Discussing Donkeys in Lion-suits with Dr. Emily Mahan

This month we chat with Dr. Emily Mahan, who recently received her PhD from Notre Dame’s Medieval Institute. We talked with her about the power of medieval fables, the value of a postdoctoral fellowship, and how writing poetry led her to writing creatively in her dissertation.

Speaking with Dr. Mahan this month was illuminating. Her research demonstrates the breadth of Medieval Studies, drawing from animal studies, literary criticism, manuscript studies (though perhaps less than she initially expected!), and linguistics. Yet again, the researchers that we speak to remind us that to be a medievalist can mean so many different things. Dr. Mahan brings a unique historical perspective to animal studies, drawing on Classical and medieval texts to try and discover more about animals and our relationship with them. Medievalists don’t need to be isolated from other disciplines or scholars of other periods. The humanities enriches itself when walls are kept low and gates kept open; scholars can benefit from meeting in the middle.

Dr. Mahan spoke about her passion for creative writing, and her route into Medieval Studies through an MFA. Though we rarely talk about it as such, a dissertation is as much a creative piece as poetry or prose. You need to be able to tell a story, albeit one rooted firmly in the evidence. Dissertating is creative writing, even if we have to think about time constraints and deadlines. Dr. Mahan’s decision to pursue a Medieval Studies PhD was not a shift away from creativity. Far from it. In those days when writing feels like a grind and the ideas just aren’t coming, we’ll think about her experiences and allow ourselves to get a little creative. 

Thanks for listening. See you next time in the Middle Ages.

Will Beattie & Ben Pykare
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

Why 1054? Dating the Schism for the Church of Constantinople

To the best of my knowledge, no serious historian or theologian working over the last century has been willing to date a definitive schism between the current Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches to the year 1054. This raises some obvious questions: what marks a schism in the first place? When did such a division occur between these two ecclesial bodies? And the topic partially addressed in this blog post: how did the year 1054 rise to such prominence that it appears in virtually every high school-level world history textbook in the present day?

It might be helpful to clarify what happened during the Latin legation to Constantinople in 1054. After a mutually unsatisfactory meeting and some debates over issues of liturgical and church disciplinary practice, the Latin legates excommunicated the patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Keroularios, but the expressly excluded the Eastern Roman emperor at the time, Constantine X Monomachos, as well as the city in general, from this breach in communion [1]. Patriarch Michael responded by convening a council to excommunicate the legates personally, but he took great pains to avoid condemning the bishop of Rome, on the grounds that the legates were imposters who hadn’t been sent by the pope at all. Still less was the whole of the Latin Church implicated in the Greek conciliar statement. It is abundantly clear from the surviving documents that no general division between the eastern and western halves of Chalcedonian Christianity was intended in the exchange of the excommunications, and there is no evidence from the time of the event itself that any such division was achieved.

This is confirmed by sources and events in the years immediately following 1054. In the immediate aftermath, Patriarch Michael Keroularios dispatched letters to the other eastern patriarchs complaining about the legates and about Latin liturgical and ritual practices, but he does so without any notion of a break in communion with the whole of western Christianity.  The encomium of Michael Psellos for Keroularios, who died in 1059, praises the late Patriarch’s resistance to the legates. Psellos, ever philosophically-minded, focused on the question of the filioque, which was, in fact, one of the issues least discussed by the respective parties in 1054 itself (rather, they were concerned with whether bread for the Eucharist should be leavened, whether priests could be married, etc.). While admitting that Old and New Rome were in disagreement, and that the Roman position was “impious,” there is again no indication of a formal split in communion [2]. In another example a few years later, this time primarily from Latin sources concerning the great pilgrimage of Gunther of Bamberg, we are told that the Greeks were excessively proud in their dealings with the pilgrims (not an uncommon complaint), but not that they considered each other to be heretics or schismatics [3].

