Category Archives: Learning Latin Late

The story of my Latin lessons, building on my O Level in 1967……

The importance of keeping (some of) one’s hair on….

There are few more enduring, recognizable ‘badges’ than the tonsure. If you want people to know the figure in the odd looking garment is a monk, make sure that you throw in a tonsure. And a tonsure is a small circle of baldness on the crown of the head, right? Not necessarily.

Not many people, I think, go into the subject more deeply, although Julia Barrow may be an exception.[1] I only came across it because I was using Hrabanus Maurus’ De Institutione Clericorum as a text for practising Latin. We are told that this work was required as a response to the many questions being put to Hrabanus by his brethren as to how to carry out correctly all the duties of a monk. It is no coincidence that it is dated to 819, just after some synodal decisions on good practice. It must, therefore, be significant that the chapter on the tonsure, (Bk I, Ch. 3) at 59 lines, is longer than Chapter 1 (on orders of dress and the sacraments) and Chapter 2 (on the three categories of church members) put together. Does this imply it was a particularly thorny issue?

The answer, it seems, is probably.

Hrabanus attempts to trace its history through the Bible. In the Old Testament he cites the Nazarites (Num 6.18) who marked the taking of a vow by shaving off their hair and burning it and Ezekiel (Ez. 5.1) who had to take a sharp sword, cut off his hair and beard, weigh the hair, sort it and burn it. In the New Testament (Acts 18.8) Paul is mentioned as shaving his head ‘because he had made a vow’[2]. But none of these references is actually to a tonsure – they all refer to removal of hair completely and two of them relate to a vow. But no circles, and no regular re-clipping.

Hrabanus pre-empts this objection and explains that the circle, combining the shape of the crown of the king and the head shaving of the priest, represents the conjunction of priesthood and kingship – mentioned in I Peter 2.9. He further explains that the New Testament usage of the tonsure is necessarily unlike that of the Old Testament because hair is a covering and the New Testament is all about uncovering, revealing things that were hidden to the prophets. For Peter, the first to wear the tonsure as we know it, Hrabanus says, there were three reasons for wearing the tonsure: to recall the crown of thorns, to distinguish New Testament priests from those of the Old Testament and to subject the disciples to the mockery of the Roman people, for whom shaved heads signified slaves. Hrabanus leaves it to the reader to decide if all this is true and moves on to less interesting but more secure topics.

There are other sources, not the least of which is, on which I shall make no comment. Bede however (Hist. Ecc. Book V, chapter 21) opens up the idea of more than one style of tonsure. When the Celtic church agreed to follow the Roman church on the dating of Easter, at the Synod of Whitby, they were apparently also expected to amend their style of tonsure to the Roman style. Bede quotes a letter from Ceolfrith to King Nechtan of the Picts in which he does go into some detail about the dating of Easter but then goes on to talk about tonsure. Whilst allowing that a difference in style may be tolerated, he comes down heavily in favour of unity and specifically unity with the style worn by Peter, as opposed to that worn by Simon Magus (Acts 8.20-21). Ceolfrith, like Hrabanus 100 years later, links Peter’s tonsure (also known as ‘coronal’) to the crown of thorns and shows it therefore to be an honourable symbol. Simon Magus’ tonsure (known as the ‘insular’ tonsure) on the other hand, has the appearance of a circle only from the front and thus, though it may delude people in this life, in the next it will incur eternal punishment. Ceolfrith also talks about Adamnan of Iona, who in all other respects is a worthy man, but who refuses to conform to the Roman/coronal tonsure, even in the interests of church unity. Ceolfrith notes that on his return to Iona, Adamnan succeeded in persuading his brothers to adopt the new dating of Easter but not the tonsure. King Nechtan, presumably having read this letter, got the message and his clergy did adopt the coronal tonsure. So by this date, probably 716, the tonsure was well established in the British Isles but at least two distinctive traditions existed.

For Julia Barrow, the tonsure as such is a relatively late development. [3] She apparently finds no evidence of an unbroken chain from Peter to the early clerics, since the first record of tonsure is in Toledo in 527, noting that oblates were tonsured immediately on their admission, probably as a mark of status. In Gaul also, this ‘mark of clerics’ was not accepted until the early sixth century. The debate at Whitby was thus only about 150 years after the acceptance of the tonsure – presumably the coronal, since Iona was clearly under pressure to conform to the Roman tradition – on the mainland. Hrabanus does not seem to know about the two traditions, or if he does they are not significant for him.

As is often the case, a moment on Google changes everything. has a thread on tonsure which is quite credible. One contributor does say it’s all to do with controlling lice – which is more likely than some of the things you might find on Google – but another more seriously proposes a three part taxonomy:

  • Roman – aka coronal, the ring of which Hrabanus speaks and thought to be first worn by Peter
  • Celtic – aka insular, although apparently some monks were accustomed to taking the long hair at the back and arranging it ‘to form a semi-circle from one ear to the other.’
  • Eastern – completely shaven

The Eastern style is attributed to St Paul, and tallies best with Hrabanus’ account, except that the implication here is that it was kept shaven, more like Buddhist monks rather than the apparently temporary shaving of the Nazarites. The contributor believes that the three styles were developed by various orders, which supports the pressure after Whitby to unite the two styles of British tonsure. As to the origin of the coronal tonsure, s/he refers us to ancient Egypt and ancient Greece, where the circle honoured not the crown of thorns but the pagan sun god. Apparently.

As Hrabanus concludes:

‘Sed de his quid suscipiat, lectoris iudicio derelinquimus’.

[1] The Clergy in the Medieval World, Cambridge 2015, pp. 29-30

[2] There is a belief that Paul was a Nazarite

[3] Op cit

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Something completely different?

