Tag Archives: heresy

When is a Nestorian not a Nestorian? Mostly, that’s when

This is a post I stubbed long ago apropos of a discussion that followed on Jonathan Dugdale’s long-ago seminar paper at Leeds in late 2015, which was then brought home to me afresh as I taught the early spread of Christianity in my module Empire and Aftermath for the first time there in February 2016. You see, the early spread of Christianity was mainly eastwards, into the Caucasus, Persia, and then points even further east, India at an uncertain date between first and fifth centuries and China, even, by the seventh, if not before.1 The West was a much slower adopter. What this post is about is how, when that story of eastward spread is told, the Christians of the East are almost always termed ‘Nestorians’, which is mostly wrong. That has been pointed out, but only for two of three reasons and here I want to point out the other one.

Nestorian priests in a procession on Palm Sunday, in a seventh- or eighth-century wall painting from a Nestorian church in Qocho, China

‘Nestorian’ priests in a procession on Palm Sunday, in a seventh- or eighth-century wall painting from a ‘Nestorian’ church in Qocho, China, by DaderotOwn work, CC0, Link, with snigger quotes all to be explained below

So firstly, who are these ‘Nestorian’ Christians anyway? Well, Nestorius was a patriarch of Constantinople in the early fifth century, before orthodox (and therefore, later on, Catholic) Christian doctrine was fully settled. One of the big issues in Christian theology is exactly how to imagine the crucial mystery, the embodiment of God as man, and this remains one of the biggest rifts in the Christian firmament: did God have to shed his divinity to be a human being? If so, wouldn’t that mean that God didn’t Himself die on the cross, but merely His human avatar? Contrariwise, if God remained fully divine, and therefore immortal, even when walking around in human form, how can He be said to have died for our sins, or to have died at all, since God did not cease to be at the Crucifixion? If the Son was a separate and separable part of God, not only do both of those questions still arise but so does the problem of how an explicitly monotheistic religion can have plural godheads, and so on. It’s not simple, and the orthodox solution, that Christ has two natures, human and divine, intermixed without division, remains fairly mysterious.

So in the fifth century divisions arose over this.2 (If you’re a decent theologian, the following is probably going to be horribly over-simplified, which please forgive; if it’s actually wrong, though, please also chime in and correct me. But, as I understand it…) One view, the ‘Monophysite’ one, which is the root but not the modern belief of the Coptic Church of today, held that there was only one nature in Christ, fully divine; this faction lost their imperial support at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, setting up all kinds of future problems.3 Before that, however, there was an argument about whether Christ could perhaps have two natures, and Nestorius, according to his opponents, held that He could have. It’s important to specify that this is not something that Nestorius clearly says in his surviving writings, but lots of those were written after he was fired at the Council of Ephesus in 431.4 After that, many of his supporters were removed from their posts too, and a good proportion of them made their way eastwards, firstly to Persia where they alternated between being a rival form of Christianity to the Empire’s that the Persians encouraged as a diplomatic strategy and being a mistrusted potential fifth column, depending on the level of paranoia in the Persian establishment of the day.5 In the worse patches of that, and also out of the general desire to spread the good word, Christians of this stamp also moved further east, and this is why we have this historiographical trope that Eastern Christianity was Nestorian. But it ain’t necessarily so…

The Daqin Pagoda, controversially claimed to be part of an early Nestorian church in what was then Chang'an, now Xi'an, China, built during the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD)

The Daqin Pagoda, controversially claimed to be part of an early Nestorian church in what was then Chang’an, now Xi’an, China, built during the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD), image by J. Coster, Jcoster, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link. For problems with the identification of this otherwise-seventeenth-century-recorded building, see Michael Keevak, The Story of a Stele: China’s Nestorian Monument and its Reception in the West, 1625–1916 (Aberdeen HK 2008), pp. 132-135, though I have to say he doesn’t exactly produce any evidence against it, or attempt to level any dispute at the claimed evidence beyond colonialism.

There are three ways this can be wrong, you see. One is that these eastern Christians may not actually have believed what Nestorius is supposed to have professed. That is obviously doubly likely if Nestorius himself did not but was misrepresented by his opponents, but secondly, even if he did, positions near his but more acceptably orthodox could easily exist, and this is in fact where the modern-day Church of the East, in its various denominations, now sits. That doctrine itself was only first agreed at the Council of Beth Lapat in 484, after the Persians had recognised a follower of Nestorius as the new Catholicos of the Christians in their empire, but then it was not Nestorius, but his follower Theodore of Mospuesta who was taken as the fount of doctrine. Theodore’s position, modified further by the Eastern theologian Babai the Great, was something much more like the orthodox one, “with the two qnome (individual natures) of Christ… unmixed but eternally united in his single parsopa (person)”.6 Of course, the Syriac terms used here aren’t necessarily equivalents of the Greek ones on which the Orthodox theology is based, but that could be held to reduce the difference between the two Churches to one of translation, although both sides tended to emphasise more difference than that. This is still the position of the Assyrian Church of the East, but it isn’t very Nestorian; indeed, they managed to resume communion with the Catholic Church in 1994. Sebastian Brock made this point quite some time ago in an article whose title declares his position loud and clear: “The Nestorian Church: a lamentable misnomer”.7

St Mary's Assyrian Church, Moscow

St Mary’s Assyrian Church, Moscow, image by By A.Savin (Wikimedia Commons · WikiPhotoSpace) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

So the so-called Nestorian Church wasn’t actually Nestorian? Well, not so simple, according to more recent work, because after some centuries Nestorius’s name and history, rather than his theology, began to surface as an anchor to the Church of the East’s past, its origins in the lands of the Empire and its nature as an exilic faith.8 I guess this has something to do with the replacement of the Persian state that had once nurtured the Church by the new non-Christian power of Iran; roots now needed to go back to somewhere Christian and Nestorius, as Patriarch of Constantinople, was their highest-placed founding figure, even if doctrinally superseded. Thus we find parts of the modern-day Assyrian Church of the East who would call themselves Nestorian, as well as moves to cease the veneration of this troublesome maybe-heretic in the Church. It’s all still alive.

The so-called 'Nestorian Stele'

The so-called ‘Nestorian Stele’, photography by your humble author. As you can possibly tell, it is an absolute pain to photograph, being covered in glass and open to the sunlight, so what you can mainly see there is a window’s reflection. There is a much clearer image here, and I’ve no idea how they got it; it’s so bright that having seen the real thing I have to suspect Photoshop…

But I said there were three ways that the trope of Eastern Christianity being Nestorian could be wrong, and what set me off on this rant originally was running again into this object in the literature, and then later on, as you can see, seeing it myself. This is known everywhere as the Nestorian Stele, and it is a marvellous thing, being a dedicatory inscription set up in 781 that tells the history of the ‘Luminous Religion from Da Qin’ in China, and it is clear that this religion was Christianity.9 It’s written in Mandarin characters and some Syriac, which tends to confirm what it says about the origins of its teaching, and it’s quite a long text, in scripts I don’t read and languages I don’t understand, so it seems simplest to present the summary of John Lawton which you can find in context on the web with its references:10

The text consists of three sections. The introduction is primarily doctrinal. It relates how a supreme, triune, creator Being responded to the disobedience of humanity by being born to a virgin in Da Qin (大秦), a name that loosely refers to the Roman Empire. The inscription summarizes the life and mission of this Son, or Messiah (弥施訶), and states that works of scripture were preserved. In addition, it describes the way of life and liturgical practice of his followers in China, who named this doctrine Jingjiao (景教), the Luminous Religion or the Religion of Light. The second section of the inscription relates the history of the first 146 years of the Church in China. In the year 635 C.E. (early Tang Dynasty, 618-907 C.E.), a priest named Alopen (阿羅本) traveled from Da Qin (most likely Syria) to Chang’an (長安), then the capital of China and now named Xi’an, and met with Emperor Taizong (太宗). This tradition’s scriptures were translated into Chinese, and after studying them the emperor issued an imperial edict in 638 endorsing the dissemination of the religion throughout China. Monasteries were built in Chang’an and many other cities, monks served the needs of the poor and the sick, and the Jingjiao community enjoyed imperial gifts and support. With thanksgiving for the success of the Luminous Religion in China, the writer concludes with a celebratory poem. The inscription then documents that the stele was unveiled on February 4, 781, and subsequently lists approximately 70 names of Christian clergy, written in both Syriac and Chinese.

