Monday, March 31, 2014

The Papacy in the Middle Ages

To summarize the history of the Papacy in a sentence reminds me of Gibbon who, reference his great opus on the Decline and Fall, said: “I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion.” To match that sentence with one about the Papacy, I would have to say: “I describe a spiritual institution that took 1,500 years to shake off the hold of the very princes who had elevated it to worldly power.” A good portion of that struggle took place in the Middle Ages. Herewith a compressed summary:

If we date the Papacy from 32 AD, as the Catholic Encyclopedia does, it is an institution 1982 years old as of 2013. It has valiantly attempted to be the single authoritative guide of the Christian faith throughout its history. It could not prevent the evolution of competing faiths. It also fell under the influence of Emperors, barbarian kings (Gothic and Frankish), Italian families, and Holy Roman Emperors. These powers endeavored to control the Papacy precisely because it represented a significant if not a strictly worldly power.

Under some inspired leaders it almost won the freedom to govern itself (the Investiture Controversy); it achieved autonomy only, roughly, in the last 500 years. Some of its popes, succumbed to a kind of hubris; they also aspired to exercise power directly over the secular realm, not least approving its rulers. Fortunately this ambition failed to achieve its aim; had it succeeded, the Papacy would have ended a long time ago rather than being, today, the longest continuous institution in human history. The Papacy also failed to unite all forms of Christianity that arose early: Monophysite, Nestorian, Eastern Orthodoxy, and others. Its reach never enfolded the first two and, in the Middle Ages, it also parted from Eastern Orthodoxy. The very power of the Papacy to offer and to maintain more or less tangible unity over the regions where it prevailed, however, also involved it with the world of power, not least when it became the actual administrator over a de facto state religion under Constantine.

The growing divide between the Eastern and Western Roman empire made the Papacy an asset for each side. Its own power to appoint popes and bishops—and the value of bishops in shaping political opinion (as we would say now)—involved the Papacy in conflict with rulers below the rank of emperor. The Papacy’s own aristocracy of cardinals and bishops was in fact a second and often a competing rule—unless dukes, kings, and emperors could appoint such figures and control them through family or party affiliations. The Papacy at least indirectly also controlled a great deal of land in a time when land was wealth, which stimulated attempts by others to control it.

In the nearly 2000 year history of this institution, 266† popes held spiritual power. Of these 79 were canonized and 11 reached the lower level of having the title Blessed. Ninety is just a shade over a third but may be taken as a sign that a large number of the popes were principally engaged in the religious mission; but they were interspersed with popes who were ordinary functionaries who, in turn, had at times to compete with some 39 antipopes. Antipopes were individuals who, supported by a minority of followers, a prince, or both, laid claim to the papal throne in opposition to a pope elected in a traditional way. Despite such problems, the Nicene creed, dating from 325, is still held by all Catholic and virtually all other Christian faiths as well. The Papacy is alive and well today. But the Papacy, paradoxically (or perhaps not), grew in virtue roughly as Christian faith gradually weakened and these days no longer serves as the single unifying ideology across any realm, never mind the world.

Now here I must note that, with an extraordinarily long history, and an inner conflict in which spiritual and worldly interests were always in tension, it is possible both to describe the Papacy by concentrating on its most notable spiritual leaders—or on the majority of those who concerned themselves with largely secular power. A middle way, and the one chosen here, is to look principally on the forces that impinged upon, and often overwhelmed, the Papacy’s spiritual mission. That it was, and still remains, a difficult hybrid is just a way of saying that it is a social institution in the world if not, at the best of times, of it.

How to give an overview of this ancient, but still coherent, institution is a challenge. The usual approach is simply to use time divisions without further labeling but selecting the periods themselves to reflect major changes within the Papacy; this is the approach adopted by my1956 Encyclopedia Britannica. In the following table, I present two other approaches that use some meaningful labeling: that by Wikipedia (link) and that used in an 1881 book, Epochs of the Papacy, written by Rev. Arthur Robert Pennington:



Note here, first, that the Rev. Pennington uses headings to support his thematic. It is “that the Papacy is, as it was in former times, the great corruption of Christianity.” And thus might things look from a certain, but by no means representative, Anglican perspective. Pennington views the function of the Papacy as worldly dominion; hence, in the period when the Papacy was least under the control of secular rulers he labels as the “Noonday”; thereafter all is down hill. The Wikipedia divisions are more realistically based on external influences on the Papacy by secular forces, some benign, some not so. Some notes here—in place of a genuine history:

Early Days Through Gothic Times. During the period of early Christianity, the popes were selected by other bishops and the faithful, the congregations, in roughly democratic ways. With Constantine’s “adoption” of Christianity, and for some time later, the civil authority, Constantine first, was moved by benign impulses to create greater order, cohesion, and coherence. Constantine called the first council, of Nicea, in 325; each of the next seven were also convoked by emperors; the ninth (Lateran I) was the first convoked by Pope Callistus II in 1123, thus falling into Pennington’s “Noonday” of the Papacy. Theodoric, the Ostrogoth king, himself an Arian, acted to resolve conflicts, thus more in the role of a judge, although this intervention sometimes became more active; as the Papacy grew in influence over the faithful, the competition for the Chair of St. Peter intensified.

Byzantine Domination. Following the Gothic war (535-554), Byzantium reconquered Italy and, with his Western capital in Ravenna, the Emperor became very influential. In the mildest sense the Emperor had at least to approve the pope-Elect before the pope could be crowned; in other cases he named his own choice. At the time of Frankish influence shown above (756-858), the influence of the Byzantine Empire faded; Byzantium came under severe pressure from Persia and later Arab Caliphates while, in Europe, the Franks were engaged in a process that, as it reached its conclusion, produced the Holy Roman Empire.

Frankish Influence and Rule by Italian Families. Early in that period, as related in the last post, Pepin the Short granted the Papacy a significant wedge of land in Italy, extending from Ravenna to Rome. That grant in turn this laid the foundations for the next stage when the Papacy came under the dominion of successive counts of Tusculum, near Rome, who supplied several popes as well as antipopes. The Byzantine focus was on its Muslim attackers; in the West, the Carolingian dynasty was in process of falling apart. This gave the counts of Tusculum the chance to produce what has been described as the Nadir of the Papacy.

Great Schism and Its Consequences. During the period Pennington calls “Noonday” comes what I’ve here labeled “Eastern Schism and Conflict with the Holy Roman Emperors.” Wikipedia’s actual label is “Conflict with the Emperor and East”; I’ve revised that to highlight what is also called the Great Schism, thus the split between Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism; I’ve also wanted to label the “Emperor” as belonging to the Holy Roman Empire (roughly France, Germany, and bits of other modern realms, including parts of Italy).

For clarity here, some dates. Charlemagne was the chief figure during the period of Frankish Influence. He lived 742-814. After his death came what might be called a sundering of his realm as his successors carved up the Carolingian empire. This process ended in 962 when Otto I (who was the great great great great grandson of Charlemagne) reclaimed the title. The Holy Roman Empire (HRE) is associated with him and lasted well beyond our time span here until 1806. Thus “conflicts with the emperor” refer to the emperor of the HRE.

