What I find interesting is that “Demetrius” is in fact a pagan-derived name, meaning “devoted to Demeter.” It’s parallel to “Isidore,” meaning “gift of Isis,” or “Diodorus,” meaning “gift of Zeus.” All three of these names are borne by Christian saints! Apparently, like the names of the days of the week or the months of the year, early Christians were prepared to tolerate this vestige of paganism. I suppose by the late Roman empire names were simply “names,” as they are for us, and fewer people were in the habit of inventing literal names expressing qualities they hoped to see in their children.
The Areopagus, according to Wikipedia, “is a prominent rock outcropping located northwest of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. Its English name is the Late Latin composite form of the Greek name Areios Pagos, translated “Ares Rock” (Ancient Greek: Ἄρειος Πάγος). In classical times, it functioned as the court for trying deliberate homicide, wounding and religious matters, as well as cases involving arson or olive trees.”
John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644), an impassioned defense of unlicensed printing, argues that “the censors of ancient Athens, based at the Areopagus, had not practiced the kind of prior restraint of publication being called for in the English Parliament of Milton’s time.”
Dionysus the Areopagite “was a judge at the Areopagus Court in Athens, who lived in the first century. As related in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 17:34), he was converted to Christianity by the preaching of Paul the Apostle during the Areopagus sermon.” The French in the Middle Ages liked to argue that their St. Denis was in fact a transplanted Dionysus the Areopagite.
What I did not realize is that Πάγος in Greek is not “pagus” in Latin. In Greek it means mountain peak or rocky hill. In Latin it means district, area, or countryside – thus the English word “pagan,” which refers to the idea that the old religion held on in the countryside after the cities had converted to Christianity. So the Areopagus is not Athens’s equivalent of the “Field of Mars,” as I wrongly assumed, but of “Mars Hill,” of which there are plenty of examples throughout the world.
The more you know!
From the Guardian (hat tip: Kevin Harty):
Murder in the Middle Ages: British Museum to tell story of Thomas Becket
London exhibition marks 850th anniversary of archbishop’s murder in crypt of Canterbury Cathedral
One of the most shocking chapters of medieval history, embracing royalty, power, sacrilege and bloodshed, is to be told through the UK’s first major exhibition on the life, death and legacy of Thomas Becket, opening at the British Museum this spring.
Its centrepiece is a stained glass window from Canterbury Cathedral, the scene of the priest’s brutal murder by four knights loyal to King Henry II in 1170. The 6-metre-high window, originally one of 12 ”miracle” windows created in the early 1200s, has never before left the cathedral nor been seen at eye level by the public.
The exhibition, marking the 850th anniversary of Becket’s gruesome murder in the crypt of Canterbury cathedral, was originally scheduled for October last year but postponed because of the Covid pandemic. Hartwig Fischer, the British Museum’s director, said he was hopeful the exhibition would run for four months from 22 April.
As well as the window, Thomas Becket: Murder and the Making of a Saint will include reliquaries, pilgrims’ souvenirs, illuminated manuscripts, sculpture, jewellery and a wax impression of Becket’s personal seal. Some are rare loans from institutions across the UK and Europe and are being brought together for the first time.
More at the link. It sounds wonderful, and I hope that the UK’s second lockdown will be over by April 22.
An interesting proclamation from the White House today, on the occasion of the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury.
Today is the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket on December 29, 1170. Thomas Becket was a statesman, a scholar, a chancellor, a priest, an archbishop, and a lion of religious liberty.
Before the Magna Carta was drafted, before the right to free exercise of religion was enshrined as America’s first freedom in our glorious Constitution, Thomas gave his life so that, as he said, “the Church will attain liberty and peace.”
The son of a London sheriff and once described as “a low‑born clerk” by the King who had him killed, Thomas Becket rose to become the leader of the church in England. When the crown attempted to encroach upon the affairs of the house of God through the Constitutions of Clarendon, Thomas refused to sign the offending document. When the furious King Henry II threatened to hold him in contempt of royal authority and questioned why this “poor and humble” priest would dare defy him, Archbishop Becket responded “God is the supreme ruler, above Kings” and “we ought to obey God rather than men.”
Because Thomas would not assent to rendering the church subservient to the state, he was forced to forfeit all his property and flee his own country. Years later, after the intervention of the Pope, Becket was allowed to return — and continued to resist the King’s oppressive interferences into the life of the church. Finally, the King had enough of Thomas Becket’s stalwart defense of religious faith and reportedly exclaimed in consternation: “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”
The King’s knights responded and rode to Canterbury Cathedral to deliver Thomas Becket an ultimatum: give in to the King’s demands or die. Thomas’s reply echoes around the world and across the ages. His last words on this earth were these: “For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.” Dressed in holy robes, Thomas was cut down where he stood inside the walls of his own church.
