Author Archives: suthfor

David of Thessaloniki, originally uploaded by Nick in exsilio.

Whatever functions Church History may or may not serve, the discipline is a limitless source of arcane ephemera for your next pub-quiz.

This weekend I was going back through some photos I took while visiting the former Chora Church of St. Saviour on the outskirts of Istanbul (now the Kariye Museum, and prior to that the Kariye Mosque).

This is an image from the parekkesion, a chapel connected to the main body of the basilica.

I didn’t have a guidebook, but was able to deduce from the Greek inscription that this image of a man in a tree was a David who dwelt in Thessalonica.

A little bit of googling (and nothing more careful than that) reveals that this is Saint David the Dendrite or David of Thessaloniki (d. 540).

While I had heard of the Stylites (hermits who lived at the top of pillars), hermits living in the tree-tops were new to me.

Now I just need to find the right kind of pub quiz.


As I get ready my course on Early Church History for this year, it has just occurred to me that this year marks 1800 years since the Edict of Milan.

Which for Church Historians, is one of those dates that Sellars and Yeatman would describe as ‘memorable’ — and, indeed, a ‘Good Thing.’


One of the nicest stories to emerge from the Middle Ages comes from Pseudo-John Damascene in De his qui in fide dormierunt (PG 95: 264) who tells us that Pope Gregory the Great was so distressed that the pagan emperor Trajan had been consigned to hell, that he prayed to God to have a special exception made. God heard Gregory’s prayer, and Trajan was transferred upstairs.

However, the orthodoxy of this story was decidedly dodgy: souls should not be able to escape eternal punishment.

It says a lot for medieval theologians that, rather than dismiss this story as a credulous tale, they took the problem seriously.

In his Exposition on the Sacred Canon of the Mass (1484-1488) Gabriel Biel, speculated as to whether this was an example of the prayers for the dead obtaining forgiveness of sins for the souls in hell, or at least making their punishment easier (as Augustine had speculated they might).

Biel concludes that Pope Gregory’s intervention was a one-off, and this is how it happened:

This is how the story of Trajan can be addressed. The prayers of the blessed Gregory restored Trajan to life and to the ‘status viatoris’ [i.e. the transition from conception to one’s final end in heaven or hell]. Through this, Trajan obtained the remission of his sins, and as a result, freedom from punishment, as is the case for all those who were miraculously brought back to life, many of whom were idolaters, and thus damned [What? There were more than just Trajan?] It should likewise be said of all these that that they were not consigned to hell in any final way, according to the their just deserts at the time, but they were dealt with otherwise, in accordance with higher causes that foresaw them being restored to life. And thus Trajan was not damned by a definitive and irrevocable sentence, which alone can make a person damned. Some say that the soul of Trajan was simply freed by the absolute power of God, though  when we are speaking of the common law, this cannot be said to help the souls of the damned. Others say [You mean there were other people discussing the Trajan test-case?] that the soul of Trajan was not simply freed from the punishment of hell,  but that his punishment was suspended temporarily, until the day of judgement. Yet it should not be thought that these things are achieved through the prayers of the church for all people, for some things are dealt with under the common law, and other things are conceded to a particular individual as a privilege. Others say that he had been freed from punishment of the senses, but not from condemnation. But whatever is said, these two things remain consistent: firstly that the absolute power of God could make the damned blessed; secondly that, according to the common law, there is no redemption from hell, either in terms of the removal of punishment, or in terms of its diminution, and the sins that were committed during this life are not remitted.

Gabriel Biel, Sacri canonis missae expositio, edited by Heiko Oberman and William Courtenay, 4 vols. (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1963-1967), vol. 2, 388-389 (lectio 56U) [my translation]

About 10 years a university lecturer could be made to feel deficient if he or she hadn’t embraced Powerpoint. Now, if you’re not tinkering with Twitter, you’re exhibiting the same moral weakness. PowerPoint, on the other hand, is so familiar that it can be treated with contempt. We have Malcolm Gladwell to thank for the observation that, “Power corrupts; PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.” But there is also a kind of backlash in the growing movement for “naked teaching” which (I think rightly) objects that the new technologies can obstruct ordinary old person-to-person interaction in the classroom.

This is in part because we’ve all had a chance to see PowerPoint dreadfully abused. By abuse, I mean not just the aesthetic crimes – the saccharine clip-art and queasy animations – but the banality as well. As plenty of commenters have recently observed,  complex situations like Afghanistan can’t be reduced to bullet points. Moreover, bullet points, graphs and pie-charts wielded by an un-engaging speaker only heighten an audience’s sense of disengagement.

On the other hand, one shouldn’t be too hard on bullet points. Thomas Aquinas used them (what are ad 1, 2, 3 etc. if not bullet points?). Pierre Ramus used them. The Puritan sermon is flesh on a skeleton of bullet points. The classical mnemonic devices of ‘places’ (loci) – mapping out the structure of your speech across the the geography of a visual memory – isn’t a hundred miles from the PowerPointilist’s use of structured print to impress an argument on an audience’s mind.