The Great Schism in our context, suggests the fading power of the Byzantine Empire, besieged as it was by Islam, estrangement between East and West, and the resurgence of the HRE. The split took place formally in 1054 with the excommunication of the Patriarch of Constantinople (who, in turn, excommunicated the Pope). At first this exchange was seen as a diplomatic scuffle (plenty like it in those times). The decisive implementation of that decision had to await the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204). In that war Catholic troops actually sacked Constantinople; Christians were fighting Christians. That Noonday now seems rather dark—particularly if we see that the Papacy was the genuine agency behind the crusades.

Early in this period Pope Nicholas II wrote the encyclical, In Nomine Domini, in which, for the first time, cardinals are named as the electors of the pope (1059). This attempt to separate church and state did not take hold at once. Conflicts continued. The later Investiture Controversy (1075-1122) was an aspect of this. That controversy involved papal claims to approve of bishops (that is to say to “invest” them). This action reached deep into the secular realm; rulers at all levels saw it as their right to invest bishops with power; bishops were often in control of significant properties and therefore potential troops; it was best if they looked to princes as their benefactors. Pope Gregory VII asserted his right of investiture in a collection of authoritative teachings titled Dictatus Papae. That document also asserted that only the Pope had the right to depose an emperor—suggesting the secular reach the Papacy had achieved. Gregory’s effort also failed or, better put, was amicably compromised at the 1122 Concordat of Worms (a city in Germany); in that document it was agreed that rulers could invest bishops but only with worldly power (the lance); the pope retained the right to grant them sacred authority (the ring and staff).

The launching of the first seven—of a total of nine “numbered”—crusades in this period (1048-1257) also testifies to the worldly power of the Papacy in this period; the popes had the effective power to galvanize society to send armies marching, indeed to induce reluctant rulers to comply.

Wandering Popes. In the period shown in the timeline, of fourteen popes who reigned, only two were elected in Rome—five in Viterbo, four in Perugia, and one at Arezzo. Why? Well, the thirteenth century in Italy witnessed the creation of warring city states and a realm in which the Ghibellines favored the Holy Roman Empire and the Guelphs the Papacy. It was a contentious and unstable period; peaceful governance of Church affairs in Rome was not in the cards. Most of the reigning popes were engaged in multifarious diplomatic activities to arrange or to maintain peace within and beyond the HRE. The map inset (clicking on it will enlarge it) shows the locations used by the so-called wandering popes. They are all within fairly easy reach of Rome itself. But this detachment, we might call it, between the City of Rome and the Papacy established a precedent for the next stage in the evolution of this great institution, the Avignon Papacy or, as it has been called, the Babylonian Captivity.

Avignon. After spending some 53 years outside of Rome (and the concept of “Bishop of Rome” having been effectively fuzzed up), in 1305 the Papacy fell under French control, initially under a man called Raymond Bertrand de Got (or de Goth); he reigned as Clement V. In 1309 he moved the Papacy to Avignon; it remained there for the next 70 years, hence the “Avignon Papacy.” All the Avignon popes were French.

I find it easiest to understand this move as the continuation of a process—never forgetting that in this age the Papacy was predominantly what we might now call a political institution first, a spiritual institution second. The process began when the counts of Tusculum came to dominate the Papacy. It continued with the wandering popes who were still trying to shield themselves from the interventions of powerful Italian families; the names of these families, meanwhile, had changed; in later days the Colonna and Orsini families vied for this control. The move to France, particularly Avignon, a city that happened already to be inside a county-sized Papal fief in France, further removed the Papacy from interference more easily brought to bear in Italy. And, in this process, the French cardinals, who wished to bring the Papacy under French influence, were also very persuasive.

The Avignon papacy ended in 1378 when Gregory XI, himself a Frenchman, moved the Papacy back to Rome. Why? The corruption of the Avignon Papacy had become at least as great as that of the Italian Papacy that had preceded it.. Italian states, lead by Florence, were raising a major insurrection against the Papacy. The Black Death was in the background too, peaking in 1348-1350; that plague had killed a minimum of 75 million Europeans and was still causing food shortages. The future saint, Catherine of Sienna, intervened with Gregory. It was that sort of time. Gregory’s successor, Urban VI, an Italian rather than a citizen of Rome, was elected hastily, fanned by popular pressure in Rome. Urban immediately began imposing reforms on the papal bureaucracy (the Curia) forbidding, among other things, that cardinals should accept gifts or special income grants from secular princes. A rebellion of Cardinals then elected a competing pope, again in Avignon, and thereby set the stage for our next phase of papal history.


The Western Schism. This split in the Catholic Church lasted 40 years and, as shown by the map, also represents a continuation of the Avignon papacy. Following the Encyclopedia Britannica’s take on things, the fault for the split must be pinned on the college of cardinals, which was then predominantly French, supported in a major way by Charles V, King of France. The map shows how this schism partitioned Europe, particularly the HRE. The French King’s connivance at the beginning of this schism is matched by its ending four decades later by the labors of Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund; he was a German by birth and, I note here with pleasure, also King of Hungary. The vehicle by which the Unity of the Church was reestablished was the Council of Constance. An earlier and much more disastrous council had been held by the college of cardinal—all parties wishing to establish unity again. The Council of Constance deposed the antipope John XXIII (who had, however, previously approved the council). His rival Gregory XII, resigned voluntarily. After a gap of two years, during which the Church was run by the cardinals as a group, Martin V became the first pope of the re-unified church.  A footnote: For most of us John XXIII is a recent and famous pope, he who called the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) to renew the Church. Our pope, if I may put it that way, chose his name deliberately by way of saying that the pope who’d used it during the Western Schism had been illegitimate.

The Renaissance Papacy. With this heading we have arrived at what seems to me the darkest point in the papacy. After that came the Reformation—which, it so happens, also reformed the Papacy. Let me quote a paragraph from Wikipedia here (link) to give its flavor:

According to Eamon Duffy, “the Renaissance papacy invokes images of a Hollywood spectacular, all decadence and drag. Contemporaries viewed Renaissance Rome as we now view Nixon's Washington, a city of expense-account whores and political graft, where everything and everyone had a price, where nothing and nobody could be trusted. The popes themselves seemed to set the tone.”  For example, Leo X was said to have remarked: “Let us enjoy the papacy, since God has given it to us.” Several of these popes took mistresses and fathered children and engaged in intrigue or even murder. Alexander VI had four acknowledged children: Cesare Borgia, Lucrezia Borgia, Gioffre Borgia, and Giovanni Borgia.

Eamon Duffy is an Irish Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Cambridge and self-described as a “cradle Catholic.”

The sale of indulgences is not mentioned in that paragraph but fits the context rather well. And what followed is entirely understandable. Since 1517, and the publication of Martin Luther’s The Ninety-five Theses, thus in the last 497 years, the Papacy has become quite unrecognizable if viewed through a medieval lens. By the time the Reformation began, the Middle Ages had also already passed, officially ending some 65 years before in 1453.

