From my diary

I’ve just finished translating BHL 6170, a rather pointless miracle story by St Nicholas, published in 1889 by the Bollandists as part of the second volume of their catalogue of the Latin manuscripts of the Royal Belgian Library.  The Bollandists were very busy at the end of the 19th century, and for each manuscript they tended to print first a list of contents, and then, as an appendix to the entry, one or more previously unpublished pieces in it.  This was a very useful habit, which conveniently gives us access to a great deal of hagiographical material.

Completing BHL 6170 means that I have now got a MSWord file with BHL 6130-6170 in it.  Without checking, I presume that’s 40 pieces of text.  The file has the Latin text, then the Google Translate of it, suitably cleaned up by me.  Actually it’s not in one single file yet, but in several, but that’s just a cut and paste job.

I’m toying with just making available what I have, and then doing a “version 2” etc as I add more.  There’s still a fair way to go.  I’m not bothering with the longer texts, but rather the miracle stories.

The reason for doing this job is to make a tool for those working with the manuscripts of the Latin St Nicholas material.  There’s such a lot of it, and so many miracle stories, that you find yourself getting lost while paging through the PDFs.  A file with the Latin text means that you can just type in a few words from the manuscript, press Ctrl-F (find), and discover what on earth you’re looking at.  The translation is relatively easy to produce, and so is worth including.

Next on  my list is BHL 6171, printed by Falconius in 1751 on pp.127-9, “Ex iisdem codicibus membranaceis Vaticanis, num. 1194 & 5696, a pag.15 a tergo, ad 17”, from the same parchment Vatican mss, 1194 and 5696, from p.15 verso to 17.  Ms. Vat. lat. 1194 is not online, annoyingly, but 5696 is.  Let’s hope Falconius didn’t get too creative with the text.

The first task is to OCR that part of Falconius.  I wish Finereader would cope with the long-s better.


Apollodorus of Damascus (c. 100 AD), “On military engineering”

A tweet by Gareth Harney drew my attention to a collection of ancient works on siegecraft, transmitted together in the Byzantine period, with splendid illustrations.  As with all technical texts, they probably were altered somewhat along the way.

One of these is the Poliorcetica by Apollodorus of Damascus.  He was an important Roman engineer in Trajan’s campaigns in Dacia, and he was responsible for the great bridge over the Danube, as Procopius tells us.  He designed Trajan’s forum, and may be responsible for Trajan’s column and the Pantheon.  But Cassius Dio (69.4, online here) tells us that he was a practical, plain-spoken man; and that Hadrian first demoted and then executed him:

But he first banished and later put to death Apollodorus, the architect, who had built the various creations of Trajan in Rome — the forum, the odeum and the gymnasium. 2. The reason assigned was that he had been guilty of some misdemeanour; but the true reason was that once when Trajan was consulting him on some point about the buildings he had said to Hadrian, who had interrupted with some remark: “Be off, and draw your gourds. You don’t understand any of these matters.” (It chanced that Hadrian at the time was pluming himself upon some such drawing.)

3. When he became emperor, therefore, he remembered this slight and would not endure the man’s freedom of speech. He sent him the plan of the temple of Venus and Roma by way of showing him that a great work could be accomplished without his aid, and asked Apollodorus whether the proposed structure was satisfactory.

4. The architect in his reply stated, first, in regard to the temple, that it ought to have been built on high ground and that the earth should have been excavated beneath it, so that it might have stood out more conspicuously on the Sacred Way from its higher position, and might also have accommodated the machines in its basement, so that they could be put together unobserved and brought into the theatre without anyone’s being aware of them beforehand. Secondly, in regard to the statues, he said that they had been made too tall for the height of the cella. 5. “For now,” he said, “if the goddesses wish to get up and go out, they will be unable to do so.”

When he wrote this so bluntly to Hadrian, the emperor was both vexed and exceedingly grieved because he had fallen into a mistake that could not be righted, and he restrained neither his anger nor his grief, but slew the man.

