Sep 032017
 

On this date in 590 Gregory I, commonly called Gregory the Great, became pope of the Catholic church. He is not the Gregory who instituted the calendar reforms that gave us the (current) Gregorian calendar, but he is famous (in some circles) for instigating the first recorded large-scale mission from Rome to convert the pagan peoples of Europe (including the English) to Christianity. It is quite legitimate to argue that the papacy, Catholicism, and Europe itself as we conceive them now had their origins in the ideas implemented by Gregory. Gregorian chant is also named after him, although it’s not clear whether he founded it. Gregory is also well known for his writings, which were more prolific than those of any of his predecessors as pope.

Gregory was the son of a senator and the Prefect of Rome at age 30. He tried the monastic life for a time but soon returned to active public life. Even so, he ended his life as pope. Although he was the first pope from a monastic background, his prior political experiences may have helped him to be a talented administrator, who successfully established papal supremacy. During his papacy he greatly surpassed the administrative and political abilities of the emperors and improved the overall welfare of the people of Rome. Gregory regained papal authority in Spain and France, and sent missionaries to England. The realignment of their allegiance to Rome from their Arian Christian alliances shaped medieval Europe. Gregory also oversaw the alliance of Franks, Lombards, and Visigoths with Rome in religion.

Throughout the Middle Ages he was known as “the Father of Christian Worship” because of his exceptional efforts in revising the Roman worship of his day. His contributions to the development of the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, for example, still in use in the Byzantine Rite, were so significant that he is generally recognized as its de facto author. Immediately after his death, Gregory was canonized by popular acclaim. The Protestant reformer John Calvin admired Gregory and declared in his Institutes that Gregory was the last good pope (which could be conceived as a form of damning by faint praise, I suppose). He is the patron saint of musicians, singers, students, and teachers.

In texts of all genres, especially those produced in his first year as pope, Gregory bemoaned the burden of office and mourned the loss of the undisturbed life of prayer he had once enjoyed as a monk. When he became pope in 590, among his first acts was writing a series of letters disavowing any ambition to the throne of Peter and praising the contemplative life of the monks. At that time, for various reasons, the Holy See had not exerted effective leadership in the West since the pontificate of Gelasius I (410-496). The episcopacy in Gaul was drawn from the great territorial families, and identified with them: the parochial horizon of Gregory’s contemporary, Gregory of Tours, may be considered typical. In Visigothic Spain the bishops had little contact with Rome; in Italy the territories which had de facto fallen under the administration of the papacy were beset by the violent Lombard dukes and the rivalry of the Byzantines in the Exarchate of Ravenna and in the south.

Gregory had strong convictions on missions: “Almighty God places good men in authority that He may impart through them the gifts of His mercy to their subjects. And this we find to be the case with the British over whom you have been appointed to rule, that through the blessings bestowed on you the blessings of heaven might be bestowed on your people also.” He is credited with re-energizing the Church’s missionary work among the non-Christian peoples of northern Europe. He is most famous for sending a mission, often called the Gregorian mission, under Augustine of Canterbury, prior of Saint Andrew’s (Gregory’s monastery), where he had perhaps succeeded Gregory, to evangelize the pagan Anglo-Saxons of England. It seems that the pope had never forgotten the English child slaves whom he had once seen in the Roman Forum. He famously said on meeting them, “Non Angli, sed angeli (they are not Angles, but angels) . . . well named, for they have angelic faces and ought to be co-heirs with the angels in heaven.”

The mission was successful, and it was from England that missionaries later set out for the Netherlands and Germany. The preaching of non-heretical Christian faith and the elimination of all deviations from it was a key element in Gregory’s worldview, and it constituted one of the major continuing policies of his pontificate.

The secular state in which Gregory became pope in 590 was a ruined one. The Lombards held the better part of Italy. Their predations had brought the economy to a standstill. They camped nearly at the gates of Rome. The city was packed with refugees from all walks of life, who lived in the streets and had few of the necessities of life. The seat of government was far from Rome in Constantinople, which appeared unable to undertake the relief of Italy. The pope had sent emissaries, including Gregory, asking for assistance, to no avail. In 590, Gregory could wait for Constantinople no longer. He organized the resources of the church into an administration for general relief. In doing so he evidenced a talent for and intuitive understanding of the principles of accounting, which was not to be formalized for centuries. The church already had basic accounting documents: every expense was recorded in journals called regesta, “lists” of amounts, recipients and circumstances. Revenue was recorded in polyptici, “books”. Many of these polyptici were ledgers recording the operating expenses of the church and the assets, the patrimonia. A central papal administration, the notarii, under a chief, the primicerius notariorum, kept the ledgers and issued brevia patrimonii, or lists of property for which each rector was responsible.

