Augustine of Canterbury’s Eighth Question to Gregory the Great, Part 1: Baptism, Pregnancy, and Breastfeeding

In Bede’s An Ecclesiastical History of the English People, he documents the letter Augustine of Canterbury sent to Pope Gregory after he was consecrated as a bishop in Britain. As mentioned in my last post, Augustine’s letter is filled with many questions about how to run the English church. These questions are separated into nine different categories. Last time I wrote about Augustine’s third, fourth, and fifth questions. Today I want to discuss the first half of Augustine’s eighth one.

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A Page From a Manuscript on Midwifery | Source: Wikipedia

Usually, Augustine asks two or three questions for each category. This is not the case for the eighth category. Here he asks eight different questions all relating to pregnancy, childbirth, sex, menstruation, and/or the sacraments of baptism and communion. You can feel Augustine’s panic as he asks Pope Gregory what he should do and how he should act. After all, Augustine was a monk and most likely had very little experience when it came to sex, pregnancy, and childbearing bodies. (That’s not to say that other clergy didn’t, but that’s another post for another day!) 

I want to share the exact quote so you can see what I mean when I say Augustine is panicking:

“VIII. Augustine’s eighth question: May an expectant mother be baptized? How soon after childbirth may she enter church? And how soon after birth may a child be baptized if in danger of death? How soon after child-birth may a husband have relations with his wife? And may a woman properly enter church a the time of menstruation? And may she receive Communion at these times? And may a man enter church after relations with his wife before he has washed? Or receive the sacred mystery of Communion? These uncouth English people require guidance on all these matters.” (pg. 76-77)

The last statement in this block quote has several amusing implications. Personally, I’ve interpreted Augustine’s comment about the “uncouth” English in two ways.

My first interpretation is that people keep asking Augustine questions about topics he’s incredibly shy about and he doesn’t know how to answer them properly. But they keep asking him and he’s panicking because he doesn’t want to talk about sinful things, but he has to because he’s the bishop. Another way we can interpret the last sentence is that Augustine has gotten himself all worked up about these matters to the point he’s freaking out, but he doesn’t want to admit to the pope that he’s curious about these very sinful things, so he blames his curiosity on other people.

Either way, these aren’t the questions of someone who knows what to do. These are the questions of someone who is very embarrassed and panicking.

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After The Birth of Philip II of France | Source: Wikipedia

As always, Gregory replies to Augustine. However, when I was reading Gregory’s reply, I could sense some annoyance in the pope:

“I have no doubt, my brother, that questions such as these have arisen, and I think I have already answered you; but doubtless you desire my support for your statements and rulings.” (pg. 77)

This is the medieval equivalent of ‘per my last email.’ (If you are unaware, ‘per my last email’ is an extremely passive-aggressive way to ask your coworker ‘can you read? I already told you this.’) Luckily for Augustine (and for us!), Gregory doesn’t leave it at that. Instead, he tells Augustine what to do.

For Augustine’s first question (“May an expectant mother be baptized?”), Gregory basically asks Augustine, why shouldn’t she be? After all, “the fruitfulness of the flesh is no offence [sic] in the sight of Almighty God” (pg. 77). Gregory goes on to argue that even though Adam and Eve sinned and God took away their “gift of immortality” (pg. 77), He still gave humans the ability to reproduce and have children. Not allowing a pregnant person to be baptized would be “foolish” (pg. 77) and that baptism is an act “by which all guilt is washed away” (pg. 77). Here, Gregory is reminding Augustine that it wouldn’t be right to deny a person salvation just because they are pregnant. God gave people the ability to have children and they shouldn’t be punished for something God made them destined to do.

Because God made people able to have children, people don’t have to wait to go church after childbirth, even though it says a person should in the Old Testament. Gregory argues that he understands the waiting period to be “an allegory” (pg. 77) and if a person were “to enter [a] church and return thanks in the very hour of her delivery, she would do nothing wrong” (pg. 77). He also argues that it’s not pregnancy or childbirth that makes a person unfit to enter a church, it’s sexual intercourse. (Or as Gregory delicately phrases it, “bodily pleasure” (pg. 77).) The pain of childbirth is the “penalty” (pg. 77) for having intercourse, so there’s no need to punish a person and their child by denying them baptism.