So it’s not that ambiguous, you might think, and much has therefore been written about it and its evidence for cultural transmission, religious syncretism, Chinese religious plurality and of course the early history of the Church of the East.11 But wait. I haven’t given you a full translation because it’s quite long, but, I have read one and there is nothing in it to tell you more about that crucial bit, exactly how God was born to a virgin as the Son.12 The Christology of the Luminous Religion is not made clear. Perhaps it was thought too abstruse for the monumental context, perhaps too high-level for a Chinese public new to Christian ideas at that point, perhaps it didn’t seem seriously definitional to the writer, a priest called Adam in Syriac and Jingjing in Chinese. We have some writings of the missionary he says brought the faith to China, one Alopa, which also don’t settle this point.13 But the Nestorians were not the only exilic Christian denomination, not even the only one originally from Syria; what with the Empire’s various theological divisions, the Persians’ occasional suspicion of Christians and then Islam’s takeover of much or all of both areas, there was probably no Eastern Church some of whose members didn’t at some point start moving eastwards looking for more tolerant homes.14

Chinese characters and Syriac letters alongside each other on the so-called 'Nestorian Stele'

Still plagued by glass reflection, this shot nonetheless catches some of the Chinese characters and Syriac letters side-by-side

So there’s just no way to be sure that Adam/Jingjing was a member of what would come to be known as the Church of the East. For exactly this reason, as well as Brock’s older point about the term ‘Nestorian Christian’ possibly just being discourteous, a very recent piece by Scott Fitzgerald Johnson refers to him only as a ‘Syriac Christian’.15 But the tide is not far out on this, and I think it has a long way to go before turning. So, in the terms of that metaphor, this post is my little sandcastle, intended to defend historical ambiguity and uncertainty where it is needed. Not all Christians in the East were Nestorians; not even all ‘Nestorians’ are or were theologically Nestorian; it’s possible even Nestorius himself wasn’t. We know something about what Adam/Jingjing believed, and that he had fellows, but we don’t know how large his Church was or that it was the only one in China. This is one of those places where a bit more recognition of what we don’t know would open our minds to a lot more possible stories…


1. I think what I was reading when this kicked off in my head was Garth Fowden, Empire to Commonwealth: consequences of monotheism in late antiquity (Princeton, NJ, 1993), which is excellent on that eastward spread and the remaining connections with the Empire.

2. I think I first learnt all this stuff from Robert Markus’s The End of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge 1991), whch I heartily recommend still, but a shorter introduction might be Richard Lim, “Christian Triumph and Controversy” in G. W. Bowersock, Peter Brown & Oleg Grabar (edd.), Interpreting Late Antiquity: Essays on the Postclassical World (Cambridge MA 1999), pp. 196–218.

3. On why the Copts are not Monophysite, in more detail than that link, try Sebastian P. Brock, “Miaphysite, Not Monophysite!” in Cristianesimo nella storia 2016 no. 1 (2016), pp. 45–54, DOI: 10.17395/82929.

4. Brock goes through the Church of the East’s theological statements in detail in Sebastian Brock, “The Christology of the Church of the East in the Synods of the Fifth to Early Seventh Centuries: Preliminary Considerations and Materials”, in Everett Ferguson (ed.), Doctrinal Diversity: Varieties of Early Christianity, Recent Studies in Early Christianity 4 (New York City NY 1999), pp. 281–298.

5. For three very different perspectives on Persian Christianity, see A. V. Williams, “Zoroastrians and Christians in Sasanian Iran” in Bulletin of the John Rylands Library Vol. 78 (Manchester 1996), pp. 37–54; Philip Wood, “Collaborators and Dissidents: Christians in Sasanian Iraq in the Early Fifth Century CE”, in Teresa Bernheimer & A. Silverstein (edd.), Late Antiquity: Eastern Perspectives (Warminster 2012), pp. 57–70; and L. E. Patterson, “Minority Religions in the Sasanian Empire” in Eberhard W. Sauer (ed.), Sasanian Persia: between Rome and the Steppes of Eurasia (Edinburgh 2017), pp. 181–198.

6. As well as Brock, “Christology”, this is laid out fairly clearly in either of Wilhelm Baum and Dieter W. Winkler, The Church of the East: a concise history (London 2003), online here, or Christoph Baumer, The Church of the East (London 2013), not online but beautifully illustrated.

7. Brock, “The ‘Nestorian’ Church: a lamentable misnomer” in Bulletin of the John Rylands Library Vol. 78 (Manchester 1996), pp. 23–35.

8. I found it in Philip Wood, The Chronicle of Seert: Christian historical imagination in late antique Iraq (Oxford 2013), pp. 140-142, but it’s done in more detail in Nikolai N. Seleznyov, “Nestorius of Constantinople: Condemnation, Suppression, Veneration” in Journal of Eastern Christian Studies Vol. 62 (Leuven 2010), pp. 165–190.

9. On the equation of Da Qin with the Roman Empire, see Krisztina Hoppál, “The Roman Empire According to the Ancient Chinese Sources” in Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae Vol. 51 (Budapest 2011) 263–306, DOI: 10.1556/AAnt.51.2011.3-4.5.

10. David Lawton, “Description and Significance of the Nestorian Stele, ‘A Monument Commemorating the Propagation of the Da Qin Luminous Religion in the Middle Kingdom’ (大秦景教流行中國碑)”, online here.

11. See P. Y. Saeki, The Nestorian Monument in China (London 1916), online here; Michael Keevak, The Story of a Stele: China’s Nestorian Monument and its Reception in the West, 1625–1916 (Aberdeen HK 2008); Zhao Liguang, Treasures Engraved on the Steles: Art of Calligraphy in the Xi’an Beilin Museum (Xi’an 2016), pp. 162-165 (no. 65); or now Richard Todd Godwin, Persian Christians at the Chinese court: the Xi’an Stele and the Early Medieval Church of the East, Library of Medieval Studies 4 (London 2018), only the last of which catches the point I’m trying to make here.

12. There is a full translation in Saeki, Nestorian Monument, pp. 162-165, and a more modern one in L. Eccles and S. Lieu (transl.), “大秦景教流行中國碑 : Stele on the diffusion of the Luminous Religion of Da Qin (Rome) in the Middle Kingdom”, online here.

13. Lawton, “Nestorian Stele”, p. 4, citing Saeki, Nestorian Monument, pp. 116-117, but actually I can’t find it there.

14. Fowden, Empire to Commonwealth, pp. 121-137.

15. Scott FitzGerald Johnson, “Silk Road Christians and the Translation of Culture in Tang China” in Simon Ditchfield, Charlotte Methuen & Andrew Spicer (edd.), Translating Christianity, Studies in Church History Vol. 53 (Cambridge 2017), pp. 15–38; cf. also Godwin, Persian Christians.

Another Gathering of Byzantinists in Birmingham

My reporting backlog now reaches 30th May 2015, which was a very full day in Birmingham occasioned by the 16th Annual Postgraduate Symposium of the Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, with the title Fragmentation: the Eastern Mediterranean in Conflict and Cohesion. I have dithered before about whether I report on what is essentially a postgraduate event, but it’s a postgraduate event with a keynote by an established scholar and people come to it from all over the world, so it’s really as high-level as such things get and the people participating in it are all working at their highest level. So, I shall blog it, but as the backlog is so long and time is so short I shall try to be brief and hope it still does the participants due credit. I should stress, though, that looking through my notes for this, the number of times I have said to myself, “Oh! I met so-and-so then?” or even, “Oh? I ran that? I have no memory of this at all” has been much higher than it really should be for anyone of even my advanced age. I was clearly just getting by at this point in my life on not enough sleep, and while things have come back to me as I write this, we are basically reliant on my notes for what I’m reporting, which may be wrong or inadequate. So if you were there, I invite corrections!

The caravanserai of Kesik Köprü

The caravanserai of Kesik Köprü, in the erstwhile Seljuk Sultanate of Konya

We began with the keynote address, which was by Professor Scott Redford and entitled “84 Mongols Walk into a Caravanserai…”. This promising start was occasioned by a document, signed indeed by eighty-four Mongols, mostly local officials of various grades, at the caravanserai of Yüksekligi, to witness the act of one Nur ad-Din ibn Tayā as he established a church. The document is dated to the Year of the Monkey and has a gloss in Mongol. With this example of how cultures were mixing in the thirteenth century in what is now Western Turkey, Professor Redford then picked out a number of other ways in which we can, if we choose, find links between Greek, Turkish and yes, even Mongol cultures of patronage and power in this area. For example, Nur ad-Din had also built a caravanserai at Kesik Köprü, which is still up as you can see above, on the route between Constantinople and the local Sultanate of Konya, and stands near a bridge which went up at about the same time and only fell down in 1990, but contained an inscription set up by the Sultan of Konya when he was actually in rebellion against his masters in Baghdad, and so closer to the Greeks than the Turks in some ways.

