Category Archives: Indignation

Books ‘normal’ people read

I am on parental leave following the birth of my second son just now. It is leave from my paid work, but it is work! Between the PhD and then four academic jobs in four years, all the while hunting for more academic work, my mind is a bit tired. So, while I’m on parental leave, I’ve decided to read books ‘normal’ people read.

This definition of my current reading has, however, been challenged! After reviewing Anne of Windy Poplars, I was told by one friend on Facebook that her sister read all the Anne books, and no one in that family could be considered normal (fair enough). I was also told that no normal people read the later Anne books.

I did a bit of research on this second challenge, asking Canadian females on Facebook how many of Montgomery’s Anne novels they had read. I received 21 responses from Canadians, 14 of whom had read them all, and of whom only 2 had read zero. One had read only one, one was unsure, and two didn’t specify how many. Somehow that only adds up to 20. Anyway, it seems that Canadian females with whom I am Facebook friends have read the later Anne books, by and large.

I polled the men and got five responses, of which three were zero (one was ‘A hard zero’), one had read them all, and a fifth had read the first. Canadian men read less L M Montgomery than the women.

But are my Facebook friends normal? This is harder to say. This is a band of people that includes my relatives, after all. And academics and artists and a vlogger and other people who would be proud of not being ‘normal’.

Besides having read two Anne novels (look for a review of Anne’s House of Dreams soon!), I’ve also read the first two Earthsea books — A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan — besides an entertaining, short novel by Red Deer novelist Sigmund Brouwer called The Leper. Do normal people read these books?

I don’t know.

I suspect that ‘normal’ people read novels by Danielle Steele, Nicholas Sparks, Jeffrey Archer, John Grisham, or self-improvement books and parenting books and books about how to make money. I have read some parenting books, myself, at least.

So what do I mean why I say that I am reading books ‘normal’ people read?

I mean I am not reading ancient books, medieval books, academic books about ancient or medieval topics, or academic theology. That part of my brain, which never necessarily turns off, needs a bit of a rest, and I have the chance to give it one, hoping for more verve when I’m back in the office in mid-July.

Notre Dame and ‘Western Civilization’

My first view of Notre Dame, 2012

In the days following the fire that consumed Notre-Dame de Paris’s roof and a certain amount of the cathedral’s west end, people have been making commentary, some of which, I understand, is to the effect that Notre Dame is a symbol of ‘western civilization’. Some of these people, I am given to understand by the outraged on Twitter, are right-wing, racist fanatics. I seem to miss the fanatics themselves but only see the outrage, so I sometimes wonder if the outrage is worth it?

Anyway, some of this outrage is fuelled not simply against racist leveraging of ‘western civilization’ but of the idea itself. Before I get rolling, I’d like to say up front that, although I believe that ‘western civilization’ is a Thing, I do not think it superior other civilizations or cultures. All civilizations and cultures are flawed and fallen, mixing good and bad.

One argument against Notre Dame as a symbol for ‘western civilization’ that I observed was that Gothic architecture owes much to Islamic architecture. Whether or not pointy arches were a moment of independent genius on the part of Suger’s architects and of the Islamic world I cannot say. Nonetheless, for the purposes of my ensuing argument, I will take it as given that pointy arches were first noted by Europeans in Spain when folk were going on pilgrimages and then adopted by architects in northern France.

This, and any other piece of detail, engineering, mathematics, etc., that was borrowed from the Islamic world does not suddenly nullify the fact that Gothic architecture is a thing from western Europe, and pretty much everywhere else it has gone, western Europeans or their descendants brought it with them, such as Gothic Cyprus.

In fact, if we accept the argument that the pointed arch is a direct borrowing into Gothic architecture from Islamic architecture, this in no way impinges on the idea of western civilization. I suspect that many people who object to ‘western civilization’ these days are more worried about Gibbon and the Enlightenment than what came before. If we acknowledge what came before, we see that Latin Christendom is a Thing.

When I say that Latin Christendom is a Thing, I mean that loosely connected group of polities that includes bishoprics that acknowledge the Bishop of Rome as their supreme head, use the Latin language in liturgy, law, theology, philosophy, sometimes poetry, and who think of themselves as somehow being part of the Same Thing, a Thing that is not the Greek-speaking Roman Thing to the East or the Arabic-speaking Islamic Thing to the South.

