marvellous and marvellously singular’. Singularis could also be translated as unique.

Is the allusion conscious? I do not know. It is clear, however, that Leo’s most famous dogmatic letter is part of Anselm’s reading list. One of the points made by Jean Leclercq’s classic work, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God is the fact that monastic writers tend to make allusions to and quote classical and patristic authors almost unconsciously. Their formation as monks, their study of grammatica, was filled with those authors considered to be the best stylists by the medieval monks, both pagan and Christian: Vergil, Ovid, Horace, Cicero, Augustine, Jerome, Gregory the Great. Beauty is an attribute of God; therefore, even Ovid is worth reading because he is beautiful.

Anselm was the principal teacher at the monastery of Bec, 1063-1078. In 1078 he was made abbot. The Monologion whence comes the Leonine allusion under consideration was his first major work, published, he says, at the insistence of his students. His Proslogion would follow as well as De Grammatico. All of these works show the imprint of the school room and the necessity to teach grammar and literature to students and young monks.

As a result of his textual immersion in the ancient pagans and church fathers, Anselm’s mind was formed by more than just logic. It was shaped by Latin, by the art of teaching grammar. These texts would be imprinted on his mind and heart by constant reference to them, time and again. The Tome of Leo, I am given to understand, has often been monastic reading at Christmastide. I wonder if such was the case at Bec in the 1060s?

Anyway, Anselm is trying to demonstrate the logic of belief in God using pure reason. It is an almost impossible task, especially when you start to spot the Platonist assumptions that lie behind some of his premisses. Nonetheless, this naked approach to discussing God was not always well met by his contemporaries. His teacher Lanfranc, having moved on to the Archbishopric of Canterbury (a position Anselm would hold himself), criticised the Monologion for not making reference to Augustine of Hippo.

Yet I have no doubt it does, in the sense of allusion. It alludes to Leo the Great. Augustine is a much bigger source for medieval thought than Leo, although Leo is important for setting the boundaries of belief held by catholic churchmen.

What does the allusion to Leo mean? Obviously the Tome is Anselm’s intertext. That is easy. And no doubt throughout, his bare logic is interwoven with other intertexts I have not seen. For Leo, it is (to borrow a phrase from G.K. Chesterton, The Thing) the ‘stereoscopic vision of the two natures of Christ’ that holds his vision and guides his meditation. Leo does not necessarily work from logic; indeed, the chief complaint from Leo’s posthumous adversary, Severus of Antioch, is that Leo does not use logic well enough and falls into heresy. Leo’s argument is driven by rhetoric, by an innate sense of western catholic thought, by scriptural authority.

Anselm, on the other hand, is driven by logic. Moreover, this meditatio that he has produced is a sustained reflection on the nature of divinity and deducible by logic. Leo and Augustine intrude not as conscious sources but as unconscious guides. By transplanting the Leo quotation from the context of the Incarnation to the context of the divine essence, to the realm of logic and pure theology, Anselm has elevated the phrase to the highest heights of the seventh heaven, beyond even the primum mobile. His mind is not bound by the original use of the phrase, and he takes what is a lovely rhetorical device and deploys it in the midst of an exercise in logic that tires the modern mind.

This allusion to Leo’s Tome sets out for us precisely what sets Anselm apart. He is so thoroughly steeped in the classical-Christian Latin tradition of Bec’s school room that when he engages in the philosophy of religion and seeks to use logic alone to prove the core dogmas of catholic thought, he cannot help bringing with him these monastic and classical and, indeed, dogmatic intertexts. He is a man of two worlds; not yet a scholastic but strongly contrasted with the poetic monastic discourses of Bernard of Clairvaux in a few decades.


Fireworks. Flashes. Fizzes. Screams. Whistles. Explosions. Lighting up the night sky. Delicate, large, timed to music. And us, the crowd standing below, thousands in the street, symphonically serenaded, delighted by the display of lights in the night sky above the castle.

A throng of us. Here are we two beforehand, waiting in the darkness. Our first ‘selfie’ on my new phone (my first phone with a camera designed for narcissism).

IMG_20160829_210336186Edinburgh’s Fireworks Concert is not the biggest display of fireworks you’ll meet. I was once told by an American that his hometown did a ‘better’ display. I arrogantly assume he confused the concepts of ‘bigger’ and ‘better’, for the Fireworks Concert that closes out the Edinburgh International Festival on the final Monday of each August is not about size.

It is about glory. About art. Finesse.

No fireworks in the shapes of eagles, flags, happy faces, here.