Gregory began by aggressively requiring his churchmen to seek out and relieve the needy and reprimanded them if they did not. In a letter to a subordinate in Sicily he wrote: “I asked you most of all to take care of the poor. And if you knew of people in poverty, you should have pointed them out … I desire that you give the woman, Pateria, forty solidi for the children’s shoes and forty bushels of grain ….” Soon he was replacing administrators who would not cooperate with those who would and at the same time adding more in a build-up to a great plan that he had in mind. He understood that expenses must be matched by income. To pay for his increased expenses he liquidated the investment property and paid the expenses in cash according to a budget recorded in the polyptici. The churchmen were paid four times a year and also personally given a golden coin for their efforts.

Gregory’s general charitable frame of mind completely won the hearts and minds of the Roman people. They now looked to the papacy for government, ignoring the rump state at Constantinople, which had only disrespect for Gregory, calling him a fool for his pacifist dealings with the Lombards. The Roman office of urban prefect went without candidates and secular government was largely defunct. From the time of Gregory the Great to the rise of Italian nationalism the papacy was the most influential voice in ruling Italy.

The mainstream form of Western plainchant which was standardized in the late 9th century, was attributed to Gregory  and so took the name of Gregorian chant, but the attribution is only loosely warranted. The earliest such attribution is in John the Deacon’s 873 biography of Gregory, almost three centuries after the pope’s death, and the chant that bears his name is actually the result of the fusion of Roman and Frankish elements which took place in the Franco-German empire under Pepin, Charlemagne and their successors.

Gregory is interred in St Peter’s in Rome.

Not much is known about cooking in the 6th century in Italy or anywhere else in Europe for that matter.  So I’ll start by talking about the ecclesiastical cycle of feast and fast that dominated Europe through the Middle Ages and beyond. Today is both Sunday and a significant feast day in the Catholic church. That means you are free to eat what you want. On fast days, which used to include Fridays, the eves of feast, and the period of Lent, different regions of the Catholic world and different sects had different rules. Many animal products such as dairy, eggs, fats, and meats were not to be eaten and, in the more restrictive regions, only one meal during the day was allowed. Such restrictions were more relevant to the rich than the poor (who were numerous). For the majority, cereals were the norm and meat was a luxury. Even so, the rich found many ways around the restrictions and managed to eat quite sumptuously on fast days even though technically deprived of eggs and meat on those days. It comes down to whether you subscribe to the letter or the spirit of the law. As (nominal) followers of Jesus, they should have observed the spirit, but you know how people are.

I’ve had times in my life when I have been extremely observant of fast and feast days even though as a Protestant minister I have no obligation to do so. These days I am much less aware of such issues because I routinely eat one meal a day – breakfast – and it consists primarily of soup, rice, vegetables, and fruit (with a small amount of meat). I make a practice of eating eggs on Sundays as a treat. This practice has to do with my age and my circumstances. I live in Myanmar where rice is a staple and other dishes are small accompaniments for flavor, not the main ingredients.  When I lived in the US and was an active pastor I followed Medieval fast and feast rules rigorously, most especially in Lent. I won’t go into the spiritual details here, but I will point out that an Easter Sunday dinner of roast lamb, roast potatoes, and sumptuous gravy followed by a suet pudding with fresh egg custard was glorious after 40 days of fasting.

There’s the medieval trick that has long left us behind. Satisfying every culinary whim, because you feel like it, just makes you fat and lazy. Working on a cycle of fast and feast has much to commend it, but it’s a personal choice. Furthermore, alternating feasting and fasting is another version of my desire for variety in my culinary life.

Frumenty is a reasonable medieval dish for a feast day.  It’s basically a wheat porridge with various flavorings added. The typical method of preparation was to parboil whole grains of wheat in water, then strain them and boil them in milk. The finished grains were then sweetened with sugar and flavored with cinnamon and other sweet spices, such as cloves and allspice. Dried fruits, usually raisins, might also be added.

May 022017
 

Today is the birthday ([O.S. 21 April] 1729) of Catherine II of Russia (Екатерина Алексеевна), also known as Catherine the Great (Екатерина II Великая). She was the longest-ruling female monarch of Russia, reigning from 1762 until her death in 1796 at the age of 67, and probably the most renowned. She came to power following a coup d’état when her husband, Peter III, was deposed and then assassinated. Russia was revitalized under her reign, growing larger and stronger than ever and becoming recognized as one of the great powers of Europe. Her prowess in Russia is comparable with Victoria’s in England, although her historical status in Russia (and of the monarchy in general) was greatly diminished by the Russian Revolution and the rise of communism. You can read about her reign elsewhere. I’ll just look at how she came to power from impoverished princess to immensely powerful ruler of all Russia.