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Woman Breastfeeding While on Stilts | BL Royal 10 E IV. f., 29v | Source: Picryl.com

Gregory’s answer to the question “how soon after child-birth may a husband have relations with his wife?” (pg. 78) is pretty simple. He says that a husband should wait until the baby is no longer nursing. However, Gregory is aware that not all parents personally breastfeed their children and he does not like the concept of wet nurses. He claims that “when women are unwilling to be continent, they refuse to suckle their children” (pg. 78). In Gregory’s mind wet nurses encourage people to have sex sooner after childbirth. If I had to make an educated guess, I don’t think Gregory knew that sometimes people have a hard time nursing. Baby formula doesn’t exist at this point in time so a wet nurse is the next best option. (Unless you feed your baby animal milk but that’s not a good way to get important nutrients.) Of course, there are other reasons a parent might hire a wet nurse, but Gregory does not realize this. Finally, Gregory is sure to add that “those who observe this bad custom…must not approach their husbands until the time of their purification has elapsed” (pg. 78).

 

While the phrasing of this practice is unfortunate, purification after childbirth isn’t strictly a Christian thing. Many cultures have some sort of period where a parent is considered “unclean” after giving birth. That being said, you can interpret this as the time that allows a parent to rest after childbirth. A lot of things can go wrong during the birthing process and it’s important to allow a person to heal. Think of this as an early version of maternity leave.

 

Main Source:

Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Books, 1970.

Augustine of Canterbury’s Questions About Why You Shouldn’t Marry Your Stepmother and Other Advice in Pope Gregory’s Letter

After Augustine of Canterbury was consecrated bishop, he wrote a letter to Pope Gregory updating him on how the mission was going. Augustine’s letter also included many questions separated into nine different categories. All these questions pertained to how he should run the church in England. Augustine’s questions give us an insight into his concerns about justice as well as his worries about how people, especially women, should be allowed to worship. As I read Pope Gregory’s replies, I couldn’t help noticing that some of them were surprisingly progressive for the sixth century. I won’t be covering all nine categories today. Instead, I will be discussing three questions and replies I found particularly interesting.

Originally, I was also going to talk about Augustine’s eighth question as well, but upon further reflection, I decided that it deserved its own post. That question is about pregnancy, childbirth, sex, menstruation, and how the sacraments of baptism and communion relate to these things. Augustine’s question was incredibly long (and so was Gregory’s answer) so I will be talking about that next time.

My source for this post is the 1970 Penguin Classics’ edition of Bede’s An Ecclesiastical History of the English People. 

Augustine of Canterbury’s third question is as follows: “What punishment should be awarded to those who rob churches?” (Bede, pg. 73)

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A Medieval Thief | Source: medievalists.net

Pope Gregory’s reply is quite merciful. He tells Augustine that “the punishment must depend on the circumstances of the offender” (Bede, pg. 73). Gregory points out that while some people steal despite having enough to support themselves, other people steal because they are poor. The punishment should be appropriate to the thief’s circumstances. Gregory tells Augustine that “some, therefore, should be punished by fines, others by beating; some severely, and others more leniently” (Bede, pg. 73).

This reply surprised me as I usually associate the crime of theft with what Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania refer to as “speaking punishments” (Polack and Kania, pg. 78) in their book The Middle Ages Unlocked. Speaking punishments I associate here as being cutting off a hand for stealing. Polack and Kania rightfully point out that punishments for crimes differ over the centuries depending on what the crime is (Polack and Kania, pg. 78). I will also note that Polack and Kania’s book covers the years 1050 to 1300, while Pope Gregory is writing in the 6th century. Needless to say, what is historically accurate during one century might not be accurate several centuries later.

