Monks and the goal of reading in the 6th century

I am reading Pierre Riché, Edcuation and Culture in the Barbarian West, Sixth Through Eighth Centuries. Of relevance to my ongoing posts about the Rule of St Benedict is his discussion of reading. First of all, Riché establishes that there was a common Latin Mediterranean monasticism and monastic culture in the sixth century. Then he discusses what monastic education would look like. It is all focussed on what St Benedict calls the ‘school for the Lord’s service‘ — education in asceticism. To that end, they have the Bible and the Fathers and the lives of saints read aloud to them, and they spend time reading these same texts. Not for intellectual growth nor even for understanding as we would think it:

To what end did frequent reading of the Bible and the other texts we have cited lead? Historians have taken quite different and even opposing positions on this subject, especially insofar as the beginnings of Benedictine monasticism are concerned. According to some, monks read the Bible without ever truly appreciating its meaning. Others claim that the monks abandoned themselves to learned study and portray Benedict as the ‘initiator of Biblical studies in the West.’

We have only the texts with which to settle this debate — in particular, the regulae, which speak of lectio, especially of lectio divina and meditatio. But what do these terms mean? The intellectual vocabulary of the period was quite rich but rather imprecise. For example, meditatio, which for the Church Fathers often meant ‘prayer,’ [cites Jerome and Cassian] in the rules meant ‘study,’ especially ‘preparatory study.’ Meditari litterasmeditari psalmos meant to learn to read and to learn the Psalter by reading it aloud in order to become thoroughly familiar with it. [Benedict, Rule of the Master, Cassiodorus] Meditari was also synonymous with legere, which ordinarily meant ‘to read’; but when Benedict spoke of the lectio divina, did he not mean something more than simply reading? Lectio, for the grammarians, was the beginning of interpretation. ‘To read’ the Bible, then, could mean to study it intensively under the direction of the abbot. Was the abbot to explicate the hidden meaning of the Scriptures to the monks and to be, as was said of Achivus of Agaune, an ‘interpretator insignis?’ All that is certain is that the abbot was primarily charged with directing the spiritual and moral life of the monks. He was more a ‘physician for the soul’ than a teacher; a passage in the Regula Magistri portrays him curing an ‘illness’ with words and appropriate readings. I see no place for the establishment of ‘Christian learning’ as Saint Augustine understood it in the ascetic climate described by the regulae.

According to Cassian, who borrowed the thought from Evagrius Ponticus, purity of heart was preferable when learning when it came to delving into the meaning of Scripture. The cenobites of Gaul and Italy remained true to this advice. Caesarius said that humility, obedience, and charity were the primary conditions necessary for lectio and oratio, while Benedict, like Cassian, insisted on ‘puritas cordis.’ Cenobites, beginners in the art of asceticism,[Benedict] were apprentices under the direction of their abbot. Their final goal was real meditatio, the contemplation of God.[Cassian] Legere and meditari mean more ‘to taste’ than ‘to understand.’

Thus the monk’s religious culture was an exclusively ascetic culture. While there is no doubt that Benedict founded an original monastic organization, he was somewhat less original in the realm of religious culture. He compares in this respect more with the Eastern cenobites than with Cassiodorus. This monastic culture, which, as we have described it, was completely opposed to profane culture, was also proposed as a model for clerics. (120-122)

A quick note: This is explicitly a discussion of sixth-century southern Gaul and Italy, not the wider monastic culture that will grow up in Benedictine monasteries and which is described and studied by Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God.

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Celtic Spirituality — Ad fontes! (leis na foinsí?)

Celtic Cross on Iona, img from Trip Advisor

I don’t know Irish, so that Irish in parentheses in the title is possibly wrong. Anyway, this blog is many things, as you know. One of those things is not only to be a source of meditations upon the Great Tradition of Christianity — ancient, mediaeval, modern — but also to draw you to the sources — texts, art, practices — of the Great Tradition. To that end, I put together some bibliographies a while ago (basic, not-so-basic, on the Trinity, the Church Fathers online as well as ‘where to begin‘); there’s a chance I should tweak these, but every time I try, I don’t know what to add/remove!