Michael Keroularios
Enthronement of Michael Kerularios, from the Madrid Skylitzes, Biblioteca Nacional de España, fol. 225r
Unknown, 13th-century author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

So, then, why the significance of this date? If not in the first-hand accounts, was any significance ascribed to the year 1054 in the works of later theologians and polemicists? I am preceded in this examination by an especially helpful article by Tia Kolbaba, a Byzantinist working at Rutgers, who examined twelfth-century sources with the expectation that the increased political tension between the Latin kingdoms and the Eastern Empire would evoke the historical example of Michael Keroularios in the theological literature [4]. Her conclusion is surprising: she was able to find no firmly-datable sources that considered the role of Michael Keroularios in the schism at all, and only a handful of short texts plausibly belonging to the twelfth century that mention him in passing. In the latter group, there is an interpolation in the history of Scylitzes, a single text in Vat. grec. 2198, a paragraph attributed to a certain Nicetas the Chartophylax, and a handful of anonymous texts collected by Hergenröther. This last item, edited under the collective title “Opuscula de origine schismatis,” is the most substantial of these, and even these short texts mention the role of Keroularios in conflicting terms and only in passing, at the end of rather confused accounts about the supposed errors of the Church of Rome [5].

In virtually all of these texts, the cause of the schism (which is fully recognized by the twelfth century) is attributed to the Latins’ mistaken Trinitarian theology, and specifically the question of the filioque. Although it does get mentioned, much less attention is given to the question of (un)leavened bread, a complete reversal of the 1054 conflict in which ritual questions were given pride of place. This change of emphasis leads most, if not all, of these later commentators to draw upon source material from an earlier rupture between Rome and Constantinople: the ninth-century Patriarch Photios, although he did eventually restore communion with the See of Rome, left behind substantial writings and a strong tradition of critiquing the Latin position, especially in terms of its Trinitarian theology. And it is primarily to Photios, rather than to Keroularios, that later Greek church historians and polemicists turned.

And finally, it appears that this interpretation persisted into the early modern period, even among Greek clergy sympathetic to the Roman position. John Plousiadenos, a fifteenth-century Cretan Byzantine-rite priest in union with the Church of Rome, appears content to attribute the fundamental basis of the schism to Photios, whom he described as “the very maker and the demiurge of the schism and the division” [6]. Charles Yost, a fellow graduate of the Medieval Institute, pointed out in his 2019 dissertation that the historiography of Plousiadenos concerning the schism, as well as that of other high-profile Greek churchmen of his time, was rather garbled, with different authors presenting conflicting accounts of whether Photios, for example, was ever personally restored to communion with Rome. In nearly all accounts, however, Keroularios is conspicuous by his absence: Plousiadenos says nothing about him at all, and Manuel Kalekas, another unionist, downplays his role [7]. At the end of the Middle Ages, then, the Great Schism, to the extent that the Greeks were willing to date it at all, happened in the ninth century, and the examples of intercommunion in the centuries following were, ultimately, just failed attempts at reunion.

So where does this leave our starting question, and can we trace any part of the modern prominence given to the date 1054 to the Constantinopolitan/Greek historical or theological tradition? I think that the answer is no. None of the Greek sources following the events themselves are willing to date a definitive schism to that year. At most, the actions of Michael Keroularios are a (small) episode in a series of conflicts with the Church of Rome that began at least two centuries earlier. Otherwise, his name and his role are omitted entirely from the discourse of later commentors. I have found nothing akin to the modern celebrity given the 1054 conflict until the writings of the Athonite Kollyvades fathers around the turn of the nineteenth century. Other than that, it only within the Latin medieval tradition that we can possibly find a substantial reception of 1054. And these both are very much topics for separate posts.

Nick Kamas
PhD in Medieval Studies
University of Notre Dame

[1] The best edition for the documents cited here in relation to the 1054 legation remains Cornelius Will, ed., Acta et Scripta quae de controversiis ecclesiae graecae et latinae saeculo undecimo composita extant (Leipzig: N. G. Elwert, 1861).

[2] K. N. Sathas, ed., Μεσαιωνική Βιβλιοθήκη Δ‘ (Athens: Koromela, 1874), 348. “Στασιάζει πρὸς τὴν νεωτέραν Ρώμην ἡ πρεσβυτέρα, οὐ περὶ μικρῶν οὐδὲ παρορᾶσθαι ἀξίων, ἀλλὰ περὶ τοῦ πρώτου λόγου τῆς εὐσεβείας, καὶ τῆς περὶ τῆν ἁγίαν τριάδα θεολογίας […].”

[3] Annales Altahenses maiores, ed. altera, ed. E. L. B. von Oefele, MGH SS Rer. Germ. 4 (Hannover: impensis bibliopolii Hahniani, 1891), 67. “Constantinopolitanos vidimus [Latini episcopi] graece et imperialiter arrogantes.”

