Europe’s Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom (1) by Norman Cohn (1975)

Norman Cohn (1915-2007) was an English academic historian. In the 1960s he became the head of the Columbus Centre, which was set up and initially financed by Observer editor David Astor to look into the causes of extremism and persecution. As head, Cohn commissioned research and studies from other academics on numerous aspects of persecution, and himself wrote several books on the subject, namely:

  • The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957) which traced the long history of millenial, end-of-the-world cults which, more often than not, seek scapegoats when the Great Awakening or Rapture or whatever they call it fails to happen
  • Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith (1993) which traced millennial religious themes to their sources in ancient civilizations
  • Warrant for Genocide (1966) about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-semitic forgery which surfaced in Russia in 1903 and claimed to describe a Jewish conspiracy for world domination

Europe’s Inner Demons is roughly in two halves: what it builds up to is a description of the witch craze and witch trials of early modern Europe and America (i.e. the 1600s and 1700s). But it’s the first half which interests me more. In this Cohn describes the origin and meanings of many of the absurd accusations which were later to be brought against the ‘witches’, following them from their origin in pagan times, through the early medieval period, and climaxing with their deployment in the arrests, torture and execution of the Knights Templar in the early 1300s.

It happens that I’ve just finished reading a book about the Knights Templars, which mentions Cohn’s book, and so I was inspired to read the first half, up to and including the Templars trial.

Cohn shows that:

  • In pre-Christian, pagan Rome writers and authorities attributed inhuman and uncanny activities to minority, outsider groups who they associated with secret societies dedicated to overthrowing the state. Chief among these was the (originally traditional) event of the Bacchanalia, which, originally, was an orgiastic festival celebrating the god Bacchus but, over time, became associated with dark nights, wine and promiscuous sex. Cohn shows how traditional Roman writers came to associate it with darker, anti-social motivations. A fateful link was made between tiny, minority sects who held secretive activities – the worry that these sects were in some way anti-social, dedicated to social revolution – and the attribution to them of increasingly absurd accusations, such as child murder, ritual sacrifice, the drinking of human blood, and deliberately indiscriminate sex – all designed to undermine traditional values and hierarchies and relationships.
  • In the early centuries of Christianity, pagan and Roman writers redirected the tropes they’d developed to blacken the followers of the Bacchanal at the new Eastern religious sect, accusing the Christians of unholy rituals at which they drank the blood of ritually murdered individuals, or engaged in promiscuous sex. Cohn points out that these are easily understandable distortions of a) the Eucharist, where Christians really are enjoined to drink the blood of Christ and b) the Loving Cup or various other references to group love, team love, Christian love, which had a purely Platonic, non-sexual meaning. But not for the accusers and propagandists who scraped the barrel of the human psyche to dredge up all the worst crimes they could think of.
  • Once Christianity had become established (by, say, around 400) the powers-that-be began to persecute Christian heretics and Cohn shows how these heretics now found themselves subject to the same slanders and propaganda as the early Christians had been – dark rumours of midnight masses, perverted rituals, the slaying of a victim whose blood was then drunk and body eaten. And he shows how the ritual victim was all-too-often said to be a baby.

Medieval pessimism

A big-over-arching idea which I found particularly powerful was Cohn’s contention that as the Middle Ages progressed, Christianity – and western culture, such as it was in the early Middle Ages – became more pessimistic.

Going back and reading the early Church Fathers – Tertullian and Justin Martyr and St Jerome and so on – he says you are struck by their conviction that the end of the world is just around the corner and the Day of the Lord is at hand. The early Christians are strong in their faith and happy, burning with conviction that the End is Nigh, that any day now the Lord will return in splendour and all their sufferings will be justified.

However, as the years, then decades, then centuries go by, hopes fade, the Roman Empire is overthrown, societies sink into less advanced forms, the economy collapses, waves of barbarians fight their way across the old imperial lands. And Jesus does not return. By around 1000 AD, medieval culture can be described as depressed. And in its disappointment, it looked with ever-greater desperation for scapegoats.

The atmosphere was changing. Fantasies which in the early Middle Ages had been unknown in western Europe were turning into commonplaces. (p.41)

This is reflected in the rise of the figure and role of Satan and his demons. Cohn has a fascinating chapter (pp.16-34) describing the development of Satan, the Devil. In the Old Testament he is barely mentioned. When bad things happen it is generally because the Old Testament God is wilful and capricious and swayed by his bad moods. Satan does appear in the Book of Job but he is more of a collaborator with God than his enemy; it is Satan who comes up with new ways to persecute Job. It is in the so-called inter-testamentary period – between the last of the accepted books of the Old Testament, written about 300 BC and the first books of the New Testament, written about 50 AD, that Satan undergoes a sweeping change of character. Historians usually attribute this to the influx of Eastern, Zoroastrian and Manichean ideas coming from the Persian Empire in the greater multicultural atmosphere created by the triumph of the Roman Republic and then Empire.

Anyway, in the New Testament, Satan has become a completely new thing, a tormentor and tempter sent to oppose Jesus at every step. Satan’s demons possess innocent people and only Jesus can exorcise them. In the climax of a series of tests, Jesus is made to go out into the wilderness to be confronted and tempted by the Devil in person.

Cohn shows how in the early centuries of the church, saints and holy men were still supposed to be able to drive out demons and Satan’s helpers, merely by revealing the consecrated host or a cross or saying Jesus’ name. But in line with the growth of medieval pessimism, the years from around 1000 AD saw greater and greater anxiety that the Devil was taking over the world which translated into ever-more paranoid fears that secret societies and heresies were flourishing everywhere, dedicated to the overthrow of existing society and to establish the triumph of the Antichrist.

Slowly and steadily, the myth of Devil worship, and the details of how this worship was carried out – by murdering a baby, drinking its blood or its ashes mixed with blood, and then weird rituals to do with black cats (lifting its tail to kiss its anus) – were carefully elaborated by successive generations of highly educated and paranoid Catholic intellectuals.

The stereotype of the Devil-worshipping sect was fully developed, in every detail, by 1100. (p.76)

Heretic hunting and the inquisition

Cohn devoted a chapter to the rise of inquisitions, carefully delineating the difference between secular courts and their power, and the power vested in one-off inquisitors by the pope. He describes the hair-raising campaigns of heretic-hunting inquisitors in Germany and the South of France in the 1200s, notably the egregious Conrad of Marburg appointed inquisitor in central Germany in 1231, or John of Capestrano, appointed heresy inquisitor by the pope in 1418. Already, in 1215 the Lateran Council, by insisting that bishops do everything in their power to suppress heresy on pain of dismissal, had incentivised people across society to come forward with denunciations. Basically a lot of people were tortured into confessing and then burned to death. A lot.

Along the way we learn about the beliefs, the demographics and then the terrible persecutions endured by groups such as:

  • the Paulicians – Christian sect which was formed in the 7th century and rejected a good deal of the Old and much of the New Testament, originally associated with Armenia and horribly persecuted by the Byzantine Empire
  • the Bogomils – sect founded in the First Bulgarian Empire by the priest Bogomil during the reign of Tsar Peter I in the 10th century, a form of opposition to the Bulgarian state and the church, they called for a return to what they considered to be early spiritual teaching, rejecting the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Dualists or Gnostics, they believed in a world within the body and a world outside the body, did not use the Christian cross, nor build churches, as they revered their gifted form and considered their body to be the temple, giving rise to many forms of practice to cleanse oneself through purging, fasting, celebrating and dancing.
  • the Waldensians – originated in the late twelfth century as the Poor Men of Lyon, a band organized by Peter Waldo, a wealthy merchant who gave away his property around 1173, preaching apostolic poverty as the way to perfection. Waldensian teachings quickly came into conflict with the Catholic Church and by 1215, the Waldensians were declared heretical and subject to intense persecution.
  • the Fraticelli ‘de opinione’ – members of the Franciscan order of monks who rebelled against its growing worldliness and corruption (St Francis had died in 1226) and tried to return to a really primitive material life, owning literally nothing, and having no food from one day to the next. Declared heretics in the 1400s, Cohn goes into great detail about the trial of leading Fraticelli in 1466.
  • the Cathars – from the Greek katharoi meaning ‘the pure’, the Cathars were a dualist or gnostic movement which became widespread in Southern Europe between the 12th and 14th centuries. They believed there were two gods, one good, one evil – diametrically opposed to the Catholic church which believes in only one God. The Cathars believed the God of the Old Testament, creator of the physical world, was evil. Cathars thought human spirits were the genderless spirits of angels trapped in the material realm of the evil god, and destined to be reincarnated until they achieved salvation through the consolamentum, when they could return to the benign God of the New Testament.

The self-fulfilling nature of torture

Cohn introduces the reader to each groups’ likely beliefs and social origins, then describes how the secular and religious authorities (i.e. the King of France or Holy Roman Emperor or pope) launched an inquisition, sometimes even called a ‘crusade’, against each of them. (The crusade to exterminate the Cathars in the south of France became known as the Albigensian Crusade, 1209-1229).

And then he makes his over-arching point which is that, time and time and time again, the use of torture made ‘heresies’ appear to explode, appear to be held by huge numbers of people, at all levels of society, as innocent victims were roped in and tortured and, quite quickly, would say anything and implicate anyone in order to stop the torture (or, more cruelly, to prevent their family and children being tortured, too).

Yet as soon as they were free to speak in front of secular courts, again and again these supposed ‘heretics’ recanted and said they only confessed to the bizarre rituals, murder, cannibalism and orgies, because they were tortured into saying so.

Cohn shows that there were real heretics i.e. groups who rejected the worldly corruption of the Catholic Church and tried to return to the simple, pure, ascetic life of the early apostles and that, on its own terms, the Church was correct to be concerned about them and to try and bring them back within the fold.

But that the way it did this – by trying to blacken their name by getting members to confess under torture to midnight masses where the Devil appeared in the shape of a black cat, and then a baby was ritually burned to death and its ashes mixed in with wine which all the followers had to drink to assert their membership — all this was fantasy cooked up in the feverish brains of Catholic propagandists and the inquisitors themselves.

What interests Cohn is the way these fantasies became formalised, and turned into part of received opinion, official ‘knowledge’ – not least when a list of these perverse practices was included in a formal papal bull, Vox in Rama, issued in 1233, which included the accusation that the Devil in person attended the midnight covens of the Waldensians and other heretics. In other words, by the early 13th century these absurd fantasies had received official sanction and recognition from the highest religious authorities on earth.

Although each of the heretic-hunting frenzies Cohn describes eventually burned out and stopped – sometimes due to the death or discrediting or, in the case of Conrad of Marburg, the assassination of the lead inquisitor – nonetheless, the period as a whole had established the absurd practices of all heretics and enemies of the Church as accepted, indisputable fact, sanctioned by the pope and the entire church hierarchy.

The crushing of the Knights Templar (pp.79-101)

Cohn then goes on to show how precisely the same old tropes, the same accusations of unnatural and blasphemous crimes, were dusted off and dragged out to accuse the Knights Templars, in their trials which lasted from roughly 1307 to 1309. His account is largely the same as Michael Haag’s in The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States namely that the whole farrago of trumped-up accusations was made by King Philip the Fair of France in order to get his hands on the Templars’ vast amounts of gold and land. Its more proximate cause was that Philip wanted to merge the two great crusading orders, the Templars and Knights Hospitallers, into one super-order and then place himself at the head of it in order to lead a mighty new crusade – but that was never very likely to, and indeed never did, happen.

Instead Philip’s loyal bureaucrats pounced, arresting all the Templars on the same day and submitting them to torture to force them to admit to the same litany of crimes: that at the initiation ceremony they were forced to spit on the cross, to kiss their initiator on the lower back, buttocks or mouth, agree to sodomy if requested by a senior brother, and other blasphemous acts such as worshiping a malevolent satanic head.

All the Templars who were tortured signed confessions agreeing this is what they had done – understandable, seeing that the tortures included:

  • having your hands tied behind you, being hauled up via a hook secured to the ceiling, then suddenly released, coming to a stop with a jerk, so that the tendons, muscles and sometimes bones on your shoulders and bones were abruptly torn or shattered
  • having your feet covered in grease and pit in a naked fire, where they roasted until the toe and feet bones fell out of the cooked flesh

As one Templar said, rather than submit to the tortures he would have confessed that he personally murdered Jesus Christ. The sorry saga dragged on for three years because Pope Clement feebly tried to rescue the order which was, theoretically, answerable only to him. But being himself French and a nominee of the French crown, and based in Avignon on French soil, he eventually, feebly acquiesced in the crushing of the order, the confiscation of its wealth and the burning at the stake of its four most senior officers (plus at least a hundred others).

The fate of the Templars is a sorry, sordid tale of greed, corruption and unbelievable cruelty, but for me is one more proof that the nominally Christian Middle Ages were a complicated mixture of genuine religious belief, almost incomprehensible religious fanatacism, alongside staggering cruelty, all underpinned by very recognisable motives of greed and ambition.

More generally, Cohn’s review of how society has tended to demonised outsider groups -from as far back as we have records – sheds sobering light on this permanent tendency of human nature, and shows how even the most ridiculous prejudices and bigotries can be entrenched as established ‘fact’, and then revived as and when needed to persecute the different, the strange, the non-conformist, the helpless. Couldn’t happen now? Well, the career of the fanatical heretic-inquisitor Conrad of Marburg could be usefully compared to that of Senator Joe McCarthy. And in our own time, right now, 2019, we are seeing the revival of all kinds of tropes and stereotypes designed to justify prejudice and persecution. At least we don’t strappado people or burn them to death – but the underlying impulses of human nature haven’t changed one whit.

Some Knights Templar being burned at the stake, illustration in the Chroniques de France ou de St. Denis.


Related links

Reviews of other books and exhibitions about the Middle Ages

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves (1938)

Now, in Constantinople there is a square called ‘The Square of Brotherly Love’ with a fine group of statuary in it, on a tall pedestal, commemorating the fraternal devotion of the sons of the emperor Constantine – who subsequently destroyed one another without mercy. (p.183)

Robert Graves

Apart from one year teaching at the University of Cairo, Graves made a living for his whole long life (1895-1985) from writing – books and articles, editing collections, but above all writing poetry.

He regarded himself first and foremost as a poet, slaving over his carefully constructed verses and developing slightly eccentric theories about poetic inspiration. It was only to pay the rent, and feed his growing family that he churned out the prose works which he didn’t consider nearly as important.

But ironically, it is these prose works which posterity has remembered Graves for, starting with his hugely enjoyable autobiography, Goodbye To All That (1929), famous for its account of his service in the First World War, but which also includes humorous memories of his childhood growing up in Wimbledon, and then merry anecdotes of being a struggling poet, husband and father in the 1920s.

I, Claudius

On the same level of fame is the pair of novels he wrote about the Roman emperor Claudius (who ruled from AD 41 to 54), I, Claudius and Claudius the God (both published in 1934) which were made into a famous BBC TV series in 1976. Presumably this introduced Graves’s name (and Claudius’s) to million of viewers who’d never heard of either before.

Belisarius

Close behind the Claudius duet in reputation is this novel, which is also based around another major figure from the classical world, General Flavius Belisarius.

Belisarius (500-565 AD) rose to become the leading general of the Eastern Roman Empire in the first half of the 6th century. He is best known for serving the Eastern Emperor Justinian (ruled 527-565) and leading a series of campaigns to try and recapture the Western half of the Empire, over a century after the first sack of Rome (by Alaric and the Visigoths in 410), 50 years or so after the last Roman Emperor in the West was deposed (476) and Africa, Spain, Gaul and Italy had been overrun by barbarian conquerors.

Belisarius made his reputation in a campaign against the Persian Empire on the eastern border, before leading campaigns against the Vandals in Africa (then a word describing what is basically Tunisia today), before taking Sicily and then fighting Ostrogoth armies the length and breadth of Italy during the prolonged Gothic War (535-554). Unfortunately the resulting waste and devastation of Italy left the inhabitants with an enduring resentment of the Easterners / the Greeks / the Byzantines. At one point a minor character, the tall good-looking Theodosius who is a favourite of Antonina’s (and who court gossip quickly suggests is having an affair with her) composes a comic song which ironically lists all the ‘benefits’ Byzantine rule has brought to Italy, including ‘massacre, rape, arson, enslavement, famine, plague and cannibalism (p.298).

In fact the next effect of Justinian and Belarius’s campaigns was so to weaken both Goth and Roman authority that just fourteen years after both sides had fought to exhaustion, the entire peninsula was conquered by another tribe of barbarian invaders, the Lombards, in 568.

As with the Claudius books, Graves had a number of good sources for the career of General Belisarius, namely the scurrilous account of court intrigue by the contemporary historian, Procopius (the origin and motivation for whose books is dissected right at the end of the text), as well as other chronicles by the likes of John Malalas, Theophanes, and John of Ephesus. But being such a good classicist, he has slipped in various inventions – invented characters and events – which fit seamlessly into his vision of the 6th century Byzantine Empire.

Flavius Belisarius depicted in the mosaic in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna

The novel

I found the book slow going to begin with, but then became more and more absorbed by it. It is told in a straightforward chronological order, covering Belisarius’s boyhood and school years, his move to the Eastern capital Constantinople, his rise in the army, reforms to the army, and then the long, long sequence of military campaigns.

What brings the book alive, though, is the narrator Graves has invented to tell the whole, long story – Eugenius the eunuch (p.11). He makes Eugenius the long-suffering servant of Belisarius’s wife, an ex-prostitute named Antonina who, at an early point in her life ran a sort of nightclub-cum-brothel with several other filles de joie, including – as it happens – one Theodora who, after a series of unlikely events, ends up marrying the Emperor Justinian and becoming ‘Her Resplendent Highness, the Empress’.

And what power she has! Again and again Eugenius shows Theodora as being the most resolute and decisive of all the emperor’s advisers, and even going behind his back to take strong decisions when Justinian was dithering.

Theodora was no fool of the priests. She had seen the world, and she understood men and politics, both lay and ecclesiastical. She ruled Justinian as absolutely as it is said that the great Livia once ruled Augustus, the first Emperor of the Romans. (p.147)

[A discreet nod, there to the guiding theme of the Claudius novels, published just four years earlier.]

Thus although the novel is generally about a man, a military man, one of the most famous generals in history – and although it certainly contains a great deal about the Byzantine army and cavalry, their equipment, training and tactics, and describes in great detail pretty much every battle Belisarius was involved in – nonetheless, the novel still has quite a lot of feminine content, the eunuch Eugenius being as understanding of and sympathetic to his mistress and her lady friends, and in tune with the friendship between Antonina and Theodora, as he is with the more famous menfolk.

In fact Eugenius manages to be consistently rude about most of the male figures, not least Justinian (and his illiterate predecessor and sponsor, Justin, and his hapless predecessor, Anastasius I). Here he is on Justinian:

The man was a mass of contradictions: most of which, however, were to be explained as the result of great ambitions struggling with cowardice and meanness. Justinian wised, it seems, to make himself remembered as Justinian the Great. His talents would indeed have been equal to the task if he had only been less of a beast in spirit. (p.146)

Rudeness which slowly changes into contempt as he describes Justinian’s growing meanness, avariciousness, paranoia and poor decision-making, until he is routinely describing examples of Justinian’s

incompetence, cruelty, procrastination, meanness, ingratitude (p.407)

Towards Belisarius Eugenius is more ambivalent, painting him as the generally innocent victim of various court intrigues and Justinian’s petty mean-mindedness – but all the same, he doesn’t really like the general and is only supportive because of his undying loyalty to Belarius’s wife, Eugenius’s mistress, the lovely Antonina.

The Emperor Justinian I (r. 527–565) and his entourage as depicted by a contemporary mosaic from the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna (it is believed that the figure standing on Justinian’s immediate right is Belisarius)

We learn a lot about the backstories of Eugenius, Antonia and Theodora which are described with wonderful plausibility. I particularly like Eugenius’s own story, that he was the young son of a Welsh prince, kidnapped by Saxon raiders and then sold on to an unscrupulous Greek salesman of fake religious relics, Barak, who had him castrated, and crops up at amusingly unlikely moments throughout the rest of the story.

