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!

From my diary

Happy new year, everybody, in a few hours.

I’ve acquired some volumes of “The Saints of Cornwall”, by G. Doble.  I think there may be six in all.  Canon Doble was a Cornish antiquarian of the first half of the 20th century.  He issued individual pamphlets on Cornish saints – I think there might have been 48 of these or more.  These were then collected into volumes after his death.

I read through volume one last night, the saints of the Land’s End district.  It’s clear that the good canon was extremely learned.  Unfortunately his book is unreadable.  Each entry is a wodge of verbiage, full of information of various sorts, but the eyes just close.

We all remember the university textbooks with which we had to struggle!  I owned quite a lot of textbooks, some out of print, but I read many fewer.  Doble’s volume brought back memories of these.  I’m not sure quite why they are so bad, but bad they are.

It seems very clear that the history of Cornwall is largely lost.  It is obscure in the Roman period, and altogether vague in the sub-Roman and dark ages period.  All we have to work with is place-names, and largely later saints’ Lives.  These Lives are often late, stuffed with padding – Mr Doble is not hesitant in condemning this – and in many cases entirely fictional.

Some of this must be owing to the small population of Cornwall.  The county is long and thin and must always have been sparsely populated.

An old college friend of mine is a vicar in the west of Cornwall.  On my last visit to him, many years ago, he took me for a drive around the Land’s End district.  Everywhere there were deserted houses and villages.  This is something unthinkable in England.  But there is no work.  The tin mines are closed, and only so many can work in the tourism industry.  So the young people must leave, and the population remains thin even today in some areas.

This must have been far worse in the sub-Roman period.  If nobody lives there, then no history will be written, for history is largely about kings and cities and peoples.

However a couple of factors come to our aid.  It seems that many of the local Cornish saints are also recorded in Brittany.  Indeed often their cults are larger and more important there.  The Lives of these saints, and the presence of their cult, confirm the movement of people from Cornwall into Armorica at the end of the Roman period.  So there is information there, of sorts.

There are also links with Welsh legends, although less important, and even Irish legends.

All the same, it’s a poor record to have to sift through for something resembling real history.

It’s clear that Mr Doble was very well informed on all these sources.  It is a pity that he had no editor, and was obliged to self-publish.  All the same, his volumes are still an important source.

Fortunately Nicholas Orme published in 2000 The Saints of Cornwall through Oxford, which is a modern handbook of great value.  Less fortunately it is out of print and can only be obtained for hundreds of dollars.  Oh well.

An 18th century drawing of the Meta Sudans from the Spanish National Library

Here is a nice drawing from the 18th century of the Meta Sudans, the Roman fountain that used to stand outside the Colosseum until Mussolini decided to demolish it.  This one is from the Biblioteca Digital Hispánica, the Spanish National Library.

Two things make this drawing interesting.  First, it’s close enough that we can see some detail of the Meta Sudans, including that gaping hole at the top.  Secondly, it shows the full height of the monument as it was in 1800, unlike the 19th century photographs.  The upper half was removed at some point before any of those could be taken.

H/t Rubén Montoya (@rubsmontoya).

Christmas Eve

I would like to wish a very Merry Christmas to everyone who reads this blog.

It is Christmas Eve here, and everything is quiet.  It has rained heavily today, and then turned cold.  Ice is predicted, and probably truly, for I went out for a walk late this afternoon, and it was very cold indeed.  The endless rumble of commerce has ceased, for one day.  The silence on Christmas Eve can be very eerie if you are on your own, as so many are.

I don’t know if I shall feel like blogging tomorrow.  I hope that we all have something nice to do, to celebrate the best of days.

Happy Christmas, everyone.

PS.  Apologies to those who accidentally got emailed the start of a draft post on Christmas trees – I pressed publish instead of save.  I discovered more research was needed!

Did Mithras say “He who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood…”?

In 1999 two journalists named Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy published a book called The Jesus Mysteries:  Was the “original Jesus” a pagan god?  The book appealed to a “new atheist” demographic, and material from it could be found online throughout the 2000’s.

On p.49 they made the following claim, in the middle of a series of claims about similarities between Mithras and Jesus:

An inscription reads: He who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood, so that he will be made one with me and I with him, the same shall not know salvation.[183]

The footnotes reads “Godwin J. (1981), 28”.  Freke and Gandy liked this so much that they repeated it in abbreviated form on the first page of their book.

