The Roman Fort at Ain el-Lebekha

Here’s a photograph for a snowy winter morning!  It’s the Roman fort at Ain el-Lebekha, a micro-oasis near Kharga Oasis in the western desert in Egypt.  It’s like something straight out of Beau-Geste.

I had never heard of this place, so I did some googling.  I found that, as ever with Arabic names, the name is spelled several ways: Labakha, and Qasr Labakha, etc.

The North Kharga Oasis Survey site, here tells us more. “The most unexpected and startling of the remains in Kharga are the forts of the Roman period, mentioned in passing by early travellers and geologists, and never properly investigated.” There are several spectacular forts.

The area of Ain el-Lebekha is 40-50km north of Kharga.  It is only accessible by 4×4.  The old caravan route that the fort commands is no longer used.  Apparently there are enterprising gentlemen in Kharga happy to arrange a day trip, for a mere $150.

There are some very useful photographs at Wikimedia Commons here.  Here’s one, by Roland Unger:

There is a paper by C. Rossi and G. Magli, “Wind, Sand and Water. The Orientation of the Late Roman Forts in the Kharga Oasis”, in: G. Magli (ed.), Archaeoastronomy in the Roman World (2019), p. 153-166 (online here; also the references are in HTML here), which serves as an introduction to the literature on the subject.

But all that is for another day.  Today I think we can just gaze at the pictures, and think of the dry air and heat of Egypt.

(h/t RKM images)

A “beautiful allusion” to palimpsests in John Chrysostom, and the less beautiful task of verifying it

In 1866 a lecture was given by a certain Dr Charles William Russell (d.1880), President of Maynooth College, with the title, “Cardinal Mai and the Palimpsests”.  This contained the following statement, which has been repeated in some form now for 160 years.

The practice [of palimpsesting] continued, in a greater or less degree, under the later emperors ; and there is a beautiful allusion to it in one of St. John Chrysostom’s Homilies,+ in which he compares the mind upon which evil impressions had once been made to a palimpsest parchment in which, however carefully the old characters and lines are sure to appear peeping the new writing.

It appears from the introduction of the editor that the text of the lecture was discovered, unpublished, among the papers of the author.  So it was printed in the Irish Monthly 38 (1910), p.301-315, more than forty years after it was delivered.

These words have had a literary afterlife quite disproportional to their origin.  When the claim is quoted, a reference is given to the homilies on Matthew, if at all.  But there is no sign that the reference has been verified.  Indeed a correspondent, Prof. Johnnie Gratton, formerly of Trinity College Dublin, wrote to me a week ago and raised the question, which drew my attention to the matter.

Our first port of call is the original article, which is in JSTOR here.  This gives a footnote, which reads, in its entirety, “Matth. xxvi. 4.”  But there is no homily of Chrysostom on that verse; indeed Chrysostom only refers to the verse once, according to the Biblindex database, and that in his 15th homily on Romans.

I then came across a possible answer, in a Ukrainian paper, of all possible sources.  The article has an English abstract and is Daria Morozova, “The school of Antioch and its pedagogical metaphors”,  in: Мultiversum: Philosophical almanac 1 (2020),188-201 (online here).   Thankfully Google Translate handles this well. Dr. Morozova begins:

In Antiochian authors, as in all Byzantine patristic in general, several pedagogical metaphors of ancient origin compete, which in very different ways – and in diametrically opposite ways – represent the nature of the educator’s influence on the child. Perhaps the most common pedagogical metaphor until now is the image of a blank sheet (tabula rasa), on which he outlines his meanings …  If the metaphor of a blank sheet comes from the materialist psychology of Aristotle (De anima, III, 4, 429b – 430a), …

Then on p.191 we find this:

Tabula rasa or palimpsest?

Chrysostom refers to the first paradigm – tabula rasa – very often, but it has a slightly more complex configuration. Instead of a “blank sheet”, John imagines a palimpsest with many layers of text, where each new recorded text hopelessly hides everything from sight. In one of the exegetical sermons (In Matt. 11.7), John rebukes his (adult) listeners for treating worship as a sad duty and not as a fascinating learning process in which the teachers are “prophets, apostles, patriarchs. and all are righteous. ” After singing a few psalms, they carry home “empty charters” (κενὰς… δέλτους), which, however, are not really empty. After all, at home the faithful allow passions and all the hustle and bustle of life to flood their hearts with “spam”, which makes them deaf to the divine lessons of the liturgy.

“That is why,” John complains, “when I take your charters (δέλτους), I cannot read them. I do not find the letters that we write down for you on Sundays (…), but I find others instead – meaningless (ἄσημα) and distorted. We, wiping them (ἐξαλείψαντες), write what is from the Spirit, and you, leaving here, surrender your hearts to the devil’s actions (διαβολικαῖς ἐνεργείαις), and again give him the opportunity to rewrite.” (In Matt. 7.7: PG 57, 200).

