Wednesday, January 09, 2019


Saved By a Pile of Excrement

Brent D. Shaw, Sacred Violence: African Christians and Sectarian Hatred in the Age of Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 528-529:
Even in the aftermath of the second attack and the new beating that they administered to the Catholic bishop, they still did not kill him. What happened next was something different. His attackers chose instead to drag him up flights of stairs to the top of a nearby high tower and, once they got him to the top of it, they threw him off its height. In other words, they hoped that he might perish by precipitation. And this is the way that the Catholic martyrology presents his suffering: as a precipitation.

Very fortunately for Maximianus, a large mound of human excrement had accumulated at the bottom of the tower. Apparently the town's people and travelers relieved themselves at the base of its walls. The deep heap of human ordure broke the force of Maximianus' plunge from the tower.93 He survived the fall. Fading in and out of consciousness over the next hours, Maximianus barely clung to life. By another good stroke of fortune, there occurred one of those little human dramas that reveal something of daily routines in a late antique town. Later that same night, a poor man, a pauper, and his wife happened to be passing by the tower in the dark. The man made a detour off the road in order to defecate. Apparently, it was known that such acts of personal relief were performed at the foot of this particular tower. (With all that the practice suggests about ordinary sanitary conditions in rural towns like Bagaï.) When the man got to the pile of shit in order to relieve himself, he found the half-dead Catholic bishop of Bagaï on top of it. Immediately recognizing who the man was, he shouted to his wife who, obedient to the normal canons of shame, was waiting for him back on the main road. He called out to her to come quickly and to bring the lantern that she was carrying to light their way in the night (another item that allows us to picture this dimly-lit scene in miniature). The two of them then shouldered the body of the wounded bishop and carried him to their home — "Out of pity," remarks Augustine, "or because they hoped for a small reward."

93 Aug. Contra Cresc. 3.43.47 (CSEL 52: 454): "rursus inruentibus violenter extortus est graviusque mulcatus et de excelsa turri noctu praecipitatus subter cinere stercoris molliter iacebat exceptus, sensu amisso vix extremum spiritum tenens." This is a dirty equivalent of the death of the dissident martyr Marculus who lands softly on the rocks beneath his precipitation: see ch. 16, pp. 751–53.


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