I’m not usually up to date on my literary pursuits, but this one feels almost contemporary. In September last year The Darkening Age came out to some discussion and argument. Nixey, brought up as a strict Catholic, sees herself as balancing a wrong – that the image of early Christianity is all love, hope and charity; where the reality could be violent, perverse and oppressive. To this end, the book obviously opens with the destruction by Christians of a pagan temple in Palmyra – playing it off against more recent religious extremists. It’s not subtle, nor is it meant to be, but at times it comes across as rather slippery – it sometimes feels like a long succession of straw men, cherry picking and incomplete information.
At it’s best, Nixey gives likely semi-fictionalized descriptions of Christian atrocities and madness, and these do cover interesting snippets of history. The graphic descriptions of the destruction of the beautiful temple of Serapis (and its library), and the mob killing of the philosopher Hypatia are gruesome and vibrant. The abbot Shenoute’s housebreaking is shocking. And the story of St Anthony and his demons is just weird. Unfortunately, when Nixey tries to generalize the book feels shallow. Her chapter on the exaggeration of Christian martyrdom adds little beyond what Gibbon suggested in the 18th century.
The book also feels rather shallow when it comes to the Pagans that Nixey would defend. Having recently read Tim Whitmarsh’s Battling The Gods, the classical world seems very one dimensional religiously and intellectually in The Darkening Age. We switch between the first, third and sixth centuries at the drop of a hat; between Gaul, Egypt and Constantinople; between Stoics, Epicureans and Neo-Platonists. The old fashioned moralist end of Rome is ignored in favour of the Libertine end (Catullus’ sex life rather than Juvenal’s homophobic rants). Their rejection of some foreign cults (Manichees or the Druids) brushed aside for their incorporation of others (Isis or Mithras). There is little on why Pagan polytheism really differed in behaviour from monotheistic Christianity (something that was a particular stand out in Whitmarsh’s book).
I understand it’s a different sort of book – but frankly, I’m not sure that it is that novel to suggest that early Christianity could be strict and fanatical. That image is so ingrained within fiction (for example, Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods or many Bernard Cornwell books) and other history books that I don’t really need a lopsided polemic to open my mind to it. In this polemic parts of the book start to feel a bit tone deaf – a step back to the “Dark Ages” that so many late antique scholars and early medievalists have worked to enlighten; a focus on the lurid literary sources of religious propaganda, with very little input from archaeology beyond a few shocking examples of statue defacement.
Despite many caveats (“Not all Christians …”) and some exciting story telling, it either doesn’t convince or feels trivial. The main problem is not so much that she mis-represents Christianity, but that in doing so her version of Paganism feels so passive and one dimensional. Robin Lane Fox’s book Pagans and Christians is getting on a bit now; but I found such a vibrant portrait of late paganism in that, and such a balanced view of the different relations between the religions, that I can only recommend wading through that instead!
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.
The 17th century contained great political disruption throughout Europe, but also the Scientific Revolution and the beginnings of a recognizably modern world. In this book, the philosopher A.C. Grayling briefly sets out his view on the century.
First he runs through the Thirty Years War and Anglo Dutch Wars, with stops along the way for a few bits and pieces about what was going on elsewhere – flicking between Wallenstein and Robert Harvey, or from Gustavus Adolphus to scientific publications. The narrative is short and told with confidence, but simplified (a necessary evil to cram the whole century into 300 pages, but it does lead to some irritating mistakes or assertions).
After this Grayling gets stuck into the various attempted paths to knowledge of the time – from the network of letters between natural philosophers to less rational sorts like alchemists, hermeticists, occultists like Dr John Dee, and the Rosicrucians. There was often crossover between the developing modern way of thinking and the old irrational ways, but Grayling explains well how religious men like Mersenne or Descartes or occultists like Isaac Newton could still lead the way to a more rational methodology.
There is a brief section on language, society and politics that mashs up the likes of Locke, Hobbes and the Diggers. There are lots of interesting facts throughout, and very enjoyable to read as Grayling jumps from one topic to another. It does tend towards the same conclusion though, that the political situation of a post-reformation Europe left space for new ways of thinking to flourish.
The book isn’t really long enough to provide a solid argument for such a big thesis, and at times it feels like Grayling hasn’t really bothered. The aforementioned sloppy mistakes are rife – at one point he wonders what it would be like if Britain still had control of land on continental Europe, somehow forgetting Gibraltar. He perhaps overstates the role of the Catholic Church and understates the role of Medieval philosophers (it reminded me that I’ll have to post on God’s Philosophers by James Hannam at some point). In its bold assertions and Whig history story of relentless progress, this book on the Modern Mind often feels rather old fashioned.
Plotinus has popped up a few times recently in my current reading (and listening). He was a bit part of The Climax of Rome by Michael Grant that I posted on, underpinning much of the introspective shift in culture in third century Rome. He was portrayed as instrumental in the intellectual development of Augustine in Robin Lane Fox’s superb biography Conversions to Confessions. And I have been thoroughly enjoying Peter Adamson’s podcast The History of Philosophy (Without Any Gaps), in which his work also plays a major role.
However, through all that, I found Plotinus hard to pin down. There is a big element of mysticism in his philosophy and it is difficult to tell how to take it, and how his contemporary and successors would have received it. Pierre Hadot‘s short book is a great introduction to the man (what little we know of him) and his work. In particular, Hadot manages to portray Plotinus as a teacher who was offering a spiritual way of life.
Basing his work on that of Plato and Aristotle, the pagan Plotinus developed ideas that would soon find their way into early Christianity. His spiritual exercises and warnings against too much focus on earthly matters seems distant, but Hadot also shows a man who was grounded enough to join Gordian‘s invasion of Persia (in an attempt to learn more Eastern philosophy), teach lively classes with a wide range of influential students (there was even talk of the emperor Gallienus letting him start a Platonic city!), and show great kindness and awareness of those around him.
