Liturgy in Service of Imperial Authority

As an integral part of the Church ritual, liturgical hymns provide what is possibly the most effective means of communicating dogmatic truths and conveying ethical ideals to the congregation. Combining words and music, hymns can produce a strong impression upon the minds of the faithful and play an important role in their spiritual edification. However, it would not be correct to assume that their content is exclusively spiritual. Rather, due to a specific relationship between the state and the church in the Eastern Roman Empire, better known as Byzantium (330-1453), it is not surprising that liturgical hymns contain many references to the emperor. In the aftermath of the legalisation of Christianity with the issuance of the Edict of Milan in 313 CE, and especially when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 CE, the liturgy was regularly used to support imperial authority.

The promulgation of the Edict of Milan and the conversion of the emperor Constantine the Great (d. 337) to Christianity completely changed the position of the Church in the empire. After a period of persecutions, the Church became the second most important pillar of society, with the imperial power being the first. Especially important for the construction of this new reality was the production of the discourse surrounding Constantine’s conversion. This discourse was based on the cross, the supreme Christian symbol, and on several prominent Old Testament leaders of the chosen people, especially Moses, David, and later Joshua. The contribution of Eusebius (d. 339), sometimes characterised as “court theologian,” to the creation and dissemination of this discourse was enormous, and this laid the foundation for what would be later known as a ‘symphony’ or the harmonious coexistence of state and church.

The cross, initially understood as a symbol of Christ’s victory over the Devil and death, became closely related to the emperor and transformed into a symbol of imperial victories and prosperity of the empire with divine assistance after Constantine’s victory under that sign against Maxentius (Eusebius, VC 1.27-39).

The Vision of the Cross. Apostolic Palace, Vatican. Circle of Raphael (1520-1524).

This idea, after being developed in various literary genres, especially panegyrics, found its way into liturgical hymns. Hymnographers frequently eulogise the cross as a powerful weapon, which brings victories to the emperor and secures peace in the empire. Liturgical hymns for the Exaltation of the True Cross (14 September), the central annual feast of the cross in the Byzantine tradition, repeatedly stress not only the spiritual dimension of the cross in Christian life but also its military and triumphant functions. The best example is probably the apolytikion, as the main celebratory hymn for each feast is called, for the feast of the Exaltation: “O Lord, save your people and bless your inheritance, grant victory to the emperor against the barbarians, and guard your empire through your cross” (Festal Menaion, September 14). The hymn strongly emphasises the close interrelation between the cross, the empire and the church community. The community prays to God to save and protect the subjects of the empire through his cross, which secures imperial victories against the barbarian enemies (cf. Demacopoulos, 123). Similar references to the cross abound in hymns for this feast. However, for this occasion I will include only two more examples, both taken from an unpublished hymn attributed to Germanos I, Patriarch of Constantinople (d. 740), and preserved in an eleventh-century manuscript from the collection of Mount Sinai. The first one reads as follows:

“We pray, grant to the most pious emperor your power, through your life-giving cross, O Christ; he boasts about you and, placing his hopes in you, will be saved.”

Sinait. gr. 552, f. 129

In the second one, the invocation of the cross’s might is not phrased in generic terms; rather, the hymnographer makes specific references to the power of the cross against the Arab Muslims.

“Let us bow before the wood of the Cross, which provides the power to the most pious emperor against enemies, and subjects to him the foolish offspring of Hagar.”

Sinait. gr. 552, f. 128v

The cited example shows how a reference to the cross becomes part of inter-religious polemics. The author praises the cross as a source of power for the emperor to defeat his foes who are denoted as descendants of Hagar. The word “Hagarenes”, designating the offspring of Abraham’s slave Hagar in its biblical usage (Gen. 16; Chr. 5:19, and Ps. 82:7), was commonly employed by Christian authors to denote the Arabs both before and after the appearance of Islam, as they were believed to be the offshoot of Hagar’s son Ishmael.

In Byzantium, the emperor was also frequently related to distinguished Old Testament figures, especially to prominent leaders of the Israelites. Byzantine rhetorical treatises, such as the tenth-century On the Eight Parts of Rhetorical Speech, provide clear instructions to panegyrists to compare the emperor with Moses, David and Joshua the son of Nun. This practice gradually found its way to liturgical hymns. The aforementioned manuscript from the Mount Sinai collection transmits a hymn for the annual celebration of Joshua the son of Nun. Intriguingly, in the Christian tradition of the first millennium, Joshua was rarely regarded as a model warrior or related to the emperor. This perception changed from the ninth century onwards, especially at the time when Byzantine emperors attempted to recapture Palestine from the Arabs.