At Constantinople Barak [who had been arrested and sent there by Belisarius] secured an honourable release through bribery, and though by now seventy years of age, resumed his long-interrupted task as overseer of monuments in the Holy Places. It was his pleasure to refresh the blood-marks on the pillar of scourging; and to  renew the hyssop-sponge at Golgotha, which the piety of pilgrims had worn almost to nothing; and to discover at Joppa, buried in an old chest during the persecutions of the Emperor Nero, a startling number of early Christian relics of the first importance and in an agreeably sound state of preservation. (p.305)

A passage which, incidentally, gives you a good feel for Eugenius’s own ironic scorn for most Christian belief and practice.

Eugenius is a gossipy narrator and frequently stops the narrative to tell us diverting anecdotes about whoever is appearing in the main narrative whether it is the early stories about Antonina and Theodora setting up their brothel, or stories about the enemies Belisarius faces, like old Khavad of Persia, or describing the culture of the north African Moors, or a revealing anecdote about King Gelimer of the Vandals. All these little asides and stories make the book much more accessible and readable.

Eugenius is also a chatty and fascinating guide to the culture of 6th century Constantinople where the first half of the novel is set, before Eugenius sets off accompanying his mistress Antonina who insists on accompanying her husband Belisarius on his western campaigns.

Two massive issues dominated the culture of the time, which were the powerful antagonisms stirred up by the various Christian heresies which swirled round the empire, and, in the city itself, the huge division between the two factions, the Blues and the Greens.

Heresies

By the early 300s the spread of Christian heresies throughout the empire was already such a problem that the Emperor Constantine, the man who ordered the building of Constantinople (officially consecrated in 330) had been forced to call the Council of Nicaea in 325 to thrash out definitions of the key ideas and terms of Christianity.

Nicaea was the first ecumenical council of the Christian church, though far from the last. The heresy it was called to address was Arianism, named after the presbyter Arius who preached that Jesus – the Son of the Christian Trinity – was at some point created by the Father and therefore was not identical with him and was therefore, logically, inferior to him. This belief became very popular but contradicted the orthodox view that Jesus was fully divine, part of the Holy Trinity which was made up of equal members.

Although the Council of Nicaea stripped Arius of his teaching position and exiled him, his heresy continued to flourish, and others soon joined it. A recurring problem was defining the precise nature of Jesus: was he a man, or a God? Or half man, half God? Or both man and God? Was he eternal and one with God, or ‘begotten’ i.e. created at some later date i.e. not as godly as God?

These are all ‘Christological’ issues i.e. debates about the person, nature, and role of Christ, and they turned out to be prolific. To put it another way, Christianity was and is to this day, a very unstable theological or philosophical system, liable to splinter off into all kinds of heresies and sects.

At the period when the novel is set the most common heresy in the Greek East was monophysitism. This held that in the person of Jesus Christ there was only one, divine nature. This view conflicted with the ‘orthodox’ position, which had been agreed at a later ecumenical council, the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which proclaimed that Jesus possessed two natures, divine and human.

The emperor Justinian was a staunch defender of the orthodox view propounded at Chalcedon, but his wife, Theodora, was a believer in miaphysitism. Miaphysitism holds that in the one person of Jesus Christ, Divinity and Humanity are united in one nature, ‘united without separation, without confusion, and without alteration,’ although – looking it up – I see that Chalcedonian orthodoxy considered this view assimilable within the orthodoxy. Thus Justinian and Theodora were more or less at one in their theology.

This may all sound very theoretical and abstruse but in fact heresy played a vital role in the geopolitics of the day. Virtually all the ‘barbarian’ tribes who had conquered the territories of the former western empire were Arians which put them at loggerheads both with the pope (who clung on in defeated Rome) and Justinian.

Thus the Ostrogoths, who had conquered and occupied all of Italy and the Adriatic coast, and who reached the zenith of their power under Theodoric (454-526) were Arians. It was these Ostrogoths who Justinian sent Belisarius to conquer in what turned into the long and ruinous Gothic War (535-554 AD) and, at various points in the long, complex negotiations for peace, the issue of religious belief became a stumbling block.

Also the Vandals who had travelled through Spain and crossed the straits in order to conquer Carthage and the surrounding area of north Africa were also Arians who lorded it over the native Roman population who were orthodox. This fact led to some bad decisions, for Belisarius – having conquered them in battle – sensibly recommended to Justinian that the Vandals be allowed to worship in their own way and receive eucharist from their Arian priests. But Justinian, more devout and more removed from military reality, insisted that the Vandals be forced to submit to orthodox priests and that their own religious rites be banned. Predictably, this (along with other tactical mistakes Justinian made, like not allowing the victorious Byzantine troops to hang on to the estates they had sequestered) led to a rebellion against Byzantine rule after Belisarius had left the area in order to campaign in Italy, forcing Belisarius to weaken his forces by sending some back to quash the rebellion. It could have become a peacefully restored part of the Byzantine empire but for Justinian’s religious intolerance on this central issue of Christian heresy.

These heresies add depth to the personal, social and military clashes which feature in it. Of every single major character we need to know which form of Christianity they follow in order to gauge or understand their likely reactions to other characters, and to understand the broader religious-cum-power politics of the situation.

The Blues and Greens

Within the Eastern empire itself, and especially in the city of Constantinople, raged a fierce enmity between the Greens and the Blues. These had originally been the colours of competing teams of chariot racers in the city’s massive Hippodrome. In fact there had originally been blue, green, red and white teams but the latter two had been swallowed up by the former.

By the time of the novel the conflict between Blues and Greens had permeated every level of Byzantine society. It was a bit like Brexit. Families were divided, friends opposed, politics became poisoned by the fierce opposition of Blues and Greens at every level. Even religion was dragged into it, with the Greens broadly representing monophysitism and the lower classes, while the Blues tended to be orthodox and upper class. Blues and Greens took opposing views not only on religion, but on social and political issues, up to and including the choice of new emperors.

Early on in the novel we learn that the empress Theodora was the daughter of one Acacius, a bear trainer of the hippodrome’s Green faction. An internal rivalry among the Greens led to Acacius’s death whereupon his widow brought her four children, including young Theodora, into the Hippodrome wearing garlands, but they were roundly booed and rejected by the Green half of the audience who had been led to believe Acacius had been a traitor to their colour. To spite the Greens, they were taken up by the Blues and from then on Theodora would be a Blue supporter.

The degree of enmity this rivalry caused has to be read about to be believed. In its sporting origins it was a bit like the sectarianism of football fans of my youth in the 1970s, and was accompanied by a lot of street hooliganism. Except that there were only two factions and the rivalry permeated right to the top of Byzantine society, something like the ineradicable difference between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland or Turks and Greeks in Cyprus.

As with all the other sociological aspects of the book, Graves gives a completely convincing description of what it felt like to live and work in a society drenched in this rivalry. The different factions developed different haircuts and fashions. Young toughs of both sides patrolled the streets in gangs, wearing short swords, frequently stabbing each other in broad daylight.

The mounting anarchy climaxed in the Nika Riots of January 532. Some rioters from a previous horse race had been arrested and most of them hanged. A pair escaped and took refuge in a church. The emperor Justinian was just at a delicate point in negotiations with the Persian empire and facing hostility over high taxes at home. At the next day of chariot racing, on 13 January the crowd began chanting anti-government slogans at Justinian who, as usual, was sitting in the royal box (which linked directly into the enormous royal palace just behind the Hippodrome). By the end of the races the entire crowd, Blues and Greens, had united in chanting their opposition to Justinian via the slogan ‘Nika’, meaning ‘Victory’, the chant usually set up when one or other of their champions had won a race.

The crowd then surged out into the streets and ran wild, burning and looting. Justinian’s palace was besieged and over the next week nearly half of Constantinople was burned or destroyed (including the grand church of Hagia Sophia) and hundreds of people killed. Senators opposed to Justinian saw their opportunity, first of all to call for the repeal of his unpopular laws and then, as things really got out of hand, they were bold enough to declare a new emperor, Hypatius, a nephew of former Emperor Anastasius I.

All this is described in a thrilling eye-witness account by the narrator, Eugenius. He explains how a) Justinian was all for fleeing the burning city but was restrained by Theodora who, like so many of Graves’s women, is the really strong figure in the story, and so b) contrives a solution to the anarchy. This was to bribe the Blue faction by pointing out that he, Justinian, was a Blue supporter while the new emperor, Hypatius, was a Green. This, and a hefty bribe of gold, got the leading Blues back on the emperor’s side, at which point they left the hippodrome, leaving the Green leaders isolated.

And it was at this point that Belisarius was ordered to lead Imperial troops into the Hippodrome, commencing a merciless slaughter of the Green rebels. In all, after the street violence and the out of control city fire, and then the mass slaughter, it is estimated that some thirty thousand rioters were killed.

Justinian tracked down Hypatius, who pleaded that he had only agreed to become puppet emperor because the rioters threatened to lynch him, but Justinian had him executed nonetheless, and had the senators who had supported the riot exiled. He then rebuilt Constantinople, and particularly the church of Hagia Sophia which stands to this day (although it was converted into a mosque by the conquering Turks after the fall of Constantinople in 1453).

Glorious though this may sound, Eugenius continually criticises Justinian for spending more money building churches and basilicas than defences for strategically important cities, and for continually skimping on men and supplies for Belarius’s many expeditions.

Fighting the Persian empire

Again Graves takes historical fact and, by filtering it through the gossipy, chatty, storytelling narrator Eugenius, makes it come to life. The ancient Persian or Achaemenid Empire reached its zenith under Xerxes (519-564 BC) and Darius (550-486 BC), who both tried to invade the West, at that point represented by the Greek federation of cities led by Athens, which stopped the invaders at the famous Battle of Marathon.

At the time the novel is set, nearly 1,000 years later, Persia is ruled by the Sassanian Empire, the last kingdom of the Persian Empire before the rise of Islam. To quote Wikipedia:

In many ways, the Sassanian period witnessed the peak of ancient Iranian civilisation. The Sassanians’ cultural influence extended far beyond the empire’s territorial borders, reaching as far as Western Europe, Africa, China and India. It played a prominent role in the formation of both European and Asian medieval art. Much of what later became known as Islamic culture in art, architecture, music and other subject matter was transferred from the Sassanians throughout the Muslim world.

The Persian ruler is the ageing Kavadh I (449-531) (who Graves – or Eugenius – refers to as Kobad). The Byzantine Empire and Persian Empire are the two main powers sparring for control of the Middle East. In the first, Eastern half of the book, we become very familiar with the towns and rivers of the border region, the dividing line between the two empires running roughly from the Caspian Gates – a narrow pass through the Caucasus mountains in the north – dividing Christian Armenia in two, and then running across the headwaters of the River Euphrates, sloping diagonally down towards the Red Sea. Many offences are launched from the Persian frontier town of Nisibis. Belisarius leads the defence of the town of Dara, just over the border opposite Nisibis, in the Battle of Dara of 530, which Graves describes in great detail. A few years later the Persians launched a devastating raid on Antioch which they pillaged and burned (540).

Map showing the border between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Persian Sassanid Empire from 502 to 628

What is really interesting about Graves’s account, though, is the insight he gives into the strangely friendly relationship between the Roman emperor and Persian emperor. Although they wage intermittent wars, there is a continual correspondence between them including exchanges of gifts and land. When both are threatened by attacks from the Hunnic tribes north of the Caucasus they arrange to suspend hostilities between them to fight against the common foe, indeed Kavadh at one stage invites Justinian to send Byzantine soldiers to bolster the Persian garrison defending the Caspian Gates. There had been another, important historical juncture when, in 525, Kavadh had asked Justinian’s predecessor, Justin, to ‘adopt’ his youngest son, Khosrau. Kavadh had two older sons but wanted Khosrau to succeed. Much bloodshed would have been spared if Justin had agreed but, as it happened, he (Justin) was without an heir and so worried that Khosrau, if officially adopted as his son, might end up with a good claim to the Byzantine throne, which Justin wanted to hand on to his appointed heir Justinian. So Justin refused the offer and Kavadh was mortally offended, immediately launching an attack on Roman border towns.

Ten years later Belisarius, having completed the conquest of the Vandals in North Africa, returned to Constantinople where he was granted an enormous victory parade, first the soldiers of his army marching along the imperial high street, then hordes of captured Vandals, and then huge amounts of plunder and treasure which the Vandals themselves had built up during their career of looting (not least during their comprehensive sack of Rome in 455). But it is characteristic of the time that the new king of the Persians, Khosrou, sent an embassy to Justinian, half-jokingly asking for his share of the spoils since, as he pointed out, it was only due to his keeping peace on the Persian frontier which had freed up the soldiers Belisarius had used to conquer North Africa. And very characteristic that Justinian, choosing to continue the joke, sent the ambassador back to Khosrou with his thanks and bearing a valuable gold dinner service (p.204).

This is all fascinating stuff, but made all the more readable by being told in Eugenius’s factual, but chatty, gossipy style, assigning praise and blame, relating these historical incidents to the present conflicts and battles he is describing, and weaving in and out of them his concerns for his mistress Antonina or behind-the-scenes accounts of power struggles at the court of Justinian.

Belisarius’s career

505 Flavius Belisarius born in Illyria.
532 Belisarius puts down the Nika Uprising, slaughtering between 20,000 and 30,000 people.
530 Belisarius defeats the Persians at the Battle of Dara
533 Belisarius leads the Byzantine invasion of North Africa and defeats the Vandals under King Gelimer at the Battle of Ad Decium and the Battle of Tricameron.
534 Belisarius celebrates a triumph in Constantinople.
535 Belisarius’ first campaign against the Ostrogoths in Italy, during which he conquers Sicily and, in spring 536, takes Naples.
536 Rome falls to Belisarius but is then besieged by the Ostrogoths from March 537 to March 538, during which Pope Silverius and some senators try to betray it to the Goths.
539 Belisarius conquers Ravenna and captures the Ostrogoth king Witigis but, due to disagreements in the Byzantine chain of command, Milan falls to a combined force of Goths and Burgundians, its inhabitants decimated and the city razed to the ground.
540 Belisarius captures the Goth capital of Ravenna, and is offered the crown by the Goths, but turns it down. Nonetheless he is recalled to Constantinople by Justinian who has been listening to rivals claiming Belisarius plans to seize the throne. Instead Belisarius is sent once again against the Persians.
545 Belisarius’ second campaign against the Ostrogoths in Italy.
559 Belisarius is recalled again to Constantinople to defeat the invading Bulgars.
562 Belisarius is arrested and imprisoned on trumped-up charges of corruption. Pardoned by Justinian and restored to former position.
565 Belisarius dies in Constantinople of natural causes, and so does the Emperor Justinian
571 The year the narrator, Eugenius the eunuch, claims to be writing his text in (p.388)

Proverbs

One entertaining way Graves brings the period to life is having Eugenius report and explain various trivial aspects of contemporary life, such as the Empress’s use of a wig, or the way young men of the Green faction wear their hair shaved back over the forehead but left hanging long at the back, ‘in the Hunnish manner’. He tells us that the poor of Constantinople could claim a dole so long as they had obtained the requisite wooden ticket. He also includes a number of proverbs. Who knows whether he’s made them up or not. When discussing the Massagetic Huns’ addiction to drinking mares’ milk, Eugenius comments:

  • Every fish to his tipple
  • Thistles are lettuces to the ass’s lips

And various characters make pithy replies or sayings at crucial and dramatic moments, which are overheard by slaves and servants and end up becoming proverbial sayings. All these add colour and verisimilitude to the account.

Cruel and unusual punishments

But the story never lets you forget that they were living in a world of almost perpetual warfare, that anyone living in what was left of the Roman Empire was – far from being guaranteed peace and security – almost certain of the opposite. The narrative shows how Belarius brought war and ruin to North Africa, before inaugurating 20 years of war and devastation the length and breadth of Italy which reduced the land and all the cities to abject poverty – Rome’s ancient defences are entirely removed by the Goths, who also burn Milan to the ground – marking a decisive break between the peace and plenty of the ancient world, and the role of backwater littered with ruins which was to be Italy’s lot for the next 1,000 years. All the towns and cities of the Levant do not escape, as the book covers a period when the two largest cities – Antioch and Jerusalem – are sacked, and many other towns entirely razed, their populations taken off into slavery by the Persians. And Thrace, the area of north Greece to the west of Constantinople, is ravaged more than once during the 60 or so years the book covers, with barbarian tribes making it right up to the walls of Constantinople before just about being beaten back.

Overall, the book paints a picture of a world of continual warfare, in which the forces of Roman civilisation and Christian culture are only just keeping their heads above water.

And a world of stunning brutality. You get used to reading that an entire city was burned to the ground by the Goths or the Persians, all the men of fighting age massacred, and all the women and children led off into slavery but, if you stop to really reflect on what this must have meant, it makes reading the book a mournful and harrowing experience.

And this is brought into the foreground of the story, so to speak, by some of the cruel and unusual punishments meted to out to named characters. Thus we are told the fate of Photius, Antonina’s son by her marriage before Belisarius. He grows up to be a selfish, scheming brat. After losing lots of money gambling on the hippodrome races, he flees Constantinople to Belarius’s camp in Persia and there spins a long cock and bull story about how his mother (Belisarius’s wife, Antonina) is having an affair with her musician companion Theodosius, and the two are conspiring to blacken Belisarius’s name.

To cut a long story short the empress Theodora becomes involved to try and reconcile Belisarius and Antonina and this involves arresting, imprisoning and torturing Photius, at which he admits the whole thing was a conspiracy and also admits a string of thefts, embezzlements and perjuries. He had been helped in all this by a figure referred to simply as ‘the Senator’ who also confesses under torture. Now here’s the point: as punishment, Theodora has the Senator stripped of all his property and immured in a dark underground stable. He is tied to a manger with a short halter, his hands shackled behind him and there he was forced to stand, unable to move or lie down, but forced to eat, drink, try to sleep, defecate and urinate in a semi-standing position. It turns out that back in the days when she worked in a brothel the Senator had very rudely insulted Theodora’s appearance. This was her revenge. As for Photius he was shackled in the same underground stable but not given the manger treatment. After a while Justinian (who found sneaks and snitches useful) helped him escape. (pp.332-3)

Boutzes was one of Belarius’s most successful generals but when he fell foul of Theodora she had him convicted of treasonous speech and punished by being lowered into an unlit dungeon in solitary confinement. He was thrown scraps of bread and meat once a day. He was only released after two years and four months by which point he could only crawl on his hands and knees which were covered in callouses, had lost all his hair and most of his teeth, and when he was dragged out the sudden exposure to harsh sunlight meant that he could never again see properly (p.345).

This litany of imperial cruelty reaches a climax at the very end of the book when the scheming, paranoid, ageing Justinian, unrestrained by Theodora, who predeceases him (she dies 548, Justinian dies 565) having  recalled Belarius to Constantinople, finally charges him with a long list of ‘crimes’.

Now Eugenius has described in great detail all his military campaigns so that we know that his defeats and setbacks were almost all due to the emperor refusing to send enough reinforcements or money. It was Justinian’s insistence that the Arian Vandals be forbidden their religious rites, and his skimping on the pay of his own troops, which led to mutiny and the loss of North Africa, and we have seen countless examples of how Justinian’s penny-pinching and deliberate undermining of Belsarius’s authority hamstrung the years of campaigning in Italy. Why? Because, in Eugenius’s account, Justinian is determined to go down in history as ‘Great’ and he is jealous of Belisarius and, when his general is at his most successful, genuinely afraid that Belisarius will raise up in rebellion and declare himself emperor. Certainly this has happened many times before in Roman history but Justinian completely fails to appreciate Belisarius’s honesty and rectitude (as depicted by Eugenius).

Thus, at this final trial, Justinian takes all the occasions when Belisarius had failed militarily and declared them deliberate treasons, along with all the times he had been accused by others of treasonous speech or plotting, strings them all together, and comes up with the surreal conclusion that Belisarius is the greatest enemy of the state – despite his obvious track record of defeating all of the empire’s major enemies (the Persians, the Vandals, the Goths).

All Belisarius’s household servants and associates were tortured to provide incriminating evidence, including Eugenius the narrator. The tortures included being racked and scourged, having cords tied round the forehead and then tightened, and having their feet burned in a charcoal brazier. Eugenius insists he proclaimed Belisarius’s innocence of all charges, but many others didn’t. Belisarius was found guilty of treason against the emperor and blinded. Then he was pushed out of the state prison into the street, in rags.