Let me end this now with three graphics I used, initially, to give myself some statistical perspectives on the Papacy.  They show the number of popes and antipopes, antipopes expressed as percent of popes, and the average tenure, in years, of the popes in each period. Again, clicking on the graphics will enlarge them. Concerning the second graphic, the percent is calculated by taking all popes in a period, e.g., 31 in Early Christianity, the number of antipopes in the same period (2), dividing the antipopes by popes, and multiplying by 100. For purposes of these graphics I include all periods, including the post-Renaissance period but excluding the reign of Pope Francis—whose tenure, for instance, is not yet known.

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†Pope Benedict VIII was pope three times, twice deposed then elected a third time. If we view his papacy as a single event, the total number becomes 264.

Image credits: Papal coat of arms: Wikipedia (link); the silver key represents earth, the golden key heaven. What the Papacy binds on earth is bound in heaven. Map of the Great Schism: University of Dayton (link); Statistical graphics of the Papacy: Based on the article in the Catholic Encyclopedia titled “The List of Popes” (link).

Middle Ages Posts:

Monday, March 24, 2014

Suffering from EMFS—But Where is it in the DSM?

The DSM has been mentioned before on this blog (here). It refers to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a compendium maintained by the American Psychiatric Association.

EMFS, alas, has not as yet been recognized (or even named) by the psychiatrists, but it should be. Therefore I offer here a name and a definition: Electro-Mad Flicker Syndrome. Let me start with the easy part of it, syndrome. It is “a group of signs and symptoms that occur together and characterize a particular abnormality.” In the case of EMFS the signs and symptoms are all related to modern electronic tools, networks, arrangements, and even satellites, which explains the electro part of that syndrome’s definition. The most difficult part to characterize is the word mad—because it takes so many different form. One form of it, today, is the absolute conviction that the only actual events in the world are (one) a lost airliner that will be found by CNN once their experts have dug deep enough to reach the bottom of the Indian ocean and (two) Rasputin’s (belay that, and make it Putin’s) absorption of Crimea. That pun on the name I owe to Brigitte, mind you, but I cannot help but echo it in this context of madness. Another instance of it, and the immediate motivation for this posting—no link to public affairs at all—is that mysterious bots or apps seem to have taken over my machine and use its CPU so much in doing whatever it is that they do that my screen freezes over for whole minutes at a time. Vague flickers of memory—which may themselves be the consequence of madness—are one symptom for the flicker that I make part of the name; those flickers indicate that, once, in another attack of EMFS, I might have myself downloaded them believing that I was doing something quite different. Flicker, however, applies across the board to electro-insanity, its chief purpose to destroy concentration.

The actual experience here is that the sufferer begins to do something fairly reasonable, thus open a new copy of a Microsoft Word Document, and gets caught up in a mad and compulsive pressing the Ctrl-Alt-Del combination and, an hour later, finds himself digging through the waste paper basket but quite unaware of why—or, to take the more public instance, tries to see what the temperature is by going to the Weather Channel but ends up tracking yellow lines on a big screen that breed two big red lines on the same screen. Two hours disappear; the temperature is quite forgotten. EMFS.

American Psychiatric Association, we need a cure. And before a cure can be found, “it,” whatever it is, needs a name. I offer EMFS. Please do something.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Frankish Victory: From Clovis to Charlemagne

An Overview

With this post we’ll reach roughly the middle point in the Middle Ages. At this point, therefore, it might help to take a look around, to have an overview. Where have we been? And how do the parts covered relate one to the others. With that in mind I will begin with a Timeline of the Middle Ages to the year 714. The inspiration for this timeline, by the way, indeed for the overview itself, comes from one Brigitta Theodora. She is a lady whose Celtic name puts her ahead of, and her middle name right into the middle of—the Middle Ages. Theodora, we note here, was the famed wife of Justinian I. My lady, however, is a very modern woman and co-regent of this household. Herewith the Timeline:


Most of the events graphed here have been covered or touched upon in earlier postings. This period is dominated by Germanic invasions of the old West Roman Empire. Note here the extensive reigns of what are entirely or predominantly Arian Christian tribes—Vandals, Goths, and Lombards. They dominate the valley of the Danube, the Balkans, Italy, North Africa, and Spain. One small reign, that of Clovis, will be covered in this post and represents the ultimate victory of the barbarians, the Franks, who were both the earliest settlers on Roman lands and the final winners.

The process that I have been following so far is a circular one, beginning in what is now Hungary and the Hunnish invasion of the dying Roman civilization. Thereafter I have moved south and west. The second graphic shows my progress roughly, with much time spent on Italy. Indeed, that focus continues on as we progress, next, to the region demarcated by the yellow portion of this ellipse. And then, in future posts, we’ll complete and retrace parts of this ellipse again as we approach the end, the fall of Constantinople.

To keep this schema relatively simple, I have, thus far, treated with benign neglect developments in England, Ireland, and Scotland—in part because they mirror, in miniature, the developments in mainland Europe: early invasions of proto-Roman and Celtic lands by Saxons and Angles from Scandinavia (beginning roughly after 410 after the last Roman troops depart), ultimate conquest by Normans from France (1056), and the formation of kingdoms all adhering to the Catholic faith. The Normans were descendants of Vikings, Merovingian Franks, and the original Roman Gallic populations.

Part of my plan has been, and continues to be, to show that beneath what might be called the secular (call it barbaric) level—but transcending and eventually influencing and nourishing it with values—has been the spread of Christianity, itself, to be sure, rent by tensions. These tension begins to divide Christianity into separate domains (Catholic and Arian at first, Orthodox and Coptic later). Of these Arianism passes with the disappearance of the Vandals and the conversion of the Visigoths. Well after the Middle Ages end (how very brief the times of unity), we have another split with the dawn of the Reformation.

The Franks

The earliest Frank settlements near the Roman Imperium were north of the delta of the Rhine, thus just on the border of the Roman lands. With Roman permission (circa 357), they were permitted to settle south of the Rhine (the Rhine itself being the border) in what then was called Toxandria and is today part of the Netherlands and Belgium. They were called Salii, hence the Salian Franks. Their first settlement is shown on the in-set map. They spread from there until, by 814, the death of Charlemagne, who was a Carolingian, they controlled most of Western Europe.

Two dynasties achieved this consolidation. The Merovingian (457-752) was the first. Its founder was Childeric I, son of Merovech, hence the name. Childreric was the father of Clovis, the first major Frankish conqueror—and had it not been for him, the Merovingian name would not have been. The last titular Merovingian ruler was Childeric III. With his deposition by Pepin the Short begins the Carolingian dynasty (754-814), but we must underline here that the two dynasties actually somewhat overlap. The Carolingians begin with Charles Martel (688-741). Charles in Latin is Carolus, hence the name. Martel’s sons were Carloman and Pepin, and Pepin mustn’t have been very tall. Pepin’s son was Charlemagne, who was extraordinarily tall—and you might say that the Carolingians would also have been forgotten except for him.