The bridge at Kesik Köprü

The bridge at Kesik Köprü, as it has been restored I think

I was personally less convinced by some of the art-historical links which Professor Redford drew, but the widespread use of a symbol called the ‘elibelinde’, seen below, in Constantinople (and indeed more once it became Istanbul), various locations in the Seljuk sultanates and indeed yet another local caravanserai, did speak loudly of a cultural identity that crossed and blurred political boundaries that were in any case more fluid below the top, state, level than we sometimes remember when doing history in outline. So this was good, and full of much better illustrations than I have been able to use here.

A modern piece of weaving featuring a central row of four elibelinde symbols

A modern piece of weaving featuring a central row of four elibelinde symbols

After this we were down into the postgraduate sessions. I had volunteered to chair one of these, so my choice about what to go to was made for me, but in fact this put me into my first ever contact with two future colleagues so unbeknownst to me it worked well. Also, the papers were interesting. They were these:

  • James Hill, “Missing the Opportune Moment: John V Palaiologos and the spectre of union”
  • Nafsika Vassilopolou, “Royal Marriages of the Palaeologi (1258-1453): appraising a political practice”
  • Maroula Perisanidi, “Should We Abstain? Marital Equality in Byzantine Canon Law”
  • All these papers were about one or other sort of union, really. James was looking at the agreement of Emperor John V to re-reunify the Eastern and Western Christian churches, an agreement that in the end collapsed not just because of its deep unpopularity in the eastern Empire (where it doesn’t even seem to have been made public as a plan) but also and perhaps mainly because the popes simply couldn’t deliver the troops that were John’s asking price, despite their best diplomatic efforts with Genoa and Venice. Ms Vassilopolou’s paper made it seem odder that the eastern emperors had such trouble enjoining union of the Churches on their people, because when it came to marrying off princesses there was pretty much no theological objection which they could not overrule: consanguinity, juvenility, differing religions or sects of Christianity… What is less clear is what most of the eighty-eight political marriages the Palaeologan emperors arranged actually got them: alliance, sometimes, especially with the Mongols who seem to have received the most consistently high-status brides, territory sometimes, but it usually cost a lot in terms of land, money and human capital as well, and Ms Vassilopolou thought that the main motivation was to remain on the international stage as a player, not an extra, which as we know in the UK is a strategy that can make you do some very stupid things. Lastly Maroula went looking for gender equality in Byzantine canon law, hoping to find it at the most fundamental point: who got to choose when to abstain from sex? The trouble here is that most of the law deals with churchmen, who by reason of needing to perform holy office weekly and being supposed to abstain before and after were much more often confronted by this question, so that kind of comes pre-gendered. It was quite surprising to me how much thought the Byzantine canonists had put into this question, but I suppose it did keep coming up (if you’ll forgive the phrase). The paper is now out in print, anyway, so you can read it yourself if you like!1

    Tailpiece of a chrysobull of Emperor Alexios III Megas Komnenos of Trebizond to the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos, showing him and his wife Theodora, niece of Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos of Constantinople

    Tailpiece of a chrysobull of Emperor Alexios III Megas Komnenos of Trebizond to the Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos, showing him and his wife Theodora, niece of Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos of Constantinople, image public domain via Wikimedia Commons

That took us to lunch, and then after that, the programme tells me, I was dashing back to the Barber Institute to give a coin handling session, “Coins of Byzantium and its Neighbours in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts”. I have literally no memory of this, although I remember correspondence about it, but it’s in the programme and I have a handout from it in my notes, so I guess it happened! I was apparently basically showcasing the Byzantine collection, from beginning to end, or at least, as close to the end as I thought we could get, a solidus of Constantine I to a half-stavraton of John VIII. (I later discovered two coins of Constantine XI in the collection which the Curator for whom I was standing in had acquired but never accessioned; they are there, if you want to see them.)

Silver half-hyperperon of Emperor John VIII struck at Constantinople in 1423-1448, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6492

Silver half-hyperperon of Emperor John VIII struck at Constantinople in 1423-1448, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6492

The route between the two took us via Justinian I’s reforms, Heraclius’s mighty beard, the strange mixture that is Arab-Byzantine money, Komnenian concavity and the various daughter coinages of Byzantium; I picked Trebizond, Venice and Hisn Kayfa, all of which tells you that I was finally beginning to get my head round what this collection had to offer and what, had circumstances been otherwise, I might have done with it. But with the alternative path laid out before me already, it was still really nice to be able to show off some of its shiny and curious components. Then, it was back up the road to where the papers were.

  • Yannis Stamos, “Kazantzakis’s Representations of the Greek Civil War: the divided vision of socio-political fragmentation”
  • Mike Saxby, “Arms in Exile: an analysis of military iconography on coins of the Byzantine successor states”
  • Carl Dixon, “From Armenia to Bulgaria? The Transmission of Heterodoxy in Peter of Sicily’s History of the Paulicians
  • The first of these was the only paper on the programme representing the Centre’s Modern Greek component, a study of two novels by the 1940s Cretan writer Niko Kazantzakis, Christ Recrucified and The Fratricides, arguing, I think, that Kazantzakis was trying to find an ethic that might heal his riven country in the form of a grass-roots socialism well infused with Christian charity, a community religious mutual help ethic; the paper overran and had to be cut short, so what the conclusion was to have been I have no idea. Mike, who was one of the vital sources of institutional memory when I took over at the Barber, went into the messy period after 1204 when Byzantine rulers-in-exile set up in Nicæa, Thessaloniki and Epiros, all of whom struck coin which generally diversified from the fairly standardised Constantinopolitan money of the previous period. Mike noted that although all tried out images of armed rulers and saints to different degrees, Thessaloniki had Saint Demetrius with a sword on more than half of its coin types, which as he said could be down to the six-hundred-year tradition there of the saint as the city’s military protector but could also just be down to the fact that Thessaloniki was most exposed to war, mostly with the Bulgarians who also by now claimed Saint Demetrius as a protecting saint. Several kinds of politics vie for expression in the coins, therefore. Lastly Mr Dixon took us into the history of a disputed text about the dualist Byzantine heretics known as Paulicians.2 The History in question purports to be from the 870s and to be a warning to the Byzantine administration that the group plans to mount a mission to convert, or subvert, the Bulgarians, but this cannot easily be; the situation it foresees had in part come about by the eleventh century, but the themes of the early tenth century, when the movement seems newly to have been observed, place it in Armenia, and it was only moved to the Balkans by Emperor John I in the late 970s. The text is thus very hard to date, and while Mr Dixon didn’t want to rule out that it was just a forgery given how little knowledge it seems to have about the settlement at Tephrike where it is set, he certainly felt that any evidence that it existed and was being used in the early tenth century, as has tended to be assumed from the text’s own claims, needed reexamination. Discussion suggested a few ways this might be done, but none of them were easy, so it’s quite the mission Mr Dixon had ahead of him.

    Anonymous copper stamenon struck in Thessaloniki around 1320, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6534

    Anonymous copper stamenon struck in Thessaloniki around 1320, showing St Demetrios with sceptre and shield, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6534

Then tea and then back into the sessions for the last round of papers, which took me back to the early Middle Ages where, really, my interests are.

  • Anna Kelley, “Rethinking Cotton Use and Cultivation in Late Antique Egypt”
  • Catherine Keane, “More than a Church: the archaeology of the economic reality of Christian structures in the late antique Mediterranean”
  • Maria Vrij, “The Anomaly’s Anomaly: the curious case of gold coin production at Syracuse under Justinian II”
  • Anna laid out for us a peculiar picture of cotton use and cultivation before the seventh century, in which it was far from unknown but for most people hard to get, and found only in certain areas; there was cotton growing on the Red Sea coast in the fourth century, for example, and in the Western Desert over the Nile, but not at points between. The current suggestion of a source seems to be Nubia but even there it’s hard to show cotton being grown for export, rather than just for local use. There’s a network here yet to be pieced together, which is roughly where Anna’s research comes in of course! Ms Keane was at a similarly early stage, and her basic question was about the relocation of economic production in Northern Africa, of oil, wine and so on, out of Roman rural industrialised complexes into cities and then, increasingly, localising out to the then-fairly-new churches. The focus of production seems therefore to be following the focus of public space, which is something that, like cotton, looks like there is more to be found out. although Ms Keane’s paper was full of citations indicating that the process has started.3 Lastly, Maria, my right hand at the Barber at this point and now my replacement there, was asking why, when Emperor Justinian II famously (to readers here at least) put a portrait of Christ on his gold coinage, the mint at Syracuse didn’t follow suit. Syracuse was rarely exactly on the Constantinopolitan model when it came to minting but this seems sufficiently outright a refusal of imperial authority as to need explanation, which might be offered in terms of a Western resistance to images of the divine, and one which was followed after Justinian’s death in all quarters, indeed. The discussion here circled somewhat around who this message might be for, the world of Islam or the coin-using public, and who they might be, all of which, sadly, the coins don’t really tell us.

