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An Italian Humanist in England

Today is the anniversary of the death of the Italian humanist and scholar Polydore Vergil. His career makes for another interesting example of the transnational society created by the medieval Church, in which the Latin language played a foundational role. He spent much of his life in England, counting among his friends, colleagues, and collaborators men such as the Dutch scholar Erasmus and St Thomas More, and his literary works were known and celebrated throughout Europe.

Polydore was born in about 1470 in the duchy of Urbino, which was then a flourishing cultural center of the Renaissance, thanks to the patronage of the dukes of Montefeltro. After studying at the universities of Padua and Bologna, the two oldest in Italy, he was ordained to the priesthood, and entered the service of the Roman Curia in the waning years of Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503). In 1502, he accompanied Cardinal Adriano Castellesi to England, where the cardinal served as the collector of the tax used to finance the activities of the Holy See, known as Peter’s Pence. He would spend most of the next 51 years in that country, and in October of 1510, he was recognized as an English subject by the then very new king of England, Henry VIII. He retired to his native place in 1553, at the age of about 83, only two years before his death.

(The lower of the two dedicatory plaques on this building in Urbino commemorates it as the place of Polydore Vergil’s birth and retirement. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0

While still in Italy, Polydore produced two notable Latin literary works. The first was a collection of proverbs, known as either the “Proverbia” or “Adagia”, first published in 1498, and greatly expanded in a new edition of 1521. His second work, published only a year later, was titled “De Inventoribus Rerum – On the inventors of things”, and discusses the origins of a vast range of human activities. This was also greatly expanded in 1521, with the addition of five books on specifically Christian customs and institutions. In the fervid atmosphere of the early Reformation, his learned criticisms of certain institutions, so typical of Renaissance humanists, were seen to set him on the side of the protestants, and the book was later placed on the Church’s Index of Forbidden Books. Nevertheless, it ran to over 70 printed editions, and was translated into more than three dozen languages.

(The frontispiece of an Italian translation of Polydore’s Inventors, published at Florence in 1587.)

The works of his English period include a treatise on miracles, and the first critical edition of any ancient literary work produced in England, the treatise “On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain” by the 6th century monk St Gildas the Wise. The most important of these by far, however, is his monumental “Anglica Historia”, which he began at the behest of King Henry VII in 1505, and first published in 1513. Significantly revised editions were issued in 1534 and 1546, and a minor revision in 1555, with an additional book that updated the work to 1537.

The opening sentence of the first book (after the prologue) is deliberately copied from that of Caesar’s Gallic Wars: “Britannia omnis, quae hodie Anglia et Scotia duplici nomine appellatur, insula in oceano contra Gallicum litus posita, dividitur in partes quatuor, quarum unam incolunt Angli, aliam Scoti, tertiam Walli, quartam Cornubienses. Hi omnes vel lingua vel moribus seu institutis inter se differunt. – All Britain, which today is called by the double name of England and Scotland, an island set in the ocean opposite the French coast, is divided into four parts, in one of which dwell the English, in the second the Scots, in the third the Welsh, in the fourth the Cornish. These all differ from each other in language, manners, and customs.”

Like many humanists, Polydore was skeptical about some of the long-standing historical traditions related to his subject matter, a fact which gave rise to no small controversy. In his first book, he repeats the criticisms made by the 12th century writer William of Newbury against the earlier historian Geoffrey of Monmouth and his presentation of the King Arthur legend.

“… nostris temporibus … scriptor emersit, ridicula de (Britonibus) figmenta contexens, eosque longe supra virtutem Macedonum et Romanorum impudenti vanitate attollens. Gaufredus hic est dictus, cognomine Arthurus, pro eo quod multa de Arthuro ex priscis Britonum pigmentis sumpta, et ab se aucta, per superductum Latini sermonis colorem honesto historiae nomine obtexit.

… in our times a writer has come forth … manufacturing many silly things about (the Britons), and with his impudent vanity extolling them for their virtue far above the Macedonians and Romans. This man is named Geoffrey, having the surname of Arthur because he writes much about Arthur taken from the Britons’ ancient fables, embroidered by himself, and covering it with the name of an honest history by putting over it the color of the Latin language.”

This position earned him a good deal of harsh criticism from the English, perhaps exacerbated by the fact that in the long-standing contention between the universities of Oxford and Cambridge as to which is the older, Polydore sided with the latter, thus not endearing himself to the alumni of the former.

He was also accused by several English writers of deliberately falsifying the contents of his sources, and burning the manuscripts of them to hide the fact. It is tempting to speculate that this accusation this may be a distortion, conscious or unconscious, of the memory of the appalling destruction which Henry VIII visited upon the monasteries of England, and hence also on their libraries. The English king could not be criticized for this or anything else without endangering the critic’s life; and indeed, Polydore himself spent much of the year 1515 in the Tower of London after a rival exposed a private letter in which he expressed certain criticisms of the king. As a foreigner, as a former agent of the hated Pope of Rome, and as a contemporary of Henry VIII, Polydore might well have made a convenient scapegoat to later generations for the destruction of so much material that might have served the English in the study of their own history.

The Battle of Forum Gallorum

Today marks the anniversary of the Battle of Forum Gallorum in 43 BC, a turning point in the civil war that broke out in the Roman Republic between the Senate and Marc Antony after Julius Caesar’s assassination. (The precise location of this town on the Via Aemilia in northern Italy is unknown; it was somewhere between Bologna and Modena, closer to the latter.) In the first confrontation, Antony defeated the armies of the Senate under the command of the consul Gaius Pansa, who was wounded and died of his injuries several days later. But as Antony and his troops were returning to their camp outside Modena, worn out by the fierce fighting at Forum Gallorum, they were attacked by the other consul, Aulus Hirtius, and very badly defeated.

However, Antony’s fortunes would soon take a turn for the better. Seven days later, Hirtius attacked him at Modena, and defeated him, at which Antony was forced to lift the siege of the city and fly west. But Hirtius himself was killed in the fighting, and with Pansa’s death, the armies of the Senate were left leaderless. The command was then given to Caesar’s heir Octavian, who fought on the Senate’s side. (It was he who recovered Hirtius’ body from the battlefield.) By late fall, he would join with Antony in the political alliance known as the Second Triumvirate, thus ending the military opposition to Antony, and not long after, de facto bringing the Republic to its end.

