Last week, we noted the anniversary of the foundation of Constantinople on May 11th, 330 A.D., and saw the oldest surviving monument from the period of its founding, the column of Constantine. Over its long history as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, the city lost many of its early monuments to all kinds of vicissitudes, including a number of severe earthquakes. (The statue of Constantine which originally stood on top of his column was blown off by a storm.) One of the worst of these, however, was not a natural disaster, but a riot that broke out in January of 532 against the Emperor Justinian, who had become very unpopular for his tax policies, for his attempts at governmental and judicial reform, and an unsuccessful military campaign against Rome’s ancient enemy on her eastern border, Persia.
The riot broke out in the Hippodrome, the large chariot racing stadium next to the imperial palace. It is generally known as the “Nika” riot, a Greek imperative form that means “Conquer!”, since this was the chant of the crowd as they first assaulted the palace, and then spread out through the city, bringing mayhem to every corner of it. The ancient sources report that Justinian was tempted to flee the city, but dissuaded from doing so by his formidable wife Theodora. The riots were put down with such violence that 30,000 people are reported to have been killed.
(The site of the Hippodrome in Constantinople, now known as Sultanahmet Square. The two obelisks stood on the long wall down the middle around which the chariots ran. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Dennis Jarvis; CC BY-SA 2.0.)
When it was all over, about half the city, including the cathedral of Hagia Sophia, had been burnt down; the famous former church which is seen today is Justinian’s rebuilding of it. And indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that he had to rebuild so much of the New Rome that it might well have been given a new nickname, Justinianopolis. (This name was actually given to seventeen different places in the Eastern Empire.)
By 543, Justinian’s military fortunes had changed dramatically; although the campaign against Persia was still bogged down, the Byzantines had retaken North Africa from the Vandals, and were gaining ground in Italy, which meant the return of the Old Rome to the domain of the New. In keeping with the tradition of many earlier Emperors, and as part of his program of rebuilding the city, he set up a column to celebrate these victories in the Augustaeum, the large public piazza between the palace and Hagia Sophia.
Justinian’s column was clearly modelled on two similar columns that survive in Rome, those of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, and has the same basic arrangement of a large stepped pedestal, a column shaft, a platform and a statue. His differs, however, in that the shaft was made of brick, and the decorative frieze that ran up it in a spiral, showing the events of the military campaign which it celebrated, was made of bronze panels mounted onto the shaft. The platform at top was surmounted by an enormous bronze equestrian statue of the emperor, which appears to have been recycled from an earlier monument to one of the two earlier emperors named Theodosius.
The column survived intact even past the fall of the city to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, but in the 1420s, the orb in the statue’s hand fell off, which was seen as a harbinger of impending doom. It was of such tremendous height, 70 meters (230 feet) by some accounts, that it could be clearly seen from the sea, but since no one had seen the statue itself close up in so long, its identity had been forgotten, and it was often described as a statue of Constantine or some other emperor. Shortly after the Turkish conquest, the statue was taken down and broken; enormous fragments of it were still in the sultan’s palace in the 1540s, but these were later melted down to make canons. The column itself was taken down in 1515.
In Ireland, today is the feast of a Sainted monk named Brendan, who is traditionally said to have been born in Clonfert in the year 484, and to have died in 577 at the age of 94. He is sometimes called “the Younger” to distinguish him from another Brendan, of Birr, or “the Elder.” They were both disciples of St Finnian, the founder of one of the first abbeys in the country, Clonard, and belong to the group known as the Twelve Apostles of Ireland for their labors in the evangelizing the Irish. As with many of the early Irish Saints, the traditional stories of his life are regarded as historically unreliable. The most famous of these is that he and a group of companions sailed out into the Atlantic Ocean searched for “the Promised Land of the Saints,” or the Garden of Eden, and has given him the nickname by which he is more generally known, “the Navigator.” The account of the ensuing adventures, known as the “Navigatio Sancti Brendani”, was very popular, and over 100 manuscripts of it survive.
One of the stories in this account (chapter 10 and 11) involves a stop on an island which turns out to be a very unusual place indeed.
… Erat autem illa insula petrosa sine ulla herba. Silva rara erat ibi et in litore illius nihil de arena fuit. Porro pernoctantibus in orationibus et in vigiliis fratribus foras (de) navi vir Dei sedebat intus.