    Ancient ruins at the modern city of Sidi Jdidi, Tunisia

    Ancient ruins at the modern city of Sidi Jdidi, Tunisia, one of the sites under discussion in Ms Keane’s paper

The final part of the symposium was a closing address by Professor Redford, who somewhat unconventionally started by asking the organisers why they’d picked this theme. With that answered he pointed out gaps and strengths in the programme and its adherence to the theme but reassured everyone that the Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies was still showing a flag for the value of study clusters like it, and the day closed with pretty much everyone much satisfied by how things had gone.


1. M. Perisanidi, “Should we Abstain? Spousal Equality in Twelfth-century Byzantine Canon Law” in Gender and History Vol. 28 (Oxford 2016), pp. 422–443.

2. Again, memory failure; I own this text, at least in translation… You can find it in Janet Hamilton and Bernard Hamilton (edd./transl.), Christian Dualist Heresies in the Byzantine World, c. 650-c. 1450: selected sources (Manchester 1998), pp. 65-91.

3. For example, Anna Leone, Changing Townscapes in North Africa From Late Antiquity to the Arab Conquest (Bari 2007) and Aïcha Ben-Abed-Ben Khader, Michel Fixot, Michel Bonifay & Sylvestre Roucole, Sidi Jdidi I : La basilique sud, Collection de l’École française de Rome 339 (Rome 2004).

Ceasing to fear the End in the millennial Limousin

[This entry was written as a part of a larger one over the Christmas period of 2013/2014, and stuck in the queue at a position I’ve only now reached in my backlog. The second part, which bore no actual connection, will follow in a couple of posts’ time. I’ve completed the links, images and footnotes and edited for better style, but the text is still something I wrote in my previous job and this shows. I think it’s still interesting though!]

It’s probably the kind of thing that belongs in a list of phrases headed by, “You know you’re a medievalist when…”, when you select a medieval French cartulary for your holiday reading. Although the cartulary of Beaulieu is relevant to one of my eternally-developing draft papers, as those with long memories may recall, it wasn’t exactly relevant to what I should have been doing over the holiday, which was substantially write about the Spanish frontier and work up course materials for a course on the Apocalypse. And yet, by that process of scholarly coincidence that seems to follow us around, the thing that was in front of me turns out to have a strange relevance.

The abbey of Saint-Pierre de Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne

The abbey of Saint-Pierre de Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, original home of said cartulary. Par Wester (Travail personnel) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ou CC-BY-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.

You may be aware from previous exchanges on this here blog between myself, others and Professor Richard Landes that there is something of a debate over the significance of the date 1000 A. D. for those who lived shortly before or through it. With various more-or-less reputable Biblical or Patristic texts fairly set on the idea that Christ could be expected to return after a thousand years, it’s certainly understandable that such prospects might have worried those alert enough to chronology to realise this, or those to whom they preached, but there is little or no agreement about how many people those people were, how widespread and how influential, and the whole debate has become somewhat impassioned and polemical.1 One of the counter-arguments made against the original idea of the ‘terrors of the year 1000’, in which this was supposed to be a general cause of worry and social upheaval in the run-up to 1000 or 1033 (1000 + Christ’s birth and crucifixion respectively) was that texts suggesting the end of the world was imminent are fairly easy to find long before 1000. This can be worked either way of course: either 1000 was not therefore as significant as it’s been made, or apocalyptic worry was much more general than we assume.2

Illustrated page from the Catedral de Girona, Núm. Inv. 7 (11)

Several people cared about the Apocalypse in 975 enough to order really luxurious copies from the Leonese monastery of Tábara of this illustrated commentary on it by Beatus of Liébana, this one of which has now wound up in Girona, but the actual commentary was written closer to 800… So the same problem arises only more colourfully. This is from the Girona Beatus, which is Catedral de Girona, Núm. Inv. 7 (11). By Meisterin der Schule von Távara [Public domain], it says at Wikimedia Commons whence the file.

Unaware of how this debate would later develop, however, in 1869 we find M. Maximin Deloche, in the process of writing a lengthy and very erudite introduction to his edition of the Beaulieu cartulary, adding an obvious extra step to the ‘terrors’ argument that I haven’t seen anywhere in the more modern literature, as follows:

The Christian centuries that preceded the year 1000 were busily preoccupied with that date’s approach, which, after a certain interpretation of Revelations and according to popular belief, would witness the end of the world. It is an error to believe that this sentiment of fear had its birth shortly or even one or two centuries before this era that one should have considered so fatal. We find a manifestation of this in a monument of which the sincerity is incontestable, the will of St Radegund, dated to 584: it begins with the words, “Mundo in finem currente…”

So far we are conventionally stood against those arguing for a millennial spiritual crisis, but after another pre-1000 example of such sentiments, he goes somewhere unexpected:

Several of our charters contain this [fear] in their preamble. If we consult their dates, we see that they embrace a period of a century and a half before the year 1000. Thereafter, we find it announced only once more, in a title of the year 1060, but this redaction is without doubt only a reproduction, made mechanically and without discernment, of a preceding formulaic usage.

He takes it no further, but it’s important: what does it mean if, even if the idea that the end might be coming soon was common long before 1000, after that it stops?3 Studies on the disappointment of such prophecies suggest that they were usually quickly retooled for a new date, but if the Beaulieu pattern were to be found more widely, we might need to think in terms of disappointment with and even cynicism about such learned predictions, which might indeed find echoes in the rise of popular heresy that Robert Moore more than anyone has demonstrated from, say, 1030 onwards.4 There was so much else going on, of course, including a sea-change in the way that documents were being written that could maybe explain the abandonment of a purely formulaic usage, so this too could serve both sides of the argument over apocalypticism’s importance, but just methodically I really like this use of negative evidence. Why should such a thing disappear, and if it doesn’t elsewhere then why here? It’s worth thinking about…


1. The resort to dismissal and ad hominem examined, not without involvement, in Richard Landes, “Introduction: The Terribles Espoirs of 1000 and the Tacit Fears of 2000″ in R. Landes, A. C. Gow. & R. Van Meter (edd.), The Apocalyptic Year 1000: religious expectation and social change, 950–1050 (Oxford 2003), pp. 3–15.

2. A good clear account of the earlier historiography is Edward Peters, “Mutations, Adjustments, Terrors, Historians and the Year 1000” in Michael Frassetto (ed.), The Year 1000: religious and social response to the turning of the Millennium (New York City 2002), pp. 9–28.

3. M. Deloche (ed.), Cartulaire de l’Abbaye de Beaulieu (en Limousin) (Paris 1869), pp. XCV-XCVII, quotes XCV-XCVI & XCVI.

4. Retooling of expectations studied in depth in Richard Landes, “Lest the Millennium Be Fulfilled: Apocalyptic Expectations and the Pattern of Western Chronography 100–800 CE” in W. Verbeke, D. Verhelst & A. Welkenhuysen (edd.), The Use and Abuse of Eschatology in the Middle Ages (Leuven 1988), pp. 137–209. On the rise of heresy in this period see Robert I. Moore, The Birth of Popular Heresy (London 1975, repr. Toronto 2005), and for heresy’s connection to the millennuium, Moore, “The Birth of Heresy: a millennial phenomenon?” in Journal of Religious History 24 (Oxford 2000), pp. 1–24, vs. Richard Landes, “The Birth of Heresy: a millennial phenomenon”, ibid. pp. 26–43.

Gregory of Tours and the Demons of Alternative Medicine

When I started off this post it was towards the end of some weeks re-reading Lewis Thorpe’s translation of the Ten Books of Histories of Bishop Gregory of Tours.1 This is obviously from a bit earlier than I work on, as Gregory died in 594, but it’s not earlier than I used to teach, and besides I own it, had not yet read this copy and it’s full of interesting things. If it wasn’t for the number of stub blog posts I already had queued up at the time of writing I’m sure I would have showered snippets upon you, but even with that still being true there was one bit I can’t pass up, because it has a very strange kind of inverse contemporary relevance.