It was after this battle that Cicero delivered the last of his fourteen orations against Antony known as the Philippics. This name comes from a comparison, made by Cicero himself, between them and the equally brutal orations of his Greek counterpart Demosthenes against the conqueror of Greece, Philip of Macedon. And it was for the sake of these that, once the Second Triumvirate had come to power, Antony was able to obtain Cicero’s proscription and assassination, much against the inclinations of Octavian.

(The Vengeance of Fulvia, 1888, by Francisco Maura y Montaner (1857-1931). When Cicero’s head was brought to Antony, his wife Fulvia is said to have run a hairpin through the tongue that had spoken so fiercely against her husband. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

It can hardly be wondered that Antony should have had such an animus against the great orator, given some of the things that he had said about him. Part of Cicero’s aim in the last Philippic was to persuade the Senate to formally declare Antony a public enemy.

“Quousque igitur is, qui omnes hostes scelere superavit, nomine hostis carebit? nisi mucrones etiam nostrorum militum tremere vultis dubitantis, utrum in cive an in hoste figantur. Supplicationem decernitis, hostem non appellatis. Gratae vero nostrae dis immortalibus gratulationes erunt, gratae victimae, cum interfecta sit civium multitudo! ‘De improbis’, inquit ‘et audacibus.’ Nam sic eos appellat clarissimus vir; quae sunt urbanarum maledicta litium, non inustae belli internecivi notae. Testamenta, credo, subiciunt aut eiciunt vicinos aut adulescentulos circumscribunt; his enim vitiis adfectos et talibus malos aut audaces appellare consuetudo solet. Bellum inexpiabile infert quattuor consulibus unus omnium latronum taeterrimus, gerit idem bellum cum senatu populoque Romano, omnibus (quamquam ruit ipse suis cladibus) pestem, vastitatem, cruciatum, tormenta denuntiat. … Est igitur quisquam, qui hostis appellare non audeat, quorum scelere crudelitatem Carthaginiensium victam esse fateatur?

How long, then, shall that man, who has surpassed all enemies in wickedness, be spared the name of enemy? unless you wish to see the very swords of our soldiers trembling in their hands while they doubt whether they are piercing a citizen or an enemy. You vote a supplication (i.e. a public act of thanksgiving for Antony’s defeat); you do not call him an enemy. Pleasing indeed to the immortal gods will our thanksgivings be, and pleasing the sacrifices, after a multitude of our citizens has been slain! ‘For the victory,’ says (the proposer of the supplication), ‘over wicked and daring men.’ For thus does this most illustrious man call them; these are curses for lawsuits carried on in the city, not denunciations of the burning infamy of an internecine war. They are forging wills, I suppose, or casting out their neighbors, or cheating some young men; for it is men implicated in these and similar misdeeds that we are wont to called ‘wicked’ and ‘daring’. One man, the foulest of all brigands, is waging an implacable war against four consuls; at the same time, he wages war against the senate and Roman people, and (though he falls headlong by his own disasters) threatens us all with destruction, devastation, torments, and tortures. …  Is there then anyone who dares not call those men enemies (i.e. Antony and his allies), whose wickedness he admits to have surpassed even the inhumanity of the Carthaginians?”

The Feast of St Hermenegild

In Spain, April 13th has been kept for many centuries as the feast of a Saint called Hermenegild, although it is impeded by either Holy Week or the octave of Easter whenever Easter falls from April 6th to the 20th, as it does this year. He was born ca. 560 AD, the son of a Visigothic king named Leovigild, whose territory covered the whole of the Iberian peninsula, and parts of southern France. The Visigoths had long professed the Arian heresy, which denied that Christ is both fully divine and fully human, but Hermenegild, in the course of rebelling against his father, also embraced the Catholic Faith under the influence of St Leander of Seville, the elder brother of St Isidore.

The rebellion was settled peacefully, but Leovigild’s second wife, Goiswinda, turned him against his son, and Hermengild was imprisoned. On Easter, his father sent an Arian bishop to him to give him Holy Communion, but he refused to received. This sent the king into a fit of rage, and he ordered his son to be beheaded at once. Although he repented of this terrible deed, he did not dare repudiate the Arian confession of his people. St Gregory the Great, who records the principal facts of the Saint’s life in his Dialogues (3, 31) attributes to his martyrdom the conversion of the Visigoths, which took place not long after, in the reign of his brother Reccared.

“Sicut multorum qui ab Hispaniarum partibus veniunt relatione cognovimus, nuper Herminigildus rex Leuvigildi regis Visigothorum filius, ab Ariana haeresi ad fidem catholicam, viro reverentissimo Leandro Hispalitano episcopo, dudum mihi in amicitiis familiariter juncto, praedicante conversus est. Quem pater Arianus, ut ad eamdem haeresim rediret, et praemiis suadere, et minis terrere conatus est. Cumque ille constantissime responderet nunquam se veram fidem posse relinquere, quam semel agnovisset, iratus pater eum privavit regno, rebusque exspoliavit omnibus. Cumque nec sic virtutem mentis illius emollire valuisset, in arcta illum custodia concludens …

Superveniente autem paschalis festivitatis die intempestae noctis silentio ad eum perfidus pater Arianum episcopum misit, ut ex ejus manu sacrilegae consecrationis communionem perciperet, atque per hoc ad patris gratiam redire mereretur. Sed vir Deo deditus Ariano episcopo venienti exprobravit ut debuit,

Ad se itaque reverso episcopo, Arianus pater infremuit, statimque suos apparitores misit, qui constantissimum confessorem Dei illic ubi jacebat occiderent; … Nam mox ut ingressi sunt, securem cerebro ejus infigentes, vitam corporis abstulerunt; hocque in eo valuerunt perimere, quod ipse quoque qui peremptus est, in se constituerat despexisse. Sed pro ostendenda vera ejus gloria, superna quoque non defuere miracula.

