Procopius’ indictment of ‘outlandish theories of natural science’

“During those times there was a plague that came close to wiping out the whole of mankind. Now for all the calamities that fall upon us from the heavens it might be possible for some bold man to venture a theory regarding their causes, like many marvelous theories about the causes that the experts in these fields tend to dream up which are, in reality, utterly incomprehensible to mankind. Still, they make up outlandish theories of natural science, knowing well that they are saying nothing sound and they are content with themselves if only they manage to deceive a few people they meet into accepting their argument. But about this calamity there is no way to find any justification, to give a rational account, or even to cope with it mentally, except by referring it to God.” Procopius, The Wars (2.22.1)

OUCH! When I first read this, it stung a bit. The plague has been prone to many ‘outlandish theories of natural science’. How will our theories look to future generations of plague scholars? Only time will tell.

Its a shame that Procopius didn’t record some of those theories of natural science that he found so outlandish. Our only clue to these theories is a reference to “subtle theorists and astrologers” (Procopius, The Wars, 2.22.5). A reminder that in the sixth century, astrology was part of the natural sciences. Later in his description of plague devastation, he records that “some doctors … believing that the focus of the disease was to be found in the buboes, decided to investigate the bodies of the dead. Cutting into some of the buboes, they found that a kind of malignant carbuncle had developed inside” (Procopius, The Wars, 2.22.29). He goes on to explain how doctors could not predict at all who would die and who would survive.

In some ways we know much more than Procopius did, even though he lived through it. But, he goes on to tell why he believes that it can not be explained, and many of the reasons he gives are still mysteries to this day. Procopius goes on to tell how it struck the whole earth, sparing no area or region, striking in winter and summer, and people of all ages and both genders of high and low status equally. The great and the good died alongside the cruel and evil. After it was over, Procopius was convinced only the most evil had survived (including the Emperor Justinian).

“For people differ from each other in the place that they live, the customs of their lifestyle, the manner of their personality, their profession, and many other ways, but none of these differences made the slightest differences when it came to this disease — and this disease alone.” (Procopius, The Wars, 2.22.4)

How well founded Procopius assertions are is a matter of debate. Eye witnesses are notoriously error prone and biased. He can’t divorce his emotions from his account, no eye-witness can. If we did some real epidemiology number crunching — oh we if had that data! — then it is unlikely that all these factors really made no difference. From a layman’s point of view and for practical purposes though, Procopius may be correct. It devastated all layers and groups within his society. We would really just be quibbling with his assertions on equality. To the survivors, a few percentage points in the mortality rate would be trivial.

The modern editor of Procopius Anthony Kaldellis has investigated what Procopius meant by “referring it to God”.  Procopius was a pagan Roman who yearned for the ideals of the pre-Christian Roman Republic. As a pagan, Procopius was not referring to any sort of monotheistic god, not unless it is to please his Christian emperor. Kaldellis interprets Procopius’ references to God throughout The Wars and his other works as being “what people normally though of as ‘chance’, that is what remains when all rational factors are excluded” (2010a, note 63). So when Procopius refers the cause of the plague to God he means a very different thing that any monotheist would.

Even among Christians, Kaldellis notes that the Byzantines did not have a well thought out theology of how God intervened in practical, everyday matters. They were more concerned with the philosophical debates on God’s nature than on how God interacts with the world. Procopius never invokes sin as a cause, as others do, and he is struck by how the most evil, in his view, survive. Among the other Byzantine writers of the plague of Justinian sin is occasionally invoked as a cause but a well thought out theology never develops (see Kaldellis 2010b), nor does it develop in Europe. There is simply no way to adequately explain how the saintly die alongside the sinners in equal numbers. Collective social sin never gains traction either. This is an area where more work could be done by someone with the linguistic skills to tackle all the various texts from North Africa to Northern Europe.


Prokopius: The Secret History: with Related Texts. Kaldellis, A. trans., ed., introdocution.  Hackett, 2010a.

Kaldellis, A. (2010b). The Literature of Plague and the Anxieties of Piety in Sixth Century Byzantium. p. 1-23 in Piety and Plague From Byzantium to the Baroque.