The fifth letter in Chase’s collection really does not look like a model letter. It deals with a particular set of circumstances: Alcuin is writing to his pupil Joseph, who has remained in Aachen at the court school while Alcuin visits Britain, in, according to Allott, 790. The year is significant because Alcuin was unexpectedly detained in Britain when Ethelred was freed from prison and was about to embark on his second reign. Allott juxtaposes this letter with one to Adalhard, which refers to the same situation but goes into more detail as to Alcuin’s political objectives in staying put and one to Ethelred himself, outlining the behaviour expected of him. The letter to Joseph is the most practical of the three: Joseph has errands to run.
Firstly, Alcuin wants to know the king’s movements, essential for a courtier in the days when the court was itinerant. He wants to be kept up to date, and, probably, wants others to remember him while he is away.
Secondly, Alcuin has business which must be delegated to Joseph, apparently another function for former students. Alcuin has sent money for clothing for the boys, clerical and lay, and for himself, as well as paint. He is precise about colour, style and fabric for the clothing and chemical composition for the paint, which Allott thinks may be required for illustrating manuscripts.
Thirdly, there is a truly terrible shortage of wine, which can be resolved by Joseph checking and sending on one of the two cartloads of wine which Alcuin has been promised by a third party.
And finally, Alcuin gives instructions for collecting monies due, equipping a mission to Rome and giving alms to widows.

Alcuin obviously cannot get the goods he is used to in Northumbria but equally obviously there is plenty of money available to him. This letter therefore gives us a useful insight not only into monastic networks, but also trade. It seems likely that a land at peace, such as Francia, was able to ‘export’ to countries such as Northumbria, where the complex politics of the time have led to shortages: surely Alcuin would not have gone to all these lengths if clothing could be bought there? And it seems that the monasteries had good control over trading routes and enough security to transport cash. Or, of course, it may be that such transport was made safe for Charlemagne’s courtiers. Even so, the intermediaries are definitely monastic rather than courtly.
Worldly matters are more important here than they appear in other letters in Chase’s collection. Alcuin is not asking for something to drink – beer is readily available but he doesn’t like it. And the fact that Joseph has to actually check the wine for quality means that it is not just wine they lack, but good wine. Nor does the text suggest that the clothing is wearing out: he is sending to Aachen because he has precise needs. Even the advice about generosity to delegates or visitors creates a picture of a society of monks which has to present a certain status to the world.
A very worldly portrayal of Alcuin.

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Clonmacnoise joins the EU in 790


Alcuin to Colcu   (Chase 4/ Allott* 31)

Alcuin is writing to one of his old teachers. The tone and content of the letter is dramatically different from his letters to students – this one is very practical, in that Alcuin is reporting on events and specifying the content of gifts which were apparently sent with the letter.

Allott and Chase differ in their confidence as to the date of the letter and as to Colcu’s location. Allott dates it to 790 and includes it in letters to Ireland, musing in a footnote to the next letter in the series that Colcu, traditionally a sage of Clonmacnoise, may have been abbot at Inishboffin. Chase is more cautious, but dates the reported defeat and conversion of the Saxons to 785, which suggests a similar date. There is an internal reference in the letter which at least puts Colcu in Britain but Chase nevertheless hesitates to specify Ireland.

The letter gives us more information about the teacher pupil relationship. Alcuin is Colcu’s ‘son’, whereas his friend Joseph is a ‘servant’. It could well be described as a networking letter. Alcuin reports on the progress of the mission in Europe and sends gifts which he knows will be appreciated. In return he asks for prayers for his and Charlemagne’s wellbeing and success. This is reminiscent of the monastic prayer confraternities among the Carolingians a century later. It also draws an abbot many miles from Aachen into the heart of the affairs of the Carolingians.

It also takes us straight into the turbulent world which Alcuin and Charlemagne were establishing the Carolingian Renaissance. Chase points out that the defeat of the Saxons referred to is far from being the final defeat, which undermines somewhat Alcuin’s confident assertion as to the continuing growth of the church. Alcuin himself, after reporting on the many successes, says somewhat plaintively: ‘Sed nescio quid de nobis venturum fiet’. Chase gives background information to the dispute with Offa which lies behind the uncertainty of the time of writing, from the perspective of one who knows that it was all sorted out eventually. Alcuin, however, does not know this, which gives an entirely different perspective.

The gifts being sent are not insignificant. We learn that oil is scarce in Britain, such that Alcuin sends oil in large enough quantity for Colcu to share it out with the bishops. He also sends alms in silver coin, a total of 203 shekels, coming roughly half from Charlemagne and half from Alcuin. This sounds like a large sum but what is really interesting is that Alcuin has the funds to match Charlemagne’s donation coin for coin. Where did the money come from? And what was it for? The obvious answer is that it bought prayer for Alcuin and his master at a time of uncertainty. We might also think that Alcuin has a responsibility towards his old teacher and since he is now in a position to support the Irish monasteries financially, he does so. But I think the real reason is that a tiny monastery, possibly on the West coast of Ireland was seen as just as much a part of a proto-European movement as Fulda and Auxerre. Perhaps this was indeed the first European Union.

*No, I have not given in on the Latin, but once you’ve worked out how to pair the letters it is a comfort to compare my own version of the Latin with Allott’s much more scholarly version.  Mostly I’m right.


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Getting excited about Latin dictionaries

For a while now I have relied on the SPQR app.  All the thrill of having your own Lewis and Short, none of the outlay.  What’s not to like. At first I thought the recent update was a godsend.  It can now parse, which saves morons like me looking up inflected forms and reaching the conclusion there is no such word.  However, the handy L&S examples have disappeared.  Never mind the rise of Wikipedia, this really is the end of civilisation.  However, there is also a new app called Latin Dictionary which has the full L&S exemplars.  Phew!

  I am trying to get out more……

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