Monday, 23 April 2018

JEH 69/2: Nuns, but not as we know them

I would like to emphasise to anyone who ever has or who ever might submit an article to JEH that we apply the most rigorous and even-handed methods of blind peer review and level-headed assessment of papers on their academic merits. Any rumours to the effect that we use a form of sensationalism bingo to choose the papers that we publish are entirely and categorically untrue.

It is therefore wholly coincidental that the April number contains an article which includes Jewish converts, the Ukrainian Hetmanate, nuns who insist they need ‘meat and men’ and who hold ‘noisy drinking parties’ in their cells, the phrase ‘several bucketfuls of wine’, and a punch-up in which (depending on which account you believe) either a drunken convent servant broke into a nun’s cell, beat her up and dragged her half-clothed across the yard, or he politely reprimanded her for her violation of discipline only to be attacked by several unruly stick-wielding nuns. Liudmyla Sharipova’s article 'Of Meat, Men and Property: The Troubled Career of a Convert Nun in Eighteenth-Century Kiev' went through exactly the same process of careful review and revision as any other piece.

There is no denying, though, that she has a weird, grotesque and riveting tale to tell, and I will avoid any spoilers as to how these various elements fit together. What I will say is that the conflict that erupted around the nun and convert from Judaism named Sr Asklipiodata in Kiev in 1776 is more than just a compelling story. It is a window on a world of fluid religious identities and of monastic practices that are still scarcely known in the West, and it forces us to re-evaluate what we think we know about monasticism.

One reason her story matters is that Ukraine in the late 18th century was one of the last outposts of an old style of religious life: non-communal, or ideorrhythmic, monasticism. In this system, monks and nuns bought their own cells, which could be openly luxurious, and which could be sold on or even inherited; traded on their own account; and were entitled to a share of the community’s produce. They continued to observe a common liturgy and share a burial ground, but this was not monasticism as we think we know it.

You might think, indeed, that it was simply a form of corruption and that these communities had become in effect secular economic entities. But the pleasure of Sharipova’s article is that she lays bare the conflicts which ideorrhythmic living could produce while still having a lively, humane awareness of the genuine but of course tangled and compromised spiritual life that was led within this structure.

My apologies for sensationalising this piece. Sharipova herself resists that temptation (although to be fair, the material doesn’t need much help); and the lasting impressing the article leaves is less of a dramatic story than of an extraordinary, combative, assertive, vulnerable and unexpectedly pious woman, who had spent six tumultuous decades ploughing her own furrow and was not about to submit meekly to a newly arrived mother superior. She deserved a memorial. I am pleased that, in a small way, she now has one.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Burn before reading

One of the most obvious of the many problems with the lazy science vs. religion stereotype is how many eminent scientists have also been exceptionally earnest in their faith. I knew Robert Boyle, perhaps the key founder of modern chemistry, was one of these, but until recently I didn't know the extent of this. He was decisive in the republication of the Irish-language New Testament in 1681-2, and of the first Irish-language edition of the Old Testament in 1685: the driving force behind the twin projects, and also their indispensable financial sponsor, sinking well over £300 and perhaps as much as £700 of his own money into them, not least because of his insistence that the books should be given away to those who would benefit the most.

Still, I was reading through his letters on this with a faint sense of disappointment, because none of his Irish correspondents seem to have the slightest awareness that this is a scientific giant they are dealing with. And then I find the following delightful letter from Boyle to Narcissus Marsh, the provost of Trinity College, Dublin, dated 1 August 1682:
I am troubled, and almost ashamed, that I must begin this letter with the acknowledgement of a disaster, that befel yours before it came to my hands: for it being brought yesterday from the post, not directly to me, but to a servant, that was then busied about the fire, to make a chemical experiment, I had ordered him to attend in my absence, he having laid it by for a while, a kindled coal unluckily lighted on the letter, and burned it quite thorough in that part, that contained (as I conjectured) some of the most important passages of it. ... I shall venture to answer what I guess to have been the main contents of it.*
In the genre of epistolary excuses, that one is hard to beat. And he will have smoothed over any disappointment, since he guessed - correctly - that the letter was asking him for more money, and so he sent it anyway.

*Robert Boyle, The works of the Honourable Robert Boyle (ESTC T004460. London: for A. Millar, 1744), vol. V p. 611.