However, Gregory does not mention any sort of punishment that includes cutting off people’s limbs. He only mentions beatings, which is rather vague. However, I think that if Gregory wanted Augustine to chop off hands, he would tell him to do so. (But he does not.) In fact, Gregory says “when the punishment has to be severe, let it be administered in charity, not in anger” (Bede, pg. 73). Gregory also tells Augustine that they are trying to save people from going to Hell, “so charity must always be our motive…we may do nothing unreasonable” (Bede, pg. 73). I’m pretty sure that chopping off hands falls under the category of Unreasonable.

Finally, Pope Gregory ends his answer with this statement (which I will share in full):

You may add that thieves are to restore whatever they have taken from churches, but God forbid that the Church should recover with interest any worldly goods she may lose, or seek any gain from these empty things (Bede, pg. 73).

This is a very important reminder. However, it has aged poorly seeing that the Catholic Church does like its lavish decorations. (The Vikings certainly knew this too.)

A.Vivarini, Hieronymus und Gregor - A.Vivarini / Jerome & Gregory / Paint. - A.Vivarini/Sts Jerome et Gregoire
Jerome and Gregory | Source: Wikipedia

Augustine of Canterbury’s fourth question is as follows: “Is it permissible for two brothers to marry two sisters, provided that there be no blood ties between the family?” (Bede, pg. 74).

Pope Gregory’s answer is so short that I will quote the entire thing: “This is quite permissible. There is nothing in holy Scripture that seems to forbid it” (Bede, pg. 74).

I find Pope Gregory’s answer amusing for two reasons. The first reason being that Gregory is basically like, ‘Well, the bible doesn’t say you can’t.’ And the second reason is that this two sentence answer is sandwiched between answers that go on for at least a paragraph or go on for several pages. (Actually, this answer is the shortest of all the answers Pope Gregory gives Augustine.)

 

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Wedding Feast at Cana |  British Museum image: Royal 2 B VII f. 168v. | Source: Wikipedia

 

Augustine of Canterbury’s fifth question is related to his fourth question about incest. He asks Pope Gregory “To what degree may the faithful marry with their kindred? And is it lawful for a man to marry his step-mother or sister-in-law?” (Bede, pg. 74).

Gregory basically tells Augustine that just because it’s legal in Rome to marry your first cousin, it doesn’t mean you should do it. He also says that no, you should not marry your stepmother because she slept with your father and due to Christian marriage laws, your stepmother and father are now “one flesh” (Bede, pg. 74). Gregory’s logic is that if you sleep with your stepmother you are sleeping with your father too. This is also why you shouldn’t marry your sister-in-law as she was with your brother. However, besides “one flesh” (Bede, pg. 74) reasoning, Pope Gregory has another reason too:

“It was for denouncing this sin that John the Baptist was beheaded and met his holy martyrdom. For John was not ordered to deny Christ, but was in fact put to death as a confessor of Christ. For since our Lord Jesus Christ said: ‘I am the Truth‘, John shed his blood for Christ in that he gave his life for the truth” (Bede, pg. 74).

Gregory is telling Augustine that if people go ahead and marry their in-laws John the Baptist died for nothing.

However, Gregory is aware that many recently converted English are in “these unlawful marriages” (Bede, pg. 74). He instructs Augustine to tell the married people that they are sinning, it “is a grave offence [sic] and that they must abstain from it” (Bede, pg. 74) unless they want to go to Hell. That being said, Gregory tells Augustine that these people shouldn’t be denied communion. After all, they didn’t know they were sinning while they were heathens. (But if they keep sinning after they are told what they are doing is wrong, then they shouldn’t receive communion.) Gregory adds that “these days the Church corrects some things strictly, and allows others out of leniency” (Bede, pg. 75).

 

Main Source:

Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Books, 1970.

Other Sources:

Kania, Katrin, and Polack, Gillian. The Middle Ages Unlocked: a Guide to Life in Medieval England, 1050-1300. Amberley Publishing, 2016.