Joshua. Hosios Loukas Monastery, Greece, 11th c.

Having as the point of departure Joshua’s accomplishments and military exploits against the Amalekites, and especially the narrative that he led the Israelites into the Promised Land (Joshua 3:1-14), the author of the hymn from the Sinai manuscript puts Joshua’s leadership and military exploits in the foreground, directly associating him with the emperor.  Thus in one of the stanzas, the poet appeals to God as follows:

“You who were fellow-general of your servant Joshua against his opponents in the past, now in a similar way be fellow-general of the emperors against [their] enemies.”

Sinait. gr. 552, f. 11

There is little doubt that this and other references to Joshua need to be seen within the broader historical context of the Middle Byzantine period, especially in relation to the Byzantine-Arab wars during the reign of the emperors from the Macedonian dynasty (867-1056) who sought to return Palestine to Byzantine control. Joshua’s leadership skills and military prowess, which he demonstrated in warfare against the native population of the Promised Land, became a source of inspiration for Byzantine authors and artists during the same period. As a result, visual representations of Joshua appear with some frequency in monumental painting and on portable objects produced during the so-called Macedonian Renaissance.

The Joshua Roll, 10th century, Tempera and gold on vellum, Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Pal. gr. 431.

Hymnographic texts, addressed to a wide audience, could also be effectively mobilised to reinforce imperial authority among imperial subjects. Even more so when a good opportunity was available, as in the present case, namely on the feast day of one of the most prominent leaders of God’s chosen people. Since the Byzantines regarded themselves as the New Israel, with the pious emperor as their leader comparable to the Old Testament leaders, the author of the kanon exploited this to relate the emperor to Joshua. In this respect, the hymn can be compared to other genres of Byzantine literature whose main purpose was to glorify the emperor.

Scenes from an Ivory Casket with Scenes of the Story of Joshua, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (10th c.).

As a conclusion, it can be said that the New Testament commandment to pray for those in power (1 Tim 2: 1-2) from the time of Constantine developed into the concept that the emperor is the chief protector of the church and orthodoxy and has to be glorified in liturgy. In addition, imperial success in wars against those of a different religion was understood as a guarantee for the freedom of the Christian faith in the empire. Moreover, by comparing the warfare between the Eastern Roman Empire and their enemies, particularly against the Persians and Arabs, with the wars that the biblical chosen people of ancient Israel waged against the Amalekites, Byzantine authors situated those wars within the biblical context attaching a sacred character to them. In that way, the Byzantines became the New Israel, and their emperors were understood as the successors of the Israelite leaders. Consequently, their inclusion in liturgical texts and the ritual was considered legitimate.

Kosta Simic
Byzantine Postdoctoral Fellow, Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame (2021-2022)

Further Reading:

Eusebios, Eusebius Werke I. Über das Leben Constantins. Constantins Rede an die Heilige Versammlung. Tricennatsrede an Constantin, GCS 7, edited by I. A. Heikel, Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs’sche Buchhandlung, 1902. English translation: Life of Constantine, trans. A. Cameron and S. Hall, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.

Demacopoulos, George. “The Eusebian Valorization of Violence and Constantine’s Wars for God”. In Constantine: Religious Faith and Imperial Policy, edited by Edward Siecienski, 115-128. London: Routledge, 2017.

Schapiro, Meyer. “The Place of the Joshua Roll in Byzantine History,” Gazette des beaux-arts 35 (1949) 161–176.

Rapp, Claudia. “Old Testament Models for Emperors in Early Byzantium”. In The Old Testament in Byzantium, edited by P. Magdalino and R. Nelson, 175-197. Washington: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections, 2010.

Simic, Kosta. “Remembering the Damned. Byzantine Liturgical Hymns as Instruments of Religious Polemics”. In Memories of Utopia: The Revision of Histories and Landscapes in Late Antiquity, edited by Bronwen Neil and Kosta Simic, 156-170. London: Routledge, 2020.

The Festal Menaion, trans. Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, London: Faber and Faber, 1969.

Thierry, Nicole. “Le culte de la croix dans l’empire byzantine du VIIe siècle au Xe dans les rapports avec la guerre contre l’infidèle”. Rivista di studi bizantini e slavi 1 (1980/81) 205-228.

