Severus Sebokht, “Letter to Basil of Cyprus” (ca. 662) on ‘Arabic’ numerals

The first reference to what we today call “Arabic” numerals comes in a letter by the Syriac scholar, Severus Sebokht, in about 662 AD.  The letter is often referenced in the literature, but has never been translated into English.  A German text and translation has been published fairly recently.  The letter itself is preserved in a unique manuscript witness, Paris BNF Syr. 346, which contains a collection of works by Severus Sebokht.  (Elsewhere on this site readers may find translations of Severus “On the Astrolabe” and “On the Constellations”).

A few months ago Daniel Knister wrote to me of his intention to make such an English translation.  He has very kindly made this available to us all, and it may be circulated freely and placed on websites etc.  It’s here:

I’ve also uploaded it to here.

This is a wonderful thing to have at last!  Thank you so much!


From My Diary

Since late May, I have been beset by an almost farcical number of trivial circumstances, each requiring my full attention, yet of no importance once they are dealt with.  Without going into much detail, these have included an emergency house move at the end of June, yet I am still in boxes; and trying to refurbish and let my old house, so far without success after a month; and a huge number of other things of a similar nature.  One minor circumstance associated with this is getting the electricity and gas meters working correctly and my account with the provider set up.    If I tell you that I have been in contact with the CEO’s office a couple of times a week for the last month, and things are still not fixed, you will appreciate the sheer amount of time that has disappeared down the drain of the mundane and annoying.  Likewise yesterday afternoon and this morning were spent on  telephone calls and emails trying to get a gas boiler repair organised for a third property for which I am responsible, which, after 10 years of functioning perfectly decided to cause a problem now.  An elderly relative became seriously ill mid-way through the move, and I am obliged to have a video call 4-6 times a day to help her cope.

Beyond a certain point, you have to laugh.  The situation is so ridiculous that, if a passing aircraft accidentally shed part of its load while I was walking in a meadow underneath, and I was hit by a falling piano, this would not even raise an eyebrow.  Into every life a little rain must fall.  It seems to be my turn.  But what God wills is good.

On the positive side, I now live in a country village!

I mention all this because there are people out there who are doubtless wondering why they have not had a reply to some email, or why I don’t engage with them.  I do apologise, but I hope this will explain.

Over the last few days I have been advised to sit at the computer after meals for at least half an hour, and try to relax.  So I have returned to John the Deacon’s Life of St Nicholas, although only in a limited, non-stressful way.  Chapters 12 and 13 of the Mombritius edition of 1498 (?) have a text markedly different from that of the Falconius edition (1751).  Rather than trying to resolve this, I have decided to do a little light translating, and so I have worked on these.  Anything difficult I shall just mark in red and leave.

This weekend, I decide, I shall do nothing more, no chores, and do nothing other than stuff that I want to do.  The week is enough time to spend on the dreck.

I learned from a kind correspondent that copies of a St Nicholas related book were available fairly cheaply online at the moment.  I took the plunge, and the volume arrived today.

I’ve managed to make my first ever sale on eBay, of a set of noise-cancelling headphones.  I bought these for my last contract but one.  This was a government client, which put all the programmers in an office along with lots of noisy sales staff.  The programmers needed to concentrate.  The sales staff needed to make noise.  So the poor programmers perforce all bought headphones, out of their own money, to try to get enough quiet to think.  I did likewise; but I scarcely used them, as I got fed up and left after a month.  At least now they are off the floor.

I have a large pile of books that need to go as well.  I have my massive Oxford Latin Dictionary, which I never use and takes up a lot of space.  Moving home draws attention to such things.  But I’ll get to it.


Some thoughts about the term “theotokos”, used for Mary the mother of the Lord

In the 5th century an Egyptian priest was disciplined by Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, for describing Mary the mother of Jesus as Θεοτόκος, “theotokos”.  Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria, decided to use this as a pretext for a bid for supremacy in the eastern church.  After much wrangling, a council was scheduled at Ephesus in 431.  This was held before Nestorius’ supporters could arrive, and duly pronounced that Cyril was right and Nestorius was wrong.  When the other side did arrive, they held their own council and voted the opposite.

Both sides then appealed to the emperor, Theodosius II, who was in fact a cypher.  The imperial government was in the hands of the eunuch Chrysaphius.  Chrysaphius responded as any rational man would, and sent both combatants into exile.  Cyril then carried out a campaign of bribery of important individuals in Constantinople, to be allowed to return.  Incredibly a list of bribes is preserved among his correspondence.  A vicious political struggle followed, from which Cyril emerged victorious.