Monday, 19 February 2018

On Callum Brown's 'Becoming Atheist'

The most stimulating and enjoyable works of history, I find, are the ones that are importantly, generously, humanely, provocatively and insightfully wrong. It’s a height that not many can rise to, and is far better than the tediously, predictably correct. So it is a pleasure to discover a new one in Callum Brown’s Becoming Atheist (Bloomsbury, 2017).

Brown is best-known for his thesis, in The Death of Christian Britain (2001) that British secularisation was not a centuries-long gentle slope of inexorable decline, but a cliff that the country’s longstanding Christian culture fell off in the 1960s. There’s plenty of scope for arguing about the starkness of that argument, and especially about the clear linkage he makes between that cliff-edge and the shifting place of women in British society, but I and plenty of others who know much more about it have been compelled to accept the basic argument.

Here he complements it with a detailed ethnographic study of 85 men and women in several countries, people now aged from 40 to 90, who have come to identify themselves as atheist, agnostic, humanist or as having no religion. Brown has interviewed these people sensitively and at length, and weaves their stories together into a compelling portrait of a post-religious culture.

I appreciate two things this book does particularly. One is the merciless way he deconstructs the cheering stories and improving myths that are often told around secularisation by believers and social conservatives. Western secularisation is not a blip, or a result of a failure of nerve or strategy by particular churches or politicians, or an evolution of religion into a different form. It is an epochal, generational change, affecting multiple national and religious cultures. Those who profess no religion are still a minority, of course, and the fact that they are a rapidly expanding one does not mean that they will eventually become dominant or normative: but for the time being, that is certainly the direction of travel, and as Brown points out, none of the various countervailing forces that have been identified actually amount to very much. In a subject with a lot of soft soap, this book is a splash of cold water, shocking or refreshing according to taste.

The other is his unashamed personal engagement with his subject. Whether or not either of them would appreciate the comparison, this book is a kind of humanist mirror to Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars (1992): in both cases, the authors use their own inhabiting of a particular religious (or, as here, non-religious) tradition in order to give them a lively insight into their subjects. It is not and does not pretend to be impartial history, but any losses in objectivity are generally more than made up in humanity. The empathetic warmth with which the book is written is one of its delights. Naturally I am in sympathy with this as an approach. It is not unlike what I tried to do in my Being Protestant (2013), pleasing some readers and outraging others.

But as my outraged readers pointed out: it is an approach not without costs. Even the most fair-minded historians are susceptible to blind spots where their own sympathies are concerned. And so we come to the final chapter of Brown’s book, on the moral framework of his interviewees.

His core finding is a striking and important one: these people, for all their disparate backgrounds, share a remarkably consistent set of ethical assumptions. He calls this ‘humanism’, and while many of his interviewees did not spontaneously choose that term for themselves, all of them, he tells us, were happy to embrace it when offered the chance. That, in fact, is what is noteworthy about this. As he puts it:
Humanism is a moral position that emerges from people without widespread intellectualizing or exposure to a humanist movement. 
His interviewees claimed
without exception, that they were “humanists” before they discovered the term. Humanism was neither a philosophy nor an ideology that they had learned or read about and then adopted. There was no act of conversion, no training or induction. ... A humanist condition precedes being a self-conscious humanist. ... Humanism is a condition that many in Western society have held but few may have realised.
He then describes in some detail what this ‘humanism’ consists of. To summarise: first, the ‘golden rule’ of do-as-you-would-be-done-by (a principle which he is careful to point out predates Christianity), and then a linked set of principles to do with human equality and with bodily and sexual autonomy, including the right to die. These principles were not a formal manifesto imposed on his interviewees by any external authority or adopted by them wholesale. Indeed, his interviewees generally recalled embracing these ethics before they withdrew from their various religious communities, quietly and apparently spontaneously.

