Why Byzantium Matters

I’ve written a few times in this space about why historians of law and Christianity should spend more time on Byzantium. A new book from Princeton, released last month, makes the case for studying the New Rome–especially its conflicts with Catholicism and with Islam, which continue to resonate today. The book is Byzantine Matters, by Oxford historian Averil Cameron. Here’s the description from the Princeton website:

For many, Byzantium remains byzantine—obscure, marginal, difficult. Despite the efforts of some recent historians, prejudices still deform understanding of the Byzantine civilization, often reducing it to a poor relation of Rome and the rest of the classical world. In this book, renowned historian Averil Cameron addresses misconceptions about Byzantium, suggests why it is so important to integrate the civilization into wider histories, and lays out why Byzantium should be central to ongoing debates about the relationships between West and East, Christianity and Islam, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and the ancient and medieval periods. The result is a compelling call to reconsider the place of Byzantium in Western history and imagination.

In This Sign Conquer

The Emperor Constantine, who legalized Christianity and set it on the path to becoming the state religion, is one of Christian history’s most controversial figures. The Orthodox and Catholic Churches venerate him as a saint. Among Protestants, his legacy is rather more mixed. But his influence on Christianity, especially with respect to its relationship with state power, has been immense. A new history from Harvard, The Triumph of Empire: The Roman World from Hadrian to Constantine, discusses his rise to power. The author is Michael Kulikowski (Pennsylvania State University). Here’s the description from the Harvard website:

The Triumph of Empire takes readers into the political heart of imperial Rome and recounts the extraordinary challenges overcome by a flourishing empire. Michael Kulikowski’s history begins with the reign of Hadrian, who visited the farthest reaches of his domain and created stable frontiers, and spans to the decades after Constantine the Great, who overhauled the government, introduced a new state religion, and founded a second Rome.

Factionalism and intrigue sapped the empire from within, even at its apex. Roman politics could resemble a blood sport: rivals resorted to assassination; emperors rose and fell with bewildering speed, their reigns measured in weeks, not years; and imperial succession was never entirely assured. Canny emperors—including Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, and Diocletian—constantly cultivated the aristocracy’s favor to maintain a grip on power. Despite such volatility, the Roman Empire protected its borders, defeating successive attacks from Goths and Germans, Persians and Parthians. Yet external threats persisted and the imperial government sagged under its own administrative weight. Religion, too, was in flux with the rise of Christianity and other forms of monotheism. In the fourth century CE, Constantine and his heirs reformed imperial institutions by separating civilian and military hierarchies, restructuring the government of both provinces and cities, and ensuring the prominence of Christianity.

The Triumph of Empire is a fresh, authoritative narrative of Rome at its height and of its evolution—from being the central power of the Mediterranean world to becoming one of several great Eurasian civilizations.

The First Monastics

One of the most important consequences of the so-called “Constantinian compromise” in the fourth century was the rise of the monastic movement. Once Christianity became part of the Roman establishment, some believed they could preserve a pure faith only by removing themselves for a life of prayer in the desert. The movement was especially influential in Roman Egypt–where Coptic monasteries continue to thrive, under great stress and threat of violence, today. Next month, Cambridge releases a translation of the works of one of the fathers of Coptic monasticism, Selected Discourses of Shenoute the Great: Community, Theology, and Social Conflict in Late Antique Egypt. The translators are David Brake (Ohio State) and Andrew Crislip (Virginia Commonwealth University). Here is the description from the Cambridge website:

Shenoute the Great (c.347–465) led one of the largest Christian monastic communities in late antique Egypt and was the greatest native writer of Coptic in history. For approximately eight decades, Shenoute led a federation of three monasteries and emerged as a Christian leader. His public sermons attracted crowds of clergy, monks, and lay people; he advised military and government officials; he worked to ensure that his followers would be faithful to orthodox Christian teaching; and he vigorously and violently opposed paganism and the oppressive treatment of the poor by the rich. This volume presents in translation a selection of his sermons and other orations. These works grant us access to the theology, rhetoric, moral teachings, spirituality, and social agenda of a powerful Christian leader during a period of great religious and social change in the later Roman Empire.

Augustine vs. Academics

Here is another new work on the patristic period, with a title that recommends itself. Last month, Yale University Press released a new translation of Augustine’s first work after his conversion, Against the Academics: St. Augustine’s Cassiciacum Dialogues, Volume 1, by Baylor University patristics scholar Michael Foley. The publisher’s description follows:

A fresh, new translation of Augustine’s inaugural work as a Christian convert.

