Medieval Christian Divination Part 2: Bibliomancy and Mantic Alphabets

In my last post on medieval Christian divination, I talked about oracle texts and the Sortes Sanctorum. While talking about the Sortes Sanctorum I mentioned that using the text to cast lots wasn’t the only type of bibliomancy one could do. There were a few ways one could practice bibliomancy. With the first technique, one would open a book (usually a bible or a psalter though by the later fifteenth century you could use any book), and the first passage that caught your eye would predict the future. The second way was to pretty much do the same thing, but you would use a mantic alphabet for your prediction. We will go into detail regarding mantic alphabets shortly.

Bibliomancy was a widespread practice during late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. It was used not only by laypeople but by clergy and church leaders as well! There was a lot of controversy regarding bibliomancy amongst church leaders. Condemnations about the practice can be found in canons, synods, capitularies, and penitentials. For example, in Charlemagne’s 789AD capitulary the practice is condemned. That being said, all these controversies did not stop people from practicing it, especially not clergy and saints!

Saint Francis of Assisi used bibliomancy before making any sort of major decision. In his memoirs, Guibert of Nogent documents a case where a monk used the first technique to see what kind of abbot Guibert would be when he first arrived at his new monastery. (The passage the monk saw was “Your eye is the lantern of your body,” in case you are curious.) Gregory of Tours also documents a few cases of bibliomancy in book five, chapter fourteen of History of the Franks. In that part of the text, Gregory uses bibliomancy after the son of a king begs for spiritual help. Later on, the same prince uses bibliomancy himself to see his future. However, he only does it after three days of prayer and fasting. Bibliomancy was a significant factor in Saint Augustine of Hippo’s conversion to Christianity. During a personal crisis, Saint Augustine heard a voice telling him to pick up the bible and read it. The first passage he saw basically said that you can only be happy if you follow Christ and to stop drinking so much and sleeping around. Funnily enough, in chapter twenty of his fifty-fifth letter, Saint Augustine would write how much he hated bibliomancy and that he thought no one should do it, but using the gospels to see the future was better than consulting demons. In my opinion, the passage has the same energy as a parent who disapproves of their teen drinking but would prefer them to do it in the house so they can at least supervise what’s going on.

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Mantic alphabets were another way to tell the future. They are commonly found in European manuscripts, especially German ones. Though they are also found in English, Welsh, French, and Italian manuscripts too. However, alphabetical divination is found in Jewish, Arabic, and Greek cultures. It’s extremely likely that mantic alphabets were influenced by these cultures. Further evidence for this is that the late twelfth century was the same time nonwestern knowledge really started becoming prominent in Europe.

The most common format for mantic alphabets is as follows:

  1. An introductory paragraph explaining how to use it, including a ritual to do before any fortune-telling can take place.
  2. A list of the alphabet where each letter corresponds with a vague prediction.

Now, the rituals that needed to be done were simply just saying specific prayers/singing psalms. Different mantic alphabets have different instructions, so sometimes it included going to church, kneeling before the altar, or just praying in general. Doing this was vital for several reasons. First, they were a way to make sure God was listening to your question. Second, they gave the practitioner plausible deniability that what they were doing was Christian divination, approved by God, and in no way associated with demons. After all, a demon would not make someone go to church!

I will note that there are mantic alphabets out there that do not have introductory paragraphs. Instead, they just have the letter key. However, there are more mantic alphabets out there with introductions than ones without.

There are also a bunch of different letter keys out there. Some are simple, others are extremely complicated, others are written as riddles, some just relate to passages of the bible, some are acrostic, while others are not. Here is an example of one letter key:

A signifies life or power.

B signifies power among the people.

C signifies the death of a man.

D signifies disorder or death.

E signifies exultation or joy.

F signifies renowned blood.

Translator: László Sándor Chardonnens

One reason there was so much variation is probably due to the fact the practice was not an isolated phenomenon. They can be found in multiple different manuscripts. Textual evidence for mantic alphabets spans four centuries too. The earliest known one dates from the late twelfth century and it began to die out by the sixteenth century due to religious censorship and changing attitudes towards divination. In some manuscripts, later readers have written how divination is nonsense in the margins or have crossed out the mantic alphabets all together!

Sources:

Chardonnens, László Sándor. “Mantic Alphabets in Medieval Western Manuscripts and Early Printed Books.” Modern Philology, vol. 110, no. 3, 2013, pp. 340–366. JSTORwww.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/669251. Accessed 10 Jan. 2021.

Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 2004. 

“Medieval Sourcebook: Gregory of Tours (539-594): History of the Franks: Books I-X.” Internet History Sourcebooks, sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/gregory-hist.asp#book5. 

Meyer, Marvin, et al. Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power. Princeton University Press, 1999. 

Nogent, Guibert de. A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent. Translated by Paul J. Archambault, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. 

Saint Augustine. “Letter 55 (A.D. 400).” Translated by J.G. Cunningham, CHURCH FATHERS: Letter 55 (St. Augustine), www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102055.htm

“THE CONFESSIONS OF SAINT AUGUSTINE.” The Confessions of Saint Augustine, by Saint Augustine, www.gutenberg.org/files/3296/3296-h/3296-h.htm#link2H_4_0008. 

Waldorf, Sarah. We Tried Medieval Divination-And It Worked. 5 Aug. 2016, blogs.getty.edu/iris/we-tried-medieval-divination-and-it-worked/. 

Queer Saints: Marinos the Monk, A Transgender Saint

Content Note: Brief Mention of Sexual Violence

If you haven’t read my preface to the Queer Saints series, I recommend doing do. There I explain why I’ve chosen to use the term “queer” as well as why I am focusing on saints in particular. You can find the preface here.

Marinos and his father entering the monastery | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Today’s saint will be Marinos the Monk. Before we begin, I would like to make a few notes. Because Marinos lived before the word transgender came into the English language in 1974, we really cannot say for certain whether or not he would call himself such. That being said, in multiple hagiographies he does show quite a few traits that trans people today can sympathize with. So while he may not have called himself trans, I think more than a few trans people can relate to how he felt. Due to this, I argue that Marinos can be read as a trans man and/or trans masculine. Because Marinos can be read as a trans man and/or trans masculine, I will be referring to him with male pronouns.

If you are interested in doing further research about Marinos, you should be aware he is called by many different names, including his dead name. I believe this is partially due to the amount of hagiographies dedicated to him, the amount of translations, and the fact he lived before the year 1000. If you can only find limited information about “Marinos the Monk” you may have to look up “Marina the Monk.” The main source I used for this article refers to him as “Marina” and “Mary.” However, both of these names are feminine, so I will be referring to him with the masculine form of the name: Marinos.

There is some debate over what century Marinos lived in. Sources vary, but he probably lived sometime between the fifth and eighth centuries in the Byzantine Empire. To be more specific, Marinos lived in either modern-day Syria, Lebanon, or Turkey. Despite the differing opinions on where and when exactly he lived, the main elements of his story are pretty much always the same.

In all of the texts I’ve found, Marinos’ mother had passed away while his father, Eugenius, lived on. In my main source, Marinos is raised until adulthood in the secular by his father, but in others once his mother dies Eugenius wants to join a monastery. Either way, at some point in Marinos’ life, his father decided to give all of his possessions to the poor and become a monk.

Marinos is doesn’t want to be left alone in the world, so he begs Eugenius to take him with him. Eugenius is reluctant at first. After all, he’s not going to a double monastery where there are monks and nuns. Marinos clarifies by saying that he will cut off his hair and dress as a man. After some convincing, he agrees and Marinos is finally allowed to embrace a more masculine appearance. But before they go to the monastery Eugenius warns his son of the dangers of what they are doing. Marinos is to keep himself out of trouble and be on his best behavior at all times so the risk of him being outed is kept to a minimum.

Once at the monastery, the other monks decide that Marinos is probably a eunuch due to his lack of facial hair and soft voice. They also speculate that his appearance may have to do with all the fasting he’s doing. Marinos’ fasting may have had a double purpose. Not only is fasting considered holy, but if a menstruating person’s body gets under a certain fat percentage, their period stops.

Marinos wasn’t just considered holy because of his fasting. He took Eugenius’ words to heart and as a result he was the perfect monk. He was admired for his humility, obedience, and devotion to God. After his father died, Marinos’ dedication to the monastic life increased. In fact, he was so pious that God gave him several gifts. This included the ability to banish demons and heal others by laying his hands upon them. Clearly Marinos was in God’s favor if he was able to do that!

Despite Marinos’ reputation for piety and holiness, he does get wrapped up in a horrible scandal. The monastery he lived in had about forty or so monks living there. Due to the size, monks were often sent out into the secular world on business. Because their errands may be far away, sometimes the monks had to stay over night at an inn. The local innkeeper did his very best to show the monks as much hospitality as possible. His hospitality is important to remember later on.