The rise of the Carolingians, from Martel, who himself had been born out of wedlock, is illuminative of Frankish customs and the times. The Franks did not believe in primogeniture, thus the right of the firstborn (son, of course) to inherit his father’s total estate—or even the variant under which one son would inherit. Clovis, an outstanding statesman and military ruler—much like all Frankish kings before and after him—partitioned his realm between his sons. And in all such cases the total realm became weaker because of rivalries between the surviving brothers. The Frankish kings, however, much like all rulers with unquestioned power based on fighting skill, disliked the tedium of administration—which in turn, of course, caused havoc. Therefore a new institution developed. It was the appointment of a Mayor of the Palace, that is to say caretaker or administrator. That office, in turn, became hereditary. But because you couldn’t split the realm just because a mere administrator died, each Mayor of the Palace could only leave it to one son. Martel inherited his title from his father, Pepin of Herstal (also called Pepin the Middle). There was also a Pepin the Elder, who predates all three. And all of them, including Charles Martel, belonged to the Pippinids, a large family just one rank down from royalty. Forgive me for this paragraph, but it must continue a little longer. The Franks had discovered what we well know: great administrators are rare. Pepin the Middle, therefore, had managed to be appointed simultaneously Mayor of the Palace for three different French kingdoms (Austrasia, Neustria, and Burgundy—see the map shown later). He also called himself Duke and Prince of Francia—and, using that word, in a way foreshadowed things to come. Martel’s son Pepin the Short took the ultimate step. He went on from being Mayor of the Palace to king. And with him the Carolingian dynasty has its origins.


The map above shows the total expansion of Frankish power over 333 years. The two darkest greens represent the conquests of Clovis, the next lighter shade represents conquests by his sons, the fourth conquests by Charles Martel and Pipin, and the last by Charlemagne.

Clovis’ conquests, indeed the victory of the Franks as a whole, may have been greatly helped by a woman named Clotilde and enrolled by the Catholic Church as Saint Clotilde, the second wife of Clovis. She was a princess of Burgundy. She was a very pious Catholic; through her influence, Clovis was converted to Catholicism. Not immediately, to be sure; she began her labors in 493, but Clovis was just weighing her words for a while. It took a battle against the Alemani (that’s Swabia on the Map) in 496, that Clovis, seeing his army falling apart, began to pray to the God of his wife Clotilde. His prayer appeared to have an instant answer, and another Arian passed into the orthodox faith. His people followed his example. Clovis immediately gained the approval and support of the Church, which helped him and weakened his enemies.

Pondering these endless wars—and on the surface anyway (bad news always leaves an imprint, little else does)—one wonders about a couple of things. The first is how were these wars justified. What was the underlying justification or rationale? And if present, was it conscious, framed in thought? The other is the leadership itself. What sort of men were these?

To hazard an answer to the first question, the underlying motivation seems to be a more or less basic drive to establish dominance by the strongest which, no doubt, in the male, is a biological imperative. Kings arose by way of personal valor. Once achieved it was hallowed by family lineage. Territoriality plays a role here—defense, counterattack, then holding on to new territory if victorious. Concepts like human rights are at most conspicuous by absence. In his City of God (410) Augustine had already framed the phrase “just wars,” basing that concept on self-defense—in the accomplishment of which “Thou shalt not kill” is temporarily suspended. But as demonstrated in Clovis’ own conversion, such once might say “elevated” thoughts were not very much to the front; his conversion was pragmatic and certainly did not involve reading Augustine, if he could even read. The socialization, never mind acculturation, of such people would take much more time and, arguably, would never really take hold of the war-leading elites.

As for the second question, all of these kings were warriors first—and very little beyond. Those who have left their name in history (e.g. Alaric, Theodoric) were gifted in various ways beyond barbaric valor. They were obviously very intelligent but with relatively short time horizons. They made useful and far ranging diplomatic arrangements, formed useful alliances and kept them alive by restraint. They were always, however, in a kind of motion, even once settled into realms; they did not leave new institutions behind that led to a permanent order. Among the Franks, the dominant context was the family—sons and their domains, without thought of the consequences of parceling out realms that, for the moment, a single personality held together.

In this context, therefore, it is intriguing to contemplate that family with its many Pepins, the Pippinids. Here, for the first time, we see the early manifestations of institutional thought, natural for administrators who experience the value of permanent arrangements—be it of communications or supplies. Here we have, for the first time, the projection of the concept of Francia, as a coherent realm—whereas the Goths all thought in terms of personality: How to become Augustus.

The skillful management of state affairs—with an eye on the longer run—is illustrated by the actions of Pepin the Short, he who gave us a long-lasting if also problematical institution. When the Lombards invaded the regions of Ravenna in 751, Pepin came to the aid of Pope Stephen II. In a kind of trade—recognition as king for the grant of military aid—Pepin twice invaded Italy to force the Lombards to cede Ravenna and its regions to the Papacy. These lands, together with the region of Rome, provided what came to be called the Donation of Pepin, namely the Papal States. They survived more or less intact into the nineteenth century. They are purple in the in-set map.

As for the last of the big Pippinid names, it was that of Charles I, Charlemagne, he who fathered the Holy Roman Empire. He was both a great barbarian warrior and a man who came from a long line of fine administrators. Never learned to read or write, however; there are always clerks who can do that for you if you are great enough. But, we are told, he always slept on a pillow placed over a bottle of ink and a pen. Nothing propinques like propinquity.
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Picture credits: Map of Franks' origins: Wikipedia (link); map of Frankish conquests: Wikipedia (link); image of Saint Clotilde: Wikipedia (link); and Papal States: althistory.wikia.com (link).

Posts in this series: firstsecondthirdfourthfifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Arco Polo?

Occasionally I note here particularly irritating or amusing crossword puzzle clues. Doing a puzzle yesterday, from USA Today, dated March 14, 2014, and composed by Henry Quarters, we saw the following 12 Down: “Bowed, in music.” This one resisted us to the bitter end although the other words in the grid did produce an answer, as shown below:

M
A
C
A
U
E
W
E
R
S
E
V
I
D
E
N
C
E
R
E
S
I
S
T
O
R

All we could do was to accept that. And while an “arc” has some linkage to bowing, as in “the arc of a circle,” and the terminal O does suggest something Italian, somehow the clue suggested a past tense whereas the Italian form of the word, per one of our endless dictionaries (even for languages we do not speak) defines arco as “bow,” not as “bowed.” Our regular Webster’s Collegiate does have the word and defines it as follows: “With the bow — usu. used as a direction in music for players of stringed instruments.” Thus the bow referenced is not a verb but a noun. “With the bow—sheet music instruction” would have been a proper clue. The actual clue was very deceptive.

