Vernacular Religion in the Latin Middle Ages 1: Homilies

I was chatting with a friend at a barbecue yesterday (indeed, in the smoke of the very barbecue itself!), and the subject of the Council of Tours of 813 arose, as it does. It arose for about the only reason I imagine it does arise these days, which is Canon XVII:

It seemed to our unanimity, that any bishop have homilies containing the necessary admonitions, about which his subjects be educated, that is about the catholic faith, according as they can grasp, about the perpetual retribution of the good and the eternal damnation of the wicked, about the future resurrection as well and the last judgement and with which deeds the blessed life can be promoted or by which it can be excluded. And that each be zealous to translate the same homilies clearly into the rustic Roman language or the Thiotisca, so that everyone can more easily understand the things that are said.

The Council of Tours of 823 did other things, encapsulated in 52 canons. You can read the Latin here. They legislate about the sale of church offices, about the translation of clerics, that bishops should frequently read and memorise the Gospels and letters of St Paul and become acquainted with the church fathers (in particular they should read Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Rule), that bishops should preach, take care of the poor, and lead a holy life. Various other things are articulated. It’s not uninteresting.

But, of course, it is Canon XVII that is most referenced. This is one of the first times we meet ‘rustica Romana lingua’ as something distinct from Latin. In the immediate context this would mean early Old French, but also includes the nascent Romance languages elsewhere in the Frankish domains in Spain and Italy, I’m sure. The Council of Tours was a local council, but it was part of Charlemagne’s efforts to correct religion and morals in his realms; it was assembled at the emperors behest, as were (it seems) some other councils that year. Thiotisca is mediaeval German.

Anyway, this canon is interesting because it counters two claims sometimes made by some Protestants (not all Protestants, and not all of them all the time). First, that there was no preaching in the Middle Ages. Second, that the vernacular was forbidden from official church activities in the Middle Ages. These are both false. Given that the Dominican order (founded 1216) is even officially called the Order of Preachers, the idea that people didn’t preach in the Middle Ages very easily refuted; just search your local university library catalogue for medieval preaching. Or sit back and enjoy this anthology by J.M. Neale. Nonetheless, some may still imagine that everything was in Latin.

Over a century after Charlemagne’s reform synod in 813 at Tours, in a land beyond Frankish control, we have the homilies of Aelfric of Eynsham, whose Old English homilies survive — you can read modern English translations here, if you wish. We also have the tenth-century Blickling Homilies in Old English. I am not an expert on all the vernacular homilies, but I do note a book about preaching in Romance languages prior to 1300 in my university’s catalogue. A lot of these sermons do not survive in the vernacular, though, as discussed at Harvard’s Houghton Library website. Since Latin was the international language of public discourse, most sermons were translated into Latin for dissemination; thus, the oral and the written find themselves at a much farther remove in this instance than usual.

Nevertheless, if we consider stories about the influence held by preachers such as St Francis in the early 1200s or Savonarola in the later half of the 1400s, we realise that vernacular preaching must have been normal.

The point of my poorly-sourced argument above?

Medieval Christianity was not as far removed from ordinary life as you might expect. The church was not, for a full half of its history, dominated by Latin to the exclusion of a language such as the people understands. Yes, the liturgy was in Latin. Yes, the language of high European culture was Latin. Yes, the official pronouncements of the ecclesiastical authorities were in Latin. But the day-to-day preaching to ordinary folk of the Middle Ages was in English, Old French, the old dialects of German, not Latin.

When we read the Reformation, this is important to keep in mind. There was preaching, and it was in the vernacular. It was the translation of the liturgy and the reform of certain practices and teachings that were the main concern of the Reformers. They, themselves, inherited and continued, in many ways, the mediaeval heritage of vernacular preaching. Let’s not erect mediaeval straw men in our quest to keep our consciences clear in our separation from Rome.

Boethius on divinity and happiness

Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy 3.10:

Since it is through the possession of happiness that people become happy, and since happiness is in fact divinity, it is clear that it is through the possession of divinity that they become happy. But by the same logic as men become just through the possession of justice, or wise through the possession of wisdom, so those who possess divinity necessarily become divine. Each happy individual is therefore divine. While only God is so by nature, as many as you like may become so by participation. (Trans. V.E. Watts)

Boethius (or, rather, Philosophy) goes on to argue that happinessgoodness, so you are not truly happy unless you are truly good. This is part of the argument that only God, the Supreme Good, is ultimately happy. That’s a necessary piece of context. (For more context, read my review.) It’s important, because if committing murder or lying to people or stealing make you have feelings you call ‘happy’, this does not mean you are participating in divinity. In fact, according to Boethius, you wouldn’t be happy at all because evil is itself a tendency towards non-existence.