… Mane autem facto precepit sacerdotibus ut singuli missas cantasset et ita fecerunt. Cum ergo sanctus Brendanus et ipse cantasset missam in navi, ceperunt fratres crudas carnes portare foras de navi ut condidissent sale et etiam pisces quos secum tulerunt de alia insula. Cum haec fecissent posuerunt cacabum super ignem. Cum autem ministrassent lignis ignem et fervere cepisset cacabus, cepit illa insula se movere sicut unda. Fratres vero ceperunt currere ad navim deprecantes patrocinium sancti patris. At ille singulos per manus trahebat intus. Relictisque omnibus quae portabant in illam insulam ceperunt navigare.
Porro illa insula ferebatur in oceanum. … Sanctus Brendanus narravit fratribus quod hoc esset dicens, “Fratres, admiramini quod fecit haec insula?” Aiunt, “Admiramur valde, nec non et ingens pavor penetravit nos.” Qui dixit illis, “Filioli mei, nolite expavescere. Deus enim revelavit mihi hac nocte per visionem sacramentum hujus rei. Insula non est ubi fuimus sed piscis. Prior omnium natancium in oceano querit semper suam caudam ut simul jungat capiti et non potest pro longitudine quam habet, nomine Jasconius.”
… Now that island was rocky, and without any grass; there was a thin forest there, and no sand on the shore. But as the brothers passed the night in prayers and vigils off the ship, the man of God (i.e. Brendan) remained within it.
… In the morning, he commanded the priests that they should each sing Mass, and so they did. Therefore, when Saint Brendan himself had sung Mass in the ship, the brothers began to bring raw meat out of the ship to cure it with salt, and also the fish which they had brought with them from the other island. When they had done these things, they set a pot upon a fire, and when they had added wood to the fire and the pot began to grow hot, the island began to move itself like a wave. But the brothers began to run to the ship praying for the holy father’s protection. But he drew each one of them in by the hand, and leaving behind all of the things which they had brought onto that island, they began to sail.
Now the island was being carried out into the ocean … and Saint Brendan explained to the brothers what this was, saying, “Brothers, are you astonished at what this island did?” They said, “We are very much astonished, and the greatest fear has taken hold of us.” And he said to them, “My sons, do not be afraid, for God has revealed to me this night through a vision the mystery of this matter. It was not an island where we were, but a fish. Greater than all the things that swim in the ocean, it is always looking for its own tail so that it may join it to its head, and it cannot because it is so long, and its name is Jasconius.”
Two days ago, we marked the anniversary of the dedication of Constantinople in 330 AD as the “New Rome.” In the nearly 17 centuries that have passed since then, the city has undergone innumerable vicissitudes which have done tremendous damage to its monuments, and very little now remains from the days of Constantine himself. The most prominent and oldest surviving monument of his era is a large column which was built a few years before the dedication ceremony.
This was set up in a circular forum also named for him, which was part of the “Mese hodos – the middle way”, a great thoroughfare that ran through the new city from the imperial palace directly to a gate in the city walls. In the latter part of the 4th century, the Emperor Theodosius would build another forum along the Mese, likewise decorated with a column dedicated to himself, but even taller; this was demolished at the end of the 15th century.
The column of Constantine is made of several drums of porphyry, an Egyptian stone which is extremely heavy and hard, difficult to work with and to transport, but much prized by the Romans, since its color was the color of royalty. It stands on a large pedestal which is now buried beneath the level of the surrounding piazza, to a depth of about 8 feet. When it was first constructed, it supported a statue of the emperor; this remained in place for almost eight centuries, until it was knocked over in 1106 by a storm, which also brought down the top three drums of the column itself. The total original height is estimated at about 50 meters or 164 feet, which would make it taller than either of the similar columns in Rome, those of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius.
The monument was also damaged by two of the great fires that broke out in Constantinople in antiquity, one in 475, and another in 532, during the famous episode known as the Nika riots, in the wake of which much of the city had to be rebuilt. In 1779, it was blackened by another fire so notably that it came to be known as “the Burnt Pillar.” But well before then, the Ottomans had it reinforced by a cage of iron hoops to prevent it from collapsing, and the piazza in which it stands is now known as “Çemberlitaş”, Turkish work for “hooped stone.”