The claim is actually false.  In 2007 in a now defunct message forum, the question was explored.  Dr Andrew Criddle did most of the work, and posted his findings.[1]  I wrote up a page of notes which somehow vanished from the web.  I have restored it here, but it’s rather dense, and disappears into various rabbit holes.  So let’s go through the key points.


Our first port of call is the reference, which turns out to J. Godwin, Mystery Religions of the Ancient World, 1981.  It seems that Freke and Gandy did not trouble to read carefully, for Godwin’s words are:

A Persian Mithraic text, amazingly reminiscent of Jesus’s words, states that ‘he who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood, so that he will be made one with me and I with him, the same shall not know salvation.’

But there is no footnote.

The Actual Source – Vermaseren

The actual source is a publication by the Mithraic scholar, M. Vermaseren, The Secret God, London (1963).  On p.103-4 appears the following claim:

Justin records that on the occasion of the meal the participants used certain formulae (μετ’ ἐπιλόγων τινῶν) comparable with the ritual of the Eucharist, and in this connection mention may be made of a medieval text, published by Cumont, in which of Christ is set beside the sayings of Zarathushtra. The Zardasht speaks to his pupils in these words: ‘He who will not eat of my body and drink of my blood, so that he will be made one with me and I with him, the same shall not know salvation….’ Compare this with Christ’s words to his disciples: ‘He who eats of my body and drinks of my blood shall have eternal life.’ In this important Persian text lies the source of the conflict between the Christians and their opponents, and though of later date it seems to confirm Justin’s assertion.

There is no footnote.

This is a poor English translation of the original Dutch text, a popular paperback, Mithras de geheimzinnige god, Elsevier (1959), which on pp.82-3 reads:

Justinus vermeldt dat de maaltijd gepaard ging met enige formules (met’ epilogoon tinon).” Ook deze kunnen veel gelijkenis vertoond hebben met die van het Avondmaal. Een middeleeuwse tekst, welke door Cumont werd gepubliceerd, is in dit verband bijzonder interessant. Want hierin wordt de waarheid van Christus gesteld tegenover het woord van Zarathustra; deze Zardasht sprak nog tot zijn leerlingen: ‘Wie niet van mijn lichaam zal eten en van mijn bloed zal drinken, zodat hij zich met mij vermengt en ik mij met hem vermeng, die zal het heil niet hebben…’. Maar Christus sprak tot zijn leerlingen: ‘Wie Mijn Lichaam eet en Mijn bloed drinkt, zal het eeuwig leven hebben.’ Deze belangrijke tekst plaatst ons midden in de strijd tussen de Christenen en hun tegenstanders en kan, hoewel laat in datum, misschien de bewering van Justinus bevestigen.

Note how the original Dutch speaks of “this Zardasht” (“deze Zardasht”), where the English translation reads “the Zardasht”, which makes it sound like a book, perhaps the Zardusht-nama; and “this important text” (“Deze belangrijke tekst”), not “this important Persian text”.  There are other errors to mislead the reader.

The Cumont Article

Andrew Criddle discovered that the unnamed article used by Vermaseren was F. Cumont, “Un Bas-Relief Mithriaque du Louvre”, Revue Archeologique 25 (1946), 183-195.   At the end, on p.193-5, he refers to an Arabic manuscript in Syriac characters (Garshuni) in the Mingana collection in Birmingham:[2]

Un passage étrange d’une œuvre tardive vient peut-être suppléer à la réticence de Justin, qui s’est fait scrupule de reproduire les formules païennes. Un manuscrit arabe en caractères syriaques (karshounî) de la Bibliothèque de Birmingham [3] contient une homélie ou une lettre pastorale, dont le thème est de mettre en parallèle les prétentions fausses des Juifs et des Mages et la puissance véritable du christianisme. Le motif qui y est reproduit avec une rigueur monotone est que le démon a fait accomplir aux infidèles une série de prodiges, mais qu’à ces faux miracles, Dieu en a opposé de vrais.

Venait à parler des Mages, l’auteur inconnu assure que Zoroastre ayant fondé des pyrées, exhorta ses sectateurs à se jeter dans le feu, et qu’ils semblèrent y périr dans les flammes; puis qu’en étant sortis sains et saufs, ils parurent ressusciter, mais ce n’était là qu’une illusion produite par des sortilèges. Or le Christ se mesura avec Zoroastre et, en ressuscitant réellement les morts, rendit vaine la propagande des Mages dans le monde entier.