The final pages describe how passersby give him money, then word spreads that the man who had, within the last year, led a last-ditch military effort to save Constantinople from marauding Bulgarians, had been treated this disgracefully and crowds, and then huge crowds assemble, to put money into his begging bowl, while his old troops and comrades rally to his assistance. Even this last monstrous ingratitude from his emperor doesn’t shake Belisarius’s loyalty and he is led by friends to Antonina’s house where he spends his last days quietly before passing away. The murmur against Justinian becomes so great, shouting against him in the Hippodrome as well as graffiti all over town saying that he is the real traitor, that Justinian – cowardly to the last – hurriedly revokes the charge and magnanimously ‘pardon’s Belisarius. But the noble warrior is beyond caring and passes away in peace of spirit.

In the chapters up to this point the reader had formed the opinion that Justinian was a paranoid coward. This last passage leaves you feeling sick at the mention of his name.

Then again…

It’s worth pointing out that John Julius Norwich, in his book Byzantium: The Early Centuries, gives a far more favourable account of Justinian, noting his jealousy of Belisarius’s success, and his failure to give his general enough money or men to achieve the goals he was set, but also blaming the emperor’s animosity against Belisarius largely to the influence of Theodora – more or less the opposite of what Graves’s fiction claims.

Moreover, Norwich dismisses the story of Belisarius being imprisoned and blinded and then walking the streets of Constantinople dressed in rags and holding a begging bowl as a touching but entirely fictitious legend. Apparently, this story first appears in a history written five centuries later, in the 11th century, and so Norwich dismisses it.

Homo homini lupus

This novel was published in 1938, the year of the Munich Crisis and when the Italy which features in the book had been ruled for 16 years by a Fascist dictator, and Germany by the Nazi dictator for five years, and all Europe was paralysed with fear of another world war. Graves had served in the First World War and this gives his many detailed descriptions of Belisarius’s battles a kind of quiet authority. But it also adds to the one small passage where Eugenius reflects that war is an unmitigated evil.

Credit

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves was published by Cassells in 1938. All references are to the Penguin Classics paperback edition.


Related links

Other reviews of late antiquity

Byzantium: The Early Centuries by John Julius Norwich (1988)

Viscount Norwich

As his own website explains:

John Julius, 2nd Viscount Norwich, was born on 15 September 1929, the son of the statesman and diplomat Alfred Duff Cooper (1st Viscount) and the Lady Diana Cooper. He was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto, at Eton, at the University of Strasbourg and on the lower deck of the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford. He then spent twelve years in H.M. Foreign Service, with posts at the Embassies in Belgrade and Beirut and at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. In 1964 he resigned to become a writer.

Could it be possible to be more posh? Norwich died  last year. He had written or edited about thirty books, the major ones being histories of the Mediterranean, of Sicily, of Venice and of Byzantium. The volume under review is the first of the trilogy of popular histories which continues with Byzantium: The Apogee (1992) and Byzantium: The Decline and Fall (1995).

Byzantium: The Early Centuries is divided into 18 action-packed chapters, which take us from the family background of the Emperor Constantine (reigned in the 320s and 330s) through to the Empress Irene (775 to 802) i.e. up to about the time of Charlemagne whose coronation in Rome on Christmas Day 800 marks a watershed in European history.

The book comes with handy extras like maps of all the relevant territory, family trees of the complex imperial families, a list of emperors and – nice touch, this – a list of sites in present-day Istanbul which date from the Byzantine Empire and which tourists can still visit today.

Highlights

It was the Emperor Diocletian who decided to split the empire in two, appointing a fellow emperor to rule the West in 293 while Diocletian concentrated on the East, securing the whole of the current Middle East round to Egypt against attack from the Persian Empire, while also guarding the frontier along the river Danube.

It was the Emperor Constantine who founded the new eastern capital of Constantinople, basing it on the existing small Greek town of Byzantium. By the late 300s the Roman Empire was under pressure from barbarians pushing at all its borders, leading to a complex series of wars, alliances, betrayals and defeats. In the 390s the western emperors had moved their court to Milan in northern Italy, closer to the centre of western Europe, and in 402 moved on again to the town of Ravenna, thought to be more defensible because it was situated behind a network of marshes which could only be crossed by a couple of narrow causeways.

The scholar Emperor Julian reigned for 18 months during which he tried to reinstitute paganism across the Empire, closing Christian churches, subsidising the great temples, attending countless pagan ceremonies, all with little effect, until he died from a spear wound incurred during his fruitless invasion of the Persian Empire, in 363. With his death went the last hopes of reviving paganism and, during the reign of Theodosius (379-395), the old religion was banned, temples closed and Christianity made the official and compulsory state religion.

The various barbarian incursions led up to the reign of terror of Attila the Hun (434-453). During this period the Empire suffered a series of military blows and by the time of Attila’s death, Britain had been abandoned (410), the Franks had taken over Gaul, Gothic tribes had settled in Spain and the western half of north Africa – the Empire’s breadbasket – had been seized and settled by the Vandals. Norwich gives a relatively brief account of Attila, which can, however, be supplemented by reference to Christopher Kelly’s recent book.

The next major figure is the Emperor Justinian who ruled from 527 to 565, and launched expeditions to reconquer North Africa, then to seize back Italy, before being distracted by incursions from the newly warlike Persian Empire, as well as reeling from major outbreaks of plague which decimated the population from the 540s onwards. All his clever schemes came to nothing and he left the Eastern Empire bankrupt.

Norwich devotes more space to Justinian than any other emperor (pages 190 to 263) in an account which I found profoundly depressing. Specifically, as regards the career of his top general, Belisarius, who slaved away for the emperor devotedly but was hampered at every turn by the scheming of the Empress Theodora. It is profoundly lowering to see such a talent so hamstrung, and gives a powerful sense of the self-defeating futility of palace intrigues which raged on while the empire was collapsing around them.

But, on a different level, it is also depressing to see in some detail how Justinian’s ‘noble’ campaign to reclaim Italy from the Gothic rulers who had overthrown the last Western emperor in 476 (the so-called Gothic Wars which lasted a generation, from 535 to 554) was also in the end so self-defeating.

Belisarius’s military campaign amounted to besieging most of the major cities and devastating the countryside his troops had to live off; but when he was recalled to Constantinople, management of the country was handed over to a cabal of greedy incompetents who taxed Italy to the hilt, continued plundering all available settlements while turning tail and running every time the Goths threatened to counter-attack.

The upshot was that most Italians came to hate the Greek Byzantine army and its rapacious administrators much more than the Goths, and both were happy when a new tribe, the Lombards, swarmed into the peninsula in the 560s, eliminating both their predecessors and quickly establishing kingdoms throughout Italy.

Heraclius

There is a similar tragic, or just depressing, downward spiral to the reign of Heraclius (610-641). Heraclius was appointed exarch (ruler/manager) of Carthage in the comprehensive reorganisation of the Eastern Empire carried out by the Emperor Maurice (582 to 602). Maurice (a wise and efficient ruler, according to Norwich) was overthrown and executed along with six of his sons in a coup carried out by a general, Phocas. Their heads (and this happens over and over again in this history) were impaled on spikes and put on display in Constantinople.

Phocas was a populist, but when he met resistance he responded with brutality. Under his rule the Danube borders were breached by Avars (yet another barbarian tribe) while the ruler of Persia, who had concluded a truce with Maurice, used Phocas’s rebellion as an opportunity to relaunch the semi-permanent Persian War and seize territory round to Egypt in the south and as far into Asia Minor as Antioch.

It was this growing chaos around the Empire which prompted Heraclius to raise the standard of rebellion against Phocas in Carthage and sail slowly to Constantinople, securing his supply routes and islands along the way. By the time Heraclius arrived at the capital, the army, politicians and religious leaders were all ready to abandon the tyrant. Phocas was dragged before Heraclius and then, rather rashly, insulted him to his face. So Heraclius had Phocas beheaded on the spot, his body was mutilated, paraded through the capital and burned.

After this grim start Heraclius settles down to become a great emperor, reorganising the Empire’s finances and defences, seeking a solution to the endless problem of the monophysite heresy which plagued and divided the Empire, and latterly embarking on a spectacularly successful campaign against the Persians, scoring a series of decisive victories which eventually led to the overthrow of the latter’s great leader, Chosroes II. If Heraclius had died in 628, he would have gone down as one of the great emperors for administrative reforms and military successes.

However, he lived into the first decade of the Rise of Islam. In 622 Mohammed had fled from Mecca to Medina, marking the start of the Muslim era. In 633 Mohammed died and his followers, tightly organised and enthused with fanatical fervour, swept out of Arabia to conquer the Middle East. Part of the reason for their early success was that twenty years of gruelling warfare had shattered the region and exhausted its two great powers, Byzantium and Persia. Into this vacuum swept the Muslims.

Just as importantly, most of the region’s inhabitants were ‘monophysites’. This was the Christian heresy which believed that Jesus Christ had only one ‘nature’, that the godhead and the human being were united. Taken to a logical extreme, this implied that God actually died on the Cross, which is an obvious theological nonsense. This explains why a series of Church Councils declared ‘monophysitism’ to be a heresy, and affirmed the ‘Catholic’ position that Jesus had two distinct ‘natures’, united in one ‘person’ i.e. the human who died but the godhead which remained eternal. But these were subtle differences, difficult for many people to grasp. And it’s a consistent thread of the book that there was a big difference in theology between the Latin West and the Greek East of the Empire.

For the East was a hotbed of theological debate, packed with fiery bishops, monks, preachers and heretics all disputing a wide range of subtle variations of Christian belief, and it took centuries to hammer out an ‘orthodox’ creed, and try to put down the opposing ‘heresies’.

And this is why, historians argue, on the level of personal belief, the Arabs’ extremely simple, practical monotheism (‘There is only one god, Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet’) appealed to much of a population exhausted by centuries of conflict caused by Christian heresies. The Muslims swept north to Damascus and south through Egypt, conquering vast areas which were never to be Christian again.

So Heraclius’s last decade was spent watching everything he had planned and fought for – territory reclaimed from the Persians and Christian unity – destroyed before his very eyes. Prematurely aged and sick, he began to deteriorate mentally, developed a phobia of water and brutally punished those he suspected of conspiring against him (ordering the noses and hands of his nephew Theodosius and his bastard son Athanaric to be cut off) before passing away, a senile and disappointed old man who’d lived on into a new era.

The Middle Ages

Historians like drawing lines and defining eras. This book is no exception and joins the host of others which variously claim that the Middle Ages started with the death of Theodosius the Great (395), with the Sack of Rome (410), with the overthrow of the last Western Emperor (476), with the death of Justinian (565), and so on.

For me, the lesson of this book, as of Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity, is that it is the arrival of the Muslims on the world stage which marks the decisive break. All the other moments are part of a continuum of Roman rule or semi-rule or detached rule or vicarious rule (i.e. allowing barbarians to rule ‘in the name of’ the emperor etc).

But when the Middle East, Egypt and the entire African coast were lost to Islam that was it. A clean and definitive break had been made with the cultural unity of the Mediterranean, which lasts to the present day. Surely it is the advent of Islam which decisively marks the start of the Middle Ages.


Thoughts

1. Great men

This is a beautifully written, very fluent and entertaining account but it is very much a history of emperors. It takes for granted that a history of this subject will be a history of Great Men. That there are other perspectives is demonstrated by Peter Brown’s history of Late Antiquity which features the emperors, of course, but also captures a lot about the changing economic and social scene, or a book like Paul Johnson’s History of Christianity which gives a thrilling sense of the changing political and social background of the period.

2. Murder and massacre

Not just about Great Men but about their Great Quarrels. The history of Byzantium is presented as a succession of power struggles and features an extraordinary amount of double-dealing, treachery and murder. And that’s just in Constantine the Great’s family – e.g. in 326 Constantine had his eldest son, Crispus, and then his own wife, the Empress Faustina, executed, no-one quite knows why, maybe to impress on his underlings that he had no hesitation whatsoever about keeping complete control of the empire in his own hands. (An incident which later Christians, who wanted to declare Constantine a saint, found tricky to explain away.)

The book includes a family tree of the families of Diocletian, Constantine, Valentinian and Theodosius, and I struck out in pencil the name of everyone in the trees who died an unnatural death (murder, execution, assassination, forced ‘suicide’) and it turns out to be by far the majority. In fact I made a pencil mark in the text wherever someone eminent met with an unnatural death, and there’s one on every page.

One of the clichés of later Byzantine history is the idea that it is dense with convoluted palace politics, plots and poisoning – but this book demonstrates very clearly that this culture was simply a continuation (and maybe an intensification) of established Roman imperial practice. When I was young I think I found all the poison and bloodshed thrilling, but now I find it a depressing indictment of human beings’ endless capacity for cruelty and deceit.

3. A clearer understanding of key events

It’s difficult to pick out themes in a 400-page book so dense with historical incident, but I was grateful to it for giving a detailed account of at least two events which, as a result, I properly understood for the first time: Alaric and the Visigoths’ Sack of Rome (410 AD) and the overthrow of the last Roman Emperor in the West, Romulus Augustulus (476 AD) both of them dates which every ‘schoolboy’ is supposed to know by heart, though I wonder how many modern schoolboys have even heard of them.

The sack of Rome

The thing to grasp about the barbarian leaders is that they rarely wanted to seize or overthrow Imperial power: they generally wanted recognition and high rank within the Roman system, and land for their followers to settle on.

Thus the king of the Visigoths, Alaric I, began his career leading his Goths as mercenaries within the Roman army. In 394 Alaric led a Gothic force of 20,000 that helped the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius defeat the Frankish usurper Arbogast at the Battle of Frigidus. But disappointed at getting little recognition or reward, Alaric left the Roman army and marched toward Constantinople. He was confronted by Roman forces and so decoyed southward into Greece, where he sacked Piraeus and destroyed Corinth, Megara, Argos, and Sparta. A bit belatedly, the Eastern emperor Flavius Arcadius appointed Alaric magister militum (master of the soldiers) in Illyricum and Alaric stopped his rampage. Like Attila and Odoacer after him, the ravaging was a form of negotiating strategy.

In 401 Alaric invaded Italy but was defeated by the Roman general (of Vandal descent) Stilicho at Pollentia in 402. A second invasion that same year also ended in defeat at the Battle of Verona, though Alaric forced the Roman Senate to pay a large subsidy to the Visigoths. Stilicho had emerged during this decade as the most powerful man in Italy, which is why it was a fatal mistake when the Western Emperor Flavius Honorius had Stilicho and his family executed, on trumped up charges of making secret deals with Alaric.

Honorius then did something even more stupid and caved in to the pent-up frustration of many Romans with the way their country was being held to ransom by so many barbarian tribes. So Honorius ordered a co-ordinated massacre of tens of thousands of wives and children of the foederati (allied) Goths serving in the Roman military. As a result some 30,000 Gothic soldiers defected to Alaric, who now marched on Rome to avenge their murdered families.

In classic style, Alaric sacked Aquileia and Cremona and ravaged towns along the Adriatic Sea before arriving to lay siege to Rome in September 408. Alaric blocked off all points of entry to the city which quickly began to starve. As Christmas approached the first cases of cannibalism were reported. Finally, the Senate granted Alaric a substantial subsidy of (i.e. bought him off with) 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 of silver, 4,000 silk tunics, 3,000 hides of dyed scarlet and 3,000 pounds of pepper.

Alaric ended the siege of Rome and marched north to Rimini, where he met envoys from Honorius and demanded the Roman territories of Venetia, Dalmatia and Noricum in which to settle, plus subsidies to feed his people in exchange for which Alaric pledged loyalty to the emperor and to defend Italy against any enemy.

These were generous terms but Honorius like an idiot refused them. Alaric reduced his request to just the (ravaged) province of Noricum on the Danube. Once again Honorius refused and so, incensed, Alaric marched his army back to Rome and invested it for a second time, making clear that his aim wasn’t the sack of the city but the removal of Honorius.

The Senate quickly agreed to this demand, opened the gates to Alaric, and he entered Rome in peace. The Senate declared Honorius (who all this time had been holed up in well-defended Ravenna in the north) no longer emperor and replaced him with the Prefect of the city, one Priscus Attalus, who promptly appointed Alaric as his own magister militum, the highest level of command in the Roman army.

The first thing on Alaric’s mind was the fact that North Africa – the breadbasket of Rome – was still controlled by Heraclian. Alaric wanted to despatch an army to Africa to seize the province. But the newly installed emperor, Attalus, insisted on diplomacy and sent an envoy to negotiate with Heraclian. This envoy was, unfortunately, promptly murdered.

Alaric badgered Attalus to let him attack Heraclian, but Attalus refused to give a Goth army (Alaric’s army) permission to invade a Roman province, and the Senate backed him up. At this point the former emperor Honorius, who had been sending panic-stricken letters to Attalus asking to be given official control of Ravenna, received an unexpected boost in the shape of ships from Constantinople carrying some 40,000 troops sent by the Eastern Emperor Theodosius II. Emboldened, Honorius announced his intent of marching against the Visigoths.

Infuriated at being blocked and threatened at every turn, Alaric summoned Attalus to Rimini and ritually stripped him of the imperial diadem and purple cloak. Then he marched on Rome for the third and final time determined to make his supremacy and will absolutely clear. After a brief siege he forced a gate and entered Rome, giving his troops license for three days of looting and pillaging.

Although the Visigoths plundered Rome, they treated its inhabitants humanely and burned only a few buildings. They were –  it is worth emphasising, as were most of the so-called barbarians – actually devout Christians themselves, albeit of a variety – Arianism – which had been declared heretical in the previous century.

(Arius was an Alexandrian priest who lived from around 250 to 336. He took Jesus’s teachings that he was the son of God, literally, asserting that the son of God was created by the Father and was therefore neither ‘coeternal’ nor ‘consubstantial’ with the Father. This makes Jesus a more human figure, and his story more tragic, but fatally undermines the orthodox doctrine of the equality of the three persons of the Trinity. The orthodox view that the three parts of the Trinity are eternally co-valent and consubstantial was hammered out at the Councils of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451), and hence is sometimes referred to as Nicene or Chalcedonian Christianity. Early missionaries to the barbarian tribes beyond the border happen to have been Arians and so converted the majority of the tribes to this ‘heresy’. When the Arian barbarians overran parts of the Western Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries, they brought their Arian beliefs with them, though they were generally tolerant of the Nicene inhabitants of the lands they conquered. It has been suggested that, for some time – centuries – the Arian heresy helped differentiate between Gothic overlords and Roman inhabitants. Whether this was so or not, the strength of the orthodoxy of the church of Rome and the Eastern Empire eventually overcame Arianism and the last Arian kings in Europe were Grimwald, King of the Lombards 662 to 671, and his young son, Garibald, 671.)

After pillaging Rome, Alaric marched his men south, planning to take ship to Africa and deal once and for all with Heraclian in order to gain control of Italy’s grain supply. At Cosenza he was taken with a fever and was dead in a few days.

So:

a) The sack was the result of a very complicated series of diplomatic and military manoeuvres, involving, by the end, three emperors – Honorius, Theodosius II, Attalus – as well as the military strong-men Stilicho and Heraclian.

b) To a surprising extent the sack was the Romans’ own fault:

  • the stupidity of Honorius in executing the only man who could hold Alaric at bay – Stilicho
  • Honorius’s refusal to grant Alaric’s demands when they were eminently reasonable
  • the refusal of Attalus or the Senate to let Alaric sail off to Africa (which would, at the very least, have got him off Italian soil and bought them time)

c) All of which underscores a remark Norwich makes somewhere in the first half about the quality of the Roman army. The Empire equalled the army: strong army, strong empire. None of the books I’m reading on the subject really tackle this issue head on. Why did the Roman army deteriorate? Why by the 390s and 400s was it incapable of confronting and beating Alaric? The same but worse occurred during the time of Attila the Hun (430s to 450s) when all the Roman army could do was shadow Attila’s rampages. What changed between, say, 200 AD and 400 AD which made the Roman Army so fatefully weak?

(As a footnote, Alaric’s death so soon after sacking Rome became a useful tool to later protectors of the Holy City. Priscus reports that when Pope Leo I rode out to meet Attila the Hun who was rampaging south to take Rome in 452, the superstitious barbarian only had to be told/reminded of the fate of Alaric to decide to call off his assault.)

Alaric and the Visigoths plunder Rome in 410 AD

Alaric and the Visigoths plunder Rome in 410 AD

The overthrow of ‘the last Roman Emperor’ (in the West)

The last generation of emperors in the West make for a sorry story as one barbarian overlord after another sponsored puppet ’emperors’ in what had become the Western Imperial capital, at Ravenna, in north-east Italy.