To these bibliographies I have now added ‘Sources for “Celtic” Christianity.’ I think there is much wisdom amongst Christianity as it was practised in the British Isles from the Late Roman period to the Early Middle Ages (and beyond, frankly — two words: St Anselm). A lot of other people have, over the years, found something fresh and new in these Insular expressions of the Christian faith, such as we find in poems like this one attributed to St Brigid of Kildare (451-525):

I would like to have the men of Heaven
in my own house;
with vats of good cheer
laid out for them.

I would like to have the three Marys,
their fame is so great.
I would like people
from every corner of Heaven.

I would like them to be cheerful
in their drinking.
I would like to have Jesus, too,
here amongst them.

I would like a great lake of beer
for the King of Kings.
I would like to be watching Heaven’s family
drinking it through all eternity. (Source: Celtic Literature Collective)

Irish, Scottish, and Anglo-Saxon saints live in a world that, to modern(ist/ised) eyes seems liminal in many ways. They wrestle with demons. They encounter Christ and the saints in dreams. They feel a oneness in God’s good creation. They make friends with birds. These men and women from the edge of the mediaeval world draw us in.

Much ink has been spilled over the centuries praising the early saints of Ireland and Scotland, and in the past several decades there has arisen a movement of ‘Celtic’ spirituality amongst Protestant Christians that has both ‘liberal’ and ‘evangelical’/’charismatic’ strands. Some of the material from this Celtic spiritual movement is fairly accurate in its portrayal of Insular Christianity. Other material is not — although some of that other material may still be helpful to modern readers!

Thinking about ‘Celtic’ — Insular — Christianity, I wish to strip away much of this modern romanticism. Yes, there is much good amongst these particular Christians. If they can enliven your spiritual life, set you on fire for Christ, and draw you nearer to him — good! But they are not perfect, and Christianity on the Continent was not hopelessly lost and warped, either. In order, therefore, to clarify the water, we need to come to grips with the actual writings and sources and art and liturgy of these communities.

What were the actual spiritual practices of Christians in Ireland and the British Isles?

What was their relationship with the Continent?

What were their theological teachings?

The best place to start is the writings themselves. So I put together a bibliography of primary sources. I’ve not read them all, but hopefully they will be helpful. If there are texts within my temporal bounds (up to 793) that I should include, let me know!

Initial reflections on Volume 1 of Gregory the Great’s letters

The top of St Gregory's crozier
The top of St Gregory’s crozier

This morning I finished reading the first volume John R C Martyn’s translation of Gregory the Great‘s letters. This covers Books 1-4. Gregory the Great was Bishop of Rome 590-604, and he left behind a significant corpus of writings — sermons, The Book of Pastoral Rule, the Dialogues (which are hagiographical), and letters. The Pastoral Rule is one of the few Latin patristic texts both translated into and widely read in Greek from a very early age.

Over 800 of Gregory’s letters survive. This is considerably more than any previous pope. Indeed, one of my catch-lines about Leo the Great (pope 440-461) is that more letters survive from him than from any other pope before Gregory, and for Leo we have a corpus of ~170 items. Unfortunately, I am not clear about how Gregory the Great’s epistolary corpus stacks up against later popes in terms of quantity. My apologies.

As a result of this massive corpus of missives, we have a much better sense of who Gregory is than of the other incumbents of the Roman see. We have many more avenues to access his thought on a range of issues. We see what sorts of things he was interested in, we see what sorts of things he believed, we see what sorts of people he knew. Gregory thus stands in sharper relief than any other Late Antique Bishop of Rome.

Now, when we say these things, we have to remember that, while Gregory undoubtedly unique and had his own strengths, it is not necessarily the case that his correspondence was unique as a body of documents. The mediaeval papacy was not suddenly born in the year 590. Gregory is but one step in a long process; what makes his letters unique is their quantity, not necessarily their concerns or outlook.

Not always, anyway.

