Posts Tagged ‘religious history’

Anne Brenon: Les Cathares

September 19, 2016

51vsnpcj3tl-_ac_us160_Anne Brenon is one of the foremost experts on the history and theology of the Cathars, so I took her book to re-read on my recent trip to the Aude department of southern France as I set off to visit some of the sites where they lived and were ultimately wiped out by the Church in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It’s one in an excellent and long-running series from the publishers Gallimard, where a topic, theme or idea is explored in depth in a copiously illustrated main section, which is supported by a supplementary document and bibliography section at the end. Some of their titles were taken up and translated by Thames and Hudson a couple of decades back, but that enterprise seems to have petered out.

The Cathars formed a sizeable and widespread alternative to the official church in southern France, northern Italy and other adjoining areas; they rejected the authority of the pope, the sacraments and rituals of the Roman Church, and sought to return to the basics of early Christianity; men and women were of equal status. More seriously, they spurned the cross, the passion of Christ and the crucifixion, and focused on the Holy Spirit and Pentecost. This earned them condemnation as heretics, the launching of the crusade against the Albigensian heresy (as the Cathar beliefs were labelled) and the setting up of the Inquisition. Of course, it wasn’t just about religion: power politics were in play as always, as the French throne sought to spread its borders and emasculate a powerful rival in the Languedoc. It is a truly shameful episode in the history of the official church: the 5000 in habitants of the city of Beziers were slaughtered, heretics and Catholic alike on the orders of a bishop who said: ‘Kill them all; God will recognise his own’…

The Aude department is encouraging tourism to the areas where the Cathars lived and died; there are museums and exhibitions, and they are careful to de-mystify the untruths which have grown up over the years, that the ruined castles such as Queribus and Peyrepetuse, perched impossibly on their rocky crags, were the sites of Cathar last stands: those castles were built in those places by the French throne after the Cathars had been evicted and massacred, as part of the pacification and securing of the frontier with the throne of Aragon to the south…

Fascinating places which I really enjoyed visiting, and very interesting episode of mediaeval history. Brenon’s book was a very useful companion: there’s sufficient information to make one feel informed properly without being overloaded, it’s well-organised and illustrated.

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Heiko A Oberman: Luther

August 30, 2016

517E2TV6GBL._AC_US200_I should probably give up on reading religious history, because I never seem to achieve the clarity I’m looking for. It will be 500 years next year since Martin Luther’s famous 95 theses started the Reformation, splitting western Christendom irreparably and in England leading to cultural vandalism of an order that parallels that wrought in other lands by ISIS and the Taliban in more recent years.

So, what am I looking to find out? What Luther and associates actually disagreed with Rome about, in theological terms, the question of justification and righteousness, and whether by faith alone or by good works too. The well-known stuff about the horrendous abuses and immoralities of the mediaeval church is easier to take on board.

This book clearly demonstrates how religious reform and politics were inextricably tied up with the evolution and development of the modern nation-state, which I’d deduced after a fashion, but never been fully clear about: across the whole of Europe, people were seeking independence from Rome’s interference, the spiritual trying to usurp the temporal, and what’s more, some attempting to do this whilst remaining Catholic, while others moved definitively away from the church. It’s very detailed and probing in its survey of what is known of Luther’s life and the development of his thought and theology, and presents new knowledge and insights: the theological wranglings remain incredibly difficult to follow, even for someone who has read quite a bit in this field, both history and theology. He catalogues the wider ramifications of events, and debunks a good number of long-held myths, too. It was news to me how much of a millenarian Luther was, as well as how increasingly anti-Jewish he became.

And the nit-picking… how many angels can you fit on the head of a pin? The more I read, the more I’m astonished at the twisting and perverting of what we think was the original basis of Christianity: the heresies, the councils, the definitions, the religious bureaucracy, the torturing and killing of those who dared to question or disagree… it does seem utterly bonkers. In a few days I shall be visiting some of the Cathar sites in southern France. They were a Christian sect annihilated by the Church in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, with a Catholic bishop famously instructing troops to kill everyone in a captured town without distinguishing between heretics and true believers, on the grounds that “God will recognise his own”…

What the reformers were not interested in doing was going back to the origins, the church of the earliest days of Christianity: too many vested interests involved there. It all does seem, sadly, to have been as much about grabbing temporal power and wealth, at least for those not actually inventing the new theologies. An interesting, and difficult book.

William Dalrymple: From The Holy Mountain

January 29, 2015

51GPMM0P04L._AA160_One of the most fascinating, and also one of the saddest books I’ve read for quite a while. Nearly twenty years ago now, William Dalrymple travelled through various Middle Eastern countries on what seems to have been a personal pilgrimage, on the trail of the vestiges of the earliest days of Christianity.

Through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt he shows us how Christianity was originally an Eastern religion and how it is now gradually and finally and probably forever being driven out. Islam developed in the same area; I was already aware of some of the shared beliefs of the two faiths but was astonished to read of them sharing the same places of worship in some remote areas, of them co-existing peaceably as they had done for more than a thousand years. An eighth century saint didn’t even recognise Islam as being a different religion: he wrote of it as another of the many Christian heresies rampant at the time. And Christian monks used to have prayer niches in their cells in the desert so that they could face in the right direction when they prayed… truly the two faiths were much more intertwined in their very early days that I had known.

Dalrymple describes the remote desert churches and monasteries, many of them well over a thousand, some over fifteen hundred years old; the pictures he paints are vivid and haunting, and one realises how long places and relics are preserved by the heat and dryness of the desert; the vignettes of the monks and priests he meets and converses with are well-drawn, even though there is a lot that seems more than mildly bonkers about some of the beliefs and practices of the Byzantine churches…but the idea that there is more to this life than the purely material and the secular has been anchored there for centuries and still speaks to us today.

He contextualises well; the confusion and anger that is today’s Middle East is illuminated as far as it can be; we live in an age of fundamentalists, and Dalrymple shows us Jewish, Christian and Muslim ones, all of whom seem to have regressed from their brethren of earlier times, hence the inevitable note of sadness that permeates the book, as we see Christians forced to leave the very areas where the faith began and developed. The situation has, of course, become far more grim since Dalrymple travelled and wrote this book. I found myself wondering how much responsibility the modern idea of the nation state bears for the current madness.

I’d read a couple of newspaper and magazine articles by William Dalrymple but no books of his until this was passed to me: I look forward to reading much more.

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