The Bible, or Reading the Bible? The Authority of Lay Religious Teachers in Fifteenth-Century Germany

In his 1479 printed Beichtspiegel (Mirror for Confession), lay barber and Meistersinger Han Folz of Nuremberg used rhyming verse to teach his readers about the triangle of rew, beicht, buß (contrition, confession, penance); the dangers of purgatory; and above all, the seemingly endless numerical lists of vices and virtues that so characterized fifteenth-century religious literature. [1] There was no need to limit oneself to the seven deadly sins and seven cardinal virtues when there were also four sins that cry to heaven (one of which is, however, the silent sin), six sins against the Holy Spirit, and nine alien sins.

By 1479, a wealthy, prominent, and educated burgher like Folz evidently had little to fear from widely disseminating orthodox religious writing in the vernacular to instruct other laity. Indeed, while he printed the original Beichtspiegel himself, the text was later printed in an anthology alongside didactic literature by clerical authors. Nevertheless, the lack of authority of office led him to ground his authority throughout the Beichtspiegel via textual citation. More specifically, via a single type of citation. Folz cites “Levitici am vierundzweinzigisten capitel” (Leviticus 24); he cites “quarto Regum quinto” (4 Kings 5); he cites “Luce sedecimo” (Luke 16). [2] Throughout the entire Beichtspiegel, almost all of his citations take the same form, and without exception they come from the same source: the Bible.

Initial of the book of Genesis in the Wenceslas Bible (also known as the Bible of Wenceslaus IV); Vienna, Austrian National Library, Codex 2759–64 (1389 CE).

It was not for lack of knowledge of other religious texts. Folz’s Latin was good enough for him to accomplish two different translations of the Life of Adam and Eve, and his immense corpus of surviving poetry, songs, and Carnival plays reveals an extensive familiarity with the more theoretical or theological ideas that lay beneath the “mass market” Christianity of his day. [3] Furthermore, in his medical texts, Folz shows he understands the utility of citing earlier authorities through his references to Galen, Avicenna—and Augustine. [4] In the Beichtspiegel, his decision to rely solely on the Word of God as authority was indeed a decision.

Das wort gottes could be rallying cry of the Reformation because the late Middle Ages got there first. The Bible’s position as the focus of lay arguments in favor of the early Protestant movement, we have long known, was rooted in its already-existing popularity in lay religious life, not its absence. [5] In addition to the enormous amount of [[vernacular biblical material available to lay readers]], pastoral care manuals and priests’ prefaces to Bible translations emphasized the need to make scripture accessible to the laity.

Sandra Corbellini has noted a second important emphasis in pastoral texts encouraging lay Bible use: the act of reading scripture—independent of the specific contents—as an act of peri-mystical devotion reminiscent of monastic meditatio. One of the fifteenth century’s most influential preachers, Bernardino of Siena, preached that “the more you read and study [the Bible], the more sweetness you get, the more you feel the taste of God. If you try it, you will know; otherwise not.” [6]

No matter how rhythmic Folz’s verse (not really at all) or how perfect his rhymes (very imperfect), it is undeniable that his rote lists of sins and virtues put one in the mindset of learning facts, not the prayerful devotion Bernardino suggests. However, popular teaching’s legitimization of the act of reading scripture from the act of learning from reading scripture had its parallel at the more learned level, too.

Ian Christopher Levy’s aptly named Holy Scripture and the Quest for Authority at the End of the Middle Ages shows how the theological debates of the turbulent period between 1370 and 1430 so often turned on the question of who had the authority to determine what constituted a correct—therefore authoritative—interpretation of scripture.[7] The act of correct reading, separate from the interpretation itself, was important enough to be its own flashpoint for debate and worse. The act of reading was inseparable from the determination of authority.

The opening of the Ottheinrich Bible, the earliest surviving illustrated manuscript of the New Testament in the German language, commissioned by Ludwig VII, Duke of Bavaria-Ingolstadt; Munich, Bavarian State Library, Cgm 8010, p.2 (c. 1430 CE).

In that light, the specific method by which Folz cites the Bible merits attention. With the exception of a couple of places where Folz refers briefly to a Bible story to illustrate his point, all biblical references take the same full form: book and chapter. (Verses were not regularly numbered and used until far later.) His citations are purposeful citations of the Bible as a book, not just a text.