One final preliminary issue. The sorts of papal letters I read for my own research tend to be of interest primarily or only as sources for canon law. Although I believe that canon law, and papal letters in particular, is an often overlooked source for social history, it is still the case that the explicit interest of the pope at hand is canon law, and very often in broad terms. That is, Innocent I is interested in discussing monks and nuns who leave their monasteries whereas Gregory is interested in this one particular story about this one particular nun who got pregnant. Gregory’s letters, then, are universally recognised by historians as a major source for the history of the Early Middle Ages, in a way, sadly, that a lot of other papal letters are not always.

Gregory’s main correspondents are clergy — mostly bishops, but sometimes also deacons and priests — and officials or aristocrats. In Books 1-4, he writes to the Lombard Queen Theodelinda, for example, as well as the Byzantine imperial daughter Constantina. He writes to the deacon who manages the church’s landholdings and financial affairs in Sicily quite often. He writes to secular officials in Dalmatia and Africa.

His correspondents are in Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, Dalmatia, and North Africa, only occasionally in Gaul, although Frankish lands will feature more prominently in later books of the correspondence.

He writes about ecclesiastical abuses, about who is fit to be a cleric, about allowing Jews freedom of worship, about not allowing Jews to own Christian slaves or buy property from churches, about evangelising Sardinian pagans, about schism, about theology, about monks and nuns, about misbehaving sons of clerics, about people trying to sell off church plate, about people trying to found monasteries and how that’s a good thing, about people alienating property from its rightful heirs — about the range of human existence, basically.

I will go into some of the moments that piqued my interest next time. But it was worth the read, and I will get around to the next two volumes some day.

Saint of the Week: St. Clotilda

Central Portal, Basilique St-Clotilde, Paris

My first Sunday in Paris, I visited the spectacular Musée Rodin, then walked over to the Eiffel Tower, a walk which continued across the Seine twice, and brought me within sight of two spires. I do enjoy a good spire-hunt – it brought me to some lovely churches and neighbourhoods in Milan, after all. So I wandered over to the spires and found a Gothic construction, the Basilique Ste-Clotilde.

I looked at this name and thought, ‘That name looks Frankish!’ A week or so later, my guess was confirmed as I did research for a piece of expression écrite for French class, my chosen topic being Clovis I (r. 481-511). In my recherches, I discovered that Clotilda (Clotilde, en français) was Clovis’s wife.

And what makes a Late Antique/Early Medieval Frankish queen a saint? Read on …

Clotilda (475-545) was the daughter of the Burgundian King Chilperic II. According to Gregory of Tours, in 493, her Uncle Gundobad killed her father and mother, sent her sister Chrona to a nunnery, and Clotilda herself into exile. Ah, the joys of early European royal families…

Clovis et Clotilde, by Baron Jean-Antoine Gros, c. 1811, at the Petit Palais, Paris (my photo)

Around the time she was heading into exile, the dashing young Merovingian (descendant of Merovingius, himself a descendant of a horse or something) Clovis, king of a growing realm of Salian Franks, was interested in taking her hand in marriage. This got Gundobad out of an awkward situation, so the marriage was arranged on the grounds that Clotilda would be able to continue practising her Catholic Christianity.

According to Wikipedia, Clovis was at this time an Arian. This is an assumption based on the fact that Germanic barbarians are famously Arian. However, my other research says that he was an unbaptised pagan, raised in the cultural mélange of traditional Frankish religion and Roman customs – his father had taken some of the land and responsibilities of the vestiges of Roman rule in Gaul, and he assumed more of these roles himself throughout his reign.

So Clotilda joined the ranks of not a few Catholic/Christian princesses to marry pagan kings/princes in this era, which is part of her interest.

Eventually, as young royal couples do, Clovis and Clotilda bore a son. Clotilda insisted on him going through with the Christian rite of baptism and encouraged her husband to do likewise. Clovis said no. The child died soon thereafer, only adding fuel to Clovis’ argument that baptism was useless.

Their second son, Chlodomer (495-524) fell ill soon after his baptism, but through the prayers of his mother was healed. Clovis remained unconvinced.

Clotilda was very concerned about her beloved husband. He was a warrior of great worth, a good king, and all such things. But he rejected the truth of Christ and remained living in pagan falsehood. She wished him to gain the great riches of the life in Christ, so she would nag him about religion frequently.