Thomas Becket’s martyrdom changed the course of history. It eventually brought about numerous constitutional limitations on the power of the state over the Church across the West. In England, Becket’s murder led to the Magna Carta’s declaration 45 years later that: “[T]he English church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished and its liberties unimpaired.”
More at the link. I’m all for religious freedom but the Church’s position in medieval Investiture Controversy (of which the Becket episode was a small part) is not quite what I would choose as a positive example of it…
The Greek word stylos means “column” or “pillar,” and a Stylite was a saint who lived atop a pillar as a form of asceticism, in the same way that an anchorite might be permanently immured in a cell or a hermit dwell in the woods far from civilization. Stylites were a feature of the Late Antique east, and were widely admired, although not widely emulated – such a life was not for everyone! Food would be passed up to them, and they might poop over the edge, producing relics for the faithful to take away.
From John Sanidopoulos, a blog post about the last remaining Stylite tower (hat tip: Tim Furnish):
While there is much written evidence about the Stylites, there is little that is left physically these days. But one of the only Stylite Towers that remains in the world is in Jordan, at a site called Um er-Rasas. In fact there are two, but only the base remains of the second tower. The ancient Jordanian town of Um er-Rasas is home to 16 historic churches, some with well-preserved mosaic floors. The most astonishing remnant of Um er-Rasas might be the Stylite Tower, one mile north of the city walls. Narrow, square, and tall, the tower offered a literal isolation from the world – a separate place where monks and ascetics endured mortification of the flesh wile entirely dedicated to fasting, prayer, and contemplation – sometimes for years on end. These towers were widespread in the early medieval pored; the 43 foot-high tower of Um er-Rasas, which can only be climbed by ladder, is the last of its kind in the Middle East. Ornamented with carved Christian symbols on all four sides, the square pillar endures in the distance as evidence of the once flourishing community established in the Roman/Byzantine era as a center for spiritual enlightenment.
Here is an image of Daniel the Stylite (409-493), who lived for thirty-three years atop his pillar to the north of Constantinople.
I was pleased to be able to visit the Monastery of the Glorious Ascension yesterday in Resaca, Georgia. This is an Orthodox community associated with ROCOR – that is, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, which I regret to say that I had never heard of before. ROCOR has its origins in the Russian Revolution and the exile of some Russian clergy, who declared their independence from the Patriarch of Moscow, now taking orders from the Bolsheviks. It was a happy day in 2007 when ROCOR reunited with the Moscow Patriarchate (now under Patriarch Kyrill; ROCOR itself is headed by the Metropolitan Hilarion in New York City). I especially enjoyed speaking with Father Thomas Janikowski, visiting from Saint Athanasius Orthodox Church in Davenport, Iowa, who reminded me that the division between Protestants and Catholics, which has dominated western Christianity for over 500 years (and with which I’m reacquainting myself in preparation for teaching this fall) comprises “two sides of the same coin – one that Orthodoxy doesn’t even use.” The Orthodox hold themselves as practitioners of the true, original Christian faith, with others being deviants from this. For instance, regarding ecclesiastical priority, one should not look to Constantinople (founded in the fourth century), but to Jerusalem, whose patriarch remains Orthodox. Furthermore, at the beginning, the leader of the Jerusalem Christian community was James, the brother of Jesus, who had the final say at the Council of Jerusalem in AD 50 – not St. Peter, whom Jesus allegedly designated his spiritual heir and from whom the Bishops of Rome claim the right to be preeminent as “Pope.” (According to Orthodoxy, Peter was bishop of Antioch, not bishop of Rome. He may have been martyred at Rome, but he was never designated the leader of its Christian community in any ancient source.)
I did not know any of this!
Unfortunately, their shop had no St. George icons for sale, but there were a number of other ones for saints whom I had not heard of before. I gratefully acknowledge permission to take these photos.
An icon of an “Angel Deacon of God.”
St. Irene Chrysovalantou (fl. ninth century in Cappadocia). The icon illustrates a cypress tree bowing down to her, and her possession of three apples, a miraculous gift from St. John the Evangelist.
A detail from a Romanian altarpiece of Christ making wine from grapes from a vine, supported by a cross-shaped trellis and growing from his own side, graphically illustrating the doctrine of transubstantiation (or perhaps I should say metousiosis).
A Serbian warrior saint from the fourteenth century, I believe St. Nikita.
St. Spyridon (c. 270-348) was a Christian shepherd of great piety who became a monk and eventually Bishop of Trimythous (on Cyprus). In this capacity he attended the Council of Nicaea and forcefully denounced Arianism. He also used a potsherd to illustrate how one thing (a pot) could be composed of three different things (fire, water, and clay), an analogy for the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity. Whether or not this is Partialism I am not equipped to say, but a pagan philosopher was convinced by it, and by the miracle that followed: the potsherd burst into flame, water dripped on the ground, and only dust remained in Spyridon’s hand.