So far I have nothing to argue with here. But this obviously raises a big question: where did this apparently widely diffused ethic come from? As Brown says,
When and how the humanist condition, in all its moral constituents, was formed will take a different type of history project to study. But the individuals’ claims to pre-forming humanism require explanation.
He is a good enough historian to leave that question open. But he is also a bold enough writer to suggest an answer. His interviewees testified, in what sounds like an almost mystical way, that ‘the source of these values ... lay in the individual himself or herself’. And so he suggests – admitting that ‘this is clearly a speculative case’ – that
The humanist condition may well have had an existence across the religious periods of human history. It has a persistence grounded in a moral outlook that has existed outside or beside religious faith, fostered by doubt and humans’ relentless leanings towards rationalism, materialism and also justice. ... Further research may come to discern more of the detail of the humanist condition – ideas of goodness, fulfilment or tolerance coming from within human experience, not from authority, supernaturalism or prefigured cultural discourses. ... Reason alone may construct humanism.
This is in fact clearly not a ‘speculative case’. It is a testimony of faith, or, if you prefer, of his own moral intuition. And like many such testimonies, it goes beyond the available evidence. He points out, quite correctly, that scepticism towards the claims of various religions is a pervasive feature of human history. But this is not at all the same as his humanist condition. Its ethical markers – gender and racial equality, sexual freedom, a strong doctrine of human rights which draws a sharp boundary around the human realm – are, in a long historical perspective, very unusual indeed. And as various ethicists have pointed out, although they may seem intuitively obvious in our culture, the philosophical basis for them is, um, wobbly. ‘Reason alone may construct humanism’: well, perhaps, but it has never constructed humanism like this in any previous era, and the reasoned basis even of our modern humanism does not seem entirely sound and stable.

The importance of Brown’s argument, I think, is the case he makes that this humanist ethic is the key suspect in the case of the death of the Christian West. On his account, earnestly or nominally religious people came to adopt an ethic which was in a degree of tension with their religious culture, and which certainly did not depend on it: so they either drifted away from or consciously rejected that culture. The key question, then, is why, across a whole range of mid- and late twentieth century Western societies, this peculiar and historically unprecedented humanist ethic came to seem self-evidently true to so many people. The fact that it also seems self-evidently true to Brown, and indeed to me, is not an answer.

What is the answer? Well, I’m not a modern historian, so what do I know? But I think there’s a hint in Brown’s book, one which is compatible with his previous discernment of a cultural sea-change from the late 1950s onwards. ‘Since 1945,’ he says, ‘humanist values have come to dominate Western moral culture’, and more specifically he argues that ‘the legal framework [for humanism] was the notion of human rights which emerged from the Second World War’. It seems to me that the Second World War is the defining moral event of our age, the myth by which we now discern good from evil, and which exposed the religious ethical frameworks of western civilisation as inadequate. Our cultural conviction that God is good turned out to be less deeply felt than our conviction that Hitler was evil, and so we formed our ethics around that. In that context, Christianity’s ethical framework became redundant. It didn’t need to be torn down, in a Jacobin-style campaign of deChristianisation. It simply withered.

Maybe, maybe not. But this much I think is clear from Brown’s work, despite his speculative conclusion. Modern western secularisation is the result of a historically specific set of cultural changes, which have driven western societies fast and hard in a novel direction within the span of a single lifetime. Opponents of secularisation should not delude themselves that that change will somehow be reversed. Fans of secularisation should not delude themselves that the new reality will prove any more stable than the old one.

Friday, 2 February 2018

JEH 69/1: Begging to differ

In the riches of the January number of the Journal of Ecclesiastical History, some readers may miss Martin Elbel’s wonderful article, because it has ‘Bohemian’ in the title and they will think, that’s not my patch. But even if, like Shakespeare, you think Bohemia has a sea coast, you should read this one.

One of my regular gripes about a lot of academic history is that we skate over awkward practical issues: the straightforward physical realities of life in the past. We are so used, for example, to dealing with money as an accounting fiction which can be transferred electronically that we find it difficult to recall the sheer complexity of handling financial transactions when it all had to be done using actual coin. Elbel tackles one of these issues head on.