When this did not seem to be working, she got (St) Remigius (Rémy) of Reims to get involved. Remigius had sent Clovis a letter of congratulation back in 481 when the young King ascended the throne; the Catholic Church had received a certain amount of protection under Clovis, and he and the bishop of Reims had met on several occasions (see the story of the vase at Soissons from Gregory of Tours). Although Clovis was a pagan, this protection of the Church represents the way in which early Frankish kings adopted much of the culture and administration of the Roman Empire they were occupying.

Remigius was also unable to persuade Clovis. However, through a combination of wifely and episcopal persuasion and a deal with God, Clovis’ conversion in 496 was as follows, according to Gregory of Tours, History of the Frankish Kings II.30-31:

[30] The queen did not cease to urge him to recognize the true God and cease worshipping idols. But he could not be influenced in any way to this belief, until at last a war arose with the Alamanni, in which he was driven by necessity to confess what before he had of his free will denied. It came about that as the two armies were fighting fiercely, there was much slaughter, and Clovis’s army began to be in danger of destruction.

He saw it and raised his eyes to heaven, and with remorse in his heart he burst into tears and cried: “Jesus Christ, whom Clotilda asserts to be the son of the living God, who art said to give aid to those in distress, and to bestow victory on those who hope in thee, I beseech the glory of thy aid, with the vow that if thou wilt grant me victory over these enemies, and I shall know that power which she says that people dedicated in thy name have had from thee, I will believe in thee and be baptized in thy name. For I have invoked my own gods but, as I find, they have withdrawn from aiding me; and therefore I believe that they possess no power, since they do not help those who obey them. I now call upon thee, I desire to believe thee only let me be rescued from my adversaries.”

And when he said thus, the Alamanni turned their backs, and began to disperse in flight. And when they saw that their king was killed, they submitted to the dominion of Clovis, saying: “Let not the people perish further, we pray; we are yours now.” And he stopped the fighting, and after encouraging his men, retired in peace and told the queen how he had had merit to win the victory by calling on the name of Christ. This happened in the fifteenth year of his reign.

[31] Then the queen asked saint Remi, bishop of Rheims, to summon Clovis secretly, urging him to introduce the king to the word of salvation. And the bishop sent for him secretly and began to urge him to believe in the true God, maker of heaven and earth, and to cease worshipping idols, which could help neither themselves nor any one else.

But the king said: “I gladly hear you, most holy father; but there remains one thing: the people who follow me cannot endure to abandon their gods; but I shall go and speak to them according to your words.”

He met with his followers, but before he could speak the power of God anticipated him, and all the people cried out together: “O pious king, we reject our mortal gods, and we are ready to follow the immortal God whom Remi preaches.”

This was reported to the bishop, who was greatly rejoiced, and bade them get ready the baptismal font. The squares were shaded with tapestried canopies, the churches adorned with white curtains, the baptistery set in order, the aroma of incense spread, candles of fragrant odor burned brightly, and the whole shrine of the baptistery was filled with a divine fragrance: and the Lord gave such grace to those who stood by that they thought they were placed amid the odors of paradise. And the king was the first to ask to be baptized by the bishop. (From the Internet History Sourcebook)

Tour Clovis, Paris

Clotilda, then, was instrumental in the conversion of Clovis to Christianity. And he followed her version of Catholic Christianity, the form of Christian belief held by the majority of the populace under his rule in Gaul. This is a significant moment in the history of the western Church – the Roman Empire in Gaul has been replaced by a Catholic Kingdom. Clovis and his Franks will become more acceptable rulers aided by this religious assimilation, as well as their having taken up a variety of other Roman practices. They will also drive the Arian Visigoths out of southern Gaul under Clovis, uniting not only all the Franks (as Clovis did) but all Gaul again as well.

I doubt the Merovingian Franks knew it, but they were part of a wider trajectory that would lead to Charlemagne and the attempt to unite the realms of western Europe as a single empire once more in the eighth and ninth centuries. We stand with Clovis and Clotilda at one of those moments of history, one of those points of the birthing of the Middle Ages where the players had no idea that the long-term significance of the religious act.