Therefore, Chrysostom asks his children: “Wipe away the letters or, more precisely, the imprints (χαράγματα) that the devil has engraved (ἐνετύπωσέ) in your soul, and bring me a heart free from all the confusion of life, so that I can write freely, to him that ho-chu”.

Spiritual education in this description resembles a certain information war, where opponents tirelessly rewrite texts on the tablets of hearts (“others against others”, ἕτερα ἀνθ ‘ἑτέρων). Thus, within the usual metaphor of a blank sheet, pedagogy is no longer presented as a one-time path from zero to 100% completeness, but as a virtually endless process of editing.

Note that I don’t know a letter of Ukrainian, nor even the Cyrillic alphabet, so all this is from Google Translate.  It’s remarkably good, isn’t it?

Here, I think, we have a modern researcher independently reading Chrysostom and concluding that a palimpsest is involved.  Better still, we have references!  Let’s see what they say.

The first reference is to “In Matt. 11.7”. But don’t be misled here – this is not about Matthew chapter 11, verse 7!  This refers to “Homilies on Matthew, homily 11, chapter 7”.   This can be found in the Patrologia Graeca text, PG 57, col. 200.  And “Homily 11 on Matthew” is commenting on Matthew 3:7.

The second reference is to “In Matt. 7.7: PG 57, 200”; but this is, again, in fact homily 11, chapter 7.  I assume “7:7” is a typo for “11:7”.  The material for both references seems to be from the same passage, as we shall see.

Luckily we have a complete translation of the Homilies on Matthew.  They were originally translated for the Oxford Movement Library of the Fathers of the Catholic Church series.  Sir George Prevost made the translation, and it was published as volumes 11 and 15 in 1843, and vol. 34 in 1851.  These were then pirated for the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series, and slightly revised to update the language, formatting and footnotes.  The translation was made from a different edition, in which the material is in chapter 9.  The LFC may be found here.  Here’s the NPNF:

And yet our teachers here are more in number and greater. For no less than prophets and apostles and patriarchs, and all righteous men, are by us set over you as teachers in every Church. And not even so is there any profit, but if you have joined in chanting two or three Psalms, and making the accustomed prayers at random and anyhow, are so dismissed, you think this enough for your salvation. Have ye not heard the prophet, saying (or rather God by the prophet), This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me?

Therefore, lest this be our case too, wipe out the letters, or rather the impressions, which the devil has engraven in your soul; and bring me a heart set free from worldly tumults, that without fear I may write on it what I will. Since now at least there is nothing else to discern, except his letters — rapines, covetings, envy, jealousy.  Wherefore of course, when I receive your tablets, I am not able so much as to read them. For I find not the letters, which we every Lord’s day inscribe on you, and so let you go; but others, instead of these, unintelligible and misshapen. Then, when we have blotted them out, and have written those which are of the Spirit, you departing, and giving up your hearts to the works of the devil, give him again power to substitute his own characters in you. What then will be the end of all this, even without any words of mine, each man’s own conscience knows. For I indeed will not cease to do my part, and to write in you the right letters. But if you mar our diligence, for our part our reward is unaltered, but your danger is not small….

The use of the word “impressions” confirms that we are dealing with the passage that Dr Russell had in mind.

The translator, Sir George Prevost, has rendered δέλτος as “tablet”, meaning a writing tablet.  Likewise the modern Latin translation in the PG edition renders it as “tabula”.  The wonderful Logeion site here confirms this understanding.

Here’s the PG text, bottom of col. 200.  I’ve highlighted the δέλτος:

My correspondent also drew my attention to a passage in the next chapter, where we have the phrase “the tablet of the mind”:

But in order that the same may not happen again — that you may not, having here admired what is said, go your way, and cast aside at random, wherever it may chance, the tablet of your mind, and so allow the devil to blot out these things — let each one, on returning home, call his own wife, and tell her these things, and take her to help him

The nearly unreadable PG in column 202, lines 19-20 gives δέλτον τῆς διανοίας ὑμῶν, rendered in the Latin as “mentis vestrae tabula”.

Nowhere is the word “palimpsest” used, tho.  The text refers solidly to a youth’s tablet, used for writing, where the text can be erased and fresh text written.  The idea of half-erased impressions is definitely present – but refers to wax tablets, not to parchment erased and rewritten.

    *    *    *    *

Not every reader of this blog will be familiar with Roman wax tablets.  These are well known, and many resources for them exist online.