It’s well-known that Franciscans and other friars were ‘mendicant’ orders, that is, they were supposed to sustain themselves by begging for alms. But it is not nearly so well known what that actually meant in practice. Using a particularly fine set of records relating to the convent of Olomouc in Bohemia, as it was restored after the Thirty Years’ War, Elbel spells it out. Mendicancy was not a matter of a friar wandering round the marketplace seeing what he could get: it was highly organised. The region was divided into begging districts, and there was an annual cycle of tours, friars covering hundreds of miles on foot to beg in pre-arranged areas. Butter in June and July; poultry in August and September; oil in January; hay in June; and wine from south Moravia in October. They would go in pairs, accompanied by a lay volunteer who helped carry the stuff – and friars regularly tried to wriggle out of the obligation. In 1773, the convent’s total takings included 150 geese, over a ton of butter and a whopping 18,000 eggs. Which sounds like a lot, but for a community of fifty people that is not quite one egg each per day. When all this was converted into monetary value for the community’s records, they come out as genuinely poor. When Joseph II dissolved the convent in 1785, the annual stipend he gave the ex-friars was a significant increase on their former ‘income’. Henry VIII would have been turning in his grave.

Of course, there is much more to this article than counting eggs: the real point is to think about how the huge web of relationships implied by all that regularised begging worked, the sacral services which the friars offered in return (they were mocked for having mastered the ‘art of transmuting little images, square bits of paper, amulets and other similar trifles, into wine and meat’), and the connections it gave them to the structures of secular power, who helped them to deal with monetary gifts while preserving the formal rule that they weren’t allowed to handle cash. It’s a fascinating article with some important conceptual consequences. But like an ill-shod friar lugging home a basket of eggs, it always keeps its feet on the ground.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Ada Palmer

So today, a new experience: reading a scholarly article which is so interesting and so well-written that you end by asking yourself, 'who is this person? Has she written anything else? She should write a novel!' And then by googling her and discovering that she has indeed written a prizewinning novel. That's one for my Christmas list.

More on the novel when I've read it. The article itself is enough for now. It is one of those articles which takes a narrow seam of evidence, carefully spends thirty pages drilling into it and inserting charges, and then at the end detonates them spectacularly - although, because she is not so austere a writer as some, she does give us enough of a hook at the start that we have some sense of what's coming.

The argument, in a nutshell, is that Renaissance humanists celebrated ancient pagan philosophers for their perceived ability to come close - very close - to the truths of Christianity despite not having received the Christian revelation. This was partly a means of reproaching Christians' weakness of faith and morals - look, these pagans have done better than you! - and partly a means of circumventing the morasses of scholastic theology by demonstrating that clean, classical philosophy could fulfil many of the same tasks more elegantly.

But if philosophy in the abstract could get you to the truth almost as well as (even, in some incautious panegyrics, better than) revealed faith and Scripture ... then perhaps it made sense to seek wisdom through reason alone? In which case, perhaps the Christ-event is no longer the crux of history, and, as some English radicals would say, what happened to a man outside Jerusalem centuries ago is not supremely important?

This move away from revelation to reason is a well-known early modern trajectory, of course, but Palmer's article crystallises a couple of aspects of it for me. First, crucially, its unwitting nature. She is very clear that these humanist celebrations of philosophy were mostly pious, earnestly Christian topics undertaken in faith that reason must lead to or at least point to the truth which these men already embraced, since, after all, truth is one. The theme of her article is not that humanism was irreligious, but rather that its very search for piety was a time-delayed solvent of religion. This is a big theme. The more I read about early modern unbelief, the more it is the search for truer and purer faith that seems to me to drive it.

Second, that one of the mainstays of this subject - the opposition between 'rationalism' and 'mysticism' in radical movements of the 17th century - does not work. Her humanists are like Dirck Coornhert, whose 1586 Ethics was deliberately written without any scriptural citations, in order to show that his truth could be reached even without scriptural support, and so not-quite-unwittingly showed that Scripture was dispensable. But her humanists are also celebrating Pythagorean mysticism, as (bizarrely) the ideal ancient synthesis of Greek and Jewish thought. They are very like the radicals who claimed to find Christ within. When Gerrard Winstanley (whom Palmer does not cite) called God 'Reason', how different was he from the mystics?