King Ethelbert’s Fears About Magic and Other Interesting Stories from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History

In my last blog post about Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, I talked about the adventures of Bishop Germanus of Auxerre. (And even in my first post on An Ecclesiastical History I shared an excerpt about him!) Today I will be discussing another important man in the history of the English church: Augustine of Canterbury. In this post, I will focus on three stories about Augustine. (I will talk about Augustine’s letter to Pope Gregory next week as that deserves a post of its own.)

 

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Augustine of Canterbury Source: Wikipedia

 

The first excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Twenty-Three. It is the year 596 A.D. and in the tenth year of his reign as pope, Pope Gregory decides to send missionaries to Britain. (As there are already a good amount of Christians in Britain, I believe that Pope Gregory wants to convert the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, as the Britons have already been converted.) Gregory chooses “his servant Augustine [and] several other God-fearing monks to preach the word of God to the English nation” (pg. 66). Augustine and his companions agree to go, but soon it becomes clear to them that they might be in over their heads. The group “progressed a short distance on their journey” (pg. 66) before wanting to return home. After all, none of them actually speak any English. And they consider Britain to be “a barbarous, fierce, and pagan nation” (pg. 66).

Besides the fact Augustine and his companions don’t want to go to Britain because they think it’s full of pagan barbarians, I do think they had some valid concerns. After all, it’s extremely difficult to preach and connect with people when you don’t speak the same language. There is a lot of risk for things to get lost in translation, among other dangers. However, Pope Gregory did not think that their concerns were valid. The group sent Augustine back to Gregory to ask that they might return home. Instead of saying yes, Gregory gave them a letter of encouragement and sent them on their way to Britain.

It really stood out to me that Augustine didn’t actually want to go to Britain. Usually, with missionary stories (at least the modern ones I’ve seen) people are enthusiastic about going to another country to convert non-Christians. (Sometimes these modern-day missionaries are a bit too enthusiastic…to state it lightly. But that’s a post for another day.) Instead of being enthusiastic, Augustine “humbly request[ed]” that the pope “recall them from so dangerous, arduous, and uncertain a journey” (pg. 67). Even if Augustine didn’t want to go for the glory of God, he actually had a lot to gain by going to Britain. He “was to be consecrated bishop in the event of their being received by the English” (pgs. 66-67). And as discussed in my last few posts, Britain wasn’t entirely pagan. Christianity was a thing in Britain and it had been for a while. However, instead of Roman Christianity, Britain practiced Celtic Christianity.

The second excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Twenty-Five. Augustine and his companions have landed on the British Isle of Thanet and they are finally comfortable with the idea of preaching to the English. I think it helped that “at the direction of…Pope Gregory, they had brought interpreters from among the Franks” (pg. 69). The monks send these interpreters to the king of Kent, Ethelbert with this message:

[T]hey came from Rome bearing very glad news, which infallibly assured all who would receive it of eternal joy in heaven and an everlasting kingdom with the living and true God (pg. 69).

Understandably, King Ethelbert was a bit thrown off by this. After all, that’s a lot of information to unpack. He sent a message back, which “ordered them to remain in the island where they had landed” (pg. 69). King Ethelbert made sure all the monks’ needs were taken care of while he figured out exactly what to do with them. Luckily for Augustine and his companions, King Ethelbert had a Christian wife so he wasn’t completely unfamiliar with Christianity. But it can still be off-putting to have someone want to preach to you, so I understand why King Ethelbert told the monks to stay put for a while. (Also, people preaching about religion is an almost guaranteed way for conflicts to start. King Ethelbert is aware of this as he later tells Augustine and the monks that he can’t “abandon the age-old beliefs that I have held together with the whole English nation” (pgs. 69-70).)

 

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Augustine and King Ethelbert (Note Ethelbert’s not historically accurate helmet.)