A thin wooden frame contained a central surface of wax.  The writer used a stylus with a pointed end to write.  The other end was flat, in order to erase it.  A depiction from 480 BC of just such a tablet in use is known to us: (h/t Michel Lara)

A modern reproduction looks like this:

With luck we can now put an end to the “Chrysostom talked about palimpsests” myth.

Reconstructions of Old St Peters’ from the “Altair 4” design house

An Italian computer graphics firm has created a 3-D model of Old St Peters‘, the 4th century basilica built by Constantine atop the ruins of the Circus of Gaius and Nero on the Vatican hill.  They have also created reconstructions of the site from the 1st century to our own day.  The material is all here.

1st century AD – Circus of Gaius and Nero on the Vatican Hill. Via
Late 2nd century AD – The circus lies in ruins, and a circular tomb has been built on the “spina”. Via
4th century AD – Old St Peter’s stands on the Vatican Hill. Two 3rd century tombs are on the south side. The obelisk stands on the spina of the old circus. Via
21st century AD – The modern view today. Via

Further images, videos and other media content can be obtained from the publisher, if you want something on Old St Peter’s.


H/t Twitter.

Some notes on another brief biography of Juvenal (Jahn III)

At the end of Jahn’s 1851 edition of the works of Juvenal, the editor helpfully gathered together various accounts of the life of Juvenal which are found in the medieval manuscripts that transmit to us the text of Juvenal’s Satires. The value of all of these biographies is very doubtful, but it is interesting to see them. An old Geocities website, existing now here, includes most of them and some other material, which spurred me to look at one of them.

Here’s Jahn’s Vita number III:

Iuvenalis iste Aquinatis fuit, id est ex Aquinio oppido, temporibus Neronis Claudii imperatoris. Prima aetate siluit, ad mediam fere aetatem declamavit, unde et quasi diu tacuit. Fecit quosdam versus in Paridem pantomimum, qui tunc temporis apud imperatorem plurimum poterat. Hac de causa venit in suspicionem, quasi istius imperatoris tempora notasset. Sic obtentu militiae pulsus urbe tandem Romam cum veniret et Martialem suum non videret, ita tristitia et angore periit anno aetatis suae altero et octuagesimo.

— O. Jahn, D. Iunii Iuvenalis Saturarum Libri V, 1851, p.388.

Translating this, I get something like this.

That Juvenal was an Aquinatan, i.e. from the town of Aquinium, in the time of the emperor Nero Claudius. In his early years he was quiet, until almost middle age he declaimed, from when again he was silent as if for a long time. He made some verses against Paris, a pantomime actor, who at that time had very great influence with the emperor. For this reason he came under suspicion, as if he had documented the time of that Emperor. So having been expelled from the city under the pretext of military service, when at last he came to Rome and did not see his friend Martial, then he perished from sadness and anguish, at the age of eighty-one.

I thought that I would share a few items that struck me as I looked at this.

The town is actually named Aquinum, modern Aquino, rather than Aquinium.

Since Juvenal was a contemporary of Martial, who flourished under Domitian, clearly Juvenal – who calls Domitian a “bald-headed Nero” did not himself live in the days of Nero.

“prima aetate”, from youth, in his early years. There are some interesting remarks in the various dictionaries at Logeion here on the variable meanings of “aetas”.

“quasi diu tacuit”, he fell silent as if for a long time. “quasi diu” misled me, and I resorted to an internet search. I often find that useful information for a translator comes out of this, especially for medieval Latin. Thus I found myself looking at an entry in the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville, book 5, chapter 25, v. 19:

Depositum est pignus commendatum ad tempus, quasi diu positum.

A ‘deposit’ (depositum) is a security entrusted for a set time, as though it were ‘set down for a long time’ (diu positum).

English translation by Stephen A Barney &c, Cambridge (2006), p.121.

“apud imperatorem plurimum poterat” – had very great influence with the emperor. This nice phrasing came out of Google translate, which can also be a source of a useful word or two; and perhaps more often, is also a source of complete gibberish.

“Romam cum veniret et Martialem suum non videret” – when he came to Rome and did not see his dear (suum) Martial. Both verbs are subjunctive and imperfect, following “cum”, so literally “when he was coming… and was not seeing”. The sense is of an ongoing action – but in English we do better to use “came… and did not see”, which conveys the same sense.

But where does this text come from? Well, Jahn says:

exstat in cod. msc. Is. Vossii v. cl. auctoremque praefert Ael. Donatum, sed uidetur tamen potius ex superiori vita expressa per Cornutum aut Probum aut Asperum aut Euanthium aut similem compilatorem grammaticum.” Henninius.