[4] Tia Kolbaba, “The Legacy of Humbert and Cerularius: The Tradition of the ‘Schism of 1054’ in Byzantine Texts and Manuscripts of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries,” in Porphyrogenita: Essays on the History and Literature of Byzantium and the Latin East in Honour of Julian Chrysostomides” (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), 47-61.

[5] “Opuscula de origine schismatis,” ed. J. Hergenröther in Monumenta graeca ad Photium ejusque historiam pertinentia, (Regensburg: G.J. Manz, 1869). The first of these texts is unusual in reporting (inaccurately) that Michael Keroularios excommunicated the whole of the Latin church (p. 163), but this is corrected by the second text, which follows Keroularios’s own account that Latin legation had been tampered with for political ends (p. 170). The third text does not mention him at all.

[6] Charles Yost, “The Thought and Ministry of a ‘Unionist Priest’ (ἙΝΩΤΙΚῸΣ ἹΕΡΕΎΣ): John Plousiadenos (†1500), the Council of Florence, and the Tradition of Byzantine Unionism” (Ph.D. Diss., University of Notre Dame, 2019), 649, esp. n. 480.

[7] Ibid., pp. 672, 674.

Aþum Swerian: Swearers of Oaths?

Beowulf is a story about a doomed people who are destined for annihilation as a result of depredation, feuding, and cyclical inter-tribal violence. Yet, the violence described in the poem is not always outward but often occurs from within, as acts of intra-tribal violence frame much of the narrative. Even seemingly positive events are thus generally short-lived. Accordingly, in the eminence of King Hrothgar’s glorious construction of Heort, the narrator reveals the hall’s imminent doom:  

Sele hlifade  
heah ond horn-geap.   Heaðo-wylma bad
laðan liges.                Ne wæs hit lenge þa gen  
þæt se ecg-hete aþum swerian 
æfter wæl-niðe wæcnan scolde. (81-5)

The hall sheared upward, high and horn-vaulted. For the battle-surge it waited, loathsome fire. Nor was it long before the edge hate of aþum swerian must awaken for slaughter-spite.

Beowulf Manuscript, excerpt with aþum swerian.” BL, Cotton Vitellius a.vx. MS 130v, BL 133v.

This dire prediction identifies the causal agents of disaster as aþum-swerian. But given that this term is unattested and grammatically invalid, we are bound to ask: Who are these aþum-swerian? The conventional approach solves this conundrum by creating a new term in imitation of such copulatives as suhtergefaedaran (“nephew and uncle” from Beowulf), gisunfader (“son and father” from Heliand), and sunufatarungo (“son and father” from Hildebrandslied). Following these models, the editors of Klaeber 4 (120, 350, 437) emend the term to aþum-sweoran, thereby conjoining aþum (sons-in-law) and sweoran (fathers-in-law). Because this solution apparently predicts the sundering of vows between Ingeld and Hrothgar (2022-66), this emendation has become the dominant convention. 

Nevertheless, there are problems. First, the emended term, glossed as “sons-in-law and fathers-in-law,” differs markedly from the models, which are glossed as “nephew and uncle” and “son and father.” And though the term is indeed attested with the gloss “son-in-law,” the rendering aþum-sweoran is a hapax legomenon attested nowhere in the extant corpus of Old English literature. Making the invention yet more suspect is the well-attested phrase, sweor ond aþum (father-in-law and son-in-law), which would seem to preclude a need for the copulative. 

The proposed term also falls short in its narratological salience. There are no “sons-in-law” implicated in the violence that erupts at Ingeld’s wedding, only one “son-in-law.” Yet more problematic, this single crisis cannot account for the apocalyptic imagery that frames Heorot’s catastrophe. Prior to the prediction of calamity, the hall’s construction is marked by an array of tropes that suggest the Tower of Babel. As Tristan Major observes, “Hrothgar’s rise to power [64-79] and the building of his hall, Heorot, echoes Nimrod and the Tower of Babel” (242).” Likewise, as Daniel Anlezark observes, the hall’s destruction is marked by retributive images of Flood and Hellfire (336-7). In sum, the proposed solution leaves important problems unresolved. It inaccurately predicts “sons-in-law” in respect to Ingeld. And it does not account for the apocalyptic imagery of idolatry, flame, and fire that marks Heorot’s doom.

The Tower of Babel. London, British Library, Cotton Claudius B.IV, fol 19r. 