 

Putting King Ethelbert’s political decisions aside, we come to what I consider the meat of this excerpt. (If the meat is the part I find particularly fascinating!) In the second paragraph of this three-ish paragraph chapter, Bede documents “an ancient superstition” (pg. 69) of King Ethelbert. King Ethelbert is concerned that Augustine and the other monks are “practisers of magical arts” (pg. 69), so refuses to meet them inside a building. Instead, King Ethelbert meets the missionaries outside so they don’t “have [an] opportunity to deceive and master him” (pg. 69). It’s the little details like this that I find so interesting. Here we have a documented folk belief that might have been lost to history otherwise. As someone who writes historical fiction, it’s details like these that I love to collect so I can make my fiction more realistic. Plus from an anthropological standpoint, the fact that a king (or anyone really) had a belief like this that effected their behavior lets us see a past culture better.

The third excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Twenty-Six. The mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons is going pretty well. A lot of people have been baptized including King Ethelbert. However, after his own conversion, Ethelbert isn’t forcing anyone else to become Christians. While he is showing “greater favour to believers” (pg. 71) he’s doesn’t “compel anyone to accept Christianity” (pg. 71). Instead, Ethelbert “had learned from his instructors…that the service of Christ must be accepted freely and not under compulsion” (pg. 71). This is certainly a different way of doing things when you look at what other rulers from history (both distant history and more recent history) did when they converted.

 

Main Source:

Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Books, 1970.

Germanus of Auxerre Defeats an Army Through Trickery and Other Interesting Stories from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History

In my last post about Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, I mentioned that I might want to write more about the text. As of today, I’m only on page 114 of the book, but I’ve already found quite a few interesting stories in An Ecclesiastical History. Consequently, I’ve decided to make this type of post a series. As I read An Ecclesiastical History and as I find more and more events I wish to talk about, I will write more blog posts. I’ll probably do this until I finish the book. There are a lot of events that I find fascinating and I really do want to talk about them all. As an added bonus, most of the chapters are only a few paragraphs long so it’s easy to summarize and talk about each one.

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m not particularly concerned whether or not the stories Bede documents are true. I’m more interested in the culture that Bede is writing about. Histories like these capture the thought process of the time and culture, especially the thought process of a devoted monk. In short, I’m reading An Ecclesiastical History of the English People for fun. Because I’m reading his text for fun I will be documenting the events I find fascinating. I will share four excerpts from An Ecclesiastical History. Originally for this series, I planned to do five excerpts a post but today I want to focus exclusively on Bishop Germanus of Auxerre.

 

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Stained Glass Portrait of Bishop Germanus of Auxerre | Source: Wikipedia

 

For reference, I’m using the 1970 Penguin Classics edition translated by Leo Sherley-Price and revised by R.E. Latham.

The first excerpt comes from Book One, Chapter Seventeen. This is the same chapter that documents Bishop Germanus of Auxerre calming a storm caused by devils. Germanus and Bishop Lupus of Troyes have finally reached Britain and must confront the Pelagians. Germanus and Lupus have been preaching the word of God and “the majority of the people readily accepted their teaching” (pg. 59).  The Pelagians are not particularly happy about this and basically challenge Germanus and Lupus to a preach off. (Or “a trial of strength” (pg. 59) as Bede calls it.) Germanus and Lupus accept.

It’s important to note that Bede describes the Pelagians as wearing “rich ornaments and magnificent robes, supported by crowds of flattering followers” (pg. 59). Basically, the Pelagians are not very Christ-like. Christ was a poor man who told the rich to give their money and possessions away to the needy. Instead of following Christ’s teachings, the Pelagians wear fancy clothes, have fancy stuff, and are surrounded by people who flatter and fawn over them. Not only does Bede code the Pelagians as not Christ-like, but they are also greatly contrasted with Germanus, who earlier in the chapter stopped a storm like Christ.