Upon reading this passage, those of us who spend time with the Eastern Orthodox will immediately cry aloud, ‘Ah, theosis!’ And, indeed, it is part of what is going on here, part of the passage from praktike to theoria symbolised by Philosophy’s gown as she stands before the senator in his prison cell. Of these latter two words, theoria is usually Englished as contemplation. So we are back in our sixth-century contemplative context, a few decades before Gregory the Great and Augustine of Canterbury.

This, I would argue, is the philosophical basis of Christian mysticism. God is good. To be truly happy, one must be good. God is wholly good, so he is perfectly happy. Therefore, for us to become happy, we have to connect with God and have communion with Him.

Gregory the Great: Monks, missions – Contemplation, action

The top of St Gregory’s crozier

I’ve been doing some reading on and of Pope St Gregory I ‘the Great’ (pope, 590-604, saint of the week here) recently, and this ‘last’ of the Western Fathers bears much relevance to my recent discussions of both contemplative prayer and of the ongoing demise of white Anglophone Christianity.

In R.A. Markus’ Gregory the Great and His World, there is a good discussion of Gregory’s own spiritual ideal of the contemplative life and how he was forced to reconcile that ideal with his own calling to be Bishop of Rome. It is a standard trope in Late Antiquity that one resists being ordained bishop but finally acquiesces. Every once in a while, though, we meet a figure who seems to genuinely have preferred the cloister and the cell to the cathedral and the throne. Gregory the Great is one, St Gregory of Nazianzus another. Shortly after being elected Bishop of Rome, Gregory writes:

Yet in this way, I have been bought back to the world in the guise of a bishop, in which I am as much a slave to earthly cares, as I remember being a slave to them in my life as a layman. For I have lost the profound joys of my peace and quiet, and I seem to have risen externally, while falling internally. Wherefore, I deplore my expulsion far from the face of my Creator. For I was trying every day to move outside the world, outside the flesh, to drive all corporeal images from my mind’s eye and to regard the joys of Heaven in an incorporeal way. Not only with my words but also with the innermost parts of my heart I kept saying, panting before a vision of God: “My heart said unto you, I have sought your face, your face, Lord, shall I seek.’ (Ps 26 (27):8) But desiring nothing in this world, fearing nothing, I thought I was standing on some high pinnacle, in such a way that I could believe that what I had learnt from the prophet promised by God was almost fulfilled in me: ‘I will raise you above the heights of the earth.’ (Is. 58:14) For a man is ‘raised above the heights of the earth’ who contemptuously spurns even the very things that appear noble and glorious in the present world. But suddenly driven by a tornado from the pinnacle of this temptation, I have fallen headlong into fears and trepidations, because, although I am afraid of nothing for myself, yet I greatly fear for those who have been entrusted to me. From all sides I am shaken by the waves and weighed down by the tempest of affairs …’ Ep. 1.5 to Theoctista, sister of the Emperor Maurice, October 590 (trans. J.C. Martyn)

Gregory’s main outline of how to wed these two lives is the Pastoral Rule. Rather than seeing them as two stages of progression as many other ascetics would — from the active to the contemplative — Gregory saw the two forms of life working in an integrated manner, operating cooperatively. At different times of life, the same Christian can experience each of these forms of life. And the duty of the pastor is, in fact, to take the grace and knowledge and peace attained through contemplation and use it in the service of others, through preaching the Word of God in particular.

In the Pastoral Rule, Gregory argues that someone who has been given gifts from God through seclusion and the contemplative life sins if he rejects the call from the church to the service of the people of God. At Rome, Gregory lived in community with fellow monks and promoted monks within the ranks of the Roman clergy throughout his tenure of the Apostolic See. Because Gregory was such a fan of St Benedict, some think this the Benedictine ideal, but it is actually Augustinian, for the Rule of St Augustine is for clergy, not cloistered monks.

