Historia et Cultura

July 12, 2007

Semper ubi sub ubi

There has been a recent flurry of blog posts and news articles on the web repeating the suggestion made by Dr. Marco Mostert in a paper delivered at the Leeds conference that the recycling of linen underwear to make cheap rag paper spurred on literacy during the middle ages because it was possible to print cheap books. Bill Poser mentions the story over at Language Log, and Carl Pyrdum has a post over at Got Medieval which links to a number of iterations of the story and provides some interesting commentary. What strikes me as odd is that this isn’t a particularly new idea. I seem to recall James Burke mentioning the idea in one of his documentary series. I don’t recall whether or not he specifically links the idea with literacy, though I do believe that he suggests that the cheap paper produced from recycled underwear did lead to an information explosion. Curious that this idea should be getting so much attention now.

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July 11, 2007

Scip-gefere: Paddle your own canoe (part III)

(This is a continuation of these two posts.)

Though Gulliver can sail anywhere in the world, sailing is still a risky business and he is frequently stranded. Both Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the outer frame narrative of Walton’s arctic exploration in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein sound a note of danger in unbridled exploration. This is perhaps somewhat comparable to Dante’s perspective of Ulysses. While mankind is more and more able to govern his own destiny, there are some things he shouldn’t meddle with. If the sea voyage is a metaphor for man’s place in the world and man’s relationship with God, then trying to control your own destiny rather than following God’s guidance is a problem.

With the 19th century we enter the modern era, and the biggest technological advance which changed seagoing was the steam engine. Suddenly ships were no longer dependent on wind at all. Even if there wasn’t any wind, a steamship could still go. The technological progression of the square sail to the triangular sail is completed with the advent of the steam engine. This is dramatically demonstrated in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, in which just such an incident happens. When the winds die down, the steam engines are fired up, and at one point Phileas Fogg nearly burns up the ship itself in an attempt to win his race against time. This is the ultimate expression of man’s desire to control his own fate. Fogg overcomes all obstacles thrown in his way in order to win the bet, and that includes the obstacles of the natural world and the elements. This is reflected of the Victorian elevation of man’s ability to control his world. In this world-view man has a special place in the world, he is at its pinnacle. He even sought to have mastery over nature — nature was something to be tamed or controlled. And it is in the late 19th century that science is really beginning to challenge religion, with the realisation that the geological age of the earth is vastly longer than the Bible accounts for, and Darwin’s evolutionary theory challenges the Biblical creation story. The Victorian man did not adapt to his surroundings, he adapted the surroundings to suit himself, and this is subtly commented upon in Verne’s novel with the description of the British Empire which sought to impose its customs and organization (often unsuccessfully) upon the world. Furthermore, there is a shift from the age of exploration to an age of tourism. The world has been largely explored by Europeans, and Fogg is really more of a tourist than an explorer. The world is a much smaller place, and this makes man’s stature seem the larger. Instead of defining himself in relation to the world, man redefines the world in his own image.

At the dawn of the 20th century, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness stands out as the most striking example of the travel and exploration metaphor. But now, instead of a journey outwards, it is a journey inwards. Instead of defining his place in the world, man is defining himself. Man’s relationship with his world becomes his relationship with his own inner psyche. Man’s attempt to control nature and the world around him becomes his attempt to control human nature and the world within him. But his sense of control is an illusion since he has no real self-control. Yet again the metaphor is redefined for a new era which is so self-referential and solipsistic.

And so I leave you with this little bit of obscure though apropos verse which explains the post-colonic part of the title:

Leave to Heaven, in humble trust,
All you will to do:
But if you would succeed, you must
Paddle your own canoe.
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July 10, 2007

Scip-gefere: Paddle your own canoe (part II)

(This is a continuation of yesterday’s post.)