If Clovis had died a pagan, would he have united Gaul? Would the Basilica St-Denis in the north of Paris, where his remains were last accounted for, have been built?

Clotilda is part of a wider paradigm during the age of the barbarian conversions. We see other Christian princesses, in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, for example, marrying pagan kings and being instrumental in their conversion. Thus King Edwin, for example.

This path of sanctity is one recommended by St Paul, who urges believing wives not to leave unbelieving husbands to remain and convert them to Christ through the example of their holy lives and the witness of the words of the Gospel.

Clotilda and Clovis had four children who survived infancy, the aforementioned Chlodomer as well as Childebert, Clothar, and Clotilda. As was the custom amongst the Franks, Clovis divided his kingdom among the three sons upon his death in 511, each of them continuing the Merovingian line. Clotilda the younger married Amalaric, (Arian) King of the Visigoths.

In 511, upon the death of her husband at Paris, at the end of a long public career in the world alongside a man who had waged wars and sought to maintain a system of order in the Frankish realms both in Gaul and beyond, Clotilda joined the Abbey of St. Martin at Tours.

Not that being a nun would keep a late-ancient Queen Mother out of action permanently. In 523, Clotilda incited her sons to wage war against her cousin Sigismund in revenge for the assassination of her parents. Sadly for Clotilda, although this unsaintly action resulted in the death of her cousin, it also resulted in the death of her eldest son Chlodomer, which was followed swiftly by the assassination of two of Chlodomer’s sons by their uncles; the third joined the clergy and was thus safely out of the way.*

Having determined that politics was perhaps no longer her milieu, Clotilda devoted the rest of her life to the cloister, not simply by living in one, but by founding many. It is this pious, cloistered life and the conversion of her husband that have contributed to her sainthood.

Clotilda, a real woman in a man’s world, living her life for God’s Kingdom, who made some mistakes on the way, but who is revered to this day for her overall saintliness. The kind of saint I like.

*While this is particularly bloody, it is nothing compared to what happened upon the death of Constantine in 337. Read R W Burgess, ‘The Summer of Blood,’ Dumbarton Oaks Papers 62 (2008),  5-51 (appeared in 2010), for an analysis of the events surrounding that succession.

Adamnán’s Life of Columba

Adamnan of IonaI have blogged about St. Columba here before; he was the first saint of the week and I revisited his life somewhat recently, and considered his relevance for early mediaeval demonology. Today, I am going to briefly consider not Columba but his Life, his Vita by Adamnán, the hagiography of an early ‘Celtic’ saint.

My post is inspired by a recently released article by Roy Gibson in the Journal of Roman Studies about, of all things, letter collections. What he has to say about ancient letter collections is very interesting, but is largely irrelevant to this saint’s life. What is relevant is his discussion of genre at one point when he is thinking about why ancient letter collections are not arranged in chronological order the way modern editors like to have them.

He has two genres that may have influenced them that are directly relevant to our reading of Adamnán’s Life of St Columba. One is ancient biography as practised by Suetonius, author of The Twelve Caesars. Suetonius does not give his reader a blow-by-blow, chronological account of his subjects’ lives. Rather, he groups the events in their lives according to themes, of categories of actions from the emperor’s life.

The other relevant genre is encomium, the ancient practice of writing documents in praise of a person. These are not properly chronological, either, but grouped according to category and theme.

This helps me make a bit more sense of Adamnán’s Life of St Columba. You see, when I first read this text, I found it a strange and troubling creature. Adamnán does not treat of his subject in chronological order. Indeed, I felt (feel?) it entirely impossible to get a proper biography of the saint from this Vita, a biography that begins with his birth, ends with his death, and gives the reader a series of events in the order they occurred.

Instead, Adamnán gives his reader collections of miracles of differing sorts, such as visions or healings or what-have-you. Since my main exposure to hagiography has been of the sort as is Athanasius’ Life of Antony or Cyril of Scythopolis various Lives of Palestinian monks, I found this way of telling a saint’s life odd and troubling, but I went along with it and read the various miracle stories with interest.