An example of the fact that Latin Christendom, internally, is a Thing can be found in the careers of two Archbishops of Canterbury. Lanfranc was born in Pavia. He went on to be schoolmaster at Bec, in Normandy, then prior, then abbot at Caen. In 1070, he became Archbishop of Canterbury. The next Archbishop was Anselm, from Aosta before becoming a monk of Bec, then prior, then abbot of Bec, then Archbishop of Canterbury, who spent a considerable portion of his episcopate in exile in Italy. These men crossed boundaries in an age before passports because there was a common cultural framework that united Pavia, Aosta, Bec, and Canterbury.

Through evangelization and conquest, Latin Christendom expanded itself in various directions.

But whatever Latin Christendom was — and the western European world that was to succeed it in the age of the nation-state — it was not hermetically sealed. Part of what makes Latin Christendom itself is its interaction with the non-Latin civilizations that surround it. Scholastic Aristotelianism needs Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes); the study of Aristotle needs, chronologically first, the translations out of Arabic and then out of Greek; Palermo’s glorious art and architecture are clearly indebted to east Roman (‘Byzantine’) and Islamic influences; an early medieval Archbishop of Canterbury was from Syria; the Latin liturgy in Rome was forever changed by Syrian and Palestinian refugees in the seventh century; I suspect Maximus the Confessor, himself a Palestinian, had a greater impact on Latin thought than often suspected; ‘western’ medicine relies heavily on Arabic learning; various strands of math come to the West out of the House of Islam.

It could go on.

This, of course, focusses Latin Christendom, but only because Latin Christendom provides us with the boundaries usually imagined by those who discuss it. Nonetheless, the world of the Byzantine commonwealth would also be an interesting starting place as well.

Whatever is meant by western civilization, when I talk about it, I do not imagine it to be either superior or hermetically sealed. In my field, many people are wary of suggesting you should study the Classics because they are the foundation of western civilization. Nevertheless, in saying that, I don’t think anyone imagines that Homer imagined himself part of a culture that included Britain. And it certainly not true that the inheritance of Rome is found only in ‘western civilization’ — a colleague who studies Islamic law says that there is new research arguing for the importance of Roman law in Islamic law. And the Great Mosque of Damascus is essentially a Roman basilica. We could go on — the interchanges and inheritances between cultures are numerous.

All of this to say — if Notre Dame is somehow a symbol, or even a triumph, of western civilization (the house is on fire!), this doesn’t mean that there is no cultural exchange that brings into play the greatness of others, nor does it mean that other cultures have no triumphs of their own (consider the Al-Aqsa Mosque) and are inferior. This is certainly never how I have viewed the world, and I believe that western civilization is a Thing.

Two Fulgentii for the price of one

In my latest post for the Durham Priory Library Recreated project blog, I discuss the insufficiencies of the old Durham Cathedral catalogue and point out the library’s manuscripts with works by Fulgentius. Both of him. Enjoy!

Sorting out your Fulgentii

Late Roman History and Canon Law

Last week, I had blood taken. As the nurse extracted it, and I looked the other way, she made small talk, presumably to keep my mind off the grotesque and bizarre occurrence underway. She asked if I was on my way to work (it feels like a triumph when people no longer assume I’m a student), and I said sort of, that I’m an academic and can work anywhere with a book and my laptop, and that I was headed for a café afterwards.

She asked what my research was.

I said that I research Durham’s medieval manuscripts of canon law.

I think her response was something of a crestfallen, ‘Oh,’ — that sounds boring, being the subtext.

I said that it’s can actually be very interesting. For example, when you read late antique papal letters, interesting questions come up: What do you do if someone who had been captured by barbarians comes back to Roman territory and finds his wife has remarried? Leo the Great (pope, 440-461) says that the first marriage stands (Ep. 159).

The nurse seemed unconvinced and wished me a good cup of coffee. Probably the least interested/impressed person I’ve ever told about my job.*

Sometimes, when I tell people the story from Leo’s letters, they respond, ‘Well, of course, the man wins.’ In fact, the same case came up during the episcopate of Innocent I (pope, 401-417), only in Innocent’s case it was a woman returning from captivity. He also ruled in favour of the first marriage — precedent for Leo in 458.

Now, there are important and interesting things going on with the canons of marriage here, I can assure you, including their relationship to Roman law and the development of sacramental theology.