This footnote is a quote from this “Henninius”, who turns out to be an early and very copious editor (Leyden, 1695). It’s probably quoted from the later Ruperti edition, tho. Uselessly it tells us only that it is found in a miscellaneous manuscript once belonging to Isaac Vossius – I’m not quite sure what he’s saying about Donatus.

But the webpage above adds:

Nach Stephan de Pithoeanis in Iuvenalem scholiis S. 9. A. steht dieselbe vita auch im codex Pithoeanus.

According to Stephan, Concerning the Pithou manuscript of the scholia of Juvenal, p.9, the same vita is present in the Pithou manuscript.

“Stephan” turns out to be an 1881 commentator. But the codex Pithoeanus is Montpellier H25, which is now online. And so indeed it is! It is the second vita on the page at the end, online here. Yes, it’s time for that image again! (I do like it)

This page is, however, a later addition to the 9th century manuscript.

There are all sorts of little bits of Latin around, and it would be nice to see more of them in translation.

From my diary

Various snippets have come my way over the last few days. But rather than writing new blog posts, I’ve been updating some older posts that touched upon them.

Much of this related to Juvenal. All my old posts on him can be found here.

One old post here contained the text, together with a very old and not very good translation of the ancient “biography” of Juvenal that appears in some manuscripts. I came across a modern translation by Courtney and added that to it, and also included screen shots of the page in two manuscripts.

Other posts referred to the Aarau fragments of Juvenal. A kind correspondent had let me know the location of these, so I made sure the posts reflected this.

Another post here contained the first two sentences of the first scholion on Satire I, line 1. I added the other two, to round it out. Small stuff, I know, but all useful.

Soon after publishing my post here on photographs of the Meta Sudans held by the American Academy in Rome, I learned that the British School in Rome had also posted some photographs of the monument online. So I added these to the same post. They nicely filled in some gaps, giving nearly 360° views of the Meta Sudans.

All this is rather inconsequential, and I would not mention it ordinarily, were it not for the next update.

This blog is written using the free WordPress software, although I host my own copy of it on some rented webspace. A couple of years ago WordPress decided to introduce a new editor, the “block editor”. This I ignored, as I was perfectly happy with the “classic editor”.

But the inevitable has happened. The classic editor is starting to rot. It is developing bugs. It’s becoming unfit for purpose.

So this is my first post with the block editor, written mainly to test it out. Let’s see what happens.

I have already discovered one problem: that it doesn’t seem to support footnotes. A blog post here gives a quite impractical approach, and suggests that WordPress simply don’t care about it. I’ll have to look further into this.[1]

I do believe that WordPress have lost the plot. The original purpose of WordPress was to make blogging easy. These days everything seems to be about using it to develop websites. Blogging hardly seems to rate a mention.

This is the problem with using any free blogging tools like WordPress, rather than raw HTML. It makes many things easier, and certainly improves the presentation. But at the end of the day it means committing your content to strangers who have no obligation towards you. They can in principle withdraw their tools from you at any moment for any reason, leaving you in the lurch. You have no redress whatever.

It’s all a long way from the internet of 1997!

  1. [1]Looks like it still works as it did!

What do the scholia of Juvenal look like in the Montpellier manuscript?

David Ganz kindly drew my attention to the fact that the Montpellier H25 manuscript of Juvenal (Lorsch, 9th century), our best witness for the old scholia on Juvenal, is now online here.  If we go to the start of the Juvenal portion of the manuscript, here, we see this:

In the middle of the page is the text of Juvenal, starting here with the first satire; and in the margin is the commentary.  Although the manuscript is 9th century, the comments are thought to be 4th century.

The Wessner edition of the scholia[1] begins like this:

Each comment or “scholion” consists of a word or two from the text –  jargon alert: this is called the “lemma” – followed by whatever the comment is.

Wessner prints the lemma in italics, understandably.  So it is really interesting to see what the 9th century scribe actually put on the page!  I have highlighted those lemmas that I can see with a red box.  There are also scholia to the right of the text of Juvenal, such as the one on “Cordi”.

The first scholion, a comment on the very first words, consists of a little biography of Juvenal.  The others are much shorter.

I wonder to what extent this manuscript is laid out in the same way as a late 4th century original?  Probably very similarly.  Perhaps the brevity of most scholia relates to the limited space available?

  1. [1]Paul Wessner, Scholia in Iuvenalem Vetustiora, Teubner (1931).

Photos of the Meta Sudans from the American Academy in Rome

The American Academy in Rome has started placing its photographs online.  The results are rather spectacular, and a cut above the random old photographs that we find online.  It means that for the first time we can reference what we are looking at.

Naturally I did a search for the Meta Sudans, the massive Roman fountain demolished by Mussolini in 1934.  The search link is here.

