Eadfrith’s gospel book

In the closing years of the seventh century, behind the walls of the priory of Lindisfarne, a monk named Eadfrith created a masterpiece. He wrote and ‘painted’ a gospel book (a book of the four gospels of the new testament, Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John). Such books had been produced before, and would be produced again. But nothing like Eadfrith’s gospel book has ever been seen.

Lindisfarne is a tidal island on the eastern shore of England, just south of the Scottish border. Saint Aiden, an Irish monk, founded a priory there sometime in the first third of the seventh century. No doubt he was taken by the remote aspect of the island, which is approachable only during low tide. The Venerable Bede describes the island’s church as built “of hewn oak, thatched with reeds after the Irish manner. … But Eadbert, a later Bishop of Lindisfarne, removed the thatch, and covered both roof and walls with sheets of lead.”1.Bede, Ecclesiastical History, ch.25, p.186. Eadbert was bishop while Eadfrith was a monk, and so it is doubtful if Eadfrith toiled under any roof grander than thatch. No doubt it was damp, cold, and dark.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Bede, Ecclesiastical History, ch.25, p.186.

The biggest, fakest donation ever

O Constantine, what evil did you sire,
not by your conversion, but by the dower
that the first wealthy Father got from you!1.Dante, The Inferno, trans. Mark Musa, canto 19, lines 115-117, p.244.

Such was Dante’s lament as he surveyed the ditch of the Simonists, head down in flaming pits. He believed that the corruption and greed of the 14th century church could be laid at the feet of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who, in a grand gesture of piety in 335, donated (there’s that word again) all of Italy to the church and the popes that would lead her. That wealth, Dante believed, created a culture of ecclesiastical greed that had infected and weakened the church in his own time.

The pledge in question is called the Donation of Constantine, for that emperor who converted to Christianity in 317 AD. He later moved the capital of the empire to the ancient city of Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople. The Donation is a document of some 4700 words, in twenty chapters, and it is written in the first person, allegedly by Constantine himself. In the first eleven chapters the author lays out the foundations of Christian theology, and relates the miraculous healing of “a mighty and foul leprosy” that led to his conversion. Pope Sylvester, the man who led him through his experience, is addressed frequently, as are “all his successors, the pontiffs who are about to sit upon the chair of Saint Peter until the end of time…”2.Donation of Constantine, in Carolingian Civilization, A Reader, ch.1, p.14.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Dante, The Inferno, trans. Mark Musa, canto 19, lines 115-117, p.244.
2. Donation of Constantine, in Carolingian Civilization, A Reader, ch.1, p.14.

Wanted: Latin translators – no pay, all glory

For a layman there is never enough translated material. There is little more frustrating than jumping to the notes in some scholarly volume, and finding a reference to some obscure source that requires a lifetime of Latin to access. While there is a surprising amount of primary source material available in English, there is much that needs to be done. This is an initial survey of what else from the eighth century needs a translator’s touch:

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Roman roads

While rivers have always played an important role in commerce and conquest, if you really want to get things done, you have to have roads. The Romans understood this better than anyone, and their road network is a testament to their foresight, energy, and engineering acumen.

Why discuss Roman roads in a website devoted to the eighth century? Because the roads were essential to Carolingian expansion and imperial development, just as they were to the Romans. Let’s consider an example.

In 734 Charles Martel was expanding his kingdom into Provence. One of the lordlings who offered resistance was chased from Marseilles into Avignon, at which point he made the unfortunate decision to ally himself with the Muslims of Septimania. Charles proceeded to lay siege to Avignon and defeated Frank and Arab alike. After defeating the occupiers Charles turned west and laid waste to a host of Muslim towns in Septimania, from Nimes to Narbonne. He then turned and besieged Avignon a second time, as the Muslims had made a second sortie and recaptured it. All of this was accomplished in the span of a single campaign season.

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Boniface’s women

There has been much ink spilled and many pixels energized about Saint Boniface. Missionary, bishop, cleanser of the church, correspondent of popes, counselor to kings, saint. A very impressive life. Not as well known was that he was also a friend to many women, in an age when women’s public roles were strictly limited. His correspondence includes a dozen letters with a half-dozen women. These letters offer a fascinating window into Boniface’s own mind and the life of a few English (they are all English) ecclesiastical women.

Many of the letters are of a type: the writer speaks of the pains of his or her life, and then requests something. The single letter from Abbess Egberga written sometime around 716-18 is typical. She calls herself the “least of your disciples,” and then recounts how desolate she has been since her brother died, and her sister became a recluse in Rome. In their absence “I have cherished you in my affection above almost all other men.” But she knows that Boniface is blessed. “So I say: the lord of high Olympus wishes you happiness with joy unspeakable.” Finally she asks for his prayers, or “some little remembrance, perhaps a holy relic or at least a few written words, that so I may always have you with me.” 1.Letters, V, p.12. No reply are recorded.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Letters, V, p.12.