Posts Tagged ‘English Reformation’

Catherine Nixey: The Darkening Age

June 4, 2019

91nwQ0TuJhL._AC_UL436_ Some of my readers may be aware of my interest in the early history of Christianity: my wider reading has led me to explore how what seems to have been the original message of the teacher was developed and given a different spin by Paul and others as the new religion gradually spread across the ancient world, and how it gradually moved from an allegedly persecuted creed to one which took over the Roman Empire, and became as intolerant as it accused its predecessors of being…

The Christian world gradually replaced the classical one, and Nixey charts this process in her book. I’m not sure of how academically valid it is, in the sense that she seems to rely on not very many sources very heavily to advance her case, and to follow the modern and somewhat deceptive process of providing reams of notes at the end of the text, most of which merely give the source of a detail, rather than illuminate anything further. However, the general lines of her enquiry are most interesting and I learned a good deal.

Firstly, early Christianity destroyed far more of the classical world than it preserved, and this was for me an unknown story; the deeds of religious bigots and fanatics, egged on by early ‘saints’, were on a parallel with the more recent depredations of the Taliban – destroyers of the Buddhas of Bamiyan – and ISIS, destroyers of the city of Palmyra in the Syrian desert. The entire Graeco-Roman religious system was regarded as a creation of demons and therefore to be eradicated completely. The whole picture makes Henry VIII’s cultural vandalism of Catholic England in the sixteenth century seem rather petty…

Secondly, Roman persecution of Christians was far less deliberate and official than we think we know it to have been, largely due to effective Christian propaganda. Martyrdom was attractive, particularly to fanatics (no change there, then) and according to Nixey, possibly fewer than ten tales of martyrdom from the early Church may be considered reliable. On the contrary, Roman officials apparently went to considerable lengths to avoid executing Christians. A good deal of sanitising of history took place, and the lives of many ‘saints’ of the Church were actually full of intolerance and brutality, racism and anti-semitism, rather than their being the exemplars of the holy life that many believe them to be.

Literature suffered as well as the more obvious buildings and statuary; perhaps ten per cent of classical literature has survived, and maybe only one percent of Latin literature. What survived was censored: that of writers such as Catullus endured well into the twentieth century, and I can recall the classics teacher at school jumping over passages that were not considered suitable for mere schoolboys to read… This anti-intellectualism, this cult of ignorance reminds me of what I have read of the appalling behaviour of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s. Back in the past, anything was deemed acceptable if it was labelled in the service of Christ; like the later Spanish Inquisition, such behaviour was above and outside the law.

I came across the names of a number of classical writers and historians of whom I had not heard – not for want of looking – in whose writing the other side of the history of those times is recorded. As I mentioned above, it may be that the writer has over-egged the pudding in her enthusiasm for telling her story, but all of this material does need to be much more widely known, researched and documented. It’s a necessary read, a profoundly depressing reflection on knowledge and ignorance, tolerance and intolerance; it shows that human beings do not seem to have grown any wiser two thousand years later, either. And lest anyone should feel that the book is an anti-Christian diatribe on her part, or this post one on mine, it is not so; it is the wilful cultivation and worship of ignorance, and the intolerance which flows from that, that is, and must always be, challenged.

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August favourites #9: history books

August 9, 2018

I read a lot of history, partly to make up for giving up my study of it after O level, and partly because I feel that understanding the present and then trying to imagine a better future world depend on understanding the past. There are three historians currently writing whose work I respect immensely. Eamon Duffy writes carefully and thoughtfully about the Reformation in England, and what was lost during those turbulent times, and his detailed picture of Catholic England goes some way to countering the strident Protestant accounts that had corruption and idolatry at the heart of it all; it was far more complicated than that, as were the political and social reasons for the English Reformation. Then there is Diarmaid MacCulloch, a historian of religion, the scope of whose work astonishes me: a three-thousand year history of Christianity which I shall shortly go back to, and a weighty tome on the entire European Reformation, covering two centuries, as well as some excellent TV programmes on religion. Finally, and I think I will name him as my favourite, is Norman Davies, a scholar whose work on the history of Poland has earned him a mighty reputation even in that country. He has written the only complete history in English of that nation, as well as histories of more specific episodes such as the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, the Polish-Soviet war of 1920 and various others. That’s before you turn to his history of Europe, and his history of the Atlantic Isles.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

Fergusson & Harrison: Rievaulx Abbey

December 6, 2015

51HPY1SN36L._AA160_If I had to choose my most beautiful place in the UK, I can’t think of anywhere I’d place higher up the list than Rievaulx Abbey, for its isolation, its ruins, its atmosphere. I’ve visited a number of times, and each visit has provoked different reflections and responses. I prefer it to Fountains, which I’m rather more familiar with, or any other of the countless ruined abbeys and monasteries of Britain I’ve visted and explored.

Whilst I’m not sure I can approve of such wealth and leisure in the service of religion, I can respond to the spiritual impulses awakened by such places, their beauty and the way they remind us that there is more to life than the merely material.

This book has lots of wonderful aerial photos of the abbey and its surroundings, and chronicles the growth of the abbey in the centuries before its destruction by Henry VIII and his minions. The more I reflect on it, the more I am astonished and outraged by the scale of this religious and cultural vandalism, fed by the ego of a king and the greed of his henchmen. I suppose a modern-day equivalent might be a government decision completely to ban football and force everyone to play and watch rugby instead, along with the giving away of all stadia and playing fields to the Prime Minister’s cronies for selling off and demolition…

So, the destruction of Rievaulx over the years is charted in detail; it became a romantic ruin to be viewed from a distance by the guests of the nobility who acquired the site and buildings on the cheap for plunder. In the early years of the twentieth century, it was finally acquired by the Ministry of Works, and the site cleared, excavated in a fairly rudimentary fashion, and landscaped for tourists; in a way, still romantic ruins for people to gawp at, but now the plebs could pay their way in… Apparently no reconstruction was allowed, though much might have been possible, and a lot of the remaining old stonework was either carted away or used for levelling the surrounding meadowlands.

Maybe you can detect an ex-Catholic writing, from the tone of the above; I can’t say that I think Britain would have been a better place without the Reformation – that’s the realm of science fiction, and I point you in the direction of Kingsley AmisThe Alteration, or Keith Roberts‘ marvellous Pavane if you want to travel down that route. But I do feel that our world sorely needs places which are capable of uplifting our spirits in different ways, certainly taking us beyond the tawdry material and consumerist society we have the misfortune to inhabit at the moment.

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