In 474 the Eastern Emperor Leo I appointed Julius Nepos Western Roman Emperor. This was to replace the ruling emperor Glycerius, who Leo regarded as a usurper. (Julius is called ‘nepos’ (nephew) because he was married to Leo’s wife’s niece.)

When Julius arrived in Italy in June 474, Glycerius promptly surrendered, was spared by Julius and packed off to become bishop of Salona. But Julius only ruled over what was left of the Western Empire (now more or less reduced to mainland Italy) for less than a year. In 475 he appointed magister militum (leader of soldiers) the experienced general, Orestes. (Orestes in fact has a fascinating backstory: having been born and bred in Pannonia, he remained when the territory was ceded to Attila the Hun in the 440s and found himself appointed Attila’s secretary and ambassador.) This turned out to be a mistake, for in August 475 Orestes marched on the Western capital, Ravenna, prompting Julius to flee to Dalmatia (modern Yugoslavia) where he carried on regarding himself as the legal emperor until (typically for the times) he was assassinated in 480.

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Orestes didn’t claim the imperial crown but appointed his 12-year-old son Romulus, emperor. Technically this gave him the title Romulus Augustus, which cynics at the time changed to Romulus Augustulus i.e. ‘little Augustus’. The Eastern emperor Zeno, unsurprisingly, refused to recognise Romulus as Western Emperor – although there was little he could do about the situation, since he was himself engaged in a full-scale civil war with his own Eastern rival, Basiliscus.

Romulus himself ‘ruled’ i.e. did what his father told him, for just ten months, for Orestes turned out to be as unlucky / stupid as Julius. The army he had led to Ravenna mostly consisted of barbarian mercenaries. When Orestes refused their demands for up to a third of the land area of Italy to settle in, they simply mutinied against him, appointing the Germanic Odoacer their new king, on August 23, 476.

Odoacer led the barbarian army on a rampage through every town and village in northern Italy, pursuing Orestes to Pavia, where the bishop gave him sanctuary, but he had to flee again when the Germans broke through the city defences and ravaged the church, razing many of the city buildings to the ground.

Orestes rallied the remnants of a Roman army and engaged the barbarians outside Piacenza, where the Romans were slaughtered, and Orestes himself was captured and executed. A few weeks later Ravenna was captured and Romulus Augustus was deposed. Legend has it that Odoacer’s heart was softened when he had the young boy brought before him, so he spared his life and sent him into permanent retirement in the Campania. Nothing more is known of lucky Romulus Augustulus.

More interestingly – and counter-intuitively, but something which these barbarian conquerors repeatedly did – Odoacer was then happy to submit to the authority of the Eastern Emperor Zeno, asking to be granted the official status of patrician of Rome and to rule as administrator of Italy in Zeno’s name. Although we see them, with hindsight, fatally undermining Roman authority, the major players of the time all still saw themselves acting within the Empire and seeking ultimate authority for their rule from it.

(History doesn’t stop. The overthrow of Romulus looks to us like a hugely significant event, but the rulers of the day carried on fighting each other as if nothing had changed. Julius Nepos continued styling himself the Augustus of the West from his stronghold in Dalmatia, and when he was murdered in 480 Odoacer used it as a pretext to invade Dalmatia and punish the murderers (and annex the territory). Odoacer then foolishly decided to ally with the Eastern general, Illus, in the latter’s attempt to overthrow the Eastern Emperor Zeno in 484. Zeno retaliated by appointing the Ostrogoth ruler, Theoderic the Great, who had been menacing Constantinople, King of Italy, thus motivating him to attack Odoacer. Theoderic invaded Italy in 489 and by August 490 had captured almost the entire peninsula, forcing Odoacer to take refuge in Ravenna. The city surrendered on 5 March 493. Theoderic invited Odoacer to a banquet of reconciliation and promptly killed him by, according to our sources, walking up to him at the banquet table, drawing his sword and cleaving his body in two, from collarbone to waist. And thus perished the man who showed mercy to Romulus.)

Conclusion

These two stories (just two from hundreds of similar events) give a good flavour of this long, beautifully written history, which can only be described as ‘entertaining’ if you find the relentless description of high-level power politics, military strategy, court intrigue and endless battles entertaining.

As it happens, I do – but I can also see how the inexorable saga of conspiracy, war and violent death on almost every page could put a lot of people off.

The Biggest Idea

In the 670s a Muslim fleet under the Caliph Muawiya laid siege to Constantinople and tried for five years to break into the city from the sea. They persisted despite repeated Greek counter-attacks which deployed the secret weapon known as Greek fire (a kind of napalm). After five long years of losses, the Caliph admitted defeat and ordered his fleet home (and the fleet was caught in a storm on the way, and further depleted). At the same time his land forces had been harassed by the so-called Mardaites, freebooting Christian marauders who spread south from Syria to wage a relentless guerrilla war against Muslim forces, as far south as Jerusalem. Demoralised by the combination of these setbacks, in 679 the Caliph accepted defeat and made terms with the Emperor Constantine IV, handing back the Aegean islands he had seized and agreeing to pay the emperor an annual tribute.

Thus, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV had halted the Muslim progress into Europe, the first real setback in the hitherto unstoppable spread of Muslim forces. It was a decisive moment, and in reward he received grateful thanks from many former enemies: the Khagan of the Avars, the Slav tribal leaders in the Balkans, the Lombard and Frankish princes of the West.

By holding the line at Constantinople Constantine IV ensured the Muslims would only be able to enter Europe via Spain, forcing them to stretch their lines of communication to breaking point along the whole north coast of Africa, then up across Iberia so that their progress via this route would be halted at the Battle of Poitiers in 732. These far-off and, to most people unknown, events had vast historical significance. As Norwich comments:

Had they captured Constantinople in the seventh century rather than the fifteenth, all Europe – and America – might be Muslim today. (p.325)


Related links

Other early medieval reviews

Irrationality: The Enemy Within by Stuart Sutherland (1992)

The only way to substantiate a belief is to try to disprove it. (p.48)

Sutherland was 65 when he wrote this book, nearing the end of a prestigious career in psychology research. His aim was to lay out, in 23 themed chapters, all the psychological and sociological research data  from hundreds of experiments, which show just how prey the human mind is to a plethora of unconscious biases, prejudices, errors, mistakes, misinterpretations and so on – the whole panoply of ways in which the supposedly rational human beings can end up making grotesque mistakes. By the end he claims to have defined and demonstrated over 100 distinct cognitive errors humans are prone to (p.309).

I first read it in 2000 and it made a big impact on me because I didn’t really know that this entire area of study existed, and had certainly never read such a compendium of sociology and psychology experiments before.

I found the naming of the various errors particularly powerful. They reminded me of the lists of weird and wonderful Christian heresies I was familiar with from years of reading medieval history. And, after all, the two have a lot in common, both being lists of ‘errors’ which the human mind can make as it falls short of a) orthodox theology and b) optimally rational thinking, the great shibboleths of the Middle Ages and of the Modern World, respectively.

 

Reading it now, 20 years later, having brought up a couple of children and worked for a while in big government departments, I am a lot less shocked and amazed. I have witnessed at first hand the utter irrationality of small and medium-sized children – and then so many examples of the corporate conformity, avoidance of embarrassment, unwillingness to speak up, deferral to authority, and general mismanagement to be found in the civil service that, upon rereading the book, hardly any of it came as a surprise, more a confirmation of what I’ve witnessed at first hand.

But to have the errors so carefully named and defined and worked through in a structured way, with so many experiments giving such vivid proof of how useless humans are at even basic logic was still very enjoyable.

What is rationality?

You can’t define irrationality without first defining what you mean by rationality:

Rational thinking is most likely to lead to the conclusion that is correct, given the information available at the time (with the obvious rider that, as new information comes to light, you should be prepared to change your mind).

Rational action is that which is most likely to achieve your goals. But in order to achieve this, you have to have clearly defined goals. Not only that but, since most people have multiple goals, you must clearly prioritise your goals.

Few people think hard about their goals and even fewer think hard about the many possible consequences of their actions. (p.129)

Cognitive biases contrasted with logical fallacies

Before proceeding it’s important to point out that there is a wholly separate subject of logical fallacies. As part of his Philosophy A-Level my son was given a useful handout with a list of about fifty of these. But logical fallacies are not the same as cognitive biases.

A logical fallacy stems from an error in a logical argument; it is specific and easy to identify and correct. Cognitive bias derives from deep-rooted, thought-processing errors which themselves stem from problems with memory, attention, self-awareness, mental strategy and other mental mistakes. Far harder to acknowledge, in many cases, very hard to correct.

Fundamentals of irrationality

1. Innumeracy One of the largest causes of all irrational behaviour is that people by and large don’t understand statistics or maths. Thus most people are not intellectually equipped to understand the most reliable type of information available to human beings – data in the form of numbers. Instead they tend to make decisions based on a wide range of faulty and irrational psychological biases.

2. Physiology People are often influenced by physiological factors. Apart from obvious ones like tiredness or hunger, which are universally known to affect people’s cognitive abilities, there are also a) drives (direct and primal) like hunger, thirst, sex, and b) emotions (powerful but sometimes controllable) like love, jealousy, fear and – especially relevant – embarrassment: acute reluctance to acknowledge limits to your own knowledge or that you’ve made a mistake.

More seriously people can be alcoholics, drug addicts, and prey to a wide range of other obsessive behaviours, not to mention suffering from a wide range of mental illnesses or conditions which undermine any attempt at rational decision-making, such as stress, anxiety or, at the other end of the spectrum, depression and loss of interest.

3. The functional limits of consciousness Numerous experiments have shown that human beings have a limited capacity to process information. Given that people rarely have a) a sufficient understanding of the relevant statistical data, and b) the RAM capacity to process all the data required to make the optimum decision, it is no surprise that most of us fall back on all manner of more limited, non-statistical biases and prejudices when it comes to making decisions.

The wish to feel good The world is threatening, dangerous and competitive. Humans want to feel safe, secure, calm, in control. This is fair enough, but it does mean that people have a way of blocking out any kind of information which threatens them. People irrationally believe they are cleverer than they in fact are, are qualified in areas of activity of knowledge where they aren’t, people stick to bad decisions for fear of being embarrassed or humiliated, and for the same reason reject new evidence which contradicts their position.

Named types of error and bias

Jumping to conclusions Sutherland tricks the reader no page one by asking a series of questions and then pointing out, that if you tried to answer about half of them, you are a fool since they don’t contain enough information to arrive at any sort of solution. Jumping to conclusions before we have enough evidence is a basic and universal error. One way round this is to habitually use a pen and paper to set out the pros and cons of any decision, which also helps highlight areas where you realise you don’t have enough information.

The availability error All the evidence is that the conscious mind can only hold a small number of data or impressions at any one time (near the end of the book, Sutherland claims the maximum is seven items, p.319). Many errors are due to people reaching for the most available explanation, using the first thing that comes to mind, and not taking the time to investigate further and make a proper, rational survey of the information.

Many experiments show that you can unconsciously bias people by planting ideas, words or images in their minds which then directly affect decisions they take hours later about supposedly unconnected issues.

Studies show that doctors who have seen a run of a certain condition among their patients become more likely to diagnose it in patients who don’t have it. The diagnosis is more ‘available’.

The news media is hard-wired to publicise shocking and startling stories which leads to the permanent misleading of the reading public. One tourist eaten by a shark in Australia eclipses the fact that you are far more likely to die in a car crash than be eaten by a shark.

Thus ‘availability’ is also affected by impact or prominence. Experimenters read out a list of men and women to two groups without telling them that there are exactly 25 men and 25 women, and asked them to guess the ratio of the sexes. If the list included some famous men, the group was influenced to think there were more men, if the list included famous women, the group thought there are more women than men.

The entire advertising industry is based on the availability error in the way it invents straplines, catchphrases and jingles designed to pop to the front of your mind when you consider any type of product, to be – in other words – super available.

I liked the attribution of the well-known fact that retailers price goods at just under the nearest pound, to the availability error. Most of us find £5.95 much more attractive than £6. It’s because we only process the initial 5, the first digit, it is more available.

Numerous studies have shown that the effect is hugely increased under stress. Under stressful situations – in an accident – people fixate on the first solution that comes to mind and refuse to budge.

The primacy effect First impressions. Interviewers make up their minds in the first minute of an interview and then spend the rest of the time collecting data to confirm that first impression.

The anchor effect In picking a number people tend to choose one close to any number they were presented with. Two groups were asked to estimate whether the population of Turkey was a) bigger than 5 million b) less than 65 million, and what it was. The group who’d had 5 million planted in their mind hovered around 15 million, the group who’d had 65 million hovered around 35 million. They were both wrong. It is 80 million.

The halo effect People extrapolate the nature of the whole from just one quality e.g. in tests, people think attractive people must be above average in personality and intelligence although of course there is no reason why they should be. Hence this error’s alternative name, the ‘physical attractiveness stereotype’. The halo effect is fundamental to advertising which seeks to associate images of beautiful men, women, smiling children, sunlit countryside etc with the product.

The existence of the halo effect and primacy effect are both reasons why interviews are a poor way to assess candidates for jobs or places.

The devil effect Opposite of the above: extrapolating from negative appearances to the whole. This is why it’s important to dress smartly for an interview or court appearance, it really does influence. In an experiment examiners were given identical answers, but some in terrible handwriting, some in beautifully clear handwriting. Clear handwriting consistently scored higher marks despite identical factual content of the scripts.

Illusory correlation People find links between disparate phenomena which simply don’t exist, thus:

  • people exaggerate the qualities of people or things which stand out from their environments
  • people associate rare qualities with rare things

This explains a good deal of racial prejudice: a) immigrants stand out b) a handful of immigrants commit egregious behaviour – therefore it is a classic example of illusory correlation to associate the two. What is missing is taking into account all the negative examples i.e. the millions of immigrants who make no egregious behaviour and whose inclusion would give you a more accurate statistical picture. Pay attention to negative cases.

Stereotypes 1. People tend to notice anything which supports their existing opinions. 2. We notice the actions of ‘minorities’ much more than the actions of the invisible majority.

Projection People project onto neutral phenomena patterns and meanings they are familiar with or which bolster their beliefs. Compounded by –

Obstinacy Sticking to personal opinions (often made in haste / first impressions / despite all evidence to the contrary) aka The boomerang effect When someone’s opinions are challenged, they just become more obstinate about it. Aka Belief persistence. Aka pig-headedness. Exacerbated by –

Group think People associate with others like themselves, which makes them feel safe by a) confirming their beliefs and b) letting them hide in a crowd. Experiments have shown how people in self-supporting groups are liable to become more extreme in their views. Also – and I’ve seen this myself – groups will take decisions that almost everyone in the group, as individuals, know to be wrong – but no-one is prepared to risk the embarrassment or humiliation of pointing it out. The Emperor’s New Clothes. Groups are more likely to make irrational decisions than individuals are.

Confirmation bias The tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses. In an experiment people were read out a series of statements about a named person, who had a stated profession and then two adjectives describing them, one what you’d expect, the other less predictable. ‘Carol, a librarian, is attractive and serious’. When asked to do a quiz at the end of the session, participants showed a marked tendency to remember the expected adjective, and forget the unexpected one. Everyone remembered that the air stewardess was ‘attractive’ but remembered the librarian for being ‘serious’.

We remember what we expect to hear. (p.76)

Or: we remember what we remember in line with pre-existing habits of thought, values etc.

We marry people who share our opinions, we have friends with people who share our opinions, we agree with everyone in our circle on Facebook.

Self-serving biases When things go well, people take the credit, when things go badly, people blame external circumstances.

Avoiding embarrassment People obey, especially in a group situation, bad orders because they don’t want to stick out. People go along with bad decisions because they don’t want to stick out. People don’t want to admit they’ve made a mistake, in front of others, or even to themselves.

Avoiding humiliation People are reluctant to admit mistakes in front of others. And rather than make a mistake in front of others, people would rather keep quiet and say nothing (in a meeting situation) or do nothing, if everyone else is doing nothing (in an action situation). Both of these avoidances feed into –

Obedience The Milgram experiment proved that people will do any kind of atrocity for an authoritative man in a white coat. All of his students agreed to inflict life-threatening levels of electric shock on the victim, supposedly wired up in the next door room and emitting blood curdling (faked) screams of pain. 72% of Senior House Officers wouldn’t question the decision of a consultant, even if they thought he was wrong.

Conformity Everyone else is saying or doing it, so you say or do it so as not to stick out / risk ridicule.

Obedience is behaving in a way ordered by an authority figure. Conformity is behaving in a way dictated by your peers.

The wrong length lines experiment. You’re put in a room with half a dozen stooges, and shown a piece of card with a line on it and then another piece of card with three lines of different length on it, and asked which of the lines on card B is the same length as the line on card A. To your amazement, everyone else in the room chooses a line which is obviously wildly wrong. In experiments up to 75%! of people in this situation go along with the crowd and choose the line which they are sure, can see, know is wrong – because people are that easily swayed.

Sunk costs fallacy The belief that you have to continue wasting time and money on a project because you’ve invested x amount of time and money to date. Or ‘throwing good money after bad’.

Sutherland keeps cycling round the same nexus of issues, which is that people jump to conclusions – based on availability, stereotypes, the halo and anchor effects – and then refuse to change their minds, twisting existing evidence to suit them, ignoring contradictory evidence.

Misplaced consistency & distorting the evidence Nobody likes to admit (especially to themselves) that they are wrong. Nobody likes to admit (especially to themselves) that they are useless at taking decisions.

Our inability to acknowledge our own errors even to ourselves is one of the most fundamental causes of irrationality. (p.100)

And so:

  • people consistently avoid exposing themselves to evidence that might disprove their beliefs
  • on being faced with evidence that disproves their beliefs, they ignore it
  • or they twist new evidence so as to confirm their existing beliefs
  • people selectively remember their own experiences, or misremember the evidence they were using at the time, in order to validate their current decisions and beliefs
  • people will go to great lengths to protect their self-esteem

Sutherland says the best cleanser / solution / strategy to fixed and obstinate ideas is to make the time to gather as much evidence as possible and to try to disprove your own position. The best solution will be the one you have tried to demolish with all the evidence you have and still remains standing.

People tend to seek confirmation of their current hypothesis, whereas they should be trying to disconfirm it. (p.138)

Fundamental attribution error Ascribing other people’s behaviour to their character or disposition rather than to their situation. Subjects in an experiment watched two people holding an informal quiz: the first person made up questions (based on what he knew) and asked the second person who, naturally enough, hardly got any of them right. Observers consistently credited the quizzer with higher intelligence than the answerer, completely ignoring the in-built bias of the situation, and instead ascribing the difference to character.

We are quick to personalise and blame in a bid to turn others into monolithic entities which we can then define and control – this saves time and effort, and makes us feel safer and secure – whereas the evidence is that all people are capable of a wide range of behaviours depending on the context and situation.

Once you’ve pigeon-holed someone, you will tend to notice aspects of their behaviour which confirm your view – confirmation bias and/or illusory correlation and a version of the halo/devil effect. One attribute colours your view of a more complex whole.

Actor -Observer Bias Variation on the above: when we screw up we find all kinds of reasons in the situation to exonerate ourselves, we performed badly because we’re ill, jet-lagged, grandma died, reasons that are external to us. If someone else screws up, it is because they just are thick, lazy, useless. I.e. we think of ourselves as complex entities subject to multiple influences, and others as monolithic types.

False Consensus Effect Over-confidence that other people think and feel like us, that our beliefs and values are the norm – in my view one of the greatest errors of our time.

It is a variation of the ever-present Availability Error because when we stop to think about any value or belief we will tend to conjure up images of our family and friends, maybe workmates, the guys we went to college with, and so on: in other words, the people available to memory – simply ignoring the fact that these people are a drop in the ocean of the 65 million people in the UK. See Facebubble.

The False Consensus Effect reassures us that we are normal, our values are the values, we’re the normal ones: it’s everyone else who is wrong, deluded, racist, sexist, whatever we don’t approve of.