The first four works written by St. Augustine of Hippo after his conversion to Christianity are the remarkable “Cassiciacum dialogues.” In this first dialogue, expertly translated by Michael Foley, Augustine and his interlocutors explore the history and teachings of Academic skepticism, which Augustine is both sympathetic to and critical of. The dialogue serves as a fitting launching point for a knowledge of God and the soul, the overall subject of the Cassiciacum tetralogy

The Law in Piers Plowman

This past winter, we noted a book on how the law figures in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Here is another book arguing that a classic of medieval literature can shed light on that era’s law, especially its canon law: Piers Plowman and the Reinvention of Church Law in the Late Middle Ages, by UCLA English professor Arvind Thomas. The publisher is the University of Toronto Press. I don’t know why, but I’ve always thought of “Piers Plowman” as an early Protestant work. The publisher’s introduction suggests the poem was firmly situated in medieval Catholicism:

It is a medieval truism that the poet meddles with words, the lawyer with the world. But are the poet’s words and the lawyer’s world really so far apart? To what extent does the art of making poems share in the craft of making laws, and vice versa? Framed by such questions, Piers Plowman and the Reinvention of Church Law in the Late Middle Ages examines the mutually productive interaction between literary and legal “makyngs” in England’s great Middle English poem by William Langland.

Focusing on Piers Plowman’s preoccupation with wrongdoing in the B and C versions, Arvind Thomas examines the versions’ representations of trials, confessions, restitutions, penalties, and pardons. Thomas explores how the “literary” informs and transforms the “legal” until they finally cannot be separated. Thomas shows how the poem’s narrative voice, metaphor, syntax and style not only reflect but also act upon properties of canon law, such as penitential procedures and authoritative maxims. Langland’s mobilization of juridical concepts, Thomas insists, not only engenders a poetics informed by canonist thought but also expresses an alternative vision of canon law from that proposed by medieval jurists and today’s medievalists.

A New Book on Discipline in the Early Church

Church-and-state scholars are showing a new interest in the Patristic period: consider new books from Steve Smith and Robert Louis Wilken. The Patristic period is so interesting, today, because it represents the last time in the West when Christianity was seriously challenged–if one may put it that way–as a social institution. Perhaps today’s Christians can learn something about thriving in an alien environment by examining the faith’s early centuries.

A new book from St. Vladimir Orthodox Seminary Press, The Testament of the Lord: Worship and Discipline in the Early Church, looks interesting. The author is Alastair Stewart, an Anglican priest. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

The Testament of the Lord is one of several ancient “Church Order” texts. Written in the first four centuries of the Church, they direct Christian conduct and morality, ecclesiastical organization and discipline, and the Church’s worship and liturgical life. Beginning with an apocalyptic section in which the risen Lord himself addresses the reader, The Testament then describes the building of a church, the mode of appointment for clergy and monastics, and the conduct of daily prayers and of other liturgical services.

The text is newly translated from the extant Syriac (with an eye to Ethiopic manuscripts), and the introduction makes the case for a fourth century Cappadocian redactor who gave the work its present shape, though much of its material goes back at least to the third century. Those who are interested in early Church Orders will also find the Didache and St Hippolytus’ On the Apostolic Tradition in the Popular Patristics Series (PPS 41 and 54).

Episcopalians’ Influence in American Culture

Speaking simply in terms of social status, Episcopalians have traditionally been at the top of America’s informal religious hierarchy. This was much more the case a few generations ago, perhaps, and even more so in the early part of the 20th Century. (When Golden Age Hollywood wanted to portray the upper class at church, it almost invariably depicted Episcopalians–just think of The Philadelphia Story and The Bishop’s Wife). A forthcoming book from the University of North Carolina Press, Religion, Art, and Money: Episcopalians and American Culture from the Civil War to the Great Depression, by Peter Williams (Miami University), explores the influence of wealthy Episcopalians on urban culture in America. Here’s the publisher’s description:

This cultural history of mainline Protestantism and American cities–most notably, New York City–focuses on wealthy, urban Episcopalians and the influential ways they used their money. Peter W. Williams argues that such Episcopalians, many of them the country’s most successful industrialists and financiers, left a deep and lasting mark on American urban culture. Their sense of public responsibility derived from a sacramental theology that gave credit to the material realm as a vehicle for religious experience and moral formation, and they came to be distinguished by their participation in major aesthetic and social welfare endeavors.

Williams traces how the church helped transmit a European-inflected artistic patronage that was adapted to the American scene by clergy and laity intent upon providing moral and aesthetic leadership for a society in flux. Episcopalian influence is most visible today in the churches, cathedrals, and elite boarding schools that stand in many cities and other locations, but Episcopalians also provided major support to the formation of stellar art collections, the performing arts, and the Arts and Crafts movement. Williams argues that Episcopalians thus helped smooth the way for acceptance of materiality in religious culture in a previously iconoclastic, Puritan-influenced society.