But back-tracking to the middle ages for a moment, we can see a similar metaphor, only the characterisation is different in the Christian world view. For instance, in the Old English elegies “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” harsh exile is pictured in terms of a lonely journey in a boat, and the homiletic implication of this exile/pilgrimage is that the Christian soul’s ultimate destination is back to God. God is the only course to steer towards. Similarly, in the later middle ages, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in the Man of Law’s Tale, Custance, who is set adrift at sea by her antagonists to get rid of her, puts her faith in God: “In hym triste I, and in his mooder deere, / That is to me my seyl and eek my steere”. God is her sail and her rudder, her means of propulsion and steering. Again, this is a metaphor of the relationship between the Christian soul and God, and therefore of man’s place in the world. Though as in the ancient world, man does not control his fate, it is not a capricious god to whom he is subject.

Known as great sailors in the earlier part of the middle ages, the Vikings, who really only had the square sail, cheated a bit by lowering one end of the sail to allow for greater manoeuverability. But for the most part they made do with very simple means and no sophisticated navigational equipment. Here’s a picture of a Norse knarr (click to enlarge):


They were often blown off course, and as described in the Vinland Sagas, it was often due to accident that they made discoveries such as Greenland and Vinland. Interestingly, there’s quite the mix of chance, fate, luck both good and bad, pagan, and Christian in the Vinland Sagas.

As for the advance in sailing technology, in the late middle ages or early renaissance, the triangular lateen sail began to be used in Europe. Here’s a picture of a lateen sail:


The triangular sail, of course, works like a wing — high pressure on one side and low pressure on the other — and it allows a ship to sail almost directly into a headwind. And so by tacking in a zigzag pattern ships can sail go in any direction and are no longer at the mercy of the wind, as long as there is wind, as seen here (click to enlarge):


(You can read a good explanation of all this here.) Ships also started using sternpost rudders rather than steering with an oar hanging off the right side (starboard, literally the steering side, as opposed to the left side called port which was the side towards the dock, also known as larboard or loading side). The stern mounted rudder made it possible to steer larger ships, and larger ships could carry more provisions, including most importantly fresh water. These along with the old square sail (to take efficient advantage of favourable winds), as well as improvements to navigational technology allowed for real exploration to begin at the end of the middle ages and throughout the renaissance, kicking off the European age of discovery. Here’s a picture of the complete package:


Note both the square sails and the triangular lateen sail.

These advances too are reflected in the imaginative literature of the period. This is of course the age of humanism, when the cultural focus shifted from the purely religious to the world of man. People began to define their place in the world in terms other than purely spiritual ones. The eighteenth century, for instance, is full of travel literature, perhaps most famously Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver goes out into the world ostensibly to discover things about other people and places, but in fact learns about his own country in the process. Mankind defines itself through its exploration of the outside world, through its own ability to direct its own course in the world. This is a radical shift from the medieval seagoing metaphor as demonstrated most clearly in Chaucer’s Custance, who is really only defined by her relationship to God. The humanist shift in cultural focus goes hand in hand with the seagoing technological shift.

Though Gulliver can sail anywhere in the world, sailing is still a risky business and he is frequently stranded. Both Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the outer frame narrative of Walton’s arctic exploration in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein sound a note of danger in unbridled exploration. This is perhaps somewhat comparable to Dante’s perspective of Ulysses. While mankind is more and more able to govern his own destiny, there are some things he shouldn’t meddle with. If the sea voyage is a metaphor for man’s place in the world and man’s relationship with God, then trying to control your own destiny rather than following God’s guidance is a problem.

(Continued tomorrow)

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July 09, 2007

Scip-gefere: Paddle your own canoe (part I)

I’ve recently become interested in the relationship between science and technology on the one hand, and literature and culture on the other, and I’ve been working this into my lectures a bit. Here’s an example of a kind of neat idea I came up with for one of my classes. Since this has turned out to be a very long post, I’ve divided it up into three segments, so check back for the continuation. First a little background:

One of the courses I taught this past year was Narrative. There weren’t many stipulations for this course other than that we were to consider narrative from fairly broad terms. I was quite excited at the prospect of teaching this course, since my own research was moving in this direction, what with my work on discourse analysis and pragmatics, and having just given a paper at the Narrative Matters conference I was full of ideas. I decided to divide the course into two parts. First we would survey the major narrative genres of western literature — myth, folktale, legend, etc.; epic and saga; romance; the novel; the short story — and then we’d spend the rest of our time on thematic units. I wanted to consider narrative broadly speaking as a way human beings tend to organise information and make sense of their world. Starting off with myth was a particularly good way of introducing this idea. We compared parallel stories such as creation myths, destruction myths (like flood myths), and so forth from the Bible, Greek myth, and Norse myth. This also gave us the opportunity to do a bit of comparative mythology and consider the differences in religious beliefs and some of the different world views these reflect, for instance the very personal relationship between humans and God in the Judeo-Christian world and the relationship based on fear in the Greco-Roman world.

