Thursday, September 30, 2010
In his prolific writings, both historical and spiritual, Bishop Gregory of Tours emphasized miracles. The bishop recorded even the most obscure occurrences of a divine intervention, such as the conversion of an Arian. His opinion was that people were sceptical, non-superstitious. In their minds, miracles were a thing of the past. To prove God’s continual influence, Gregory recorded every recent small miracle to be known. These were everyday miracles, such as the transformation of grapes into wine, or the random sightings of angels/demons. Gregory recorded these miracles because the people needed inspiration, and saints’ behaviours were to be emulated.
Miracles were used as the validation of Christianity. A saint would perform an incomprehensible feat, and the faithful would thus be reassured. Further still, the work of the saints undermined pagan beliefs. So, as the apostle Paul commanded, the function of miracles served to convert the heathens. Bishop Gregory and the other saints devoted their lives to Jesus, which meant undermining the false profits. The clergy engaged in burning down heretic temples and destroying false idols. In one popular tale regarding St. Martin, the bishop challenged a group of pagans. Standing in front of a tree, St. Martin proclaimed that if the tree were to be cut, God would divert the falling obstacle from the bishop’s path. The pagans obliged the bishop and chopped the tree down. According to legend, the tree should have toppled St. Martin, but with the outreach of his hand, the bishop propelled the falling limb to swing around and nearly squash his opponents. The purpose of this miracle was to undermine the heathens and assure the faithful. By writing down such a miracle, Bishop Gregory achieved this goal.
According to Gregory’s own admission, he was not a gifted writer. His command of the Latin language was almost substandard, and he was untrained in the classics. For him, despite these hurtles, recording “the church” history was important. As noted by scholars, the all-encompassing history written by Gregory was profound. At the time of his death, it had been over a century since anyone had attempted to write such a grandiose history. Perhaps this is why Gregory felt compelled to write, despite his educational deficiencies.
In the end, Gregory’s priorities are clear. He wished to spread the word of God. The best way to win converts and glorify his faith was through the perpetuation of miracles. At a time when Christianity was battling pagan beliefs for European dominancy, the propaganda function of miracles is unmistakable. However, scholars do not doubt that Bishop Gregory believed every word that which he wrote. According to church doctrine, “natural science” was creation, miracles, and the resurrection. Unlike pagan spirituality, the three components of “natural science” affirmed the idea of inevitability – everything was essentially God’s will. Clearly, Gregory believed that his work was God’s will, his entire life was.
The first two books of The History of the Franks are of varying styles and content. The beginning of the first book is appears to be a summary of the Bible. The structure of this book was also very similar to the way the Bible is formatted, in a series of numbered verses. Albeit, in my opinion, as well as noted by Goffart in his response to Gregory's histories, this structuring choice left the narrative as a whole very fragmented. It appears that Gregory was melding together various snippets of history and putting them under numbered verses, but many of them had no connection with the one previous. There was so much history put into such a small volume, which perhaps resulted in the loss of fluidity throughout the prose.
Furthermore, I find it very intriguing that in order to tell the history of a specific people who live in a specific time period that Gregory of Tours thought it necessary to tell the history from the beginning of time. He starts the first book off with the birth of Adam and Eve, and ends it the death of Saint Martin. This could perhaps have been written in this manner because it clearly demonstrated the importance that Gregory placed on the Church, the Bible, and God's will over the people, whom would be the readers of his history. Nonetheless, this choice of “introduction” into the history of the Franks still did leave me with a few unanswered questions: 1) Was he trying to put the history into context by starting it from the beginning of time? 2) Did this have something to do with the fact that the people in the Middle Ages had a teleologic view on the world, thus it only seemed logical for him to create the linear trail of history for his audience. Also, was this influenced by the reader's fear of the end of the world that was detailed in the Book of Revelations?
For the most part, Gregory's histories are very much based on narratives and mystically occurrences, and it would be hard to decipher what is actual fact and what is a stretch of the truth. However, they are very informative in that they are a detailed description on how societies in the 6th century were run, the key players who shaped the events, wars, and society of that time period, as well as the core societal values of the time.