Puis l’écrivain chrétien ajoute : « Ce Zardasht dit encore à ses disciples : Qui ne mangera pas de mon corps et ne boira pas de mon sang, de manière qu’il se mélange à moi et que je me mélange à lui, celui-là n’aura pas le salut… Mais le Christ dit à ses disciples : Qui « mange mon corps et boit mon sang, aura la vie éternelle. »

3. A. Mingana, Catalogue of the Mingana collection of manuscripts (Birmingham. Selley Oak colleges library) Cambridge. 1933. Ms. Mingana, n° 142, ff. 48 à 61. — Notre attention a été attirée sur ce manuscrit par le Père Vosté, dont l’érudition d’orientaliste nous a une fois de plus fait profiter de ses découvertes. Notre ami M. Levi délia Vida a bien voulu se charger de traduire pour nous, avec sa compétence éprouvée, l’ouvrage Karsunî qui nous intéressait, et qu’il s’est réservé d’étudier plus en détail au point de vue de ses sources et de sa date. La guerre a malheureusement interrompu ses recherches ; provisoirement, espérons-le.
1. Nous reproduisons ici la traduction de ce que dit des Mages cette œuvre difficilement accessible, et parfois peu compréhensible ; F. 158 b : …

In English:

A strange passage in a late work may perhaps compensate for the reticence of Justin, who scrupled to reproduce the pagan formulae. An Arab manuscript in Syriac characters (Karshuni) of the Library of Birmingham [3] containing a homily or pastoral letter, the theme of which is to put side by side the false pretentions of the Jews and Magians and the true wisdom of Christianity. The motif which is repeated with monotonous rigour, is that the devil has accomplished a series of miracles among the unbelievers, but, to these false miracles, God has opposed true ones.

Speaking about the Magi, the unknown author asserts that Zoroaster, having built pyres, exhorted his followers to throw themselves into the fire, and that they would seem to perish in the flames; and then coming out safe and well, they would appear to have come back from the dead, but this was only an illusion produced by magic spells. But Christ measured himself against Zoroaster, and by really bringing people back from the dead, made the propaganda of the Magi in the whole world pointless.

Then the Christian writer adds: “This Zardasht again says to his disciples: whoever does not eat of my body and does not drink of my blood, so that he mixes with me and I mix with him, he will not have salvation… But Christ says to his disciples: Whoever eats my body and drinks my blood will have eternal life.

3. A. Mingana, Catalogue of the Mingana collection of manuscripts (Birmingham, Selley Oak colleges library) Cambridge, 1933. Ms. Mingana, n° 142, ff. 48 – 61. — Our attention was drawn to this manuscript by Fr. Vosé, whose erudition as an orientalist has again allowed us to profit from his discoveries. Our friend Mr. Levi della Vida agreed to undertake to translate the Karshuni work which interested us, with his proven competence, and he proposed to study in it more detail and determine its sources and date. The war has unfortunately halted his research; let us hope, only temporarily.

I have highlighted the important bits.

The source – Ms. Mingana Syr. 142, ff.48-61

Cumont tells us nothing much about the text other than that it is a) Christian, b) written in Arabic.  This is because he doesn’t know.  He is reliant on Giorgio Levi della Vida for his information.  In fact della Vida did send him a typewritten translation, on 6 pages, of which the first 4 pages are preserved among Cumont’s papers at the Academia Belgica in Rome.  The other two pages – the interesting ones – were no doubt tucked into a book by Cumont and are now lost.

The Mingana catalogue tells us that the manuscript itself was written around 1690, but that tells us nothing about the date of the text.  It also tells us that the text contains apocryphal quotations from Aristotle.

Back in 2008 I contacted the Mingana library, and obtained a copy of the text, and a translation was made for us by Martin Zammit.  Here are the materials:

Since we have an English translation, we can look at it.  Here is the relevant section:

As regards the sect of the Magians, we also mention to you what Zoroaster did in the days of ‘Adyūn (sic), the eighty-second king since Adam. He opened the temples of fire and made manifest miracles which attracted souls to obey him. Among his signs (he used to do the following): he used to be where the people were, so that they find themselves in the temples of fire, and those who look on think that they got burnt. All that was an act of magic. After (some) time the people were seeing that they (f. 59a) were at fault when they were in their temples, as attested in the Book of ZBHR and in other books of the Magians. Zoroaster also said this to his disciples: “Whoever does not eat my body and drink my blood, and mixes with me and I mix with him, he shall not have salvation.” When his deeds became great and his call spread throughout existence, they boiled him and drank his brew (?). Christ the Lord, the Saviour of the world, opposed them with the true resuscitation of the dead, the healing of sicknesses and diseases, the cleaning of the lepers and the evildoers, the healing of the chronically ill and the disarticulated, the expulsion of demons and the annulment of the works of Zoroaster from all existence. At the end, our Lord said to his disciples: “Whoever eats my body and drinks my blood, he shall have perpetual life.”