Aldhelm on the Medicinal Uses of Beavers

Riddle 56

I am a dweller on the edge of steep stream banks, and not lazy at all, but warlike with the weapons of my mouth. I sustain my life with hard labour, laying low huge trees with my hooked axes. I dive into water, where the fish swim, and immerse by own head, wetting it in the watery surge. The wounds of sinews and limbs foul of gore I can cure. I destroy pestilence and the deadly plague. I eat the bitter and well-gnawed bark of trees.

Answer: the beaver.

Aldhelm, Enigma 56 ( trans. Nancy Porter Stork, 1990,  p. 170-171)

Reading Cameron’s Anglo-Saxon Medicine this afternoon, I came across his short discussion of Aldhelm’s riddles (Engima) having the earliest mention of Anglo-Saxon medical practices. Aldhelm  includes the medicinal use of the beaver (above) and also of the leech in this riddle on each.  Aldhelm’s riddles were part of a manuscript sent to his good friend, then king Aldfrith of Northumbria (r. 685-704), probably early in his reign.  Michael Lapidge has argued that Aldhelm was a relative of Cuthburgh, wife of Aldfrith and sister of King Ine of Wessex. She is mentioned in another of Aldhelm’s poems (On Virginity) as one of the nuns of Barking. In the letter linked to the text including the riddles, Aldhelm reminds King Aldfrith of their youthful training together and which would have had to have been in the early 660s. We know that Aldhelm later trained under Archbishop Theodore of Tarsus who arrived in Canterbury in 672.  Archbishop Theodore is credited by Bede with being well versed in the medicine, but none of his or Abbot Hadrian’s teachings or texts have survived. Having recently arrived from the Mediterranean where plague was common, it is possible that Theodore or his friend Hadrian the African brought plague treatments with them to their new post in England.

Beaver from the Medieval Bestiary, British Library, Harley MS 4751, Folio 9r.

Aesop’s Fables, Pliny the Elder and Isidore of Seville all mention that the testicles (actually inguinal glands) of beavers are used in medicines.The 13th century bestiary in Harley MS 4551 illustrates the story in Aesop’s Fables,  Isidore and Pliny that beavers will castrate themselves in order to escape hunters (shown to the left).  These glands were the source of an oil called castoreum.  However, at least Isidore does not say what the medicines are used to treat. Cameron notes that Aldhelm’s use of beaver as a component in a remedy is not found in any Anglo-Saxon medical text. I’ve consulted three translations and they all say that the beaver is used to treat plague (Latin text). It makes some sense from their point of view to include castoreum from the inguinal gland in a remedy for a bubo that is usually found in the inguinal or thigh region. If anyone knows of other plague remedies that use any beaver parts, please leave a comment!

Ironically if Aldhelm and Aldfrith were together as students on Iona in the mid-660s they may have been safe from the plague of 664 that Adomnan of Iona claims did not reach Iona. According to Bede, Aldfrith was on Iona when his brother died in May 685, keeping him safe from the plague of the mid 680s until he took the throne. (Adomnan claimed that neither plague epidemic that struck Britain in his time reached Iona, which he credited to St Columba’s protection.) On the other hand, Aldhelm would have been in Wessex during the plague in the mid 680s and if he sent the riddles to Aldfrith shortly after he came to the throne in 685/6, then the plague was still circulating in England at the time. From what is know of King Aldfrith, he was  high educated for a secular man at the time and enjoyed cosmology, and so animal lore is not far removed. Lapidge argues that Aldhelm read and studied Virgil on Iona. So it follows that Aldhelm would have known some of classical literature Aldfrith had learned. (Though it also has to be noted that Bede knew of Virgil’s works and had Pliny’s Natural History and he certainly didn’t study on Iona so these classical works may have been found in the better libraries in England.) Either way, Aldhelm may have included this clue in the riddle to make it harder to solve and allow Aldfrith to show his cleverness to his court.