The thing I found most amusing about this section of the chapter isn’t the preach off or the comparison of the two groups to Christ. What actually made me put another sticky tab in this chapter was the fact that the judges of this preach off are the Pelagians’ wives and children. (In the early days of the church priests could have wives and children and it wasn’t a big deal. How and why this changed is extremely fascinating and contains a lot of wild stories, but that is a story for another blog post.) Germanus and Lupus let the Pelagians speak first, “which they did at great length, filling the time, and the ears of their audience with empty words” (pg. 60). Germanus and Lupus go next and they win. (Of course.) The Pelagians’ “lies [are] exposed, and [they are] unable to defend any of their arguments” (pg. 60). As a result, the Pelagians admit they are wrong, the judges (the Pelagians’ families remember) almost get violent, and Germanus and Lupus are proclaimed the winners/right about God.

So not only do the Pelagians lose, but they are also humiliated in front of their wives and children.

The second excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Eighteen. Bishop Germanus is once again compared to Christ here. In this chapter, Germanus cures a ten-year-old girl’s blindness. “Immediately after” (pg. 60) the preach off, a tribune and his wife ask the bishops to heal his child. However, it appears that Germanus and Lupus are feeling petty and they tell the tribune to take his daughter to “their opponents” (pg. 60). The Pelagians are “smitten by guilty consciences, joined their entreaties to those of the girl’s parents and begged the bishops to heal her” (pg. 60). It’s only after the bishops see the Pelagians begging for help does Germanus actually cure the girl’s blindness with a prayer and some relics. The pettiness here is tremendous. (Though I will add that Germanus’ miracle convinces everyone that the Pelagians are wrong and Germanus and Lupus’ teachings about God are right.)

 

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Bishop Lupus of Troyes | Source: Wikipedia, User GO69

 

The third excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Nineteen. We are still following the adventures of Bishop Germanus. (From what I can tell from Bede’s work, Germanus is the more important bishop. He’s the one who actually performs the miracles while Lupus just kind of seems like his sidekick.) At the beginning of this chapter, the Devil makes Germanus fall and break his leg. This is before X-rays or anti-biotics, so breaking your leg is a pretty big deal. Also, the fact that the Devil made Germanus break his leg makes it an even bigger deal.

While Germanus is recovering, he is staying in a cottage. In a neighboring cottage, a fire breaks out. After the fire destroyed “the adjoining dwellings which…were thatched with reeds from the marshes, [the fire] was carried by the wind to the cottage where he lay”(pg. 61). Because these cottages are made with reeds (and probably wood) they are practically pre-made bonfires. Houses back then were super flammable. Because Germanus’ house is on fire, people try to get him out. Germanus is “full of trust in God” (pg. 61) so he tells them to leave him in there. He also refuses to leave.

It’s important to look at Bede’s wording here. In my translation, it is described as follows:

The people ran to pick up the bishop and carry him to a place of safety; but, full of trust in God, he reproved them and would not allow them to do so (pg. 61).

Other translations might word this differently, but based on my copy, the phrase “would not allow them to do so” (pg. 61) makes me think that they tried to pick him up and Germanus slapped their hands away or used some sort of physical violence. There is no concrete textual evidence for this, but that is certainly the image that came into my head as I read the chapter. One reason I think this might be the case is that who is going to willingly leave a holy man in a cottage to burn alive? And even if there was no physical force involved, there must have been some shouting.

Despite the people’s efforts, the end result is still the same: “In despair, the people ran off to fight the fire” (pg. 61-62). So they leave Germanus in the cottage and try to save other things. What those things are isn’t specified, but “whatever the crowd endeavoured to save was destroyed” (pg. 62). Bede makes sure that his reader knows that this destruction is all God’s will and is “clearer evidence of God’s power” (pg. 62).

By the way, the fire doesn’t reach Germanus and he’s fine.

The fourth excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Twenty. The Saxons and the Picts have “made war on the Britons” (pg. 62) and the Britons have asked Germanus and Lupus for help. The two bishops agree to assist them. However, instead of offering tactical advice or even suggestions on how to bring about peace, Germanus “promised to direct the battle in person” (pg. 63). I’m not sure if bishops leading armies were common in 429 A.D. (the date this story occurred), but Germanus ends up being a great leader.