Nam coepit in nocturno silentio psalmodiae cantus ad corpus ejusdem regis et martyris audiri; atque ideo veraciter regis, quia et martyris. Quidam etiam ferunt quod illic nocturno tempore accensae lampades apparebant; unde et factum est quatenus corpus illius, ut videlicet martyris, jure a cunctis fidelibus venerari debuisset. …

Qui oborta aegritudine ad extrema perductus, Leandro episcopo, quem prius vehementer afflixerat, Recharedum regem filium, quem in sua haeresi relinquebat, commendare curavit, ut in ipso quoque talia faceret, qualia et in fratre illius suis cohortationibus fecisset. Qua commendatione expleta defunctus est. Post cujus mortem Recharedus rex non patrem perfidum, sed fratrem martyrem sequens, ab Arianae haereseos pravitate conversus est, totamque Visigothorum gentem ita ad veram perduxit fidem…

(The Apotheosis of St Hermenegild, 1620-24, by Francisco Herrera the Elder (1576-1656); in the lower register, on the left, St Leander, with Hermenegild’s younger brother Reccared, and on the right, his own younger brother St Isidore, who has his hand on the crouching and defeated Leovigild. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Not long ago, as I have learned of many who came from Spain, king Hermenegild, son of Leovigild, king of the Visigoths, was lately converted to the Catholic faith from the Arian heresy by the most reverent man Leander, bishop of Seville, with whom I was not long since familiarly acquainted. Upon his conversion of this young prince, his father, an Arian, labored both by large promises and terrible threats to draw him back to his former error: but when his son answered most constantly that he would never forsake the true faith which he had once embraced, his father in great anger took away his kingdom, and deprived him of all wealth and riches; and perceiving that, with all this, his mind was nothing moved, he committed him to a straight prison …

When the solemn feast of Easter was come, his wicked father sent unto him in the dead of the night an Arian bishop, to give him the communion of a sacrilegious consecration, that he might thereby again recover his father’s grace and favor: but the man of God, as he ought, sharply reprehended that Arian bishop…

The father, at the return of the Arian prelate, fell into such a rage that forthwith he sent his officers of execution to put to death that most constant confessor, in the very prison where he lay: … as soon as they came into the prison, they cleaved his brains with an axe, and so deprived him of mortal life, having only power to take that from him which the holy martyr made small account of.

Afterward, there was no lack of miracles from heaven to make known his true glory to the world: for in the night time, singing was heard at his body. Some also report that, in the night, burning lamps were seen in that place: by reason of which, was worthily venerated by all Christian people as that of a martyr,. …

At length, falling sick, a little before his death, (Leovigild) commended his son Reccared, who was to succeed him in the kingdom, and was still an heretic, to bishop Leander, whom before he had greatly persecuted: so that by his counsel and exhortation, he might likewise make him a member of the Catholic Church, as he had before made his brother Hermenegild; and when he had thus done, he departed this life. After his death, Reccared the king, not following the steps of his wicked father, but his brother the martyr, utterly renounced Arianism: and labored so earnestly for the restoring of religion, that he brought the whole nation of the Visigoths to the true faith of Christ…

An Easter Sermon of Pope St Leo the Great

Although the Church’s tradition has always been to keep the Saints’ feast days on the anniversary of their death, which is to say, of their entry into eternal life, there have also always been exceptions made for various reasons. One such was St Leo I, one of the three Popes in history who are called “the Great.” He died on November 10, 461, after reigning for a bit more than 21 years, but his feast was for many centuries kept on April 11th, the anniversary of the translation of his relics to St Peter’s basilica from the catacomb where he was originally buried. However, since this date often occurs during Holy Week, or Easter week (as it does this year), and therefore cannot be celebrated, he was moved to November in the most recent reform of the liturgical calendar.

(The altar containing the relics of Pope St Leo I in St Peter’s Basilica, photographed on his feast day in 2010.) 

St Leo is the first Pope from whom we have a substantial number of sermons, but only two among the extant body of authentic ones are about Easter. Here is an excerpt of the first, one which shows his superb command of Latin rhetoric.

“Resurrectio igitur Salvatoris nec animam in inferno, nec carnem diu morata est in sepulcro; et tam velox incorruptae carnis vivificatio fuit, ut major ibi esset soporis similitudo quam mortis: quoniam Deitas quae ab utraque suscepti hominis substantia non recessit, quod potestate divisit, potestate conjunxit.

Subsecuta sunt itaque multa documenta quibus praedicandae per universum mundum fidei auctoritas conderetur. Et licet revolutio lapidis, evacuatio monumenti, depositio linteorum, et totius facti angeli narratores copiose veritatem Dominicae resurrectionis astruerent; et mulierum tamen visui, et Apostolorum frequenter oculis manifestus apparuit, non solum loquens cum eis, sed etiam habitans atque convescens, et pertractari se diligenti curiosoque contactu ab eis quos dubitatio perstringebat, admittens. Ideo enim et clausis ad discipulos ostiis introibat, et flatu suo dabat Spiritum sanctum, et dato intelligentiae lumine, sanctarum Scripturarum occulta pandebat, et rursus idem vulnus lateris, fixuras clavorum, et omnia recentissimae passionis signa monstrabat, ut agnosceretur in eo proprietas divinae humanaeque naturae individua permanere, et ita sciremus Verbum non hoc esse quod carnem, ut unum Dei Filium et Verbum confiteremur et carnem.

Non dissonat, dilectissimi, ab hac fide magister gentium apostolus Paulus, cum dicit: Etsi cognovimus secundum carnem Christum, sed nunc jam non novimus. Resurrectio enim Domini non finis carnis, sed commutatio fuit, nec virtutis augmento consumpta substantia est. Qualitas transiit, non natura defecit; et factum est corpus impassibile, quod potuit crucifigi; factum est immortale, quod potuit occidi; factum est incorruptibile, quod potuit vulnerari. Et merito dicitur caro Christi in eo statu quo fuerat nota, nesciri: quia nihil in ea passibile, nihil remansit infirmum, ut et ipsa sit per essentiam, et non sit ipsa per gloriam.

