Tag Archives: early middle ages

Discover Late Antiquity: The Sixth-Century West

1996 French stamp issue featuring Clovis I (r. 496-511)

1996 French stamp issue featuring Clovis I (r. 496-511)

We’ve talked about Justinian. What of the West from 500ish to 600ish? Well, it’s a dangerous place to visit. While such a statement could be taken literally, I mean it figuratively in this instance. You see, the emergent polities of post-Roman western Europe are often seen as the precursors of their medieval and even modern successors. Visigoths in Spain, Franks in Gaul, Anglo-Saxons in Britannia, Picti in Caledonia. The French Republic celebrated Clovis, the Merovingian King of the Franks (d. 511), on a postage stamp (I own a copy).

Last time we saw how Justinian recaptured Africa, a bit of Spain, and Italy, thus reuniting parts of the western and eastern Mediterranean divided for more than a century. The rest of the West does not join in the Roman imperial fun.


Gaul is dominated in this century by a people group called the Franks — I recommend reading their story in Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, from c. 595. Their king at the turn of the century was Clovis, who was descended from a fifth-century Frankish leader named Merovech; his dynasty is called Merovingian and will last into the 700s. The two most important factoids about Clovis: 1. he unites the various Frankish groups into a single kingdom; 2. when he converts to Christianity, he chooses Catholicism, not Homoian/Arian Christianity. As a third thing to take away, let it be noted that both he and his father claimed to hold titles and offices within Roman administration and acknowledged the headship of the faraway Emperor in Constantinople. Clovis also conquers various parts of southern Gaul previously under Visigothic rule.

Later Franks do the same, in fact. By century’s end, Gaul is theirs, and they are pushing increasingly further into Germania. This trans-Rhine world of the Merovingians is highly significant. Previously, because of the Mediterranean focus of Rome, Germania was barely ever taken, most of it not at all. Now the Merovingian Franks are taking over various parts of the trans-Rhine world and incorporating it into their kingdom and administrative system, bringing with them Catholic Christianity, their own coins, taxes, and laws. Germania is thus moving from the hinterland to becoming an integrated part of the European world, politically, culturally, religiously.

Sources: One of the best for the period, besides Gregory of Tours, is the anthology From Roman to Merovingian Gaul by Alexander Callander Murray.


The Third Council of Toledo in Codex Vigilanus (10th-c, my favourite Spanish manuscript)

The Third Council of Toledo in Codex Vigilanus (10th-c, my favourite Spanish manuscript)

I’m the sort of person who would normally say, ‘Spain’, in these conversations, but the piece of Mediterranean geography I’m referring to is the whole peninsula, including Portugal. The Visigoths were the main force in Hispania this century, and they were busily consolidating their power. They were remarkably successful at it, given that the topography of the peninsula tends more towards fragmentation than centralisation. The Visigoths maintained Roman book culture, taxation, and military traditions. They used these to fund battles against the Franks in Gaul.  They also hosted a lot of church councils in Toledo starting this century (which only had two, the Second [527] and Third [589]). At the Third Council of Toledo, King Reccared I of Hispania and Septimania, oversaw the adoption of Catholic Christianity within his realms — hitherto, the Visigothic kingdom had been Homoian/Arian.

Sources: I’m less of an expert on Hispania, but primary sources worth looking at are John of Biclaro’s Chronicle and Isidore of Seville’s History of the Kings of the Goths, both of which are translated by Kenneth Baxter Wolf in Conquerors and Chroniclers in Early Medieval Spain.

Britannia, Caledonia, Hibernia

At the northern edge of the Roman Empire was Britannia; to the North was Caledonia (modern Scotland), and across the Irish Sea was Hibernia (Ireland). Some of the contenders for King Arthur are alleged to have lived in the sixth century. On the whole King Arthur issue, see my review of Guy Halsall’s Worlds of Arthur. In the 500s, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britannia are taking shape and forging themselves into polities. There is little, if anything, Roman about the pagan, Germanic-speaking Anglo-Saxons. Gildas, writing either early or mid-century, says:

Britain has kings, but they are tyrants; she has judges, but unrighteous ones; generally engaged in plunder and rapine, but always preying on the innocent… (ch. 27, trans. J.A. Giles)

Without a lot of archaeology, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for this century is largely unhelpful, sadly. What it does show, however, is that we are still in what might be termed the ‘migration period’ in Britannia. The mingling of Germanic and Romano-British that would produce Anglo-Saxon culture was ongoing.