Frontispiece of manuscript of Gregory of Tours's Ten Books of Histories

Frontispiece of a manuscript of Gregory of Tours’s Histories in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, from Wikimedia Commons

The episode in question deals with a man called Desiderius who in 587 turned up in Tours making a number of dubious claims:2

“He boasted that messengers journeyed to and fro between himself and the Apostles Peter and Paul. I myself was not there, so the country folk flocked to him in crowds, bringing with them the blind and the infirm. He set out to deceive them by the false art of necromancy, rather than to cure them by the Grace of God. Those who were paralysed or disabled by some other infirmity he ordered to be stretched forcibly, as if he could restore by his own brute strength men whom he was unable to cure by the intervention of divine power. Some of his helpers would seize a patient’s hands and some would tug at other parts of his body, until it seemed that his sinews must snap. Those who were not cured his servants sent away half dead. The result was that many gave up the ghost under his treatment.”

Predictably, since we hear about it this way, Desiderius’s story does not end well. Gregory describes several of his claims to divine knowledge but finishes by saying that:

“it became clear that he was an impostor and, once the bogusness of his behaviour was comprehended by my people, he was expelled from the city boundaries. I have never discovered where he went. He used to say that he came from Bordeaux.”

There’s one phrase here that catches me straight away: “Those who were not cured his servants sent away…” seems to imply that some people were cured, at least for a short while, not that Gregory saw any of this since, as he says, he was away at the time and the people of Tours seem to have dealt with Desiderius by themselves. And indeed Gregeory’s level of explanation of the man’s power, that it came from below, from the realm of the dead, is a good step away from saying it was sheer fakery. In what you have above he names, “the false art of necromancy”, “errore nigromantici ingenii” in the Latin, and in what you don’t goes on to describe Desiderius being privy to conversations at which he wasn’t present, thus proving (beyond doubt!) that demons were his informants.3 If Gregory’s own informants could be trusted, however, Desiderius claimed quite the opposite, that he had a direct line to the Apostles in Heaven. In other words, he certainly pitched himself as a Christian, and those of us used to a later period might again wonder how this man is different, except in terms of education, from someone like Henry the Monk five hundred years after Gregory, who happened to be around at the right time to be called a heretic, or Adalbert only a hundred and fifty years after Gregory, who didn’t. Both of those claimed to be correcting the Church but if Gregory isn’t just being precious when he says this man, “gave it out that Saint Martin had less power than he: for he imagined himself to be the equal of the Apostles”, and accurately records that in public he wore humble clothes and ate and drank very little, one could certainly see resemblances all the same.4

The medieval Tour de Charlemagne and modern basilica of St-Martin in the centre of Tours

I can’t find any halfway-relevant manuscript images so here instead is a fairly gratuitous but nice picture of the medieval Tour de Charlemagne and modern basilica of St-Martin in the centre of Tours. Desiderius and Gregory would recognise none of this! “Groupe Basilique St Martin1 Dôme et Tour Charlemagne vue de la Place du Château-Neuf” by DoquangOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

But that’s not actually what I want to look at here; I imagine pretty much any snake oil salesman in the Middle Ages who was going to claim to be able to do miracle cures needed this kind of cladding of sanctity. What strikes me is the method of the cure, stretching and tension. Is this not in fact chiropractic? well, perhaps not, given the philosophical baggage that term carries, but it’s some form of manual therapy, of which traction seems the most obviously applicable link from that page on Wikipedia. I don’t know what kinds of ailment that might affect, but since it is supposed to have some application to hernias or trapped nerves, I wonder whether, if we read ‘paralysis’ here as including inability to move without crippling pain, rather than physiological incapacity in control of the muscles, it might not indeed have helped a few people. This wouldn’t make Desiderius as reported a misunderstood alternative practitioner, of course; describing your powers as coming from having a local-rate line to Peter and Paul would probably be vulnerable to disproof even in an English libel court. Neither do such methods stand much chance of curing blindness, I’d have imagined… But if he had somehow picked up the idea that traction did some people some good, and even some kind of instruction in how to do it (from a doctor from overseas, perhaps, if the Bordeaux mention isn’t a red herring5), it’s interesting to see how he seems to have tried and put this unusual knowledge to use, interesting and weirdly familiar. Today, of course, he’d have a Youtube channel and several books out. Perhaps Gregory would have had similar views on some of our sketchier practitioners of alternative therapies today if he could see them…


1. Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, transl. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth 1974, many reprints).

2. Ibid. IX.6.

3. The Latin can be found in Bruno Krusch & Wilhelm Levison (edd.), Gregorii Episcopi Turonensis Libri Historiarum X, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) I.1 (Hannover 1951).

4. Cf. Robert I. Moore, The Birth of Popular Heresy (London 1975), repr. Medieval Academuy Reprints for Teaching 33 (Toronto 1995), pp. 33-60, for Henry and his doctrines, lots more developed than this character’s but not without resemblances of technique.

5. I left a footnote here in the first version of the blog post with no indication to myself, fourteen months down the line, what I thought should go here. Something about the Bordeaux of Gregory’s era? Well, perhaps but nothing springs to mind… However, a poke at the Regesta Imperii OPAC produces two suggestions: Hagith Sivan. “Town and country in late antique Gaul: the example of Bordeaux” in John Drinkwater & Hugh Elton (edd.), Fifth-century Gaul: a crisis of identity? (Cambridge 1992), pp. 132-143 or the more substantial but possibly no more informative Charles Higounet (ed.), Bordeaux pendant le haut moyen âge, edd. Jacques Gardelle & Jean Lafaurie, Histoire de Bordeaux 2 (Bordeaux 1962). I’ve never seen either of these so I’m afraid you takes your chances…

Rereading for improbable heretics

[The first draft of this was written on the train towards an IHR Earlier Middle Ages seminar, 7th March 2012. Yeah, I know, sorry.]

Approximately the first real charters I read for my work on Catalonia were the church consecration acts from the diocese of Urgell, well up in the Catalan Pyrenees.1 They are fantastically interesting documents, but I always go back to them with a certain trepidation because what I thought was significant then often wasn’t, and I missed quite a lot of stuff that should have leapt out at me. I just didn’t have a sense of what was usual and what wasn’t in this material then, basically. The continuing effort to read Michel Zimmermann’s Écrire et lire en Catalogne has brought me up against one of these hidden significances, but it is honestly one I would never have thought of and it’s fantastic, as well as being unique, I think, if he’s right.2

Urgell charter of sale of 839 on parchment

A sale document of 839 from the Urgell archive. A consecration act would be bigger and have more capitals in it but wouldn’t necessarily be any tidier…

The situation as Zimmermann tells it is this. Some time before 901, Bishop Nantigis of Urgell, who was a busy man during his time in office, as we have eighteen church consecrations by him and one set of council acta where he signed, as opposed to only six charters of any other sort, came out to Guils del Cantó in Alt Urgell to consecrate the church of Sant Fruitós there. A guy called Adeudat features quite large in the document, which stresses his many sins and his need to atone with alms. He and his parents had more or less set up this church, and now he wanted to finish the job. There had been one before, but it was “tiny and rustic”, and so Adeudat did “whatever I could to make it great and installed a peal of bells there” and got the bishop to come along and consecrate the new building. So, fairly obviously Adeudat and his parentes, which might mean only kinsmen, rather than his father and mother, were big people in this little place. There are no other donors mentioned, and his family kept the lands round the church; the document that tells us all this is Adeudat’s will, in which he bequeathed the church, its property and liturgical tackle and the lands around the church to his nephews.

So, it seems inarguable that Adeudat had been the priest of the villa up to this point. He stresses, furthermore, that Nantigis had appointed him priest at the cathedral of Urgell, and that he carried out the rebuild project at Nantigis’s orders, but equally, he and his family were pretty clearly rooted in the area. They had presumably gone to Nantigis to get their status quite literally enshrined in the wider hierarchy. That to me is fascinating, and I didn’t see it first time round, but this isn’t where Zimmermann goes with it, because he instead concentrates on the unusual levels of guilt about sin that Adeudat expresses (“I Adeudat the priest, an unhappy sinner, and as I may truly say a sinner above other men”—super, does he mean that he is superior in sin, or that he is a sinner and is also in authority over other men, eh?) and on the liturgical gear that Adeudat leaves to the church.3 The explanation for Zimmermann is in two of the books Adeudat gave, which are quite unusual. As well as “the better antiphonary in the church, the missal which is the new mystery, the conspectus of the Evangelists, a sermonary” and a hymnal, there is a “chronicle” and a “Toledan service-book”. The Latin is “ordo toletanum”.