Gregory, the first monk to be Rome’s Bishop, would send a band of monks, with a monk at the their head, to evangelise the English. An interesting thesis put forth, I believe, by Dudden’s 1905 work on Gregory the Great is that Gregory wanted monks to convert the English in a manner integrated with his own monastic programme within Latin Christianity. By so doing, the Anglo-Saxon church would be a bulwark of monastic missionaries in the North; their influence could later extend South into Gaul and Germania (which it would; see my posts on Sts Boniface and Willibrord).

Dudden, I think, goes too far in his analysis of Gregory’s works, hunting for references to St Benedict’s Rule. It is not, as far as I can tell, explicitly referenced by Gregory, and all of the parallel ideals of the Rule are easily found in Sts Augustine and John Cassian as well as western canon law. That is, Gregory the Great was not imposing and enforcing the Rule; the Rule simply stands at the end of a long tradition of monastic practice. Nevertheless, St Gregory certainly promoted his own view of monachism, a view influenced by the same sources that influenced the Rule of St Benedict.

But his own transplantation from the contemplative to the active life means that he has adapted this monastic ideal. The cloister is to go abroad and adventure. The fruits of contemplation are to be shared. Evangelistic preaching is to be wedded with meditative silence.

Perhaps a renewed commitment to both contemplation and mission will help us revitalise our congregrational life and bring more people to faith?

Gregory the Great on good bishops and bad schisms

Everyone who reads Gregory the Great’s letters — showcased by me here — will be drawn to different things. Social history, life in Sicily, Lombards, political history, and so forth. Because of my research interests (papal letters in Late Antiquity & Leo the Great in particular), I was drawn largely to things he had to say pertaining to canon law as well as to the Istrian Schism (on which, see below).

In Leo, we read about the preparation for consecrating a bishop as well as the necessity of the combined choice being made by people and clergy. Gregory talks about these things, but he also has beautiful things to say about what a good bishop is in Ep. 1.24, which is kind of refreshing:

I consider indeed that one must be vigilant and take all care that a bishop (rector) is pure in thought, outstanding in action, discrete in silence, useful with his speech, very close to individuals with compassion, more uplifted in contemplation than all others, allied with those doing good through humility, but upright with the zeal of justice against the vices of wrong-doers.

… Again, when I bring myself to considering what sort of bishop he should be with regard to compassion and what sort with regard to contemplation, I consider that he should be both very close to individuals in compassion and elevated before all thers in contemplation.

… For of course good preachers not only seek through contemplation the holy head of the Church up above, that is the Lord God, but by showing pity they also descend down below to its limits.

… the highest position is well-governed when the person in charge controls vices rather than his brethren. A person controls the power he has received well who knows both how to hold and condemn it. He controls it well, who knows how to rise above sins with it, and how to be made equal to others with it. (Trans. John R. C. Martyn)

This is Letter XXV in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers translation if you wish to read the whole thing. Later in the same letter, Gregory brings up the ecumenical councils — which brings me to schism. Gregory says that he adheres to and follows the four councils — Nicaea, Constantinople, the First of Ephesus, and Chalcedon. The Second of Constantinople is not mentioned. He writes:

These four I embrace with total devotion and I guard with purest approbation, because in them the structure of the holy faith rises up as if built on a square stone, and whoever does not uphold their solidity, whatever his life and works may be, even if he appears to be of stone, yet he lies outside the building. I also venerate equally the fifth council, in which are refuted …

Gregory then describes the ‘Three Chapters’. I’ve discussed these here before — they are a letter by Ibas of Edessa, passages of Theodore of Mopsuestia, and passages from Theodoret of Cyrrhus that Justinian proclaimed heretical first by edict then by council at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553. Because Pope Vigilius ended up subscribing to the condemnation of the Three Chapters, a schism resulted between Rome and many of the churches of northern Italy. It is often called the Istrian Schism.

So it’s important that Gregory gives a long, big build up about the importance of the four councils and how he venerates them, etc, before saying, ‘Also, the Fifth.’ In later letters, in fact, he would studiously avoid mentioning the fifth council depending on his recipient when writing to people in northern Italy. In Ep. 4.37, Gregory tells his recipient to keep his focus on Chalcedon and the support for it, and then argues:

as for that synod which was held afterwards in Constantinople, which many call the fifth, I want you to know that it established and decided nothing contrary to the fourmost sacred synods. Indeed, nothing was done in it about the Christian faith, but only about persons, and about those person who are not mentioned in the council of Chalcedon.