Of course, the thing that had the greatest impact on Anglo-Saxon politics occurred at century’s end. Here is how it is told by Bede in ch. 66 of The Reckoning of Time (often excerpted as the World Chronicle, as in the Oxford World’s Classics translation of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People):

In the thirteenth year of the reign of Maurice and the thirteenth indiction, Gregory, the bishop of Rome and outstanding teacher, assembled a synod of twenty-four bishops at the tomb of the blessed Apostle Peter, to make decisions concerning the needs of the Church. He sent to Britain Augustine, Mellitus and John, and many others, with God-fearing monks with them, to convert the English to Christ. Aethelberht was soon converted to the grace of Christ, together with the people of the Cantuarii over whom he ruled, and those of neighbouring kingdoms. [Gregory] gave him Augustine to be his bishop and teacher, as well as other holy priests to become bishops. However, the people of the Angles north of the river Humber, under Kings Aelle and Aethelfrith, did not at this time hear the Word of life. (trans. Faith Wallis)

Britannia’s neighbours were also divided. Eire was an assemblage of small kingdoms that had a variety of different relationships, as we see in the Chronicle of Ireland. Palladius and Patrick had already brought Christianity in the century before. In the thick of dynastic struggles, in fact, a young Irish nobleman named Columba was to take refuge in Pictish lands, bringing Christianity to their kingdom and settling a monastery on Iona. Columba died in 597, and Adomnan’s Life of St Columba is worth a read.

All over Britain and Ireland, small kingdoms were vying for power, and coalesced towards century’s end in the smaller states that would shape the character of the 600s — see Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000, 157-160.


Finally, let us return to the Mediterranean world. One would think that Justinian would be the end of this story, that we could just dust our hands and say, ‘Italy = Byzantine.’ However, if we were to do that, we’d have to use definition 5 or 6 of ‘Byzantine’ at Dictionary.com:

5. complex or intricate …
6. sometimes lowercase characterized by elaborate scheming and intrigue, especially for the gaining of political power or favor …

First, we have to acknowledge the growing local power of the Metropolitan Bishop of Suburbicarian Italy. I mean, the Pope. In Rome. Things for him are complicated because of his continued support for the Emperor in Constantinople, but the tendency of the Exarchate based in Ravenna to interfere in Roman affairs.

Also, the Lombards. They invade northern Italy in 568 and stick around until 774. In the 590s, their invasions push South towards Rome. Italy is not so simple, all of a sudden!

Italy in 572

Italy in 572

Thus, we have Ostrogoths under Theoderic in 500. The coming of the East Romans in 535; final conquest of Italy by Justinian’s forces in 554. Then we have the coming of the Lombards in 568. They proceed to push ever further south. By Lombard King Alboin’s death in 572, Italy has been carved up into different spheres of ‘Byzantine’ and Lombard influence.

Sources: For the closing decade, most definitely the letters of Gregory the Great. I can’t just now think of where else to look for the Lombards besides the eighth-century History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon. For the early 500s, a most invaluable source are the Variae of Cassiodorus.

Well, I know it was longer than usual, but here you have it. The disconnected, fragmented, post-Roman West. New kingdoms forming, asserting themselves, gathering taxes, fighting each other, entering into diplomatic relations with each other, sharing missionaries with each other. It’s a brave, new mediaeval world.


Caesarius of Arles … or not: Thoughts on Textual Criticism

19th-century reliquary of St Caesarius — or is it? (Just kidding. It is.)

Last Saturday I attended a very good conference, ‘The World of Caesarius of Arles’ organised by Lucy Grig at the University of Edinburgh. The excellent papers gave insight into Caesarius and the world of early sixth-century Arles/southern Gaul.

One of the more interesting papers presented was that by Conrad Leyser (the name of which escapes me and I don’t have my notes to hand) about what Caesarius actually preached in his sermons. Do we know?

The answer is maybe. The problem with the text of Caesarius’ sermons is that over one hundred of the 238 in Morin’s CCSL edition were either anonymous or attributed to someone else in the manuscript tradition. This is not, of course, always a problem, but it seems that Morin’s methods in determining which sermons were Caesarian were less than scientific.