This is all very weird stuff.  But we can certainly see that none of this has anything to do with Mithras.

The only question remaining is what on earth this quotation from “Zoroaster”, found in a medieval Arabic Christian text, actually is.

A related Cumont Article

By 1946 Franz Cumont was a very old man.  In fact his last article was published posthumously, and Andrew Criddle discovered that, just like the previous article, it contains material about strange Arabic Christian texts.  This illuminates what we are dealing with.

The article is F. Cumont, “The Dura Mithraeum”, in: J. R. Hinnels, Mithraic Studies 1 (1971), p.151 ff.  On page 181, note 171, Cumont refers back to his 1946 article above:

171.  Justin, Apol. 1.66 (cf. TMMMM 1, p.230). On this parody of the Eucharist see my article in RA 1946 pps 183f, especially 194, where I discuss a Syriac text in which certain Magi have apparently substituted the body of Zoroaster for the flesh of the bull in their sacrificial feast. The text in question is entitled The Book of the Elements (στοιχεῖα) of the World note that precisely these elements are represented in the Mithraic versions of the banquet.

I mentioned earlier that I wrote to the Academia Belgica to locate the translation by Giorgio Levi della Vida.  But they also found a letter written by orientalist P. J. de Menasce to Franz Cumont.  It was where he had left it, tucked inside his own offprint of the 1946 RA article.  Here it is, and I’ll give a translation in a moment.


After reading the fine article in the Revue Archaeologique which you had the great kindness to send me, for which I thank you very much, I dug out some photocopies of some Mingana manuscripts which I had made in 1938, and I found a letter of yours of 3rd December 1938 where, concerning Mingana Ms. 142, you already outlined the parallel with the famous text of Justin.

Please permit me two observations:

1. One relates to the translation (of Mr. Levi della Vida) quoted in your note 1 on page 194: with the text before me, I think that it should be translated:

“After some time, the people believed that they were resurrected, and that they were found in their houses.”  The text does not say ‘house of fire’ as it says it in the phrase where the expression is, quite rightly, translated by ‘pyrée’. This signifies, I think, that, by a magical operation they were made to come back to them. However this is of no importance… No more important is the detail that numbered the folios of the manuscript 158b and 159a instead of 58b and 59a, where, for the first letter of the name of the king contemporary with Zardasht, a ‘c’ has been substituted for the ‘ (ayin).

2. The second relates to another Karshuni text of the Mingana collection, Ms. Syr. 481, which contains a parallel text which I translate for you here:

folio 225b lines 17-20: “And Zardusht the Mage says, in the Book of the Elements of the World, to his disciples: He that eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I remain in him.”

This mention of the book of “stoixeia” is more suggestive than the mysterious “z b h r” of manuscript 142, but may help explain the latter.

The Greek word passed into Syriac and into Arabic (istaqis or istuqus) and remains in the language of classical philosophy down to Avicenna. It is very interesting to see these texts of such late origin throw some light on the archaeology of Mithraic monuments and connect them to the literary tradition of Hellenised mages. I hope, this winter, to go to Rome and to have the opportunity to visit the Mithraea of which you speak in your article of the Academie des Inscriptions.

In offering you my thoughts here once again, I hope that you find here, Sir, assurance of my most profound respect.

Fr. P. J. de Menasce O. P.

I cannot read Cumont’s scribble, but the reference to “the book of elements” in Ms. Mingana 481 is clear enough.

This, then, is the source for Cumont’s vague statement in the 1971 “Dura Mithraeum” article.

The second Mingana manuscript – Ms. Syr. 481, ff. 221v-225v

From all this we learn that we have a second Mingana manuscript, containing much the same idea. Maybe this could clarify what we are dealing with?

The Mingana collection catalogue (page 890) tells us that there are various items in the manuscript, which is not dated.  Ours is described as follows:

Again I contacted the Mingana collection at Birmingham University, and obtained images of the relevant pages of the manuscript.  From this a transliteration and translation was kindly made by Sasha Trieger.

Here’s a short bit:

Aristotle said also in his letter to Alexander the king: Be earnest, o king, in the pursuit of the water of life. You shall not find water of life except in a Man (225v) who is to appear in the world, clothed in this world’s clothes. If you find Him, you will find the water of life with Him. He will feed you with His food from the eternal Tree of Life. Water of life will be flowing from His hands.