(A statue of Pope Leo on the façade of the cathedral of Florence, by Raffaello Romanelli; image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY 3.0)

The Savior’s Resurrection therefore did not long detain His soul in hell, nor His flesh in the tomb; and so speedy was the quickening of His uncorrupted flesh, that its likeness was more like that of slumber than death, seeing that the Godhead, which quitted neither part of the human nature which He had assumed, reunited by its power that which it separated by its power.

And then there followed many proofs on which the authority of the Faith that was to be preached through the whole world might be based. And although the rolling away of the stone, the emptying of the tomb, the arrangement of the linen cloths, and the angels who narrated the whole deed by themselves fully built up the truth of the Lord’s Resurrection; yet still did He often appear plainly to the eyes both of the women and of the Apostles (Act. 1, 3), not only talking with them, but also remaining and eating with them, and allowing Himself to be handled by the eager and curious touch of those whom doubt assailed. For to this end He entered among the disciples when the doors were closed (John 20, 19), and by breathing on them gave them the Holy Spirit, and after giving them the light of understanding, opened the secrets of the Holy Scriptures, (Luke 24, 27) and again, Himself showed them the wound in the side, the nail-prints, and all the marks of His very recent Passion, whereby it might be acknowledged that in Him the properties of the divine and human nature remained undivided, and so that we might in such wise know that the Word was not what the flesh is, so as to confess God’s only Son to be both Word and Flesh.

Dearly-beloved, Paul, the Apostle of the gentiles, does not disagree with this belief, when he says, ‘Even though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now we know Him so no more.’ (2 Cor. 5, 16) For the Lord’s Resurrection was not the ending of the flesh, but its changing, and His substance was not destroyed by His increase of power. The quality altered, but the nature did not cease to exist: the body was made impassible, which it had been able to be crucified: it was made immortal, though it had been able to be killed; it was made incorruptible, though it had been able to be wounded. And rightly is it said that Christ’s flesh is not known in that state in which it had been known, because nothing passible remained in it, nothing weak, so that it was both the same in essence and not the same in glory.”

The Death of St Ambrose

St Ambrose of Milan died on April 4th, 397, which was Holy Saturday of that year, at the age of roughly 56, in the 23rd year of his episcopacy. The Church traditionally celebrates the Saints’ feasts on the day of their death and entry into eternal life, and in the Middle Ages, many churches kept his feast today. However, since April 4th so often falls in either Holy Week (as it does this year) or Easter week, which impede the celebration of the Saints, the Roman Rite traditionally keeps his feast on the anniversary of his episcopal ordination, which took place on December 7th, 374.

His biography was written by one of his deacons, Paulinus, at the request of St Augustine, who had been led into the Faith and baptized by Ambrose while he lived in Milan in the 380s. Here is his account of the holy doctor’s death.

“… incidit in infirmitatem, qua cum plurimis diebus detineretur in lectulo, comes Stilico dixisse fertur quod, tanto viro recedente de corpore, interitus immineret Italiae. Unde convocatis ad se nobilibus viris illius civitatis, quos diligi a sancto Sacerdote cognoverat, partim interminatus est illis, partim blando sermone persuasit, ut pergerent ad sanctum Sacerdotem, suaderentque illi, ut sibi vivendi peteret a Domino commeatum. Quod ille ubi ab illis audivit, respondit: Non ita inter vos vixi, ut pudeat me vivere: nec timeo mori; quia Dominum bonum habemus.

In eodem tamen loco in quo jacebat … cum oraret… viderat Dominum Jesum advenisse ad se, et arridentem sibi: nec multos post dies nobis ablatus est. Sed eodem tempore quo migravit ad Dominum, ab hora circiter undecima diei usque ad illam horam, in qua emisit spiritum, expansis manibus in modum crucis oravit: nos vero labia illius moveri videbamus, vocem autem non audiebamus. Honoratus etiam sacerdos Ecclesiae Vercellis cum in superioribus domus se ad quiescendum composuisset, tertio vocem vocantis se audivit, dicentisque sibi: Surge, festina, quia modo est recessurus. Qui descendens, obtulit sancto Domini corpus: quo accepto ubi glutivit, emisit spiritum, bonum viaticum secum ferens; ut in virtute escae anima refectior, angelorum nunc consortio, quorum vita vixit in terris, et Eliae societate laetetur; quia ut Elias numquam regibus vel ullis potestatibus, ita nec iste pro Dei timore loqui veritus est.

(Two folios of an eleventh-century manuscript of St Ambrose’s Treatise De Bono Mortis; Bibliothèque National de France, ms. Latin 2639)

… he fell into an illness, and since he was kept in bed by it for several days, the count Stilicho (head of the army in the western Roman Empire) is reported to have said that if so great a man was dying, destruction loomed over Italy. Wherefore, having gathered the noblemen of that city to himself, those whom he knew were loved by the holy bishop, he half threatened and half persuaded them with kindly words that they should go to the holy bishop, and urge him to ask of the Lord an extension of his life. But when he (i.e. Ambrose) heard this from them, he answered, ‘I have not lived among you in such wise that I am ashamed to go on living; nor do I fear to die, since we have a good Lord.’

But in the same place where he was lying ill …, while he was praying …, he saw that the Lord Jesus had come to him and was smiling at him; and after not many days, he was taken away from us. But at the same time when he passed to the Lord, from about the eleventh hour until that hour when he breathed his last, he prayed with his arms stretched out in the form of a cross; and we saw his lips move, but did not hear his voice. And Honoratus, the bishop of Vercelli, when he had gone to take some rest in the upper rooms of the house, heard a voice calling him three times, and saying to him, ‘Arise, make haste, for he is about to depart!’ And he went down, and offered the Saint the Body of the Lord; and when he had taken it and swallowed, he sent forth his spirit, bearing a good viaticum * with him, so that, being more refreshed in spirit by the strength of that food,  he might rejoice in the fellowship of the angels, whose life he lived upon the earth, and in the company of Elijah; for like Elijah, for fear of the Lord, he never feared to speak to kings or any other power.”