However, those are not what I’m thinking about when I try to prove to people that canon law is interesting. Rather, I’m thinking: Hey! Look, canon law tells us about normal people! ‘Normal’ people are often voiceless in our sources, aren’t they? And, if we imagine canon law as merely a body of regulations, then we see only the bishops and councils. But why does Nicetas of Aquileia write to Leo about these cases, anyway?

Here we meet ‘normal’ people — the people of the Roman Empire who are having to put the pieces back together after the barbarians have left town. In this case, men who were legally (or presumed) dead return to Romania and have to fight for their legal privileges. This displacement of persons by barbarians is not uncommon — in other cases, we learn of people carried off as children who do not know whether they were baptised before their abduction by barbrians (see Leo I, Ep. 167).

In the case of Aquileia, I imagine that the displaced men presumed dead were carried by Attila in 452. The people who were abducted as children, mentioned in Ep. 167, have returned to Narbonne around 458. Are they victims of the Battle of Narbonne, 436/7? That would account for their return home as adults. I am not certain.

But here, in these two little incidents, canon law texts are giving us the human face of the Later Roman Empire and the post-430 disruptions that were occurring in people’s lives in western Europe. This is what makes canon law interesting.

*Medievalists, including one fellow who researches scholasticism, often act as though they are in awe of anyone who dares touch canon law with a ten-foot pole, given its complexity.

Please do textual criticism on something other than the New Testament

If you did Septuagint criticism, you could work on the Vienna Genesis! LOOK AT IT

A friend recently directed my attention towards the Tyndale House Greek New Testament. It’s not a bad idea, as far as editions go. They try to determine what the actual first-century spelling or pronunciation of the words at hand was and then use it, rather than a levelled-out, standardised, modern-Classical Greek spelling. This will please those of the ilk who like to see Cristus in medieval Latin instead of Christus. It is also, apparently, designed simply to be read, which is a fine idea as well. From what I’ve read on their blog, it seems that sound philology lies behind this edition of the Greek New Testament. It seems that Dirk Jongkind (whose work on the scribal habits of Sinaiticus I’ve actually read) and team should be pleased.

So you can go buy it and put in on the shelf next to your copy of the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament and the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament, 28th edition, (both of which have about the same text) and Michael W. Holmes’ SBL Greek New Testament. (I guess, after making sure the world had a third edition of Lightfoot’s The Apostolic Fathers, Holmes felt there weren’t enough New Testaments?)

I shouldn’t be snarky. I should, as a (Latin) text critic be happy to see the science itself flourish and get publications.

Except, I wonder — is this evidence of textual criticism flourishing and getting publications?

Or do all of our promising Greek scholars with an interest in ancient Christianity find themselves beating to death the text and mss of the New Testament with no new major ms finds for years? I think the reason why NT textual criticism is innovative is twofold: 1. They have way too many mss and frags to deal with. 2. There are so many of them (scholars, that is).

Anyway, the point of this rambling rant is: Could you please divert your skills and resources and attention to something else? I, myself, am working on texts that haven’t been edited since 1753 (the letters of Leo the Great), for the most part, but also a couple that haven’t had any work done since 1723 (Coustant’s edition of the popes before Leo). This afternoon, I was looking at Durham Cathedral Library, B.IV.17, a twelfth-century copy of the Decretum of Burchard of Worms. Now, Burchard hasn’t been edited since 1748, but he’s at least had some very interesting textual criticism done since they found his autographs.

Those texts are Latin, I realise. But if the Greek Bible is of interest to young minds, brimming with linguistic knowledge, wouldn’t it be nice to see the Septuagint get some of the love? We have that German Bible Society edition, but that’s not fully and truly critical, and La Bible d’Alexandrie is not yet done, from what I can tell. This is the Bible Paul of Tarsus read, people; the Bible of Justin Martyr, of Clement of Alexandria, of Origen, of Athanasius, of John Chrysostom, of the Greek priest next door. From a purely academic standpoint, this is a hugely significant text in need of a lot of work. I know people are working on it, but they seem mostly to be French or German.

And what about the texts of the people who helped forge Christianity? The Apostolic Fathers aren’t the only ante-Nicene texts that could do with some sprucing up. And even if one stuck to the Apostolic Fathers, they only have three editions, not 28. Consider Clement of Alexandria, turn of the third century; Sources Chrétiennes lists the following if his texts as not even having someone to work on them: Canon EcclesiasticusHypotyposeis, letters, De pascha, and several fragments. Anatolius of Laodicea (d. 280-90) has no one lined up for De decem primis numeribus. If you had the inclination, you could go through their list and see who else they haven’t finished. There are many. Moreover, just because someone has an edition in Sources Chrétiennes or in the Corpus Christianorum doesn’t mean it’s any good; I heard a rumour about a recent text of something by Origen (which I forget now) being worse than Patrologia Graeca.