The introductory letter of the Poliorceta is ascribed to Hadrian in the Bologne manuscript, but Whitehead has argued that the work was in fact dedicated to Trajan.

Here is a sample page from the work, depicting a seige tower.  It is taken (via Wikimedia) from MS. Paris BNF 2442 (siglum P), fol. 97v.

MS Paris BNF 2242, fol. 97v. Via Wikimedia

I thought a little bibliography might be helpful, as it look a little searching to find the basic stuff, like editions and translations.

The principal manuscripts (from Wescher) seem to be:

  • M = Paris BNF suppl. gr. 607 (10th c.), f.33r-45v, 59r-61v.  CatalogueDigitised Manuscript.  This manuscript originated at the monastery of Vatopedi on Mount Athos, and was brought to Europe by Minas Minoides in 1843.  The opening with the incipit is lost.
  • V = Vatican gr. 1164 (11th c.), folios 119r-136v; but the ms has been refoliated and so actually starts on f.118r.  Digitised Manuscript.
  • P = Paris BNF gr. 2442 (11th c.).  Curiously this does not seem to be online, nor any of the dozen copies of it.

Wescher states (p.137) that the fragment in the 16th century Bologne manuscript (“cod. graec. S. Salvatoris 587”), copied by Valerianus Albinus, apparently attributes the work to Hadrian.

The editions of the Greek text known to me are:

  • C. Wescher, Poliorcetique des Grecs: traités théoriques – récits historiques, Imprimerie impériale(1867).  This analyses the manuscripts.  Online here.  This seems to be the first critical edition, although the drawings of the images are curiously bad sometimes.
  • R. Schneider, Griechische Poliorketiker, t. I [Abhandl. der königlichen Gesellschaft der Wiss. zu Göttingen, philol.-hist. Klasse, n. s., 10, 1], Berlin (1908), pp. 8-50, l. 12, et pl. I-XIV).  No analysis of the manuscript tradition, but a German translation, and plates.  Online here (but only in the USA, thanks to predatory German publishers).

There are at least three translations:

  • David Whitehead, Apollodorus Mechanicus, Siege-matters (2010).  This I have not seen.
  • E. Lacoste, “Les Poliorcetiques d’ Apollodore de Damas composées pour l’Empereur Hadrien,” Revue des Études Grecs 3 (1890) 230-81.  Online at Persee here.
  • Schneider’s edition contains a facing German translation.

There is a very good article on the work:

  • P.H. Blyth, “Apollodorus of Damascus and the Poliorcetica”, GRBS 33 (1992), p.127 f..  Online here.

I thought it might be interesting to look at the opening portion of the text, in the Vatican gr. 1164, and in Wescher’s edition.  I had to look several times to be sure that this was the same text!

Vat. gr. 1164, fol. 118r. Beginning of Apollodorus, Poliorcetica.

And now Weschler:

Interesting to see Hadrian, or perhaps Trajan, addressed as “despota”!


From my diary

I’ve been away for a week.  I took a laptop, but blessedly never touched it.  Remarkably I had excellent weather nearly the whole time. Sightseeing, beaches, trips over the moors: all very different.  Even the 270 mile drives each way were not that great a problem.  Naturally I return to quite an inbox, but I think that I have replied to everyone.  I won’t do anything much more until next week, I think.


A letter by the gnostic Valentinus preserved among the letters of Basil of Caesarea?

I have received an email from Nathan Porter, who has an article due out in Vigiliae Christianae, “A Newly Identified Letter of Valentinus on Jesus’s Digestive System: Ps.-Basil of Caesarea’s ep. 366”.  Thankfully the article is available at here.

It seems that Basil of Caesarea’s Epistula 366 (De continentia) is verbally identical, in places, with portions of Clement of Alexandria’s Stromateis  The latter contains a quotation from a lost letter of the gnostic heresiarch Valentinus to Agathopous.  This the author gives as:

Valentinus, in his letter to Agathopous, says, “Enduring everything, he was continent. Jesus worked divinity: he ate and drank in his own way, not expelling his food. For so great was the power of continence in him that his food did not corrupt in him, since he himself could not be corrupted.”