* The term “viaticum”, meaning “provision for a journey”, whether of money, food, or other necessaries, is used by Latin-speaking Christians to mean the most essential provision for the journey into the next life, the reception of Holy Communion on one’s deathbed.

St John of the Ladder

In the Byzantine Rite, today is the feast of a Saint called John, whose Greek epithet “τῆς Κλίμακος – of the Ladder”) is often improperly anglicized as “Climacus.” This title refers to his popular and extremely influential spiritual treatise, the Ladder of Paradise, still commonly read, and especially in Lent, among Eastern Christians. The treatise is also known as the Ladder of Divine Ascent, and outlines thirty steps by which, through the acquisition and exercise of the various virtues, one may seek to ascend to attain salvation. The icon of his feast shows the ladder by which a group of monks ascend to Heaven; with an important touch of realism, all versions of this icon show some of the monks being pulled off the ladder by devils with grappling hooks, and falling into the mouth of hell on the lower right.

(A twelfth-century icon of the Ladder from the monastery of St Catherine on Mt Sinai. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) 

Very little is known about St John’s origins and life, and even the exact period in which he lived has been the subject of academic debate. A letter of Pope St Gregory the Great dated to the year 600 is addressed to one John, the “abbot of Mount Sinai.” John Climacus certainly held this office at one time, and he is traditionally said to be the recipient of letter, and to have died at around the age of 75 a few years later. It is brief enough to quote in full. Here we have another example of how the great transnational culture of the Roman Empire facilitated the activity of the Church; St Gregory, who knew very little Greek, was able to communicate in Latin with a native Greek-speaker located over 2,500 miles away from Rome.

By this point, it had become common for Christians to refer to each other in letters and sermons with titles such as “your humility” or “your charity”, as we see here. There are also a couple of unusual Greek words in the final paragraph: “gerontocomium”, a facility for taking care of the elderly, and “rachana”, a light bed covering.

“Gregorius Joanni abbati montis Sina.

Sanctitatem vitae tuae humilitatis tuae testatur epistola; unde omnipotenti Deo magnas gratias agimus, quia adhuc esse cognoscimus qui pro peccatis nostris valeant exorare. Nos enim sub colore ecclesiastici regiminis mundi hujus fluctibus volvimur, qui frequenter nos obruunt. Sed coelestis gratiae manu protegente, de profundo relevamur. Vos ergo, qui in tanta quietis vestrae serenitate tranquillam vitam ducitis, et securi quasi in littore statis, nobis navigantibus, aut potius naufragantibus orationis vestrae manum tendite, et conantes ad terram viventium pergere, quantis potestis precibus adjuvate; ut non solum de vestra vita, sed etiam de ereptione nostra mercedem habere in perpetuum valeatis. Sancta Trinitas dilectionem tuam suae protectionis dextera protegat, detque tibi commissum gregem orando, admonendo, exempla boni operis ostendendo, in suo conspectu recte pascere, ut ad aeternae vitae pascua valeas cum ipso quem pascis grege pervenire. Scriptum quippe est: Oves meae venient, et pascua invenient. Quae videlicet pascua tunc invenimus, quando hujus vitae hieme carentes, de aeternae vitae quasi de novi veris viriditate satiamur.

Filio nostro Simplicio renuntiante cognovimus lectos vel lectisternia in gerontocomio, quod a quodam illic Isauro constructum est, deesse. Propterea misimus laenas xv, rachanas xxx, lectos xv. Pretium quoque de emendis culcitris vel naula dedimus, quae dilectionem tuam petimus non indigne suscipere, sed in loco quo transmissa sunt praebere.

(St Gregory the Great, ca. 1650, by the Spanish painter and monk Juan Rizi, 1600-81. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Gregory to John, abbot of Mount Sinai.

The epistle of your humility testifies to the holiness of your life; whence we give great thanks to Almighty God, since we know that there are still some who can pray for our sins. For we, under the color of ecclesiastical government, are tossed in the billows of this world, which frequently overwhelm us. But by the protecting hand of heavenly grace we are raised up again from the deep. Do you, then, who lead a tranquil life in the great serenity of your rest, and stand as it were safe on the shore, extend the hand of your prayer to us who are still voyaging, or rather, who suffer shipwreck, and with all the supplications in your power, help us as we strive to reach the land of the living, so that not only for your own life, but also for our rescue, you may have reward forever. May the Holy Trinity protect your charity with the right hand of Its protection, and grant unto you in Its sight that by praying, by admonishing, by showing examples of good work, rightly to feed the flock committed to you, so that you may be able to reach the pastures of eternal life with the flock itself which you feed. For it is written, ‘My sheep shall come and shall find pastures.’ (John 10, 27) And these pastures in truth we find, when, freed from the winter of this life, we are satisfied from the greenness of eternal life, as of a new Spring.

From the report of our son Simplicius, we have learned that there is a lack of beds and bedding in the gerontocomium, which has been constructed by one Isaurus there. Wherefore we have sent 15 cloaks, 30 bed covers, and 15 beds. We have also given money for the purchase of mattresses and for their transport, which we beg your charity not to disdain, but to supply them to the place for which they have been sent.”

The Rule of St Benedict (Part 2)

Another excerpt from the prologue of the Rule of St Benedict, the conclusion of which is particularly suitable for this week, as the Church prepares for the sacred rites of Holy Week and Easter.

