From my diary – working on the acts of the “council of Carthage”

A few days ago I discovered the existence of Ioannou’s French translation of the “Acts of the Council of Carthage”.  Since then I have opened up Finereader 15, and started the process of preparing a Word document with it in.  It has been very pleasant to do something mindless but useful, and something that I know so well how to do, after more than twenty years of working with OCR.

Today I started wondering just what this text actually was.  Ioannou does not say.  In fact his Latin text is cobbled together from two different sources, while his Greek text turns out to be a reprint of “Pedalion”, the editor of an early edition with different numbering of the canons.  It really is quite obscure.

Luckily for me, I bethought me of F. L. Cross’ “History and Fiction in the African Canons”, and this gave me some references to the Patrologia Latina editions of the text.  This made everything much clearer.  How much we owe to the Patrologia Latina and the work of J.-P. Migne!!!  So often he is the silent point of departure for modern work.

Looking at the PL made clear that Ioannou’s text was in fact from Dionysius Exiguus, the 6th century monk who created AD and BC, and also made a collection of the canons.  This text was effectively a new edition of Dionysius’ collection of material.  It relates to the Council of Carthage of 419, but contains in the middle a “Register” of material from earlier synods, as far back as Hippo in 393.  This text could be found in the PL 67, col. 131 onwards.  Dionysius had the odd idea that there was only one council of Carthage, but in fact they happened almost annually under bishop Aurelius and his sidekick, a certain Augustine of Hippo.  (By a curious coincidence, my local parish church is dedicated to St Augustine of Hippo.  The children’s group is known as the “Happy Hippos”.)

Our other source for the Council of Hippo is a “breviarium” of its decisions, transmitted separately, and amid the works of Leo the Great.  It can be found as chapter 2 in PL 56, column 418 onwards.

These are the two sources for what happened at Hippo.

At the moment I have the French of Ioannou into a Word document, and I am going through it, removing page breaks and the like.  This also means that I am reading a lot of headings to the canons of the councils, mostly that of 419.

Quite a few of them relate to the Donatists.  These were not heretics, but rather rigorists, people who felt that the mainstream church had gone soft on people who had betrayed Christ during the persection a century earlier.  These canons make grim reading.  They are stuffed full of penalties and demonisation.  Nobody shall make a “heretic” their heir, nor accept a legacy from one – i.e. a family member – reads one horrid canon.  Others record that people overseas had asked the church to at least try to reconcile with the Donatists; so you get a couple of canons full of humbug about the virtue of peace and reconciliation, followed by another demanding that the bishops write to the emperor to get him to crack down on the Donatists.

A couple of canons talk about pagans.  It was only about twenty years earlier that paganism had been banned, so of course there must have been loads of pagans around.  The canons take the predictable line: chase up any temples that are open, and punish people for being pagan.

But all this is not taking place in a vacuum, although you might think so.  I’ve just read one canon, which is about what to do when you don’t know if a child has been baptised or not.  The canon states that they should be baptised, and explains that one reason why this is happening is that the “barbarians” in Mauretania are selling children.

Who are these barbarians anyway?  Well, they are the Vandals, a lazy low-grade bunch of German barbarians, who have idly plundered their way all across Gaul, all across Spain, and crossed the Straights of Gibraltar into Africa with the connivance of a corrupt Roman official.  In a few years they will advance on Carthage and seize it, and create their own kingdom.  Augustine, as he lies dying, will be able to hear the sounds of his parishioners being tortured to reveal where they  hid their gold.  In the meantime they are making money by selling children back to their families.

Roman Africa is a rich, populous province.  It is full of able-bodied men.  In classical times the rulers would have raised a couple of legions and driven these scum into the sea in a month.

But classical times were no more, nor Roman manhood.  Nobody lifts a finger.  The people are sitting there, breathing hatred against their neighbours, with the enemy almost at the door.  It is incredible to witness.

Is the truth, perhaps, that the people have lost any connection with the government.  That they don’t see it as “their” society any more?  The emperors have cracked down on any kind of organised political activity, so everyone feels that it’s not their business.   How else do we explain such utter indifference to the imminent disaster?

The churchmen are indifferent, totally so.  Any rational group of people would be focused on this problem.  Not they.  Any rational group would suspend factional quarrels, to focus on the threat to all.  Not they!  Was now the only possible time to alienate all the pagans in the province?  Was this quite the moment to demand troops seize Donatist churches?  Couldn’t they just leave it?  Not they!

It gets worse, if you follow the statements in Cross’ article.  He suggests that the “Catholics” were a minority, in a mainly Donatist province.  Their complaints are those of a group who count for nothing.  It really is not their country.  Yet here they are, aggravating all the problems in the province.  Even in Italy their attitude has attracted incredulity, and appeals to calm.