A New History of the Councils

From Harvard, here is a new survey of recent–“recent” being a comparative term–ecumenical councils in the Catholic Church, When Bishops Meet: An Essay Comparing Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II, by Georgetown University scholar John O’Malley, whose work we have noted before. The book looks like it would be especially helpful for people who need an introduction to the subject. The publisher’s description follows:

From one of our foremost church historians comes an overarching analysis of the three modern Catholic councils—an assessment of what Catholicism was and has become today.

Catholic councils are meetings of bishops. In this unprecedented comparison of the three most recent meetings, John O’Malley traverses more than 450 years of Catholic history and examines the councils’ most pressing and consistent concerns: questions of purpose, power, and relevance in a changing world. By offering new, sometimes radical, even troubling perspectives on these convocations, When Bishops Meet analyzes the evolution of the church itself.

The Catholic Church today is shaped by the historical arc starting from Trent in the sixteenth century to Vatican II. The roles of popes, the laity, theologians, and others have varied from the bishop-centered Trent, to Vatican I’s declaration of papal infallibility, to a new balance of power in the mid-twentieth century. At Trent, lay people had direct influence on proceedings. By Vatican II, their presence was token. At each gathering, fundamental issues recurred: the relationship between bishops and the papacy, the very purpose of a council, and doctrinal change. Can the teachings of the church, by definition a conservative institution, change over time?

Councils, being ecclesiastical as well as cultural institutions, have always reflected and profoundly influenced their times. Readers familiar with John O’Malley’s earlier work as well as those with no knowledge of councils will find this volume an indispensable guide for essential questions: Who is in charge of the church? What difference did the councils make, and will there be another?

The Book of Common Prayer

People often give the King James Bible as a rare example of a beautiful text put together by government commission. Another example dates from the same period. The Book of Common Prayer traces back to the Tudors and, like the KJV, has entered into the common consciousness of the English-speaking world. The text was approved in 1559 by only three votes in the House of Lords, with no support at all from the Lords Spiritual. I’m not qualified to speak on the theology, but, at least in terms of the beauty and dignity of its language, those bishops definitely had it wrong.

Baylor University’s Alan Jacobs has written a new history, The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography. (Princeton University Press) Jacobs is always worth reading and this new book looks very interesting indeed. Here’s a description from the publisher’s website:

While many of us are familiar with such famous words as, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here. . .” or “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” we may not know that they originated with The Book of Common Prayer, which first appeared in 1549. Like the words of the King James Bible and Shakespeare, the language of this prayer book has saturated English culture and letters. Here Alan Jacobs tells its story. Jacobs shows how The Book of Common Prayer–from its beginnings as a means of social and political control in the England of Henry VIII to its worldwide presence today–became a venerable work whose cadences express the heart of religious life for many.

The book’s chief maker, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, created it as the authoritative manual of Christian worship throughout England. But as Jacobs recounts, the book has had a variable and dramatic career in the complicated history of English church politics, and has been the focus of celebrations, protests, and even jail terms. As time passed, new forms of the book were made to suit the many English-speaking nations: first in Scotland, then in the new United States, and eventually wherever the British Empire extended its arm. Over time, Cranmer’s book was adapted for different preferences and purposes. Jacobs vividly demonstrates how one book became many–and how it has shaped the devotional lives of men and women across the globe.

Flying Bishops

9780520300378Being a bishop has not always been a safe job. In late antiquity, in fact, it could be positively dangerous–as it remains in some parts of the world today. Not surprisingly, bishops sometimes survived Roman persecution by fleeing (or worse–see the Donatist Controversy), which occasioned considerable consternation among the members of the flock who stayed behind. A book out today from the University of California Press, Bishops in Flight: Exile and Displacement in Late Antiquity, addresses the sad history. The author is religion scholar Jennifer Barry (University of Mary Washington) Here’s the publisher’s description:

Flight during times of persecution has a long and fraught history in early Christianity. In the third century, bishops who fled were considered cowards or, worse yet, heretics. On the face, flight meant denial of Christ and thus betrayal of faith and community. But by the fourth century, the terms of persecution changed as Christianity became the favored cult of the Roman Empire. Prominent Christians who fled and survived became founders and influencers of Christianity over time.

Bishops in Flight examines the various ways these episcopal leaders both appealed to and altered the discourse of Christian flight to defend their status as purveyors of Christian truth, even when their exiles appeared to condemn them. Their stories illuminate how profoundly Christian authors deployed theological discourse and the rhetoric of heresy to respond to the phenomenal political instability of the fourth and fifth centuries.

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