Thereafter this word became a watchword, that none might contradict, and to which all must subscribe as a test of loyalty.  These days we know something about the use of language to demonise your enemies and seize power.  In the jargon of 20th century communist society, Nestorius and his supporters were purged.  This word, Θεοτόκος, was the tool used to force them out, to seize their positions and property.  They’re still out there, fifteen centuries later.   As for Cyril’s supporters, drunk with power and their victory, they ran rampant for a decade, even going so far as to threaten the emperor’s sister, Pulcheria.

But when Theodosius died in 450 AD, Pulcheria married a general named Marcian, who convened the council of Chalcedon.  Payback time!  Chalcedon duly used the same technique to purge the extreme Cyrillians, and this led to yet another fifteen centuries of schism.

This distasteful series of events is one reason why the councils after Nicaea are never really taken seriously in the English-speaking world.  It is one reason why Cyril of Alexandria is regarded with distaste.  Nothing about this business has any meaning other than the ambition of a few reckless and greedy people.  The word Θεοτόκος is not scriptural, and if it had been, it was plainly simply a pretext for injuring others.

In English Θεοτόκος is usually rendered as “Mother of God”.  This does not help its case in any way.  The mind instinctively recoils from the idea that God, who is uncreated, has a mother!

But searching the web, I came across something interesting.  Is it possible that this is simply a very bad translation of the idea?

The following remarks (here) made me think:

Theotokos derives from the Greek terms: Theos / ‘God’; and tiktein / ‘to give birth’. Mary is the Theotokos, the one who gave birth to God. This single word sums up the meaning of Luke’s phrase: ‘Mother of the Lord’ (Lk 1:43) and represents a counterpoint to John’s teaching that the ‘Word was made flesh’ (Jn 1:14).

I find in Latin, likewise, Dei genetrix, rather than mater dei.

These may seem like small differences, but there is quite a difference between the idea of “one who gave birth to God” and “mother of God”.  The first merely summarises that Mary was the mother of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is God the Son incarnate.  The latter implies that God did not exist before Mary gave birth to him, any more than you or I existed before we were brought into the world.

If so, possibly we should all stop translating Theotokos as “mother of God”.  Whatever it may say in Greek, or may have said at the time, in English it is  a huge obstacle to most people.

One thing is certain, from all this.  The word Theotokos is a terrible word to describe Mary.  By its fruits you shall know it.  It is not biblical.  It can only be used by the logical reasoning of fallible men.  The doctrine is the product of the work of an ambitious fifth century bishop whom none of us like much, and who used it for the most evil purposes possible.  It became part of church dogma through a corrupt council and a process of bribery and corruption.  Let’s get rid of it.


From my diary

I’ve been feeling guilty for not getting the August post out there from the Chronography of 354.  I have the draft materials on disk, but I do have to do some work, and I have had no time.  At least that is out there.

A correspondent wrote to me and mentioned Petrus Crabbe.  I wondered who he was, and drew a complete blank on a google search.  I located a version of the Franciscan Authors article behind a paywall, and had the sense to google the opening words.  This led me to an old version of their site, which in turn took me to the real thing.

I thought that it would be useful to those who come after if there was a brief Wikipedia article on Petrus Crabbe, so I drafted one.  It was stupid of me, I know, but I was a little curious.  But what a mess Wikipedia has become.  Once you just created the article.  Now you must now jump through endless hoops merely to start typing, and then your “draft” must get “approved” by somebody of unknown talents and learning.   Well, I wrote a few words, but needless to say this was promptly rejected by some uneducated deadbeat as “not notable”.  I don’t propose to waste life negotiating with such people.  But it shows how empty the claim “the encyclopedia that anybody can edit” now is.  If the internet as a whole had required website authors to seek approval before posting, it would not exist.  If Wikipedia had done so when it started, it would not now exist.  Silly people.  Luckily my own blog post (“unreliable source”, scream the muppets) should fill the gap.

These few days are incredibly hot, and it is really impossible to do anything here.  Fortunately I purchased some mobile aircon units a decade ago, and these are holding the heat at bay quite nicely.  Two days ago a venetian blind arrived, and is holding off the white heat of the afternoon sun quite nicely.

I found the plastic bag containing John the Deacon manuscripts on the floor, but I have transferred it to a cupboard.  One day I shall return to this.

I intend to let my old house, which I had to visit a couple of days ago.  Driving back, I passed the new crematorium that appeared a few years ago, down the road, a couple of miles away.  I remember driving past it and thinking rather morbidly that my ashes would most likely be buried there.  Now… clearly they will not.  What we assume is forever is often transitory.  I could never see how I would leave that house.  Yet here I am.

I have a feeling that the Lord has moved me out here, into a village in the countryside, for a reason.  I wonder what He is up to.  But “all things work together for good, for those that love God.”