Not in Sutherland’s book, I’ve discovered some commentators naming this the Liberal fallacy:

For liberals, the correctness of their opinions – on universal health care, on Sarah Palin, on gay marriage – is self-evident. Anyone who has tried to argue the merits of such issues with liberals will surely recognize this attitude. Liberals are pleased with themselves for thinking the way they do. In their view, the way they think is the way all right-thinking people should think. Thus, “the liberal fallacy”: Liberals imagine that everyone should share their opinions, and if others do not, there is something wrong with them. On matters of books and movies, they may give an inch, but if people have contrary opinions on political and social matters, it follows that the fault is with the others. (Commentary magazine)

Self-Serving Bias People tend to give themselves credit for successes but lay the blame for failures on outside causes. If the project is a success, it was all due to my hard work and leadership. If it’s a failure, it’s due to circumstances beyond my control, other people not pulling their weight etc.

Preserving one’s self-esteem These three errors are all aspects of preserving our self-esteem. You can see why this has an important evolutionary and psychological purpose. In order to live, we must believe in ourselves, our purposes and capacities, believe our values are normal and correct, believe we make a difference, that our efforts bring results. No doubt it is a necessary belief and a collapse of confidence and self-belief can lead to depression and possibly despair. But that doesn’t make it true. People should learn the difference between having self-belief to motivate themselves, and developing the techniques to gather the full range of evidence – including the evidence against your own opinions and beliefs – which will enable them to make correct decisions.

Representative error People estimate the likelihood of an event by comparing it to an existing prototype / stereotype that already exists in our minds. Our prototype is what we think is the most relevant or typical example of a particular event or object. This often happens around notions of randomness: people have a notion of what randomness should look like i.e. utterly scrambled. But in fact plenty of random events or sequences arrange themselves into patterns we find meaningful. So we dismiss them as not really random.  I.e. we have judged them against our preconception of what random ought to look like.

Ask a selection of people which of these three sets of six coin tosses where H stands for heads, T for tails is random.

  1. TTTTTT
  2. TTTHHH
  3. THHTTH

Most people will choose 3 because it feels random. But of course all three are equally likely or unlikely.

Hindsight In numerous experiments people have been asked to predict the outcome of an event, then after the event questioned about their predictions. Most people forget their inaccurate predictions and misremember that they were accurate.

Overconfidence Most professionals have been shown to overvalue their expertise i.e. exaggerate their success rates.


Statistics

The trouble with this and Paulos’s books is that the entire area of statistics is separate and distinct from errors of thought and cognitive biases. I.e. you can imagine someone who avoids all of the cognitive and psychological errors named above, but still makes howlers when it comes to statistics simply because they’re not very good at it.

This is because the twin areas of Probability and Statistics are absolutely fraught with difficulty. Either you have been taught the correct techniques, and understand them, and practice them regularly (and both books demonstrate that even experts make howling mistakes in the handling of statistics and probability) or, like most of us, you have not.

As Sutherland points out, most people’s knowledge of statistics is non-existent. Since we live in a society whose public discourse i.e. politics, is ever more dominated by statistics, there is a simple conclusion: most of us have little or no understanding of the principles and values which underpin modern society.

Errors in estimating probability or misunderstanding samples, opinion polls and so on are probably a big part of irrationality, but I felt that they’re so distinct from the psychological biases discussed above, that they almost require a separate volume, or a separate ‘part’ of this volume. Briefly, common mistakes are:

  • too small a sample size
  • biased sample
  • not understanding that any combination of probabilities is less likely than either on their own, which requires an understanding of base rate or a priori probability
  • the law of large numbers – the more a probabilistic event takes place, the more likely the result will move towards the theoretical probability
  • be aware of the law of regression to the mean
  • be aware of the law of large numbers

Gambling

This is even more true of gambling. It is a highly specialised and advanced form of probability applied to games which have been pored over by very clever people for centuries. It’s not a question of a few general principles, this is a vast, book-length subject in its own right. Some points that emerge:

  • always work out the expected value of a bet i.e. the amount to be won times the probability of winning it

The two-by-two box

It’s taken me some time to understand this principle which is given in both Paulos and Sutherland.

When two elements with a yes/no result are combined, people tend to look at the most striking correlation and fixate on it. The only way to avoid the false conclusions that follow from that is to draw a 2 x 2 box and work through the figures.

Here is a table of 1,000 women who had a mammogram because their doctors thought they had symptoms of breast cancer.

Women with cancer Women with no cancer Total
Women with positive mammography 74 110 184
Women with negative mammography 6 810 816
80 920 1000

Bearing in mind that a conditional probability is saying that if X and Y are linked, then the chances of X, if Y, are so and so – i.e. the probability of X is conditional on the probability of Y – this table allows us to work out the following conditional probabilities:

1. The probability of getting a positive mammogram or test result, if you do actually have cancer, is 74 out of 80 = .92 (out of the 80 women with cancer, 74 were picked up by the test)

2. The probability of getting a negative mammogram or test result and not having cancer, is 810 out of 920 = .88

3. The probability of having cancer if you test positive, is 74 out of 184 = .40

4. The probability of having cancer if you test negative, is 6 out of 816 = .01

So 92% of women of women with cancer were picked up by the test. BUT Sutherland quotes a study which showed that a shocking 95% of doctors thought that this figure – 92% – was also the probability of a patient who tested positive having the disease. By far the majority of US doctors thought that, if you tested positive, you had a 92% chance of having cancer. They fixated on the 92% figure and transposed it from one outcome to the other, confusing the two. But this is wrong. The probability of a woman testing positive actually having cancer is given in conclusion 3 – 74 out of 184 = 40%. This is because 110 out of the total 184 women tested positive, but did not have cancer.

So if a woman tested positive for breast cancer, the chances of her actually having it are 40%, not 92%. Quite a big difference (and quite an indictment of the test, by the way). And yet 95% of doctors thought that if a woman tested positive she had a 92% likelihood of having cancer.

Sutherland goes on to quote a long list of other situations where doctors and others have comprehensively  misinterpreted the results of studies like this, with varied and sometimes very negative consequences.

The moral of the story is if you want to determine whether one event is associated with another, never attempt to keep the co-occurrence of events in your head. It’s just too complicated. Maintain a written tally of the four possible outcomes and refer to these.


Deep causes

Sutherland concludes the book by speculating that all the hundred or so types of irrationality he has documented can be attributed to five fundamental causes:

  1. Evolution We evolved to make snap decisions, we are brilliant at processing visual information and responding before we’re even aware of it. Conscious thought is slower, and the conscious application of statistics, probability, regression analysis and so on is very slow and laborious. Most people never acquire it.
  2. Brain structure As soon as we start perceiving, learning and remembering the world around us brain cells make connections. The more the experience is repeated, the stronger the connections become. Routines and ruts form, which are hard to budge.
  3. Heuristics Everyone develops mental short-cuts, techniques to help make quick decisions. Not many people bother with the laborious statistical techniques for assessing relative benefits which Sutherland describes.
  4. Failure to use elementary probability and elementary statistics Ignorance is another way of describing this, mass ignorance. Sutherland (being an academic) blames the education system. I, being a pessimist, attribute it to basic human nature. Lots of people just are lazy, lots of people just are stupid, lots of people just are incurious.
  5. Self-serving bias In countless ways people are self-centred, overvalue their judgement and intelligence, overvalue the beliefs of their in-group, refuse to accept it when they’re wrong, refuse to make a fool of themselves in front of others by confessing error or pointing out errors in others (especially the boss) and so on.

I would add two more:

Suggestibility. Humans are just tremendously suggestible.

Say a bunch of positive words to test subjects, then ask them questions on an unrelated topic: they’ll answer positively. Take a different representative sample of subjects and run a bunch of negative words past them, then ask them the same unrelated questions, and their answers will be measurably more negative.

Ask subjects how they get a party started and they will talk and behave in an extrovert manner to the questioner. Ask them how they cope with feeling shy and ill at ease at parties, and they will tend to act shy and speak quieter. Thus, the initial terms or anchor defines the ensuing conversation.

In one experiment a set of subjects were shown one photo of a car crash. Half were asked to describe what they think happened when one car hit another; the other half were asked to describe what they thought happened when one car smashed into the other. The ones given the word ‘smashed’ gave much more melodramatic accounts. Followed up a week later, the subjects were asked to describe what they remembered of the photo. The subjects given the word ‘hit’ fairly accurately described it, whereas the subjects given the word ‘smashed’ invented all kinds of details like a sea of broken glass around the vehicles which simply wasn’t there, which their imaginations had invented, all at the prompting of one word.

Many of the experiments Sutherland quotes demonstrate what you might call higher-level biases: but underling many of them is this simple-or-garden observation, that people are tremendously easily swayed, by both external and internal causes, away from the line of cold logic.

Anthropomorphism Another big underlying cause is anthropomorphism, namely the attribution of human characteristics to objects, events, chances, odds and so on. In other words, people really struggle to accept the high incidence of random accidents. Almost everyone attributes a purpose or intention to almost everything that happens. This means our perceptions of almost everything in life are skewed from the start.

During the war Londoners devised innumerable theories about the pattern of German bombing. After the war, when Luftwaffe records were analysed, it showed the bombing was more or less at random.

The human desire to make sense of things – to see patterns where none exists or to concoct theories… can lead people badly astray. (p.267)

Suspending judgement is about the last thing people are capable of. People are extremely uneasy if things are left unexplained. Most people rush to judgement like water into a sinking ship.

Cures

  • keep an open mind
  • reach a conclusion only after reviewing all the possible evidence
  • it is a sign of strength to change one’s mind
  • seek out evidence which disproves your beliefs
  • do not ignore or distort evidence which disproves your beliefs
  • never make decisions in a hurry or under stress
  • where the evidence points to no obvious decision, don’t take one
  • learn basic statistics and probability
  • substitute mathematical methods (cost-benefit analysis, regression analysis, utility theory) for intuition and subjective judgement

Comments on the book

Out of date

Irrationality was first published in 1992 and this makes the book dated in several ways (maybe this is why the first paperback edition was published by upmarket mass publisher Penguin, whereas the most recent edition was published by the considerably more niche publisher, Pinter & Martin).

In the chapter about irrational business behaviour he quotes quite a few examples from the 1970s and the oil crisis of 1974. These and other examples – such as the long passage about how inefficient the civil service was in the early 1970s – feel incredibly dated now.

And the whole thing was conceived, researched and written before there was an internet or any of the digital technology we take for granted nowadays. Can’t help make wonder how the digital age has changed or added to the long list of biases, prejudices and faulty thinking he gives, and what errors of reason have emerged specific to our fabulous digital technology.

Grumpy

But it also has passages where Sutherland extrapolates out to draw general conclusions and some of these sound more like the grumblings of a grumpy old man than anything based on evidence.

Thus Sutherland whole-heartedly disapproves of ‘American’ health fads, dismisses health foods as masochistic fashion and is particularly scathing about jogging. He thinks ‘fashion’ in any sphere of life is ludicrously irrational. He is dismissive of doctors who he accuses of rejecting statistical evidence, refusing to share information with patients and wildly over-estimating their own diagnostic abilities.

He thinks the publishers of learned scientific journals are more interested in making money out of scientists than in ‘forwarding the progress of science’ (p.185). He thinks the higher average pay that university graduates tend to get is unrelated to their attendance at university and more to do with having well connected middle and upper middle class parents, and thus considers the efforts of successive Education Secretaries to introduce student loans to be unscientific and innumerate (p.186). He criticises Which consumer magazine for using too small samples in its testing (p.215). In an extended passage he summarises Leslie Chapman’s blistering (and very out of date) critique of the civil service, Your Disobedient Servant published in 1978 (pp.69-75).

He really has it in for psychoanalysis which he accuses of all sorts of irrational thinking such as projecting, false association, refusal to investigate negative instances, failing to take into account the likelihood that the patient would have improved anyway, and so on. Half way through the book he gives a thumbnail summary:

Self-deceit exists on a massive scale: Freud was right about that. Where he went wrong was in attributing it all to the libido, the underlying sex drive. (p.197)

In other words, the book is liberally sprinkled with Sutherland’s own personal opinions, which sometimes risk giving it a crankish feel.

On the other hand it’s surprising to see how some hot button issues haven’t changed at all. In the passage about the Prisoners’ Dilemma, Sutherland takes as a real life example the problem the nations of the world were having in 1992 in agreeing to cut back carbon dioxide emissions. Sound familiar?

He also states that the single biggest factor undermining international co-operation was America’s refusal to sign global treaties to limit global warming. In 1992! Plus ça change.

Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain

And finally, these are the mistakes made by the most intelligent and best educated among us, people trained to assess and act on evidence.

Neither this nor John Allen Paulos’s books take into account the obvious fact that lots of people are, how shall we put it, of low educational achievement. They begin with poor genetic material, are raised in families where no-one cares about education, are let down by poor schools, and are excluded or otherwise demotivated, with the result that :

  • the average reading age in the UK is 9
  • about one in five Britons (over ten million) are functionally illiterate, and probably about the same rate innumerate

which all contributes to the general festival of irrationality.

Trying to keep those pesky cognitive errors at bay (in fact The Witch by Pieter Bruegel the Elder)

Trying to keep those pesky cognitive errors at bay (otherwise known as The Witch by Pieter Bruegel the Elder)


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Psychology

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert (1874)

These images appear suddenly, as in flashes – outlined against the background of the night, like scarlet paintings executed upon ebony.

Saint Anthony

Saint Anthony a.k.a Anthony the Great (c. 251 – 356) was a Christian monk and visionary who reacted against the increasing acceptance and normalisation of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire by becoming, first an ascetic, and then rejecting social life altogether by going to live in the Egyptian desert, to fast and pray by himself, relying only on gifts of food from pilgrims and local villagers.

Rumours and legends spread about his simple life and holiness, and soon he gained a following. He is known to posterity because his contemporary, Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, wrote a long biography of him. For many years Anthony was credited as the founded of monasticism i.e. the idea that holy men should go and live in isolation from society, ideally in remote locations, to live simple lives and praise God – though modern scholars now know he was part of a widespread movement of religious puritans away from urban centres, which predated and accompanied him.

Athanasius’s biography describes how Anthony was tempted by the devil and by demons who appeared in numerous disguises, trying to seduce him with food and the pleasures of the flesh or, more subtly, trying to lure him into some of the heretical beliefs with which his age abounded.

Continually elaborated in the retelling, embellished with demons, naked women and weird monsters, the legend of the ‘Temptation of St Anthony’ went on to become a familiar subject in western art, inspiring lovingly grotesque depictions by the likes of Hieronymus Bosch and Mathias Grünewald.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch (1501)

In more modern times the Temptation was painted by Max Ernst and Salvador Dali, and was the subject of a symphony by the German composer Paul Hindemith (1934).

And it inspired this prose fantasia by Gustave Flaubert, published in 1874.

The mundane and the fantastic in Flaubert

As I’ve read through Flaubert I’ve realised his output can be very simply divided into two categories: the contemporary realist works (Madame Bovary, The Sentimental Education) and the exuberant historical fantasias (Salammbô, The Temptation of Saint Anthony).

In other words, alongside his painstaking attention to the detail of contemporary life, Flaubert was also fascinated and inspired by a wide range of historical and fantastical subjects. He had a long-running interest in the ancient world of the Mediterranean (an interest fuelled by his visits to Tunisia and Egypt) and a lifelong fascination with religion, all religions, ranging as far afield as Buddhism and Hinduism.

It is as if all the uncontrolled sexual, sadistic, fantastical and philosophical fantasies which Flaubert kept completely bottled up when creating the painstaking ‘realist’ novels, just had to erupt somewhere else – in the sustained cruelty of Salammbô and into the extended philosophical and psychological fantasia of Saint Anthony.

The problem of ‘evil’ in 19th century literature (i.e. it is boring)

Flaubert wrote three completely different versions of the Temptation (1849, 1856 and this one).

The long introduction to the Penguin paperback edition by Kitty Mrosovsky compares how the images and ideas changed in the three versions. She then goes on to quote the opinions of later French writers and critics, from Baudelaire through Valéry, from Sartre to Michel Foucault.

What becomes clear is that if you write about God and the devil, heaven and hell, being and nothingness, sex and sin, any number of critics will be able to impose their own critical schemas and obsessions on your text, and it can be turned into a Symbolist, Freudian, Modernist, Existentialist or Structuralist masterpiece, depending on which critic you’re reading.

In other words, modern texts on this kind of subject often turn out to be strangely empty.

Inner right wing of the Isenheim Altarpiece depicting the Temptation of St. Anthony by Matthias Grünewald (1512-1516)

Inner right wing of the Isenheim Altarpiece depicting the Temptation of St. Anthony by Matthias Grünewald (1512-1516)

Personally, I find the history of the late Roman Empire, the rise of Christianity and the efflorescence of its countless heresies, absolutely riveting. By contrast I often find the way secular ‘modern’ writers use this era and these ideas to spool out endless ruminations about the meaning of life, unutterably boring. Why?

I think the reason I like the history of the actual heresies – all those gnostics and Arians, the Adamites, Marcionians, Nicolaitans, Paternians, Archonites and so on – is that they are interesting in themselves, and they really mattered. There were riots, insurrections, people fought to the death about these beliefs and – arguably – the weakness of the Church in North Africa after centuries of bitter sectarian fighting made it easy for militant Islam to sweep across the region in the 7th century. This was of world-historical importance.

And the arcane Christological heresies of the 3rd or 4th centuries AD are interesting in themselves as thought-provoking explorations of the potential of Christian theology – was Christ a man? or a God? or half-man and half-God? Which half was which? Did God speak through him or were his words his own? Has the Son existed for all time, like God, or was he created at some later date i.e. is he equal to, or inferior to, God the Father? How can they be part of the same Substance when Jesus continually refers to ‘his Father’ as a distinct entity? And how does the Holy Spirit fit into each of these scenarios?

1. The long line of 19th century non-believing poets and writers who tackled issues of ‘sin’ and ‘damnation’ and ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ – from Byron via Baudelaire to Rimbaud and beyond – were just playing at being ‘damned poets’. There is no sense of risk in their work. The absolutely worst thing they could conceive of in their fictions, was suicide (which, when all is said and done, is just a personal psychological disorder), or murdering someone (just the one person) the subject of Dostoyevsky’s 500-page-long Crime and Punishment. Even the primevally wicked Mr Hyde only in fact murders one person. The worst thing most of these writers did, in practice, was sleep around and get drunk a lot.

In a sense the twentieth century made much 19th century literature redundant. The First World War went a long way towards (and then the Second World War, the Holocaust and the atom bomb, completed the work of) redefining forever the meaning of evil, despair, horror.

Agonising over one person’s soul seems, well, rather paltry in the light of the world we live in. (This is the reason I find the novels of Graham Greene, and their enormous obsession with the sinfulness or damnation of just one person, rather ludicrous.)

2. Also, no-one believes in Christianity any more. Not in a literal hell and damnation, not like they used to. In the Middle Ages the idea of damnation really mattered, psychologically: in Chaucer and Dante it is a real place, with real fire, and real demons skewering your tortured body. By the nineteenth century, in the hands of a dilettante like Byron, it is a fashion accessory, part of the pose of tormented genius.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony

The Temptation is divided into seven parts. It is written as if a play, with prose instructions describing the setting and goings-on (Opening words: ‘The setting is Thebaid, high on a mountain…’) while the dialogue of the ‘characters’ is given in dramatic format- the name, a colon, the speech.

It starts with Anthony outside his primitive hut in the desert at nightfall, and he proceeds to have a bewildering series of visions, some of which transport him to cities and palaces, where he encounters emperors and queens, and all manner of famous individuals such as the Queen of Sheba, Helen of Troy, the Buddha, the Greek gods and so on.

Right from the start Anthony – surprisingly – bemoans his lot, hates being alone, wonders whether he shouldn’t have followed another vocation, grumbles and complains in what – to be honest – is Flaubert’s awful, stagey dialogue.

Another day! another day gone!… What solitude! what weariness!… Ah! woe, woe is me! will this never end? Surely death were preferable! I can endure it no more! Enough! enough!… Assuredly there is no human being in a condition of such unutterable misery!… What shame for me! Alas! poor Anthony!… It is my own fault! I allow myself to be caught in every snare! No man could be more imbecile, more infamous!…

Since he doesn’t really do anything, we only know Anthony through his speech and his speech is hammy Victorian melodrama. As with the dialogue in Salammbô, every sentence seems to end in an exclamation mark but, paradoxically, the more exclamation marks he uses, the less dramatic (or interesting) the speech becomes, the more tiresome and simple-minded.