The fireworks — fizz, pop, bang — are instead timed to a live performance by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra down in Princes Street Gardens. A delightful, clever ploy to draw crowds to listen to classical music in the vapid age of Bieber, et al.

This year joined the international commemoration of the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. First, then, came Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, opening with the ‘Dance of the Knights’ or ‘Montagues and Capulets.’ Music that is itself an explosion and display.

If you don’t know this bit of Prokofiev, here’s someone’s video from Monday, a full thirty minutes and thirty-two seconds. The sound is poor — very tinny. But some idea of this beginning of things:

The recording I was raised on can be found on Spotify, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet, track 11.

Music has power. Although my world has shifted me onward into words, words, words, I am a clasically-trained clarinettist (not just a classically-trained philologist) who sang in youth choirs way back when. There is wordless power in music that my world of words, words, words appreciates.

This particular piece holds sway over me. Something stirs inside whenever I hear it. It is rousing. I don’t really have words for it, though. It is some sort of powerful, emotive res — thing. Feelings are difficult to describe, even when normal ones such as ‘anger’ or ‘love’ or ‘happiness’ — as Geordie Laforge discovered trying to explain anger to Data once, and as my friend who studies ‘joy’ in Augustine confronts every day.

But whatever this stirring, rousing thing in my chest is, it was certainly enhanced by fireworks.

The celebration of Shakespeare continued on to Bernstein’s Westside Story. (And so — more of a celebration of Romeo and Juliet, which is not my favourite Shakespeare play!) Different coloured fireworks had a rumble in the night sky above Edinburgh Castle, Jets and Sharks.

And, again, the power of music, visible in the in-one-place, happy, delighted dancing of my wife standing in front of me. Music lifting us out of ourselves, out of self-consciousness, out of inhibitions. Freedom from beauty. The power of (good) art.

And then a non-Shakespearean finale, Shostakovich’s Festival Overture. (I’d hoped for some Mendelssohn.)

Some finale fireworks photos (because a picture paints a thousand words, as they say):

Roman — not Byzantine

Although this title looks the sort of thing you’d expect from continuist Byzantinists, I’m actually arguing about Rome in what follows — that early mediaeval art in Rome is not Byzantine.

Apsis_mosaic_San_ClementeWhen I first visited San Clemente in 2014, there was a group of people looking at the magnificent apsidal mosaic. One of them remarked, ‘This is Byzantine’, in as natural a way as possible. I recommend you click on that image to the left to get a taste of San Clemente’s apsidal mosaic. It is a remarkable piece of craftsmanship, and I would never speak ill of it. People in the Middle Ages were great workers of beauty, and Roman mosaics are among those works of beauty.

But I was annoyed at the person saying that San Clemente’s mosaic was Byzantine. For one thing, it was built c. 1099-1125. I don’t think it’s very precise to call Roman art in the twelfth century ‘Byzantine’ — the papacy was already into its schism with the East, and the city was largely a papal city, although the Normans sacked it in 1084 due to papal-imperial politics, including the destruction of the fourth-century San Clemente, leading to the creation of the new one. The emperor in these politics was not in Constantinople but in the Holy Roman Empire. Crusading zeal aside, the outlook of Rome in this period was decidedly western.

Nonetheless, I can imagine someone saying that the current mosaic is a replacement of the fourth- (or ninth-?) century mosaic lost in the fire of 1084. And surely that mosaic would count as Byzantine. Therefore, this mosaic is an imitation Byzantine mosaic.

I guess here’s where I get properly controversial, since there are mediaevalists and art historians who would argue for the use of the word Byzantine in relation to early mediaeval Roman art. Nonetheless, two days ago I visited Santa Prassede with Rosamond McKitterick, and she argues strongly for the Romanness of Santa Prassede’s mosaics. So I’m in good company. Here are a few of my photos of Santa Prassede’s mosaics to give you the flavour:

First of all, I can see immediately why we want to call early mediaeval Roman art Byzantine. Just look at it! And then, just look at Byzantine art, like the famous Christ Pantokrator from Ayia Sophia:

Jesus-Christ-from-Hagia-SophiaThat one from 1261, of course, is much more naturalistic than these ninth-century mosaics. What people usually have in mind is more the sixth-century apsidal mosaic at St Catherine’s in Sinai:

transfiguration-st-catherines-monasteryOr the sixth-century mosaics at Ravenna:

Pendentive_(San_Vitale_in_Ravenna)There is certainly a visual continuity running across these sixth-century mosaics from the edges of the ‘Byzantine’/Justinianic world into the Roman mosaics of the ninth century sponsored by Pope Paschal I. However, this same visual continuity also strikes the heart of sixth-century Rome, as Santi Cosma e Damiano, at the edge of the Roman Forum and built by Felix IV c. 524, as seen in my photos below:

Rome in 524 is living under the rule of Ostrogothic king Theoderic. They are only newly reunited ecclesially with Constantinople. Is it really accurate to say that this kind of art is ‘Byzantine’ in this case? Indeed, is it not visually united with the fifth-century mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore?