She concludes:
Humanists ... celebrated, and relived through empathy, the experience of ancient thinkers, whom they imagined wandering in the dark night of genuine ignorance, groping toward distant knowledge without streetlights ahead. By extolling this experience, maturing humanism exhorted students to imitate how people without revealed answers had sought them out by reason’s light alone. Humanists were sure that practitioners of their new method would end up where they believed the ancients had ended up: at the light, the good, God, truth, the source and center of all things. ... Yet, as the sixteenth century became the seventeenth, it became clearer that Epictetus did not agree with Saint Paul, that Stoic divinity was fully immanent, that Pythagoreans were serious about reincarnation, and in general that the philosophical religion of antiquity was larger and stranger than what Petrarch had expected. ... Humanists had celebrated the ancient acolytes of Philosophia because they believed Philosophia had led her sages—and could lead others—to the Christian truths that were so bafflingly difficult to reach using the tools of scripture and the corruption-ridden church. Yet, in the hands of much later generations, the enthusiasm for Philosophia that humanist teachings had rekindled outlived Philosophia’s loyalty to Lady Theology. Herein lay the secularizing potential of the pious Renaissance.
Kapow. It's a terrific article. I'm looking forward to the book.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

JEH 68/4: Pray the friendly skies

JEH covers all aspects of the history of Christianity, and that unashamedly includes the legal, administrative and financial minutiae of church life. These topics have a reputation for being dull. Perhaps sometimes they are. But it is always worth reading the article before jumping to the conclusion.

‘How Formal Anglican Pew-Renting Worked in Practice, 1800-1950’ is, you have to admit, not a title to send punters rushing to the newsstands. But John C. Bennett’s article is not only fascinating, it is much more fun than it has a right to be as well. The overall message is that pew-renting was rare and frowned upon before the 1810s; boomed thereafter, but rarely raised the sums of money it promised to; and faded away fairly quickly in the early twentieth century, both because the mismatch between supply of and demand for space in churches made the bottom fall out of the market (sorry about that), and because it had always been stirring up bad feeling anyway.

The bad feeling was in part intensely practical, and turned on a question akin to that which dominates the modern airline business: just how tight can you pack people in and get away with it? Twenty inches was the standard space allotted to parishioners in many churches; Glaswegian churches apparently had a local standard of seventeen to eighteen inches; one Brighton church went for sixteen. Bennett quotes a bean-counter from Tunbridge Wells (you couldn’t make it up) worrying that the 20-inch allocation left nine inches of surplus (and unrentable) space at the end of each pew, but if they dropped it down to 18½ inches they could squeeze in one more customer. (Sorry: worshipper.) Children’s sittings were as small as thirteen inches, ‘which,’ as Bennett drily comments, ‘can hardly have promoted proper church behaviour.’ For the business class experience, you’d be advised to head for one Bristol church where adult sittings were up to fifty-six inches: almost enough space to lie down.

But also as with airlines, a lot of the resentment came down to money. He cites a poem published in a collection of Yorkshire dialect verse in 1898:

A’a! it’s grand to ha plenty o’ brass!
Then th’ parsons’ll know where yo live;
If yo’re poor, its mooast likely they’ll pass,
An call where fowk’s summat to give.
Yo may have a trifle o’ sense,
An yo may be booath upright an trew,
But that’s nowt, if yo can’t stand th’ expense
Ov a whole or a pairt ov a pew.

All that’s missing from this article is some smartphone footage of thuggish sidesmen beating up a parishioner and dragging him out of the pew.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Psychedelic rhino

So Anne Southwell, the poet, in her commonplace book at the Folger Shakepeare Library, has amongst other things a page and a half of notes from Edward Topsell’s bestiary The historie of foure-footed beastes (1607). What is fun about this is how she distills Topsell’s 750-page book into a few lines. Here, for example, is how she summarises his 2200-word description of the rhinoceros:

Of the Rhinoceros.

The Rhinoceros is of a monstrous shape and of a Beautifill couller for he is yellowe speccled with purple his feet are like an Elaphants so is the shape of his bodie, his eares like a swine his Bodie is all ouer as if he weare in compleat armour, his head is like a horsses and out of his nose there comes a horne which is longe, strong and sharpe with which he fights, his naturall envye is against an Elaphant he is taken only by virgins, and vpon a virgins lapp he will fale asleepe, and so is taken.*

Yellow speckled with purple! Wouldn’t it be worth seeing that? What a shame that Topsell’s version of the famous picture is in black and white: but with the eye of faith you can see the speckles.



Perhaps that’s how she got there from his less exciting statement that ‘his back is distinguished with certaine purple spots vpon a yellow ground’. Topsell also relates – with a little more caution than she does – the story about the virgins, but does not mention that a rhino will fall asleep on a virgin’s lap: a recipe, one might imagine, for squished virgin.

*Folger MS V.b.198 fo. 68r.