Sometime after the original statue was brought down, the Emperor Manuel Comnenos (1143-80) had it replaced with a Cross, which was removed by Turks after the taking of the city in 1453. Later Byzantine sources report that the statue itself had held an orb in its hand with a piece of the True Cross in it, and that several other relics were kept in a shrine at the base, including the crosses of the two thieves crucified with Christ, and (rather more improbably) the baskets used at the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, Mary Magdalene’s alabaster jar, plus (more improbably still) the ax of Noah and the staff of Moses. Likewise, it was also said to include the Palladium, a statute which the Romans believed had been brought from Troy to Italy by Aeneas himself. This was kept in the temple of Vesta in the Forum, and served as a protective talisman for the city. Although it is perfectly possible that Constantine could have moved such an object from the old Rome to the new, it is not known if he actually did so.
Today is the feast of two Roman Saints named Nereus and Achilleus. An inscription placed over their burial place by Pope St Damasus I (366-84) tells us that they were soldiers who were forced to participate in the persecution of the Christians, but threw away their weapons and armor, and were in turn martyred for the Faith. The date of their death is uncertain, and the various details later added to their story are considered legendary, but there can be no doubt of the authenticity of their martyrdom, or that their feast is very ancient. They were buried in part of the Christian cemetery complex now known as the Catacomb of Domitilla, about 1½ miles from the Aurelian Walls down the via Ardeatina. Pope Damasus built a small basilica on the grounds over this cemetery, and it was here that Pope St Gregory the Great preached his 28th homily.
Around 800 AD, Pope St Leo III built a church in honor of these Saints right next to the Baths of Caracalla. When Pope Clement VIII elevated the great Church historian Cesare Baronio, a priest of the Roman Oratory and close friend of its founder, St Philip Neri, to the rank of cardinal in 1596, he gave him this church as his cardinalitial title. Baronio immediately set about giving the building a much-needed top-to-bottomrestoration. At the time, it was mistakenly believed that this was this church in which St Gregory had preached the aforementioned homily, and the cardinal therefore had the full text of it carved onto the episcopal throne in the apse, where it can still be seen today.
Here is the conclusion as an excerpt which shows how beautifully St Gregory could write. If it seems very pessimistic about the state of the world, one must remember that Rome was in a terrible state after the Gothic wars of the sixth century, and he would have walked through roughly 2 miles of ruins to get to the place where he preached it. Assuming he took the shortest route from the Lateran, where the Popes lived at the time, he would have passed by at least one broken aqueduct, and abandoned bath complex, and a good many large but long-empty houses.
“Ecce mundus qui diligitur fugit. Sancti isti, ad quorum tumbam consistimus, florentem mundum mentis despectu calcaverunt. Erat vita longa, salus continua, opulentia in rebus, fecunditas in propagine, tranquillitas in diuturna pace; et tamen cum in seipso floreret, jam in eorum cordibus mundus aruerat. Ecce jam mundus in seipso aruit, et adhuc in cordibus nostris floret. Ubique mors, ubique luctus, ubique desolatio, undique percutimur, undique amaritudinibus replemur; et tamen caeca mente carnalis concupiscentiae ipsas ejus amaritudines amamus, fugientem sequimur, labenti inhaeremus. Et quia labentem retinere non possumus, cum ipso labimur, quem cadentem tenemus. Aliquando nos mundus delectatione sibi tenuit; nunc tantis plagis plenus est, ut ipse nos jam mundus mittat ad Deum. Pensate ergo quia nulla sunt quae temporaliter currunt. Finis temporalium ostendit quam nihil sit quod transire potuit. Casus rerum indicat quia res transiens et tunc prope nihil fuit cum stare videretur. Haec ergo, fratres charissimi, sollicita consideratione pensate, in aeternitatis amore cor figite; ut dum terrena culmina adipisci contemnitis, perveniatis ad gloriam, quem per fidem tenetis, per Jesum Christum Dominum nostrum, qui vivit et regnat Deus cum Patre in unitate Spiritus sancti, per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen.