I also wanted to spend some time on some of the fundamental narratives of western culture, and the first thematic unit that I settled on was travel and exploration. As I was prepping my lectures on this topic it occurred to me that there was an interesting parallel pattern between the travel and exploration literature and the world views reflected by this imagery on the one hand, and the development of sailing technology on the other. I suggested to the class that the travel and exploration metaphor could be seen as reflective of cultural change from the ancient world to the modern. This narrative metaphor often describes man’s relation to the world in which he lives — the narrative is symbolic of man’s place in the universe. And the use of this narrative metaphor changes over time to reflect different beliefs about man’s place in the world.

In the Odyssey, one of the oldest recorded travel narratives in western literature, we see human beings at the mercy of the elements, and by extension the gods. Odysseus and his crew are constantly driven about against their will by the elements. And as we had already discussed in our mythology section, this reflects a common idea in Greek mythology that humans are at the mercy of capricious gods — a common Greek view of man’s place in the universe. This of course is entirely consistent with ancient sailing technology. The ancients had square sails. Here’s a picture of a square sail:


Ships with square sails are not very manoeuvrable. Essentially you go in the direction that the wind blows you. If the wind was blowing the wrong way, you were out of luck, so you’d have to wait for a favourable wind. Sure, you had oars to row, but that wouldn’t take you very fast or very far. If a storm blew up, you’d use the oars to row quickly to shore, as happens at one point in the Odyssey. Thus sailors were at the mercy of the wind, hence the sense of helplessness in the Odyssey.

As a side note, it’s interesting to compare the attitudes towards sea travel in Homer and in Virgil. While Odysseus is certainly trying to get home, he appreciates his journey and learns many things along the way. Aeneas, on the other hand, is much more focussed on the final destination. While the Greeks were a seafaring culture who lived on a peninsula with many small islands and relied on sea travel for their economy, the Romans were a much more land-based culture who hated and feared the sea, though they were practical enough to become proficient at it when required to do so.

It’s also interesting to see what later writers did with the Homeric story of Odysseus. The same story has three different meanings for Homer, Dante, and Tennyson. Homer’s Odysseus is simply at the mercy of the gods. While he does take some interest in the things he sees along the way, his journey is not his will — in fact he’s against it. His journey and his life is determined by the Fates and the prophecies about what will happen to him. In the Greek mythological world, man can’t control his own fate. In the Divine Comedy, in contrast, Dante places Ulysses in hell. For Dante, Ulysses journey was an act of will — Dante wasn’t familiar with Homer first hand. From Dante’s Christian viewpoint willfulness is sinfulness. Man shouldn’t try to control his own fate, as that was up to God. And finally, for Tennyson, in his poem “Ulysses”, the hero’s journey is also an act of will, but it is more positive. Tennyson exalts his purposefulness and striving. Man should try to control his own fate. Thus for Dante sailing out into the ocean is bad and Ulysses is placed in hell for it, but for Tennyson it is good and he is lionised for it.

(Continued tomorrow)

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July 10, 2006

Quomodo Hibernici Humanitatem Conservaverunt

I’d been wanting to read Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization for some time. Although I’m a medievalist, I’m not a Celticist, so this was quite an interesting read for me. As an Anglo-Saxonist, I was of course quite aware of the important influence of Irish monasticism — Bede, perhaps somewhat grudgingly, admits so in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

Cahill’s essential argument is that the Irish were instrumental in preserving and transmitting classical culture and learning (including Christianity) from the ancient world of Rome (and to some extent Greece) to the medieval world and thus the modern world. As he argues, ‘Civilization’ just manages to hang on on the very edge of the world which was overrun by barbarians. I did find that his opinion of late Roman culture was unfortunately low. He didn’t seem to think much of late Latin writers like Statius and the Gallo-Roman writers. But this is a common opinion, even if not entirely justified.