People sometimes deride the study of history.  The study of canon law is definitely an area of history that is for specialists only.  Yet it reveals, more clearly than anything else, why the Roman empire fell.

The Vandals were not strong.  They were little more than a gang of louts.  Africa fell, not because of Vandal strength, but because of Roman moral weakness.  Rotted by long peace, wealth and prosperity, and despotism, they had no idea how to defend themselves, or any reason to try.

It’s grim reading, as I say.


10 thoughts on “From my diary – working on the acts of the “council of Carthage”

  1. RC gave paganism a bad name, “kick a dog, and give him a bad name”. And the Albigensian Crusades? That seems to have been borne of even greater moral weakness than Rome, since these folk were distant relations of the Vandals.

  2. Excellent comments and insights, Roger! I look forward to your finished product on the “Acts”. Is there a link to these canons of Carthage available in English in one document that you know of? And is there a work on the influence of early ecclesiatical forgeries and corrupt emendations of ancient texts that you recommend? Thanks.

  3. Roger, I am so intrigued by the work you’re doing. It’s only been in the last year that I’ve developed a strong interest in Church history and I’m the lamest of layman, so forgive any ignorance behind my questions and accept my apologies if they are too numerous or I’m missing obvious information you’ve shared.

    For starters, who is Ioannou? (Google didn’t guide me very far)

    I gather from what you’ve shared it’s quite a challenge to get a complete and accurate picture of the proceedings of many of these early councils, especially for an English-only reader. Do you find that to be the case with most of them, including the larger “ecumenical” Councils?

    Augustine was clearly a prominent figure in these areas and he seems to be well-regarded across a wide spectrum of Christianity. Do you have a sense for his role/influence in the events you address here, particularly with regard to the Donatists?

    If I recall correctly, Carthage and Hippo are Councils that Trent drew from in their settling of the canon of Scripture. Given some of the history you’ve discussed, it seems one can rather confidently look at this period in Roman Africa and conclude that society and the church were a dreadful mess. Do you have any sense for why something as critical as Scriptural canon lists here would be considered of great value, while all this other “stuff” is kind of dismissed or tossed aside?

    What did you mean in your previous comment about “how stuff pops in and out”?

    Have you ever written about how you locate some of these documents, your OCR methods, and how you handle translation? I have tried to take text extracted from old documents I find in Google book search, put it into Word, and translate sections with Google Translate and I don’t have very good results. Mostly, the text I get is a mess and it’s just overwhelming. Also, I don’t have any language skills so I can only rely on automated translation. My daughter is a native Russian/Ukrainian speaker so I was very intrigued by the post where you mentioned Ukrainian, too. As our daughter was learning English and when we travelled in Ukraine, Google Translate was fantastic and works amazingly well but translating short, written sentences or conversational language is nothing like translating an old document.

  4. To be fair, North Africa and the rest of the Empire had a lot going on. Most of the Imperial troops were way out east, or way up north. The economy stunk, all of a sudden, and a bunch of pleasant towns in the imperial breadbasket were suddenly targets for all sorts of bandits from within and without. The crazy circumcellions trying to get martyred by forcing people to kill them, for example.

    Roman inheritance law, and using it to force your heirs to do your will or lose the inheritance, was also a thing. Since the Donatists regarded lapsi, or anyone who associated with lapsi, as hopeless pagans having no way to repent or to join/rejoin the Church, it would have been very difficult even to do business with such people. I don’t think we know enough about what was going on.

    (It’s only a few centuries since English and Early American law regarded Catholic widows and orphans as unable to inherit anything whatsoever from anybody, unless they converted; which was why distant relatives often swooped in and bagged estates. Or the male side was officially Protestant and repented on their deathbeds, while the female side stayed Catholic and prayed for them. Like Burke’s family.)

    The Empire had a bad habit of pulling back to heartland areas during times of trouble, and then assuming they could come back later. Very hard on “frontier” people, and it eventually led to the dissolution of the Western parts of the Empire by fed-up citizens picking their own emperors and duxes.

  5. I finally got around to reading this piece from your diary. I’m not sure I’d agree that Roman moral weakness or disinterest in the government allowed the Vandals to devastate major parts of the Roman West. Nor does it seem likely that a group so successful would have been themselves easy to defeat. But, I certainly don’t have a good answer myself to the problem of Roman military and organizational weakness. In the words of FaceBook relationship descriptions, “It’s complicated.” But that Christians would fight about jots and tittles while Rome burned (or in this case Hippo) is perhaps the least surprising thing I’ve read in a long time. Julian the Apostate had them pegged. I say that as a Catholic. However, that Christian diffidence and timidity caused the downfall of the Roman Empire I wouldn’t say if I were a Gibbon swinging from a tree.–Douglas Forasté

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