This I am unsure what to do with, since two out of three persons mentioned in the Three Chapters were explicitly at Chalcedon, discussed, and reinstated into their bishoprics. Indeed, this is the nub of the issue in the Istrian Schism. If we reject the teachings of Theodoret and Ibas, are we rejecting Chalcedon?

The best is 4.33, though:

We also delcare that whosoever thinks other than these four synods did, is an enemy of the true faith. And we condemn whomsoever they condemn, and whomsoever they absolve, we too absolve. We strike down under the imposition of anathema anyone who presumes to add or substract from the faith of these same four synods, but especially the Chalcedonian, over which doubt has arisen in the minds of ignorant people.

In other letters North, Gregory pleads for the bishops to return to communion with Rome.

Schism and heresy are diseases to Gregory. As a good shepherd, he needs to root them out for the healing of his flock, as he says in Ep. 4.35 about Donatists in North Africa.

From these passages and many others, I believe that Gregory tried to be a good bishop, a shepherd overseeing his flock — a man of compassion and contemplation. I thank the Lord for men like him in whose spiritual tradition I stand, even if I am wounded by the pain of schism.

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.

Constructing Christendom 2: Pope Leo and his successors

In my last post, I was discussing the construction of ‘Christendom’ in Europe, the role the emperors played in that, and then about the dismemberment of the Western Roman Empire. I probably sound like a catastrophist in that, but I can assure you I am neither a catastrophist nor a continuitist. And if those words mean little or nothing to you, be glad.

The Bishop of Rome

Pope Leo the Great (r. 440-461) was not unaware that Valentinian III’s empire was being slowly dismembered. As an acolyte, back in the good ol’ days, he’d visited North Africa on a papal embassy. But by the time he was pope, North Africa was not part of the Roman Empire. Increasingly, neither was Spain nor Gaul. It had been 30 years since the legions left Britain.

But here’s what Leo did, and here’s one reason why we should think him Great. He kept the church running. In his letter to the bishops of Mauretania Caesariensis (present-day Algeria), he told them that invasion and persecution were no excuse; ecclesiastical order and canons had to be upheld.

Now, this may sound like Leo being a hardass. And really, to a degree it is. Leo can be; it must be admitted. Nonetheless, it is something more. It is Leo saying that the life of the Church can continue, that order can be maintained, even when the Empire is no longer there to keep order.

Leo would also temper the canons with mercy and then hope that the local church could make its own rulings in many cases. And what he did in North Africa, he did in northern Italy (irregularities and problems resulting from Hunnic attacks), southern Gaul (irregularities and problems arising from Visigothic attacks), and Spain (irregularities and problems arising from Alans, Vandals, Sueves, and Visigoths; including a resurgence of Manichees and Priscillianists).

Leo created a network of bishops in the West who listened to him, sought his advice, and tried to implement it, not only in his jurisdiction as Metropolitan Bishop of Southern Italy, and not only as a court of final appeal, but in other aspects of the liturgical feasts, the doctrine, and the organisation of the church throughout Gaul, northern Italy, the Balkans, North Africa and, to a degree, Spain (the one letter to Spain may be spurious).

This vision of the Bishop of Rome being a figure to rally behind, being someone to help keep order, regardless of who ruled you, who ruled him, and what those rulers’ religion was, was one succeeding Bishops of Rome would take up. It was also something that helped provide religious and cultural cohesion even as political cohesion eroded.

Before going further, I admit that if the popes and bishops hadn’t done it, someone else might have. The cultural capital of the West was far from gone. In that sense, I am not a catastrophist — everything did not suddenly descend into utter chaos with the ‘fall’ of Rome. A lot of taxation continued, local church councils continued, the monastic project continued, evangelisation continued.

Nevertheless, the Bishops of Rome were actively engaged in creating networks of authority that could rally behind the image of Roma Aeterna, Roma Invicta, even after 476 when no emperor was left. Susan Wessel, in Leo the Great and the Spiritual Rebuilding of a Universal Rome, argues that Leo is the one who really gets the ball rolling. She’s probably right.

And why Leo? Well, his papacy was extraordinarily long. Furthermore, he was involved in the great theological crisis of his day, and spent all of his papacy in the intellectual vacuum left in the West by Augustine’s passing, and most of it in the similar vacuum left by Cyril of Alexandria. As a result, he’s our first pope with lots of sermons and letters and theology and canon law flowing out from Rome. The following popes would continue this, working towards a united western church with a united western culture.

