The Cult of the Big Book.

24 Sep

Renascita and Reconquista.

It was not simply that Jerome (of the Latin Vulgate Bible) gave misleading impression of the Greek text: the mere fact that for a thousand years the Latin Church had based its authority on a translation was significant when scholars heard for the first time the unmediated urgency of the angular street-greek of Paul of Tarsus as he wrestled with the problem of how Jesus represented God. The struggle sounded so much less decorous in the original than in Latin: the shock was bound to stir up new movements in the Church and suggest that it was not authoritative or normative an interpreter of scripture as it claimed. If there is any one explanation as to why the Latin West experienced a Reformation and the Greek-speaking lands did not, it lies in this experience of listening to a new voice in the New Testament text.

The difference between scholasticism and humanism, the two traditions that squabbled across every divide of the Reformation, has persevered down the ages: the importance of dialectics and reasoning vs that of rhetoric and persuasion. The former in this case was represented in the Catholic Church’s Thomist orthodoxy, and it increasingly came under fire from humanists, who were recovering the Greek and Hebrew canons (such scholars were as likely to be mystics and cynics as reformers). The Thomist revival in the traditional Church, overseen by the talented Italian Dominican Cajetan, with its emphasis on contemplation and restraint, was intended to introduce theological discipline in an era of exuberant religion.

Where Thomism prized Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle, the humanists drew upon Plato and the hermetic and gnostic thinkers of the Early Church. Some of the contradictions inherent in the debate had plagued Christianity from birth, were reconciled by Augustine, only to be reopened when ‘classical‘ learning was again the order of the day. These two traditions were inevitably dragged into personal and political battles, to the point where everyone justified their opinion on a fresh reading of Augustine, and he was allocated the rare genius of fooling all people at all times. Their ideological contests were incredibly fraught and often contradictory- for instance, it was the Thomists (Dominicans) in the church rather than the humanists who fought against Spanish colonialism.

The millenarian century that gave birth to the Reformation is best exemplified by Italy in the 1490s, racked by civil war, the ‘French pox’ (syphilis) and imperial interferences. Florence, beloved Republic, was living through typically exciting times: The Last Days of Savonarola were on. Machiavelli’s ‘unarmed prophet’ was later burned by the reinstated brothers Medici, one a Cardinal, the other royal: a perfect example of the venal Church-Commonwealth liaisons in late Medieval Europe (the Cardinal went on to become the despised pope Clement, the Prince was the ungrateful recipient of Machiavelli’s masterpiece). A group called the Piagnoni sprang up to preserve Savonarola’s memory. They ousted the Medici again in 1527, to establish Machiavelli’s beloved republic, only to have it relapse back to the Medici. Statesman though he was, the old Machiavelli could not keep up with rapidly shifting allegiances, and he died an exhausted and broken man.

The anarchy across Europe this late in the decay of the old system was hard to stanch, even had the church extended itself considerably more than it did. It is telling that the first Lateran Council to consider the questions reformers raised was only after the first round of military showdowns: the Council of Trent met in the 1550s, by which time the broad fabric of the old church was irretrievable. What followed instead was the relentless narrowing of, paradoxically, all three churches: as each entrenched itself against the others both territorially and doctrinally. Tridentine Catholics are thus as removed from the ethos of the medieval church- expansive ‘Christendom’- as any Lutheran or Calvinist.  Unfortunately,  as with 15th century Spain (below), conformity was imposed at the cost of great violence: a purging at which all mainstream churches proved proficient (witch-burning, as MacCulloch points out, had no theological boundaries.)

The Massacre of Innocents, Bruegel.

Moros y Christos.

The Portugese… discovered new islands, new lands, new peoples; and what is more new stars and a new heaven. They freed us from many false impressions and showed us that there were antipodes, about which even the saints had doubts; and that there is no region that is uninhabitable because of heat or cold

Pedro Nunes, cosmographer, 1537

The English king Edward I expelled the Jews 1290, the first in a long line of anti Semitic monarchs in Latin Christendom. The most alarming  of these itinerant expulsions was the Iberian  persecution of Jews (and Moors) within Ferdinand and Isabella’s newly unified kingdom: the infamous Sephardic diaspora. From that day to this, the bane of “blood-libel”- the notion that Jews (or Roma) regularly kidnap christian kids for sacrifices- has remained an enduring theme of racial prejudice.