The Basil passage is:

For if death comes from corruption, and immortality comes from the absence of corruption, Jesus worked divinity, not mortality. He ate and drank in his own way, not expelling his food. So great a power was continence in him that his food did not corrupt in him, since he himself could not be corrupted.

The author suggests that De Continentia is in fact the very same as the lost letter of Valentinus.  The actual idea is indeed heretical, in a docetic way, because such a Christ is not fully man.

The article is very detailed, very well argued, and certainly deserves publication, and professional responses.   I can only give a hasty comment here on a couple of points.

My only concern is that the type of argumentation employed can produce false positives rather easily.  Two passages of text, of any real length, which appear in different works by different authors but which are worded identically, cannot possibly be independent.  We may not know what the connection is, but there must be a connection somehow.  In this case we are not dealing with a long passage of identical wording.  Instead we are dealing with a few words and an idea in a couple of sentences.  That’s risky territory. We’re all accustomed to parallelomania, where a “parallel” proves connection, indeed derivation, and any two things can be made to look the same if we squint hard enough.  We have no “control” search, in which we check whether the method produces demonstrably false results (or does not).  How indeed would we construct one?  But I recall an example, in a different context, of just such a failure which I discussed here.   The false positive is always a risk, with such small amounts of data.

To his credit, the author seems to be aware of this, and quite rightly tries to address this using other material from the two texts, arguing that it is unlikely that the relatively well-structured argument of De Continentia is produced by reading Clement’s Stromateis and reorganising it.  He makes a good case for this; but I do wonder whether it’s true.

Mr Porter also seems aware of the context in Basil’s writings, and he discusses how De Continentia would fit into the patristic world for which it was written.  This is well done indeed.  However I don’t think that there is any need to suppose that someone intended to transmit a letter of Valentinus to the future by hiding it under Basil’s name, as we know that the Apollinarists were forced to do.  No gnostic felt bound by the teachings of his master, and the disciples of Valentinus each embroidered their own system.  By the fourth century AD, did the name of Valentinus mean much, even to the remaining Valentinians?  In manuscript collections of material, chance plays a large part.  Possibly somebody just liked the line of argument, oblivious of its origin, or it was scholia in the margin, or whatever.

All the same, it’s a fine article.  Worth a read!


The fragrant underwear of St Nicholas

The medieval miracle stories of St Nicholas are unsophisticated.  One of these, BHL 6168, contains the following episode, which provoked a few unintentional chuckles.

…the blessed and chosen archbishop of our Lord Jesus Christ, Nicholas, when he was about to pass away from this light to the Lord in a wonderful way, and had completed a wonderful life, he gave back his soul to his most holy creator by an evident miracle. …. Then, having washed the most holy body of a holy man according to the custom, they [the clergy] strove reverently to preserve the linens [linteamina] which the living man had used, as being of use to many in posterity.

2.  Now there happened to be a certain man, Jethro by name, who had come from a far country to consult the holy and most wise man. Here, when he found deceased the man whom he had been looking for alive, he began with great sorrow to beg the same priests and clerics, that even something of the holy man’s clothes [vestimentis] might be given to him out of compassion. …

Then the priests and the clerics, considering these things, and valuing such a request and the longing of the man, gave him one of the linens of the most holy man. Then, when Jethro had received the garment of the blessed Nicholas, with great longing he put it back in a new bag, which had not previously been used by anyone for any actual purpose.

I recall that in Boswell’s Life of Johnson, he remarks Johnson admitted that he had “no passion” for clean linen; that is, clean underwear.    Just which “linen” did Jethro receive, one wonders?

It is worrying that there is no mention of washing the clothing.