He said in his treatise entitled the Book of Treasures: The treasure of life is the God Adonai, who is to appear in the universe. Those in the graves will hear His voice and will rise.

Yanfus the wise said: Glory (?) to you, o thrice-blessed, who is God the eternal (?), who shall die and abolish death clearly, when He will rise after three days.

Plato the wise said: No, by Him who sent me, verily they do not know what they speak, nor what they do. By this he means the priests of the sons of Israel who deny his words cited above.

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.

To the Awesome Father, and to the Son who helped and assisted, and to the Holy Spirit who perfected may there be Glory now and ever and unto ages of ages, Amen.

This, no doubt, is the source for the material in Ms. Syr. 142, which, as the Mingana catalogue noted incorporates “apocryphal sayings” of Aristotle.  Clearly the words of “Zoroaster” are likewise taken from a collection of apocryphal sayings, just like this one.

About Sayings of the Pagan Philosophers concerning the coming of Christ

“Sayings” literature is a very specialist interest.  Some medieval Greek manuscripts that have come down to us contain collections of “sayings” of “wise men” of the past.  These collections, or different ones, also exist in Syriac, Coptic and Christian Arabic.  These “sayings” are known as “gnomologia” and much of the material in the past was printed in German.  Both the subject name and the language of scholarship have probably ensured obscurity.  The collections belong, not to the literary elite but to vulgar Greek culture.  The names of the authors on each saying could be changed, or lost.  The closest modern parallel is perhaps the joke book, where every saying tends to be attributed to Winston Churchill or Oscar Wilde after a while.  Authenticity is of no importance compared to impact.

Now part of the proof of the Christian gospel in the middle ages was that Jewish writers predicted the coming of Christ.  During this period, however, a second line of prophecy develops, from pagan philosophers.  Consequently there are collections of sayings, specifically for this purpose.  Sadly the “quotations” are all bogus.  But naturally these find their way into contemporary literature, and this seems to be exactly what has happened here.

This is already a long post, so it would not be useful here to discuss the gnomologia much further.  However there is a catalogue of unpublished Arabic Christian gnomologia in the standard handbook of Arabic Christian litterature, Georg Graf, Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Literatur, vol. 1, on pp.483-6, which I placed online and translated here.  This he introduces with the following words (translation mine):

The apologetical literature of the Christian orient used the doubtful evidence of falsified statements of ancient pagan authors and invented oracular sayings to confirm the divinity of Christianity and the truth of its teaching, as was also done to an almost indeterminable extent by Greek and late antique apologists.  Collections of such proofs of differing extent and with changing text also were taken into the Arabic language in theological works, where they appear both among collections of quotations and patristic citations or separately in the manuscripts.

He then lists the manuscripts that contain some of the collections.  Among these is …. Ms. Mingana Syr. 481, as given above.

Graf also gives other authors who make use of these collections.  Among these is John ibn Saba, The precious pearl, who also gives the Zoroaster quote.  Fortunately John has been printed in the Patrologia Orientalis 16.4, with a French translation.

Here’s the relevant bit, from chapter 19

Similarly, the spirit of Saturn (Zohal) appeared to a man named Zoroaster (Zarâdacht). His doctrine has been spread for one thousand five hundred years. He sent out on a mission seventy men on whom seventy spirits coming from the spirit of Saturn had come down and who invited the people to the worship of this star. Zoroaster said to them in the hour of his death: “If you do not eat my body and do not drink my blood, you will have no part in salvation.” After his demise, his disciples did therefore boil his body and drank of this turbid fluid. He thus obtained the accomplishment of what he had said to them.

It’s the same quote, transplanted into yet another unrelated work.


The claim made by Freke and Gandy is false.  No source ever suggested that Mithras uttered any such words.

Instead what we have is a medieval saying, falsely attributed to Zoroaster, preserved in Arabic.  The saying originates from a process where “quotations” were copied, edited, and “improved”, and, in the end, created a collection of sayings of pagan philosophers apparently predicting the coming of Christ.  There is no reason to attribute these words to anybody other than a too-credulous medieval Christian.  They originate in the gospel, not precede it.

UPDATE: I have just discovered a review by H.-C. Puesch, in Revue de l’histoire de religions 134 (1947), 242-244 online here, in which he makes many of the same points about this “saying”.  Puesch says that he received a letter from … Fr. P.J. de Menasce!  De Menasce apparently told Cumont about this in 1938.  He offers various corrections to the text printed by Cumont from Ms. Mingana Syr. 142, and states that the “lost Mazdaean text” referred to by Cumont was none other than the “Book of the elements” in Ms. Syr. 481.