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
The first chapter contains Sulpitius Severus’ thoughts on the purpose of writing about figures of great importance. He believes that he will do something new, and that past works were written with the notion of emulation or imitation as its purpose. This “new” approach is said to be one that would make “readers roused to the pursuit of true knowledge, heavenly warfare and divine virtue.” It is very clear that the author has put great thought into this work as he states that once something is published or communicated, it cannot be undone, and as such he would rather stay quite rather than communicate a false idea. Then, by extension, all happenings in the life of St. Martin are true beyond a doubt. Sulpitius Severus asks us, as readers, to “give full faith to things narrated.”
According to Severus, St. Martin was born in Italy, and his parents were heathens. At the behest of his father he joined the military and later resigned. At the age of 12, he wished to live the life of a hermit, however that wish would be short-lived as he was, at the mercy of a legislative act, re-enlisted into the military. In the army, he existed as a monk, rather than a soldier and he was known to have “patience and humility [that] passed what seemed to be possible by human nature.” As for his military pay, he only took what was required to keep body and soul together. St. Martins acts of relentless benevolence continue when he clothes a half naked man at a gate entrance on a cold winters eve. This man had been ignored by everyone else, and St. Martin, had to cut his current clothes (already poultry because of similar acts of kindness) in half to clothe the man. That night St. Martin is met with a vision, and is “filled with will of God”, and decides he is to be baptized and leave the military.
When St. Marin attempts to leave the military, his withdrawal is seen as cowardice. St. Martin counters by saying he would gladly enter the battle with no weapon and armor and trust in the will of Christ to keep him safe. This does not come to pass because the upcoming melee was abandoned via peaceful means, and as such this is seen as an act of protection by God, of St. Martin. St. Martin then converts a robber, and later defeats the devil with words of extreme faith in God. Chapter six ends with a description of how St. Martin prayed away the effects of poison.
I find this piece to be very interesting because it informs the divine providence attitude of the time. The common thought of the time being that no act of earth, however small, was acted without God’s will. Thus St. Martin is presented as a vessel of God’s will. I think it is very easy in today’s day and age to look at this piece cynically (which I tend to do), but it would be a disservice to the work if one did. While the life described here is nearly unbelievable, it was believed by the author. The commentary in the first chapter that the author gives clearly shows that the author is a smart man. Severus is aware that communication once shared cannot be revoked. I believe him to be sincere when he states he would rather speak nothing than speak falsely, and I believe that he believes beyond a doubt in the life of St. Martin. This informs the context of the time very well, and certainly helped me understand the period in which this piece was written. If it wasn’t for the self reflexive comments made by Severus at the onset of “The Life of St. Martin”, I suspect I wouldn’t have understood the context in the fuller manner that I do now.
Of particular interest for me in this week’s readings was Book II of The History of the Franks. The fascinating tales, centered mainly around Clovis – the first Merovingian King to convert to Christianity – presented many interesting issues that do shed light on the society and culture of which Gregory wrote.
The first of these issues is the emphasis on women in the influence of Christian fate. Clovis’ marriage to Clotilda seems to be the main impetus for his conversion into Catholicism. According to Gregory, she continued to persuade Clovis to consider the one God over his many idols as she believed that this would bring him true salvation and good fortune during his reign. Their son, dying during baptism, was seen as proof that this was not so for Clovis; however, Clotilda would prove an encouraging partner with firm resolve.
During battle Clovis asked his wife’s God for assistance and pardon for his disbelief and as soon as he did the battle turned. This brings forth a second theme which is the advantages (political, etc.) that came along with conversion. Following Clovis’ acceptance of the Christian faith, his fortune turned around and he was able to prove himself to God and have God bestow advantages over other Kings unto him in return. I found this fascinating especially in the conflict between the Arians and the Catholics.
Finally, the affect Christianity had on Clovis’ behaviour is an interesting point that may or may not qualify as a theme but is worth noting. While Gregory depicts the influence of Christianity on Clovis as being primarily a positive, I felt like there were many negative outcomes deriving from the ‘invincible’ disposition that Clovis adopted following his conversion. While this perception may be an undertone that was unintentional I do wonder what we can extract from this and maybe present a counterfactual debate to Gregory’s history.