Hadot’s enthusiasm and admiration for Plotinus’ (and his student Porphyry’s) writing shines through, and although the book is a mere hundred pages I finished it with a lot more appreciation for the culture that surrounded these neo-Platonic thinkers.
I’ve read a few of Michael Grant‘s books now, and this one begins in typical fashion. Grant gives a brief overview of the history of the period (in this case, the Roman Empire from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine) before discussing the changes in architecture and art during that era. His thesis is that the third century, often seen as nothing more than a period of military emperors, chaos and decline, is in fact a fascinating series of gradual changes – and not necessarily for the worse.
The first part of the Climax of Rome is a bit of a mixed bag. The changes in artistic style are interesting, but the chapters come across as slightly disjointed with sudden jumps between eras (the book does cover a long period of time). The military and political history (often the focus in this period) is rather skimmed over. This all comes to make sense later.
The book really shines is the second half, when Grant gets onto the topic of philosophy, literature and religion. He traces developments in style and genre, and manages to link them to the political situation. In the face of ever more authoritarian government, the culture drifted towards more personal, self-reflective styles – Marcus Aurelius’ stoicism, Galen, the neo-platonic thought of Plotinus, early Christian thinkers, and the rise of the novel as an artform.
This was, in a sense, a form of climax for classical culture, in not necessarily a high point. Alongside this, the success of legal writers in the 3rd century and developments in architecture would lay the groundwork for medieval Europe. Was this the true peak of the Roman empire? Grant admits this would have been a “gloomy place for the majority” and far from an egalitarian or democratic society, and the succession of military crises would make it hard to see the 3rd century (or even the revival under Diocletian and Constantine) as a military high point. Yet, this period is hugely influential in the move out of the Classical world and into Medieval Christendom and I will definitely be looking for further reading on the subject.
I have an odd relationship with Peter Ackroyd’s books. I have read a few of his novels and like his use of history, he clearly has knowledge about and passion for the periods he chooses. I generally enjoy his style of writing (though parts of Hawksmoor were trying). Unfortunately I find the books a bit light on anything actually happening, any particularly compelling characters or occasionally any point. That sounds harsh, he’s not far off but it generally just doesn’t click for me.
However, that intimate knowledge of history – particularly in England and particularly in London – makes him a very good writer for popular history. He builds scenes and atmospheres well. He brings the world to life. He throws in odd little facts and stories that add colour and depth to the narrative. He is currently in the middle of writing a history of England, with the first book Foundation taking things up to Henry VII and the third covering the Civil War.
Continue reading Post 65: Peter Ackroyd’s The Tudors [History of England Volume 2]
As you may have noticed from this blog, I listen to a decent amount of podcasts. One of my favourites is Robin Pierson’s History of Byzantium. I was pleased to find that they recently had on a special guest, one of my favourite history writers, Tom Holland. As the podcast had reached a handy stopping point just after Islam had exploded onto the world stage, it was a perfect chance to begin trying to shed some light on the origins and early stages of the religion and the arab invasion. The author of a recent book on the subject aimed at a popular audience, Holland was an ideal choice to start things off.
Continue reading Post 54: Tom Holland vs The History of Byzantium
A few weeks ago I posted a review of the book Science & Islam by Ethan Masood, a tie in with a BBC series from about five years ago. I felt that the book was a bit of a let down, but loved the topic and wanted to read more on it. As a follow up I then wrote a post giving a bit more detail on the Islamic contributions to Mathematics. I wouldn’t pretend that I’m a better writer than Masood, but I wanted to focus a bit more on some of the techniques and details of the work than he did. I do have a scientific background, but I don’t want to make this into a science blog so I’m attempted to strike a bit of an awkward line between the history and the science. With that introduction/disclaimer out of the way – here’s a short summary of the Islamic world’s contribution to Astronomy.
Looking at it now, Mathematics may be the headline grabbing topic for the Islamic golden age but Astronomy (and its unfortunate and misguided relative Astrology) were at least as important. Not only did they provide the motivation for a lot of the work in mathematics and physics, but they also did a lot of very underrated work in moving the topic forward from its ancient roots towards the early heliocentric model of Copernicus. Islamic scholars invented technologies like the astrolabe, published tables of data that later scientists would draw on, and worked out a lot of the mathematical difficulties for the later models. Unfortunately, the political and educational system in the Islamic world meant that they weren’t fully able to capitalize on this; the wonderful observatories were only ever short term institutions and the whole thing stagnated around the turn of the sixteenth century.
Continue reading Post 48: Science & Islam: Astronomy
I recently read Science & Islam by Ehsan Masood, designed to accompany a BBC television series, and decided to put out a post on it. To spoil things up front, I found the book disappointing but the topic fascinating so I began writing a huge essay on it. So huge in fact that I’ve decided to split it into a number of posts. This first one will give a general history and my thoughts on the book itself, and it should be followed by a post or two on the science behind all this (something that I think the book struggled to deal with as much as I would have liked).
The Rise of Islam
When the Arab armies came storming out of the desert into the tired Byzantine and Persian Empires, their initially success was astounding. They soon found themselves in control of a vast empire containing a mix of religions and peoples in which arabs and Islam were a minority. This shift from military expansion to administration provided a set of challenges for the Caliphate to deal with – providing food for the population, minting coins, providing a central administration and building new cities and buildings. This began a boom in science and technology that would last for centuries, but it did not start from scratch – those christians, jews and zoroastrians that had populated the land before would lend their talents to this and techniques would be brought in and translated from outside the reaches of the empire. The universal adoption of the arabic language helped this process, providing easy communication between scholars from distant lands.
Continue reading Post 42: Science & Islam