Behold, this world which is loved flees away. These saints at whose grave we stand trampled the flourishing world with contempt. They had long life, continual health, material riches, many children, tranquility in long-lasting peace, and yet, though it flourishing in itself, this world had already withered in their hearts. Behold, now this world is withered in itself, and still, it flourishes in our hearts. Everywhere is death, everywhere mourning, everywhere desolation; on all sides we are struck, on all sides we are filled with bitterness; and yet, in the blindness of our mind, we love the very bitterness tasted of fleshly desire, we pursue what flees, we cling to what falls. And since we cannot hold onto that which falls, we fall with what we hold onto. Once, the world captivated us for itself with its delight; now it is now full of such misfortunes that already it sends us back to God, Consider, therefore, that what happens in time does not count. For the end of all temporal things shows how meaningless is that which can pass away. The collapse of things shows us that something which passes away were almost nothing, even when it seemed to stand firm. Dearest brothers, think of these things with careful consideration; fix your hearts in the love of eternity; so that, while you disdain to reach the heights of earth, you may come to that glory which you hold by faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is God, and lives and reigns with the Father in unity of the Holy Spirit, through all the ages of ages. Amen.”
On this day in 330 AD, the emperor Constantine presided over the dedication of a new capital of the Roman Empire, after six years of building on the site of the ancient city of Byzantium. Herodotus places the founding of Byzantium in 656 B.C., and in 334 AD, Constantine also presided over celebrations of its millennial anniversary; this indicates that he did not view his new city as a complete erasure of the old one, and indeed, its older name never dropped out of use. But of course, it was as “Constantine’s city – Constantinople” that it would become one of the greatest cities of human civilization, although its official name was always “New Rome.” It would continue as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire until its fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, and remains the spiritual capital, so to speak, of Orthodox Christianity to this day.
Much has been written and debated as to why exactly Constantine felt the need to create a new capital at all, but some things seem very certain. Despite its prestige and antiquity (which were in many ways synonymous concepts for the ancient Romans), the old Rome was no longer the empire’s political center of gravity. And indeed, in the period of the Tetrarchy which preceded Constantine’s accession to the throne, the emperors often kept their capitals elsewhere. Byzantium had never served in this role, but had the advantage of being a Mediterranean port with access to the Black Sea, and the crossing of major roads running both East and West, by which an emperor could quickly reach the frontiers of either the Danube in Europe or the Euphrates in Asia.
Historians have often represented the founding of New Rome as Constantine’s project to recreate the ancient capital as a purely Christian city. This is unquestionably an exaggeration, although one which has unfortunately driven other historians to the opposite exaggeration, the complete denial of his Christian faith. Constantine unquestionably favored Christianity, granting it a privileged status and acting as its benefactor in a way which is not true of any other religion.
(A coin minted in 330AD to commemorate the founding of Constantinople; the image of Romulus and Remus being nursed by the she-wolf on the reverse is clearly a sign of continuity between the new and old Rome. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Ancientcointraders, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Last week, we saw a bit of the novelist Evelyn Waugh’s treatment of the discovery of the True Cross by Constantine’s mother, St Helena. Here is how he imagines the emperor’s decision to found the new city.
“ ‘Take the place,’ said Constantine to Pope Sylvester. ‘It’s all yours. I am leaving and I shan’t come back – ever. When the time comes my sarcophagus … must lie in Christian surroundings. Rome is heathen and always will be. Yes, I know, you’ve got the tombs of Peter and Paul. I hope I have not shown myself insensible to that distinction. (This refers to his construction of the first Christian basilicas over the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul.) But why are they here? Simply because the Romans murdered them That’s the plain truth. Why, they even thought of murdering me. It’s an ungodly place, your holiness, and you’re welcome to it.
One must start something new. I’ve got the site, very central; it will make a sublime port. (This is a pun on one of Constantinople’s many nicknames, ‘the Sublime Port.’) The plans are drawn. Work will start at once on a great Christian capital, in the very centre of Christendom; a city built round two great new Churches dedicated to – what do you think? – Wisdom and Peace. (Constantine did in fact build a church dedicated to Holy Peace as the new city’s cathedral, but the first Holy Wisdom, or ‘Hagia Sophia’ was built by his son.) … You can have your old Rome, Holy Father, with its Peter and Paul and its tunnels full of martyrs. We start with no unpleasant associations;” …
“Unpleasant associations are the seed of the Church,” said Pope Sylvester. (Another pun, on a famous saying of the Christian writer Tertullian, that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”)
(The column of Constantine, built in 328 AD, and dedicated along with the rest of New Rome on May 11, 330; this is the oldest monument that survives in the city from the era of Constantine himself. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Dmitry A. Mottl, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Today is the feast of St Antoninus, a Dominican friar who became archbishop of Florence in 1446, and died in that office in 1459. He was born in Florence in 1389, and christened “Antonio”, but because of his small stature, was always known by the diminutive form “Antonino.”