Petrus Crabbe (Pierre Crabbé) – first collector of all the church councils?

Church councils tend to issue lists of regulations; or, in the jargon, “canons”.  These have been collected since antiquity, in all sorts of forms.  Once the era of printing arrived, inevitably the massive printed compilations followed, such as those of Surius, Mansi, and others.

Yesterday I learned of the work of Petrus Crabbe.  He was not an Englishman, as might be supposed, but a Frenchman named Pierre Crabbé.  He brought out the earliest major compilation of the councils known to me.  This was his Concilia Omnia, tam generalia quam particularia, printed in two volumes in Cologne in 1538.  The marvellous Franciscan Authors, 13-18th century site has this entry for this laborious man:

Petrus Crabbe (1470-1553)

OM & OFM. Belgian Friar from Malines (Mechelen) Studied theology in Louvain in and after 1489/90 (according to the old style matriculated on 28 February 1489, in the pedagogium De Valk), and joined the Observants before 1504. Lector and librarian in the Franciscan friary of Malines/Mechelen. Later also guardian, there and elsewhere, and confessor of the Poor Clares of Mechelen/Malines. Became an important editor of church council documents. After a search through almost 500 libraries, on which he embarked in and after 1532 at the request of the Popes Leo X and Clement VII, partly in collaboration with the clergyman Jan Heytmer from Zonhoven, the leader of the papal committee put together for this purpose, Crabbe published his Concilia Omnia, tam generalia quam particularia, in fact the first real scholarly edition of these church documents. It was widely used before the new collection of Mansi came out. Petrus Crabbe died in Mechelen/Malines in 1553 or 1554 at the age of 83. Crabbe apparently also worked on a bibliography of published works of classical writers, and he corresponded on this topic with the humanist Viglius ab Aytta. This was either never published and the manuscript version apparently has not survived.


Concilia Omnia tam Generalia quam Particularia ab Apostolorum Temporibus in Hunc usque Diem a SS. Patribus Celebrata et Quorum Acta Literis Mandata ex Vetustissimis Diversorum Regionum Bibliothecis Haberi Potuere, 2 Vols (Cologne: Petrus Quentel, 1538); revised in 3 vols (Cologne: Joannes Quentel, 1551) [including a provisional account of the early history and decisions of the Council of Trent]; revised in 4 vols, ed. Surius (Cologne, 1567). The author included biographies of the popes, the bulls and letters of whom he included. Crabbe’s collection of Councils and council decisions was avidly used by Catholics and Protestants alike. Several old editions of this work now accessible via the digital collections of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek and via Google Books.

Epistola ad Fridericum Nauseam (12 August, 1536), included in: Epistolarum miscellanearum ad Fridericum Nauseam (…) libri X (Basel: Joannes Oporinus, 1550), f. Z2r [179].

Some scholars also ascribe to Petrus Crabbe the imprint/edition of a twelfth-century sermon on the immaculate conception of Mary, supposedly written by Peter Comestor. See: Pius ac eruditus sermo Petri Comestoris, olim prebyteri Trecensis, de immaculata Virginis Mariae Conceptione (Antwerp: Willem Vorsterman, 1536). The work was later included in Petrus de Alva y Astorga’s Radii solis (…) pro immaculatae conceptionis mysterio (1666).


Juan de San Antonio, Bibliotheca Universa Franciscana II, 444; C. Chaillot, `Les principales collections des conciles. Editions de Crabbe’, Revue du monde catholique 16 (>>), 241-347; Dom H. Quentin, J.D. Mansi et les grandes collections conciliaires (Paris, 1900); D. Franses, `Petrus Crabbe en zijn Conciliorum Collectio’, Collectanea Franciscana Neerlandica 2 (1931), 427-446; W. Schmitz, Het aandeel der minderbroeders, 100-101; B. De Troeyer, `Petrus Crabbe’, Franciscana 17 (1962), 105-110; B. De Troeyer, Bio-Bibliographica Franciscana Neerlandica saec. XVI, I: Pars biographica (Nieuwkoop: B. De Graaf, 1969), 137-138, 163ff.; H.J. Sieben, Die katholische Konzilsidee von der Reformation bis zur Aufklärung (Paderborn, 1988), 226ff.; LThK 3rd ed. II, 1336;

We can see at once that this is full of good things.

Copies of his 1538 edition can be found online here:

His 1551 edition is here:

  • vol. 1. –
  • vol. 2. –
  • vol. 3. –

The edition of 1567, which no longer bears his name, but that of Surius, is here:

  • vol. 1. –
  • vol. 2. –
  • vol. 3. –
  • vol. 4. –

How useful these editions still are is unknown to me.  It would not be altogether surprising to find that there is material in here which later collections neglected.