Book 1 has three core elements that stand out, which includes the spectacle of
martyrdom, the punishment for those who reject Christ, and the teleological path of religion.
One of the major themes of the First Book that stands out is remembering and honouring those who died in the name of Christ, ie., martyrs. This is seen by the constant mentioning all those who died in the name of Christ, such as Liminius, Antolianus, Stephen, and Mark the Evangelist, who received the “glorious crown of martyrdom”. For Christians, martyrdom is one of the highest praises one can achieve, as a person is dying for the ultimate Good, as they are dying in the name of the Lord. By sacrificing themselves in the present, they are allowing themselves to live in Heaven for eternity with the Lord. At the beginning of the book, Gregory of Tours mentions that he has written the book to keep alive the memory and spirit of those who died, and by acknowledging those martyrs, he is preventing their memories from fading into oblivion.
A second theme in the book that jumps out is the fact that anybody who turns away from the Lord is met with oppression and punishment. This is seen in a number of instances. An example is with the Israelites who turned to idolatry and other sins. For turning away from the Lord, they met punishment as God sent Nebuchadnezzar to hold them captive at Babylon. Also, the evil ruler Nero, who had sexual intercourse with mother and sister alike, was seen as being the most evil of Christian persecutors. For subduing Christians for so long, a revolt stirred up against him, which forced him to take his own life.
A third theme found in Book 1 is that of teleology. Religion believes in the process from creation to the Book of Revelation, from the beginning of days to the end of days. The fact that the book starts off with the story of Creation, and continues in a linear process of events, shows the teleological nature of the book.
The Second Book by Gregory of Tours is a continuation of the first book, but it is also a departure in another sense. Unlike the first book, the second one does not continue a linear path from Creation onwards, but rather tells a linear progression of Tours. It also sets to discuss the lives and works of saints, as well as tell about the hundreds of people who were butchered during this phase.
The second book, much like the first, highlights the importance and dedication of martyrs. Trasamund, an evil tyrant, began torturing and murdering Christians who would not renounce their faith. A young girl is depicted as having suffered cruel punishment by the rack and being pierced with pincers, before having her head cut off. Despite the torture, the girl refused to renounce her faith, suffering in the present so she could enjoy a peaceful eternity. King Huneric saw the importance of martyrdom for Christian followers, so instead of killing them, he believed it would be worse for the Christian follower to be sentenced into exile. By doing this, Huneric would be preventing the believer from following through in enjoying life eternal”. The importance of martyrdom is taken further by the construction of churches to those dying for the Christian cause. The importance of the construction of these churches is that they serve as public history, as a public reminder of those who gave their lives for the Lord. They had their status’ elevated above regular Christians, since they actually died for the cause, thus becoming deserving of public appraisal and memory.
Another comparison between the first two books is the fact that those who pronounce faith in the Lord will be rewarded, while those who denounce Him will be punished. Examples of people punished by turning away from the Lord are the two priests who turned their backs on Sidonious. They removed Sidonous, a devout follower of God, from all power and rank, and accosted him. Since they removed one of God’s own, and ruled through debauchery and sin, one of them died sitting on the toilet (Elvis?) and one later died at a table feast. An example of someone who was rewarded for his follower of God was Clovis, the ruler of Tours. Tours for a period of time was ruled by non Christians, as Clovis refused time and time again to accept God, despite the pleas of his wife. When engaged in a battle, on the verge of defeat, realizing his own gods had failed him, Clovis accepted Christianity. As a result, Clovis was able to defeat the enemy, before expanding the wealth and the size of his country at the hands of others who did not have God on their side. Clovis prevented his soldiers from pillaging people, and engaging in illicit activities, and brought back money to give to the church.