And he went away happily saying: “I thank you, Lord, because I am carrying the relics of your most holy confessor.” I beseech you, Lord, to give me a son from my loins through these relics of the blessed Nicholas, for your honor and my joy, and public satisfaction.”

3.   Now when Jethro returned to his city, which is called Excoranda, …. he began to build a church, outside the gates of the city on the east side about two stadia away. As soon as this had been completed, Apollonius, the bishop of the same city, dedicated it in honour and memory of St. Nicholas, storing in it that clothing with solemn veneration.

That is, Jethro wisely placed the church, and the reliquary containing the holy underwear, a good couple of furlongs down wind.  For, as we read:

But when the relics of the holy man were placed in a suitable place, they began to emit such a smell [tantum odorem] from themselves that the fragrance [fragrantia] of such an over-strong smell [odoris nimii] extended for two full stadia.

Various miracles then took place at the church, restoring sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, etc.  One can only hope that nobody sought a cure for a loss of the sense of smell.  The odour of sanctity, it seems, is strong.  Possibly St Nicholas should have sponsored a soap powder?

To conclude on an even more frivolous note, readers in the United Kingdom may wonder just what brand of underwear was preferred by St Nicholas.  Perhaps he wore “Saint Michael” underwear?

Update (4 Feb 2023): For some real information about the Latin for underwear, rather than my persiflage, please see this excellent post by Michael Gilleland at his blog Laudator Temporum Acti here.


Some primary sources for the later legends of St Hilda

The Anglo-Saxon Saint Hilda of Whitby is known to us, not from legendary material, but from a first-rate historical source, Bede’s History of the English Church and People.   The ruined medieval abbey still stands on the cliff-top above the town, and there is still an Anglican order of nuns with a priory in the town, the Order of the Holy Paraclete.  The modern name of Whitby is Danish; the Anglo-Saxon name was Streneshalc, or some variant thereof.  There is a useful article in the Tablet here, if one can get past all the advertising popups.

But what about later miracle stories?  Surely these must exist?  What is out there?

For hagiographical texts for any saint, one would naturally consult the Acta Sanctorum.  Unfortunately the editors  of that series, the Bollandist monks, have yet to get that far.  Volume 67 only takes us to November 10.  St Hilda is commemorated on November 17 in the Roman Catholic Church, so we get nothing from that source.

The Bibliographia Hagiographica Latina vol. 1, p.583 has only a very short entry:

Hilda abb. Streanaeshalcensis, + 680. — Nov. 17.
Beda, Hist. eccl. iv. 21 (23) ; || Hist. SS. (Colon. 1483), f. 373d-74d (prima sententia post reliqua omnia reiecta est) ; || id. (Lovan. 1485), f. 198v-99v (item) ; || Capgravius, f. 179-80T (quibusdam omissis, quibusdam etiam ex Beda, iv. 22 (24) insertis).

The “Hist. SS.” is Hystorie plurimorum sanctorum noviter et laboriose ex diversis libris in unum collecte, Colon (1483).  This may be merely a version of the Golden Legend, but I was unable to locate a copy.  At all events the Bollandists do not assign any of this material a BHL number.  The Capgrave item we will discuss below.

However there are indeed later medieval texts containing a Life of St Hilda.  These naturally build on Bede, but contain new legendary material.  Here is what I was able to find, scattered across other publications.

The 14th century John of Tynemouth’s Sanctilogium (found in the badly damaged MS British Library Cotton Tiberius E.1) is accessible in a revised form in Capgrave’s Nova Legenda Angliae.  The 1901 reprint by C. Horstman contains a Life of St Hilda in volume 2, pages 29-33.  (Online at here).

Another life of Hilda is preserved in the 14th century MS British Library Lansdowne 436, fols. 105v-7r.  This is independent of John of Tynemouth, but unfortunately is not accessible online.