“Succinctis ergo fide vel observantia bonorum actuum lumbis nostris, per ducatum Evangelii pergamus itinera eius, ut mereamur eum qui nos vocavit in regnum suum videre. In cujus regni tabernaculo si volumus habitare, nisi illuc bonis actibus curritur, minime pervenitur. Sed interrogemus cum Propheta Dominum dicentes ei: Domine, quis habitabit in tabernaculo tuo, aut quis requiescet in monte sancto tuo? Post hanc interrogationem, fratres, audiamus Dominum respondentem et ostendentem nobis viam ipsius tabernaculi, dicens: Qui ingreditur sine macula et operatur iustitiam; qui loquitur veritatem in corde suo, qui non egit dolum in lingua sua; qui non fecit proximo suo malum, qui obprobrium non accepit adversus proximum suum; qui malignum diabulum aliqua suadentem sibi cum ipsa suasione sua a conspectibus cordis sui respuens deduxit ad nihilum, et parvulos cogitatos eius tenuit et adlisit ad Christum; qui timentes Dominum de bona observantia sua non se reddunt elatos, sed ipsa in se bona non a se posse, sed a Domino fieri existimantes, operantem in se Dominum magnificant, illud cum Propheta dicentes: Non nobis, Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo da gloriam; sicut nec Paulus Apostolus de prædicatione sua sibi aliquid inputavit dicens: Gloria Dei sum id quod sum; et iterum ipse dicit: Qui gloriatur, in Domino glorietur. Unde et Dominus in Evangelio ait: Qui audit verba mea hæc et facit ea, similabo eum viro sapienti qui ædificavit domum suam super petram; venerunt flumina, flaverunt venti, et inpegerunt in domum illam, et non cecidit, quia fundata erat super petram. Hæc conplens Dominus expectat nos cotidie his suis sanctis monitis factis nos respondere debere. …

Cum ergo interrogassemus Dominum, fratres, de habitatore tabernaculi eius, audivimus habitandi præceptum; sed si conpleamus habitatoris officium, erimus heredes regni cælorum. Ergo præparanda sunt corda nostra et corpora sanctæ præceptorum oboedientiæ militanda, et quod minus habet in nos natura possibile, rogemus Dominum, ut gratiæ suæ iubeat nobis adiutorium ministrare. Et si, fugientes gehennæ poenas, ad vitam volumus pervenire perpetuam, dum adhuc vacat et in hoc corpore sumus et hæc omnia per hanc lucis vitam vacat implere, currendum et agendum est modo quod in perpetuo nobis expediat. Constituenda est ergo nobis dominici schola servitii; in qua institutione nihil asperum, nihil grave nos constituturos speramus. Sed et si quid paululum restrictius, dictante æquitatis ratione, propter emendationem vitiorum vel conservationem caritatis processerit, non ilico pavore perterritus refugias viam salutis, quæ non est nisi angusto initio incipienda. Processu vero conversationis et fidei, dilatato corde inenarrabili dilectionis dulcedine curritur via mandatorum Dei, ut ab ipsius numquam magisterio discedentes, in eius doctrinam usque ad mortem in monasterio perseverantes passionibus Christi per patientiam participemur, ut et regno eius mereamur esse consortes. Amen.

(St Benedict, ca. 1670-73, by the Spanish painter Vicente Berdusán (1632-97). Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Therefore, having our loins girt with faith and the performance of good works, let us walk His ways under the guidance of the Gospel, that we may merit to see Him who has called us into His kingdom. If we wish to dwell in the tabernacle of His kingdom, unless we run there by good works, it cannot be reached at all. But let us ask the Lord with the Prophet, saying to Him, ‘Lord, who shall dwell in Thy tabernacle, or who shall rest upon Thy holy mountain?’ (Ps. 14, 1) After this question, brethren, let us listen to the Lord as He answers and shows us the way to this tabernacle, saying, ‘He that goeth forth without blemish and worketh justice; he that speaketh truth in his heart; who hath done no deceit by his tongue, nor done evil to his neighbor, nor hath taken up a reproach against his neighbor’, (Ps. 14, 2-3), he who has brought to naught the wicked devil who tempts him, casting him out of his heart with his temptation, and has taken his evil thoughts whilst they were yet weak and hath dashed them against Christ (Ps. 136, 9); they who, fearing the Lord, are not made proud by their works, but holding that the actual good things which are in them cannot be done by themselves, but by the Lord, praise the Lord working in them, saying with the Prophet, ‘Not to us, o Lord, not to us, by to Thy name give glory.’ (Ps. 113, 9); just as the Apostle Paul also did not take for himself any credit for his preaching, saying, ‘By the grace of God, I am what I am,’ (1 Cor. 15, 10), and again he says, ‘Let him that glorieth, glory in the Lord.’ (2 Cor. 10, 17). Hence also the Lord says in the Gospel, ‘Him that heareth these my words and doeth them, I shall likenen to a wise man who built his house upon a rock; the floods came, the winds blew, and they beat upon that house, and it fell not, for it was founded on a rock.’ (Matt. 7, 24-25) Fulfilling these words, the Lord expects that we must daily respond to His holy admonitions in works. …

Now, brethren, since we have asked the Lord who it is that shall dwell in His tabernacle, we have heard the conditions for dwelling there; and if we fulfil the duties of tenants, we shall be heirs of the kingdom of heaven. Therefore our hearts and bodies must be ready to strive under holy obedience of the commandments; and let us ask the Lord that He command the help of His grace to supply what is impossible to us by nature. And if, fleeing from the pains of hell, we desire to reach life everlasting, then, while there is yet time, and we are still in this body, and are able during the present life to fulfil all these things, we must hasten to do now what will profit us forever. We are, therefore, about to found a school of the Lord’s service, in which we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome. But even if, following the dictates of just reason, anything that turns out somewhat strict in order to correct vices or preserve charity, do not at once be struck with fear and flee from the way of salvation, which only begin with a narrow way. With advance in the religious life and faith, one runs the way of God’s commandments with expanded heart and unspeakable sweetness of love; so that never departing from His guidance and persevering in His doctrine in the monastery until death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ, and thus be found worthy to be coheirs with Him of His kingdom. Amen.”

The Rule of St Benedict (Part 1)

Since we just passed the feast of St Benedict, here is part of the prologue of his famous Rule, which his biographer St Gregory the Great described as “excellent for discretion and eloquent in style.”

