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28 Apr

Of Dog-headed Men, Predestination and Universals

Today is the feast of the “popular saint of doubtful history” Christopher1. In the Middle Ages (and later, as the featured image above from the 17th century shows) Christopher was depicted as having the head of a dog.

Pliny recorded the testimony of a Greek physician who claimed to have encountered a race of people with the heads of dogs who dressed in skins. The idea passed into popular legend. The Irish accounts of Christopher, the dog-head who converted to Christianity and was martyred by the Roman emperor Decius can be found in the 15th century manuscripts, the Leabhar Breac and the Liber Flavus Fergusiorum2. It was also referenced by Ratramnus, a monk of Corbie in Picardy, when asked for advice about dog-heads by a monk called Rimbert, who thought he might encounter them in a mission to Scandinavia.

Ratramnus argued in his Epistola de Cynocephalis that the dog-heads were worthy of evangelisation, since they were clearly rational beings. They wore clothing, domesticated animals and had laws. Moreover Christopher was one and had converted. In this Ratramnus was following Augustine “who had written that if the monstrous races do exist, they were created according to God’s will and, if they are human and descended from Adam, they must be capable of salvation”3

Ratramnus was active in debate in the ninth century, including two major debates against the ideas of Irishmen. He supported Gottschalk’s theory of double predestination (that God has actively chosen people for damnation as well as for salvation), a position which Gottschalk believed derived from Augustine. John Scotus Eriugena was commissioned by Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims and Bishop Pardulus of Laon to answer Gottschalk. His De divina praedestinatione (On Divine Predestination, c. 851) argues that God wishes for all to be saved and does not predestine souls to damnation. Instead humans damn themselves through the choices they make. Eriugena calls Gottschalk’s error a a heresy that falls midway between that of Pelagius, which rejects the power of grace, and its opposite, the denial of freedom 4 Ratramnus was among those who disagreed. His treatise De Praedestinatione Dei (On the Predestination of God, c. 849-50 ) defended double predestination, though it also argued against the idea that humans are destined to commit sins5

Ratramnus was called on to debate another Irishman on a controversy stemming from an interpretation of Augustine. A monk at Fleury, a disciple of the Irish monk Macarius, argued based on Augustine’s De quantitate animae that there was only one soul. The sole documentation of the dispute is Ratramnus’ Liber de anima ad Odonem Bellovacensem, a response to the monk’s answer to Ratramnus’ original objections6.

In De quantitate animae, Augustine puts forward three possibilities for the soul – either all souls are one, all individual souls are completely separate or souls are both one and many. Finding the first two options unsatisfactory and the third absurd, Augustine leaves the trilemma unsolved. By Ratramus’ account, Macarius thought Augustine’s phrasing meant that he favoured the third option. Macarius thus held that all souls were both one and many: all human souls were part of a single all-encompassing world soul7.

Ratamnus recorded some of the statements of Macarius’ disciple: “there is one which describes any singular indivisible man as an abyss, and another that suggests that, by the mere placing of Cicero as a subject for Man, all men are collected together”8. The position of Macarius’ disciple seems to be that every individual member of a class really contains every other member, meaning that there is no difference between species, genera and individuals. For him, individuals emerge from their species like a river from its source or growth of a tree from its roots (examples also recorded by Ratamnus.) This position shows its roots in neoPlatonism.

Ratamnus’ reply frames the dispute as a logical one. For Macarius (and indeed, Eriugena) species and genera were at least as real, if not more so, than atoma (individuals). For Ratamnus, species and genera are abstractions and the only real things are individuals. He calls on Boethius’ Contra Eutychen et Nestorium to illustrate this point: the monk from Fluery invokes Boethius’ position that every predication must involve a substance, but Ratamnus corrects his understanding of Boethius: a predication must involve a nature, but not every nature is a substance. The only true substances are individuals; genera and species are subsistentia9

This debate seems to have put an end to a debate over the soul that had raged since the time of Alcuin, but it hints at a long debate to come. The “problem of universals” has been described as the main philosophical question of the Middle Ages. How does a class (such as “dog-headed man” or “philosopher”) relate to members of the class (such as “Christopher” or “Eriugena”)? Is the class just an abstraction made by observers seeing similarities between members of the class, or are the members of the class only members due to their relationship to a Universal, a real independent immaterial object? The battle lines of the medieval debate were drawn by Ratamnus on the first side and Macarius’ disciple on the second as early as the 9th century10.

rata-full Featured Image: Sts Stephen and Christopher, 17th century Greek Icon, Wikimedia, Public Domain

Further Reading and Listening

Gyula Klima (2016) “The Medieval Problem of Universals”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/universals-medieval/ .

Peter Adamson History of Philosophy without any Gaps (podcast)


  1. David Woods (1999) The Passion of St. Christopher (Translation by Fraser (1913), 307-25) UCC Archive – Military Martyrs (online).
  2. Humphrey Clarke (2009) “Ratramnus and the Dog Heads” Quodlibeta (http://bedejournal.blogspot.ie) (blogpost).
  3. Moran, Dermot (2008) “John Scottus Eriugena”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/scottus-eriugena (see section 1.2).
  4. G.E. McCracken, ed. (1957) Early Medieval Theology, Westminster John Knox Press, pp. 109-111.
  5. John Marenbon (2006) From the Circle of Alcuin to the School of Auxerre: Logic, Theology and Philosophy in the Early Middle Ages Cambridge University Press, pp. 67-8
  6. Dermot Moran (1989) The Philosophy of John Scottus Eriugena: A study of idealism in the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, pp. 22-3. Marenbon (2006), p. 68
  7. Marebbon (2006), p. 69
  8. Moran (2006), p. 23.
  9. Moran (2006), p. 23. Marenbon (2006), p. 5.
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