That being said, Germanus doesn’t necessarily use direct violence against the enemy forces. Instead, Germanus tricks them into thinking there is a rock slide occurring in the valley they are passing through. How does he do this? Germanus shouts ‘Alleluia’ three times and the Briton army does the same. Their shouting (and the echoes of their shouting) is so loud that the enemy army panics, “thinking that the very rocks and sky were falling on them, and were so terrified that they could not run fast enough” (pg. 63). They throw down their weapons to run faster. Most of the enemy ends up drowning in a river they tried to cross. In the end, the Britons win the battle and peace is restored (well, for now). Germanus and Lupus go home.

 

It’s important for me to note that Germanus and Lupus do have to return to Britain because the Pelagian heresy is revived, but I have decided not to write about that chapter. Instead, my next blog post about An Ecclesiastical History will focus on Saint Augustine.

 

Main Source:

Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Books, 1970.

 

The Time Bishop Germanus Stopped a Demon Storm and Other Interesting Stories from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History

In August I purchased a copy of Bede’s An Ecclesiastical History of the English People (or A History of the English Church and People as my copy is titled). It was only recently that I’ve finally gotten the chance to start reading it. Like a lot of medieval texts, especially ones documenting historical events, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History includes many wild stories. These wild stories include events that today’s science-based culture may write off as exaggerations or flat out false.

However, I’m of the opinion that it doesn’t really matter how “true” the stories are if you are reading a text for fun. They were written during a different time and in a different culture than our own. Thus, these stories offer a lot of insight into how people thought. (I’m also of the opinion that it’s fun to try to figure out the science behind miracle stories, but that isn’t what I’m doing today.)

Today, I want to talk about some of the chapters/events that I find particularly interesting or amusing. I have yet to finish An Ecclesiastical History (I’m only on page 70!), so I’m more than positive that I’ll be writing another blog post about the text. For reference, I’m reading the 1970 Penguin Classics edition translated by Leo Sherley-Price and revised by R.E. Latham.

The first excerpt I’ve selected isn’t a complete story, but part of one. It comes from Book One, Chapter One of An Ecclesiastical History. Early Britain was filled with many different groups of people. In the beginning, only Britons lived in Britain (hence the name). Eventually, the Scots (who were actually from Ireland) and the Picts migrated into Britain. Apparently, after the Picts settled in the north, they had to ask the Scots for wives because they didn’t bring any women with them. The Scots agreed under the condition that if any dispute occurred, the Picts would choose a king from the female royal line, instead of the male royal line. The Picts agreed to this and the practice was still going on when Bede wrote An Ecclesiastical History.

The second excerpt I’ve chosen comes from Book One, Chapter Seven. This particular chapter tells the story of how Saint Alban was martyred. Saint Alban is the first person to be martyred in Britain (at least he’s the first recorded one). While the account is super interesting and full of miracles, I’ll save the full story for another post. What I want to focus on is Saint Alban’s first executioner.

 

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The martyrdom of St Alban | MS E. I. 40, folio 38r | Source: Wikipedia

 

After the first executioner saw Saint Alban perform some miracles, he refused to kill him. As a result, he was executed alongside the saint. Bede notes that even though the first executioner wasn’t baptized, it was decided that he could still go to Heaven. Now, if you aren’t familiar with early Catholicism, this is a Big Deal. One belief was that if you weren’t baptized, you couldn’t go to Heaven. This included babies. That’s why emergency baptisms were a thing. Even if you weren’t a priest you could baptize infants. Heck, even if you were pagan or Jewish you could perform an emergency baptism! (I’ll add that in modern-day Catholicism the belief has changed. Now babies can get into Heaven even if they aren’t baptized.) The fact that people thought the first executioner was qualified to get into Heaven for converting and refusing to kill Saint Alban is definitely something that jumped out at me.