Post the Reconquista, while moors and jews were driven out or converted by the Inquisition, Spanish religion (more accurately, the Spanish church) acquired a discipline unique to Latin Europe at the time. Francisco Ximenes de Cisneros, the force behind the original Spanish Inquisition, anticipated the mangled debate during the Council of Trent. His outlook, similar to, say, Calvin or Zwingli, had consequences closer to the Counter-Refomation: it obliterated rival civilisations on that cosmopolitan peninsula. Ironically, new ‘racial purity’ laws required people interested in a career within the church to prove limpieze de sangre or freedom from converso blood, a claim few within the settled nobility could make. Ximenes, in the bibliophilic side of his personality, was instrumental in the creation of the Complutensian Polyglot in 1517, a compendium of the Bible in all the ‘original’ languages: Hebrew, Greek and Latin.  This great masterpiece in erudition opened up many doors for later reformers that his descendants in the institutional church would’ve kept emphatically shut.

The Inquisition, it was made clear, was beholden to court and church alike, preferably in that order. This was likely the chief reason Spain never seriously considered ‘reforming’; it was, as far as her rulers were concerned, very well reformed already. As a result, while some of the great Reformation mystics (the ones I found the most interesting, anyway) were fuelled by the Spanish alumbrados and their Italian counterparts, the ‘reformation’ as such died in both lands almost on inception. In Italy, the pope was ever too close, in Spain he was already redundant. Another philosophical tradition within the broader converso experience was heralded by Spinoza and his Amsterdam, birthplace of modern rationalism.

The Spanish Empire introduced plantation slavery to Latin Europe in 1443 by creating the first Atlantic slave route. As a favour to the expansionary and devoutly Catholic empire, the pope handed over the Patronato (Padroado in Portugese): the exclusive right to preach the gospels in the new territories. Ironically, the priests who arrived were mostly from Andalusia, where two generations ago the Moors had ruled. It was such a Dominican priest- Bartolome de las Casas- who first spoke out against the cruelty meted out to the indios and started the first, unsuccessful debate about the ethics of colonialism by suggesting that Spaniards and Indians were equally rational. He did then go on to advocate black slaves instead of brown ones, which is I guess the glass half-empty way of looking at it. Another Spanish Dominican, Francisco de Vitoria, developed this thought. He argued that war was only justified in response to a wrong, which the indios had not offered the Spanish. It was characteristic of Iberian Catholicism’s developed sense of statehood that he analysed this in terms of sovereignty rather than evangelism: the Aztecs were as much rulers as the Spanish, and the pope was, after all, only the pope. It was the first wisps of IL, for Vitorio re-introduced the Roman law concept of jus gentium into a system obsessed of divine law for 1000 years.

11 Responses to “The Cult of the Big Book.”

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  2. chaosbogey October 20, 2010 at 8:22 pm #

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  3. Karen November 1, 2010 at 3:35 pm #

    This post is included at History Carnival #92.

  4. lida dai dai November 17, 2010 at 9:56 pm #

    Ernest Hemingway~ Theres nothing noble in being superior to your fellow men. True nobility is being superior to your former self.

  5. chaosbogey December 5, 2010 at 3:50 am #

    thanks, all of you. I am so gratified that people are making their way through this one. It’s a plod, but I like to think it’s worth it.

  6. Phyliss Lary December 5, 2010 at 8:42 pm #

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    • chaosbogey December 17, 2010 at 9:54 am #

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  8. Sage Holsapple January 5, 2011 at 4:37 pm #

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  1. Carnivalesque 68 | Mercurius Politicus - November 22, 2010

    […] ChaosBogey reviews Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation. […]

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