The readings this week had three important aspects. The first is the retelling of historically important moments in Christianity for the (then) modern Franks. The majority of this lies in Books I and II of Gregory of Tours. His first book is dedicated to the retelling of Christian history – i.e. a survey of Old Testament stories – until the time of Gregory himself. This is important to note as it sets the stage for understand the importance of the Church within the lives of Europeans at the time of the History of the Franks being written. Other readings for this week had central moments that the authors considered to be important within this theme. For example, Sulpitius Severus wrote on the life of St. Martin, which helped to establish St. Martin’s reputation of a wonder-working saint throughout the Middle Age. In particular, the writings about the Saints Gall and Martin reflect a desire on the part of the author to place important Christian figures into the narrative of Frankish history. It is important to note that many of the writers either knew, or had first-hand knowledge about much of what they wrote. Sulpitius Severus knew St. Martin while he was still alive, and Gregory of Tours wrote much on the time period immediately preceding his bishopric installation. The Narratives also discuss much of the miracles that Gregory knew and at times, witnessed first-hand that occurred during or immediately before his lifetime. As Goffart points out, both Gregory’s Histories and Life of the Fathers list “historical events involving real people in their relationship to the saints” (pg. 131). These stories are important, as they highlight not simply beliefs of the Frankish and Christian (Catholic) population in Gaul during this time, but also the societal importance that was placed on faith during this era. These hagiographic stories allow readers today to better understand that history for the Middle Ages revolved around the influence of God, and Church, not human action. Though Gregory dedicates Book II to the history of Frankish Kings, he is sure to include many tales of Christianity within it, most notably the conversion of the well-known Frankish King Clovis. These stories would not have been widely read by the common layman, but rather the nobility and other members of the clergy, though they could be easily read aloud to parishioners, should priests and bishops choose to do so. The goal of many of these stories was to allow for a common history to form for the emerging group of Franks that had come together through the conquests of Clovis and to instil an increased amount of respect towards the Church, its members, and the Saints themselves.
Friday, September 24, 2010
1. Everyone will read the following pages from Walter Goffart’s Narrators of Barbarian History 112 – 122
2. Group one will also read Narrators pages 122-27 and Gregory's books one and two.
3. Group two will read Narrators 127 - 38 and 146-53, skim Gregory's books one and two, and read the following two online excerpts from Saints' lives:Life of St. Martin (by Sulpicius Severus) -first six chaptersLife of St. Gall (by Gregory of Tours)- entire excerpt
Thursday, September 23, 2010
One subject that I found particularly interesting while reading R.W. Southern's book Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages was how closely connected the Church and state were in the Middle Ages. As a person living in a predominantly secular nation in the 21st century it is challenging to comprehend a world where there is no separation of Church and state. Even more difficult to decipher is the fact that the Church controlled the law and courts, the taxes, and was the largest literary body, yet according to Southern were not a police-state or had much means of coercion. I have to ask myself- how could the Church incur so much power, yet had no police or dependable army of their own? Southern maintains that the only power of coercion that that the Church had over the secular rulers, as well as the people in Christendom, which was the ability to excommunicate them. Since the Church needed the consent and co-operation of independent rulers to sustain their power in certain regions, they used this power of excommunication as a last resort. For the most part, the rulers would abstain from refusing demands from the Church because it would be detrimental for their region to lose its ties with Rome. It would also have resulted in a harsh backlash from a faithful public in their kingdom. There were a few rulers who were not as afraid of excommunication, such as King John in the early 13th century England. He lived as a excommunicate for four years, but still kept some aspects of Church life within his country. However, taking in account that he did not live as an excommunicate forever shows the power that the Church has over medieval societies. Allowing myself to understand these concepts of using excommunication as means of coercion I realize that in order to live a full life in medieval society it is difficult to live ones life outside of the realm of the Church, for, as Southern points out, the Church could not be a state among many, but it had to be the state and the society.