Petrus Crabbe and an online bibliography of Franciscan authors (13th-18th century)

The earliest author of a big collection of the canons of church councils was a Franciscan chap called Pierre Crabbé, or rather Petrus Crabbe, according to the pleasant custom of the time.  In 1532 he undertook a search of more than 500 libraries for texts of the councils, and in 1538 he published a massive two-volume collection at Cologne under the title Concilia Omnia tam Generalia quam Particularia.  This was hot stuff, where the disputes of the period were concerned, and both Catholic and Protestant made use of it.  It was revised in 3 vols (Cologne: Joannes Quentel, 1551) [including a provisional account of the early history and decisions of the Council of Trent], and revised in 4 vols, ed. Surius (Cologne, 1567).

Apparently the Pope put him up to it.  There was some sort of committee formed by the Vatican, and no doubt they were the real instigators.

How do I know this?  For this morning I knew nothing of Petrus Crabbe and his pioneering work, until a kind correspondent mentioned him.

Well, it turns out that there are a couple of chaps named Maarten van der Heijden and Bert Roest, who have been working away on a massive biography of Franciscan authors from the 13-18th century.  Better yet, it is online.  The site, “Franciscan Authors, 13th-18th century: A catalogue in progress“, is accessible here:

The site is old-fashioned in design, but not a bit the worse for that.  On the contrary, it is far more user-friendly than modern designs.  Recommended.


The August Poems in the Chronography of 354

Finally!  At last we have more than one manuscript containing an image for August, the first month where this is so since March.

Here is the 4-line poem (tetrastich):

Fontanos latices et lucida pocula vitro
cerne, ut demerso torridus ore bibat.
Aeterno regni signatus nomine mensis
Latona genitam quo perhibent Hecaten.

Look for spring waters and transparent cups in glass,**
So that a thirsty man may drink with submerged mouth.
By the immortal name of a reign is the month designated,
In which, they maintain, that Hecate was born from Latona.

“vitro” is ablative singular, so I am not sure how that fits with the rest of the first line.  The reign mentioned in line 3 is that of Augustus.  On line 4, the Roman goddess Diana in one of her aspects took on the role of the Greek Hecate as goddess of the underworld. Her birthday was celebrated at Nemi on August 13th.

The 2-line verse (distich) is as follows:

Tu quoque Sextilis venerabilis omnibus annis
Numinis Augusti nomen †in anno venis†.

You also, venerable Sextilis, in every year,
(Under) the** name of the divinity of Augustus †in the year you come†.

The last words are those in the manuscripts, but Divjak and Wischmeyer suggest that they are corrupt; apparently the editions give various suggested emendations.   I don’t see how the nominative “nomen” should be understood – “under” is a guess.

The 16th century Vienna manuscript 3416, folio 29 (online here), gives us this clearly redrawn image:

Vienna 3416, f.29

The rather more authentic 17th century R1 manuscript, Vat. (online here) gives us this, including the tetrastich and the first line of the distich (the other is on the facing page):

R1 – Ms. Vatican Barberini lat. 2154, f.19r

The Brussels 7543-49 manuscript, f.201r, gives us this image:

B – August

From the Berlin copy, Berol. lat. 61, f.233 (formerly f.228) we get this:

Divjak and Wischmeyer explain all this, so I shall summarise what they tell us.

All these images represent the heat of August, unsurprisingly, and ways to cool off.  The image shows a naked man, thirsty from the summer heat, drinking from a bowl.  The chin is visible through the bowl, so this is a glass bowl, as the first two lines of the tetrastich indicate.  Around the man are three melons; a large vessel with a flame coming out of it; a flabellum (ceremonial fan) with peacock feathers atop a spiral pole; and a jacket with elaborate decoration, including fringes at the cuffs, perhaps associated with the .  In the Vienna manuscript the vessel has a coat of arms with “ZO” on it; the others show “ZLS”.  The Vienna manuscript omits the jacket.  The R1 manuscript shows the (surely original) frame.

The jacket is perhaps associated with the Vulcanalia of August 23, a festival when fires were lit.  At this time garments were hanged up in the sunlight, according to a poem by ps.Paulinus:

nunc omnis credula turba / suspendunt soli per Vulcanalia vestes[1]

They add that the ZO/ZLS means “ΖΗΣ(ΗΣ) / ZES(es), a formula that is very often found in connection with precious drinking vessels such as gold glasses.”

(For more information on this series of posts, please see the Introduction to the Poems of the Chronography of 354).

  1. [1]Ps. Paulinus, carmen 32 (CSEL 30), 138 f.