The bull of his canonization, issued by Pope Adrian VI in 1523, tells the story of a prodigious feat of memory which gained him admission to the scholarly Dominican Order at a very young age. This excerpt, which is partly paraphrased from the original bull, was formerly incorporated into the Dominican Divine Office, and is a nice example of the extremely high quality of late Renaissance Latinity.
“Cum annum decimum tertium agens, beatus Antoninus Ordinis Praedicatorum habitum in conventu Faesulano summa humilitate deposceret, ob teneriorem aetatem, exilemque corporis formam, ferendo Religionis jugo impar est habitus. Verum ne pii adolescentis animum aperta praecipitique repulsa Prior offenderet, quaesito specioso diverticulo repondit, facturum se pro votis, cum universum Decretum, cui jam tunc studebat, memoriae commendasset. Responsa bona fide accepto, Decretorum lectioni totis viribus coepit incumbere, tantumque assidua lectione sedulaque oratione profecit, ut ejusdem anni spatio, Decretum integrum memoriae mandaverit; quod prae sui magnitudine, tam brevi tempore a quoquam vix legi potest. Priorem Faesulanum, subinde convenit, enixe rogans ut expleta conditione, promissi fidem liberaret. Qui facto memoriae periculo, reique veritate comperta, totum miraculo ducens, divino numine vocatum juvenem intellexit, eundumque ad habitum religionis admisit.”
“When in his thirteenth year, the blessed Antoninus asked with the greatest humility for the habit of the Order of Preachers in the house at Fiesole, because of his excessively tender age and slightness of body, he was deemed unequal to bearing the yoke of religious life. However, so as not to offend the devout young man’s spirit with a flat-out and hasty refusal, the prior (Bl. John Dominici, whose biography Antoninus would later write) answered his request by putting him off with a jest, saying that he would do as the boy wanted, when he had memorized the whole of the Decretals, which he was already studying. (This means the Decretum of Gratian, the collection which formed the basis of all medieval canon law.) Taking this answer seriously, (Antoninus) began to devote himself with all his strength to the reading of the Decretals, and made such progress with frequent reading and persistent prayer that in the space of that same year, he committed to memory the whole of a text which for its size, one could hardly read in so short a time. (This is a rhetorical exaggerationm but not by much.) He then met with the prior at Fiesole, earnestly requesting that he respect his promise, since he had fulfilled the condition. And when the prior had tested his memory, and learned the truth of the matter, attributing the whole thing to a miracle, he understood that the young man was called by divine inspiration, and admitted him to the religious habit.”
(The first page of the Decretum Gratiani which St Antoninus had to memorize, from a manuscript of the later 12th century which runs to about 600 pages. Public domain image from the website of the Bibliothèque National de France.)
On the liturgical calendar of the usus antiquior, today is the feast of the bishop St Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the most important theologians of the fourth century. He, his close friend St Basil the Great, and Basil’s younger brother, St Gregory of Nyssa, are collectively known as the Cappadocian Fathers, after the region of east-central Asia Minor from which they came, and where they held their respective episcopal sees. Since 1568, he and Basil have been formally recognized as Doctors of the Church in the West.
When he was in his early 40s, under strong pressure from St Basil, he accepted appointment as bishop of a very small town called Sasima, and then of his native place, Nazianzus, but this office was not at all congenial to him, and the appointment was the cause of no small friction between the two friends. As soon as he was able, he retired to a monastery far from either place at Seleucia, on the southern coast of Asia Minor, and took up a quiet life of contemplation and writing. However, in 378, the Emperor Valens, an enthusiastic supporter of the Arian heresy, died, and was succeeded by the orthodox Theodosius. The imperial capital had not had an orthodox bishop in 50 years, and Gregory was persuaded to go there, not to be bishop of the city, but to lead a restoration of the orthodox faith, almost as a private citizen. His work there was met with much opposition, but nevertheless bore very great fruit, such that he was able to withdraw after only a few years, and return to a purely contemplative life. He died about seven years later in 390, at the age of roughly 60.