Sure, PowerPoint has its weakness; so do old-fashioned lectures, speeches and sermons. My mind has wandered off in about 90% of the sermons I have listened to. The rate for academic conference papers is probably not much lower. If I’ve paid attention in more university lectures, it’s often been because the lecturer had the advantage of my interest in the subject to begin with – and of course, I wanted to pass the exam. It’s not, in other words, as though the traditional oral presentation was inherently superior.

It seems to me that what university lecturers should be working on – and what we should be trying to inculcate in our students – is a ‘rhetoric’ of the visual presentation (of course the programs PowerPoint and Keynote may go the way of Claris Works and Lotus 1-2-3, but it’s likely that the format will be with us for longer). Because the genre’s in its infancy, so are the conventions of the genre. But conventions are developing nonetheless.

For this reason I think we should consider assessing student’s skill in the visual presentation as we already do their use of the essay. In some ways, writing is a denser medium, and I’ll admit that I have to think harder when I want to fill a screen or a blank page with an orderly, coherent and persuasive sequence of words. On the other hand, I also find that the conventions of PowerPoint force me to shape my thought in ways I may not have anticipated when I first open the “new” file and choose a visual theme or slide layout. It’s not just a question of the concision imposed by bullet points or the constraints of the individual slide. It’s also the possibilities opened by the the visual image. It’s true that a picture’s worth a thousand words – especially for those like me who find it easier to abstract from what can be seen, heard, touched etc. than the other way around. Often a picture lets you make an intuitive leap that seven densely argued paragraphs don’t.

So I’m going to keep using PowerPoint, and expecting my students to use it as part of their own presentation.

I hope that in time the tradition will develop to a degree of sophistication that produce its own Ciceros and Quintilians.

George Orwell

After diarising the phony war with details of eggs, premature frosts and seed prices, George Orwell has finally decided to start writing about the war. It seems to be Dunkirk and the threat of imminent invasion that persuaded him to to turn his attention from the back garden to world affairs.

The first few entries for May 1940 have been gripping. Orwell’s description of the return of the British expeditionary force and the demeanour of public life on the eve of the blitz gives an impression of immediacy that’s difficult to capture in the selection and summary you need to practice if you’re trying to write history.

In my view, history’s at it’s most engaging when it’s written in the style of a good op-ed column: the reliable (but slightly gossipy) assessment of a morass of detail.

Still, I have to admit that it’s the detail – especially the human detail – that has always attracted me to history as a discipline (it is, after all, a Humanity). Compared to a diary, or a pile of personal letters, reading the secondary literature is a bit like listening to the muffled shouts of your neighbours as they fight on the other side of a thick wall.

Gammadia I, originally uploaded by Nick in exsilio.

This one, from Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna shows saints Polycarp, Vincent, Pancras and Chrysogonus.

However, it seems to run counter to the claim that the gammadia are Greek letters. Here we’ve got C A L I. While C could be another form of Σ, L is an unambiguously Latin letter.

By the way, I promise that the sleeves of the next six martyrs don’t bear the letters F O R N I and A.

Women of the imperial court, originally uploaded by Nick in exsilio.

I’m ambivalent about historical approaches that urge us to look for the “silences” in the evidence – the voices that are suppressed, the data that’s overlooked.

On the one hand it seems a license for “would have” history – the tendentious story-telling that moves deftly from probabilities, possibilities and plain don’t-knows to flights of fancy about how things “would have” been.

On the other hand, I can’t deny that sometimes I find myself reading around a topic and wondering: is that all there is to say or why don’t we know more?

A few years ago I read Margaret Sanderson’s wonderful biography of Cardinal David Beaton Cardinal of Scotland: David Beaton, 1494-1546. I was struck not just by his long term and fairly public partnership with Marion Ogilvie (they had eight or nine children, as far as I remember) but also the fact that she was an assertive property owner, litigator and protector of her children’s interests.

This made me wonder why we never get to read history from the perspective of priestly “concubines,” who had been on the wrong end of ecclesiastical legislation since the 11th century, but had survived all the same, often quite publicly, as one of those unwanted facts of western church life.

There’s plenty written on clerical concubinage as such, and there’s quite an industry of publications on nuns, clerical marriage in the emerging Protestant churches, and on women who were Protestant reformers in their own rights.

But, as far as I’m aware, we never get to hear from the concubines. I’ve never even found anything written on how they were regarded. For example, was Marion Ogilvie the object of censorious whispers and sideways glances, or was she accorded the same dignity as the wife of a noble and the holder of a high office of state?

I was reminded of these ruminations in the weekend when I read this article in the Guardian: Italian priests’ mistresses speak out.

I’m glad they’re speaking out, and i hope we hear more from them.

I also hope we one day hear  from or of their illustrious predecessors.

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