What I got was a bunch of images of the monument from several sides, which I was able to zoom in to.  Here are the excerpts:

From the Colosseum looking toward the Arch of Titus

It’s clear that the monument was already badly damaged – someone cut away a whole corner of it, to the water channel in the middle.  No doubt they were searching for treasure.

Looking towards the Palatine hill. 1864-84.

Moving to the right slightly, we get an angle.  Note the “notch” coming into view on the right.

Looking through the Arch of Titus toward the Colosseum

This one is from the other side, looking back at the monument.  Two “notches” are visible.

From the Palatine

Moving round to the right a bit, we see more of the “notch” on the right.

From the Palatine but higher up (1907)

This one is from the hill, but a bit higher up.  However it shows less.

Excavation of the foundations, after demolition

Finally there is this, from the 1940s, after the monument was demolished.  This is an excavation of the foundations.

I expect there is a great deal of extremely interesting material at the American Academy in Rome site.  The trick will be in finding the right search terms.  It’s a great and very useful project!

Update 7th January 2021: there are also photographs at the British School in Rome site, here.   I’ve zoomed in on some of them.

One side of the Meta Sudans was always hard to see, as it faced the Arch of Constantine.  Here we see it side-on, with the missing corner to the right.

Moving somewhat to the left, the “notch” comes into view:

And moving more in the same direction:

Now here’s a close-up of the brickwork (Latin: opus latericium):

Here we have come right round to the Colosseum side.  The other “notch” is visible to the right, while the destroyed area is to the left.

Finally a nice close-up zoom of Du Perac’s drawing of the monument, in the days when it was twice as tall.

This is all marvellous.  The BSR likewise need to be commended to making this material accessible.  What a wonderful picture we get of the Meta Sudans monument!

Did Aristocritus identify Zoroaster and Christ?

In a previous post here we discussed a medieval Christian Arabic collection of apocryphal oracles by pagan philosophers, predicting the coming of Christ.  Much of this material was discovered in 2007 by Andrew Criddle, who had a further suggestion relating to it, and what follows is his work.  I post it here because it should not be lost, and currently it survives only in an archive of a now defunct message forum.[1]

The saying with which we were concerned was one which attributed to Zoroaster a famous saying of Christ.  In the manuscript Mingana Syr. 481, it took this form:

Zoroaster the Magian said to his disciples in the Book of the Elements of Science:[3] Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood, will remain in me and I in him.

Dr C. notes that this is rather like another apocryphal saying, attributed this time to Augustus, which is found in several places; in the Syriac language in Bar Hebraeus, and Dionysius bar Salibi; and in the Greek language a version of it appears in John Malalas, Chronicle, book 10, chapter 5, when Augustus consults the oracle at Delphi, and gets no reply.  Asking why, the priestess replies:

The Pythia made him the following reply, “A Hebrew child ruling as god over the blessed ones bids me abandon this abode and return to Hades. (232) So now depart from our leaders”.[2]

The oracle is also found in Ms. Mingana Syr. 481:

Augustus the wise said in the Book of Astrology: There must appear a Hebrew youth, who will be called Christ and is eternal in His essence. The Eternal will make a public appearance, having the lordly power in His hand. He will raise the dead and clean the lepers and loosen the mute tongues.

The use of pagan prophecies by Syriac writers – the Arabic is just a version of this – was studied by Sebastian Brock in a couple of articles.[3]  He believed that the various Syriac versions derived from Greek, probably translated more than once.

But Sebastian Brock also suggested that most of this “pagan oracles predicting Christ” material all goes back to a single Greek work.  This was composed around 500 AD, and had the title Theosophia.  The work was in 11 books.  The work is lost, but an excerpt is preserved in one Greek manuscript, known as the “Tübingen Theosophy”, and there are fragments in other later Greek collections based upon the Theosophia.[4]

None of the remains refer to Zoroaster.  But in the Tübingen Theosophy, there is the following remark about a now lost portion of the work.

In the fourth (or eleventh) [chapter] he mentions the oracles of a certain Hystaspes, (ChRHSEIS hUSTASPOU) who, as he said, was an extremely pious king of the Persians or Chaldeans and therefore received the revelation of the divine mysteries about the incarnation of the Savior.

A section devoted to “oracles” by a Persian is precisely where we might expect to find mention of Zoroaster.

This lost work, the Theosophia, may be the same as a work of that name by a certain Aristocritus, who is known only from a medieval Greek list of anathemas, written around 1000 AD, directed at Manichaeans.  This suggestion was first made by A Brinkmann, “Die Theosophie des Aristokritos”, in Rheinische Museum fur Philologie N F 51 (1896), p. 273-80.    Not every scholar has agreed apparently.