Catherine was born in Stettin, Pomerania, Kingdom of Prussia as Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg. Her father, Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, belonged to the ruling German family of Anhalt, but held the rank of a Prussian general in his capacity as Governor of the city of Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland). In accordance with the custom then prevailing in the ruling dynasties of Germany, she received her education chiefly from a French governess and from tutors. Although Catherine was born a princess, her family had very little money. Catherine’s rise to power was supported by her mother’s wealthy relatives who were both wealthy nobles and royal relations.

The choice of Sophia as wife of her second cousin, the prospective tsar Peter of Holstein-Gottorp, resulted from some amount of diplomatic management in which Count Lestocq, Peter’s aunt (the ruling Russian Empress Elizabeth), and Frederick II of Prussia took part. Lestocq and Frederick wanted to strengthen the friendship between Prussia and Russia to weaken Austria’s influence and ruin the Russian chancellor Bestuzhev, on whom Empress Elizabeth relied, and who acted as a known partisan of Russo-Austrian co-operation. Catherine first met Peter III at the age of 10. Based on her writings, she found Peter detestable upon meeting him. She disliked his pale complexion and his fondness for alcohol at such a young age. Peter also still played with toy soldiers. Catherine later wrote that she stayed at one end of the castle, and Peter at the other.

The diplomatic intrigue failed, largely due to the intervention of Sophia’s mother, Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. Historical accounts portray her as a cold, abusive woman who loved gossip and court intrigues. Johanna’s hunger for fame centered on her daughter’s prospects of becoming empress of Russia, but she infuriated Empress Elizabeth, who eventually banned her from the country for spying for King Frederick of Prussia. The Empress Elizabeth knew the family well: she had intended to marry Princess Johanna’s brother Charles Augustus (Karl August von Holstein), who had died of smallpox in 1727 before the wedding could take place. In spite of Johanna’s interference, Empress Elizabeth took a strong liking to the daughter, who, on arrival in Russia in 1744, spared no effort to ingratiate herself not only with the Empress Elizabeth, but with her husband and with the Russian people. She applied herself to learning the Russian language with such zeal, she rose at night and walked about her bedroom barefoot, repeating her lessons (even though she mastered the language, she retained an accent). This led to a severe attack of pneumonia in March 1744. When she wrote her memoirs, she said she made up her mind when she came to Russia to do whatever was necessary, and to profess to believe whatever was required of her, to become qualified to wear the crown.

Princess Sophia’s father, a devout German Lutheran, opposed his daughter’s conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy. Despite his objection, on 28 June 1744 the Russian Orthodox Church received Princess Sophia as a member with the new name Catherine (Yekaterina or Ekaterina) and the (artificial) patronymic Алексеевна (Alekseyevna, daughter of Aleksey). On the following day, the formal betrothal took place. The long-planned dynastic marriage finally occurred on 21 August 1745 in Saint Petersburg. Sophia had turned 16. Her father did not travel to Russia for the wedding. The bridegroom, known then as Peter von Holstein-Gottorp, had become Duke of Holstein-Gottorp (located in the north-west of present-day Germany near the border with Denmark) in 1739.

As she recalled in her memoirs, as soon as she arrived in Russia, she fell ill with a pleuritis that almost killed her. She credited her survival to frequent bloodletting; in a single day, she had four phlebotomies. Her mother, being opposed to this practice, fell into the Empress’s disfavor. When her situation looked desperate, her mother wanted her confessed by a Lutheran priest. Awaking from her delirium, however, Catherine said: “I don’t want any Lutheran; I want my orthodox father.” This raised her in the Empress’s esteem.

Count Andrei Shuvalov, chamberlain to Catherine, knew the diarist James Boswell well, and Boswell reports that Shuvalov shared private information regarding the monarch’s intimate affairs. Some of these rumours included that Peter took a mistress (Elizabeth Vorontsova), while Catherine carried on liaisons with Sergei Saltykov, Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov,  Alexander Vasilchikov, Grigory Potemkin, Stanisław August Poniatowski, and others. She became friends with Princess Ekaterina Vorontsova-Dashkova, the sister of her husband’s mistress, who introduced her to several powerful political groups that opposed her husband. Peter III’s temperament became quite unbearable for those who resided in the palace. Catherine became pregnant with her second child, Anna, who only lived to four months, in 1759. Due to various rumors of Catherine’s promiscuity, Peter was led to believe he was not the child’s biological father and is known to have proclaimed, “Go to the devil!” when Catherine angrily dismissed his accusation. She thus spent much of this time alone in her own private boudoir to hide away from Peter’s abrasive personality.