I make note of this because Mr. Quarters, if encouraged, might someday come up with the following clue for a longer, eight-letter answer. That clue would be “Famous Italian Fiddler and Explorer?” That question mark, of course, would be a way of saying that “I’m asking tongue in cheek.” Which is what we do when the damn puzzle just won’t, won’t let its author come to closure—despite the looming deadline…

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Saint Lucy and Light in the Middle Ages

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
    For I am every dead thing,
    In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
            For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death—things which are not.
     [Second verse of John Donne’s “A Nocturnal upon St. Luci’s Day, Being the Shortest Day”]

What with today being the Vernal Equinox—“the next spring” in John Donne’s words above—and what with my preoccupation presently with the Middle Ages, it seems appropriate to look at one of the great saints of that period, Saint Lucy or, more formally Lucia of Syracuse (283-304). Her feast day fell on the Winter Solstice under the Julian calendar but is on December 13 in the Gregorian—hence Donne’s title; Donne (1572-1631) lived just as the Gregorian calendar was being revised (1582) and had not yet taken hold.

To be sure, looking at the dates of Saint Lucy’s brief life, she predates the Middle Ages (usually marked as starting in 476) by nearly two hundred years. But part of my theme in this series is to question arbitrary time designations. Saint Lucy lived in Diocletian’s time, which marks the de facto quartering of the Roman Empire, as in “dismembered.” Some 300 years after her death, her name appears in the missal (or sacramentary) written by the most influential Pope of the Middle Ages, Saint Gregory The Great (r. 590-604). The Venerable Bede (see this post) attests to her popularity in England in the eighth century; her feast day was a holiday of the second rank (no work was to be performed) and remained so until the Reformation came. She is featured in Dante’s Divine Comedy (that brings us to the fourteenth century), inspired Donne (seventeenth), and yesterday, on winter’s last day, as we returned from a early dinner with friends, we passed, in Saint Clair Shores, Michigan the St. Lucy Catholic Church (make that the twenty-first).

Concerning Gregory I, a word or two. He lived in the time when the Goths lost Italy, tried to retake Rome, then held by Belisarius, succeeded after Belisarius’ recall, and lost it again to Belisarius’ successor, Narses. These events, during which he was serving as an official in Rome, were his education—until he turned to the religious life as a monk and was later named Pope—in part because of his administrative gifts. His influence over Christendom owed much to his liturgical changes, thus that sacramentary. It was much used over Christendom and thus spread knowledge of Saint Lucy widely.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia (link), Saint Lucy came from a wealthy family in Syracuse, Italy, and early aspired to a life of virginal holiness. Her father was a Roman, her mother probably of Greek origin. Her father died early. Thereafter Lucy endeavored to enter a life of prayer and poverty, but in this effort her mother, Eutychia, resisted her. The Encyclopedia continues as follows:

The fame of the virgin-martyr Agatha, who had been executed fifty-two years before in the Decian persecution, was attracting numerous visitors to her relics at Catania, not fifty miles from Syracuse, and many miracles had been wrought through her intercession. Eutychia was therefore persuaded to make a pilgrimage to Catania, in the hope of being cured of a hæmorrhage, from which she had been suffering for several years. There she was in fact cured, and Lucy, availing herself of the opportunity, persuaded her mother to allow her to distribute a great part of her riches among the poor.

The largess stirred the greed of the unworthy youth to whom Lucy had been unwillingly betrothed, and he denounced her to Paschasius, the Governor of Sicily. It was in the year 303, during the fierce persecution of Diocletian. She was first of all condemned to suffer the shame of prostitution; but in the strength of God she stood immovable, so that they could not drag her away to the place of shame. Bundles of wood were then heaped about her and set on fire, and again God saved her. Finally, she met her death by the sword. But before she died she foretold the punishment of Paschasius and the speedy termination of the persecution, adding that Diocletian would reign no more, and Maximian [Diocletian’s co-regent] would meet his end. So, strengthened with the Bread of Life, she won her crown of virginity and martyrdom.

The Catholic Encyclopedia continues saying that her predictions, as recorded, did not take place—and then continues to point out the rather weak evidence for the facts stated, except the time and place of her death. The Encyclopedia says: “For the rest, the most notable are her connexion with St. Agatha and the miraculous cure of Eutychia, and it is to be hoped that these have not been introduced by the pious compiler of the saint’s story or a popular instinct to link together two national saints.”

Although the little we know about her comes from the Acts of the Martyrs, and furthermore, per the Encyclopedia, from a fifth century version, the bare facts and a knowledge of human nature allows one to picture the same-old-same-old situation. Lucy might never have died a martyr had not her family attracted greedy suitors, and no father alive to keep them in line. The times were tense then, hence the Diocletian persecutions; her husband to be—no doubt already mentally spending his future wealth—fell into a rage at her decision to give most of it to the poor and, in those times, could persuade the authorities to intervene.

The fact of Saint Agatha’s existence is also not doubted, nor the fact that she met her own martyrdom fifty years before. That, and the “popular instinct” that no doubt immediately began to embroider Saint Lucy’s life, and later to make it much more weird and awesome, are a kind of deposit we can use to picture to ourselves the popular feelings that colored the cultural-religious life of a civilization in its death throes. Our very modern Wikipedia (link) brings us one of the much later embroideries:

Absent in the early narratives and traditions, at least until the 15th century, is the story of Lucia tortured by eye-gouging. According to later accounts, before she died she foretold the punishment of Paschasius and the speedy end of the persecution, adding that Diocletian would reign no more, and Maximian would meet his end. This so angered Paschasius that he ordered the guards to remove her eyes. Another version has Lucy taking her own eyes out in order to discourage a persistent suitor who admired them. When her body was prepared for burial in the family mausoleum it was discovered that her eyes had been miraculously restored.

The Renaissance went to work on that embellishment later, including one painting, dated 1521, in which she holds her own eyes on plate. But the Renaissance is, of course, an introduction to our modern times, hence nearly a hundred years after the Middle Ages formally ended in 1453. The image I show, also from Wikipedia, hews to the medieval feeling mode and is dated 1340. She holds a dagger that caused her death and the lamp, which is her symbol. The painting is by Nicolò di Segna.

Why the lamp? Well, the etymology of Lucy goes back to the Greek lux for light—which links her to that longest night of the year, the Winter Solstice, when we need light most urgently. And these choices qualify her wonderfully well, it seems to me, as the symbol both for the Dark Ages, the light that, in time, arose from within them—but was already present before the darkness fell. And yes, the Church is not deaf to popular instinct either. Saint Lucy is also the patron saint of the blind and those with troubled vision.
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Posts in this series: firstsecondthirdfourthfifth, sixth, and seventh.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Inflation is Back

My reference here is not to Janet Yellen’s appointment as Chair of the Federal Reserve. Rather it touches on Cosmological Inflation said to have happened immediately after the Big Bang. A group of scientists have reported, in Nature, new evidence that the inflation really did take place. Hence the faith in the Big Bang appears to be justified. The team, headed by John Kovac, used the BICEP2 radio telescope, located at the South Pole, to obtain a new look at the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation (CMB). Kovac is with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and the leader of the BICEO2 collaboration. A CfA press release it here.

