Paul: The Mind of the Apostle by AN Wilson

The apostle Paul has a bit of an image problem – he’s often seen as the man who took Jesus ideas and distorted them creating the rigid, repressive elements of Christianity that we still know and love today.  In this book, from 1997, he sets out to place Paul in the context of his time and culture and to re-evaluate his work.

For Wilson, Paul has to be seen within the Jewish culture of his time, rather than as an early Christian.  He sees Paul’s work as that of a liberal reformer (opening the church to gentiles, removing restrictions) who expected Jesus to return soon (rather than setting up a structure for a long lasting church).  His views on women and homosexuality are portrayed as usual for his time and his culture.  It was in the time after Paul that the gospels were actually compiled and for Wilson, these writings have as much Paul in them as Jesus – without a source unaffected by him, it becomes hard to charge Paul with a distortion of the message.

At one point Wilson describes Paul as the “first Romantic poet”.  He clearly likes Paul as a character and seems to often think the best of him, there is plenty of speculation (he speculates that Paul as a temple guard could have been present at the crucifixion).  Despite that, Wilson is critical at other points – looking for independent sources.  Through both speculation and scepticism, the author is open about his methods, which perhaps helps the book veer away from being too uneven.

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Holy Bones, Holy Dust by Charles Freeman

A history of Christian relics seems like a niche thing, and in truth it probably is, but if there is ever to be an accessible introduction for a popular audience it is this book by Charles Freeman.  Working chronologically from early Christians in the Roman empire to the resurgence in the counter reformation, Freeman places relics at the centre of medieval life – motivating travel, boosting economic development and influencing the design of art and architecture.

There are tonnes of anecdotes crammed into the 270 pages.  Some of these are on the light end of things – like Saint Hugh of Lincoln, a popular English bishop who (to French outrage) attempted to steal part of the “arm of Mary Magdalene” at the Abbey of Fecamp.  He eventually managing to chew off a finger to take home to Lincoln, where he was much praised for his initiative.  Other stories are darker – the veneration of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln (no relation) or William or Norwich, a boys allegedly murdered by the Jewish community and used as an excuse for persecution.

Attention is given to how relics played into wider themes including the rise of anti-semitism, popular religion versus that of the central church organization, the sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade, and finally the rise of the reformation and scepticism.

Freeman keeps away from giving too much modern judgement on these relics and miracles, instead describing the processes and changes in medieval thinking over time.  I liked that, it would be too easy to become heavy handed or condescending when presented with some of these far fetched icons; by avoiding that trap the book has a light, neutral tone that allows the material to speak for itself.

Post 31: Emperor of the West

Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire

I’d been looking forward to this book for a while, drawn to it by an attractive cover and by the chance to fill in some gaps in my knowledge between the end of the western Roman Empire and the middle ages proper. Written in 2010 by Hywel Williams, and published by Quercus, this book covers this period in detail and tackles issues in the development of culture, nationality and religion. There’s less said about Charlemagne the man than one might expect from the title. I’ve covered a few books about a single character on this blog and there have been a number of different styles: Alcibiades got a very straight biography, while John Hawkwood was used as a tool to tell a broader history, and Mark Antony received some sort of revisionist argument. Charlemagne doesn’t really get anything – the focus is instead on the big themes of his reign and those of his dynasty; the book would probably have been more accurately titled Empire of the West. It is centred on his reign and we do get a vague chronological order through his life but the nine chapters are separated by these topics.

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Havant Heritage Trail

St Faith's ChurchThis is a bit of a shorter and less thought out post than usual but I was in Havant near Portsmouth recently for work and, on my way back to the train station, noticed one of those blue plaques you see about the place – the ones that mark places of historical significance. That’s interesting, I thought, I didn’t think Havant would have an exciting past. It seemed like a fairly run of the mill satellite town to a provincial city. The plaque was outside an old church, and not a bad looking one at that (although not quite as atmospherically lit as the photo here, it was a slightly overcast afternoon) but there’s nothing too remarkable in it (England really is spoilt for choice when it comes to beautiful old buildings).

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John Young, who lived to be old but died young

I was walking through Headington in the north east of Oxford the other day, passing some time before the time came for my reservation at the Black Boy gastropub (that makes me sound terribly posh), and came across an old church – St Andrews. The graveyard in front was a bit of a mix of stones, some newer ones from the early twentieth or late nineteenth century at the end and older, lichen covered, barely legible ones closer to the church. One of the gravestones stood out as being a clean, clear carving. Looking at the epitaph, it had the riddle-like one below.

Here lyeth John
Who to ye king did belong
He lived to be old
And yet dyed young

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