As a bishop Spyridon wears an omophrion, and holds a bible in one hand and makes a blessing sign with the other. A more particular attribute is the straw shepherd’s hat that he wears, a reference to his original profession and to his shepherding of his Christian flock.
Tom Madden in First Things (hat tip: Matt Phillips):
As a medieval historian, I always cringe when medieval people are judged by modern standards. Their world was very different from our own. Yet the virtue and piety of St. Louis IX of France have always seemed to transcend his age. The crimes leveled against him in this petition are at best misleading. Although praiseworthy today, religious toleration was regarded as dangerous in the Middle Ages. Yet Louis IX (unlike other medieval rulers) still obeyed the Catholic Church’s admonition that Jews were not to be harmed. Like St. Paul, Louis hoped for the conversion of the Jews. Indeed, more than once he served as a godfather for the baptism of a converted Jew. From a modern perspective, Louis’s part in the burning of the Talmud in Paris in 1240 is indefensible and certainly constitutes persecution. The theologians at the University of Paris—the best minds of their age—judged that the Talmud contained heresy and blasphemous references to Jesus. From Louis’s medieval (not modern) perspective, it was a threat to his kingdom and a hindrance to the conversion of the Jews. That does not excuse it. Louis followed the advice of churchmen, yet as St. John Paul II eloquently expressed it, those churchmen made grave errors. The pope sought pardon for “the sins committed by not a few (Catholics) against the people of the Covenant.” He continued, “We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood.”…
Left unmentioned by Louis’s modern detractors is his lifelong devotion to issues of social justice in a world that cared little for such ideas. At his own expense, he continually paid to feed and clothe hundreds of Paris’s poor. Every evening he shared the royal table with local homeless and usually insisted that he wash their feet before they left. He established several hospitals for the poor and homes for battered women and ex-prostitutes. He personally visited lepers and washed their sores. After his humiliation in Egypt, Louis refused to don the rich regalia of the French crown, dressing simply and living humbly for the rest of his life. He was the sort of person, like Mother Teresa or John Paul II, whose reputation for piety and virtue was so great that contemporaries had no doubt he would one day be a saint. He was canonized in a record 27 years.
An update to a recent post: according to an article in the Daily Mail, the depiction of St. Michael as used by the Order of St. Michael and St. George was changed in 2011 to make the devil more light-skinned. Click the link to see before and after images of the new design. But people like Sir Michael Palin, KCMG, are still opposing it currently because it’s too reminiscent of the death of George Floyd and police brutality in general.
Time to make Satan more dragon-like, I guess. Or would that also be bad? Would it be reminiscent of the gratuitous killing of wild animals that Tony Blair tried to curtail with his anti- hunting laws? Then they could go after St. George, too!
I suppose I shouldn’t give them any ideas…
The Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George was established in 1818 by the Prince Regent, who two years later became King George IV. It was an aspect of Britain’s meddling in the Mediterranean following the defeat of Napoleon, and used to recognize British allies in the region. People are now appointed to it for “extraordinary or important non-military service in a foreign country” or “important or loyal service in relation to foreign and Commonwealth affairs.” For instance, those prime ministers of Canada who received knighthoods (e.g. Abbot, Thompson, Laurier, or Borden) were mostly Knights Grand Cross or Knights Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George.* It has everything one expects in a British order of chivalry: a chapel (in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London) with stall plates, crests, and banners, elaborate costumes, regalia, and rituals, a motto-circlet for a member’s coat of arms, and various officers with quaint names (e.g. chancellor, King of Arms, or Gentleman Usher of the Blue Rod).
I do not know why the order was dedicated to St. Michael and St. George in particular (nor why a winged lion – the symbol of St. Mark – appears on the order’s collar).† Obviously Michael and George are warrior saints, although the Order is more for diplomats than soldiers. In its regalia the order seems to alternate between depicting St. Michael and St. George, as shown above in the sketch of the badge and star of a Knight Commander: St. George is on the badge, St. Michael on the star.
Here is a better rendition of the Order’s star, in this case for a Knight Grand Cross. Note that in this one St. Michael actually has wings, given that he is an angel. Note also what St. Michael is standing on, which became controversial this past week. From the Guardian:
Campaigners are calling for the redesign of one of Britain’s highest honours personally bestowed by the Queen because they say its badge resembles a depiction of a white angel standing on the neck of a chained black man.
The Order of St Michael and St George is traditionally awarded to ambassadors and diplomats and senior Foreign Office officials who have served abroad.