One of his students during his time in Constantinople was St Jerome. Despite the well-known irascibility of the latter, and Gregory’s peaceable temperament, there is no evidence of any conflict between them, and Jerome always speaks well of him, referring to him as “vir eloquentissimus.” In the Apology Against Rufinus, he writes:
“Numquid in illa epistola Gregorium virum eloquentissimum non potui nominare? Quis apud Latinos par sui est? quo ego magistro glorior et exsulto. – Could I fail to mention in that letter the most eloquent Gregory? Who among the Latins is his equal? And I boast and rejoice that he was my teacher!”
Jerome’s book On Illustrious Men is a collection of notices of important figures in the history of the Church from its beginning to his own time, mostly notable writers. They are very brief, many no more than a single sentence; subtracting the nine Biblical personages at the beginning, they average about 70 words each. It is therefore significant that he devotes more space than typical to his teacher.
“Gregorius, primum Sasimorum, deinde Nazianzenus episcopus, vir eloquentissimus, praeceptor meus, quo Scripturas explanante, didici, ad triginta millia versuum omnia opera sua composuit. … vivoque se episcopum in loco suo ordinans, ruri vitam monachi exercuit. Decessitque ante hoc ferme triennium sub Theodosio principe.
Gregory, bishop first of Sasima, then of Nazianzus, a most eloquent man, and my teacher, from whose explanations I learned the Scriptures, composed works amounting in all to thirty thousand lines, among which are (there follows a list of his more signigficant works, and a mention of a rhetorician whose style Gregory followed). While he was still alive, he ordained his successor in the bishopric, and lived the life as a monk in the country, and died about three years ago in the reign of Theodosius.”
(A twelfth century manuscript of the homilies of St Gregory of Nazianus; Public domain image from the website of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, ms. gr. 550)
Today is the anniversary of the death in 1631 of Sir Robert Cotton, the creator of a famous and very important collection of books and manuscripts. On Wednesday, we described the arrangement of the collection, and how the items were given call numbers based on the busts of the Roman emperors mounted above the bookcases. So today, we’ll have a quick look at some of the more noteworthy treasures from this collection, going by order of the emperors after whom they are named.
The Julius Work Calendar – the oldest known calendar in England, written ca. 1020 at Canterbury Cathedral.
A portfolio (Augustus ii) of Anglo-Saxon charters and a few medieval ones, including one of the collection’s two original copies of the Magna Charta.
Tiberius A ii, a Gospel book copied out ca. 800 AD., believed to have been given by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great (936-62) to the Anglo-Saxon king Athelstan (924-39), who in turn presented it to the priory of Canterbury Cathedral.
Caligula A vi, one of only two complete manuscripts of the Heliand. This is a paraphrase of the Gospels, composed in the first half of the 9th century, in the language of the Saxons as a way of evangelizing them, by translating the life of Christ into cultural terms which they would be able to understand and accept. The manuscript itself is from the second half of the 10th century.
Claudius C vii, the Utrecht Psalter, a mid-9th century illuminated manuscript considered to be one of the masterpieces of Carolingian art, with over 160 illustrations, one for each psalm or canticle. Produced on the Continent, it came to Canterbury Cathedral ca. 1000. This is one of the fairly few items to permanently leave the Cotton Collection; it is now at the University of Utrecht in Holland.
Nero A x, the only surviving copy of the works of the anonymous writer of the late 14th century known as the Pearl Poet, with his poems Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and two lesser-known pieces, Patience and Cleanness. Also within the Nero section are the Lindisfarne Gospels (D iv), made ca. 720 AD at the monastery of Lindisfarne, one of the finest illuminated manuscripts of its period, and one of the oldest items in the collection. In the 10th century, a priest named Aldred at a monastery in Chester which then possessed the book added between the lines an Old English translation, which is the oldest known version of the Gospels in English.
(As an aside, the dissolution of the English monasteries was a catastrophe for the vernacular literature of pre-Reformation England. Had it not been for Sir Robert Cotton gathering them into his collection, many of these works might well have been lost forever.)
Vitellius A xv, also known as the Nowell Codex, ca. 1010, the only surviving copy of the Old English epic poem Beowulf.
