Saturday, December 19, 2009

An old monastery serves as a window into Iraq's past

Some American soldiers learn a bit about the complexities of Iraq's religious history.
As historic sites in Iraq go, St. Elijah’s has little of the significance of the ruins of the great Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations, all endangered by decay and looting. The ruins of Nimrud, Hatra and Nineveh are only a few miles away. So is the tomb of the Old Testament prophet Jonah, and that of another, Nahum, whose short chapter in the Bible warns Nineveh of its destruction.

“Nineveh is like a walk through the Bible,” said W. Patrick Murphy, the leader of the American provincial reconstruction team here, which is coordinating the restoration, referring to the modern name for the province that includes Mosul.

In the years of American occupation, St. Elijah’s became a curiosity, a diversion for soldiers and contractors who might otherwise never leave the base and encounter Iraq’s deeply layered history. Amid the hardship of modern military operations, it once again became a place of prayer.

“We stand in a long line of people who bequeathed the faith to us,” said Maj. Jeffrey Whorton, a Roman Catholic chaplain, presiding over Mass in the monastery the other day, attended by three camouflaged soldiers, their rifles leaning in a corner.

Little definitive is known about the history of St. Elijah’s, or Dair Mar Elia. The site has never been studied or excavated, according to the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, which oversees all of Iraq’s historic sites. Before the war, Iraq’s Republican Guard occupied the base and, according to the Americans, used the cistern as a latrine.

The board, which has previously been critical of American activities at ruins, including Babylon, is now reviewing the proposal to restore St. Elijah’s.

Accompanied by an excellent slide show of St. Elijah's Monastery.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Richard W. Kaeuper, Holy Warriors: the Religious Ideology of Chivalry

Here is what I wrote about Richard Kaeuper's Holy Warriors for the online Medieval Review, a valuable electronic source for up-to-date reviews. It's free and sends the reviews right to your mailbox, and because it is electronic it allows and encourages reviewers to say more than they could in a print review. Here's where you can find subscription information, and here's where you go to search for past reviews.

Richard Kaeuper's most recent book is the product of remarkable learning. It takes a classic, well-studied topic of undoubted importance and, based on the author's wide and deep reading of both primary and secondary sources, not only sheds new and valuable light on its ostensible subject--the relationship between chivalry and religion in the Middle Ages--but also illuminates many other aspects of medieval history. Readers may well come away from this book with a whole new understanding of subjects that they thought they knew well. This reviewer, fresh from teaching a course on the Crusades, might well do things differently next time, thanks to Kaeuper's discussion of chivalry as struggle or labor.

Two decades ago, in his War, Justice, and Public Order: England and France in the Later Middle Ages (1988), Kaeuper found himself doubting that the values of chivalry as understood in the High Middle Ages were an unambiguous force for promoting civility and order: "The code of chivalry encouraged as much violence as it curbed" (7). Further research, notably extensive reading in chivalric epics and romance, led him to find unconvincing an older understanding of the relationship between Christianity and chivalry, that chivalry was a process of a more pacific clerical establishment slowly imposing its values on the warrior aristocracy. In Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe (1999) he traced a convincing picture of the autonomous value system of knights who though they might aspire to courtliness and piety saw the core of their social identity in their prowess, and their right and duty to use force when they judged it appropriate.

The current book is a logical extension of Chivalry and Violence in that it focuses again on the self-image of knights, specifically how knights justified their way of life religiously. It is Kaeuper's primary contention that knights (or more generally well-armed, professional soldiers) had independent religious ideas that they adopted and adapted to suit their own needs, ideas that were related to those put forward by the clergy, but not a pale reflection of clerical theories and demands. This thesis deserves some detailed exploration before we look at an important secondary theme of the book, which is Kaeuper's demonstration that some of the most important theories of salvation were shaped by the existence and self-assertion of a Christian knighthood, the members of which could be either valuable allies or dangerous enemies of clerical interests and high-minded ecclesiastical efforts to reform the world.