I found it impossible to take Anthony seriously as a character.

He stamps his foot upon the ground, and rushes frantically to and fro among the rocks; then pauses, out of breath, bursts into tears, and lies down upon the ground, on his side.

In fact, given the extravagant cast of characters, there is also surprisingly little drama, hardly any sense of conflict or threat, in the whole work. Anthony remains the same miserable moaner all the way through. There is no change or development, no sense of critical encounters or turning points or sudden revelations.

As I’ve read through Flaubert’s works I’ve become increasingly aware of the importance of Set Piece Scenes in his fiction. In a sense the Temptation is a reductio ad absurdam of this approach: it consists of nothing but an apparently endless series of set-piece encounters and scenes. This accounts for the highly static impression it makes on the reader.

One critic compares the entire book to the panoramas created by magic lanterns in the mid-nineteenth century. These enchanted their simpler audiences by projecting a series of images onto a flat wall. You can envisage the entire book as just such a series of slides.

The Temptation Of St Anthony by Joos van Craesbeeck

The Temptation of St Anthony by Joos van Craesbeeck (1650)

Part one – Human frailty

We find Saint Anthony in front of his hut in the desert as the sun sets. The entire book takes place in the space of this one night, from dusk to dawn.

Anthony is moaning about his lot in life and wonders why he didn’t do almost anything else, become a soldier or a teacher. Almost continually his thoughts are interrupted by wolves prowling just outside the light of his torch, or by birds, by strange noises.

Personally, I found almost all the scenes involving Anthony off-putting because he comes across as so wet and feeble. As in Salammbô and the realist novels, I often found the quiet, descriptive passages the most enjoyable, the ones where Flaubert uses his extensive background reading in the period to depict ordinary life of the time. Here he is imagining the life of your ordinary Alexandrian merchant.

The merchants of Alexandria sail upon the river Canopus on holidays, and drink wine in the chalices of lotus-flowers, to a music of tambourines which makes the taverns along the shore tremble! Beyond, trees, made cone-shaped by pruning, protect the quiet farms against the wind of the south. The roof of the lofty house leans upon thin colonettes placed as closely together as the laths of a lattice; and through their interspaces the master, reclining upon his long couch, beholds his plains stretching about him – the hunter among the wheat-fields – the winepress where the vintage is being converted into wine, the oxen treading out the wheat. His children play upon the floor around him; his wife bends down to kiss him.

Anthony sees this vision because he himself is lonely and hungry. The local villagers used to come and give him food, now they’ve stopped. Anthony reminisces about his days back in the city, as a trainee monk, when he was invited by Athanasius to join a set piece debate against the Arians (a very popular type of Christian heresy). Then he sees visions -‘ a stretch of water; then the figure of a prostitute; the corner of a temple, a soldier; a chariot with two white horses, prancing’, then he faints.

Part two – the Seven Deadly Sins

Out of the darkness comes the Devil, like a huge vampire bat, and under its wings are suckling the Seven Deadly Sins. It is a disappointment, then, that this ominous creature doesn’t speak. Instead Anthony hallucinates that his mat is a boat, rocking on a river, floating past the temple of Serapis.

Papyrus-leaves and the red flowers of the nymphæa, larger than the body of a man, bend over him. He is lying at the bottom of the boat; one oar at the stem, drags in the water. From time to time, a lukewarm wind blows; and the slender reeds rub one against the other, and rustle. Then the sobbing of the wavelets becomes indistinct. A heavy drowsiness falls upon him. He dreams that he is a Solitary of Egypt.

I like passages like this, clips or little scenelets of vivid description. When Anthony wakes the Devil has, apparently, disappeared – very disappointing. Anthony finds a husk of bread and his jug empty and this prompts a vivid hallucination of a great banqueting table set for a feast, replete with intoxicating sights and smells.

Then many things appear which he has never seen before – black hashes, jellies, the colour of gold, ragouts in which mushrooms float like nenuphars upon ponds, dishes of whipped cream light as clouds.

It was only the notes which explained to me that what now follows is a sequence in which Anthony hallucinates each of the Seven Deadly Sins in turn. This one represented the Sin of Gluttony. As in a hallucination the food morphs into lips and then into one loaf on a table which now stretches to right in front of his face. He pushes it away and it vanishes.

Then Anthony stumbles over something underfoot, which turns into money, lots of money, a crown, precious jewels.

As water streams overflowing from the basin of a fountain, so diamonds, carbuncles, and sapphires, all mingled with broad pieces of gold bearing the effigies of Kings, overflow from the cup in never ceasing streams, to form a glittering hillock upon the sand…

It is the Sin of Avarice. As he throws himself upon the pile it vanishes. He trembles in the knowledge that, had he died in the middle of succumbing to any of these temptations, he would have gone to hell.

Now the scene completely changes and Anthony thinks he sees a panoramic overview of the city of Alexandria. In style this is identical to the numerous panoramic overviews of Carthage which Flaubert gave us in Salammbô. He sees crowds of vengeful monks pouring through the streets, seeking out their heretical opponents, the Arians, and then Anthony suddenly sees himself to be one of them, bursting into the houses of the heretics, burning their books, torturing and eviscerating them, wading up to his knees in the heretics’ blood!

And the blood gushes to the ceilings, falls back upon the walls like sheets of rain, streams from the trunks of decapitated corpses, fills the aqueducts, forms huge red pools upon the ground. Anthony is up to his knees in it. He wades in it; he sucks up the blood-spray on his lips; he is thrilled with joy as he feels it upon his limbs, under his hair-tunic which is soaked through with it.

This is the Sin of Wrath.

Next the scene morphs to a Roman city (which I deduce is the newish capital of the Roman Empire, Constantinople) and Anthony finds himself ushered through countless rooms in a grand palace, past armed guards to arrive in the presence of the Emperor. This painted, dazzling personage treats him as an equal, discusses politics and religion with him and places his imperial diadem on Anthony’s brow. He is taken out into the balcony overlooking the Hippodrome where the great chariot races are held, walking past prison cells in which are imprisoned his theological enemies, the Arians, grovelling and begging hur hur hur. The Sin of Pride.

Then the scene morphs into the throne room of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon 600 BC, a long banqueting table, and crawling in the dirt all the kings Nebuchadnezzar has defeated, whose hands and feet have been cut off. A little way off sit the king’s brothers, all of whom have been blinded. As in Salammbô the reader becomes aware of Flaubert’s oppressive interest in sadism and cruelty. Anthony enters the mind of the king of kings and is immediately drenched in feelings of lust and cruelty. He climbs on the table and bellows like a bull and then…

Comes to himself. He is alone in front of his hut. He picks up his whip and flagellates himself, enjoying the pain, the tearing of his rebellious flesh, whereupon…

He sees men riding on onagers (a kind of Asiatic wild ass) and then a procession of camels and horses and then a white elephant with a golden net and waving peacock feathers, which bears the Queen of Sheba. The elephant kneels, the queen slides down its trunk onto a precious carpet laid out by her slaves and she greets Anthony. As with Salammbô, there is in these scenes an excess of description over psychology or character.

Her robe of gold brocade, regularly divided by furbelows of pearls, of jet, and of sapphires, sheaths her figure closely with its tight-fitting bodice, set off by coloured designs representing the twelve signs of the Zodiac.

She wears very high pattens – one of which is black, and sprinkled with silver stars, with a moon crescent; the other, which is white, is sprinkled with a spray of gold, with a golden sun in the middle. Her wide sleeves, decorated with emeralds and bird-plumes, leave exposed her little round bare arms, clasped at the wrist by ebony bracelets; and her hands, loaded with precious rings, are terminated by nails so sharply pointed that the ends of her fingers seem almost like needles.

A chain of dead gold, passing under her chin, is caught up on either side of her face, and spirally coiled about her coiffure, whence, redescending, it grazes her shoulders and is attached upon her bosom to a diamond scorpion, which protrudes a jewelled tongue between her breasts. Two immense blond pearls depend heavily from her ears. The borders of her eyelids are painted black.

And she claims they have been searching the wilderness for him and, now they have found him, she will marry him and worship him and anoint him and caress him. There is a great deal of Miltonic description of the riches and luxuries from far-flung exotic places which she can offer him, but then it focuses down to the pleasure of her body, which sums up a whole world of desire. The Sin of Lust.

I am not a woman: I am a world!

But Anthony stands firm and after flirting with him some more, she turns on her heel, remounts her elephant and departs along with all her servants, laughing, mocking him.

Part three – Hilarion (11 pages)

A small child appears. Going up to him Anthony recognises the face of his one-time disciple, Hilarion, long since departed for Palestine. This phantasmal Hilarion sets about systematically undermining Anthony’s faith:

  • he criticises Anthony’s teacher, Athanasius, pointing out his theological errors
  • he says Anthony’s mortification is pointless since many heretics do just the same
  • Jesus went cheerfully about his ministry, mixing with people, talking, teaching, unlike misanthropic Anthony
  • when Anthony points to the Scriptures as the basis of faith, Hilarion immediately rattles off a list of the inconsistencies in the Gospel accounts of Jesus
The Temptation of St. Anthony by David Teniers the Younger (1647)

The Temptation of St. Anthony by David Teniers the Younger (1647)

Part four – the Heresiarchs and the circus victims (60 pages)

The heresiarchs Hilarion ushers Anthony into a vast basilica full of people who turn out to be a collection of all the founders of heresies, all the rival theologians and preachers and mystic, the Gnostics and neo-Platonics and religious thinkers, of his time. This is quite a long list and, as most of them only get a sentence or so designed to baffle and demoralise Anthony, it is very difficult from Flaubert’s text alone to properly understand their deviant beliefs.

After all these years I still recommend Paul Johnson’s excellent History of Christianity (1977), whose long second chapter is devoted to a detailed exposition of the Christian heresies which exploded around the Mediterranean and caused outrage, riots and even wars (when different candidates for emperor adopted opposing theologies) until well into the 8th century.

Thus Anthony meets in quick succession the heresiarchs Mani, Saturninus, Cerdo, St Clement of Alexandria, Bardesanes, the Herbians, the Priscillianists, Valentine, Origen, the Elkhasaites, the Carpocratians, the Nicolaitans, the Marcosians, the Helvidians, the Messalians, the Paternians, Aetius, Tertullian, Priscilla, Maximilla, Montanus, the Archontics, the Tatianians, the Valesians, the Cainites, the Circumcellions, Arius. Pandemonium breaks out:

The Audians shoot arrows against the Devil; the Collyridians throw blue cloths toward the roof; the Ascites prostrate themselves before a waterskin; the Marcionites baptise a dead man with oil. A woman, standing near Appelles, exhibits a round loaf within a bottle, in order the better to explain her idea. Another, standing in the midst of an assembly of Sampseans distributes, as a sacrament, the dust of her own sandals. Upon the rose-strewn bed of the Marcosians, two lovers embrace. The Circumcellionites slaughter one another; the Valesians utter the death-rattle; Bardesanes sings; Carpocras dances; Maximilla and Priscilla moan; and the false prophetess of Cappadocia, completely naked, leaning upon a lion, and brandishing three torches, shrieks the Terrible Invocation.

As you can see, this glorified list is more a goldmine for editors and annotators than any kind of pleasure for readers. Indeed, the Penguin edition has 47 pages of notes giving you fascinating facts on almost every one of the characters and places mentioned in the text. But if you read it as text alone, all these names quickly blur.

This long section about heretics makes clearer than ever the fact that Flaubert has the mentality of an encyclopedist, a compiler of dictionaries. He boasted to friends about the hundreds of history books he read as research for both Salammbô and Anthony and boy does it show.

Flaubert cuts and pastes together the results to produce scenes packed with exotic names, but almost always without any life or psychology and, as here, disappointingly uninformative. The controversies about the precise meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion which racked the early church are riveting because there was so much to play for; they were political as well as theological arguments, because different sects seized control of entire Roman provinces, Roman emperors disinherited their own children or fought opponents because they espoused divergent beliefs.

Flaubert manages to drain this exciting and complex historical and theological subject of all interest and turn it into a procession of cardboard mouthpieces, who all sound the same.

Following Arius, the chapter continues with a paragraph or so from: Sabellius, the Valentinians, the Sethians, the Theodotians, the Merinthians, the Apollinarists, Marcellus of Ancyra, Pope Calixtus, Methodius, Cerinthus, Paul of Samosata, Hermogenes, the Cerinthians, the Marcosians, the Encratites, the Cainites, the Old Ebionites, Eusebius of Caesarea, Marcellina…

The ceremony of the Orphites Anthony is then taken through a door into a dark shrine where he witnesses a ceremony of the Orphites, who worshipped the snake, the serpent in the Eden story, believing it to be the true saviour. Their chanting awakens a monstrously huge python which they handle and twine around themselves as they hold a blasphemous eucharist.

Christians being thrown to the lions Exhausted with horror at the sheer number of heresies, Anthony falls to the floor and is immediately back in the dust in front of his humble hut. Time passes and a new hallucination begins. He is in a dark room, a prison cell, among other wretches. Outside it is sunny, he hears the roar of a crowd, the sound of lions and has a vision of the arena, tier after tier of seats. He is among Christians about to be thrown to the lions.

Various characters explain why they’re there (interrupting pagan rites, burning down temples, refusing to worship pagan gods) and explore their plight: an Old Man lamenting he didn’t escape, a Young Man bewailing the lost years, a Consoler saying a miracle might happen. The idea (apparently) is to disillusion Anthony by showing him the mean motives, the backsliding and lack of faith of the so-called ‘martyrs’. The portcullis on the other side of the arena opens and out lope lazy lions, panthers, leopards, and then the martyrs’ door opens and the gaoler whips the weeping Christians out into the sand…

In the cemetery And Anthony awakes, dazed, looks around him, then.. falls into another dream. He is in a cemetery where he meets veiled women lamenting the deaths of their husbands, sons or how they themselves were condemned as Christians and persecuted, and then… as they bow and pray together, eat together, their robes slip open and their mouths join and.. I think they have an orgy – presumably the Devil’s intention is to show him the lack of faith and the easy lasciviousness of the widows of the faithful. This scene fades out and…

The Hindu sage Anthony is at the edge of a tropical forest, with parrots and lizards. On a pyre squats a shrivelled man wearing a necklace of shells and with a bird’s nest built in his long matted hair. He is ‘the Gymnosophist’, a Hindu sage. This wizened figure repeats basic Hindu teachings about reincarnation, about striving to reach purity so as not to fall into corruption. Then his pyre bursts into flames and he is burnt alive without a sound.

Simon Magus and Helen of Troy Anthony tramples out the flames and it is dark again. Then through a cleft in the rocks comes a voice followed by a white-haired old man leading a young girl with bite marks on her face and bruises on her arm. It emerges that he is Simon Magus, a magician of the first century mentioned in the Gospels. He claims to be the reincarnation of God and that the woman with him is his ‘First Thought’ or Ennoia, who has been reincarnated through the ages, at one point in the body of the legendary Helen of Troy, before he rescued from her work in a brothel in Tyre. Simon shakes the pot he’s carrying which has a live flame at the top, but the flame shivers and goes out and a great smoke or fog fills the stage.

Apollonius of Tyana Anthony stumbles though the fog to discover Simon and Helen are gone. Now through the fog come a pair of men, one tall and lordly like Christ, the other a short servant. It is Apollonius of Tyana, the sage or thaumaturge, and his servant Dimas. Apollonius declaims grandly. As so often with Flaubert, the reader gets the sense that the author is more interested, intoxicated even, by lists of grand, exotic-sounding and remote peoples and places – than by any kind of sense or logic. Thus Apollonius:

I have conversed with the Samaneans of the Ganges, with the astrologers of Chaldea, with the magi of Babylon, with the Gaulish Druids, with the priests of the negroes! I have ascended the fourteen Olympii; I have sounded the Scythian lakes; I have measured the breadth of the Desert!…

But first I had visited the Hyrcanian Sea; I made the tour of it; and descending by way of the country of the Baraomati, where Bucephalus is buried, I approached the city of Nineveh….

At Taxilla, the capital of five thousand fortresses, Phraortes, King of the Ganges, showed us his guard of black men, whose stature was five cubits, and under a pavilion of green brocade in his gardens, an enormous elephant, which the queens amused themselves by perfuming. It was the elephant of Porus which had taken flight after the death of Alexander….

Upon the shores of the sea we met with the milk-gorged Cynocephali, who were returning from their expedition to the Island Taprobana…

So we returned through the Region of Aromatics, by way of the country of the Gangarides, the promontory of Comaria, the country of the Sachalites, of the Adramites and of the Homerites; then, across the Cassanian mountains, the Red Sea, and the Island Topazos, we penetrated into Ethiopia through the country of the Pygmies…

I have penetrated into the cave of Trophonius, son of Apollo! I have kneaded for Syracusan women the cakes which they carry to the mountains. I have endured the eighty tests of Mithra! I have pressed to my heart the serpent of Sabasius! I have received the scarf of Kabiri! I have laved Cybele in the waters of the Campanian gulfs! and I have passed three moons in the caverns of Samothracia!

And so on. There is not a trace of drama, character, psychology, theology or philosophy in sight. This is quite transparently just a litany of resonant names. Apollonius and Dimas step backwards off a cliff and remain suspended in the air, like Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons, before ascending slowly into the black night sky.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Félicien Rops (1878)

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Félicien Rops (1878)

Part five – the pagan gods and goddesses (42 pages)

Another long chapter in which Anthony meets what amounts to a list of all the pagan gods and goddesses, each of them given – as we’ve become used to – a few sentences or a paragraph in which to show off Flaubert’s erudition and wide reading, before handing on to the next one.

In fact it starts off with a parade of pre-pagan gods, the blocks of wood or stone which original humans worshipped. Anthony and Hilarion mock the stupidity of the men who worshiped these clods. Then detours (unexpectedly) to a quick review of the original Hindu gods and of the Buddha, who tells the story of his life. The purpose of this temptation is that, as each of these entities tells its story, Hilarion (like a mini-devil) chips in to point out that this or that aspect of their worship is really no different from Christian belief or practice; it is designed to erode Christianity’s claims to uniqueness.

We have appearances from the Buddha, Oanna (of the Chaldeans), the gods of ancient Babylon and their temple prostitutes, Ormuz god of the Persians, the Great Diana of Ephesus with her three rows of breasts.

Cybele’s priests sacrifice a sheep and spatter Anthony and Hilarion with the blood, Atys who in a frenzy castrates himself as do his priests, we see the funeral of Adonis, killed by the boar, and the lamentation of Persephone, Isis suckling her babe and lamenting the death and dismemberment of Osiris.

Anthony is racked with sadness that so many souls have been lost worshiping these false gods; but sly Hilarion points out that so many aspects of the gods or their worship echo the True Religion, seeking to undermine Anthony’s belief.

Now he and Anthony see a vast mountain with Olympus on its height and witness the pantheon of Greek gods, one by one lamenting their decline and fall: Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, Hercules, Pluto, Neptune, Mars, Vulcan, one by one they lament the loss of their powers and the end of their worship, before going tumbling down into a black abyss.

The lament of Osiris for her lost lover, and the sorrow of the Greek gods are the only pages in the book which I found moving enough to reread and savour. In it we can hear the voice of Flaubert, who from his schooldays believed he lived in a fallen world of stupidity and vulgarity. Hence the words he puts into dying Jupiter’s mouth:

‘Eagle of apotheoses, what wind from Erebus has wafted thee to me? or, fleeing from the Campus Martins, dost thou bear me the soul of the last of the Emperors? – I no longer desire to receive those of men. Let the Earth keep them; and let them move upon the level of its baseness. Their hearts are now the hearts of slaves; – they forget injuries, forget their ancestors, forget their oaths – and everywhere the mob’s imbecility, the mediocrity of individuals, the hideousness of every race, hold sway!

Latterly go the household gods, those minor deities who gave grace and dignity to all aspects of daily life in ancient Rome, who laid the bride in her bed, tended at childbirth, at sickness, at feasts, during illness. All scorned, ignored and gone. Finally – surprisingly – a page is devoted to Jehovah, the god of the Old Testament, himself rejected and abused, his followers – the Jews – scorned and scattered over the earth.

It was a struggle to read the previous chapters, but these long laments of the dying pagan gods and the imaginative grace and nobility they brought to everyday life is, I think, genuinely moving. For the first time the text stirred, for me, as actual literature instead of a list of gaudy names.