IMG_1613 IMG_1606Finally, why don’t we step back and see the visual continuity that runs from the Constantinian age and the Mausoleo di ‘Santa’ Costanza? (My photo)

IMG_1569This is Roman-style Late Antique and Early Mediaeval art, and it exists in mosaic and fresco, although mosaics are more durable. I have given examples from the fifth and sixth centuries as well as the ninth (see also the apsidal mosaics at Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, also commissioned by Paschal I), but I could have added the late sixth (San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, c. 580) and seventh as well (Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura and San Teodoro for mosaics and the remnants of the diaconia in the curia, now in Cripta Balbi, for frescoes). I do not know my eight-century Roman churches at all — apologies there.

Christian Roman art and architecture are habitually traditionalist. Their style remains Late Antique and persists with a certain degree of Classicism in architecture combined with a visual abstraction that we consider ‘Byzantine’ while northern Europe and Spain go through Romanesque and Gothic. This ‘Byzantine’ style of Roman art, indeed, continues well beyond definitively traceable Byzantine cultural influence in Rome, such as this 14th-century mosaic at Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome’s only Gothic church (my blurry photo; apologies):


Or what about the Dormition of the Virgin, a thirteenth-century mosaic in Santa Maria Maggiore? (My pic.)

IMG_1609None of this is to say that ‘Byzantine’ forces were never at work in Rome during the Middle Ages. Eastern Christian influences were certainly present in Rome after the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, such as through ongoing contacts with the Emperor in Constantinople, especially after Justinian’s Reconquest, and then through the arrival of eastern clerics. In the seventh century, many ‘Greek’ (that is, Greek-speaking) clerics came to Rome, such as the circle of St Maximus the Confessor. The Roman liturgy adapted some Greek/Eastern liturgical practices to her own use, and the papacy may even have taken on some Greek bureaucratic ideals. St Gregory the Great, in fact, even spent time in Constantinople before becoming Bishop of Rome! So, yes, there is cultural exchange. But it also goes both ways — Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care is very popular in Eastern Christianity, for example.

All this to say — since words matter, we should be precise. Early mediaeval art in Rome is not Byzantine. It stands in its own strong Roman tradition, a tradition that persists in mosaics, at least, up to the High Middle Ages, and also has ties with its sister art in the Easter Mediterranean (‘Byzantine’ art).

Othello – a tragic ride of awesome

OthelloOthello by William Shakespeare

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reviewing Shakespeare is as daft as reviewing Augustine and Milton, but I’ve reviewed both of them before!* So. Othello.

First: It’s the first attestation in the English language of:

‘the beast with two backs’ (although François Rabelais said in French first)

jealousy as ‘the green-eyed monster’


‘pomp and circumstance’ (although popular today because of Elgar, not Shakespeare. still!)

How much more awesome could a Shakespeare play get than to have those three common phrases for the first time ever?!?

This play is brilliant. For the first act or two, it reads a bit like a comedy — a knave of a slave (mind you, technically they all are), scheming and conniving against his master and making people think false is true and true is false. Thus Iago.

And then, at some point while they’re in the Citadel of Cyprus (rumour has it: Famagusta), things turn darker. Othello starts getting mad. Angry-mad. Perhaps a bit crazy-mad. Iago proves himself disloyal to his friends, not just cruel to his master.

And then people start dying! Murder! Madness!


As my wife says, this play is the most tragic of all. Within moments of smothering Desdemona to death, Othello is given access to the truth — that Desdemona was not unfaithful, and that Iago was scheming to bring this about. What a downfall! Such intensity. Talk about catharsis.

*See my reviews of Augustine’s City of God and Milton’s Paradise Lost — hopefully those pages will bring you somewhere on Goodreads to find them!

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What makes a classic?

1957 Ford Thunderbird – a classic!

I once flew from Cyprus to Egypt and was stuck in Larnaca airport during a very long delay with a somewhat paranoid guy who does security for missionary organisations. One of the topics that briefly surfaced in our strange conversation was what I studied for undergrad. When I said Classics, I got a variation of one of the annoying answers. This guy said that if I were Chinese, for me Classics would be the Five Classics (I think — it was something like that; definitely Chinese).*

The subtext, clear from his tone, was that I’m closed-minded, and maybe too western, probably a bit imperialist.