The Medieval Bestiary: Beaver

M.L. Cameron. Anglo-Saxon Medicine. Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 7. Cambridge, 1993 (repr. 2006)

Lapidge, M. (2009). The career of Aldhelm. Anglo-Saxon England, 36, 15. doi:10.1017/S0263675107000026

 Nancy Porter Stork, trans. 1990 , Through a Gloss Darkly: Aldhelm’s Riddles in the British Library MS Royal 12.C.xxiii. Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, Onterio. (Latin text also found at this link)

Holmes on Animals in Saxon & Scandinavian England

Matilda Holmes, Animals in Saxon and Scandinavian England: Backbones of Economy and Society. Sidestone Press, 2014.

I didn’t plan on writing another book review this soon but I do have to share the news on this book – my find of the month. I discovered that this valuable book is available from the publisher in PDF form for only  € 4.50 ! Its also available in print for about $40 and somewhere in between for e-books from other vendors. The PDF works just fine on e-readers.

On to the review: This is the publication of Matilda Holmes PhD thesis on archaeozoology of early medieval England. Holmes cataloged and analyzed 315 archaeological reports or collections from 241 sites. Results are segregated into Early Saxon (450-650 AD), Middle Saxon (650-850 AD), Late Saxon (850-1066 AD), and Saxo-Norman. Not only does she catalog the regular domestic animals (cows, pigs, sheep/goats) but also horses, dogs, chickens and geese. It doesn’t stop there! She also does a variety of deer, hares, 38 species of wild birds, 27 taxa of freshwater and migratory fish, and 37 marine taxa of fish. The main domestic species- cattle, pigs, and sheep – have additional data on age and distribution of butchered parts. All of this data is listed by site and period. She then analyzes it for type of site to look at the economy and evolution of sites like wics and ecclesiastical sites. So if you want to know exactly what was found at Ælfric’s abbey at Eynsham it is here for domestics, game, fish and fowel. Same for site of Hartlepool for the entire period, and multiple collections for sites like York or Wroxter. Unfortunately the ongoing excavations from Lyminge are not included, and neither are the excavations from Bamburgh. I suppose these haven’t been published yet.

I haven’t had time to completely explore all the data tables. A few things jumped out though. Remember that story in Bede’s History that Bishop Wilfrid taught the people of Sussex to fish for something other than eels? Well, guess what, the only fish remains found at Bishopstone in Sussex in the Early Saxon period are eels (freshwater) and whiting (marine). Not an abundance of fish species. This of course doesn’t really say anything about the Wilfrid story other than that they really did fish for eels.  Overall, eels are very abundant at sites all over England. So were pigs in towns, as well as in rural areas. Its not surprising that there were significant differences between rural areas and wics or burghs, but former Roman towns also had distinctive profiles including the early period of Wroxter. There is so much data here it will take a while to digest.

This is an interesting book for practically any topic involving animals in early England. The data presented there is likely to be the foundation for many studies to come and the PDF is at a price that can’t be beat. I couldn’t help but think of the novelists who read here and how useful this would be for them. I hope you all check it out.

Aberth’s An Environmental History of the Middle Ages: Crucible of Nature

John Aberth. An Environmental History of the Middle Ages: The Crucible of Nature. Routledge, 2013. 326 pages.


Although the title of John Aberth’s book An Environmental History of the Middle Ages: The Crucible of Nature is almost identical to Richard Hoffman’s book recently reviewed here, they couldn’t be more different. Aberth’s book is a cultural history of human thought and use of the environment, an entirely emic perspective. The focus is on humans, not the environment itself. 

He divides the material into three sections: air, water and earth; forest; and beasts. While this may make some sense for descriptive organizational purposes, it is really antithetical to an environmental history. An environment is the inseparable combination of the three. It reads like a series of anecdotes on topics that are of interest to Aberth, with some nod toward being wide-ranging. It is restricted almost exclusively to Europe and then primarily to the later Middle Ages. The main problem is that there are no research questions posed or arguments made. I come away from the book without a clear sense of something new that I can apply elsewhere. 