Much of the book is concerned with the story and importance of Saint Patrick, the details of which I was only partially aware of. As chance would have it, I was reading the book at a very oportune time as I started it just before Saint Patrick’s Day. As Cahill points out, the Irish don’t always receive the recognition they deserve in the course of Western history. As a medievalist, I was already aware of the importance of the Irish, but I do imagine that outside of such circles, their contribution is not so well known.

I find Cahill’s writing very captivating. His telling of the stories is quite moving, and his analysis, even if one doesn’t always agree, is very thought provoking. Just today I finished reading the second book in his Hinges of History series, The Gifts of the Jews, which I enjoyed maybe even more, perhaps because I knew less about the topic — I’ll write more about that one later. I would certainly recommend the series to anyone with an interest in history and culture. I’m not sure whether I’d recommend starting with How the Irish Saved Civilization or The Gifts of the Jews — I think both would work. All in all, a fascinating series of books about the foundation of Western culture.

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March 11, 2006

Cnawlæce Webb

It occurs to me that I haven’t written about my reading in a while, and I’m several books behind in my sidebar list, so now seems like a good time for a post. One of the books my wife gave me for Christmas was James Burke’s The Knowledge Web. James Burke is, of course, best known for his television documentary series Connections and The Day the Universe Changed, and he is also the author of a number of books. He focusses on the history of innovation, how one idea leads to another, often in surprising ways. Here’s an example from one of his previous books (quoted from James Burke’s K-Web site):

Question: How was Napoleon important to the development of the modern computer?

Answer: Napoleon’s troops in Egypt buy shawls and start a fashion craze. In Europe the shawls get made on automated, perforated-paper-control looms. This gives an American engineer Herman Hollerith the idea to automate calculation using punch cards. Which get used to control ENIAC, the first electronic computer.

—From The Pinball Effect, by James Burke, Back Bay Books, 1996

In The Knowledge Web, Burke experiments with a cross-referencing system which functions much like hypertext links, directing the reader from key persons, events, or things to all the other points in the book that discusses that person, event, or thing. It’s sort of like distributing the index throughout the margins of the book. The idea behind this cross-referencing system is to theoretically allow the reader to read the book in a non-linear fashion: at each cross-reference the reader can then jump to one of the other such points in the book, thus following a different path through the web. It’s an interesting experiment, though I don’t imagine many readers would actually flip through the book in a random order that way. But it is interesting to occasionally flip to one of the other points in the book, and of course it’s interesting when the thread folds back on a section you’ve already read. And in any case, it is a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable book to read, even in a more traditional linear way.

Naturally this interconnected mode of organization would lend itself well to an actual hypertext set up—indeed I think it would work better that way. And that indeed seems to be what James Burke has in mind. His current project is the KnowledgeWeb Project, an electronic database which allows one to explore the various different links and threads.

This book came at a very synchronous moment for me, as I had just come off teaching a course which looked at the relationship between literature and the other areas of the arts and humanities (see my previous entry on this course). Indeed my thinking recently has been very much along these lines, the interconnectedness of all things. To understand a literary work fully, one must undrestand the way it fits in with everything else. But this is detailed topic that deserves a post of its own…

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February 02, 2006

Tæcende boccræft

Well, I promised an entry on my English teaching at Mount A, so here it is.

Last term I taught a course called Literature, the Arts and Humanities. It’s a first year course aimed at students not (necessarily) intending to continue on in English, and relates literature to other areas of the arts and humanities, such as history, philosophy, music, or what have you. Beyond that I had no other limitations in terms of what I included in the course, so it was very fun to teach. And given my background in medieval studies, I’m quite in favour of interdisciplinary approaches. Basically the way I approached it was to teach what I thought the students should know if they took no other English course, which I think accords well with Mount A’s quasi-liberal arts set up. I covered the literary periods in turn from Anglo-Saxon through modern, and gave special attention to the ways in which the literature reflected the cultural world in which it was produced. I found it particularly interesting to make the connections between trends in literature and other areas of the culture. And in general I encouraged the students to look for the connections and patters, the way all things are interconnected, adopting the symbol of Sir Gawain’s pentangle, the endless knot. I’ll write more of this soon, as I’ve been thinking very much along these lines lately.