The core of the discovery announced is the first actual detection of gravitational waves. What are these? Well, they are hypothesized by Einstein’s theory of relativity to come about because the density of matter deforms something he called spacetime. The issue is competently summarized in the following three paragraphs from the Reuters report on the discovery (link):

Those curvatures of space are not stationary, Einstein said. Instead, they propagate like water in a lake or seismic waves in Earth's crust and so are "gravitational waves" that "alternately squeeze space in one direction and stretch it in the other direction," Jamie Bock, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and one of the lead scientists on the collaboration, told Reuters.

The other, much more recent theory that predicted gravitational waves is called cosmic inflation. Developed in the 1980s, it starts with the well-accepted idea that the universe began in a Big Bang, an explosion of space-time, 13.8 billion years ago.

An instant later, according to the theory, the infant cosmos expanded exponentially, inflating in size by 100 trillion times. That made the cosmos remarkably uniform across vast expanses of space and also super-sized tiny fluctuations in gravity, producing gravitational waves.

The waves detected by BICEO2 team are thought to be physically measurable remnants of that inflation’s squeeze-and-stretch of the primordial spacetime—of which the CMB radiation carries an imprint.

Now inflation is based on the theory that the cosmos is expanding. That theory in turn rests on the red-shift of galaxies, and the farther away they are, the more red-shifted their light. The presumption is that, going backward in time, we shall see all of these galaxies converging, joining, and eventually collapsing into an extremely tiny particle, smaller than a proton. Since both space and time, in Einsteinian thought, are the product of matter, both were equally minute. As for what existed before that less-than-proton-sized object exploded, on that we have no theory at all. What the theory of inflation proposes is that the initial expansion of that particle, going forward in time again, exhibited negative (i.e. repulsive) gravity for a fraction of a second. Had such an extremely rapid expansion not occurred, the cosmos would not be as uniform in the distribution of its energy and matter as it is.

Amazing, amazing. Personally I’m sill hung up on spacetime myself, which I take to be a mathematical convenience. As for repulsive gravity, it has much to do with virtual particles, which, per quantum mechanics, are spontaneously formed and destroyed in a vacuum—the modern version of creatio ex nihilo. Such negative energy is also, alas, associated with Dark Energy. And then, remembering Richard Feynman, I recall that time can also run in reverse, at least in Quantum Land. The new discovery published this month, therefore, does not give me what it seems to give to cosmologists, namely closure.

Now if we suppose that the red-shift Hubble observed is not caused by actual motion (or by the expansion of space), or not exclusively caused by it, then, of course, there was no Big Bang and all the vast work that followed to track it has been just for fun. Reversals in science are rare, but they do leave large black eyes. Let us remember that Einstein himself once introduced a cosmological constant, lambda, into his field equations for general relativity (in 1917) because the equations suggested that gravity would cause the cosmos to contract—in an age where the Steady State cosmos was accepted orthodoxy. After Hubble’s finding suggested that the cosmos was expanding, Einstein abandoned his constant (in 1929) and labeled its introduction the greatest blunder of his life. As with that constant so perhaps with the Big Bang. Just give it a little spacetime.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Iberia Absorbs the Visigoths

Having stared at Italy now for a while—in an attempt at grasping what the phrase “Middle Ages” really means—it seems only right now to look to the west and to study Iberia. I use that word rather than Hispania, which was the Roman term, because I want to start with a truly great map of the Iberian Peninsula showing the region in pre-Roman times. The image, alas, is copyrighted, hence I can only point to it (link). It shows what is for me the bewildering variety of tribes that occupied the palce before Rome attempted to subjugate the region. After they had done so, we get the following map, taken from the time of Diocletian’s Tetrarchy, which extended from 293 to 313.

The northern border of Tarraconensis roughly represents the Pyrenees, a guarding barrier, you might say. Now what happened to this realm, beginning in 409 may be summarized thus:

Vandals and Suevi, both Germanic and originating in today’s northwestern Germany and Poland had settled in the yellow region, southern France, then called Aquitania. Another tribe, which had originated in what is now Russia between the Black Sea and the Caspian, the Alani, were settled there too. Elements of these three tribal groupings crossed the Pyrenees and settled the westernhalf of Iberia: Suevi and one Vandal complement in Gallacia, the Alani in Lusitania, another Vandal element in Boetica.

The map below shows the advance of the Alani—who, coming from just north of Persia, spoke a closely related language. Their path and that of the Vandals coincide after both leave Aquitania; the Alani, after suffering defeat by the Vandals in Iberia, become one tribal stream.


The next image shows the progress of the Visigoths. They’re late-comers to Spain but destined to be the victors for a goodly spell. Note the similarity of their path to the one followed by the Alans—and their arrival in Aquitanica some years after the Alans’ departure. This is the stream in which Alaric appears as the conqueror of Rome, triggering Augustine’s City of God. By the time the Visigoths reach France, Athaulf is king. It is to him that Emperor Honorius elevates to an imperial viceroyship and asks to make order in Hispania—in exchange for ruling it in Honorius’ name.


Elements of the Visigoth do indeed enter Spain and defeat the Alani in Lusitania (418). Their success leads to further mass migrations of Iberia, but the Visigoths continue, also more or less to rule Aquitanica under Honorius’ very distant sanction. Some 90 years later (507), the increasingly powerful Frankish realm, to the north of Aquitanica, makes itself felt as a war breaks out between Franks and Visigoth. The Visigoths then lose their holdings in Gaul and move en masse across the Pyrenees to Iberia, a land they more or less control.

The result of this conquest, at its peak, around 500 AD, is shown in the map to the left. Note here that, following the Frankish invasion of Aquitanica, the Visigothic capital is moved, from Toulouse, to Barcelona on the Mediterranean coast and then to Toledo. Note further that Visigothic rule fails to overcome the Suevi who, one might say, are founding Portugal. And note above all that white region on the north coast. You might have guessed why: the Basques have their home there. They were present before any earlier invasions—say by the Celts, then the Romans, and then the Vandals et al. They were a thorn in the hide of every invader, not least the last (for a while), the Visigoths; as we shall see. Note, finally, the name of the African region in yellow. The Vandals and the Alani have been expelled from Spain (but see notes below).

Three other highlights regarding this westernmost extent of the old Roman Imperium. Theodoric the Great, having conquered Italy, became very influential with the Visigoth by marrying his daughter Theodegotho to Alaric II. In the period 511-526, his grandson Amaliric ruled the Visigoths. The second point: The last Arian king of the Visigoths, until he converted to Catholicism in 587, was Reccared. With his conversion, and that of his followers, the last vestiges of religious tension between Roman Hispanics (if I may use that word) and Visigoths disappeared. Finally, the end. In 711 the Muslims invaded Spain from Africa. The king of the Visigoths then was the Roderic, an obscure and not very popular figure. He just happened to be campaigning far to the north at the time against—well, you guessed it. The Basques. And Iberia fell under Muslim rule. Spain was still under that rule when Middle Ages ended. Herewith a timeline of major events. The blue coloration indicates the portion that falls into the Middle Ages.


