Thursday, March 25, 2010

Benefactors of humanity

More than once in the past I have said that Roger Pearse is a benefactor of humanity. It still seems to be true. Why is he our benefactor? He has taken it upon himself translate or commission translations of a great many early Christian works which have until now been available only to people who could read the original languages. Some people think that's fine -- if you don't know ancient Greek you would not understand these sources anyway -- but that's not my attitude, nor is it Roger's. As someone who has studied late antiquity and read a lot of obscure Christian literature from that era, I am in awe of Roger's generosity. The translations that he posts and otherwise gives away are not a complete substitute for the originals, but they make available part of the cultural and religious legacy of early Christianity to many new people.

I was inspired to say something about Roger by a blog post he published today, just one of the interesting posts of his that I've read since I discovered he had a blog. the Post announces a new translation of Hippolytus's Chronicon, one of the very first world chronicles written by Christian, in this case a third century Roman clergyman who eventually was martyred. (He is sometimes considered the first antipope.) In an earlier incarnation I had to know something about Hippolytus; it would have been nice to have this translation then.

But one of the interesting things about this new translation is that it is not, as far as I can tell, one of Roger's projects! There is another benefactor of humanity out there and this person is named T. C. Schmidt. Thank you very much, T.C.!

Image: Hippolytus being martyred, dragged behind a horse, from the Wikipedia entry on him.

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Le Siècle de Libanios : littérature, culture et société du IVe siècle après J.-C. dans l'Orient méditerranéen

On the off chance one of my readers has both a reading command of French and an interest in the cultural, political, and intellectual life of the late 4th century AD, I include this link. Have fun, o lucky reader.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Gregory of Tours and Obama

A fine little essay from Magistra et Mater. An excerpt:

Historians once largely believed what Gregory of Tours wrote in his ‘Ten Books of History’ (which is how the History of the Franks is now more accurately referred to). Gregory might be naive (all that reporting of miracles), but his artlessly gory portrayals of Merovingian life told us all we needed to know about the horrors of Merovingian society.

A more recent view of Gregory, along with many other medieval historians, is that his history reflects his own prejudices or that he is writing propaganda. Nevertheless, even though his text is not transparent, we can read through it to get useful material. We can see the outlines of particular actions by his enemies through his distorted stories about them. Alternatively, for social/cultural historians, even if his stories are not true at all, but purely propaganda, they reflect what a king or a queen or a bishop could feasibly do. Propaganda, after all, needs to be plausible.

I would have adhered to such views once, but recent events have made me less certain. If you look at many of the claims circulating in the US about Barack Obama, (such as the claim that he is not a citizen) they’re not remotely plausible, and yet they’re widely accepted. One answer is that this is simply because such stories have been pushed so hard by particular powerful interest groups. But there are implausible stories which have achieved wide circulation and belief without such long term propaganda efforts: Slacktivist has an interesting example of one.

And some claims go beyond the merely deeply implausible to a different level. Take the claim that Obama’s plan for health care involves ‘death panels’, for example. You could see this as an extreme distortion of some possible plans for living wills or not paying for heroic treatment of the terminally ill, but it’s probably better to see these statements as symbolic. Obama is an evil ruler and therefore of course he is planning death panels, because that’s what evil rulers do. And, in glorious circularity, he is planning death panels and so that is ‘proof’ that he must be an evil ruler.

I’ve just been reading Martin Heinzelmann,Gregory of Tours: History and Society in the Sixth Century (CUP, 2001) who argues convincingly and in great detail that Gregory is using symbolic figures in the Ten Books of History: the Good King, the Bad King, the Good Bishop etc. What he doesn’t really get into is looking at how that might affect historians who actually want to know something about the sixth century (as opposed to those wanting to understand how Gregory’s mind works). If Gregory’s stories are largely symbolic, can we take anything factual from them beyond a few names and events? Or are we faced not just with a distorted mirror on the Merovingian past, but a fantasy view of it?

I have wrestled with this question before, in regards specifically to Gregory of Tours, but I increasingly find my own contemporaries at least as mysterious as people of the 6th century. Can people really believe such things (you name it)? And if they don't believe it...but perhaps that's what M&M means.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Book review Sunday: Europe's Barbarians AD 200-600, by Edward York

Leonard Lipschutz over on MEDIEV-L contributes this:
Last month Edward James, author of The Franks (1988) published an outstanding new scholarly work, Europe’s Barbarians AD 200-600 (2009). The first chapters provide an up-to-date chronological survey, and analytical chapters expertly review current debates, on ethnicity, archaeology, reception by Rome, migration, assimilation, conversion and government. The bibliography is super.