Another point of interest to me was the view of history that people had during the Middle Ages. It was very much teleologic- meaning there was a set path that history would follow and it was based on a divine purpose that would be come about. Society at this time lived their lives understanding that they were there as solely a will of God. They were certain that divine providence would intervene when it was deemed necessary to judge their actions as a society, as well as their individual actions. This, according to Southern, explained why the purpose of all forms of human governments, whether it be pope, emperor, or king, was to ensure that all people followed a 'single Christian path'. This path was depicted in the one unifying book for all of Christendom- the Bible. The Bible has a chapter that dictates the end of the world for all Christians. This chapter, the Book of Revelations, made statements to what the future holds for the world, and people during this time took all of its credence verbatim. This teleologic mentality was reflected in the way societies were constructed, and put into context why the Church had the overreaching influence that it did in the medieval world.
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Entering my first academic study of medieval history, I was eager to discover what the methodology and writing styles would be like in comparison to that of the empirical readings from our methods course. I was somewhat unsurprised to find that they indeed follow the structure of a more literary narrative, as Stephen Davies had claimed; however, I was also quite pleased to note that R.W. Southern’s work was a hybrid of the two approaches. While Southern wrote in a strong sense of literary narrative, telling the story of a providential history, he also is clear in presenting the skepticism of an empiricist approach.
More importantly than the methodology, for me, was the story being told. Having never studied medieval history, I was unsure of whether or not I could really immerse myself in the historiography. What I found, was quite the opposite of my expectations – I could. Southern’s assertion that the church and society were not mutually exclusive, but rather two halves of a whole that continued to evolve together presented the ‘church as a state’ argument in a whole new light.
Of particular interest to me, was the discussion of baptism as a contract to the church, and its relation to birth as a social contract. I, personally, had never seen birth as entering a social contract; however, find the assertion fascinating. It is an interesting point of view to consider that one never chooses to be held to a set of standards that are formed by the society in which they were born. Similarly, it is decided while in an individual’s relative youth to enter into a contract with the Catholic Church to uphold the virtues belonging to the faith. Furthermore, Southern asserts that these contracts were irreversible and unable to be renounced.
Southern seemed to join the historiography of the Church as an oppressive entity. Focusing on the view of the outsider, attempts at attaining an ideal, Jews in perpetual servitude and the harsh treatment of heretics all reinforced this outlook. It appears that the literature on the 6th Century also joins in this outlook and harkens back to the idea presented in Davies’ study on empirical history when he depicts medieval history as a literary narrative of providence leading to a pre-determined end. It is almost apparent that the informed of the time who were writing were of the belief that the descriptions of the Book of Revelations was the path that the world was on and they were witness to the progressing steps towards this end. I am looking forward to seeing how the writings evolve over the course and, as my understanding grows, the sort of “deconstruction” of the medieval societies.
Monday, September 20, 2010
From reading the assigned works for this week, I noticed two predominant but contrasting themes running along the literature. Half of the readings viewed the church in a positive light, seeing the church and Christianity as a saviour, while the other readings took the role in more of a judgemental way, showcasing how authoritarian, repressive, and problematic the church could be.
Looking at how the church is looked at favourably, the 5th Overview and the Book of Revelations see society as corrupt, in total disarray, with religion as its saviour. With the 5th century overview, the Roman Empire has been severely weakened and the provinces have come to be ruled by “barbarians”, non-Romans who led a heavy militarized band of followers. This is especially true of the Western dynasty, following the schism into two separate dynasties- East and West. The resulting succession of various barbarians and warlords destroyed the Western kingdom as whole regions would be ruthlessly looted, and cities would be taken and ravished by brute force. However, it seemed as though Christianity was the only restraint on their actions, and the saviour of the people, as seen in the tale of the wealth hungry barbarian Goar being turned back from his pillaging ways by the bishop Germanus of Auxerre. The 5th Century, which had been destructive in many ways, also saw the immense growth of Christianity throughout the country. Churches developed rapidly in both the East and West, and paganism became almost extinct. For many Romans, adhering to Christian principles was seen as a way of achieving group solidarity in a country that had become so decisive. The bishops of the church could also diffuse states of emergency through pleas, and higher positions, prestige and power could be found through the church. So in more than one way, Christianity was seen as a saviour for people through protection, group unity, and ways to prestige and positions of power.