First, let us look at what Kaeuper says about knightly self-image and how it related to the way penance and salvation were understood in medieval culture in general. Texts written by and for knights that tackled serious issues--practically by definition religious issues--upheld warrior values such as prowess (courage, skill, the prime warrior virtue) despite the frequent disapproval of clerics, but also identified other aspects of the knightly profession with universally admitted aspects of the economy of salvation. We might, following Kaeuper and the Book of Job, consider the equation of the struggle for salvation with militia (1-2); militia in medieval usage could mean not just military service or knighthood, but hard struggle, even suffering. The struggle or labor of human life was part of the punishment derived from the sins of Adam and Eve; but submitting oneself to hard work and other kinds of suffering were also constantly praised and encouraged by sermonizers and ascetic writers, because done right, as Christ did, it was the road to salvation. Knights believed that their own way of life was labor and led to pains experienced by no other mortals (though one wonders what their mothers thought of that argument), comparable, some said, to the work and suffering of Christ. Thus knights, when thinking about their participation in the process of salvation, could point to a perfectly orthodox claim to Christian respectability (if not one that was uncontested): imitatio Christi. Indeed, there was a lively debate; when rating their own spiritually valuable ascetic achievements, knights argued that monks could not bear the burdens of military life, and vice versa. Kaeuper provides a number of stories from his wide reading which illustrate the terms of that debate, with all its gruesome and humorous aspects, as in fact he does when discussing other arguments that arose from clerical-chivalric tensions. It is one of the great virtues of this book is that Kaeuper constantly keeps the reader aware that clerics often found themselves facing arguments justifying knighthood that were difficult to answer.

Kaeuper devotes a long chapter to discussing how the effort of the twelfth-century clerical reformers to create a working theology to guide the laity intersected with the developing ideology of chivalry--this being the century when chevalerie ceased to mean "horsemen" or "skill with horses" only, and became a moral status or aspiration. Reform in the twelfth century involved among other things an organized effort to define various legitimate professions of the human community, how each contributed at its best to the Christian life, and the dangers inherent in each profession. Among the lay ordines knighthood took a leading place, because the warrior aristocracy was the chief rival of the clergy in power, wealth and respectability. It may be that as much effort was put into defining and critiquing the military ordo as was devoted to all other laypeople together. For reformers there was much about warfare to criticize, but it was impossible to simply denounce or ignore the problem of the Christian warrior. Ecclesiastical authority had already conceded, in the form of crusade theology (still evolving, still rife with contradiction), that appropriate military service could gain salvation. Clerics used violence, and had to justify and theorize it. In this case, too, their expertise in learning failed to impose their formulation--that only violence authorized by the clergy and directed towards enemies of the faith was legitimate--on an unquestioning audience. Chivalric writers and clerical writers sympathetic to them appropriated what they liked about the theory of ordines and the theory of crusade, adapting what was useful to their own purposes and discarding the rest. Witness the way that treatises on chivalry, right from the very beginning, appropriated the language of ordo and ordines to give the "order of chivalry" an undoubted predominance in the Christian community, save only for the formal respect due to priests for their unique sacramental role. Witness the way proper warfare of any kind was seen by knights as equal in worth to expeditions to the Holy Land or against other unbelievers, equally pleasing to God.

Kaeuper continues to be interested in the end of the self-justifying, consciously Christian knightly identity and devotes his final chapter to "writing the death certificate for chivalric ideology." Here he provides the reader with a fuller and more convincing analysis of the death of medieval knighthood than he did in Chivalry and Violence, although it is not entirely satisfying. Kaeuper offers up several factors that contributed to the "death of chivalry." He suggests that since after the Reformation the penitential economy of the Middle Ages no longer made sense in much of the Christian West, its logic no longer could be appropriated to depict the well-armed professional warrior as a member of an autonomous Christian ordo. At the same time various developments made it easier to see knights as servants of the State (the Prince?) than as members of an international brotherhood, while the state became the source of all honor (a view seen, for instance, in the sixteenth-century biography of the Chevalier Bayard). It would have been interesting and useful if Kaeuper had said more about the tension between the ideas of knights as members of a "national" state (or subjects of a Sovereign) and knights as members of a class that transcended boundaries and allegiances. Admittedly he said quite a bit on this subject, but one feels that there is more to be said. It would have been interesting to see Kaeuper engage with the recent work of Crouch and Keen on the evolution of European ideas of nobility.