But I’m certainly not Chinese. If I were Chinese, I’d likely have studied the Five Classics. But I’m not Chinese, so why imply that studying my own culture’s origins are a problem? Is it closed-minded for a Chinese person to study the Five Classics? Or is it only closed-minded to study Classical Greece and Rome?

And what makes a classic, anyway?

This is a question that drifts through my mind on occasion — like in Larnaca.

It also came up in relation to ancient Mesopotamia vs Mediterranean about a year or so ago. The New Testament students in Edinburgh sagely decided to bone up on their Classical (Greek and Roman) literature to be better able to see the cultural context for the New Testament and all that. So they organised a Classics Reading Group. Some of the Old Testament students thought a similar group for Mesopotamian literature would also be of use to them, which I’m sure is also true. The Old Testament students included the phrase ‘more classic than the classics’ in their e-mail.

Obviously this is a very different case from the China vs. Rome conversation in the airport. But it still raises the question about what on earth a classic is.

The jokey reference to Mesopotamian literature being ‘more classic than the classics’ possibly has behind it the assumption that a classic is old. So, the older, the classicker. That’s probably part of it. But that’s not all, by far.

Etymologically, a classic is something that has (high) class. Here’s some of the entry from the OED:

The word was used in post-classical Latin from 1512 with reference to highly-regarded authors who wrote in Greek or Latin, both pagan and Christian: Gregory of Nyssa (by Beatus Rhenanus, 1512); Plutarch (by Melanchthon, 1519); Porphyry and Aristotle (by Gerardus Listrius, 1520); Cyril of Alexandria (by Andreas Cratander, 1528); Augustine of Hippo (by Alfonso Fonseca, 1528); and so on.

A classic author, in that early sense, then, is someone who enjoys wide esteem, someone with a reputation for good style or penetrating content — often, both.

These authors tend to also have widespread influence upon later literature and thought. Thus, Virgil is classic because he has good style, penetrating content, and is the most influential poet of the Latin world. Plato is classic because he has good style, penetrating content, and is the most influential philosopher of the Greek world. And so forth.

These Greek and Roman authors were read and taught and imitated and analysed throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages — indeed, were part of standard education right into the twentieth century. The result is that they have a very strong, direct impact upon western culture. They are not only good poets and philosophers and historians, they are foundational to our culture’s ways of thinking and writing and producing art.

When we move out from literature, this pervasion of Graeco-Roman ideas of philosophy, politics, beauty, and so forth runs throughout western culture all over the place — architecture, art, so many ideals with which we deal every day, whether in acceptance or rejection. The impact of the Greeks and Romans upon subsequent European history is well-nigh incalculable. And the impact of Europe, thanks to colonisation, the Industrial Revolution, and globalisation, is now worldwide.

Before this becomes apologetic for the discipline of Classical Studies, let us see how this narrow use of classic has spread out since its inception. As early as 1548, classique was used of mediaeval vernacular authors of high esteem. Indeed, we could easily reckon up several mediaeval authors of very wide appeal, esteem, and impact — Dante Alighieri, Chrétien de Troyes, Thomas Aquinas, Gottfried von Strasbourg, Geoffrey Chaucer, Hildegard von Bingen.

The term spreads out chronologically from there — Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, Donne are classic not just because they’re old but because they were and are widely regarded to have good style as well as broad impact upon subsequent literature.

But what about authors and texts who disappear for a while? Can they be counted as classic? Perhaps not immediately. But they can regain that lost status, as has done Gilgamesh or Beowulf. Both of these texts were popular in their own day (well, we can certainly confirm that Gilgamesh — poor Beowulf exists in one manuscript), but then were almost lost to time due to shifts and changes in politics and culture. But modern antiquarians have resurrected them, and they are regarded for all the same reasons as other classics, with a growing influence that is currently making up for their centuries-long disappearance.

Sadly, The Tale of Sinuhe has not had such luck, despite being a classic in ancient Egypt for centuries. Perhaps it’s too different for our culture to assimilate it as with Gilgamesh and Beowulf. Perhaps its press isn’t good enough. I recommend it, though. 😉

With the temporal and geographical widening of classic comes, again, its movement to other media. I am currently listening to classical music — Beethoven, Symphony No 2. I enjoy a piece of classic cinema, such as Vertigo or Forbidden Planet, every once in a while. The Beatles are ‘classic’ rock.

Anyway, here’s what makes a classic, then. It’s not simply age but impact and wide esteem. Something can lose classicness, like poor Sinuhe, or (re)gain it, like Beowulf. That said, if you’re into your own culture, don’t be ashamed to be caught reading Cicero or Dante on the bus while listening to Mozart, Monteverdi, or Beethoven.