The list of anathemas that mentions Aristocritus is known as The Long Anathema.  The text is edited with a translation by Samuel Lieu.[5]  Here is the English (p.253):

(1468A) (l anathematize) also the book of Aristocritus, which he entitled Theosophy, in which he tries to demonstrate that Judaism, Paganism. Christianity and Manichaeism are one and the same doctrine, and so that what he says will appear plausible, he attacks Mani as evil.

But this work is itself derived from a recently 6th century work, anonymous but probably by Zacharias of Mitylene, known as the Seven Chapters.  It was found in 1977 by Marcel Richard on Mount Athos, in Ms. Vatopedianus 236.  Lieu edits and translates this (p.252):

In addition to all these I anathematize in the same way that most atheistic book of Aristocritus which he entitled Theosophy, through which he tries to demonstrate that Judaism, Paganism and Christianity and Manichaeism are one and the same doctrine, with no other ulterior motive than to make all men Manichaeans, as far as he can.   For indeed he, like Manichaeus, in it makes Zarades a God who appeared, as he himself says, among the Persians and calls him the sun and Our Lord Jesus Christ, even if for the sake of deceiving and ensnaring those who come across his book which it would be more appropriate to call his “Heretical infatuation” (theoblabeia) and at the same lime his “Derangement” (phrenoblabeia), he gives the appearance of upbraiding Manichaeaus.

Dr C. comments:

This clearly indicates that Aristocritus (whether or not really a Manichaean) regarded Zoroaster and Christ as the same divine being making it plausible that in his Theosophia he would attribute things to Zoroaster originally attributed to Christ.

This then may be the original source of our saying from the Mingana manuscripts.

Interesting idea!  My thanks to Andrew Criddle for this very learned suggestion.

  1. [1]Link here:
  2. [2]The Chronicle of John Malalas, Byzantina Australiensia 4, p.123
  3. [3]S. Brock, “Some Syriac Excerpts from Greek Collections of Pagan Prophecies”, Vigilae Christianae 38 (1984) pps 77-90 and “A Syriac collection of Prophecies of the Pagan Philosophers”, Orientalia Lovaniensia Periodica XIV Leuven (1983). Reprinted in Studies in Syriac Christianity (1992).
  4. [4]See H Erbse, Fragmente griechischer Theosophien, Hamburg (1941), and Theosophorum Graecorum Fragmenta, Teubner (1995).
  5. [5]Samuel N. C. Lieu, Manichaeusm in Mesopotamia & the Roman East, Brill (1999).

When to take down the Christmas decorations? A canon of the 2nd Council of Tours (567)

When should we take down the Christmas tree?  A google search reveals confusion.  The general idea is that we do so on Twelfth Night, but not when that is.  However it seems pretty clear that it should be on the evening of the 5th January, because 6th January is the festival of Epiphany, when the Three Wise Men are commemorated.  Naturally other customs exist.   I have read that this custom of taking down the tree on Twelfth Night is Victorian,[1] but I was unable to find any source for it.

What is not easily found online is any indication of what custom originates when, where and why.  Instead there is a mass of lazy journalism, repeating hearsay.

Very commonly found is some variant of the following:

In 567 the Council of Tours proclaimed that the entire period between Christmas and Epiphany should be considered part of the celebration, creating what became known as the twelve days of Christmas, or what the English called Christmastide. [2]

The old Catholic Encyclopedia article adds:

The Second Council of Tours (can. xi, xvii) proclaims, in 566 or 567, the sanctity of the “twelve days” from Christmas to Epiphany, and the duty of Advent fast;…

Naturally such claims deserve verification.

The acts and canons of the second council of Tours may be found online in J. Hardouin, Acta Counciliorum…, volume 3 (1714), column 355, here.

A quick look at the list of the canons reveals that canon 11 has nothing to do with the matter, despite what the Catholic Encyclopedia says.  The title of canon 17 however is as follows:

XVII. De observatione jejuniorum monachis obeunda.

17.  On the observation of fasts that must be attended to by the monks.

The text of the canon is as follows.  Usefully Hefele’s summary of the canon (found here) is in fact nearly a  literal translation of it, so I will give that.

XVII.  De jejuniis vero antiqua a monachis instituta serventur, ut de Pascha usque ad quinquagesimam, exceptis Rogationibus, omni die fratribus prandium praeparetur: post quinquagesimam tota hebdomade ex asse jejunent. Postea usque ad Kalendas Augusti ter in septimana jejunent, secunda, quarta & sexta die, exceptis his qui aliqua infirmitate constricti sunt. In Augusto, quia quotidie missae sanctorum sunt, prandium habeant. In Septembri toto, & Octobri, & Novembri, sicut prius dictum est, ter in septimana. De Decembri usque ad natale Domini, omni die jejunent. Et quia inter natale Domini & epiphania omni die festivitates sunt, itemque prandebunt. Excipitur triduum illud, quo ad calcandam gentilium consuetudinem, patres nostri statuerunt privatas in Kalendis Januarii fieri litanias, ut in ecclesiis psallatur, & hora octava in ipsis Kalendis Circumcisionis missa Deo propitio celebretur. Post epiphania vero usque ad quadragesimam ter in septimana jejunent.