Page from the so-called Visigothic Antiphonary of León

Adeudat’s books are unlikely to have been quite this snazzy, but you know, worth bequeathing apparently…

Now, this I did notice when I first read it, indeed I eagerly mailed both Rosamond McKitterick and Jinty Nelson to ask what they thought, partly because I thought they might know but also because I was keen to let them know I was doing work and finding stuff. It could be said that my impostor syndrome takes odd forms. Anyway, I was then interested in the ‘chronicle’, which we can’t really guess at although my guess if I had to would be Isidore of Seville’s Greater Chronicle.4 Perhaps, however, I should have picked up on the Toledan ordo, because actually this is the kind of time that the old ‘Mozarabic’ liturgy was being phased out in this area in the general Carolingian spirit of correctio, being replaced with a new Gallo-Roman hybrid that the Carolingian court felt was the ‘real thing’.5 That, in turn, is presumably what is represented by the “missal which is the new mystery”, missalem qui est novo mistico, and later in the book Zimmermann cites work that identifies these texts, which turn up more widely too, as a codex mixtus, a miscellany of liturgical bits much like the later breviaries, by which your Visigothic Church priest might have carried round all he needed for an average year’s work.6 So OK, he has Visigothic liturgical books, that’s interesting but, out in the wilds like this, maybe not so odd, and perhaps they belonged to his parents, who knows?

This is, however, also not just the time but the area where the Carolingians had had to come down quite heavily on the heresy known as Adoptionism, the idea that Christ was not of his physical self divine but chosen to house divinity by God.7 The chief proponent of this locally had been none other than Bishop Felix of Urgell, Nantigis’s predecessor-but-three-or-four, and of course the other big figure in it had been Bishop Elipand of Toledo. So, carrying round a Toledan service book may have some awkward implications at this exact spot and time.

The church of Guils de Cantó, Alt Urgell, Catalonia

The Romanesque church of Guils de Cantó that presumably replaced Adeudat’s work… BURYING WHO KNOWS WHAT SCANDAL! Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Zimmermann goes all the way with this, in a couple of elegant sentences. Many a church in this area was founded by immigrant Hispani clerics, presumably fleeing from the darkening situation for Christian clergy in al-Andalus. For Zimmermann, Adeudat is best seen as one of them, Toledo-trained (which his library does seem to suggest) and quite possibly heretical, and Nantigis made him pretty clear that that was not the way. His sins that provoked his donation, though this was a topos used by almost all donors to the Church, especially churchmen, may therefore have been quite specific, preaching what he hadn’t realised was held to be heresy to his flock, and his efforts to atone sincere, even if calculated to retain his local status.

I’m not quite sure about a couple of aspects of this. The biggest of these is that if the books in question were heretical, they surely would have been destroyed. If they weren’t, however, there’s no reason to suppose that Adeudat was. After all, they were apparently still suitable gifts for the church in 901, and Nantigis was still around then because Adeudat commended all his property to the bishop to make sure that the church got what it needed to continue in his family’s management. It seems more likely to me, therefore, that the ordo was just a regulation ‘Mozarabic’ liturgy. In that case, the effort to replace the Mozarabic liturgy clearly wasn’t very sincere or thorough here yet. The other thing is that Adeudat’s family were all here too. I don’t really see how we can imagine that these Toledan fugitives came north carrying a rook of books, liturgical even though the main man wasn’t yet a priest, and somehow became the dominant interest in a whole village. Although it must be said that that might be what they were doing by setting up the church with the bishop’s backing, it seems a lot more likely to me that they were locals. In which case, the books don’t tell us about an Andalusi training and the whole thing comes to bits. So I’m not sure that it’s methodologically sound, at all, but I like the story it tells so much that I’m reluctant to abandon the chance of placing a recanting Toledan Adoptionist high and rich in the Pyrenees.


1. Cebrià Baraut (ed.), “Les actes de consagracions d’esglesies del bisbat d’Urgell (segles IX-XII)” in Urgellia: anuari d’estudis històrics dels antics comtats de Cerdanya, Urgell i Pallars, d’Andorra i la Vall d’Aran Vol. 1 (Montserrat 1978), pp. 11-182, and idem (ed.), “Set actes més de consagracions d’esglésies del bisbat d’Urgell (segles IX-XII)” in Urgellia Vol. 2 (Montserrat 1979), pp. 481-488, now united with new numeration as Les actes de consagracions d’esglésies de l’antic Bisbat d’Urgell: segles IX-XII (Urgell 1986).

2. M. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIe siècles), Biblioteca de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), pp. 496-497.

3. Please don’t ask me what a villa was at this time; there’s a reason I haven’t translated it…. Some kind of rural circumscription of which the church might be the only focal point, how’s that?

4. This text has been re-edited since I first had to wonder about its presence in Urgell: for a translation and more details see Sam Kanto & Jamie Wood, “The Chronica Maiora of Isidore of Seville: an introduction and translation” in E-Spania Vol. 6 (Paris 2008), DOI: 10.4000/e-spania.15552, online at http://e-spania.revues.org/15552, last modified 15th December 2008 as 0f 15th June 2013.

5. On the problems with the word ‘Mozarab’ and its derivatives, see Richard Hitchcock, Mozarabs in Medieval and Early Modern Spain: identities and influences (Aldershot 2008). For the correctio ideology I suppose most influential on me is probably Karl-Ferdinand Werner, “‘Hludowicus Augustus’. Gouverner l’empire chrétien : idées et réalités”, in Peter Godman & Roger Collins (edd.), Charlemagne’s Heir: new perspectives on the reign of Louis the Pious (Oxford 1990), pp. 3-123. I should note, though, that the Catalan scholarship tends to blame the final push on the liturgical front on Bishop Frodoí of Barcelona (862-890, not known to have been a hobbit), canonically said to be a Frank pushing Charles the Bald’s agenda; I know of no evidence for either of these things. On the evidence that there is, see Gaspar Feliu, “Els inicis del domini territorial de la seu de Barcelona”, in Cuadernos de historia económica de Cataluña Vol. 14 (Barcelona 1976), pp. 45-61 at pp. 46-48.

6. Zimmermann, Écrire et lire, I pp. 526-530.

7. See John C. Cavadini, The Last Christology of the West: Adoptionism in Spain and Gaul, 785-820 (Philadelphia 1993).

Popular heresy in early medieval Europe

Professor Robert Moore

Professor Robert Moore

Professor Robert Moore, well-known historian of medieval heresy, gave a paper with this as the main title at Leeds this year: the subtitle was, “was there any?” and although I didn’t go to the paper I gather his answer was, basically, no, there wasn’t. In this he doesn’t seem to have been going far beyond what he’s said before, though I guess he may have been responding to arguments since made against him.1 I don’t really want to, have the time to or really the expertise to critique his reasons why such heresy as is testified to from early medieval sources doesn’t count for his purposes. It is certainly, as far as we can tell, a fact that no-one was burnt for heresy in the Latin West between the fifth century and 1022 when some lively guys at Orléans met their end in fire after being penned up in a house as part of the sentence on them for their sect. But disagreeing with Robert Moore is a well-established scholarly pursuit: I did it myself at Leeds in conversation with him, the best undergraduate essay I ever marked was a zinging explanation of why his arguments in The Formation of a Persecuting Society and The Birth of Popular Heresy don’t quite add up (though sadly without any alternative explanation, which really would have been Camelot), and basically a lot of people have disagreed with him. This does not however mean that his arguments haven’t made everyone rethink their positions in order to disagree with him and it could not be said that those who disagree with him have any kind of consensus. Some historians’ impact is to make everyone else shift their ground.

Heretics being put to death by fire, apparently on an island in the middle of a river

The end of two heretics who just weren't popular enough

Therefore, this probably doesn’t matter much and he may well have covered it in his paper, but I just found it somewhere else entirely.2 There was a council of the Frankish Church at Soisson in 744, under Pippin III as Mayor of the Palace. Its main business was really to say, hey, we should really have more synods, right? but also tucked into its mere ten canons are two dealing with a chap called Adalbert, which I translate badly below:

II. On which account, we as one with the consent of the bishops and priests and servants of God and the counsel of our best men do decree, that we ought every single year to renew this synod, so that thus the Christian people may be able to attain the health of their souls, and so that heresy does not resurge more fully among the people, just as we found in the heresy of Adalbert, whom 23 bishops and many other priests with the permission of the princes and the people publically condemned with one voice; thus they condemned Adalbert, lest the people perish deceived by false priests.