Folz, moreover, is not the only fifteenth-century German layman to seek this association. 1460s-era lay apocalyptic prophets Livin and Johannes Wirsberger of Egerland were exquisitely aware of the precariousness of their position, given the dark fears of the devil corrupting ignorant lay people into proclaiming false prophecies. Their few surviving letters feature insistent deferrals to the Church as the ultimate judge of true and false messages, but also their authority to write anyway. [8] One favorite tactic? The citation of scripture by book and chapter.

Folz and to some extent the Wirsbergers direct their readers’ attention to the Bible as a book—inseparable from directing readers’ attention to the authors’ familiarity with the Bible as a book. They seem to signal not just their religious knowledge, but the fact that they are able to access it through reading the Bible.

The possibility that religious authority could lie in the act of reading scripture raises questions about the relationship of laity and clergy, and just as importantly, public perception of “clergy” and/versus “lay” in the realm of popular, vernacular religious teaching. In an era filled with das wort gottes and significantly increasing urban literacy rates, further investigation will hopefully help illuminate intersections between contemporary religious culture, benefit of clergy, and—yes—a priesthood of quite a few additional believers.

Cait Stevenson
PhD in History
University of Notre Dame

[1] Hans Folz, “Beichtspiegel,” in Hans Folz: Die Reimpaarsprüche, ed. Hanns Fischer (Beck, 1961), 188-210.

[2] Folz, 195 (4 Kings 5); 202 (Leviticus 24);204 (Luke 16).

[3] See, for example, John D. Martin, “Dramatized Disputations: Late Medieval German Dramatizations of Jewish-Christian Religious Disputations, Church Policy, and Local Social Climates,” Medieval Encounters 8, no. 2–3 (2002): 209–27.

[4] Folz, “Pestregimen in Versen,” in Fischer, 412-428; “Pestregimen in Prosa,” in Fischer, 429-437.

[5] Although research on the use of the Bible in German-speaking lands has generally lagged behind studies in other regions, Anthony Gow’s work offers an excellent introduction to the medieval situation as well as briefly touching on earlier scholarly efforts: Gow, “Challenging the Protestant Paradigm: Bible Reading in Lay and Urban Contexts of the Later Middle Ages,” in Scripture and Pluralism: Reading the Bible in the Religiously Plural Worlds of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, ed. Thomas J. Heffernan and Thomas E. Burman (Brill, 2005), 161-191.

[6] Translated in Sandra Corbellini, “Instructing the Soul, Feeding the Spirit, and Awakening the Passion: Holy Writ and Lay Readers in Late Medieval Europe,” in Shaping the Bible in the Reformation: Books, Scholars, and their Readers in the Sixteenth Century, ed. Bruce Gordon and Matthew McLean (Brill, 2012), 24.

[7] Ian Christopher Levy, Holy Scripture and the Quest for Authority at the End of the Middle Ages (University of Notre Dame Press, 2012), xi.

[8] Frances Courtney Kneupper, The Empire at the End of Time: Identity and Reform in Late Medieval German Prophecy (Oxford, 2016), 115, translates: “Thus should you act justly in your reason and take to heart what the lords Matthew in 23, Mark 13, and Luke 21 all say.”

Is It Secret; Is It Safe?: Lessons from Margery Kempe

Margery Kempe did not like to talk about her visions.

That’s an odd thing to say about England’s queen of performative piety, who took her white clothing and loud wailing on intercontinental tour. It’s an even stranger thing to say about possibly England’s most famous medieval visionary.

Indeed, Kempe’s revelations and auditions fill a substantial number of chapters in the fifteenth-century Book of Margery Kempe, an anthology of internal religious experiences and external adventures in the life of an eclectic laywoman. (The text claims to be dictated by the protagonist herself; I will be speaking here primarily of the two Kempes in the text, actor-author, whatever their relation to the person who composed the Book as a whole). [1]

Like many medieval women visionaries, Kempe recounts numerous types of visions. Most frequent are auditions, seemingly internal; sometimes only Christ speaks; sometimes it is a conversation. Kempe also experiences lavishly recounted “transporting” visions: for example, as a spectator of Christ’s passion, or a bridal ceremony. She also occasionally has access to knowledge about people’s afterlife fates. But despite the overwhelmingly important role that her “conversations and high contemplations” play in her spiritual life, she is rather reticent about disclosing them to the people she encounters.

Margery Kempe, carving in the church of St. Margaret in King’s Lynn.