This book is well and entertainingly written, and is well-presented and designed. The University of Pennsylvania Press is to be congratulated for being willing to include the large bibliography and the extensive (and rich) scholarly apparatus that add much of value to Kaeuper's presentation. One can no longer take these things for granted, even from academic publishers. Also remarkable is the inclusion of a striking thirteenth-century illustration of an armored knight about to fight a phalanx of vices. It is reproduced on both the cover and the frontispiece, providing the reader with one incomplete but color reproduction plus one complete in black and white. This allowed the author to present a striking image to his reader, in a way that makes vivid some of the symbolism relevant to his argument. These things cost money and are sometimes skimped on; in this case the money was well spent.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

"Crazy stuff" in history

Apocalyptic belief, belief in a revelation of the end of time, usually a revelation that the end of time is just around the corner, probably qualifies for most people as "crazy stuff." Something suitable for more Terminator sequels, a graphic novel, or a heavy metal album. There is always a need for another heavy metal album about the end of the world.

But crazy or not, apocalyptic beliefs are pretty commonplace in real life, and have a stronger influence on politics and culture than most people who don't believe in the apocalypse would guess. Three countries whose politics is strongly affected by the apocalyptic beliefs of some influential people and a proportion of the general population are the United States, Israel, and Iran.

More than once in recent months I have read about the apocalyptic beliefs of the president of Iran. Shiism has always had an apocalyptic logic: roughly, they think that the leadership of the Muslim community was hijacked soon after the death of Prophet, that the true leaders have been in physical or spiritual exile ever since, and eventually that leadership will return to clean up the mess. But most Shiites don't wait with bated breath for the return of the Mahdi, just as most Christians don't think very much about the Book of Revelations (also known as the Apocalypse of St. John) when planning out their weekly activities. And a lot of Jews have given up on the return of the Messiah.

However, as support of the Islamic Revolution has been falling apart in Iran, the true believers in the revolution are turning more strongly to the belief that the end is near.

Here is what Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has to say about the subject:

It's both crazy and dangerous.

Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad believes and acts on the expectation that the reappearance of the Hidden Imam is imminent, and that U.S. efforts in the Middle East are primarily focused on preventing his return. Shi'ite Muslims believe that their 12th imam, the Mahdi, born in 869, did not die but was hidden by God and will eventually reappear as the savior of humankind, ending tyranny and bringing justice to the world. One-tenth of the world's Muslims and 85 percent of Iranians are Shi'a.

In a recent speech in the central city of Isfahan, Ahmadinejad said: "With those [U.S. troops] who came to occupy Iraq, the appearance was that they came just to exploit the oil. In reality, though, they know that something will happen in this region -- a divine hand will come soon to root out the tyranny in the world."

"And they know," he added, "that Iran is paving the way for his coming and will serve him."

Belief in the apocalypse and messianism are nothing new in human history. There are both Jewish and Christian messianic traditions, according to which a king of Israel or messiah will appear to herald global peace. And Shi'ite Muslims, unlike the majority of their Sunni co-faithful, have always believed in the Mahdi.

But Ahmadinejad and his main supporter among the ultra-conservative Iranian clergy, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, a member of the Assembly of Experts, do not want to just peacefully hope and wait for the Mahdi. RFE/RL Radio Farda's analyst Majid Mohammadi says Ahmadinejad has introduced a completely new system in the Iranian politics: "a militarist and messianic Islamism."
There's more here.

The third and fourth paragraphs of the excerpt above reminds me very strongly of this version of Pope Urban's speech at Clermont. Surely not what was actually said, but this is what made sense to one informed and learned observer. This is what he thought the Pope should have said when he launched the First Crusade.
Interesting times, interesting times. Don't you just... love it? Well, maybe not.