The third excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Fourteen. This is another small event that I found notable. During most of the early chapters, the Britons are repeatedly getting slaughtered by invaders. However, in this story, the Britons finally are able to defend themselves. After the Britons “drive the Barbarians out of their land” (Bede’s words, not mine on page 54), they are finally able to cut a break. They’re able to grow a lot of corn. With this surplus, the Britons are able to live lives of luxury. But with luxury comes corruption. According to Bede, the “increase in luxury, [was] followed by every kind of crime, especially cruelty, hatred of truth, and love of falsehood” (pg. 55). Things don’t really change much, do they?

(I will also add that Bede tells us that because the Britons fell into debauchery, God sends a plague to kill a lot of people. This plague results in more invasions from the north.)

The fourth excerpt is from Book One, Chapter Fifteen. As previously stated, things go bad for the Britons again. It’s the year 449 A.D. and the Picts and Scots are attacking again. The Briton king Vortigern decides to ask for help from “the Angles or Saxons”(pg. 55). They were two pagan tribes who lived in what is now modern-day Germany. They come to Britain and they do help. However, Britain is a really nice place and the Britons are “cowardly” (pg. 56) and it would be insanely easy to defeat them and settle down. Needless to say, there is another migration and the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes make themselves at home. To add insult to injury, the Angles make an alliance with the Picts – the very people they were hired to conquer!

 

Vortigern_and_Rowena
Vortigern and Rowena by William Harvey | Source: Wikipedia

 

This alliance results in the Britons being slaughtered once again. Buildings are destroyed,  priests are murdered on their altars, people no matter their rank in society are also killed, “and none remained to bury those who had suffered a cruel death” (pg. 57). Like other medieval writers, Bede exaggerates a little. There are still some Briton survivors. These survivors have either escaped overseas or run into the hills. The Britons who escape to the hills suffer many different fates. Some are captured and killed, others are also captured after surrendering due to hunger and are sold into slavery, and the remainder of those who escaped live “a wretched and fearful existence among the mountains, forests, and crags, ever on the alert for danger” (pg. 57).

Bede makes this very clear that this horror is God punishing the Britons for getting too sinful during the events recorded in Book One, Chapter Fourteen. Personally, I think genocide is a harsh punishment for a few years of rampant corruption but apparently, Bede doesn’t share my view.

The fifth (and the final excerpt for today’s post) is from Book One, Chapter Seventeen.  Bede’s Ecclesiastical History tends to jump around a lot, so this event takes place twenty years before the fourth excerpt. The Pelagians are spreading around heretical views and Bishop Germanus of Auxerre and Lupus of Troyes are asked to stop them. They are both from Gaul (part of modern-day France) so they must cross the sea to get to Britain. At first, the wind is “favourable” (pg. 58), but halfway through their journey a storm picks up. According to Bede, this storm is caused by devils trying to stop Germanus and Lupus from “recall[ing] the Britons to the way of salvation” (pg. 58).

While the storm is happening (and the ship is essentially being destroyed) Germanus is sleeping. It’s only when almost all hope is lost do Lupus and their companions wake Germanus up “to oppose the fury of the elements” (pg. 59). Germanus is good in a crisis and he knows exactly what to do. Instead of panicking, Germanus “called upon Christ and cast a few drops of holy water on the waves in the Name of the Sacred Trinity” (pg. 59). As he did this, Germanus had his companions pray with him. Luckily for Germanus and Co., God heard them and made the devils go away.

Now, whether or not Germanus actually stopped a storm, isn’t really important to me. What is important is that Christ does the same thing in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Of course, Christ is able to calm the storm using only his words instead of holy water and prayers, but both figures are able to save their boats from capsizing. I also find it interesting that both Christ and Germanus are asleep before they stop the storm. Another early medieval account of Germanus’ life, Constantius of Lyon’s Vita Germani includes the story as well (however, here Germanus uses oil instead of holy water). Germanus’ similarities to Christ means that he was a respected figure to early medieval people. (This is further emphasized by his sainthood.)

 

Main Source:

Bede. A History of the English Church and People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Books, 1970.