Thursday, February 22, 2024

Today, on the Christian History Almanac, we remember a medieval Reformer and “Doctor of the Church”: Peter Damian.

It is the 22nd of February 2024. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac, brought to you by 1517 at; I’m Dan van Voorhis.


Let’s head back to the turn of the last millennium, circa 1000, and the so-called Dark Ages. While there is much to celebrate in these so-called “Dark Ages,” it was around the year 1000 that we saw considerable excitement and tumult.

The Carolingian Renaissance brought about by Charlemagne in the year 800 was in the rear view and expectations about the end of the world ran high. The church of the Latin West suffered under numerous popes and anti-popes, and the church became a vehicle for personal power and wealth.

Born amidst this turmoil was Peter in Ravenna to a noble family. Despite being Noble, the story is that the family did not want to care for the last of seven children, and he was to be left out to die of exposure. His family was shamed and he was adopted by an older brother who employed him as a swine-herd. The kindness of a sister and another brother led to him being relieved of his pig farming work and he was sent to school where he excelled. By the age of 25, he was a popular lecturer and had taken a second name, Damian, after his brother, who adopted him.

But Peter Damian wanted to get away from the academic life at the University, and upon meeting two hermits from a local monastery, he joined them as a novice. He would soon become master of the monastery- despite wanting solitude; he was continually called to leadership roles.

At the monastery, he initiated reforms, from flagellation (an act of whipping oneself for penance) to an afternoon nap for sleepy monks who stayed up late praying.

When a friend of his, Hildebrand, was rising in the church ranks and eventually made Pope Gregory VII, he would call on Peter Damian to bring his zeal for reform to the whole church.

The two main issues appear to have been simony and Nicolaism. Simony was the buyer and seller of church offices. In the 11th century, Pope Benedict IX represented the nadir of this as he was a 20-year-old who obtained the office through bribery and was deposed and reinstated twice. Nicolaism, an early sect referenced in the book of Revelation, in this context, was likely priests who had concubines, were married, or even practiced polygamy.

On account of his reputation, Peter Damian was often used as a legate or representative of the Pope, sent to foreign lands to adjudicate on the Pope’s behalf. One memorable event occurred at a wedding between a Byzantine Princess and an Italian. Peter noted of the princess: “She did not touch the dishes with her hands but she had the food cut in very small pieces by the eunuchs. Then she just tasted them, bringing them to her mouth with two-pronged gold forks.”

Could one use such an instrument with its close association with the devil’s pitchfork? Maybe this wasn’t that important in hindsight, but his work on the Back to the Future II problem would have a lasting effect on his reputation.

The question was whether or not an omnipotent God could change the past and undo something without it having a ripple effect on subsequent historical events (like Biff taking the sports almanac and creating a parallel Hill Valley). Peter, more interested in upholding God’s omnipotence, argued that God could “undo” such things that he “did,” and this was seen as negating the law of non-contradiction. While it is a dubious argument made from one letter, it would paint Peter as the anti-intellectual caricature of a medieval monk. While this has been linked to him to the present, his immediate peers thought more of him. Dante would have the monk depicted in the highest reaches of paradise- the seventh realm- with St. Benedict and above the likes of Thomas Aquinas.

Despite a dizzying number of Popes in the 11th century (they would finally formalize the process in this century after years of disputes about who was actually pope), Peter Damian was seen as the reformer and legate of choice. He was reticently named a cardinal and tried in vain to be relieved of official work so that he could go back to the monastery. This was not to be, and some considered him in line to become the Pope until 1072 when he fell ill and died on this, the 22nd of February of that year. He would be named a saint by acclimation (there was no process; it was decided by the populace that “of course, he’s a saint,” and the church accepted that). Peter Damian is today seen in art as holding a papal bull (or letter) on account of his work as a legate or with a knotted rope to depict his practice of self-flagellation.


The last word for today is from the daily lectionary, a doozie from Romans 3:

21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 22nd of February 2024, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man also depicted in art with a knotted rope, but on account of his knotting skills, nothing spiritual- he is Christopher Gillespie. 

The show is written and read by a man who, after almost 8 years of no practice, can no longer tie a bow tie. Shoelaces only. I’m useless on boats- and I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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