17. In regard to the fasts of monks the old ordinance shall continue. From Easter to Pentecost (Quinquagesima = Πεντεκοστή), with the exception of the Rogation Days, a prandium (breakfast or luncheon, before the cœna, about midday) shall be prepared daily for the monks. After Pentecost they shall fast for a week, and thenceforward, until the 1st of August, they shall fast three times a week, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, except the sick. In August there shall be prandium daily, because there are daily Missæ Sanctorum (not de feria). In September, October, and November, again, the fasts must be three times a week, as before; but in December, until Christmas, daily. From Christmas to Epiphany there shall be daily prandium, because every day is a festival. Excepted are only the three days in the beginning of January, in which the fathers, in order to oppose the heathen usages, ordered private litanies. On the 1st of January, the festival of the Circumcision, Mass shall be sung at eight o’clock. From the Epiphany until Lent there must be three fasts in the week.

This is plainly some way short of justifying the more exaggerated claims that we hear.  It’s a regulation of when monks are to fast, rather than a “proclamation” for the people at large.  But it is still very interesting.

My own Christmas tree will be taken down tomorrow on January 5th, during the day before Twelfth Night, the eve of Epiphany.  But I have attempted to discover the basis for the claim that doing so is a Victorian tradition by using a Google Books search.

Certainly the requirement to take down the tree and decorations before January 6th is made very firmly in this 1892 volume, Mary Sherwood, The Art of Entertaining, page 379, although the author confuses Twelfth Night with Epiphany.

The Christmas green was once the home of the peace-loving wood-sprite. Christmas evergreens and red berries make the most effective interior decorations, their delightful fragrance, their splendid colour renders the palace more beautiful, and the humble house attractive. Before Twelfth Night, January 6, they must all be taken down. The festivities of this great day were much celebrated in mediaeval times, and the picture by Rubens, “ The King Drinks,” recalls the splendour of these feasts. It is called Kings’ Day to commemorate the three kings of Orient, who paid their visit to the humble manger, bringing those first Christmas gifts of which we have any account.

In British Popular Customs, Present and Past (1891), on page 53 here I find a quotation from an 1847 book, George Soane, New Curiosities of Literature, vol. 1 (1847), p. 51 here, discussing Candlemas (2nd Feb):

The rosemary, the bay, the ivy, the holly, and the mistletoe, the Christmas decorations of hall and cottage, were now pulled down, when according to the popular superstition not a branch, nor even a leaf, should be allowed to remain,… In their place, however, the ‘greener box was upraised,” and Christmas now was positively at an end. Some, indeed, considered this to have been the case on Twelfth Night; and old Tusser, in his “Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry,” strongly contends for it; but then his head was more full of the cart and plough than of regard for old customs: and, like any other master, he was naturally anxious that the holidays should be ended, and the labourers should get to work again as soon as possible; and certes, merry-making, however agreeable it may be, will not help to dig the land or sow the grain. But in spite of these wise saws, the truth of which nobody would contest, human feelings are stronger than human reason, and customs, when they tend to pleasure, will maintain their ground, till they are superseded—not by privations, but by other forms of amusement. Having therefore tolerated the rites of Candlemas Eve, we may as well put up with those of Candlemas Day.

This Thomas Tusser published his didactic poem, Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry as long ago as 1557.  In the 1812 edition by William Mavor, on page 270 here, he is talking about “Plough Monday”, the first after Twelfthtide.  The annotator of this reprint notes:

Till after Twelfth-day, very little country business of any kind used to be carried on. Feasting and visiting filled up the period between Christmas and that day, which was always observed with due solemnities. Plough Monday, which speedily followed, was to remind the cultivators of the earth of their proper business; and a spring was given to the activity of domestics, by some peculiar observances. The men and maid servants strove to outvie each other in early rising, on Plough Monday. If the ploughman could get any of the implements of his vocation by the fireside, before the maid could put on her kettle, she forfeited her Shrovetide cock. The evening concluded with a good supper.

This rather suggests that Twelfth day, January 5th, was the last day of the Christmas season even then.  But of course no Christmas tree was known in that day.

I was unable to find anything useful before 1800.  The Google Books search is very poor in many respects.  So the matter must therefore be left open for now.