Image: An impression of the return of the Mahdi to fight the Antichrist.

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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Scary Santa Claus and the Master of Souls

The New York Times covers a celebration of something-or-other in Baghdad.

Image: Read all about it.

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Timothy I Catholikos of Baghdad and Caliph Al-Mahdi

Interested in what Christian and Muslim religious leaders debated in the early Abbasid era?

Public benefactor Roger Pearse has just made that a whole lot easier. He writes:

In 781 AD the East Syriac Catholicos, Timothy I, was invited by the
Abbassid Caliph al-Mahdi to answer a series of questions about
Christianity over two days. The questions and his replies are extant in
Syriac. I've placed the English translation by Alphonse Mingana online

Introduction here:

Timothy I was an interesting man, heavily involved in the Nestorian
evangelism which ultimately reached China. He also was involved in
biblical textual criticism, and his letters record the discovery of some
old manuscripts of the Psalms in the region of the Dead Sea; a possible
precursor of the modern Dead Sea Scrolls discovery.

The text above is public domain: please copy freely. It now forms part
of my collection of public domain patristic texts available here:

For those who would like to support the work of the site, you can buy a
CDROM of the translations from here:

Thanks, Roger!

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

How sectarian hatred gets started

When outside news media cover such developments as Albanian-Serbian conflict in Kosovo, or Sunni- Shiite conflict in Iraq, they are often described as the result of centuries-old hatreds, and readers are referred to the ultimate origins long, long ago. But in real life, most of these conflicts are rather irrelevant unless something more recent brings them to life again. Ontario and much of Canada has a long history of Catholic-Protestant conflict over schools and their funding. Unless, however, a school funding issue pops up, that old conflict is completely irrelevant to people's public identities or the way they interact with their neighbors. The number of people who sit around thinking about William of Orange or the Battle of the Boyne is insignificant; indeed, and I know this from personal experience, most people have no idea what what either of these things might be or what kind of influence they had on Canadians of the past. The Glorious 12th of July used to be the biggest public holiday in Ontario -- at least for Protestants -- but no one knows what it is now. But with a lot of bad luck and human perversity, one can imagine a Catholic-Protestant conflict welling up in Ontario in the future, and then if Catholics and Protestants wanted reasons to hate each other, they would find the libraries full of books to tell them why this was appropriate.

How this works in Iraq is well illustrated by this story from Inside Iraq. It illustrates how old hatreds come back to life, when everybody, or most everybody, thought they were dead. The story only makes sense if, when the correspondent's friend got married, she hardly gave a thought to Sunni or Shiite identity. Now, however, she can hardly think of anything else. The harsh reactions that she expects from her new neighbors don't have much to do with what's in Iraq's libraries, directly, but I'm sure that for everyone involved, if this woman's fears are at all realistic, conflicts from the time of Ali and Hussein or even Saddam Hussein are a lot more present than they were in 2003.

I was at a party last evening with some historian colleagues, and we were talking about how the Canadian social history class went this year ( pretty well in many respects). My friend who taught the course said that for our students, most of whom were born sometime in the late 80s, historic Canada is unrecognizable as their country until a point of very few years before their birth.

This is just another illustration of how present concerns have a huge effect on what aspects of the past we choose to think about.

Image: William of Orange. Boo, hiss!

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Meditations on democracy and its cultural roots

Phil Paine's Third Meditation on Democracy is on his website blog (under August 18). If you missed the first and second, they are available here.

In the third meditation, Phil talks about the relationship between culture and democracy, specifically the idea that Christianity or the European Enlightenment were necessary precursors for the ideas behind modern democracy. Phil has always rejected this, and in the third meditation says:

The connection between articles of religious faith, especially in the form of abstract theological precepts, and what people do in practical situations, has never been obvious. Pacifism, for instance, is a pretty straightforward tenet of Christianity, recognized by most Christians as central to the teaching of Christ. Yet how much pacifist behaviour has Christianity generated? Only a handful of microscopic sects have practiced it, and they have generally suffered persecution in the “Christian” world. How many Buddhists actually make any effort to follow the Fourfold Path? Even if a particular religion can be shown to have some abstract principle that supports democratic theory, it does not follow that the people of that faith are bound to act democratically. Democracy is something that people do. It’s a practical approach to solving concrete problems.