  1. [1]The thread is archived here:
  2. [2]I have overparagraphed this for ease of reference.

Christmas trees in Livonia? Balthasar Russow (1579) in the Livonian Chronicle

It’s time for a Christmas post.  This may be out of period for us, but we can do a little digging into an obscure modern legend.

Europe became Christian around 400 AD, and Christmas itself originates in Rome in 336 AD.  But the first documented example of a Christmas tree at Christmas is in a register in the town hall of Séléstat in deeply Catholic Alsace, dated 1521.

However there is a low-visibility rumour going around that prior to this, in the 1400s, there was a Christmas tree used in Livonia, in the city of Reval.  Today, after the 1945 deportation of the Baltic Germans, Reval is called Talinn, and Livonia is called Estonia.

This claim may be found presently in the Wikipedia article:

Customs of erecting decorated trees in wintertime can be traced to Christmas celebrations in Renaissance-era guilds in Northern Germany and Livonia. The first evidence of decorated trees associated with Christmas Day are trees in guildhalls decorated with sweets to be enjoyed by the apprentices and children. In Livonia (present-day Estonia and Latvia), in 1441, 1442, 1510, and 1514, the Brotherhood of Blackheads erected a tree for the holidays in their guild houses in Reval (now Tallinn) and Riga. On the last night of the celebrations leading up to the holidays, the tree was taken to the Town Hall Square, where the members of the brotherhood danced around it.

This is backed by a “reference” which, as is too common, does not say all this: “Amelung, Friedrich (1885). Geschichte der Revaler Schwarzenhäupter: von ihrem Ursprung an bis auf die Gegenwart: nach den urkundenmäßigen Quellen des Revaler Schwarzenhäupter-Archivs 1, Die erste Blütezeit von 1399–1557. This may be found here, in a PDF with nice OCR.

It doesn’t take much searching to find an article at NPR where someone more informed than any of us are likely to be pours cold water on the claim.  But I thought it might be fun to look at the sources.

Amelung in fact directs the reader to something called the “Livonian Chronicle” by a certain Balthasar Rüssow, who published a Chronica der Provinz Lyfflandt in low German in1578.  A revised edition appeared in 1584, and may be found here.

Fortunately for the rest of us, it was translated into standard German and printed in 1845, and is available here and here, under the revised title of 
Livländische Chronik: Aus dem Plattdeutschen übertragen und mit kurzen Anmerkungen versehen durch Eduard Pabst

The work does seem to be  known most generally as Balthasar Rüssow’s “Livländlische chronik” or “Livonian Chronicle”.  No English translation exists.

P. 68 has two chapters of dated events, to 1547.  P. 69 has chapter 48 dated to 1549-51.  So there is some chronological order to this.  But we are interested in the next chapter.

Chapter 49 bears the heading, “Die alte gute Zeit in Livland”, “The good old days in Livonia”.  It is this that contains the words “Tannenbaum” and “Weihnachtsbaum”, in the following short section on p.82-3.  The context is a discussion of celebrations at various times of the year.

I will give the German, then a slightly revised version of Google Translate, as most of this doesn’t matter much.  I don’t guarantee the translation: I haven’t much time this evening, and German is not my language.  But we can get an idea.  The author was a Lutheran clergyman, as is perhaps clear from some of what he says.

… Und wenn sie den halben Lag über den Vogel geschossen und ihn herunter gebracht hatten, da wurde stracks dem neuen Könige mit großem Frohlocken von Jedermann Glück und Heil gewünscht. Da war dann keine geringe Freude bei des Königs Freunden und auch bei Denen, die auf ihn gewettet und gewonnen hatten. Nicht lange darnach wurde derselbige neue König mit Posaunen und mit der vorigen Procession aller Gildenbrüder zwischen den zweien Aeltesten der Gemeine durch die Stadt nach der Gildenstube begleitet. Da stund es vor allen Thüren voll Volks von Männern, Frauen, Jungfern, Kindern und allerlei Gesinde, welche den neuen König mit großer Verwunderung und Freude anschauten. Da mußte der König einen silbernen Vogel auf einer Stange in seiner Hand tragen, und sein stählerner Bogen samt dem Bolzen, da er den Vogel mit herunter geschossen hatte, wurde hoch vor ihm her getragen. Und wenn sie in die Gildenstube kamen, da Alles herrlich und wohl zugerichtet war, dann find da ihre Frauen und Töchter zu demselbigen Bankett auch vor-Handen gewesen. Da hat man dem Könige von den schmuckesten Jungfern eine Königinn erwählt, die bei ihm allein stets sitzen und tanzen mußte, unangesehen daß er eine Frau hatte. Und solch ein Fest der Vogelstange hat drei der nächsten Sonntage nach Ostern gewährt, weshalb die Prediger diese drei Sonntage Nachmittags gemeinlich gefeiert haben, dieweil sich Jedermann lieber bei der Vogelstange als in der Kirche finden ließ.