Nevertheless, during a coffee break, another notable Caesarius scholar said that, while this is an issue everyone knows, he has a feeling that Morin was right a lot of the time.

The way forward, of course, is to re-evaluate the entire corpus and the 1000 mss consulted by Morin over his 40-year project according the principles of modern textual criticism. This is easier said than done. My recommendation is to take as a starting point the methodology that is arising in relation to the study of ancient letters — the discrete collections. This way, we would start with the three sermon collections attributed to Caesarius in the mss, edit them, and then use them as a nucleus and basis for our consideration of the remaining 100+ sermons Morin’s edition of Caesarius’ letters.

What we must admit in the face of so many sermons and so many manuscripts is our own feebleness and fallibility. One of my fellow-PhD students who was present at the conference, in conversation with Leyser and William Klingshirn, said that his faith in modern scholarship was being sorely tested by these considerations — including the fact that everyone knew this about Morin’s edition but tended to ignore or, alternatively, make mention in the preface to their work on Caesarius but go on as though everything was okay anyway.

And Klingshirn said that we tend to act like this all the time — which was even more troubling to my colleague. Classicists, he observe, pretend that the latest or chosen critical edition of an ancient author actually does present the exact wording of the original writer.

This is a fiction that is almost necessary for scholarship — the other extreme is, of course, skepticism about the text that is so severe that one denies the knowability of anything an ancient author wrote. Most of us would like to steer a middle course.

One of my colleagues found a way around this for a commentary he did for the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) text Baruch. He simply used the biblical Codex Vaticanus as his text. This, at least, was a text used by real people in real places at various times in history.

And so we come to Leo. How am I to interact with the text as I edit and translate? As editor, I will have to choose — or even emend — the reading I find most likely. But at least there I can give the variants. The critical apparatus — that body of footnotes lurking at the bottom of the page of good editions of ancient/medieval texts — should be a window onto the manuscripts, so that if readers dislike my choice, they can find out the content and perceived quality of the other choices available.

As translator, I will have to present my own English interpretation of the pope’s Latin; I intend to discuss important Latin words and variants in my annotations — fear not.

Having a chat in the Kelvingrove with the artist formerly known as Homer

Having a chat in the Kelvingrove with the artist formerly known as Homer

But at the end of the day, there will always be a certain amount of ambiguity concerning the exact wording of any text for which we lack an autograph (that is, a copy in the author’s own handwriting) — which is most ancient and mediaeval literature. However, this does not mean we should stop commenting on Homer or Caesarius or Leo or the Bible. Very often, editors are right. Very often, the scribes are right and the editors’ job is easy. Let us take comfort in that as we sit down with our Homer or Gilgamesh or Bible this evening.

On the other hand, it does not mean we should uncritically accept the conclusions of the textual critics and editors — they, too, are fallible persons. There is a chance that some of M L West’s obolised (that is, marked as ‘inauthentic’) passages are, in fact, ‘authentic’. There is a chance that, however many editions of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament they end up producing, they will still err in their editorial choices. The critical reader and interpreter of the text should be willing to point this out.

In short — even with Caesarius, there is a chance that what we are reading is the original writer. Let us, therefore, continue reading and interpreting, but always with an eye at the marginalia and footnotes.

What ‘Dark’ Ages?

As promised, here is a post about what follows late antiquity (and if the debate about ending ‘late’ antiquity interests you, be sure to read the comments of the post thereon).

A week or two ago, I was at a conference about the Middle Ages. My paper was about Justinianic hagiography because I think the later bits of Late Antiquity also count as the early bits of the Early Middle Ages. Anyway, one of the people commented during a tea break that she doesn’t think the Middle Ages begin until the year 800. Another delegate remarked, ‘So you’re a believer in the Dark Ages?’

I know this is non-controversial in many circles, and has been for many years, but it is worth saying: The Dark Ages Never Happened.*

There are people who still use the term, such as an evangelical woman who once asked me if there were any Christians in the ‘Dark Ages’. Thunderstruck, I didn’t really have much of an answer; I also wasn’t sure what she meant by ‘Dark Ages’. Did she include the entire Middle Ages? I know that not everyone who uses the term includes the whole 1000-year period typically designated ‘mediaeval’, such as a friend who once remarked in a blog that Muslims dragged western Europe ‘kicking and screaming out of the Dark Ages.’ Usually, when the term crops up, it means something from the Fall of Rome until sometime in the Carolingian era or the 1000s or 1100s.