Part six – the Devil (8 pages)

Hilarion gives way to the Devil himself who chucks Anthony onto his horns and carries him up, up and away, through the sky, into space, up to the moon, beyond the solar system, into the realm of the stars, all the time explaining a) that the universe is infinite, nothing like the earth-centred structure of the ancient Greeks or Jews b) while giving him a compelling lecture on theology (the only theology in the text), explaining in a dry logical, professorial manner the unbounded infinitude and one substance of God.

God has no imperfections, God has no passions, God doesn’t worry or fret about his creatures, he is vastly beyond the momentary whims of man, his is as extended, infinite and integral as the universe. BUT the corollary of this is that He doesn’t listen to prayers and hear the sobs and hopes of his countless creations. He is infinitely remote, completely Perfect, utterly indifferent. (According to the notes, this is a summary of the philosophical pantheism of Spinoza.)

The point is that the Devil’s fluent and vast philosophising leads up to the terrifyingly logical conclusion:

Adore me, then! – and curse the phantom thou callest God!

On some instinct Anthony, despite being overwhelmed by this vision of the universe and the Devil’s compelling logic, lifts his eyes as if to pray. The Devil drops him in disgust.

Part seven (20 pages)

Anthony regains consciousness by the cliff edge. It crosses his mind to end it all by simply rolling over it and falling to his death. This final chapter is in three parts:

1. He is approached by a wizened old woman and a nubile young woman. One argues the case for suicide, the other urges him to embrace life. Slowly it becomes clear they are Death and Lust, respectively. He dismisses them and is confronted by:

2. The Chimera and the Sphinx. The former attracts men towards pointless delusions, the latter devours seekers after God. They squabble and argue until the Sphinx sinks into the sand and the Chimaera goes swooping off in pointless circles.

3. Their argument morphs into the most genuinely surreal and hallucinatory section in the text, where Flaubert creates a parade of the strangest creatures or human-beasts he has come across in all his reading of myths and legends. These include:

  • the Astomi, humans who are completely transparent
  • the Nisnas, who have only one eye, one cheek, one hand, one leg, half a body, half a heart
  • the Blemmyes who have no head at all
  • the Pygmies
  • the Sciapods, who live with their heads and bodies in the earth, only the soles of their feet and legs showing
  • the Cynocephali, men with the heads of dogs who fly through trees in great forests,
  • the Sadhuzag, who has seventy-four antlers which the wind blows through to make beautiful sounds
  • the Martichoras, a gigantic red lion, with human face, and three rows of teeth
  • the Catoblepas, a black buffalo with a pig’s head, falling to the ground, and attached to his shoulders by a neck long, thin, and flaccid as an empty gut
  • the Basilisk, a great violet serpent, with trilobate crest, and two fangs, one above, one below
  • the Griffin, a lion with a vulture’s beak, and white wings, red paws and blue neck

And then there is a terrifying outpouring of Life in a profusion of forms:

And all manner of frightful creatures arise: – The Tragelaphus, half deer, half ox; the Myrmecoles, lion before and ant behind, whose genitals are set reversely; the python Askar, sixty cubits long, that terrified Moses; the huge weasel Pastinaca, that kills the trees with her odour; the Presteros, that makes those who touch it imbecile; the Mirag, a horned hare, that dwells in the islands of the sea. The leopard Phalmant bursts his belly by roaring; the triple-headed bear Senad tears her young by licking them with her tongue; the dog Cepus pours out the blue milk of her teats upon the rocks.

Mosquitoes begin to hum, toads commence to leap; serpents hiss. Lightnings flicker. Hail falls.
Then come gusts, bearing with them marvellous anatomies: – Heads of alligators with hoofs of deer; owls with serpent tails; swine with tiger-muzzles; goats with the crupper of an ass; frogs hairy as bears; chameleons huge as hippopotami; calves with two heads, one bellowing, the other weeping; winged bellies flitting hither and thither like gnats.

They rain from the sky, they rise from the earth, they pour from the rocks; everywhere eyes flame, mouths roar, breasts bulge, claws are extended, teeth gnash, flesh clacks against flesh. Some crouch; some devour each other at a mouthful.

Suffocating under their own numbers, multiplying by their own contact, they climb over one another; and move about Anthony with a surging motion as though the ground were the deck of a ship. He feels the trail of snails upon the calves of his legs, the chilliness of vipers upon his hands: – and spiders spinning about him enclose him within their network.

Finally, in this endless chain of evolutions and transformations, animals turn into insects, flowers turn into rocks, beasts turn to crystal, ice pullulates with life, it is a wild hallucination of the pantheistic vision of life in all things

And now the vegetables are no longer distinguishable from the animals. Polyparies that seem like trees, have arms upon their branches. Anthony thinks he sees a caterpillar between two leaves: it is a butterfly that takes flight. He is about to step on a pebble: a grey locust leaps away. One shrub is bedecked with insects that look like petals of roses; fragments of ephemerides form a snowy layer upon the soil.

And then the plants become confounded with the stones. Flints assume the likeness of brains; stalactites of breasts; the flower of iron resembles a figured tapestry.

He sees efflorescences in fragments of ice, imprints of shrubs and shells—yet so that one cannot detect whether they be imprints only, or the things themselves. Diamonds gleam like eyes; metals palpitate.

His vision narrows right down onto ants, onto the tiniest creatures, onto organisms no bigger than pinheads, furred with cilia and quivering with primordial life. Anthony has seen the origins of life and evolution in reverse, and he bursts out:

‘O joy! O bliss! I have beheld the birth of life! I have seen the beginning of motion! My pulses throb even to the point of bursting! I long to fly, to swim, to bark, to bellow, to howl! Would that I had wings, a carapace, a shell – that I could breathe out smoke, wield a trunk – make my body writhe – divide myself everywhere – be in everything – emanate with odours – develop myself like the plants – flow like water – vibrate like sound – shine like light, squatting upon all forms – penetrate each atom – descend to the very bottom of matter – be matter itself!

And then:

Day at last appears, and, like the raised curtains of a tabernacle, golden clouds furling into larger scrolls unveil the sky.

There in the middle, inside the very disk of the sun, radiates the face of Jesus Christ.

Anthony makes the sign of the cross and returns to his prayers.

Conclusion

Now, either Anthony has learned something definitive in the course of this long, busy night, and Flaubert intends this final outcry, apparently in praise of a kind of pantheistic materialism, as the climax and ‘message’ of the piece (which is very much how it feels when you read it)…

Or the ending has a more pessimistic meaning: namely that the return to his prayers signals a return to the same rut, the same wheel, and that the next night the whole thing will repeat itself all over again. I.e. he is caught like a Beckett character in an endless, pointless cycle of torment and fake wisdom.

I could see that both of these are possibilities but I am happy to leave my reading of the ending completely open because I was just so relieved to get to the end of this long, dense, almost unreadable fantasia of cuttings and notes transmuted into a bizarre sequence of sometimes unbearably tedious scenes.

The only moving part of the whole book is the Lament of the Pagan Gods – where the scenario of each of the gods in turn lamenting the decline of their worship and the end of their influence for once was adequate to the feeling of world sadness Flaubert is obviously aiming at.

Also, the final few pages, the almost hysterical hallucination of the very origins of life, are also head-spinningly delirious. But most if it felt like I was at the dentist having a filling.

The Temptation of St. Anthony by Salvador Dali (1946)

The Temptation of St. Anthony by Salvador Dali (1946)


Related links

Flaubert’s books

The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity 371-1386 by Richard Fletcher (1997)

Big book, enormous subject. Just as well we’re in the company of such an immensely knowledgeable and charming companion – medieval historian Richard Fletcher. Sadly Dr Fletcher died in 2005 – read the Guardian obituary – but his works live on, and this is his masterpiece.

The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity 371-1386 (1997) forms a great companion to Robert Ferguson’s brilliant book about the Vikings, The Hammer and The Cross (2010). The ‘Viking Age’ was roughly 800 to 1100. Ferguson describes in forensic detail the brutal, masculine world of the barbarian raiders from the seas, heathens from beyond the pale of Roman civilisation, law and literacy; only slowly is their bloodlust brought under control as the various Danish kings and warlords are converted and baptised at the end of the 900s and into the 1000s. Ferguson’s thesis is that, shadowy and difficult to pin down as the definition of ‘Viking’ is, there is certainly one constant to all their activities: their super-violent hatred of Christianity. Christian centres are not just attacked, they are destroyed and the inhabitants exterminated.

Fletcher’s book, on the other hand –

  • Covers a much larger period – from the emperor Theodosius banning pagan religion in the 380s to the conversion of the Lithuanians one thousand years later, in the 1380s – and a far wider canvas, from Scotland to Romania.
  • Covers the same story from the other side, examining the administrative and cultural framework of Christianity as it developed inside the Pale of Roman administration, law and literacy, and then slowly extended beyond it.

The main difference is that, compared to the Vikings, we actually have quite a lot of information about individual proselytisers because so many of them became saints (St Martin, St Columba, Patrick, St Augustine, St Wilfrid and so on) and had hagiographies (biographies of saints) written about them, often by followers who had personally known them and witnessed key events in their lives.

By the 7th and 8th centuries, many of these pioneers can be shown either to have come from aristocratic families or to have had aristocratic or royal sponsors. After the obscurity of the 5th and 6th centuries, Fletcher’s book in the 7th and 8th centuries becomes like a tapestry or puzzle, wherein we can see the complex web of relationships between successive kings and their spouses and their missionary monks and priests, the evangelists pushing into new territory, the royals providing the money and material to build them new churches and monasteries, which become engines of education and learning, generating new mission-minded monks who themselves set off further north or south or east to copy the example of their sainted forebears.

Slowly, slowly, by painstaking efforts, the whole continent is converted.

The rise of Christianity

The opening chapters move swiftly over Jesus (‘Christianity traces its historic roots to the ministry of a Jewish preacher and exorcist in a backward province of the Roman empire’, p.13), the missions of St Paul, the letters of the earliest fathers and martyrs, through to the ‘Eusebian accommodation’. The emperor Constantine plays a pivotal role in the history of Christianity because it was he who, in the Edict of Milan in 313, brought all Roman persecution of Christianity to an end and decriminalised Christian belief and practice. The age of persecution and martyrs ends in 313.

Constantine was a practical man who set about establishing peace throughout the Empire, reorganising its taxes and laws, establishing a fundamentally new structure whereby the empire was divided into a western and an eastern half (the latter to be ruled from the new capital he established at the old Greek town of Byzantium which he completely rebuilt and renamed Constantinople). And he brought the same practical thoroughness to the up-and-coming religion which had now established itself throughout the empire, Christianity, calling councils to thrash out its beliefs, to have them set in writing and promulgated under his name, as well as sitting in judgement on the theological and administrative squabbles of the early church.

Eusebius was court theologian to Constantine and, as well as the panegyrics he wrote to Constantine’s wonderfulness, he developed the idea that the empire and Christianity were intertwined: it was their destiny to work together, the wise and good Constantine providing the peaceful framework within which his holy church could save souls, the wise and good Church leaders providing the emperors with spiritual guidance. Now that it had adopted Christianity, the Roman Empire would be protected and supported by a loving God. The two would go hand in hand in peace and power.

100 years later this line of argument got into trouble when Rome was sacked by the Visigoths (410). Surviving pagan philosophers used this disaster to refute the argument that the Empire had been blessed and protected by Christianity: it looked very much the opposite, that abandoning the old pagan gods had led to disaster.

Far away in North Africa, the great theologian Augustine was prompted the fall of Rome to write his huge masterpiece City of God (426). This completely rejected the idea of an accommodation between Rome and Christianity, and asserted a complete separation between the earthly city with its corruption and imperfection, and the divine City of God. The Eastern, Greek empire, stuck with the Eusebian ideal; the West with Augustine’s separation, with huge consequences. Augustine’s insistence on the separation of Church and State sowed the seeds of the long-running feud between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope, and between individual rulers and their archbishops and the Pope, a tendency which led to the rejection of central Church authority in the Reformation. All this was in sharp contrast to the Greek Eastern Orthodox tradition which followed Constantine’s wish of uniting church and state – leading to the arguably more authoritarian regimes of Orthodox countries, epitomised by Russia.

If in the East church and state were nearly identical, in the West they were often at odds. Harmony was characteristic of the east, tension of the west. It was to be a critically important constituent of western culture that church and state should be perceived as distinct and indeed often competing institutions. Built into western Christian traditions there was a potential rarely encountered in the east for explosion, for radicalism, for non-conformity, for confrontation. (page 28)

Augustine’s pessimistic vision seemed to be confirmed when the Empire in the West collapsed and the last emperor was killed in 476. The slow decay of Imperial law and institutions eventually left the archbishops and bishops and abbots and monasteries – the papacy and the Church bureaucracy – as the only thing left standing to embody the literacy, legality and civilisation of the Roman Empire as the barbarians swarm across Europe.

Why convert anyone to Christianity?

Because Jesus told them to. The key passage is in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 28, verses 16–20:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

In later years this would become known as ‘the Great Commission’ and was used in the era of European expansion and colonisation (1500 to 2000) to justify missionising to all the native peoples Europeans encountered.

Fletcher’s book shows:

a) How very slowly it came about that the Church hierarchy even considered missionising beyond the urban centres – for a long time it was thought that you only needed a few converts in each of the ‘nations’ – and those mostly among the urban rich. ‘Surely that’s enough, isn’t it?’ Fletcher brilliantly describes how slow the notion of conversion and mission was to emerge. For centuries the authorities concerned themselves only with bringing the pagans within the Empire into the Church; that was challenge enough. He shows how Christianity was above all an urban phenomenon, and identified entirely with the wealthy and – once Constantine adopted it – with the extremely wealthy. These oligarchs fell over themselves to lavish land and bequests on the Church. In its earliest period Christian evangelisation was restricted to urban centres – St Paul’s epistles are to congregations in cities. Christian authorities followed the Roman prejudice that country dwellers were illiterate beasts. Only slowly did the idea develop that bishops should stamp out paganism in the countryside.

b) And this extending of the faith beyond urban centres itself turned out to be a chalenging and slow business – such that popes and bishops are still writing about the scandal of pagan worship clinging on among the peasants well into the 600s and 700s. And not on the periphery, but right in the heart of the ‘Christian’ empire, in Italy itself, 20 miles from Rome – let alone in the further lands of Francia and Spain, or out in the wild frontiers like England.

c) Only slowly, in the work of isolated writers and a few brave experimenters, did the notion of going beyond the borders of Romanitas to convert the heathen become even thinkable – the notion of sending Christian officials outside the boundaries of the former Roman Empire into hard-core, non-Latin, barbarian territory to ‘spread the Word’. The first half of the book tells the story of just such hardy souls, St Martin, St Patrick, St Boniface, and the wonderful miracles they did and hordes they converted. (The bishop was the standard rank of mission leader – a bishop could establish a ‘diocese’, set up a centre for ecclesiastical administration, appoint and manage priests, organise church-building etc, all the while corresponding with the Head of the Organisation back in Rome.)

What were the converters up against?

Fletcher builds the text by taking examples of figures both famous and obscure from across Latin Europe (Italy, France, Spain, England) and using the written records we have of them to investigate and compare their various motives, procedures, what they were up against (pagan resistance) and how much they succeeded.

The great frustration of this subject is that we know so little about what so-called ‘pagans’ actually believed or did. A central part of the ‘conversion’ process was to destroy every single shrine, statue, holy tree and so on, a scorched earth policy as regards buildings and objects, and it’s the same with texts – not a single text survives anywhere which records the nature of pagan belief, compared to the thousands and thousands we have which record the holy sayings and wonderful deeds and pious activities of Christian martyrs, saints and teachers.

In practical terms, this is because the Christians – of course – controlled the only means of storing and transmitting information i.e. writing. It appears that the pagans had no writing (apart, in some places, from primitive runes carved into stone) and certainly didn’t have the means of recording, replicating and storing writing which Christians established in the shape of monasteries full of educated, literate, text-copying monks.

But various church officials did, in scattered letters, sermons and theological works, make scattered references to the ongoing pagan practices, and from them we can piece together – if not the content of the beliefs or even the names of the pagan gods (pitifully rare) – at least some of the more superstitious practices of rural people. The De Correctione Rusticorum of Martin of Braga (now northern Portugal), written at the end of the 6th century, is a letter written to a fellow bishop, Polemius of Astorga, which laments the ongoing bad behaviour of his pagan flock who:

  • celebrate new year with the pagan Roman festival of Kalends
  • burn candles at stones and trees and springs and where three roads meet
  • observe divinations and auguries and days of idols
  • observe the Day of Vulcan (23 August) and the first days of each month
  • adorn tables and hang up laurels and ‘watch the foot’
  • pour wine and fruit over the hearth and put bread in a spring
  • women invoke Minerva in their weaving
  • keep weddings for the day of Venus (Friday)
  • mutter spells over herbs and invoke the name of demons in incantations
  • find special meaning in the behaviour of little birds and in sneezing (p.53)

The Christian authorities decried the existence of arioli (singular: ariolus), holy men who uttered impious words at altars and offered sacrifices, who tied ligatures on the bodies of the sick and applied medicines. In 598 Pope Gregory wrote to the bishop of Terracina just 50 miles from Rome lamenting that local inhabits continued to worship sacred trees, in the pagan manner.

And it wasn’t just the peasants who continued with heathen superstitions. A council of bishops at Toledo in 633 thought it necessary to forbid bishops, priests, deacons or any other clerical orders from consulting magicians, augurs, diviners or soothsayers (p.55). The power of these superstitious practices lingered on for centuries. In fact, in the final pages Fletcher gives records of Church authorities still trying to stamp out rural pagan practice in the 1600s!

How did the converters convert pagans?

This is simple and startling. Contrary to modern practice of converting through reading, teaching and discussion, medieval missionaries performed miracles and magic. ‘My God is more powerful than your gods – watch! Told you so!’

While the Church elite was writing and arguing about high points of theology – which is what many histories of Christianity tend to focus on – down on the ground, among the peasants of the Touraine or Galicia or Mercia, individual evangelists were going head to head with the local deities to show that only the Christian God could end a drought, guarantee safe childbirth, prevent a flood and so on.

The point is not only that the Christians could perform miracles – it’s that the pagan gods could too. High level theologians could dismiss pagan power as empty superstition but down on the ground, missionaries knew the pagan idols had power but they reinterpreted this power as coming from the Devil and his legion of demons – something they had good warrant for in the Gospel stories.

Early medieval Europe was a world in which persons of every level of intellectual cultivation accepted without question that the miraculous could weave  like a shuttle in and out of everyday reality. (p.10)

All these people lived in a world dominated by cruel and capricious forces – incurable diseases, natural disasters, plague and famine, not to mention the unexpected attacks from rampaging armies which killed, raped and dragged survivors off into slavery. Traditional beliefs were the only science and the only technology they had to try and order and control and give meaning to their lives. It took a lot to dislodge these time-honoured traditions.

In a European countryside where over hundreds of years diverse rituals had evolved for coping with the forces of nature, Christian holy men had to show that they had access to more efficacious power. (p.64)

Only by going head to head with the powers of the traditional gods could Christian missionaries hope to make even the slightest impact. Thus the records we have of missionaries throughout the period (300 to 1400, and beyond) tend to dwell on their miraculous works.

  • St Martin of Tours, according to the written records we have of him, frequently encountered supernatural beings: the Devil several times, angels, demons, St Mary, St Agnes, Saints Peter and Paul, he had telepathic powers, could predict the future, could exorcise evil spirits from men or animals, and could raise the dead, as well as performing numerous miracles such as halting a hailstorm in the region of Sens. A letter he wrote cured the daughter of a Roman official just by being placed on her body. He cured a girl of 12 who had been dumb from birth. On one occasion he was cutting down a sacred tree and the pagans dared him to stand where it would fall so Martin did so and as the tree began to fall towards him he made the sign of the cross and it miraculously veered in another direction. The pagans cried with one voice that Christ was king and implored to be baptised.
  • Bishop Simplicius encountered an idol being trundled about on a cart to bless fields and vineyards: he made the sign of the cross and the idol crashed to the ground while the oxen pulling the cart were rooted to the spot. Simplicius made 400 converts.
  • Emilian was a shepherd in the Rioja district of Spain who was called to the Holy Life and built up a powerful network of clients for his wonder-working. He cured the blindness of a slave girl of the senator Sicorius. He exorcised one of the slaves of Count Eugenius. He exorcised the evil spirits which had possessed the senator Nepotian and and his wife Proseria. He cured a woman named Barbara from her paralysis. He made the sign of the cross over the belly of the monk Armentarius and cured him. (p.58)
  • Eugendus wrote a letter to a demon who was possessing a girl in eastern Gaul; the demon left her before the letter was even delivered. The lady Syagria, member of a leading aristocratic family of Lyons, was cured of a grave illness by eating a letter from Eugendus.
  • Samson, grandson of the king of Gwent, was a native of Demetia in South Wales who made his way to England, received clerical training, and sailed across to Armorica in Gaul where he had a career as a miracle-worker, converting the pagan locals, and founding a monastery to preserve his name and build on his good work. In Trigg in north Cornwall he came across people who traditionally worshiped an idol. A boy was killed out riding. Samson told the people their idol couldn’t revive the boy but his God could and, if He did, they should abandon their idol forever. the people agreed. Samson prayed for two hours. The boy came back to life. The people destroyed their idol and agreed to be baptised.