At p. 50 he calls movements of Visigoths and Vandals, movements of “barbarian peoples,” showing reluctance to depart completely from old paradigms. But in the analytic portion, at p. 172, he caves in, stating: "My own conclusion would be that the break-up of the Western Roman Empire occurred because, in the different provinces, local populations began to give their allegiances to local warlords, rather than to the emperor, because those warlords were more effective as protectors and patrons. Not all these warlords were barbarians, but the majority were, because of the domination of barbarians within the Roman army." At the end of the book he states that he has not addressed directly the role of barbarians in the collapse of the western empire. Indeed, he does avoid saying anything about Heather’s Huns thesis. But James seems to anticipate further paradigm changes than he has conceded: "We tend to laugh or sneer at the simplicities or distortions of past views of the barbarians; sooner or later, this will be the fate of this book too."

Regarding ‘warlords’ it would be helpful to have a bold admission that the original forces of Alaric, Geiseric or Clovis, usually described as peoples or tribes, were in fact mercenary armies recruited on Roman soil and named for the ethnic origin of their leader. Regarding ‘the break-up,’ most likely it was not Huns, but a Roman struggle for power in 405 that set off a series of events leading directly to the break-up. When Stilicho finally hired Alaric, in that year, to support his intended attack on the east, the great eastern minister Anthemius responded in kind by hiring Radagaisus and Godegisil to raise armies in Pannonia and create a diversion in the west. Goffart made such a suggestion on p. 79 of Barbarian Tides (2006), and I think that interpretation will ultimately prevail.

Edward James' The Franks was a really good book which I would recommend to anyone with an interest.

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Friday, June 26, 2009

A late-antiquity moment in the news

This reminds me of the 4th-century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus.

Not a very cheerful thought, really.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

In Italy first book (1991; reprinted 2006) is quite expensive!

The Fifth-Century Chroniclers: Prosper, Hydatius, and the Gallic Chronicler of 452
di Steven Muhlberger - Francis Cairns Publications - November 2006
Prezzo: € 113.07
Disponibilità: Normalmente disponibile in 25/30 giorni lavorativi

Questo libro potrebbe essere di difficile reperibilità presso i nostri fornitori

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Walter Goffart on Rome and the Barbarians: an interview at Kalamazoo, May, 2009

Walter Goffart, now of Yale but formerly of the University of Toronto, is one of the most influential historians of the late Roman Empire and early medieval Europe. Much of his work has been shaped by skepticism that the barbarians were capable or even interested in destroying the Empire by military force. At this year's International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Peter Konieczny of interviewed Goffart about his ideas about the Early Middle Ages.

There are three other Kalamazoo interviews, with the military historians Kelly DeVries, John France, and Donald Kagay, and Thomas Bisson, also linked to the main page.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Barbarian invasions!

I used to think quite a bit about barbarian invasions and the late Roman world, and I still have an interest. So imagine my delight when Jonathan Jarrett posted his notes on a seminar delivered by Peter Heather at Cambridge earlier this month. Heather is one of the foremost champions of the somewhat contested idea that there were big organized barbarian invasions and that they were significant for the Roman world's ultimate fate. If you're interested in the state of play on this issue, go have a look at an abbreviated version of Heather's arguments and Jarrett's report of skeptical rejoinders

Image: The Total War fantasy version of Barbarian Invasions from

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Inventing Late Antiquity: a scholarly treat

Peter Brown has been over the last generation or so an extraordinarily influential historian of Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. He is one of the chief figures, perhaps THE chief, in the invention of the notion of Late Antiquity. What that means is, he drew attention to a period formerly split between scholars interested in Classical Antiquity and those interested in the Early Church or the Early Middle Ages (or both), and argued that this was a period with a character of its own. It was a controversial idea then and still is now, but it's been a productive perspective, inspiring much work that would otherwise never have been done.

I used to work in Late Antiquity (as academics say; I didn't commute) and I've had the pleasure of hearing him speak both in a seminar, on saints and their historical significance, and at a conference, on sexual renunciation. He is perhaps the most amazing speaker I have ever heard -- every time the excitement of the ideas he's talked about has made my heart beat faster.

Brown, who is Oxford trained, was at Oxford last month to speak at the opening of an Oxford Centre for Late Antiquity, a kind of validation of his efforts that few of us can ever hope for. The talk's about where the name and concept of Late Antiquity came from.
If you're not familiar with the culture and setting of Oxford, it may be a slow start for you (he's talking to a home-town crowd), but if you've ever wondered about how intellectual viewpoints change, and what kind of resistance new ones face, have a look.

You may also find a laugh or two, and conclude that yes, famous academics are as eccentric as you might have thought.

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