That's a part of what Phil has to say here, but hardly all. Phil has some interesting things to say about the evolution of European culture and the cosmopolitan roots of what some of us most value in it. Read the meditation.

Just as Phil was publishing the third meditation, another interesting essay on the Enlightenment and the history of religion appeared in the New York Times, Mark Lilla published in the New York Times Magazine a long article, the Politics of God, on the relationship between Enlightenment thought and religion in modern times. His major point, in my view, is that the relationship hasn't been a simple one. His discussion of "liberal" theology in pre-World War I Germany told me things I did not know, but should have, given my scholarly interests:

By the turn of the 20th century, the liberal house was tottering, and after the First World War it collapsed. It was not just the barbarity of trench warfare, the senseless slaughter, the sight of burned-out towns and maimed soldiers that made a theology extolling “modern civilization” contemptible. It was that so many liberal theologians had hastened the insane rush to war, confident that God’s hand was guiding history. In August 1914, Adolf von Harnack, the most respected liberal Protestant scholar of the age, helped Kaiser Wilhelm II draft an address to the nation laying out German military aims. Others signed an infamous pro-war petition defending the sacredness of German militarism. Astonishingly, even Hermann Cohen joined the chorus, writing an open letter to American Jews asking for support, on the grounds that “next to his fatherland, every Western Jew must recognize, revere and love Germany as the motherland of his modern religiosity.” Young Protestant and Jewish thinkers were outraged when they saw what their revered teachers had done, and they began to look elsewhere.
I highly recommend this article, but it will go into subscriber-only status by the end of the week. Don't wait if you think you might be interested.

Image: Meditations Mist by Robert Masla.

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Monday, July 23, 2007

There really is nothing new under the sun

Except maybe the chainsaws.

Christian vs. pagan in Russia, today. From that amazing site, English Russia.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Today's religious issues

On Tuesday the pope issued a statement confirming that in his view, the Roman Catholic Church is the true church of Christ, while the Orthodox churches are defective for not recognizing papal authority, and the Protestant churches are a step down from that, lacking as they do a sacramental clergy.

As Atrios at Eschaton remarked, it's not exactly astonishing that the man in charge of this vast, prestigious and traditional institution would have this opinion. Otherwise, he'd be unlikely to be a member. Chester Scoville at The Vanity Press opines that ecumenism, along with other nostalgic efforts at a vaguely defined "unity," is overrated, even if the past efforts to reduce active hostility have been worthwhile.

Reading about this papal statement, which doesn't exactly impress me as very significant, made me think about how the religious issues of any given time are not handled very well in journalistic and even scholarly discussions.

For instance, a historically Christian intellectual culture tends to emphasize theological doctrines (teachings about God, and his relationship to the universe and humanity) as expressing the essential nature of any religion or religious faction. But how much do people really care about the essential teachings of their own faith? Some ideas really are fundamental. I can't see why anyone who doesn't believe Jesus Christ is the savior of the world would even want to be called a Christian. But what about the Procession of the Holy Spirit? It's in some of the earliest "creeds" or statements of faith. Do you know anyone who understands what this means, much less why it is as important to believe as, say, the resurrection of the dead and the last judgment? Why should different ideas about this Procession have separated Rome and the Orthodox churches for over a thousand years?