  1. [1]Such as this.
  2. [2]E.g. the Wikipedia article on Twelfth Night here.

Gilbert Doble and his pamphlet “St Petroc, Abbot and Confessor”

Gilbert Doble did not have a clear mind.  He was fully capable of deep erudition, combined with a child-like inability to imagine what others might think about it.

He held office in Cornwall as an Anglican parish clergyman in the first half of the twentieth century, and was vicar of Wendron for almost twenty years until his death in 1945.  His knowledge of Cornish history, folksong and hagiography was enough to gain him membership of the Cornish college of bards, the Gorseth.

In his time Cornwall was almost entirely Methodist.  Dislike of “the church” was widespread.  Even in 1979 my own grandmother shared this feeling, and had no time for its Hymns Ancient and Modern.  There was good reason for this dislike.  The Anglican church was not the church of the people of Cornwall, who preferred “the chapel”.  Worse, within living memory, there were cases of evangelical clergymen being harassed out of their parishes.  Similarly arrogant behaviour in Wales led to the disestablishment of the church in Wales in 1906, and feeling in Cornwall was not less.

In such a world, in 1927 Rev Gilbert Doble solemnly proposed the “recatholicisation of Cornwall”.  He was foolish enough to do this at a time when he was promised the incumbency of a Cornish parish; which offer was promptly withdrawn, presumably on the basis that the man was clearly an idiot.  And so he was.  Down the centuries Oxford has produced many a learned fool.  Indeed I recognise something of myself in this combination.

Evidence of this failure is to be found in his pamphlet, “Saint Petroc, Abbot and Confessor”, which I have been browsing in the last couple of days.

The paper seems to have been first published as a standalone item in 1928, with a second edition in 1930, and a third in 1939, I think.  The final version was reprinted in the combined The Saints of Cornwall, part 4, (ed. D. Attwater, 1960-70), and in the Llanerch Press edition (1998) it appears on pp.132-163.

On the first page he states without footnote that:

The present writer in 1928 printed a translation of the Vita Petroci formerly kept at the Breton abbey of Saint-Méen.

Note how little information this conveys to the reader.  There is no indication of the title of the publication, or where it might have appeared.  Nor does he tell us any useful information about the manuscript.  Cunningly he tells us only that it was at one time at Saint-Méen, a statement utterly useless for locating it.  If you want to follow this up, you are stumped.

He then wanders off into discussion of an epitome by John of Tynmouth, then into a Paris manuscript (BNF lat. 9989, fol. 142) containing a text from which John seems to have made his epitome.  After more verbiage he says that he will give a translation of this below.

Then he starts to talk about another Life of St Petroc, in a Gotha manuscript, and in passing says that he will now refer to the Saint-Méen Life as “the First Life”.  Then off he goes into another unrelated subject, the medieval theft of the relics of St Petroc.  After almost five pages of rambling, he starts to talk about the defects of “the manuscript in the National Library in Paris” – no shelfmark – and finally presents a translation of it.

As a parting gift to the baffled reader, he indicates the folio number at which the text starts in his translation – in Roman numerals!  Not all of us will realise without a moment of concentration that “cxlii” = “142”.  But this means that this is a translation of Paris BNF lat. 9989.

I suspect that some of those reading this will find this confusing, even in summary.

The text simply rambles.  Worse yet Doble seems to avoid using the same description twice for the same item.

The facts are actually simple.  He could have said this  (Imagine some references where I put [***]):

This paper contains an English translation of the medieval Latin Life of St Petroc, preserved in Paris BNF lat. 9989, folios 142-nnn, once the property of the Breton abbey of Saint-Méen.  This translation was first printed by me in 1928 and in a revised form in 1930.[***]  In 1937 a manuscript containing a different version of the Life was discovered at Gotha[***] which clarified certain points in the damaged Paris manuscript.  What follows is a revised translation to take account of this, together with a translation of certain passages from the Gotha manuscript.

That’s short, simple, and to the point.  It should appear at the start of the first page.  Once you know that, you can cope with his diffuse digressions.

Was it worth writing about all this?  I feel that it was.

It is a reminder to us all.  When we write, we write to be heard.  We write to convey information.  This paper fails to do so.  It alludes.  It hints.  It requires several readings to get the key points.  It is a burden to the reader.

If the reader has to strain to work out what we mean, then we have failed.  We all have much to read.  We do not need to spend time sifting and rereading, just to work out what the author has to say.

Sadly a failure of this kind is very common in writers of textbooks.  I still shudder at the memory of some of the chemistry textbooks – all long since sold – with which I suffered at university.

Poor Gilbert Doble.  So much learning, vitiated by a failure to sit back and think what a reader new to the subject will make of his words.

Maybe he should have been a blogger!