Some of the major works we looked at include Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Faerie Queene, The Tempest, Paradise Lost, Gulliver’s Travels, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Frankenstein, Northanger Abbey, The Lady of Shalott, and The Goblin Market. But equally interesting was to include texts not traditionally referred to as literary, which provide interesting insight into the periods and the other more major texts. Thus, for instance, Robert Hooke’s (of the Royal Society) writings on observations with a microscope adds depth to the size-distorting descriptions in Gulliver’s Travels. I find the Longman Anthology of British Literature quite good for this sort of thing.

This term I’m teaching a second year course called Literary Periods 1800—Present. I wasn’t originally supposed to be teaching an English course this term, but due to an emergency I’m stepping into this class already three weeks in. Since I didn’t start the class off, I didn’t initially create the syllabus (though I’ve slightly adjusted the readings), which will make the class somewhat more challenging than it might otherwise have been, but it should be an interesting experience. And useful to have the chance to teach something so far removed from my area of specialisation. I’ll write more on this class once I get into it a bit.

In the spring session (May/June), I’ll be offering Literature, the Arts and Humanities again, should there be any takers, and I have some further interesting plans for the course…, but more on that later as well…

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April 24, 2005

Habebamus papas

With the election of Benedict XVI, papal history has been much in the news of late, so this is my small contribution of the flood of information. My interests in the topic are purely academic, so please don’t take offence if you are either devoutly Catholic or rabidly anticlerical.

Specifically my interests were piqued by the variety of conflicting claims about how the tradition of papal renaming — for instance Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger becoming Pope Benedict XVI — was started. The first to do this, as far as I can tell, seems to have been Pope John II (533-535 AD), who was originally named Mercurius. One can see how such a dramatically pagan name might be a problem — though it didn’t seem to be a problem for Pope Dionysius (260-268 AD). I suppose St. Peter doesn’t count, even though he was originally named Simon. The first pope to be “the second” of any name was Pope Sixtus II (257-258 AD), though this was presumably his actual name (ironic though, eh?).

Other bits of papal trivia that I find interesting: there has never been anyone else named Pope Peter — that would be presumptuous; the last pope not to have a number appended to his name, and therefore not named after a previous pope nor to have another pope named after him, was Pope Lando (913-14 AD) — I wonder why…; Pope Benedict IX, a disasterous pope by all accounts and presumably not the reason the current pope chose the name, was pope three times (1032-45, 1045, 1047-8); sadly, the legend of there being a female pope, Pope Joan, is just that, a legend; there hasn’t been an antipope since the 15th century — ah, to live in more interesting times…

If there are any experts on church history out there, feel free to correct any of the above or enlighten me further.

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July 12, 2004

Rex Britanorum


Last Friday I saw the new film King Arthur, in spite of the bad reviews it has been receiving. Indeed, two of the blogs I read already have comments on the movie up (here and here). Unlike some others, I thought that as a movie it wasn’t bad — maybe not great, but still not bad. My feeling is that someone who doesn’t know much about Arthurian stories might enjoy the movie. One can certainly find flaws with the script or the acting in certain places, but this is true with almost any movie. As mindless entertainment goes, it’s perfectly enjoyable.

It’s also rather pointless to really pick on the many historical inacuracies, as such things are inevitable with films set in the middle ages or ancient world. I certainly appreciate the attempt to include fairly obsure historical elements such as the Pelagian heresy and Bishop Germanus, though unfortunately these elements just don’t correlate chronologically. The movie, set in 452 AD, revolves around the withdrawal of the Roman legions from Britain, but in all probability there were no Roman troops in Britain after about 410 AD. Also, the Battle of Badon Hill is supposed to have been, I believe, much later in the 5th century, and Pelagius, whom Arthur is said to have known in the movie, died many years earlier. There is also a bit of a geographical problem. The “wall” — which I suppose is never actually referred to as “Hadrian’s Wall”, but that must be what it’s supposed to be — was in the north of Britain, and nowhere near Badon’s Hill. I could go on, but as I said, there’s not much point.