Obsculta, o fili, præcepta magistri, et inclina aurem cordis tui et admonitionem pii patris libenter excipe et efficaciter conple, ut ad eum per oboedientiæ laborem redeas, a quo per inoboedientiæ desidiam recesseras. Ad te ergo nunc mihi sermo dirigitur, quisquis abrenuntians propriis voluntatibus, Domino Christo vero Regi militaturus oboedientiæ fortissima atque præclara arma sumis. In primis, ut quidquid agendum inchoas bonum, ab eo perfici instantissima oratione deposcas, ut qui nos iam in filiorum dignatus est numero conputare, non debet aliquando de malis actibus nostris contristari. Ita enim ei omni tempore de bonis suis in nobis parendum est ut non solum iratus pater suos non aliquando filios exheredet, sed nec ut metuendus dominus inritatus a malis nostris, ut nequissimos servos perpetuam tradat ad poenam qui eum sequi noluerint ad gloriam. Exurgamus ergo tandem aliquando excitante nos Scriptura ac dicente: Hora est iam nos de somno surgere, et apertis oculis nostris ad deificum lumen adtonitis auribus audiamus divina cotidie clamans quid nos admonet vox dicens: Hodie si vocem eius audieritis, nolite obdurare corda vestra. Et iterum: Qui habet aures audiendi audiat, quid Spiritus dicat ecclesiis. Et quid dicit? Venite, filii, audite me; timorem Dei docebo vos. Currite dum lumen vitæ habetis, ne tenebræ mortis vos conprehendant. Et quærens Dominus in multitudine populi cui hæc clamat operarium suum iterum dicit: Quis est homo qui vult vitam et cupit videre dies bonos? Quod si tu audiens respondeas: Ego, dicit tibi Deus: Si vis habere veram et perpetuam vitam, prohibe linguam tuam a malo et labia tua ne loquantur dolum; deverte a malo et fac bonum, inquire pacem et sequere eam. Et cum hæc feceritis, oculi mei super vos et aures meas ad preces vestras, et antequam me invocetis, dicam vobis: Ecce adsum. Quid dulcius ab hac voce Domini invitantis nos, fratres carissimi? Ecce pietate sua demonstrat nobis Dominus viam vitæ.

(St Benedict Delivering the Rule to His Monks; an illustration in a copy of the rule made at the abbey of St Giles in Nimes, France, in 1129. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Listen, my son, to the precepts of the master, and incline the ear of your heart, and cheerfully receive and faithfully execute the admonitions of your loving Father, that by the labor of obedience you may return to Him from you had departed by the sloth of disobedience. To you, therefore, my speech is now directed, whoever renounce your own desire, and take up the most mighty and excellent arms of obedience, to do battle for the Lord, Christ the true King. In the first place, beg of Him by most earnest prayer, that He perfect whatever good you begin, in order that He who has been pleased to count us in the number of His children, need never be grieved at our evil deeds. For we ought at all times so to serve Him with the good things which He has given us, that He may not, like an angry father, disinherit his children, nor, like a dread lord, enraged at our evil deeds, hand us over to everlasting punishment as most wicked servants, who would not follow Him to glory. Let us then rise at length, since the Scripture encourages us, saying, ‘It is now the hour for us to rise from sleep’, (Rom. 13, 11), and having opened our eyes to the deifying light, let us hear with awestruck ears what the divine voice, crying out daily, admonishes us, saying, ‘Today, if you shall hear his voice, harden not your hearts.’ (Ps. 94, 8). And again, ‘Let him that has ears to hear, hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches. (Apoc. 2, 7). And what does He say?, ‘Come, children, hear me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.’ (Ps. 33, 2). ‘Run whilst you have the light of life, that the darkness of death overtake you not.’ (John 12, 35). And the Lord, seeking His workman in the multitude of the people, to whom He proclaims these words, says again, ‘Who is the man that desireth life and loveth to see good days?’ (Ps. 33 13) And if hearing this you answer, ‘It is I,’ God says to you, ‘If you will have true and everlasting life, keep your tongue from evil, and ;et your lips not speak deceit; turn away from evil and do good; seek after peace and pursue it.’ (Ps. 33, 14-15). And when you shall have done these things, my eyes shall be upon you, and my ears unto your prayers. And before you shall call upon me I will say, ‘Behold, I am here.’ (Isa. 58, 9) What, dearest brethren, can be sweeter to us than this voice of the Lord inviting us? See, in His loving kindness, the Lord showeth us the way of life.

The Death of St Benedict

In the Byzantine tradition, Pope St Gregory I is given the epithet “Διάλογος – the Dialogist.” This comes from a collection of stories of the lives of Saints, several of whom were people he knew personally, titled “the Dialogues”, since it is cast as a conversation between Gregory himself and one of his deacons, named Peter. The second among four books is dedicated to St Benedict, whose feast day is traditionally kept on this day, the anniversary of his death in 547. In the mid-8th century, Pope St Zachary translated them into Greek, and they came one of the fairly few Latin patristic works to be quite widely diffused in the Eastern Roman Empire.

Here is an excerpt, the 36th and 37th chapters, in which St Gregory mentions the writing of the Rule, for the sake of which Benedict is known as the Father of western monasticism, and the story of his passing.

“… vir Dei inter tot miracula, quibus in mundo claruit, doctrinae quoque verbo non mediocriter fulsit. Nam scripsit monachorum regulam, discretione praecipuam, sermone luculentam. Cujus si quis velit subtilius mores vitamque cognoscere, potest in eadem institutione regulae omnes magisterii illius actus invenire: quia sanctus vir nullo modo potuit aliter docere quam vixit.

Eodem vero anno quo de hac vita erat exiturus, quibusdam discipulis secum conversantibus, quibusdam longe manentibus, sanctissimi sui obitus denuntiavit diem: praesentibus indicens ut audita per silentium tegerent; absentibus indicans quod vel quale eis signum fieret quando ejus anima de corpore exiret. Ante sextum vero sui exitus diem aperiri sibi sepulturam jubet. Qui mox correptus febribus, acri coepit ardore fatigari. Cumque per dies singulos languor ingravesceret, sexta die portari se in oratorium a discipulis fecit, ibique exitum suum dominici corporis et sanguinis perceptione munivit, atque inter discipulorum manus imbecillia membra sustentans, erectis in coelum manibus stetit, et ultimum spiritum inter verba orationis efflavit.