Now, however, I get it better. (All you need give me is an ancient precedent.) Early mediaeval Adamnán, who dies in 704, is writing within ancient traditions, not only of hagiography but of biography and encomium — indeed, one would argue that these are two of the most influential genres upon ancient hagiography. He is giving us reasons for Columba’s sanctity. He is showing us the various categories of miracle wrought by Columba. He is showing us the most important facets of this saint’s life. He is praising Columba and giving his reader cause to praise Columba, and thereby God himself, through this encomiastic piece of hagiography.

With this in mind, I’ve no doubt that more saints’ lives I shall inevitably come across will make more sense. The point is not a precise chronological account of the saint’s life. That is biography. The point is to demonstrate holiness and stir up the soul of the reader to worship Christ and live in sanctity as well. This can be effectively achieved with Adamnán’s style, I am certain.

A Few Thoughts About ‘Celtic’ Christianity

Inspired by some discussions on Facebook around a year ago as well as this interesting blog post, I have some thoughts on ‘Celtic’ Christianity.

First of all, I am not entirely sold on the author of that interesting blog post trying to dismantle the concept of ‘Celtic’, simply because there are cultural similarities between the ancient and early mediaeval Irish and Scottish, as well as between the ancient Gauls and the British, and all sorts of other things. I do, however, sympathise with the desire to disentangle the idea of a monolithic ‘Celtic’ world. As he points out, we do not speak of the Germanic-speaking peoples in the same way (but they still have many similarities).

Anyway, if it turns out that what we imagine as ‘Celtic’ Christianity is, in large part, historically false, or, in large part, not unique to the Celtic-speaking peoples of these isles, I think we should do a few things, as follows.

First, if there is spiritual or theological truth in the poorly re-constructed images of Insular Christianity, then hold onto it. It may not be something that large quantities of early mediaeval Irish and Scottish monks believed, or it may not be something unique to them, but if it is true, take it, even if it’s not rooted in history.

Second, why not engage in an Insular Ressourcement?* Ad fontes! My recommendation is to check out Insular Christianity and its sources up to: 793 (the beginning of the Viking Age), 911 (the end of our earliest Irish Annal), or 1066 (the end of the Viking Age and the arrival of the Normans who would not only conquer England but spend significant energy in gaining territory in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland as well).

And in Insular Christianity, I include England, for it is part of the cultural mixture of this world, the place whereby Mediterranean ideas went North and West, where Irish missionaries went South and East. It is converted through the efforts of the Iona monks such as Aidan as much as by the Roman bishop Augustine. I realise that if you are allergic to the English, this will not please you overmuch, but it should be profitable. The Venerable Bede is well worth reading, as is the Dream of the Rood. Furthermore, the ‘Germanic’ elements of English culture do produce something that is a bit different from what you get in Ireland. By seeing the similarities and differences between the English and Irish forms of early mediaeval Christianity, a bit more context is added.

As C S Lewis recommends that one read Plato or Athanasius for oneself, so does the concept of ressourcement. Thankfully, there are many resources available for an InsularRessourcement. If your interests are particularly ‘Celtic’ — Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Cornish, plus the Isles, here are some translations of such material (I list only stuff I’ve actually read):

-Adamnán’s Life of St. Columba (7th century). Available online and as a Penguin Classic.

-St. Patrick’s Confession (5th century). Available online and as a very affordable book.

-There is a version of the Voyage of Brendan here; a different version — that which I have read — has been translated for Penguin in the volume The Age of Bede, itself an expansion upon the earlier (out-of-print) book Lives of the Saints. Brendan himself is sixth-century, the accounts of the voyage are later.

-A great resource is Iona: The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery; this includes some works by St. Columba himself, such as the one I appended to the end of my brief bio for him the first time he was Saint of the Week.

-The Internet Medieval Sourcebook also has a good selection of early Celtic literature available for those who are seeking.

The Book of Kells. The mediaeval world was not all dark and gloomy, not all just the words of books, but a world of fine objects such as this one.