I think the big issues of religion today, or at least Christianity (but maybe not just Christianity) are things hardly discussed by the gospels or the creed writers from 325 AD on. Here they are:
  • Marriage, who's allowed to have it and under what conditions
  • Birth control and abortion
  • The status of gays in a Christian community: lepers or leaders?
These issues are the ones that are tearing apart traditional alignments. For instance, the world-wide Anglican communion is on the rocks on the issue of whether same sex unions can be blessed and whether gays can be bishops. The protagonists are the national Anglican churches in the United States, Canada, and Nigeria, while the Archbishop of Canterbury, who leads a national church where most members never go to services, tries to keep things together. It looks to me, though, that there isn't much middle ground between Anglicans who want to return to a traditional disapproval of sexual diversity, and those who want the approval of God's church -- the one they belong to -- for their family life, even if Moses condemned it in the laws of Leviticus.

And the Anglican church is hardly the only one in this position.

The religious landscape is always a complicated one with lots of inconsistencies and apparent paradoxes. One Japanese Buddhist leader long ago taught that true Buddhism meant that everyone should be married and no one should be a monk (!). Just looking at the labels or even at the official teachings of the labeled groups doesn't help understanding very much.

Remember when, in North America, getting a divorce was a lifelong disgrace? No? Gather round, children, and I'll tell you a story...

PS: You will note that I didn't list under religious issues people care about the Evolution/Creation as in Genesis debate. Certainly many people do care, but how many of them live outside the United States? Honest question.

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Friday, July 06, 2007

Translating Eusebius' Chronicle

Roger Pearse, the public benefactor behind the online source collection (far more than just Tertullian), is challenging the Republic of Letters to pitch in and just for the fun of it, translate the Chronicle of Eusebius into English.

Eusebius was bishop of Caesarea in Palestine at the time of the Great Persecution and the miraculous-seeming turnabout when Constantine became the first Christian Roman Emperor. Eusebius was an important advisor to the new convert and wrote some important works, including the first detailed history of the church and a detailed universal chronology (his Chronicle) that showed how biblical history fit in with pagan chronologies and, by implication, how Christian history contained and superceded pagan history.

Eusebius's Chronicle was a complicated graph-like work for much of its extent, in a way that seems, perhaps mistakenly, modern to us. Or it might: it doesn't survive in its original Greek form, but only in ancient Latin and Armenian translations. But the Latin one by Jerome at least is taken as a pretty accurate reflection of Eusebius' work. It's an interesting document of how 4th century Christians understood historical time, and is our main link between ancient chronology and our own.

Would you like to play with this text, and help make it more widely available? Here's Roger Pearse's invitation:

The chronicle of Eusebius has never been translated into English. But we
have a simple Latin version, and also a German one. Much of it is in
short sentences or phrases, so even a novice at Latin would probably find
something they could do.

I've now put online the entries for the second chunk, starting with more
material from Alexander Polyhistor using Berossus.

I've made it editable so that anyone can enter stuff. Each sentence is separately editable. There's no passwords or logons involved. Anyone can edit anything by just pressing the edit button.

If you know any Latin at all, or German, why not buzz over to this page and contribute a sentence or two?

The intention is that the whole translation should be in the public domain and be put online for everyone.

I'll add some stuff in, but by all means feel free to add notes to each bit you do if something is uncertain and see if someone else can find the answer!

It's a bit of fun, not something serious - if you know amo amas amat, I think you could probably do a sentence or two!

All the best,

Roger Pearse

Image: A late medieval Spanish copy of Jerome's translation of Eusebius.

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

A modern religious mosaic -- Washington, D.C.

The Washington Post has a slide show illustrating the construction of a mosaic depicting the Incarnation of Christ at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (USA).

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Living in the future (?)-- battling Apocalypses

Brad DeLong says it best in his post Battling Apocalypses, where he cites other linked material. The story, briefly, is that the location of Jesus' appearance on the Last Day has become a minor (we can hope) issue in the American presidential campaign. And as Brad points out, there are international implications...

This reminds me that Robert Heinlein's pioneering science fiction series "Future History" featured a theocratic dictatorship in the USA.

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Thursday, May 31, 2007

One small incident in the conversion of Europe

From the blog English Russia, a piece of early history: the pagan Horse Stone on Horse Island, the site of horse sacrifices, turned into a Christian church. More detail at English Russia -- one of the best of blogs.