VII. Similarly we ordain, that those little crosses, which Adalbert had planted through the parishes, should all be consumed by fire.

And a bit of poking round in the Monumenta Germaniae Historica‘s apparatus reveals that this guy was also the subject of an exchange of letters between Pope Zacharias and the missionary Boniface,3 in which Boniface explained:

… he made little crosses and oratories in the fields and at springs or wherever was seen fit by him [ubicumque sibi visum fuit] and he ordered public prayers to be said there, wherefore multitudes of people, having scorned the other bishops and dismissed the ancient churches, celebrated together at such places saying, “The merits of the holy Aldebert will help us”.

So I’m just doing a small mental checklist here. Anti-clericalism, check, among the crowd even if we can’t say for sure that it was in the preaching; widespread impact, yes, more than one parish for a start and enough of these crosses that their destruction has to be considered in synod, suggesting that it affects more than one bishop (as indeed does Boniface’s account); popular response, yes. The faint hint of nature worship and/or paganism is interesting, too. Whether it’s actually heresy is hard to say but Pippin and assembly thought it was (albeit that the only signatures to that document are the mayor himself and three laymen, so those acta probably weren’t done at the council) and while we might wish they had said a bit more, they thought there was a danger of the fashion spreading and we shouldn’t assume that they were wrong. I don’t see what differentiates this from say, Henry of Lausanne, except that here a far more effective state is able to smack Adalbert down pretty much straight away (and it is the state, too, not the Church). Because it was smacked down so quickly, there isn’t much need to make a record, so we hardly hear about it. How much more of this are we missing?

So I think my closing point is, maybe the real thing about the boom of popular heresy in the eleventh century is that it’s only then the enforcement falls so far to bits that what might be a steady number of charismatic demagogue preachers now get to make their mark. The Pippinids clearly weren’t having any of it. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.


1. My main experience of his argument here is his excellent The Birth of Popular Heresy (London 1976, repr. Toronto 1995), a sourcebook-as-argument volume that I thoroughly recommend as a teaching text.

2. That being Mayke de Jong, In Samuel’s Image: child oblation in the early medieval West (Leiden 1995), p. 167, where she is actually talking about something else entirely, citing what is “Concilium Suessionense A. 744”, ed. A. Werminghoff in idem (ed.), Concilia Ævi karolini tomus I, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Concilia) II.1 (Hannover 1906), p. 35, online here.

3. I’m just translating the MGH volume’s p. 35 n. 4 here, but the letters are selectively translated in several places, and I discover that actually this bit is in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook, where it is explained that this man had been a bishop, and hit the highway only after Boniface removed him from office! We also get the context of the MGH snippet, as follows:

Quite early in life he deceived many people by saying that an angel in the guise of a man had brought him from the other end of the world relics of extraordinary but rather suspect holiness, and that through their efficacy he could obtain from God whatever he desired. By such pretence he was able by degrees, as St. Paul says, to make his way into house after house, captivating weak women whose consciences were burdened by sin and swayed by shifting passions. He also deceived great numbers of simple folk who thought that he was a man of truly apostolic character because he had wrought signs and wonders. He bribed ill-instructed bishops to consecrate him, in defiance of canon law and, finally, with unbridled arrogance, put himself on the level of the Apostles. He insolently refused to consecrate churches to the honour of the Apostles and martyrs and used to ask people what they expected to gain by going on pilgrimage to the tombs of the Apostles. Later, he dedicated small chapels to himself – or, to speak more truthfully, desecrated them. In the fields or near springs or wherever he had a mind he erected crosses and small chapels and ordered prayers to be recited there. As a result, throngs of people absented themselves from the established churches, flouted the injunctions of the bishops and held their services in those places, saying: ‘The merits of St. Aldebert will help us.’

“He distributed his hair and fingernails for veneration and had them carried round in procession with the relics of St. Peter the Apostle. Finally, he committed what I consider to be the greatest crime and blasphemy against God. Whenever anyone came to him and fell at his feet desiring confession he would say: ‘I know all your sins: your secret deeds are open to my gaze. There is no need to confess, since your past sins are forgiven. Go home in peace: you are absolved.

And they go on to give the text of a letter from Jesus that Aldebert (as they call him throughout) claimed had fallen from Heaven and a prayer to eight angels he had allegedly composed, and to renew his deposition and threaten anathema. Really, the differences between this and the write-ups of Henry of Lausanne look less and less significant except that quite frankly we have more information about this guy because he worked in text

I like teaching heresy

As I write, the semester is done, and I have a huge pile-up of empty drafts indicating things I was going to write for the blog when I had time. The time may be hard to find, but this one at least was a simple point: heresy is fun to teach. For why, two reasons. One, not in this group of students particularly but in my teaching past, I have met a certain sort of student who is angry about Christianity, for whatever their reasons of their own they may have. I used to be angry about Christianity too, so I may understand, or I may project. In any case, it’s a problem, because it in turn makes them contemptuous of the sources for the Middle Ages because they’re all “biased monk stuff”.

Against this, medieval heretics are your fifth column. Firstly, they invite sympathy because they were persecuted by a doctrinaire Church. Secondly, like Saint Faith, they draw the students in, although here because the anti-clericalism of most heretical movements finds its echo in these kids’ (not kids’, in some cases, indeed) dislike of the Church; it’s partly religion as a whole they react to, but also, often, the preaching machinery and religious schooling. Heretics who deny the Virgin Birth or that Jesus was genuinely divine (or say things like “We were not there, so we cannot believe that these things happened”1) also chime with these students’ feelings that the cult is based on deception.

But, Reason the Two. It wasn’t just heretics who criticised the Church in the High Middle Ages. They’re just more interesting than a lot of the reform movement (I mean, does anyone enjoy reading Humbert of Silva Candida?) and, because they’re largely ‘popular’, don’t seem so embedded in the institution. I mean, whose side is the pope going to be on in a dispute about the validity of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, after all? So, heretics actually provide the teacher with a way to get students involved in a discussion about what a Church should be and do in the terms of the day, and again, almost by sleight of hand, you can use these ragged and punkish characters (with allegedly legendary and freakish sexual prowess, in some cases) to get people ‘thinking medieval’. Maybe, even about theology. At the very least you can show that there was dissent, there was debate, there wasn’t ever uniformity of opinion and one man or woman really could briefly change their world, and thus encourage them not to try to learn the teacher’s orthodoxy but to learn that it’s all up for grabs, and to start grabbing their favourite bits.

I used to be disdainful of the current fashion for study of marginal members of societies, figuring that we really didn’t have a finished master narrative or unified theory to start attacking and maybe that should come first, but, firstly I realised how hypocritical it was to do that when myself so deeply invested in the analytical worth of studying political and religious frontiers and secondly, this phenomenon here. The margins are the place whence people who don’t know or love the period yet can look at it, because they feel outside it themselves and so identify better with the outsiders. I’ve never had the heresy classes work as well as I feel they could—perhaps it needs a forthright Christian student to react to it and set the discussion off?—but they seem to work better than many of the others and it seems to me that this is why. There might be other reasons of course. I was continually tempted, when trying to explain dualism, to use this symbol, because they’d all have seen it:

I didn’t, in the end, because the dualism of the Cathars et al. admitted no little dot from the other side and so the analogy is misleading, but still I think that it has a kind of resonance in the modern era to think of God and world as as basically separate as good and bad, white and black, and though it’s hard to get across how radical an idea that was in the Middle Ages, it does make people who thought similarly the kind of ‘inclined plane’ that intersects both the now and the then that Brigitte Bedos-Rezak talked about in that article of hers I love so much. And, it may not be so odd even in medieval terms. My new favourite social commentator on his medieval times, at least for the next few weeks,2 is a German cleric called Eckbert of Schonau, who wrote one of the few thorough accounts of Cathar doctrines based on actual debate with the Cathars. He did do the thing that many authors of the time did and fundamentally treat it as a form of Manicheanism, largely because that lets him use the writings against the Manichees of St Augustine, “who we already know to be awesome” of course. But that’s OK, because in planning to attach Augustine’s whole tract at the end of his own, he says by way of commentary, albeit with my emphasis:

I shall bind this summary at the end of my book so that my readers can understand the heresy properly from the beginning, and see why it is the foulest of all heresies. They may find that some of the things which they say themselves smack of Manicheism, and that St Augustine has discovered their secret thoughts.3

And how true those words are, even today, I reckon.