Some Notes:

Barbarian Invasions. The changing coloration of maps may give the wrong impressions that invading tribes completely displaced entire local populations. Not at all. Barbarian tribes were relatively small in size. When they conquered a region, they replaced the ruling classes from power and added their own dependents to the population. When they differed in religion, e.g. the Vandals and Visigoths both being Arians, this was a handicap for them in ruling regions still thickly populated with Catholics. Vandals and Visigoths were admired—we have one Catholic bishop’s words for that—for their chastity, piety—but tensions still remained. Therefore the conversion of Reccared (not a big name in history) was very significant in Spain. The last tension between rulers and ruled vanished. You might say that under the Visigoths Iberia had two competing souls, each represented by a religion (see my last note). With Reccared converted, one soul remained.

Vandals and Alans. The maps, again, may say too much or too little. Some elements of both tribes remained in Spain—and their descendants are still there. Organized tribal elements emigrated to Africa.

Civilizations as Embodiments of an Idea. When looking at the death of one (Roman) and the birth of another (Christian) civilization, the thought occurs that civilizations, however physical in manifestation, are really something more transcending. They are a collective consciousness, a kind of soul, something that gives a body its meaning and unity. The flesh of that body are the populations that share this common soul. The bones of it are geographical structures like Iberia and Italy; its circulation are the rivers. At the more physical level, the antibodies and immune systems of such abstract structures are centrally-controlled military and police forces. While they perform effectively, governed from a single point, they protect the body. But when this protection fails, bacteria and viruses of another sort are able to invade. Of another sort? Yes. These aliens can interbreed with the cells that form the flesh of the body they invade. And once order is established, they can, therefore, be reabsorbed to form a new body when a new soul arises once more to create more permanent living societies. All those invasions? Reaching in from the Far East and the Far North? Infections. The Roman body had become disordered; the antibodies lost the battle because the center no longer held; and with that even that abstract something, the soul, began to disappear. Later, when things settled down, a new soul, already present and waiting, took over once again and created the new civilization of Christendom.
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Image credits: Diocletian’s Hispania: Wikipedia (link); Alani migrations: Wikipedia (link); Visigothic migration: Wikipedia (link); Visigothic Kingdom in 500: Wikipedia (link).

Posts in this series: first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Saint Benedict and Western Monasticism

The death of Theodoric the Great in 526—give or take a few years on either side—is an important point of temporal anchorage in the Middle Ages. Consider for instance that Boethius, one of the very late Roman philosophers, he of The Consolation of Philosophy, died in 524 or 525, put to death by Theodoric on suspicion of conspiring with the East Roman Emperor. A few years later begin Emperor Justinian’s wars, triggered by Theodoric’s death, to retake the Western Empire. But closer to that date were laid the foundations of Western Monasticism.

In history, of course, there are very few really clean beginnings. By the time Benedict of Nursia was born (around 480), monasticism had spread north and east from its early beginnings in Egypt (the Desert Fathers). In Egypt already two forms of it evolved, called eremitic and cenobitic. The first of these derives from “hermit,” essentially a loner; the second derives from the Greek words koinos meaning “common” and bios meaning life, thus “communal,” thus monks living as a community. Benedict himself, living in Rome, left the city at 18 or 19 to seek solitude. He settled some 43 miles east of Rome in Subiaco. At first he pursued the eremitic form of monastic life, living alone on a mountain. But by the time Boethius was put to death in Pavia way to the north, Benedict was already founding monasteries (up to 12, by most accounts, in that region)—but these were small, about 13 monks each. He was testing the appropriate way in which the communal monastic life might be lived—and encountered many problems. His great gift to Christianity was the Rule of Benedict (Regula Benedicti). When he began writing it is unclear but it probably began when he moved to Monte Cassino around about 526 and founded his famous abbey there in 529. He also died at Monte Cassino in 547—but before the Lombards (Justinian’s successors having failed to hold Italy) sacked the monastery in 581; it continued in ruins until reestablished by the Benedictines in 718. The map shows Benedict’s area of activity.

Saint Benedict’s life was fraught with struggles and much more colorful than a few words in summary can indicate. He was one of a pair of twins; his sister, these days Saint Scholastica, clearly had the same leanings and temperament—but from an earlier age. Later she joined him at Monte Cassino and, near there, in Plombariola, she founded the first Benedictine Convent.  Both his and her life are punctuated by numerous miracles; these powers arose in him quite soon after beginning his solitary life as a hermit, which, for me, makes good sense. He had achieved an advanced spiritual state while living, still in Subiaco, on a mountain, in solitude, with just one visitor, a monk, who regularly brought him food. His later success, first in Subiaco, later at Monte Cassino, was no doubt illuminated by his personal charisma. As always in such matters, Scholastica’s name and life are much less known than her brother’s, but my guess is that her powers arose much earlier. Here might be a good time to note that monasticism—and not just of the Christian variety—always has and still does everywhere have its female lineage. The drawing power of the divine reaches both sexes with equal force…

The map on the left shows the spread of the seed Benedict laid into the anguished soil of the old Western Roman world. That soil had certainly, by his time, been very well ploughed by incessant war, slaughter, and depopulation. This is an altogether incomplete map. It shows only Clunaic and Cistercian monasteries. To these may be added Benedictines, Camaldolese, Carthusians, Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians, and others. The period represented on this map begins in 909 when the Abbey at Cluny was built, the first establishment of a reformed Benedictine order (Back to the Rules, you might say). The Cistercians, in turn, founded in 1098, were another return to literal obedience of the Benedictine rules. Like all things that succeed enormously, so also monasticism, was subject to abuse and to excess; hence those movements of reform. And yes. Monasticism in the Middle Ages was both a religious and an economic efflorescence—the economic part owing to prayer combined with labor (ora et labora, the Benedictine motto) applied to agriculture. To give at least a concentrated view of institutional developments in the Middle Ages (the blue color of the chart—the orange predates and the green follows the period) I provide a partial chronology of monasticism.