Qua scilicet die duobus de eo fratribus, uni in cella commoranti, alteri autem longius posito, revelatio unius atque indissimilis visionis apparuit. Viderunt namque quia strata palliis atque innumeris corusca lampadibus via recto orientis tramite ab ejus cella in coelum usque tendebatur. Cui venerando habitu vir desuper clarus assistens, cujus esset via quam cernerent, inquisivit. Illi autem se nescire professi sunt. Quibus ipse ait: Haec est via qua dilectus Domino coelum Benedictus ascendit. Tunc itaque sancti viri obitum sicut praesentes discipuli viderunt, ita absentes ex signo quod eis praedictum fuerat, agnoverunt.

(The Triumphal Way of St Benedict, by Johann Michael Rottmayr, 1722; fresco on the ceiling of Melk Abbey in Austria. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Uoaei1; CC BY-SA 3.0 AT)

… the man of God, amongst so many miracles for which he was famous in the world, was also outstanding in no small way for the word of his teaching. For he wrote a rule for his monks, which is excellent for discretion and eloquent in style. And if anyone should wish to know more detail about his character and life, he can find in the institution of that same rule all the acts of his teaching: since the holy man could in no way teach other than as he himself lived.

Now in the same year in which he was to depart from this life, he told the day of his most holy death to some of his disciples, some of whom lived with him, and some dwelt far off, enjoining those that were present to keep what they heard secret, and telling those that were absent what sign would take place when his soul should leave his body. And six days before his death, he ordered that his sepulcher be opened, and soon being taken with fever, he began to grow faint with burning heat. And when the sickness daily increased, on the sixth day, he had himself carried by his into the oratory, where he fortified himself for his departure by receiving the Lord’s Body and Blood; and holding up his weak members amid the hands of his disciples, he stood with his own lifted up to heaven, and in the middle of praying, breathed his last.

Now on that very day, the exact same vision of him was revealed to two of the brethren, one as he was staying in his cell, and the other far away. For they saw that a road hung with tapestries and shining with countless lamps stretched away towards the east, from his cell up to heaven, and at the top there stood a man, reverently attired, who asked whose way it was they beheld. But they professed that they did not, and he said to them, ‘This is the way by Benedict, beloved of God, ascended to heaven.’ Therefore, the disciples saw as if present the holy man’s death, and thus they who were absent, by the sign which had been foretold them, also knew of it.”

The Ides of March

March 15th, the Ides of March in the ancient Roman dating system, is of course the single most famous date in ancient Roman history, the day of Julius Caesar’s assassination. One of the great ironies of Roman history is that Caesar himself was one of the great rhetoricians of so-called Golden Age Latinity, but three of the most important primary accounts of his assassination are in Greek: those in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, and the Roman Histories of Appian and Cassio Dio. Here is Suetonius’ account from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars.

… diu cunctatus an se contineret et quae apud senatum proposuerat agere differret, tandem Decimo Bruto adhortante, ne frequentis ac iam dudum opperientis destitueret, quinta fere hora progressus est, libellumque insidiarum indicem ab obvio quodam porrectum libellis ceteris, quos sinistra manu tenebat, quasi mox lecturus commiscuit. Dein pluribus hostiis caesis, cum litare non posset, introiit curiam spreta religione Spurinnamque irridens et ut falsum arguens, quod sine ulla sua noxa Idus Martiae adessent: quanquam is venisse quidem eas diceret, sed non praeterisse.

Assidentem conspirati specie officii circumsteterunt, ilicoque Cimber Tillius, qui primas partes susceperat, quasi aliquid rogaturus propius accessit, renuentique et gestu in aliud tempus differenti ab utroque umero togam adprehendit: deinde clamantem, ‘ista quidem vis est!’ alter e Cascis aversum vulnerat paulum infra iugulum. Caesar Cascae brachium arreptum graphio traiecit conatusque prosilire alio vulnere tardatus est; utque animadvertit undique se strictis pugionibus peti, toga caput obvoluit, simul sinistra manu sinum ad ima crura deduxit, quo honestius caderet etiam inferiore corporis parte velata. Atque ita tribus et viginti plagis confossus est, uno modo ad primum ictum gemitu sine voce edito, etsi tradiderunt quidam Marco Bruto irruenti dixisse: καὶ σὺ τέκνον? Exanimis diffugientibus cunctis aliquamdiu iacuit, donec lecticae impositum, dependente brachio, tres servoli domum rettulerunt. Nec in tot vulneribus, ut Antistius medicus existimabat, letale ullum repertum est, nisi quod secundo loco in pectore acceperat.

 The Death of Caesar, by Vincenzo Camuccini, 1804 ca.; Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

… he hesitated for a long time whether to stay at home and put off what he had proposed to do in the senate; but at last, urged by Decimus Brutus not to disappoint the full meeting which had already been waiting for him for some time, he went forth at almost the fifth hour; and when a note revealing the plot was handed him by someone on the way, he put it with others which he held in his left hand, intending to read them presently. Then, after several victims had been slain, and he could not get favorable omens, he entered the curia in defiance of portents, mocking Spurinna and reproving him as a false prophet, because the Ides of March were come without bringing him harm; though Spurinna replied that they had indeed come, but not gone.

As he took his seat, the conspirators gathered about him as if to pay their respects, and straightway Tillius Cimber, who had assumed the lead, came nearer as though to ask something; and when Caesar with a gesture put him off to another time, Cimber caught his toga by both shoulders, then as Caesar cried, ‘Why, this is violence!’ one of the Cascas stabbed him from one side just below the throat. Caesar caught Casca’s arm and ran it through with his stylus, but as he tried to leap to his feet, he was stopped by another wound. When he realized that he was being attacked on every side by drawn daggers, he wrapped his head in his robe, and at the same time with his left hand he drew its lap down to his feet, in order to fall more decently, with the lower part of his body also covered. And thus was he stabbed with twenty-three wounds, with just one groan, but no word, uttered at the first stroke, though some have written that as Marcus Brutus rushed at him, he said (in Greek), ‘You too, child?’ As they all fled, he lay lifeless for some time, and finally three slaves put him on a litter and carried him home, with his arm hanging down. And among so many wounds, in the opinion of the doctor Antistius, none was found to be fatal, except the second one in the breast.


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