One day, the abbot chose Marinos to go on a business trip. He was specifically chosen as Marinos was known for his piety, humility, and over all good behavior. After all, if you want to send someone out to represent your organization, you want to choose the person known for their ability to behave themselves. And if your organization is a religious one, it’s vital to maintain a good and pious appearance. You don’t want to have a troublemaker ruin your monastery’s reputation! It’s also important to note that according to several sources this was Marinos’ the very first trip outside the monastery.

So Marinos and three other monks go on their trip, stay at the inn, and return home. To their knowledge, it’s a successful and uneventful errand. Unfortunately, during their stay, things are not going so well for the innkeeper’s unmarried daughter. Depending on the source, she either had a one night stand, was seduced, or sexually assaulted by a soldier. Aware of the possibility of pregnancy, the soldier told her that if she did conceive a child, she should blame the handsome young monk Marinos. And the daughter did become pregnant.

(I will note that in another hagiography, it’s not an innkeeper’s daughter that becomes pregnant, but a random peasant’s daughter. In this version, Marinos goes out to get wood and stays at the peasant’s house for the night, thus giving the daughter a reasonable explanation on why she was interacting with Marinos. Here the biological father is still a soldier.)

Needless to say, when her pregnancy becomes obvious the innkeeper is not happy. After all, he’s been going out of his way to give the monks a nice place to stay and in return one of them impregnates his daughter. To give some cultural context, his daughter has basically been defiled forever and will never be marriageable material. To add to the scandal, monks take a vow of celibacy. Not only is the innkeeper under the impression a monk has slept with his daughter, left her with an illegitimate child, he is also a massive hypocrite. To compound the seriousness of the situation further, Marinos has a reputation for piety, blessed by God with holy gifts, and the first thing he supposedly does on his first trip out into the secular world is sleep with someone. Or depending on the source the first thing he does is rape someone, which is obviously far, far worse than a consensual one-night stand.

When the innkeeper discovers the pregnancy, he immediately goes to the monastery and demands to see the abbot. Once the abbot hears the accusation he is appalled and vows to throw Marinos out once he returns from his trip. (Though in some sources the abbot doesn’t believe the innkeeper and waits for Marinos’ side of the story before making any decisions.) While they are waiting, the innkeeper goes out of his way to make sure everyone knows what kind of monks are at the local monastery.

It’s never specified how long he was gone for, but eventually Marinos and the other monks return. The abbot has words with him. Instead of outing himself or even saying that he didn’t do it, Marinos takes all the blame. Again, depending on the source he either doesn’t say anything at all (which the abbot takes as an admission of guilt), throws himself sobbing on the floor saying he had sinned as a human, or he says he has sinned as a man. No matter what he does the end result is always the same: he is thrown out of the monastery, with no one the wiser about the fact he cannot actually father children. However, Marinos does not leave town. Instead, he sits outside the monastery’s gates no matter the weather and tells everyone who asks why he’s there. He tells them that he has sinned and that sin was fornication.

Eventually the child is born. The innkeeper takes the baby, finds Marinos, and throws the baby boy at his feet. I don’t know if the innkeeper literally threw the baby or not, but either way Marinos now has the child. Not wanting to punish the boy for his parents’ sins, Marinos decides to raise him as his own. Some sources say the baby was given to him immediately after birth while others say he was weaned first. In the texts that say Marinos was given a newborn, he leaves the monastery’s gates to find milk. He’s able to get some from a few local shepherds. And as the caretaker of a new baby, Marinos has to deal with everything that comes with being a new father. This includes the baby’s crying and soiled diapers.

After about three years, the monks at the monastery are starting to get uncomfortable with this arrangement. They think that he’s been punished enough. So they go to the abbot and ask him to let Marinos back. The abbot says no. Fed up, the monks threaten to leave. Not only are they are sick of seeing Marinos suffer, they say that if Marinos can’t be forgiven after three years how can they be forgiven at all? Finally the abbot concedes. Marinos and his son are let back into the community. However, there is a condition. He loses all status (the monastic life has a hierarchical structure) and has to do all the degrading and humiliating chores as well as take care of the child and his duties as a monk. Marinos agrees, doing everything with no complaint.