1. Paul of St-Pierre de Chartres, Gesta synodi aurelianensis, ed. M. Bouquet in J. B. Haudiquier and C. Haudiquier (edd.), Recueil des Historiens des Gaules et de la France X (Paris 1760, repr. 1874), pp. 536-539, transl. Robert I. Moore in idem, The Birth of Popular Heresy, Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching 33 (Toronto 1995 (1st edn. 1975)), pp. 10-15, quote from p. 14.

2. Usually it’s a fairly friendly contest between Bede, Eriugena or Ekkehard of Aurach. Except when John of Salisbury is on my mind, because John of Salisbury was brilliant. Sadly my actual period and area of study mainly has pompous bishops and Gerbert of Aurillac, who was indubitably very clever but had the morals of a cat (i. e. would twirl round the legs of whomever fed him and purr appropriately), and so I find him hard to enjoy, and my medieval intellectual heroes therefore have to be imported from elsewhere and when.

3. Eckbert of Schonau, Sermones contra Catharos, ed. J.-J. Migne in idem (ed.), Beati Aelredi abbatis Rievallensis opera omnia, accedit Wolberonis abbatis s. Pantaleonis Coloniensis commentarium in Cantica. Intermiscentur Eckberti abbatis Schonaugiensis et sanctae Elisabeth sororis ejus germanae, Henrici archidiaconi Huntingdonensis, Odonis de Deogilo abbatis s. Dionysii, Bertrandi de Blancesfort templariorum magistri, scripta quae supersunt omnia, Patrologia cursus completus series latina CXCV (Paris 1855), cols. 11-21, transl. Moore in Birth of Popular Heresy, pp. 88-94, quote from p. 94.

Leeds report 1 (Monday 13th July)

So yes. As recounted elsewhere I travelled up to Leeds on the Sunday before, installed myself and then went to a party, which has no business being reported here so I’ll move on. Anyway, I was there for all of the actual International Medieval Congress, and the best way to report so that it doesn’t entirely swamp all else seems to be the way I did the Haskins Society Conference, with session and paper titles and minimal comments; I can always say more if you want to know. Of course the difference between Haskins and Leeds is that Leeds runs many sessions in parallel, typically 29 or 30 this year. By my reckoning that means that even if one went to only the regular sessions and not the round tables, plenary lectures or excursions, one could still attend 2914 different combinations of sessions, so this is only one possible Leeds of, er, more than 10 million billion (and I do mean billion not milliard you crazy US types with your smaller numbers). I don’t imagine there will be that many other write-ups however…

One has to get up very early to get a decent seat at the keynote lectures at Leeds, which is how it starts, but I snuck in at the back and managed. I’d wanted to go especially on two counts, because I’ve worked for one of the speakers and know him to be extremely clever, a good presenter and a genuinely decent fellow, and I’ve argued with the other speaker all over the Interweb, and thought it would be interesting to hear him speak in person. The former is John Arnold and the latter is of course Jeffrey J. Cohen of In The Medieval Middle. Both were very good in different ways: John was dry, discerning, careful, thorough and deeply involved in his material, and Jeffrey was persuasive, emotive, intelligible and working (also carefully) with some fascinating material. Happily, for deeper analysis I can point you to Magistra’s write-up of the session, and that will allow me to get back to the structure and minimalism I was just promising you. So, that was:

1. Keynote Lectures 2009

  • John H. Arnold, “Heresies and Rhetorics”
  • Jeffrey J. Cohen, “Between Christian and Jew: orthodoxy, violence and living together in medieval England”

And then there was coffee and then the papers themselves started, and I went as follows.

105. Charters and Communities

  • Jinna Smit, “Per dominum comitem: charters and chancery of the Counts of Holland/Hainaut, 1299-1345″
  • Charter from the archives of Count of Hainault, by the scribe Richard Fleck

    Charter from the archives of Count of Hainault, by the scribe Richard Fleck

    Thoughtful little paper showing those things you get with offices producing a lot of documents that somehow we forget to expect with the Middle Ages, officials signing things off that they didn’t write, other people using their name, but here with the additional complication of a single rule of provinces with two different vernaculars, meaning that some scribes could only work one half of the territory; the really cool thing was that quite a lot of the scribal identification work had been done using OCR hand recognition techniques, which only a short while ago I was being told was impossible and then only possible with Glagolithic

  • Arnved Nedkvitne, “Charters and Literacy in Norwegian Rural Societies in the Late Middle Ages”
  • One of the reasons I wanted to get someone in my sessions talking about Scandinavia was that it goes through some of the changes that Western Europe goes through sufficiently late that we get to watch in more detail; so, here, the point that really struck me was that though there might be no schools, actually even training a choir equips some boys with rudimentary Latin literacy of a kind, and that might, as here, wind up being sufficient for document production.

  • Karl Heidecker, “Rewriting and ‘Photocopying’ Charters: the multi-purpose rearrangement of an 11th-century Burgundian archive”
  • Karl, who was leader of the very important St Gall Projekt, is now working on Saint-Bénigne de Dijon, which is fascinating for a range of reasons; the one he had picked is that one of its cartularies contains graphical copies of the originals, with script grades and chrismons and all that fine stuff but not with the actual layout, the layout shunted round to fit the cartulary pages; just the effort of working out how the cartulary had once fitted together was enough to bamboozle however.

Food for thought over lunch, and then I foolishly decided to try and get something written, with the end result that I was late for…

225. Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Medieval Grand Narrative, I: the marriage of theory and praxis

  • Joaquin Martinez Pizarro, “Doomed Window-Shopping in Late Antique Gaul: thoughts on the literary study of historiography”
  • Jeff Rider, “The Uses of the Middle Ages”
  • Guy Halsall, “Dialogue, Interlocution or Just Plain Cultural History? What (if anything) do we mean by `interdisciplinary’?”
  • You may guess here that I was here for the last paper, in which Guy very approachably and without too much scorn went for the throat of the interdisciplinary endeavour, arguing that the valuable work it has produced is far far outweighed by the deadweight of its necessity as a buzzword in funding applications making it meaningless, and that in any case even when the few people who really can work in two disciplines with equal facility, rather than just raiding another for ideas, do this and do it well, nonetheless what they produce is something that, before we used this word, would have been called cultural or maybe even social history; that is, whatever discipline you mix with history, you always wind up doing history at the end, in as much you are studying the past rather than the present. I actually think that a lot of the `literary turn’, not least that showcased by Eileen Joy of In The Medieval Middle, is more about the present than the past whose light it turns on us, so I don’t know that Guy is right here, but I confess that I would side with him if pastists and presentists were forced to segregate. As to the other papers, I missed the beginning of Martínez’s but his basic point appeared to be that Gregory of Tours used style that his victims wouldn’t recognise to elevate his position in the eyes of his peers, which sounded familiar, and Jeff Rider’s paper and the best question he got asked because of it have already been taken up by Magistra better than I could manage.

So, tea, and then across the campus in order to be in time for…

303. Architecture, Archaeology, and Landscape of Power, III: the royal vill in Anglo-Saxon England

  • Alex Sanmark, “Anglo-Saxon Royal Manors: location and communication”
  • Stuart Brookes, “Royal Vills and Royal Power in Anglo-Saxon Kent”
  • Ryan Lavelle, “West Saxon Royal Sites”
  • I confess that I made a nuisance of myself in this one by asking about the statistical validity of the distribution maps that all the speakers were using. As one commentator said to me afterwards, “Yes, they should absolutely be allowed to map what they like against whatever they want – but then they should map it against telephone boxes and see whether that correlation doesn’t look significant too”. Dr Brookes knew what I meant and brought up Kolmogorov-Smirnoff without being prompted, so his pattern of the development of the power structure of royalty in Kent may have been better founded than his paper allowed one to understand. In that case I think his choice of dumbing down was ill-advised; the people who could understand his material would have survived the full-strength version, the others aren’t interested enough anyway. A disappointing representation by a branch of the field we should all be listening to.

I now stepped back to the flat to make a rapid dinner and just made it back out in time for…

401. Special Lecture

  • Maribel Isabel Fierro, “Heresy and Political Legitimacy in Muslim Spain and Portugal”
  • An interesting and accessible guide to exactly how Islam recognises and expresses heresy and which of the relevant examples of this made it to al-Andalus, but not really so much to do with political legitimacy and, er, enhanced, by some of the most garish and confused use of Powerpoint I’ve ever seen someone get lost in.

There were three different receptions that night, too, and I don’t think I had to buy any drink, but I’m also fairly sure that I made it only to two of them and spent part of it writing a book review, so it was with an odd mixture of inebriation and mania that I retired in good time on the first night of Leeds.