A 15th century manuscript, Cambridge Trinity College O.9.38, contains on ff. 69r-76v a Latin poem written by a monk of Glastonbury, tells us that St. Hilda’s relics were taken to that abbey during the Viking raids.  This has been printed by A.G. Rigg, “A Latin Poem on St Hilda and Whitby Abbey”, Journal of Medieval Latin 6 (1996), 12-43 (JSTOR), to which I owe my knowledge of these other sources.  He also details the sources for the history of Whitby abbey.

In the 16th century John Leland, who called himself “the king’s antiquary”, made visits to all the soon-to-be-abolished English monasteries, and made notes of books in their libraries, plus other incidental information.  Although he never published anything, his tantalising handwritten notes survived, and they were published in the 18th century by Thomas Hearne: John Leland, De Rebus Britannicis Collectanea (1715), vol. 3, pp.39-40. (Online at Google Books here).   Page 39 begins his account of the Whitby area.  He gives extracts from a Life of St Bega, an Irish saint, who had a double monastery at Whitby of monks and nuns, according to Anglo-Saxon custom. There is mention of a “humilis” church of St Hilda at “Greveson”, standing on a prominence called “Sowter” locally, and, he thinks, perhaps once a cell of St Bega.  Then he gives excepts from a text, taken “ex vita S. Hildae”, “From a life of St Hilda”.  This text is otherwise lost.

Ex vita S. Hildae.

Monasterium S. Hildae apud Streneshalc penitus destructum fuit ab Inguaro et Hubba, Titusque Glesconiam cum reliquiis S. Hildae aufugit.

The monastery of St. Hilda at Streneshalc was completely destroyed by Inguar and Hubba, and Titus fled to Glastonbury with the remains of St. Hilda.

Restitutum fuit monasterium de Streneshalc tempore Henrici primum per Guelielmum Perse.

The monastery of Streneshalc was restored in the time of Henry I by William Percy.

Mira res est videre serpentes apud Streneshalc in orbes giratos et inclementia caeli vel, ut monachi ferunt, precibus D. Hildae in lapides concretos.

It is a wonderful thing to see serpents at Streneshalc turned into orbs, and by the judgement of heaven, or, as the monks say, by the prayers of Lady Hilda, into concrete stones.

Locus, ubi nunc coenobium est, videtur mihi esse arx inexpugnabilis.

The place where the convent now stands seems to me to be an impregnable stronghold.

Pictura vitrea, quae est in Streneshalc, monstrat, Scotos, qui prope fines Anglorum habitabant, fuisse vel ad Gulielmi Nothi tempora antropophagos, et hanc immanitatem a Gulielmianis gladio fuisse punitam.

A glass painting, which is in Streneshalc, shows that the Scots, who lived near the borders of the English, were cannibals even in the time of William Noth, and that this savagery was punished by the sword of William.

Eska flumen oritur in Eskdale, defluitque per Danbeium nemus, et tandem apid Streneshalc in mare se exonerat.

The river Eska rises in Eskdale, flows through the forest of Danby [Dalby], and finally empties itself into the sea at Streneshalc.

The “orbs” and “concrete stones” seem to be a reference to fossil ammonites, still to be found on the beaches north of Whitby.  I do not know who William Noth was, unfortunately.

An 18th century extract from John of Tynemouth’s Sanctilogium exists in MS British Library, Stowe 305, on fols. 316-7, which includes the story about the serpents, but also a note about the medicinal properties of the ammonites.  This does not seem to be online, and indeed is an odd collection of mainly early modern items.  Their rather useless catalogue lists this as the last item in the collection, an 18th century paper manuscript:

10. Account of the foundation of Whitby Abbey by Hilda, afterwards 1st Abbess. Lat. f. 316. Paper; ff. 325. xviith-xviiith centt. Folio.

The early 17th century English text follows John of Tynemouth directly, and may be found in C. Horstman, The Lives of Women Saints of Our Contrie of England, (1886) pp.56-58 (Online at here)

A.G. Rigg tells us that St Hilda was a popular saint, at least if dedications of churches and colleges are anything to go by.  If so, the above material seems like rather a meagre harvest of material.  Surely there must be more out there somewhere?