And if you’re not afraid to mix Anglo-Saxon with Scot, here’s some Early Medieval English Christianity for a taste:

-The Venerable St. Bede (7th-8th century): Life of St. Cuthbert is online and in The Age of Bede as well — this volume includes Bede’s Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow as well as Eddius Stephanus’ Life of St. Wilfrid; The Ecclesiastical History of the English People is online and (so I’m told) best read in its Oxford World’s Classics translation. I have also translated his account of Caedmon here.

-The Dream of the Rood is available online and in the Everyman book Anglo-Saxon Poetry, a volume full of very interesting poems, including the narrative Andreas, that mingles Mediterranean and Germanic in its telling of St. Andrew.

-The Internet Medieval Sourcebook again has a good selection of Anglo-Saxon literature.

-The Lindisfarne Gospels. Christianity is more than just words, and even our books show it! The best online resource is the one given by the British Library.

I am probably not actually the best guide for this, though. My specialties for this era are south and east of these isles. Hence my third recommendation: read Insular Christianity in its mediaeval context. If s0-called ‘Celtic’ Christianity begins with Patrick, things afoot on the isles are concurrent with Sts. Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus. Start c. 400 and grab a book or two about the late antique and early mediaeval church:

-R. W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages. Read this after the closing chapters of:

-H. Chadwick, The Early Church. Both are from the Pelican History of the Church.

-J. Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology.

-For the material aspect of the Early Medieval world, see N. Wolf, Romanesque, from Taschen.

If you’re curious to know what else I, of all people, have to say about Christianity in early mediaeval Britain and Ireland, you should read ‘Rosslyn Chapel, “the Celts”, and the Christianisation of Europe’ to start, and then a large quantity of weekly saints, including our first-ever, St. Columba (who was revisited and whose demonological struggles were considered), the ‘Celtic’ saints Patrick, AidanKentigern (Mungo), and the English saints Cuthbert, Augustine of Canterbury, Boniface, Bede, Caedmon, Hilda, Alphege. Alphege may be pushing it — he’s eleventh-century. As well, there is ‘The Venerable Bede on Prayer.’ I should post my thoughts from November’s trip to Lindisfarne soon, I think …

*Ressourcement is a ‘return to the sources’; I have blogged about the ‘original’ ressourcement, about monastic ressourcement, and about the current ‘evangelical’ ressourcement. These returns to the sources all involve the reading of ancient and early mediaeval Christian texts as a way of moving forward in contemporary theology and practice.

Dionysius Exiguus — too much overlooked

Dionysius Exiguus, or ‘Denys the Short’ (Wee Dennis, perhaps?) was a ‘Scythian’ (ie. from the Northeastern edge of the Roman Empire) monk who lived at Rome in the early sixth century. I have a feeling this is precisely why he has fallen into obscurity, for — other than Boethius & Benedict — the Latin Fathers between the two papal Greats (Leo, d. 461, & Gregory, ascended sedes Apostolica 590) are often overlooked. One may read Sidonius Apollonaris out of an interest in Late Latin prose style, but who reads Cassiodorus these days?

Anyway, this wee man is far too often overlooked. The only two books I found about him in the University of Edinburgh Library are both about the fact that he is the person who set out to establish the date of Christ’s birth — and his version stuck, even though he got it wrong (thus BC & AD trace back to him). These two works are both fairly recent, Anno Domini by Georges Declercq and The Easter computus and the origins of the Christian era by Alden A. Mosshammer.

Dionysius, though, is an important person to focus our attention upon not only because of Anno Domini starting with him, but also because of the important place he stands and the era of which he is indicative.

Dionysius was prominent chiefly for two activities — translating and editing (maybe this is why I think we should look at him more closely!). He translated various works into Latin, such as the Life of St. Pachomius, Proterius of Alexandria’s letter to Pope Leo, the letter of Proclus of Constantinople to the Armenians concerning the orthodox faith, and some works of Gregory of Nyssa concerning the creation of the world.