And why should we, as scholars, invest in Patristic textual criticism rather than the New Testament? Not only because the New Testament has probably been overanalysed and done to death, but also because knowledge is good. Philology and philosophy and theology and history rest, to a large degree, on the texts we read them in. If those texts are bad, we are missing some of the nuance, some of the beauty, some of the philosophical accuracy, some of the historical detail. Besides that, all those New Testament manuscripts people like to read are contemporary with or later than the Greek Fathers who need work done on them. Codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus are post-Constantinian. Claromontanus is sixth-century. P45 is from around 250 — so contemporary with Origen and later than Clement of Alexandria. These are the writings and beliefs and ideas of the people who copied out the texts that transmitted the New Testament. Getting to know them and their world should really be part of the same intellectual enterprise as getting to know the New Testament.

And if you’re good enough at Greek and wanting to branch out, maybe give some pre-Christian Hellenistic texts some love. They need it, too.

Or if your Latin is up to it, I know of a few popes who need some work. 😉

Review: ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’, a small anthology of Gerard Manley Hopkins

As kingfishers catch fire (Penguin Little Black Classics #2)As kingfishers catch fire by Gerard Manley Hopkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have to confess that I find a certain amount of Hopkins’ poetry incomprehensible. Nonetheless, there is a certain beauty to it, even though it is not my cup of tea. This is why I give the book only 3 stars: I acknowledge its artistic merit, simultaneously admitting my own lack of deep appreciation for Hopkins’ work.

That said, some of the imagery is lovely and striking. And his use of language for oral effects — that is, assonance and alliteration — works well. Some of his techniques are things I toy with in my secret pastime writing poetry — disjunction, piling up of adjectives, what-have-you. These sentence fragments. He also has a tendency to write run-on sentences and he makes liberal use of
enjambment.

I am especially fond of ‘Spring’. The descriptions of the created order from his journals were also pleasant and striking. My wife likes to say that creation is God’s first temple, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., has captured the essence of that statement.

What resounded in me here was the poetry of despair. Not that I am, myself, a person in much despair or who has plumbed the depths of human misery. But consider the life of a Jesuit who felt such darkness yet remained faithful to the end.

This brings me to the fact that some of the 1-star reviews cite how ‘religious’ the poetry is as a reason they didn’t like it. All I have to say is if you find this particular selection of Gerard Manley Hopkins too religious, you have had little contact with religious poetry, and will probably shrink in revulsion from Donne, Herbert, Milton, and even a certain amount of Blake and Christina Rossetti, not to mention a huge quantity of medieval English verse (setting aside continental vernaculars, Latin, and Greek). There is, perhaps, a spiritual/religious sense or feeling to the poetry of Hopkins, but beyond references to Christ, Saviour, God, the Virgin, nothing of dogma or doctrine.

View all my reviews

Immigration and the Fall of Rome

There was a recent Twitterstorm involving a UKIP backer millionaire by the name of Arron Banks, Dame Averil Cameron, and Prof. Mary Beard, OBE (full details on Buzzfeed). The Tweet that started it said:

True the Roman Empire was effectively destroyed by immigration.

Dame Averil Cameron — author of the excellent and recently-updated The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity AD 395-700 the first edition of which, alongside her volume The Later Roman Empire, was my Late Antique textbook in undergrad — weighed in against Banks, soon joined by Mary Beard. Cameron tweets:

Since when has this been true? Terribly out of date idea, what has he been reading?

Of course, the answer to Dame Averil’s question is that he studied Roman history in school. Which is all fine and good, but doesn’t necessarily give you the knowledge and chops to hold your own against the likes of Cameron and Beard.

Finally, before I get to my own thoughts, a Tweet from Banks:

yes sacking Rome nothing to do with the down fall ( eyes to sky )

Not a contemporary picture of the sack of Rome

Not a contemporary picture of the sack of Rome

Let’s take the sack of Rome as our starting point. I’m wondering which sack of Rome Banks has in mind — or if perhaps he has in mind both the sack of 410 by Alaric and the Goths or 455 by Geiseric and the Vandals. This is a good starting point for addressing the idea that the (western) Roman Empire fell because of ‘immigration’, I think.