The Vespasian Psalter (A i), an Anglo-Saxon illuminated manuscript ca. 765 AD, which contains an interlinear Old English translation, the oldest surviving English version of any part of the Bible, and the oldest surviving illuminated manuscript from the southern part of Anglo-Saxon England.
In 1731, the house where the collection was temporarily stored was destroyed by fire. Among the most badly damaged items was a manuscript known as the Cotton Genesis (Otho B vi), a Greek manuscript of the Biblical book produced in the 4th or 5th century, with about 350 illustrations, of which there now survive 18 fragments. Many of the images are preserved in a 17th century copy now in the National Library of France in Paris.
(One of the surviving fragments of the Cotton Genesis, part of a folio which showed the meeting of Abraham and the three angels in chapter 18. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
VSI is very grateful to Fr Brian Becker, pastor of St. Margaret Mary’s Church in Swannanoa, North Carolina, and Vocations Promoter for the Diocese of Charlotte, for his kind permission to share this video of the Mass celebrated at his church this past Sunday. The subject of his homily, which begins at 29:20, is the use of Latin and chant in the liturgy, and he makes several excellent points on this topic: that it is the will of the Church, as expressed by the Second Vatican Council (and also in St John XXIII’s Veterum Sapientia) that Latin continue to be used as the sacred language of the Roman Rite; that it provides both a bond of unity among all Catholics who use that rite, and ensures the purity and stability of the Church’s teaching; that its unchanging character guarantees that a prayer composed in, say, the 4th century (he specifically refers to the Creed), means the same thing now that it did when it was first used, a bond of unity between ages as well as places. He also speaks of how the beauty of Gregorian chant is perfectly fitting for the sacred rites. We would encourage you to listen to the whole homily, and share it with others – feliciter!
I recently illustrated an article with an image of a manuscript in the British Library which is designated as “Cotton Vesp. d. xii.” The “Vesp.” here stands for the name of the Roman emperor Vespasian, for a rather interesting reason, connected to the collection from which it originally came.
When King Henry VIII of England dissolved the monasteries and religious houses of his realm in the 1530s, the contents of their libraries were metaphorically (and perhaps in some cases also literally) scattered to the winds. Later in that same century, a lesser nobleman and member of Parliament named Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631) began collecting these ancient books and manuscripts, many of which had come to the English nobility along with the former monastic properties, but whose new owners had no idea of their contents or significance. Once Sir Robert’s interest in book-collecting became known, many people either willed or sold their collections to him; his library quickly came to outrank in both size and importance the royal collection and those of several other old institutions. His house was located quite close to Parliament, and the library became a gathering place for both scholars and men in government.
Sir Robert organized his library first by bookcase, then by shelf, and lastly by position on the shelf. Each of his bookcases was surmounted by a bust of a figure from ancient Roman history: the twelve emperors from Julius Caesar to Domitian, plus Cleopatra, and Faustina, the wife of Antoninus Pius. Thus, the designation “Vesp. d. xii” means “the twelfth book (from the left) on the fourth shelf down, under the bust of Vespasian.”
The original library building no longer exists, and the much larger modern Houses of Parliament now stand in part on the site of it. Likewise, it appears that the original busts and bookcases are also lost. More additions were made to the collection by Sir Robert’s son and heir, Thomas, and by his son John; the latter, shortly before his death in 1702, bequeathed it in its entirety to the nation, on condition that it not be dispersed, and remain publicly accessible. The building itself, however, was in very poor condition, and in 1706, the collection was moved temporarily to nearby Ashburnham House. In 1731, a fire broke out in this building, which entailed the loss of 13 of the Cotton manuscripts, and damage from either fire or water to more than 200 others.
Subsequently, the Cotton library and two others, the Sloane and Harley Collections, were transferred to the new British Museum, shortly after its establishment in 1753, followed by the donation of the royal library in 1757. In 1973, the library holding of the British Museum were formally separated as the British Library. Despite all these vicissitudes, with the classic British love for custom, one of that nation’s most admirable traits, the British Library still to this day uses the original call numbers of the Cotton Collection.
Friday is the anniversary of Sir Robert’s death, so we will write then about specific items of interest in his collection. Since we don’t have the original busts from the library, here is one of the man himself in the British Library.
VSI is very grateful to Fr Brian Becker, pastor of St. Margaret Mary’s Church in Swannanoa, North Carolina, and Vocations Promoter for the Diocese of