The centrality of miracle working

Again and again and again, in countless accounts of saints’ lives, it is clear that the chief tool in the armoury Christians seeking to convert both aristocrats and peasants to Christianity was their wonder-working, miracles, cures and exorcisms.

These aren’t embarrassing details to be downplayed by modern believers – they are absolutely central to the success of the conversion effort. What’s more, they have their roots in the original gospels, where Jesus is nothing if not a wonder-worker, a miracle-maker, a curer, healer and exorciser, often pitched in direct conflict with the Devil and his demons.

And Jesus’ powers themselves have their roots in the old Jewish scriptures in which heroes as far back as Moses have to fight against the power of the pagan gods, and prove – even to the sceptical Israelites – that Jehovah is Boss. As Fletcher points out, the Book of Psalms was the most widely read book of the Bible in the early medieval period, and its songs repeatedly stress the direct link between piety and worldly success, stressing ‘the causal relationship of correct cult with victory, prosperity and progeny’ (p.244). And he cites the story of Elijah who, in the first Book of Kings, chapter 18, goes head to head with the prophets of Baal and Asherah for an extended competition to see whose god is more powerful and can end the three years of drought. With predictable results, but results taken literally by two thousand years of Christian believers.

Thus medieval superstition isn’t eccentric, it is part of a thousand-years-old tradition, and is intimately linked to the kind of folk beliefs which continued in the West until very recently, and continue to this day in many parts of the world.

It is the post-Enlightenment despiritualising of nature and the world around us, it is the modern Western denial of magic powers and miracles, which is the historical oddity.

Fighting pagan gods/demons

Thus pagan shrines, idols and objects had to be destroyed, pagan practices quashed – and even descriptions of pagan practices suppressed and ignored – not in the name of a secular ideology, but because they had power. They weren’t just empty errors, they were the Devil’s work, they were the activities of the opposition – they represented a real and ongoing threat to the survival, and to the salvation, of the Christian community.

Thus Martin and the hosts of other convertors like him didn’t just smash pagan shrines and buildings – they built over them. There was power in them which couldn’t be ignored – it had to be incorporated into the True Belief and redirected into the holy cause.

Converting from heresy to orthodoxy

It’s easy to forget how central Heresy was and is to Christianity – the history of early Christianity is mostly the history of heresies and, of course, Christianity is itself a heretical deviation from orthodox Judaism.

The most disruptive among a host of types of ‘wrong thinking’ was Arianism, one of the countless deviations thrown up as clever men agonised over the mystery of the Trinity: if God is all-powerful, what is the relationship with the Holy Spirit mentioned throughout the holy texts, let alone with his Son? Is the Son equal in power to the Father? Are they the same entity? How much of Jesus was man and how much God? Did God give birth to the Son who is therefore less than the Father?

Arius (c. AD 250–336) was a Christian presbyter in Alexandria, Egypt and he became associated with the belief that Jesus was begotten by the Father. Arius’s aim was not to dilute the power of the Father, to assert the absolute primacy and omnipotence of the One God. However, this had the effect of downgrading the Son and, by extension, of downgrading Jesus’s sacrifice: if he isn’t fully equal with God then maybe his sacrifice on the cross wasn’t fully earth-redeeming.

Difficult though the philosophical niceties are to follow, the practical consequences are simple. For most of the 4th century the battle lines between Arianism and Orthodoxy hardened and embittered. Arius was anathematised during his lifetime and the newly Christian emperor Constantine (ruled 306-37) called the Council of Nicaea in 325 precisely to try and thrash out a form of words which would please all sides – resulting in the text which became referred to as ‘the Nicene Creed’.

But so powerful was Arianism that the emperor’s own son, Constantius II (337–361) and his successor Valens (364–378), both in fact supported the Arian heresy, with the result that patriarchs and archbishops, bishops and priests were inducted into Arian Christianity – and that initial contacts with Gothic tribes and barbarians was with Arian missionaries.

It was only with the advent of the zealously Catholic emperor Theodosius the Great (ruled 379-95) that Arianism was decisively defeated within the Church: Theodosius ordered all Arian writings to be destroyed and their authors vilified. But from the point of view of a history of Christian conversion, an important element of the early Middle Ages was not just converting the pagans, it was converting those who had mistakenly adopted the Christianity of Arius, back into the fold of Orthodoxy.

Slavery

We need to remember that the slave trade was probably the most widespread business activity of the early medieval world. (page 113)

Reading this book reminds the reader, yet again, that slavery has been an almost universal feature of human societies. Ancient Egypt was a slave society. The ancient Greek cities were slave societies, Athens was a slave state. The Roman Empire was built on slave labour. The Parthenon, the Forum, all that poetry and maths and drama – based on slavery.

One of the major Roman exports from Roman Britain was slaves: we have written evidence and slave manacles and chains have survived. According to Bede’s story the official Roman mission to England was sent, in 597, because Pope Gregory the Great encountered some English slaves in the slave market in Rome. They were so attractive that the pope asked who they were. ‘Angles’, came the reply. ‘Not Angles, but angels,’ the pope quipped. Fletcher’s account of early missionaries to the Franks mentions ‘slaves from across the water’ i.e. the Channel, working for the French aristocracy. St Patrick was six years a slave.

The Goths had slaves. The Huns had slaves. The Vikings took slaves wherever they went to sell in Europe’s slave markets. It is a recurring feature of missionaries that they are recorded as buying and liberating slaves in pagan societies, where possible. Every few pages in this 500-page-long book Fletcher mentions slaves. In one form or another (as serfs, as bonded labour) Europeans carried on enslaving other Europeans until the late medieval era.

The shift North

The later part of the book divides into long chapters dealing with Big Themes: the Greek missionary push into the Balkans and up into Eastern Europe (chapter 10), trying to convert the Vikings (Chapter 11), North-Eastern Europe and the Baltic (chapter 12). All of them are fascinating, tell gripping stories and shed light on the religious and cultural patterns of contemporary Europe.

But one of the biggest ideas to emerge is in chapter 9 which assesses the early Medieval relationship with Judaism, and then with the sweeping military successes of Islam, which rampaged along the North African shore and up into Spain (completely conquered in the years 711 to 718), over the Alps and only being stopped in southern France at the Battle of Tours (10 October 732), where the Frankish King Charles Martel decisively defeated an army of the Umayyad Caliphate led by Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi. Charles went on to push Frankish domain south to the Pyrenees thus pinning the Moors inside the Iberian Peninsula, where they created the often stunning culture of Al-Andalus.

But although the Christians held their own against Muslim assaults in southern France, in Sicily (threatening Italy) and in the East, where Islam swept through the Middle East to confront the Byzantine Empire – the net effect of the loss of the North African littoral to Christianity was to push the cultural and political focus of Europe north. Towards the end of this fascinating chapter, Fletcher describes a further seismic process, the slow partition of Christendom itself between Greek East and Roman West. It took centuries of disagreement, misunderstanding, occasional conflict, and a drift apart of theological and cultural practices – but Fletcher brings out another important element.

For centuries after the collapse the Roman Empire in the West, Rome (and the pope) still came under the nominal protection of the Emperor in the East. But as early as 800 the papacy had recognised the power and protection of the Franks, when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. And the diversion of the Emperor’s resources East to hold the Muslims at bay tended to make the papacy continue to look West, and North. A key moment in the breach came when the armies of the Fourth Crusade were diverted from the Holy Land and attacked Constantinople itself – theoretically to restore a pro-Western Emperor, but in reality the army ran riot and sacked the place, killing many of the inhabitants.

The Muslim Conquests and loss of North Africa of the 700s – the triumphant creation of a huge Frankish Empire by Charlemagne in the 800s – the conversion of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland in the 6th and 7th centuries, then of the Germans, Danes and Poles in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries – alongside the collapse of Byzantine power which was crystallised in 1204 — all these factors ensured that Roman Catholicism, though based in Rome, would gravitational pull towards the North, around the court of France for a long time, and then the long stormy relationship with the various Holy Roman Emperors of Germany.

So that in the twentieth century Poland could be one of the most fiercely and devoutly Roman Catholic countries. Poland! The heroes of early Christianity – Augustine, Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen – they wouldn’t even have known where Poland was. In the really big scheme of things, it is this shift of the Christian world towards the north of Europe which I found one of the most interesting ideas to emerge from this endlessly fascinating book

Random notes

– I’ve always liked the fact that the Emperor Constantine, the man who legalised Christianity in the Roman Empire, thus guaranteeing that Europe would become Christian with all that meant for future world history, was first acclaimed emperor when still a general by his troops in Britain – and in York!

– The most distinctive feature of early medieval Christendom was the explosion of the monastic movement in the 300s-500s – possibly as a response to Christianity becoming decriminalised in the early 300s, and then becoming the official state religion of the Roman Empire by 380. There was no more scope for martyrdom. But you could still mortify your own worldly ambitions (and those of your parents) by chucking in a promising career as a lawyer, or even as a bishop, and disappearing into the obscurity of a world-denying enclosed religious order. The establishment of monasteries went hand in hand with the more orthodox spread of dioceses across Western Europe, a movement associated with men like St Martin, bishop of Tours from 371 until 397.

– It was fascinating to learn how much this activity was associated with wealth; often the bishops came from very rich families, or they performed miracles which converted the very rich and powerful, who  themselves went on to commission churches and monasteries. Despite Christian propaganda, the Church from the early medieval period was associated not with the poor and slaves, but with money and power. This is emphasised by the string of textbooks, sermons and papal letters Fletcher quotes in the middle of the book which were aimed at trying to bring a very worldly clergy under control – no attending communion drunk! Cut down on the hawking and hunting!

– Only when the internal colonisation of the Empire by Christian networks of church and monastery was reaching completion, did it occur to anyone to go beyond the pale of Roman administration to spread Christianity to peoples outside the borders of the empire. Pioneers included:

– Ulfilas (311-83), the apostle of the Goths, who translated the Bible into a Gothic script which he invented for the purpose. Except that his translation of the Bible notoriously excluded the Books of Kings, which are mostly a record of ancient Israel’s wars. The Goths didn’t need any encouragement in that direction.

Palladius, sent as bishop to the pagan Irish in 431, much overshadowed by his successor St Patrick, 540-60(?). Fletcher spends a long passage describing and analysing the work of Patrick but the main thing about him is that:

As far as our evidence goes, [Patrick] was the first person in Christian history to take the scriptural injunctions literally; to grasp that teaching all nations meant teaching even barbarians who lived beyond the frontiers of the Roman empire. (p.86)

– The Latin word peregrinatio began life as a definition of a type of citizen, an alien or exile from their homeland living within the Roman Empire. In the early parts of his book Fletcher shows how it was taken over to describe the new idea of an ‘exile from Christ’, a person who devoted their lives to travelling and preaching and which became applied to what we would now call ‘missionaries’, men like St Patrick or the Englishman Winfrid, born in Wessex in the 7th century, who took the Latin name Boniface and travelled across North Europe to take a leading role in the conversion of the pagan Saxons, earning himself the title of the Apostle of the Germans. He was ‘martyred’ in the 750s. But towards the end of this long book, Fletcher pauses to consider how the word peregrinatio continued to change its meaning so that by the 11th century it was being applied to planned journeys by groups of people to sites of veneration, churches and shrines erected to the martyrs and saints of what was by now a mostly settled, Christian Europe. These journeys began to be called peregrinatios, translated into Middle English as pilgrimages.

What had once been wild journeys into the unknown had become package holidays.

Crusading violence

The final part of Europe to be converted to Christianity was up in the north-east, in northern Poland, in Livonia, along the Baltic and into the big and successful Duchy of Lithuania. Fletcher’s final chapter paints a rather grim picture of how this final proselytising effort was darker and more violent than what had come before, mainly under the influence of the Crusades. He has to take a detour to explain how the rhetoric of anti-Muslim Crusade came to be redirected towards the last pagan kingdoms – and also how the Crusades witnessed the birth of a new phenomenon, bands or ‘orders’ of knights banding together to either fight in the Holy Land or, like the Knights Templars, to protect pilgrims and other travellers to Palestine. Thus military orders grew up in the north-east devoted to converting the pagan, by fierce military means if necessary, the most notable examples being the Sword of the Brethren and the Teutonic Order. This Wikipedia map gives a good picture of the geographical territories involved and the way ‘conversion’ had been reduced to a military campaign.

Astonishingly, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania held on to its pagan status and religion until as late as 1386 when the Grand Duke seized the purely contingent opportunity of marrying the ten-year-old girl who’d inherited the throne of Poland and had to submit to baptism as part of the political deal.

But these last few centuries of the story are redolent of war, conquest, seizure of territory, rebellions by the conquered put down with brutality. As Fletcher points out, the castles built by these orders in their conquered territories bespeak imperial colonisation, like the contemporary Plantagenet colonisation of Wales. It is a long long way from the heroic solo missions of St Patrick or St Martin, or the better resourced but still peaceful missions of St Augustine or St Boniface. The licensing of military violence by the pope and Church hierarchy is ugly, and sets the scene for the lamentable invasions of the New World which began barely a hundred years later.

All of which, paradoxically, makes the Christianity of the so-called Dark Ages (400 to 1000) seem much sweeter and gentler by comparison. With a few notable exceptions (like Charlemagne’s genocidal ‘conversion’ of the Saxons in the 780s) the converters of the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries were more likely to be solitary holy men impressing pagan mobs by raising the dead or averting hail storms or stopping floods or bringing good weather. Although their miracles may be doubted, the bravery and faith of these early apostles can’t be, and there is something very admirable about it and them, which is worthy of respect.

Some early medieval dates

  • 406-7 the Rhine freezes and barbarian pagan Germanic tribes swarm across it into Gaul.
  • 410 The emperor Honorius withdraws the Roman armies from Britain to defend Rome from the barbarians.
  • 410 Rome is sacked by the the Visigoths under Alaric.
  • 451 The Battle of Châlons in 451 – one of the last major military operations of the Western Roman Empire when Romans under general Flavius Aetius and the Visigothic king Theodoric I fought against the Huns and their vassals commanded by Attila. The battle stopped the Huns seizing complete control of Gaul and installed the Frankish king, Merovech, as king of the Franks, from whom later Frankish claimed descent (and called themselves the Merovingians).
  • 476 The last Roman emperor in the West, Romulus Augustus, dies.
  • 481-509 Clovis king of the Franks, pressurised by his Christian wife Clotilde, is baptised on Christmas Day 496 and – crucially – into orthodox Catholic Christianity, not the Arian heresy espoused by almost all the surrounding barbarian nations. This single decision helped to ensure that Europe became a Catholic continent. Clovis founded a new capital at Paris, and called a Church Council to bolster Catholic orthodoxy in his realm.
  • 510s the Burgundians under King Sigismund convert from Arian to Catholic Christianity.
  • St Columba (520-97) regarding himself as an exile and pilgrim, established monasteries in Ireland and at Iona, which was to become an important religious centre and shrine off the west coast of Scotland.
  • 530s the Vandals convert from Arian to Catholic Christianity.
  • 560s the Sueves convert from Arian to Catholic Christianity.
  • 570s the Saxons of the Loire valley are converted to Catholicism by bishop Félix of Nantes.
  • 580s the Visigoths of Spain convert from Arian to Catholic Christianity.
  • Angle and Saxon kings:
    • 597 Pope Gregory the Great despatched St Augustine of Canterbury to Kent to convert King Ethelbert, at the bidding of his Frankish wife Bertha.
    • 604 King Saebehrt of the East Saxons accepts Christianity and builds a church in London.
    • Sometime before 605 King Redwald of the East Angles converts – though he later backslides and is in fact thought to be the pagan king buried at the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial.
    • 627 King Edwin of Northumbria is baptised, again under influence of his Christian wife.
  • St Columbanus (543-615) ‘an exemplar of Irish missionary activity in early medieval Europe’.
  • St Aidan, founder of Lindisfarne monastery (active 635-651) ‘Apostle to the English’, friend of the Northumbrian kings Oswald and Oswine, who overthrew Edwin in 633.
  • Benedict Biscop (628-90) founder of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Priory in Northumberland.
  • The Venerable Bede (672-735) the Northumbrian monk, historian and author of the vital Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (732). Although the book’s purpose is didactic, nonetheless Bede was unusually scrupulous in his weighing of the evidence before him.
  • Saint Boniface (c. 675 – 5 June 754) an influential figure in North European history, who reorganised the Frankish Church, missionised into north Germany, and brought the Frankish dynasty and the papacy closer together, paving the way for the triumph of Charlemagne (747-814).

What medieval history teaches us

Why bother reading books like this? Well, studying pre-modern history teaches lots of things:

1. For a start, it gives a deeper sense of the importance of Christianity and why it spread to become the religion of Europe. It gives you a deeper sense of Christianity’s multi-faceted appeal – in providing a coherent narrative of the world to the illiterate and educated alike, assuring them of salvation and the help of God, Jesus and the Saints; giving rules to guide believers through the many problems of life, protocols and ritual to accompany all the way stations of life, from birth to death; assuring magic and miracle-working for those in need, suffering or pain – in numberless ways Christianity offered hope and solace and explanations and technologies (books, relics, crosses) for understanding and managing human life. Moreover, for pagan rulers, Christianity was the gateway into the legacy of Roman civilisation, into fabulous wealth, literacy, laws, coins and better ways of managing your realm, as well as access to the extensive trading networks of Christendom which eventually stretched from Iceland to the Black Sea. At a personal psychological level, at a social level in terms of law and order, and at the royal level of providing an entrée into the ‘club’ of European royalty,  Christianity as belief system, legal system, cultural heritage and power network was infinitely richer, more complex and sophisticated than the pagan alternatives.

2. It is so easy to ridicule the wonder-working saints and monks and the endlessly squabbling kings and the gullible peasants, but are we any better? Study of the past should make us realise that ‘we’ will also soon be ‘the past’, and that our great grandchildren will look back in wonder at how we wasted our resources, destroyed our environment and ruined the world, while fussing about there not being enough black actors in the Oscars or ‘freeing the nipple’. Our ability to stress over trivial cultural issues while ignoring the extermination of the environment and all the life forms in it will make medieval peasants believing in miracles seem as reasonable as Einstein. They were credulous and astonishingly ignorant by our standards – but at least they left us an inhabitable planet, which is more than we are doing for our descendants:

3. Since Europe went on to colonise the world and, in the last 70 years Europe’s child, America, has gone on to be the world’s dominant military and cultural force – studying early medieval Europe gives a deeper understanding of where it all came from, and why and how.

4. Study of this period teaches doubt and hesitation and respect for the profound uncertainty of human knowledge. Our sources are so limited; our ignorance of human activity through entire centuries so profound; the slightest discovery can so easily shed light on blank eras or overthrow widely-held views – that study of this period encourages what I take to be an appropriate attitude to human knowledge, which is one of deep scepticism. There is so much we don’t know and will never know.

5. We live amid the wreckage of all these centuries of ancestors and predecessors. We should respect their achievements, their cathedrals and statues and jewellery, their saints’ lives and often bizarre theology, because they are the heroic products of the human mind struggling in dark times. To my eye, their often primitive and unnerving artefacts have a haunting and mysterious beauty. These obscure messages from the remote past offer a strange and powerful hope for mankind’s survival.

Ivory virgin and Child (7th-8th century)

Ivory virgin and Child (7th-8th century)


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

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