Auf Pfingsten sind die Bürger und Gesellen in den Mai geritten und haben dar einen Maigrasen, der am Beßten ein herrlich Bankett auszurichten 1) vermöchte, unter sich erwählt und mit großem Pompe eingeführt.2) Solche Maigrafschaften sind darnach von Jedermann und auch von dem gemeinen Pöbel den ganzen Sommer durch alle Sonntage gehalten worden, nicht ohne vielfältige Leichtfertigkeit. So waren auch noch sonderliche Vogelstangen etlicherwegen an lustigen Oertern aufgerichtet, dar die jungen Ordensherren, Bürger und Gesellen alle Sonntage den ganzen Sommer durch den Vogel um ein Kleinod geschossen haben, da denn viel Volks, jung und alt, bei Haufen sich hin verfügt, solche Kurzweil anzuschauen, und den Sonntag also zugebracht hat.

Dieweil solch Vogelschießen bei den jungen Ordensherren, Bürgern und Kaufgesellen in hohem Preise war, da begannen die vom Adel etlicherwegen solcher Kurzweil sich auch zu befleißigen und Vogelstangen bei ihren Pfarrkirchen kurz vor der Livländischen Veränderung aufzurichten, dahin denn Viele gegen das Pfingstsest über zehn Meilen Wegs um der Vogelstange willen gekommen sind, und sich mehr um das Vogelschießen als um Gottes Wort bekümmert haben. Mittlerweile, wenn sie über dem Vogel schössen, wurde ein herrlich Bankett in des Pastors Hause zugerichtet, wo sie sich über ihr Vogelschießen lustig und guter Dinge machten.

So haben auch die Bürger bei Wintertagen in Weihnachten und Fastnacht auf ihren Gildenstuben, und die Gesellen 3) in ihren Companieen eine nicht geringe Wollust 4) geübt. Und wenn der Kaufgesellen Trunk 5) ein Ende hatte, haben sie einen großen hohen Tannenbaum, mit vielen Rosen behängen, in den Fasten auf dem Markte aufgerichtet und sich gegen den Abend gar spät mit einem Haufen Frauen und Jungfrauen dahin verfügt, erstlich gesungen und geschlungen und darnach den Baum angezündet, welcher im Düstern gewaltig geflammt hat. Da haben die Gesellen sich unter einander bei der Hand gefaßt und bei Paaren um den Baum und um das Feuer her gehüpft und getanzt, dar auch die Feuerwerker Raketen zur Pralerei schießen mußten. Und wiewol Solches von den Predigern gestraft, ist doch solche Strafe gar nichts geachtet worden. Zudem ist dar auch mit dem Ringfahren 6) mit Frauen und Jungfern weder Maß noch Ende gewesen, beides Tag und Nacht und oftmals den Predigern, die Solches gestraft, zu Trotze und zu Leide.

Diese vorerwähnte große Wollust der Livländer ist dem Muskowiter sehr zuträglich gewesen; denn in solchem Wesen hat er auf seine rechte Zeit, Anschläge und Vortheil gedacht und sich auf Geschütz, Kraut und Loth 7) und auf allerlei Kriegsmunition gewaltig und überflüssig geschickt und den einen Büchsenmeister nach dem andern aus den Deutschen und Welschen Landen erlangt. Und wiewol die Livländer Solches alle- wol wußten, so waren sie doch in großer Wollust und Sicherheit so ganz ersoffen, daß sie es nicht achten konnten, sondern ihm noch Kupfer, Blei und allerlei Waare, so zu seinem Vornehmen wider Livland gedient, ganz überflüssig zugeführt, heimlich und öffentlich, wie Solches aller Welt bewußt ist.