It is most evident in the text when people complain about the heart of Kempe’s externalized devotion: how frequently she “burst out in violent weeping and sobbing” or “cry and roar” during sermons or while praying (or just encountering a mother and child on the road). [2] But while the Book has plenty of passages wherein Christ explicitly states the tears are his gift, Kempe does not defend herself by conveying this message. In one episode, the celebrant of that Mass experiences a similar sobbing breakdown which (according to the text) convinces him of her legitimacy; in another, she is (or allows herself to be) forced away from a hospital, which leaves her without a confessor or access to the Eucharist.

When Kempe is confronted about her behavior or describes animosity towards herself, the foremost topic is her “manner of living”—including her special manner of dress, special diet, habit of fraternal correction directed at…everyone, and above all her sobbing and wailing.

The disconnect between the Book’s descriptions and its protagonist’s silence is not total. Some people Kempe encounters do fill in the blanks, as when a Franciscan friar says she must be the famous (infamous?) woman who speaks with God. In Kempe’s recounting, however, his comment merits no response from her but does convince her that God’s instruction to go on pilgrimage was correct—which she does not reveal to the friar. [3]

More importantly, Kempe does sometimes initiate the announcement of her revelations. She discloses them to her confessor, her husband (at least, some of her revelations), her son: the people to whom she is closest. At God’s command (or so she insists), she reveals her conversations and extreme intimacy with Christ to a series of powerful clerical and charismatic figures: a bishop she has never met; two (or more) anchorites she has never met; university doctors of theology she has never met; a confessor she has never met before. According to the actor-narrator, she told them “to find out if there were any deception in her feelings. [4]

As numerous scholars have noted, her disclosure of her visions to official or sanctioned religious authorities invokes the doctrine known as discretio spirituum (discernment of spirits). [5] At the most basic level, discretio spirituum is scrutinizing apparently divine phenomena, such as visions or miracles, to determine whether they are truly divine or result from another cause. By the time in which the events of the Book of Margery Kempe take place, the 1410s, many theologians and Church leaders promoted a very specific application of this doctrine. It entailed both the need to prove that (mainly women’s) visions and miraculous asceticism were gifts from God instead of delusions from the devil or the human brain; and the struggle over who had the authority to determine what constituted enough proof.

The Book’s frequent declarations of Kempe seeking and gaining approval from a diverse array of Church leaders, including both Franciscans and Dominicans, illustrates a reasonably sophisticated handling of the doctrine, as Franciscans and Dominicans were often at odds over the legitimacy of a particular person or event. Somewhere along the way to the composition of the Book, someone recognized the importance, methodology, and unwritten problems of discretio spirituum.

There remains, however, the problem of the Book itself.

Excerpt from the Book of Margery Kempe, British Library, Add MS 61823, f.49v.

On one hand, you might observe that within the narrative, Kempe the protagonist sought out repeated verification of visions that (with the probable exception of her family) she shared with no one else. Moving around as a person in her world, she would have had no need to legitimize visions she shared with no one else.

On the other, you might point out that the full narrative is not present to any of the individuals Kempe encounters during her adventures. Only the listener or reader has access to it. And the reader (including any scribe along the way) does witness Kempe’s most intimate visions and would be looking for validation.

So, if the composer of the Book is willing to announce all types of visions experienced by the protagonist who apparently mirrors that composer—why does the Kempe of the text hide so many of her visions so intently?

[To be continued…]

Cait Stevenson
PhD in History
University of Notre Dame

[1] There is a substantial body of scholarship on the authorship of the Book and the relationship between the author, possible scribe or scribes, and protagonist of the text, including whether the Book qualifies as the first English-language autobiography. See, the debate between Nicholas Watson and Felicity Riddy in Kathryn Kerby-Fulton and Linda Olson (eds.), Voices in Dialogue: Reading Women in the Middle Ages (University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), 395-458. Many scholars use “Margery” to refer to the protagonist and “Kempe” to name the author; I have chosen to use “Kempe” for both because the general masculine tenor of Internet history discussions increases the importance of using non-infantilizing language to speak of historical women.

[2] Book of Margery Kempe, ch. 72, 83. For readers unfamiliar with Middle English, quotations are taken from Barry Windeatt (trans.), The Book of Margery Kempe (Penguin Classics, 1985). The original is available online through the TEAMS Middle English Text series.

[3] BMK, ch. 30.

[4] BMK, ch. 11.

[5] The foundational discussion on Kempe and discernment is Rosalynn Voaden, God’s Words, Women’s Voices: The Discernment of Spirits in the Writing of Late Medieval Women Visionaries (York Medieval Press, 1999), 109-153.