This is not to say that a cultural history of human interaction and thought on nature isn’t important. In Gregg Mitman’s 2005 paper on the history of environmental thinking in America,  he shows how these concepts have shaped how we think about human health, our place in nature, and the health of nature itself (and therefore our ability to exploit it for economic gain). These same concepts were present in the Middle Ages and could have been analyzed in a way that contributed to ongoing research topics especially in the 13th and 14th centuries. 

If you are looking for a survey of thought and use of nature without a particular research topic, you may enjoy this book. I prefer at least some data and scientific or medical information in environmental histories. 



Mitman, G. (2005). In search of health: Landscape and disease in American environmental history. Environmental History, 184–210.

Richard C. Hoffmann. An Environmental History of Medieval Europe. Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. Cambridge University Press, April 2014

Sept. 7, 2014

CFP: Medieval Landscapes of Disease

Call for Papers
Medieval Landscapes of Disease
50th International Congress of Medieval Studies
Western Michigan University
Kalamazoo, MI   — May 14-17, 2015
 In recognition that diseases are manifestations of their environment, this session seeks papers that place medieval diseases within their environmental context. Just as a seed must be placed in good soil to grow, infectious disease requires a permissive environment to develop into an epidemic (or epizootic) and an ideal environment to bloom into a pandemic or panzootic.  I am open to all manner of studies and disciplines that address these issues.
Examples of acceptable topics:
  • Historic impacts of  epidemics and/or epizootics
  • Endemic disease in medieval environments
  • Environmental causes of disease such as malnutrition or industrial pollution related disease
  • Health effects of human-animal interactions
  • Archaeological assessments of human health and disease
  • Landscape alterations intended to improve human or animal health
  • Ecology of the built environment

Abstracts of no more than 300 words and the Participant Information Form should be sent to Michelle Ziegler at by September 15. Pre-submission queries are welcome.

The Participant Information Form and additional information be found at

King Offa’s tomb

Coin of King Offa

Coin of King Offa

How does one leave a legacy? All leaders care about their legacy. Modern politicians seem preoccupied by both leaving a legacy and what it will be. Medieval kings did not count on historians to keep their legacy or even memory alive. Most early medieval kings are known only as a name in a list, a signatory on a charter, maybe found on a couple of coins if they are lucky. Merican King Offa is a classic case in point. Everything we know about him comes from outside references, coins, charters, and landmarks. These sources suggest a major, long-lived king, but we have no official narrative record of his reign from within England.

“Overall, Matthew’s writings about Offa indicate how, 450 years after his death, even people with the skill and desire to learn about him had little to go on. What St.Alban’s historian wrote about Offa’s tomb is revealing in this regard. Hearsay suggested Offa was buried in 796 in a chapel on the banks of the river Ouse near Bedford, north of St. Alban’s, but the river soon washed the chapel away. Summer time bathers in the Ouse told Matthew  [of Paris] that sometimes one could spy Offa’s sepulcher beneath the river’s clear waters; however, all attempts to retrieve it failed. Like the historical figure about whom Matthew wanted to know, Offa’s tomb was unreachable.” (Squatriti, 2004, p. 51)

 There is at least some basis for Offa’s burial near Bedford. King Offa’s wife Cynthryth became an Abbess at Cookham and has charge over a church at Bedford where her husband was buried. However, was he buried in a church or in a chapel so close to the river that it eventually wound up submerged so deeply that no could get close to it? Or could it be a Roman mausoleum? And why were they trying to reach it? Had St Alban’s or locals really tried to “retrieve it”, or just to confirm that it is Offa? We are left with even more questions that Matthew of Paris.


Squatriti, Paolo. “Offa’s Dyke Between Nature and Culture.” Environmental History, 2004, 37–56.

Btw, this is my 400th post on Heavenfield!

Hoffmann’s An Environmental History of Medieval Europe

Richard C. Hoffmann. An Environmental History of Medieval Europe. Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. Cambridge University Press, April 2014. $25 paperback, $12.50 e-book.