It is, of course, easy to conclude that such a movement was the exclusive creation of inspired, dedicated, and very able male and female religious figures. That would be to see only a part of it. Elements of the Medieval ruling classes, a very large number of pious members of it, made large monastic establishments possible by granting to the religious leaders large tracts of land separated from the owners’ own holdings. Their names are sometimes mentioned in a kind of parenthetical way; and some of them, certainly later, were gaining renown for making such gifts. It is also well to note that Western Europe had seen significant depopulation. Many of these lands were not of the rich sort; but that ora et labora later deforested and planted them and filled them with sheep and cattle…

My aim in making this posting was to show what I’d called the other side of the Medieval coin in the last post in this series. Political life is one; cultural life is the other. Monasticism provides us a way to see—and even to map—a radical change in the human environment over against the way things were during the reign of Rome. Monasticism here is a brand new and home-grown phenomenon—and not something imported from Buddhism. I’ll conclude with a map that shows the spread of Christianity:


Note that most of this map is colored; the areas left white were undeveloped or remained still pagan, except the lower right corner which eventually turned Muslim. The whole process of coloration began down there on the lower right shore of the Mediterranean, in Israel, and then spread north, east, and west. I reproduce the legend in enlarged format so that the labels attached to each color, which represent successive spreads of Christianity, may be more easily read. It may be worth noting here that if each church built in these periods were marked with a black dot, the map would virtually turn black. My focus, monasticism, is, thus, is a handy way to show, at lesser density, what happened beneath the clash of arms and the constant displacement of people. Those populations tried to make their own life tolerable, and reached to the sky for it, even if all you could actually do, and that only when armies weren’t marching, was to work and pray. Compared to those times, our life, here, today, is easy, very easy…
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Image credits: Map of Benedict’s activity: Google Maps; Map of monasteries: Indiana University (link); Map of Development of Christianity: University of Florida (link).

Posts in this series: first, second, third, fourth, and fifth.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Justinian and an Attempted Restoration

One of the striking features of the Decline and Fall of Rome is the persistent longing for its reestablishment by those who inherited its parts—and the Middle Ages are a period in which successive attempts to resuscitate the dearly departed actually took place. One of the first of these, curiously, was Alaric’s brother Athaulf (also Atawulf) the Visigoth who dreamt of recreating the Empire:

At first I wanted to erase the Roman name and convert all Roman territory into a Gothic empire: I longed for Romania to become Gothia, and Athaulf to be what Caesar Augustus had been. But long experience has taught me that the ungoverned wildness of the Goths will never submit to laws, and that without law a state is not a state. Therefore I have more prudently chosen the different glory of reviving the Roman name with Gothic vigour, and I hope to be acknowledged by posterity as the initiator of a Roman restoration, since it is impossible for me to alter the character of this Empire.
    [Circa 413, source Orosius, Historiae adversum paganos, quoted in Wikipedia (link)]

Another at least titular barbarian was Charlemagne (742-814), and he came closest to achieving it. The last famous name was Dante; in the fourteenth century he still dreamed of the reestablishment, this time, of the Holy Roman Empire.

An intermediate figure in this process was the East Roman Emperor Justinian (482-565). He made a stab at it himself when he launched the Gothic Wars in which, except for the end phase, the famed General Belisarius led most of the fighting—and the depopulation of Italy in the process—which cleared the field for the Lombard dominion, coming from the north, of Italy until Charlemagne came and defeated them in 774. Regarding Belisarius, I would recommend Robert Graves’ novel, Belisarius, which provides a genuine flavor of those times in rich detail.

Now for a broader context on that Eastern Empire. One might argue that the Roman Empire was split in two because its western half had become more and more ungovernable owing to barbaric invasions from the Germanic north certainly by the third century already—so much so that Emperor Diocletian (245-311), who first partitioned the realm politically into a tetrarchy, a rule of four, quite awarely acknowledged that ungovernability before the split. Under his design two emperors co-ruled, one in the West, one in the East. Two was turned into four by assigning each emperor a deputy, a Caesar. Caesars were to succeed Emperors and to appoint their own Caesars in turn. Each emperor (indeed each Caesar) had de facto sovereignty—and choice of capital. The capital of Rome therefore began to move around.

The Eastern empire consisted then of the regions south of the Danube, i.e. the Balkans, together with Greece, Turkey, Syria, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt. The great military pressures on this realm came from the north and east (Hunns, Avars, eventually Genghis Khan—and from the Germanic tribes that these incursions in turn threatened) and from the southeast pressure came from the Persians (the Sassanids). The map shows the divisions at around 395, year of the death of Theodosius, the last Roman Emperor who had managed to rule both realms at once:


Constantine transferred his center of power to Byzantium because the East was more stable and therefore also more prosperous than the West. It might also be noted here that a large proportion of Rome’s military leadership came from what is now the Balkans. Diocletian was born in today’s Croatia, Constantine in Serbia—and this move was also, you might say, going closer to home. Diocletian, after his retirement (a rare bird he, who actually resigned the emperorship) lies buried in what is now Split, Croatia, where he retired.


How the map had changed by Justinian’s time is shown above; its date is 526, the death of Theodoric. The Western Empire has become fragmented as shown by its many colors. The Eastern Empire was still intact but obviously under pressure from the west as well. In 535, some nine years after Theodoric’s death (he who painted that map above red) Justinian launched a war, really multiple thrusts. His inspiration was Gothic infighting over Theodoric’s legacy. One of Justinian’s thrusts was directed at the recovery of Italy, another at the conquest of the Vandals, and a third, which did not go very far, was an attempt at recapturing Spain. The results are shown below:


Note that Justinian’s two out-stretched hands have almost managed to recover most of the old territories of Rome West. But coloration of maps does not tell the whole picture. Justinian’s wars are labeled Pyrrhic victories. The war in Italy is called the Gothic War of 535-554; it might have been called the Second Gothic War because an earlier one, 376-382, is also called by the same name—but that conflict took place in the Balkans, thus in the actual territory of the Eastern Empire itself. The Goth, pressed north by Belisarius, came back a little more to the east. The Eastern Empire, after that, was on its last leg. Nor did the reconquest of Italy last any significant time. Just a decade after Justinian died, the situation in Italy had changed again. The Gothic War had devastated Italy, particularly its urban places. Historians use the word “depopulated.” Depopulation is, however, also an invitation. Lombards had come to take over significant parts of the country and would claim yet more of it. A map of Italy dated 575 shows the results. 

Let me now look ahead some 500 years or so, to 1092 and therefore the High Middle ages. The map that follows does this. It shows a greatly shrunken Byzantine state, an Empire in name alone. The Balkans have been overrun. And the green coloration of the southern regions, stretching up into Spain, signal a new element in history. Something called Islam has emerged and shows its wide-spread reality replacing Vandals and Visigoth.


Every coin has two sides. One side of the Medieval coin shows political fragmentation—and incessant warfare as now this tribal domain and now that other has its crack at becoming the new Augustus. The actors here are tribal ruling classes. Those who bear the pain are the resident populations. And that reveals the Medieval coin’s other side. The population of this once peaceful region—with all its wars far away on the limes, as the Romans called the frontiers, are now living in a world that, translated to our times, would resemble rule by very large motor cycle gangs. The yearning for peace—and the courage to overcome the hardship of this age—is provided by a common faith which, while the battles keep raging on, is slowly forming a new culture: Christendom. This culture comes gradually to overlay these different realms. But it is much more difficult to illustrate it with maps; nevertheless, I’ll attempt to make it “visible” in my next attempt in this series.
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Images: Empire in 395: Wikipedia (link); Europe in 526: Wikipedia (link); Italy in 575: Wikipedia (link); Byzantine conquests: RealHistory (link);  Europe in 1092: Wikipedia (link).