No one’s really sure what the Dark Ages are, I guess; that’s a worse range of dates than we had for Late Antiquity.

The Dark Ages are imagined to be a period of internecine warfare across ‘Europe’, an age when ‘barbarians’ took over the Roman Empire and everything went to pieces. Christianity was turned into superstition (if Constantine hadn’t already done it; it all depends whom you ask). Trade disappeared. People lived brutal, hard, short lives, plagued by fear of the supernatural and of Vikings. Learning was lost, shunned even. It was a dark time in western Europe, and was saved possibly by the Carolingian ‘Renaissance’ or by Islamic learning or by the Irish. Depends whom you ask.

This, quite frankly, is not exactly the case. The change from Empire to barbarian kingdoms is a gradual one, and the movement from a Mediterranean-wide economy of exchange to local economies in the West is very slow, indeed. True, the aristocracy became landed warriors, one of the hallmarks of mediaeval civilization, but they still ruled by Roman Law, still levied Roman taxes, still wrote in Latin, for a very long time.

Indeed, all sorts of Roman learning and aspects of Roman culture were preserved throughout western Europe, even in places where Roman administrative culture completely evaporated, such as Britain. How ‘dark’ can an age be if it gives us Gregory the Great, Isidore of Seville, Adamnan of Iona, the Venerable Bede, Alfred the Great, Alcuin? How ‘dark’ can a world really be that gives us the epic poem Beowulf or the Icelandic Sagas? Or Romanesque architecture and the Lindisfarne Gospels?

Any survey of Early Mediaeval literature should disabuse the notion that, say, 400-1000 was a ‘Dark Age’ for western Europe. Sure, there was a lot of local warfare. This didn’t really let up until 1945, so that can’t really count against the period. Sure, there was some political instability. Sure, a lot of manuscripts were lost. And, yes, Vikings would occasionally come to raid your village. Or found Dublin. Or conquer and settle Normandy. Or become members of the Emperor’s guard in Constantinople.

Even the example of the Vikings, so archetypically ‘Dark Ages’ shows us that the image of the Early Middle Ages as ‘dark’ is off the mark.

This was a transitional period, probably more unstable than some, but not so bad. Many imperial institutions persisted. The Church kept doing her thing. Gregory of Tours and the Venerable Bede gave us voluminous Latin output that includes Bible commentary, saints’ lives, and the history of their peoples. Worth reading. The Insular culture gave us the Book of Kells, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and other exquisite examples of book production. The continent gave us very important texts of secular and canon law as well as the beauty of early Romanesque art.

Perhaps what is darkest about this period is our ignorance of it. Most ignorant are those who still call it ‘Dark.’ Yet in many other ways, historians have far less material from this period to work with. So it is harder to illuminate this age than those that precede and follow it. Nonetheless, it is worth illuminating yourself if you can. You’ll find that the Early Middle Ages are an interesting bit of history.

So, check out these; I list only four so as not to weigh you down. Feel free to recommend others in the comments!

The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 by Chris Wickham; pub. Penguin. The introductory chapter deals with a lot of the reasons the Early Middle Ages are snubbed, and not just the ‘Dark Ages’ issue. I’m about 1/3 through, and it’s very illuminating.

Romanesque by Norbert Wolf. This is one of those wonderful introductory volumes of art history produced by Taschen, full of colour illustrations demonstrating the subject at hand. Romanesque is the style of art and architecture most common in the Early Middle Ages. It is beautiful.

The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology ed. and trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland, including the entirety of Beowulf. This Oxford World’s Classics volume gives the reader an initiation in the varied literature from the world of the Anglo-Saxon people until 1066, including poetry, sermons, chronicles, spells, riddles, letters, and land grants.

The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. This piece of Latin philosophy, written primarily in verse, is a tour-de-force of late antique/early mediaeval philosophical writing that will make the reader rethink the allegedness ‘darkness’ of the 500s.

*Neither did the Renaissance.