Sadly, as the Oxford Classical Dictionary notes, ‘Translation has often been marginalized as a second-order activity, lacking in originality’ (‘Translation’). People have an obsession with first things, with the primus inventor, with ‘the original’, with ‘creativity’ and ‘new contributions to knowledge’ that things such as translation or Roman art or the entirety of the Middle Ages, due to their ‘derivative’ nature are scorned and ignored.

Yet translation is an important task. It can tell you as much about the translator as a text composed by the author him/herself. Is this writer skilled at the primary language? Is there facility in the rendering into the target language? What things are changed? What effects do these changes have? Why might they have been made? Are all changes ‘errors’? Can a translation ‘improve’ upon the original?

Furthermore, the Early Medieval enterprise of translation is an important reality in a world where Latin and Greek readers are becoming more and more estranged, unable to read each other’s bodies of literature. Therefore, it becomes imperative that important texts be made available in Latin for the Latin-reading public. Part of the shift from a ‘Classical’ to a ‘Medieval’ world was the shift from a bilingual Roman Empire to a very real, at times insurmountable, division between the Greek East and the Latin West.

Observing which works were translated by Dionysius and his contemporaries. and for whom and what the distribution of these translations was can show us a lot about the late Patristic Age as it forged a brave, new Medieval world.

Dionysius Exiguus is also notable for his contribution to canon law. Here, again, he is not the first to engage in the task under discussion, but he is important and indicative of the age in his own right. He compiled a bipartite collection of documents related to canon law (a ‘canonical collection’), the first part covering the canons of various synods East and West up to Chalcedon, the second collecting papal letters from 284-498.

This, the Collectio Dionysiana, is not unique. Of the canonical collections that contain letters of Leo the Great, fifteen of them are from the sixth century; of the fifteen, seven are from the first half, including the Dionysiana. Although I am aware only of canonical collections with Leonine material, no such collections seem to exist prior to the turn of the sixth century. The early 500s, then, are an important age for the transmission of canon law.

Collections such as the Collectio Dionysiana are very important in this period, because the papal Register was an invention of Gregory the Great. Thus, pre-Gregorian papal letters have a somewhat patchy and scattered history (quite literally). Taking these disparate materials and putting a number of them into a single volume for easy access was a vitally important task at the the beginning of the 500s. Thus could popes and other persons with a need to consult the mind of past Bishops of Rome on issues of faith and practice have an easier time of it.

Furthermore, the choice of letters, whether through necessity (‘These are all I have’) or editorial practice (‘These are all I shall use’) helps shape future opinion on these subjects. No longer will popes have to simply cite Sancti Patres; they can actually name who said what — Noster Pater Sanctus Leo, Papa Romae.

This collection, in particular, has an important place in the development of canon law. Other canonical collections made use of the Dionysiana, such as Collectio Vaticana (6th century), Cresconius’ Concordia canonum (mid-6th with a wide array of manuscripts surviving), Collectio Dionysio-Hadriana (8th, many mss), and Collectio Dionysiana adaucta (9th). Canon jurists and papal advisers and popes were reading the Collectio Dionysiana for centuries as they compiled new, larger canonical collections. This particular arrangement and gathering of papal documents would have shaped their own view of papal authority and the ordering of bishops, priests, and deacons.

The manuscripts of collections that trace themselves back to Dionysius are mostly no later than the twelfth century, although there is one from the sixteenth. In the twelfth century, Gratian made his famous Decretum, that brought together various excerpts from canons and papal letters arranged systematically on certain questions, so the copying of material such as the Dionysiana would have understandably gone down. Nevertheless, that is five hundred years of consistent copying and use, even in the face of the famous and influential Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals.

Finally, this anthologising of Dionysius’ is, like his translations, indicative of his age. The Later Roman Empire was a world saturated by far too much reading material, and anthologies were in vogue. I doubt this was because people didn’t like reading long extracts or entire works; rather, it’s because there was so much available to put into the anthologies. It is an age where a person can gain a lot without having to read all 144 books of Livy, or over 100 papal letters just to answer one question.

Dionysius is part of the culture that gives birth to the Middle Ages. He is indicative of the wider realm in many ways, and important for the development of western European culture in the years following the ‘Fall’ of Rome. For these reasons, he is too much overlooked.