First: Does sacking Rome lead to the fall of the Empire?

Short answer: No.

Medium answer: Still no. The western Roman Empire is still intact for decades after the first sack and well entrenched in her problems by the second.

For people who argue that ‘immigration’ caused the Fall of the Roman Empire, what the sacks of Rome really are is emblematic — the psychological shock that struck hearts from Orosius in Spain to Augustine in Africa to Jerome in Palestine. And, of course, they were wrought by immigrant barbarians.

Let us, for the moment, concede that the barbarian migrations are the cause of the Fall of the Western Roman Empire. Certainly, anyone must concede that the new kingdoms to arise in former western provinces under the rule of Vandals, Suevi, Visigoths, Franks, Anglo-Saxons, and Ostrogoths, are founded by persons of non-Roman culture and from non-Roman nations (usually Germanic and from across the Rhine-Danube frontier). And certainly these peoples in their Voelkerwanderung had something to do with the loss of imperium by the Roman West.

But is an army under the command of a man who calls himself a king really a group of ‘immigrants’? Whether Late Antique ethnicity is almost purely performance, as argued by Guy Halsall in Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, or whether there is something deeper to it, I agree with Halsall that these groups are primarily military, not national — even if Peter Heather is right in his counter-argument that Alaric’s Goths are direct, biological descendants of the Goths who killed the Emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople in 378.

All of them come to Roman territory seeking fame and fortune — within the existing structures of the Roman polity. They do not actually turn up wanting to conquer Rome, dismember her empire, or seize all her land. These things ultimately happen because of the failure of the Roman government to negotiate with them successfully and give them their rights.

The Roman Empire had met barbarians before. She had met barbarian warlords, kings, and warbands. And they had even settled on Roman land. The Roman Empire could deal with immigration; it was an incredibly diverse place, and people from one end of the Empire could travel to the other and maintain their home traditions. Thus we see shrines to Jupiter Dolichenus on Hadrian’s Wall, for example, let alone the Anatolian worship of the Persian god Mithras everywhere from Musselburgh in Edinburgh to Dura Europos in Syria.

The Roman world in Late Antiquity included speakers of Latin, Greek, Syriac, Coptic (the latest form of the Egyptian language), Arabic, Armenian, Gaulish, and no doubt Gothic. It had a flexible system of culture and economy; this is one of the great hallmarks of the Romans, was it not? Roman culture is never ‘pure’ — it starts off a little bit Italic, a little bit Latin, a little bit Etruscan, a little bit Greek. It shifts and reshapes itself everywhere its legions, its proconsul, its Praetorian Prefects, go. There is no great cultural monolith of ‘the Romans’.

And its borders are always porous. As David Breeze (who wrote the book on Hadrian’s Wall) argues, Hadrian’s Wall is not to keep the Caledonians out but simply to monitor traffic between Britannia and Caledonia. When the Picti do finally band together in 367, yes, it serves a purpose (but it also gets overrun). Similarly, people cross the Rhine and Danube. The Romans had bridges over them! Sure, our main image of the Rhine frontier is the one in Ammianus, of Julian burning down the homes of the Alamanni. But that’s not ‘normal life’. The desert peoples of North Africa were also part of this Roman system — indeed, some of the Berbers in the post-Roman period saw themselves as the continuators of Roman culture. In the East, it was  not the ‘immigrant’ groups like the ‘Saracens’ (as our sources call them) or Arabs who cause the real problems, but the acutal military endeavours of the Sassanian Persian Empire — another political force with a real army.

If we concede that barbarians cause the Fall of the Roman Empire, it’s not because they are ‘immigrants’. It is because they are highly organised groups of soldiers whom the Roman officials are unable, and often unwilling, to appease or treat humanely. And sometimes, they are actually invaders who come to conquer Roman land and settle it for themselves.

Armies and immigrants are not the same thing.

And it is not immigration that led to Roman military failures against the barbarians, either. That was due to poor planning, bad weather, civil war, sheer exhaustion, and so forth. Not immigrants.

Thus, ultimately, even if we want to put the weight for the Fall of Rome on the barbarians, to unproblematically call them ‘immigrants’ is to completely miss the mark in determining who they were and what they were doing when they entered Roman territory.

(But then, I’m a foreigner, aren’t I? So I, an immigrant, would say this.)