Catherine recalled in her memoirs her optimistic and resolute mood before her accession to the throne:

I used to say to myself that happiness and misery depend on ourselves. If you feel unhappy, raise yourself above unhappiness, and so act that your happiness may be independent of all eventualities.

After the death of the Empress Elizabeth on 5 January 1762 (OS: 25 December 1761), Peter succeeded to the throne as Emperor Peter III, and Catherine became empress consort. The imperial couple moved into the new Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. The tsar’s eccentricities and policies, including a great admiration for the Prussian king, Frederick II, alienated the same groups that Catherine had cultivated. Besides, Peter intervened in a dispute between his Duchy of Holstein and Denmark over the province of Schleswig.

Russia and Prussia fought each other during the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) until Peter’s accession. Peter’s insistence on supporting Frederick II of Prussia, who had seen Berlin occupied by Russian troops in 1760, but now suggested partitioning Polish territories with Russia, eroded much of his support among the nobility.

In July 1762, barely six months after becoming emperor, Peter took a holiday with his Holstein-born courtiers and relatives to Oranienbaum, leaving his wife in Saint Petersburg. On the night of 8 July (OS: 27 June) Catherine was given the news that one of her companions had been arrested by her estranged husband. She left the palace and departed for the Ismailovsky regiment, where she delivered a speech asking the soldiers to protect her from her husband. Catherine then left with the regiment to go to the Semenovsky Barracks, where the clergy were waiting to ordain her as the sole occupant of the Russian throne. She had her husband arrested, and forced him to sign a document of abdication, leaving no one to dispute her accession to the throne. On 17 July 1762—eight days after the coup and just six months after his accession to the throne—Peter III died at Ropsha, at the hands of Alexei Orlov (younger brother to Grigory Orlov, then a court favourite and a participant in the coup). Historians find no evidence for Catherine’s complicity in the supposed assassination.

At the time of Peter III’s overthrow, other potential rival claimants to the throne existed: Ivan VI (1740–1764), in close confinement at Schlüsselburg, in Lake Ladoga, from the age of six months; and Yelizaveta Alekseyevna Tarakanova (1753–1775). Ivan VI was assassinated during an attempt to free him as part of a failed coup against Catherine: Catherine, like Empress Elizabeth before her, had given strict instructions that he was to be killed in the event of any such attempt. Ivan was thought to be insane because of his years of solitary confinement, so might have made a poor emperor, even as a figurehead.

Catherine, though not descended from any previous Russian emperor of the Romanov Dynasty (she descended from the Rurik Dynasty, which preceded the Romanovs), succeeded her husband as empress regnant. She followed the precedent established when Catherine I (born in the lower classes in the Swedish East Baltic territories) succeeded her husband Peter the Great in 1725.

Historians debate Catherine’s technical status, some seeing her as a regent or as a usurper, tolerable only during the minority of her son, Grand Duke Paul. In the 1770s, a group of nobles connected with Paul (Nikita Panin and others) considered a new coup to depose Catherine and transfer the crown to Paul, whose power they envisaged restricting in a kind of constitutional monarchy. However, nothing came of this, and Catherine reigned until her death.

According to (moderately authenticated) legend Catherine’s favorite dish was sturgeon and champagne soup.  It’s not clear whether she actually loved the soup itself or the expense and extravagance associated with it. There is a story told that her lover of the time, count Potemkin, was in a panic because she was due for a visit but there was no sturgeon to be had, and he knew her passion for the soup. So he sold a painting that he had just bought for 10,000 rubles to pay a knowledgeable fishmonger who managed to find a few fillets. The recipe is not terribly complicated, but it will not be much if you do not make a good fish stock first – obviously.

To make a good fish stock I use the head and bones of cod or haddock. Cover them with cold water and add some chopped onion, celery, and parsley root, plus a bay leaf and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a low boil and simmer for an hour or longer. Strain thoroughly.

For the soup, place whole fillets of sturgeon in a fish kettle and cover with stock. Simmer until the fish is just cooked. If you like you can add a few diced vegetables. Parsley root is perfect. Add a good quality dry or extra dry champagne to double the quantity of stock. Let it heat through and serve.

Place a whole fillet in a shallow bowl and cover with soup. Garnish with chives, and serve with lemon wedges.  It was customary to drink the soup first with a spoon, and then eat the fish with a knife and fork.