*That is: the Classic of Poetry, Classic of History, Classic of Changes (Yijing), Record of Rites, and Chronicles of the Spring and Autumn Period. Ancient books have such riveting titles.

Skills not to be taken for granted: Latin inscriptions

When you look at the Pantheon, one of the many things that inevitably jumps out at you is the inscription:


I like to use this inscription as an example for my students in discussing why private Romans built monumental architecture — prestige. Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, in his third consulship (27 BC), built the Pantheon. It’s there for all to see (NB: current building actually Hadrianic, c. 120).

The Pantheon

M Agrippa made this (no he didn’t)

My first few days in Rome, I took my ability to read this and other inscriptions for granted. And, boy, is Rome full of inscriptions! Almost every monument and church in this city has a Latin inscription on it. If my ‘Latin Is All Around Us‘ post is true of Edinburgh, it is far truer of Rome (unsurprisingly!). Plus, if you know your abbrevs (I know some, at least), you can read tombstones and whatnot in the museums. Bonus.

The Wednesday of my first week in Rome I had the great fortune to meet up with a friend I’d not seen in at least 8 years (Let’s call him ‘Vince’). It was a glorious reunion! We dined together, we laughed together, we looked at the Pantheon together. We walked around with his school group he was chaperoning together.

And it was during this that I realised the specialness of my skill.

In Rome, a degree or two in Classics become eminently useful.

The Pantheon, which I explained to them, was not all to see. In front of Sant’Ignazio, I (“Mr Mireau’s Friend”) was able to tell them that it was a church in honour of St Ignatius, founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), built by a particular Cardinal in a particular year. At the Trevi Fountain, I was able to tell people which Popes were involved in its construction and that the water came from a spring.

Trevi Fountain

Failed to get the inscription, but here’s the Trevi Fountain

I realised that I had a special skill! One of the other teachers noted to the school group that my inscription-reading skillz are the result of studying! Wow, what treasures lie in store for Albertans who learn Latin!

And there are treasures. This skill taught me that the Column of M Aurelius was restored by a Pope. In the Capitoline Museums, whilst reading inscriptions I found a statue base erected by the Late Antique polytheist senator and orator Symmachus. I have noted the dates and builders/restorers of many of Rome’s monuments — chiefly popes (PONTIFEX MAXIMUS), usually Renaissance through 18th century. According to an inscription at the Vatican Library, Benedict XVI in year VI of his pontificate did the refurbishing.

It helped me realise that this in St Peter’s Basilica is in honour of Jacobites:

What lovely angels!

‘To James III / Son of James II King of Great Britain / To Charles Edward / and Henry Decanus (Dean?) of the Cardinal Fathers / Sons of James III / Last of the royal branch of Stuart / in the year 1819’

And so forth.

I like that in Rome, I’m something special. And my Classics degrees are really, truly useful.

The long-awaited review of Discourse Particles in Latin

Discourse particles in Latin : a study of nam, enim, autem, vero, and atDiscourse particles in Latin : a study of nam, enim, autem, vero, and at by Caroline Kroon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A brief discourse on this particularly useful book:

Kroon begins her discussion of nam, enim, autem, vero, and at with a discussion of discourse pragmatics and linguistiics, taking as her starting point for analysis not the clause but the acts and moves within linguistic discourse. Chapters 1-3 set out the discussion of discourse pragmatics and particles, evaluating different theories of approach; these I found to be very dense, and took a brief glance through a linguistics textbook to prep my brain to work through it. Nevertheless, it got easier to read the more I progressed.

Chapters 4 and 5 build on the first three chapters to produce Kroon’s methodology for analysing Latin particles — hers is a bottom-up approach that seeks to locate each particle within a simple meaning and minimal number of uses based upon both semantics and pragmatics.

Finally, chapters 6-12 discuss the various particles under discussion with extensive reference to discourse pragmatics and copious examples from Latin prose literature (and comedy — is that prose or poetry?) from Plautus to Tacitus. Her approach helpfully reduces the number of meanings for some of these particles while at the same time demonstrating how alleged synonyms often differ greatly in their actual function in the text. She progresses through the particles from least challengeable discuss to most — that is, her discussion of enim presents a greater challenge to traditional grammars than that of nam, and the final three progress from autem to vero to at.

This book is extraordinarily useful. While working through it, each of the particles under discussion began popping out at me in my own reading of Late Latin epistolography, and I was able to see the discourse function of these particles in the way Kroon describes them. My thinking about language has become more precise at large, and in my approach to Latin especially.

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