History roots in time and place — establishing situations, telling stories, comparing stories, linking stories. Environmental history brings the natural world into the story as an agent and object of history. This is medieval history as if nature mattered. (p. 3)

As a biologist, it is almost unimaginable to me for the natural world not to be a factor in history – not in a deterministic way – but as an integral component. This is a reminder to me, and now to you, that I read medieval history through a different lens. This book is very consciously a textbook  intended for historians and history students. As the very first  medieval environmental history textbook, Hoffmann is very carefully laying the theoretical foundation for a new sub-discipline. For non-historians, it provides insight into historians methods, concerns, and in some cases anxieties.

To study history as if nature mattered requires coming to an understanding of how culture and nature interact and the types of evidence available. In the introduction Hoffmann discusses a hybrid model of culture and nature that provides a more complete understanding of the medieval world. An important point here is that unintentional and unconscious human activities have real impacts on the environment, other species, and eventually feeding back on human culture in sometimes unexpected ways. This is especially true of anthropogenic remodeling of the landscape that affects species contemporaries were either completely unconscious of or at least are absent from medieval documents. Hoffmann gives the introduction of malaria to the Rhine delta  by Roman soldiers as an example (p. 9).  He also discusses the human mediated introduction of invasive species, the common carp and rabbit, that altered the biodiversity of Europe. Thus making humans both indirectly and directly responsible for local extinctions of native European fauna. As a biologist, the hybrid culture-nature model feels very instinctive and reminds me of Edmund Russell’s evolutionary history work.

Shifting through the evidence for environmental history is the tricky part. Hoffmann establishes the distinction between emic and etic evidence but doesn’t dwell on the terms. Yet, his framework is basically a division of emic (‘cultural’) and etic (‘culturally neutral’) types of evidence, where culture is largely traditional historical emic evidence and nature is primarily (but not exclusively) etic. Hoffmann wrestles with how to justify and integrate these two types of evidence throughout the book. At times it felt to me like he was being too apologetic for the scientific evidence, but this may reflect my own comfort zone. There are two chapters on cultural topics – attitudes toward God’s creation and on ownership of land, which are out of my comfort zone so I will leave those to others. The remainder are a mixture of etic and emic types of evidence.

Hoffmann opens the historical discussion with a valuable chapter demolishing all ideas of an European wilderness at the dawn of the medieval period.  Europe had been inhabited and sculpted by humans over thousands of years before 500 AD. For example, the great Beech forests of Europe only took hold because of human induced livestock and agricultural practices during the Iron Age.  Literary references to wilderness are at best secondary growth (and therefore anthropomorphic regrowth), and often pure rhetoric.

From here he moves into my period of greatest  interest, the early medieval or late antique period. All across Europe this was a period of unrelated political and ecological instability. Hoffmann rightly warns us against ecological determinism. Rome imploded for its own political reasons; ecological instability was a complication for the recovery. Moreover, Hoffman notes that the three ecological zones of Europe — the Atlantic or maritime zone, the continental zone and the Mediterranean – did not experience the same ecological change during the Roman period or the early medieval period that followed. Overall, it became much more difficult to sustain the Roman favored Mediterranean “agroecosystem” north of the Alps. The climate of the Roman Optimum not only allowed grapes to be grown in Britain, but more importantly allowed extensive expansion of wheat growing areas northward. As the climate cooled cereal production fell to be replaced by a mixed agriculture system that looked much more like pre-Roman northern Europe. All across Europe Roman settlements and building styles were abandoned as people spread out over the land. For the first time nucleated villages with new field systems developed replacing the Roman estate system. Case studies of Frisia and the founding community of Venice serve as examples of cultures that flourished in the cooler, wetter climate. Under the Carolingians, an amalgamation of Roman and barbarian agricultural systems emerges as the bipartite manor system with the family farm as the base unit that will last through the rest of the medieval period. The long 8th century (roughly 680s to 830s) is a turning point in the maturation of new medieval agricultural systems not only within Carolingian lands, but also in frontier areas like Ireland and Scandinavia.