Since it was the popes, bishops, and monks, rather than the Roman aristocrats and their successors (although they often patronised the popes, bishops and monks!!), who really worked to create some semblance of cultural unity across the post-Roman kingdoms, this strikes me as a determining factor on how Europe is distinctively Christendom even after the Empire ceases to be, and so ceases to be God’s vehicle for the transmission of the Gospel.

Most famously on this blog, we see this activity in Pope Gregory the Great (saint of the week here) sending Augustine of Canterbury (saint of the week here) on his evangelistic mission to Britain. He also wrote his Book of Pastoral Care that was such a hit, the Emperor Maurice in Constantinople had it translated into Greek and distributed throughout. We have over 500 letters from Gregory the Great as well as numerous other theological works and a major liturgical work under his name.

Another saint of the week, Boniface, was also commissioned by the popes of his day in the 700s. They were funding missionaries and supporting local bishops. The western church’s network of influence thus involved the founding of monasteries and the building of late Roman and Romanesque cathedrals.

That is to say, the Church, guided by the two Great Popes, sought to maintain a semblance of order as the Empire fragmented. Furthermore, through fostering learning in the monasteries such as that at Lérins and, later, those following Benedict’s footsteps or way off in the Isles, in the oft turbulent (but never completely darkened) years that came, the Church kept western literary culture alive, giving us Columba and his poetry (saint of the week here), Bede (saint of the week here), Alcuin, Caesarius of Arles, and many, many more.

So, could you please bring Charlemagne into this?

Charlemagne: Note the lack of moustache! (On this topic, read ‘Charlemagne’s Mustache’ by Paul Edward Dutton)

As the popes are doing their thing, post-Roman politics continue apace. Visigothic Spain stabilises. The Franks, beginning with Clovis I (r. 481-511; his wife, Clotilda, was saint of the week here), began conquering more and more of Gaul and all the neighbouring territory, beyond the boundaries of the Empire That Had Been. The Eastern Empire (‘Byzantines’) had regained North Africa, a few bits of Spain, and Italy by the mid-500s. In the late 500s, they lost Northern Italy to the Lombards who invaded.

The Frankish realms are interesting from a political perspective because the Frankish royal houses did not establish a game of ‘one son gets it all’, so the territory would move between powerful kings with everything, powerful kings dividing it amongst themselves, powerful kings fighting it out, weak kings with ostensibly everything but ruled by the Mayor of the Palace, the Mayor of the Palace becoming the new king (Carolingians), and then the whole thing doing its thing again.

There are some great names in Frankish history: Pippin the Short, Charles the Bald, Hincmar, Lothar, Charles the Hammer Martel, and Charles the Great, who in many languages has melded his name with his honorific as:


Whew. Skipped a lot. That probably really didn’t help you at all. If you really are sincerely interested in Early Mediaeval political history, I recommend Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome, and check out chapters 5, 6, and 16 for the Franks and the Mediterranean in this period. And then read the whole book, which also includes culture. Wickham is a fabulous historian.

So, back to Charlemagne (r. 768-814).

Charlemagne is one of those strong, united Carolingians. He pushes the boundaries of his kingdom into Spain and expands into further bits of what is now Germany, maybe even Austria (the geography gets me confused sometimes). He also added Italy. Looks a lot like the Later Roman Empire …

And so, on Christmas Day, 800, he and Pope Leo III (r. 795-816) staged an elaborate ceremony in Rome where the Eternal City’s new Holy Roman Emperor was crowned:

Jean Fouquet, ‘Coronation of Charlemagne’ from 1460. Note the misplaced beard.

The significance of this Leo is that his patronising of bishops and emperors goes far beyond his fifth-century predecessor. Whereas Leo the Great acknowledged the legitimacy of Valentinian III, Petronius Maximus, Avitus, and Majorian in the West, as well as Theodosius III, Marcian, and Leo I in the East, and enlisted their help in pursuing his papal goals, Leo III helped make Charlemagne Emperor.

And so crown and mitre were intertwined. The Middle Ages are being forged in that ceremony. And Christendom is moving beyond a cultural network that helps keep monasteries and missionaries and art and culture flowing. It is moving itself deeper into the power politics of its age.

… and we, today, are witnessing Christianity moving out of the power politics of our age.

Next: Reflections for today

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.