In the 5th Century, Leo the Bishop of Rome, saw the devil as raging fiercer against humankind, and foresaw an eventual showdown. That view, is the basis of the Book of Revelations, and like the 5th Century Overview, sees the world as immoral, and in need of Christian saviour. The world is rampant with sexual immorality, as seen with Jezebel, and humanity is guilty of worshipping false idols, murdering, stealing and conducting sorceries. As Leo stated, the world was moving away from God and into the Devils arms, so the Book of Revelations tells of the inevitable battle and possible apocalypse. Three Plagues struck the world, which killed one-third of mankind, seven thousand more plundered in a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell. This was the sign of the apocalypse that was predicted in 11:7, where it states the beast will come out and kill the people. Only the good Christians were seen as being able to expel the beast and send him back to Hell. Michael and his angels were able to expel the Devil from the sky and onto the earth, and only the one hundred forty-four thousand people who restrained from sin and vice were able to learn the song sung before the throne. Eventually the heavens opened and the Word of God, the holiest of holy, spewed the Devil into the lake of fire for a thousand years. Those who had relished in sin and vice would also be thrown into the lake of fire, until everyone had been freed from such deeds, and everyone lived in virtue.
The 6th Century Overview and The Middle Ages both gave a view of Christianity as being oppressive and problematic in my opinion. The 6th Century saw its population decline due to the bubonic plague, and the new rulers were less powerful than any of their predecessors, as they were unable to collect taxes, tributes and other beneficiaries. Christianity during the 6th Century was seen as a way for rulers to accumulate more wealth, acceptance and power for personal greed. The Frankish King Clovis accepted Christianity purely so he could be seen as more legitimate in the eyes of his subjects. But nowhere is this seen as evidently as it is with Justinian. Justinian sought to have an unchallenged authoritarian state, created the Code of Justinian and sought to have a uniform religion among his people. In order to have a uniform religion among his people, Justinian targeted and persecuted people of other religions. Pagans and Jews were oppressed due to their religious beliefs, and religious conflicts took place on a grand scale. His reign witnessed many times of troubles, and they all stemmed from religion. Due to his ethnic persecutions, farmers revolted, the King of Himyar closed Roman access to the Indian Ocean, and Justinian countered by having the Christian ruler in Ethiopia launch a crusade across the Red Sea. While religion was seen as a saviour in the 5th Century, it was seen greatly as a divider in the 6th. Justinian’s ruthless pursuit of Christianity can also be seen as a downfall for the Roman state, as his compromises with other religious ethnic groups satisfied nobody, and had him seen as selling out to heresy, and as a result, the church began to be isolated within the empire. Due to his Christian pursuits, Rome was sacked three times by the Persians and Goths, and added with the bubonic plague, Rome crumbled once again. The 1100 year old Roman Senate fell, and pre-Christian society disbanded, with bishops and priests emerging as the new leaders in society, and the bible as the unheralded Truth.
In R.W. Southern`s The Middle Ages the Christian Church is depicted as the authoritarian state, complete with laws, taxes, administration and power of life and death over Christians and other religious minorities. The church is at times depicted as an oppressive state as Popes had the right to launch wars against non-believers, and there was no liberalism for people to practise. Their lives were chosen for them, and they had to consent to the rule or be persecuted for non-conformity. With the crumbling of the Roman Empire, the political unity had disbanded and replaced by religious authority. Starting in the Primitive Age (700-1050), Western Europe was inferior to its Greek and Muslim neighbours, and Christianity survived only because Muslim conquering had reached its zenith, and its other enemies only cared for plundering and rooting. The Christian religion during this time through its rituals and symbols instilled the notions that men were completely powerless and could only find peace and prosperity through their complete adoption of the Christian religion. Individualism was completely shattered during this age, as the church controlled daily life. With the Age of Growth (1050-1300) capital, population, and Western control elevated the status of Western Europe, which had been severely weakened following the demise of the Roman Empire. With the Age of Growth, power and a hunger for more power took place in Western Europe with heightened military aggression, and divine belief began to take a backdoor to rational thought and intelligence
Saturday, September 18, 2010
Friday, September 17, 2010
Thursday, September 16, 2010
Image: A 6th-century Gallic sarcophagus.