The core of the book are the three chapters on medieval land use and management of living and non-living ecosystems. Although all of these chapters are rooted in the early medieval period, they really focus on 900-1500. I will not try to summarize the material in these intricate chapters. I particularly liked the material on land use, and milling technology. Focus is clearly on ‘agroecosystems’ and on rural life. The urban environment is restricted to a short section of the non-living ecosystem management chapter. Its placement in this chapter strikes me as odd.  As he just explained in the previous chapters on land use and agriculture, these are all man made environments.  I would have liked to see an entire chapter on urban environments, and some discussion of the built environment and its ecosystem.

I am thrilled that Hoffmann included chapters on infectious disease and natural disasters. The infectious disease chapter begins with a basic introduction to infectious disease in pre-industrial Europe and then examines ‘five’ diseases in particular – malaria, leprosy, Justinian plague, the Black Death and English sweating sickness. There are some substantial problems with the plague case studies. First, he leaves the etiology still open when there is now scientific consensus that the Yersinia pestis aDNA from both the plague of Justinian and the Black Death are both ancient, accurate, and the cause of death of these individuals. He uses a plague wave map which is no longer considered representative of the spread of disease (see Mengal 2011). It is also well known now that the black rat is only one of many hosts of the plague and that historical accounts can no longer rise or fall based on rat demographics. Yersinia pestis has not attenuated for any host: rodent, flea or mammalian host; it doesn’t need to. The old paradigm that successful infectious agents eventually attenuate to their hosts quietly fell some time ago. Human ectoparasites including the human flea and (experimentally) human louse can transmit Y. pestis to humans.  The genetics is muddled – for example, Y. pestis doesn’t have mitochondrial DNA!  Like many histories of the plague there are some significant misunderstandings of how immunity works and how long it lasts in a population. Acquired immunity (gained by surviving an infection) is not hereditary. Therefore there is no reason to believe that communities would have immunity stretching between the first and second plague pandemic.  Much of the modern thinking on the Black Death will be summarized and further developed in the upcoming inaugural issue of the Medieval Globe, edited by Monica Green and entitled Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death due to be released in November 2014. Past plague discoveries have been discussed on my other blog Contagions. I also suggest Barrett and Armelagos’ The Unnatural History of Emerging Infections (2013) for a general discussion of infectious disease in anthropomorphic environments.

Moving on to the ‘inconstant planet’, I really enjoyed this chapter. Earthquakes, floods, climate change, and volcanoes all impacted medieval Europe. A little more on flooding and river systems would have been appreciated. Despite not having an active volcano, analysis of ice cores indicates that some of Europe’s most significant climate crises were fallout from volcanic activity outside of Europe. These volcanic induced climate crises highlight how difficult it is to use climate data for historical purposes. Extreme weather had a sharper impact on historical accounts than slow climate change trends. I won’t say that one was more important than the other because it depends on the question being asked. Hoffmann offers some important perspectives on wrestling with climate and extreme weather events, that do increase during times of climate change (warming and cooling).

Hoffmann has crafted a fine text to lay the foundation for the hopefully growing sub-discipline of environmental history in the Middle Ages. With the exception of the plague material, he has done a remarkable job covering such a vast amount of material. With books of this type, there can always be more material to wish for and other options for organizing the material. This does not distract from the value of this book. I expect that this book will be reprinted and perhaps updated for many years to come. I would be remiss if I did not point out to the publisher, that this book really needs a new index before it is reprinted. Why they chose to index only one specific organism (the beaver?!) is beyond me. This book is rightly full of material on all types of livestock, wildlife, plants and even microbes, but this index is of little help to find them! The trend toward e-books with search features does not replace the need for a good index.

It really is critical to understand the medieval environment to provide context to modern environmental history, as well as medieval history in general.  I look forward to more historians becoming involved in interdisciplinary work with archaeologist, climatologists, and others working with past environments.

See also:

Edmund Russell. Evolutionary History: Uniting history and biology to understand life on Earth. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Mengel, D C. “A Plague on Bohemia? Mapping the Black Death.” Past & Present 211, no. 1 (May 27, 2011): 3–34. doi:10.1093/pastj/gtq069.

Ron Barrett and George Armelagos, The Unnatural History of Emerging Infections. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death , edited by Monica Green, due to be released in November 2014