In this review, we promote an alternative initially proposed by Michael Alexander. This alternative interprets aþum as the plural dative “oaths” and emends swerian to the plural dative -swaran (swearers). The rendering “swearers of oaths,” acknowledged by Klaeber 4 as possible, has the advantage of relying on attested terms. The plural dative form aþum (oaths) occurs not only in the corpus but also in Beowulf, and the second term (-swara) occurs in a similar compound, man-swaran (criminal swearers). Yet more support for this construct can be found in the oath-swearing between Hengest and Finn. Here the term aðum also occurs as a plural dative, framing a parallel scenario in which oaths will be broken and a hall destroyed:

Fin Hengeste
elne, unflitme aðum benemde
þæt he þa wealafe weotena dome 
arum heolde, þæt ðær ænig mon 
wordum ne worcum wære ne bræce . . . .  (1097-100)

“Fin with Hengest without quarrel declared his oath that he would by his council’s judgment hold [the truce] with honor that any man there by word or deeds should not break the covenant . . . .”

The emendation to aþum-swaran also offers much stronger alignment with the narrative arc. Notably, this alignment begins with the paired disclosures that define Fitt I: Whereas the history of Grendel’s origin locates Cain’s act of murder as a calamity in the past, the prediction of murderous oath-swearers locates Heorot’s destruction as a calamity in the future. This parallel design is highly significant: In effect, it forges a link between Cain’s crime of kinship murder and the internecine violence that spells Heorot’s doom. This linkage, moreover, not only intimates the Danes’ ongoing state of iniquity but also explains the apocalyptic tropes that frame the hall’s calamity. Accordingly, Heorot’s doom emerges not as a circumstantial event caused by brawling Danes and Heathobards but as an in-kind retributive event that aligns perfidious Nordic warriors with the curse of exile from human joys, entailed in Cain’s crime and punishment.

Cain killing Abel with a scythe. Bible Historiale. British Library, MS Harley 4381, f.10r, 1403-1404.

Notably, also, the intimation of Danish perfidy is borne out across the narrative arc. Beowulf and the narrator declare Unferth’s fratricidal treachery; the narrator insinuates Hrothulf’s possible resentment against his uncle, Hrothgar; the lay of Finn and Hildeburh recounts the Danes’ violation of peace oaths in favor of murderous revenge; Hrothgar’s adoption of Beowulf sparks Wealhtheow’s resistance and her appeals to warriors in the hall; and Hrothgar violates his promise of protection to the Geats, potentially inciting Beowulf’s revenge. This surfeit of Danish treachery, in other words, aligns perfectly with the narrator’s revelation that “swearers of oaths” will soon incite violence.

For this reason, also, the reference to oath-swearers functions as a formula for suspense—a design that impels the audience to consider, in a fictive world replete with perfidy and oath-making, which of the oath-swearers will incite a conflagration? Will Unferth the fratricide murder again? Will Hrothulf avenge his displacement from the throne? Will one of the Danes retaliate against Hrothgar’s covenant with Beowulf, the foreigner? Will Wealhtheow incite the same kind of intertribal violence that erupts in the Frisians’ hall? Will Beowulf retaliate against Hrothgar for deserting his men?

The emendation to aþum-swaran presents a solution that is better attested and more meaningful than the conventional emendation to aþum-sweoran. As noted above, the gloss of “sons-in-law” does not possess predictive value regarding Ingeld, and the sundering of vows between Ingeld and Hrothgar cannot explain the apocalyptic imagery surrounding the disclosure of Heorot’s doom. Conversely, that same apocalyptic imagery aligns perfectly with a depiction of Danish society as inherently unstable, doomed to self-destruction, as the unchecked impulses of egoistic aggrandizement overcome the covenants that bind social order. Likewise, the depiction of Danish perfidy permeates the narrative arc. Accordingly, the disclosure of violent oath-swearers functions within an ingenious narrative design. It affords the schadenfreude of dramatic irony, as the audience anticipates a disaster the characters know not of. And it thus generates a game of blind corners, in which the audience’s knowledge of impending violence from oath-swearers charges subsequent events with anticipation and suspense. 

Chris Vinsonhaler & Richard Fahey
Medieval Institute
CUNY University & University of Notre Dame

Selected Bibliography & Further Reading

Alexander, Michael. Beowulf: A Glossed Text. Penguin Classics, 1995.

Anlezark, Daniel. Water and Fire: The Myth of the Flood in Anglo-Saxon England. Manchester U Press, 2006. 

Major, Tristan. Undoing Babel: The Tower of Babel in Anglo-Saxon Literature. U Toronto Press, 2018.