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Ramsay MacMullen, Voting About God in Early Church Councils

In an earlier post I promised to talk about the content of this book.

Dr. MacMullen is interested in two phenomena that he seems to find underappreciated by writers on the later Roman Empire.

First is the huge amount of activity that took place under the rubric of "early church councils." It's easy to push this activity to one side because you are not particularly interested in the development of Christian doctrine; on the other hand, you might be primarily interested in doctrine and not all that concerned with the social or political context. One of the first things that Dr. MacMullen points out to his Martian visitor is that there was a tremendous amount of such activity from the third to the sixth century AD. He comes up with some speculative but not unreasonable numbers for meetings and attendees; he talks about how bishops, their retainers, their messengers and their letters and supporting dossiers of documents crossed the Roman world, at great trouble and to some extent on the basis of imperial subsidies (the Roman post service which expedited not just mail delivery but the travel of officials, which was notoriously expensive). The business of church councils, which it should be noted was not always on matters of correct belief and teaching (doctrine), was a significant dimension of the business of government.

The Martian visitor is impressed.

Second, this network of relationships had a dimension that MacMullen calls "democratic." Not because there was a government based on elections (though bishops were elected) and not because anyone believed the empire was or should be based on democratic principles (it was in theory an absolute, divinely ordained monarchy), but because the people, or large organized groups of people, usually gathered together in towns and cities, especially imperial capitals or large regional centers like Alexandria or Ephesus, exerted pressure on bishops, governors and emperors, and sometimes got their way. The people (the mass of them) had power.

Dr. MacMullen discusses two aspects of this "people power." The first is well known to anyone who knows late Roman history at all -- the factional assemblies that took place in streets, plazas, and the circus (the chariot-racing track) and demonstrated for or against doctrinal positions, local governors, or even the emperors themselves. The competition between Greens and Blues in 5th and 6th century Constantinople is particularly famous -- they were in theory fan clubs organized to support chariot teams, but though they were intensely interested in that subject, their activities went well beyond it. (See my short discussion here.) MacMullen reminds us that the most famous demonstrations and riots were not the sum-total of this "democratic" aspect of late Roman civic and imperial life.

The second "democratic" manifestation analyzed in this book is the conduct of councils themselves -- which conduct was modeled on that of the Roman senate, the imperial consistory, and town councils. Some attention has been directed this way in the past because we have the minutes of such bodies, but usually the councils have been seen as a degenerate form of institutions that were freer and worked better in the republican past. The feature particularly noted has been the chanting of attendees -- chanting that began with long passages of praise for the divine emperor, continued with praises for his wise policies, and then, kinda sneaked in there, complaints and petitions and even denunciations of officials. All these chants were written down and the number of repetitions of each carefully noted.

This seems like a slavish way to run a consultative or legislative body, and maybe it is so. However, MacMullen invites us to imagine how such demonstrations were organized, how they looked to those present (especially when one considers that chants could turn to violence, and that chants might threaten violence to people on the wrong side), how chanting defined parties, how chanting was used to manifest the power of the majority. MacMullen grants as he clearly must that his church councils were easily manipulated by the presiding officers and senior bishops (kind of like the US Senate today), but he argues that people power -- the power of a passionate mass -- sometimes won the day.

Thinking about this material can result in seeing the later Roman empire in a whole new way.

But is this democracy? Or is it mob rule, sometimes or maybe more often than not manipulated by managers behind the scene, a la the Chinese Cultural Revolution? I have my problems with the notion of mob rule, but I have to say that the democracy of the streets and the revolutionary assemblies of the early Christian empire has its resemblances to the democracy of the streets and assemblies of the French Revolution. (Modernity, where are you?) Yes, the revolutionary demonstrations were loud and violent and intolerant in both settings, and led to mass slaughter -- I'll take Canadian democracy, thanks -- but they did respond to the dissatisfactions of large, determined groups of people. Absolute power, accepted out loud by all, again is shown as fragile and chimerical and in need at times of (let's say) mob power.

This book has given me a lot to think about.

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