The imagery on the award’s badge portrays St Michael trampling on Satan, but campaigners say the image is reminiscent of the killing of George Floyd by white police officers in the US that led to worldwide protests.
Both St. Michael and St. George kill dragons, but because St. Michael specifically killed the “old serpent, that is called the devil, and Satan,” his dragon is often more humanoid than St. George’s dragon.** An old post on this blog intended to illustrate different versions of St. Michael’s coat of arms also illustrates the variety of creatures that he subdues, some of which look like proper dragons, others of which look more like men (although grotesque). It is unfortunate that the Order’s standard depiction of the dragon is both humanoid and dark, while St. Michael himself is light-skinned, which is not a model we want for contemporary race relations. And in general, it is most unfortunate that one of the side effects of mediating reality through sight, as humans do, is that in many cultures lightness is “good” and darkness is “bad.” If you’ve got light you can see, if you don’t you can’t – thus does light come to be identified with knowledge and awareness, and darkness with ignorance and insecurity. Note the Roman anxieties about nighttime, reflected in their laws. Furthermore, in a time before the widespread availability of bleach it was expensive and difficult to keep white garments looking white, thus is whiteness associated with status and cleanliness. Such things have, unfortunately, influenced the reception of human skin tone. Although the amount of melanin in one’s skin is purely an evolutionary artifact of one’s ancestors’ exposure to sunlight, those with lighter skin found it flattering to believe that they were morally good in a way that those with darker skin were not. (Traditionally, among white people darker skin also indicated that one worked outdoors, and thus had less status than someone who got to stay inside – only with the advent of jet travel to sunny climes in winter did suntans become fashionable for white people.) In this way did Early Modern Europeans come to justify their version of slavery – it might be bad, but it’s not quite as bad to enslave those people, who are clearly morally inferior. It is true that in the European Middle Ages, some saints were regularly depicted as black, showing that Europeans knew about the subsaharan phenotype and that they believed that its possessors were capable of sanctity and salvation. But it is also true that they regularly depicted the devil and his minions as black, in a general reflection of the cultural significance of that color. Courtesy Paul Halsall, here are two images illustrating this phenomenon:
I think that this artistic convention has seen its day, and I am absolutely not against redrawing the dragon as it regularly appears in the insignia of the Order of St. Michael and St. George. Make it more dragon-like, or keep it humanoid and make it some other color – green or red, perhaps. Heck, make St. Michael himself black! There’s no reason why he can’t be. It’s not a bad thing to dissociate “white” from “good” and “black” from “bad.”
The post title is from a joke about the supposed arrogance of membership of the Order, deriving from the post-nominals for the three grades: CMG (Companion), KCMG (Knight Commander), and GCMG (Knight Grand Cross), which are jocularly interpreted to mean “Call me God,” “Kindly call me God,” and “God calls me God.”
* Though note that Sir John A. Macdonald was a Knight Grand Cross of the Bath, and you can see his stall plate in Westminster Abbey. He was appointed to the Bath just before the Victorian expansion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George beyond its Mediterranean origins.
† UPDATE: The seven Ionian islands, under British protection from 1815, had been part of the Venetian Republic until the 1790s; St. Mark is the patron saint of Venice. According to The Gazette, the Order’s badge:
showed St George for England on one side, with the Archangel St Michael trampling on Satan on the other, in an allusion to Napoleon being crushed by the allied powers. Both saints were surrounded by the motto auspicium melioris aevi, which is usually rendered as ‘token of a better age’, and perhaps reflected [Secretary of State for War Henry] Bathurst’s hope for the future of his Mediterranean enterprise when he signed the founding patent in 1818.
** Revelation 12:7-9: “And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.”
Bones hidden away by monks during the Reformation have been confirmed as belonging to one of England’s earliest saints who founded the country’s first nunnery.
The seventh-century remains of St Eanswythe, a Kentish Royal Saint who was the daughter and granddaughter of Anglo-Saxon kings, have finally been identified by historians.
The relics survived the upheavals of the Dissolution of the Monasteries – in which King Henry VIII aimed to destroy the monastic system – after being squirrelled away in a lead box behind a church wall in Kent.
Her remains were discovered in 1885. However, it is only now – more than 1,300 years after her death and after carbon dating her teeth and bones – that historians believe they have finally identified England’s first abbess and one of the country’s earliest saints.
The remarkable discovery was made by Kent archaeologists and historians, working with Queen’s University in Belfast, who confirmed that human remains kept at the Church of St Mary and St Eanswythe Folkestone are almost certainly those of the saint.
The discovery has been hailed as “a stunning result of national importance” and has drawn comparisons with the exhumation of King Richard III after DNA confirmed that bones found beneath a Leicester car park in 2012 were those of the former king of England.