Years pass. His son grows up and becomes a monk as well. Then one day Marinos doesn’t show up for services. And then he doesn’t show up the next day. Or the next. Disturbed, the abbot sends some monks to looking for him. Marinos is found in his cell, dead. The abbot orders him to be prepared for burial. It is only then that they discover Marinos was born female, thus he was innocent the whole time. Absolutely horrified at what they had all done to poor Marinos over the years, the entire monastic community freaks out. The abbot especially. He is so horrified at what he did he spends three days sobbing at Marinos’ corpse. He only stops when Marinos’ voice basically tells him to calm down, he’s forgiven because he didn’t know, but if the abbot did know about his innocence then he would not be forgiven. But he didn’t, so all is forgiven.

Quickly the innkeeper is told that Marinos has died. At first he kind of shrugs it off, saying he hopes God forgives Marinos. The abbot reveals the truth. Needless to say, the innkeeper is also horrified and he prays for forgiveness over what he has done. His daughter, who is possessed by a demon, is summoned. She admits that Marinos was never the father and it was actually a soldier. Once she confesses, the demon leaves her body. Depending on the source, the daughter either spends the rest of her life repenting at Marinos’ grave or she and the soldier make a pilgrimage to the grave to confess what they did before all. Also apparently after a monk touches Marinos’ body the blindness in one of his eyes is cured.

Based on this story, it’s safe to say that Marinos was gender nonconforming at the very least. He had the opportunity to out himself and clear his name, but instead he chose to stay true to the man he was.

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Main Source:

Stouck, M. (1999). Medieval saints: A reader. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press.

You can purchase this book here on Amazon. (Though I will note that I found my copy at a used book store!)

Other Sources:

Roland Betancourt’s Transgender Lives in the Middle Ages through Art, Literature, and Medicine

The Golden Legend’s Entry on Saint Marinos the Monk

John Sanidopoulos’ Blog Post About Saint Marinos the Monk

QSpirit’s Article About Saint Marinos the Monk

Vidi Aquam Lebanese Saints

Wikipedia’s Entry on Saint Marinos the Monk

Queer Saints: An Important Preface

On this blog I have several on going series I am writing/have written. They all focus on medieval written texts. However, this series will be much different. Instead of writing about established texts, I will be writing my own hagiographies of medieval saints. Specifically, saints that can be read as part of the LGBTQ+ community. I know that there is a lot of controversy about claiming historical figures’ sexualities as well as the use of the word “queer” in general so I want to clear things up before I begin writing the hagiographies.

Why use the word queer?

I have two reasons why chose to title this series “Queer Saints” instead of “LGBTQ+ Saints.” The first reason has to do with the word “queer” itself. In the past the word was used as a slur against LGBTQ+ people. In recent years it has started to become reclaimed by the community. (Including myself.) Now days, the term has another meaning: simply anyone who is not straight and/or cisgender. (Cisgender meaning anyone who is not transgender.) Because I am writing about historical figures, it’s impossible to say what labels they would give themselves. So instead of giving them a solid label (like gay, bisexual, asexual, trans, etc.) I am arguing that these saints can be read as queer. In that they behave in similar ways that people today who use those labels do.

The second reason I have titled this series “Queer Saints” has to do with which view point I plan to write these hagiographies through. I plan to write with queer theory in mind. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines queer theory as “an approach to literary and cultural study that rejects traditional categories of gender and sexuality.” Basically, it means that we can’t just assume everyone is straight and cisgender. I will also note that I say “in mind” because a lot of things written through the lens of queer theory are extremely inaccessible to the average person. I want everyone to be able to understand what I’m saying. (Personally, I think a lot of queer theory authors write the way they do because if you can’t understand what someone is saying you can’t argue against their bad points. But that’s a topic I will not be exploring, as this is a medieval blog and not a ‘Why I Think Academic Writing Should Be Easy To Read’ blog.)

Why are you writing about saints?

I’m writing about saints is because I find a lot of their stories extremely interesting. And despite the Roman Catholic Church’s less than stellar treatment of the LGBTQIA+ community, there are many saints that don’t conform to Western society’s ideas of what “normal” is. While I’m not super religious myself, (I was raised Catholic) I think it’s important for queer religious people (especially younger folk) to see that people like them have been loved, accepted, and even favored by God. There is a lot of self-hatred that comes when you cannot conform to what society wants the norm to be. And if I can help at least one person out there, then I think I’ve done a good job.