However, I think there is a more fundamental problem with this movie. The filmmakers have tried to have their proverbial cake and eat it too. As is made clear in the opening voice-over monologue — and the opening words of the voice-over monologue “Historians agree…” should trigger anyone’s warning bells — the point of this movie is to reveal the “true” story behind the legend (or words to that effect) — not necessarily a bad notion. It was an opportunity to make a film about the very interesting 5th century Britain. However, if one is to make a film about a supposed historical King Arthur, one must leave out all the later elements of the story, which clearly have nothing to do with any original story, such as Lancelot, who comes from the French tradition. The two are not compatible. It might have been a more successful movie if the filmmakers had chosen one of the medieval versions of the story and simply followed that. It wouldn’t have been historically contextualized, but it wouldn’t need to be. I also found it odd that they took the great medieval romance and converted it into what is essentially epic (though I guess it goes along with the historical contextualization angle). This movie was basically a good idea, but a misguided effort.

All in all, I don’t think King Arthur was as successful as Troy, which I quite enjoyed (see my previous comments about Troy), but if — as Troy supposedly has done for classics — King Arthur generates more interest in medieval literature, then that can’t help but be a good thing. It will be interesting to see how many students I have next year who have seen King Arthur; at least I know what misconceptions to be prepared for.

Posted by Mark at 07:08 PM | Comments (0)

March 17, 2004

Dies Sancti Patricii

Happy St Patrick’s Day to all! Have a Guinness or a Jameson, (or ignore the day completely if you prefer). Tomorrow I’ll write about tonight’s St Patrick’s Day dinner. For now I’ll mark the day with a bit of trivia.

In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the year 430, St Patrick is (or may be) briefly mentioned: “Her Patricius wæs asend fram Celestine þam papan to bodianne Scottum fulluht” (ChronE 430.1).1 This is in the E text of the ASC; all the other texts read “Palladius” (as does Bede’s HE). In the A text of the ASC, there is an interlinear addition of ‘or Patrick’ in what is apparently a post-Conquest hand. So there seems to be some confusion here, but it seems like it should actually be Palladius and not Patrick.2 Patrick gets all the glory in later tradition, and poor Palladius get Guinness drunk in his honour every year.

It’s also worth noting that the Irish are referred to as the Scots, which was common at the time (I’m sure it will infuriate many to read this). The passage in Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum reads: “Palladius ad Scottos in Christum credentes a pontifice Romanae ecclesiae Caelestino primus mittitur episcopus” (HE 13).3 This passage is translated into Old Engish as: “Þæs caseres rices ðy eahteþan geare Palladius biscop wæs ærest sended to Scottum, þa ðe on Crist gelyfdon, fram þam biscope þære Romaniscan cyricean, Celestinus wæs haten”.4

Scots… Irish… to those in the middle ages it’s all the same. What a final sentiment for a St Patrick’s Day posting. Well, I’m off to drink some Jameson and Guinness. I’ll finish off with the only other mention I’ve found in the Old English corpus of St Patrick: “Ðonne resteð sanctus Aidanus and sanctus Patricius on Glæstingabirig and fela oðra sancta”. (KSB 8.2 37.1). A cookie to the first one to correctly translate this passage…

1 ‘In this year, Patrick was sent from Pope Celestine to preach baptism to the Scots.’

2 There is an article on the confusion between the two figures: D.N. Dumville, “‘Acta Palladii’ preserved in Patrician hagiography”, in Saint Patrick, ed. D.N. Dumville (Woodbridge, 1993), pp. 65-84.

3 ‘Palladius was sent from Celestine, bishop of the Roman Church, to the Scots, who believed in Christ, as their first bishop.’

4 ‘In the eighth year of that Emperor’s reign, bishop Palladius was first sent to the Scots, who believed in Christ, from that bishop of the Roman church who was called Celestinus.’

Posted by Mark at 05:06 PM | Comments (1)