Which comes out as:

And when they had shot half the lag at the bird and brought it down, everyone wished luck and salvation to the new king with great joy. There was then no small joy among the king’s friends and also among those who had bet and won on him. Not long afterwards the same new king was accompanied with trumpets and with the previous procession of all guild brothers between the two elders of the community through the city to the guild room. There was a crowd of men, women, maidens, children, and all kinds of servants at every door, who looked at the new king with great astonishment and joy. Then the king had to carry a silver bird on a pole in his hand, and his steel bow with the bolt, which he had shot down the bird with, was carried high in front of him. And when they came to the guild room, since everything was splendidly and well prepared, then their wives and daughters were also there for the same banquet. A queen was chosen for the king from the finest maidens, who always had to sit and dance with him alone, regardless of the fact that he had a wife. And such a feast of the birdpole happened for three of the next Sundays after Easter, which is why the preachers celebrated these three Sundays in the afternoons, as everyone preferred to be found at the birdpole than in church.

At Pentecost, the citizens and journeymen rode into May and chose a “May meadow”, where they could be able best to hold a glorious banquet among themselves and introduced it with great pomp. Such May festivities were kept by everyone, and also by the common people, all summer, every Sundays, not without a variety of levity. So there were also special bird poles set up at places of amusement, so that the young knights of the order, citizens and journeymen shot at the bird for a reward every Sunday throughout the summer, because a lot of people, young and old, wanted to have a go at this for a short time, and so they spent the Sunday.

Because such bird shooting was so prized among the young monks, burghers and merchants, the nobility began to work hard because of such entertainment and to set up bird poles in their parish churches shortly before the Livonian change, there because many at Pentecost over ten miles away came for the sake of the birdpole, caring more about bird-shooting than about God’s word. Meanwhile, when they shot at the bird, a wonderful banquet was set up in the pastor’s house, where they celebrated their bird shooting and in good spirits.

The citizens, too, have exercised considerable fun in their guild rooms on winter days in Christmas and Shrovetide, and the journeymen in their companies. And when the journeyman drinks had finished, they would set up a tall, tall Christmas tree, hung with many roses, in the market during the fasting and, late in the evening, arranged to go there with a bunch of wives and girls, first of all singing and dancing around it and afterwards set fire to the tree, which in the gloom flamed mightily. Then the journeymen took each other by the hand and jumped and danced around the tree and around the fire with couples, and let off firework rockets to celebrate. And however much the preachers preached against such things, such preaching was not at all respected. In addition, there was neither measure nor an end to the ring dancing with wives and girls, both day and night and often to defy and ignore the preachers who criticised such things.

This great celebration of the Livonians, mentioned above, was very beneficial to the Muscovite; for in such a manner he thought this was the right time, to plan attacks and advantages and he made great use of guns, kraut and loth, and all kinds of ammunition, and obtained one gunsmith after the other from the German and French lands. And although the Livonians knew this, they were so completely drowned in their great amusements and security that they could not pay attention to it; and he brought in the copper, lead and all sorts of materials, used in his campaign against Livonia, quite superfluously, secretly and publicly, as all the world knows.

Here’s the same material from the 1584 edition in low German:

So this “Christmas tree” (Tannenbaum – Dannenbaum in low German) as Russow calls it was set up in the winter days of Christmas and also at the start of Lent (Fastnacht), decorated with roses, and then burned as part of the festivities.   He is writing much later, at a time when Christmas trees are widespread.  It would be interesting to know what it was actually called at the time.

But burning Christmas trees and dancing around them isn’t really what we do, or not intentionally so.  So, on the face of it, this is a related idea, from the same period, and the same culture; a cousin of the Christmas tree, rather than its origin.

Finereader 15 includes Fraktur OCR! Finally!

Excellent news this afternoon.  It seems that the new version of Abbyy Finereader, version 15 (which for some reason they have renamed Finereader PDF 15) incorporates their excellent Fraktur recognition engine for the first time.

And it works!  I tried it out on some 19th century German text.

That is pretty darned good.  That’s exactly what comes out, without any editing!

This has been an awful long time coming.   Back in 2003 a “European Union” (i.e. German) project commissioned Russian software firm Abbyy to adapt their excellent OCR engine to handle Fraktur.  They did so, and the results were good.  But then somehow it all went wrong.  Instead of being added to Finereader, which we all were buying, they created a standalone version purely for Fraktur, at a price that only universities could afford.  The result is that for 17 years we have been denied the use of something paid for by taxpayers.  But no longer.

The addition feels a bit bodged in.  You turn on Fraktur recognition by selecting one of 6 languages.  Instead of the language being “German (Fraktur)”, it is “Old German”, so you don’t see it in the list of languages next to “German”.  But once you know, it’s fine.  That’s all you have to do; just select “Old German”.

Myself I can barely read texts printed in Fraktur, and German is not my best language anyway.  But with the help of this, and dear old Google Translate, we can see what these authors have to say!