Exam Question

At heart, what was the Renaissance? How did it contribute to the Reformation?

The Renaissance was fundamentally a rebirth of classical Latin – or rather, the Latin of the first century BC, particularly as it was composed by Cicero (and perhaps Virgil, Livy, Ovid, and other Augustan writers). To Francesco Petrarca, who lived in the fourteenth century AD, this was the pinnacle of its development and worth returning to. Language changes over time, of course – on the ground, Latin morphed into French, Spanish, and Italian – but even as a formal, learned language it changed, such that the Latin in daily use by the medieval Church was not quite the same as the one employed in the Senate House to expose the conspiracy of Cataline. I’m sure that any fourteenth-century reader would have noticed this difference, and not very cared much, but Petrarch cared a great deal. To him, every linguistic change since Cicero was necessarily a debasement, a corruption. (Cicero did employ certain rhetorical effects that had fallen out of use.) The venality of the Church, and its stultifying bureaucracy in which Petrarch worked, seemed to be reflected in the prosaic Latin it used.

Thus, to Petrarch, it was a cultural imperative to revive Ciceronian Latin. This project was slightly risqué – Cicero was a pagan, and the Church did not recommend that Christians read too much pagan writing. As it happens, the Church was right – Petrarch almost single-handedly started a vogue for the revival of Ciceronian Latin – and of necessity a revival of the pagan idea of making something of yourself. No longer did life need to be a vale of tears so that one’s heavenly reward could be all the sweeter; now, people started to claim that God had given them talents, and they glorified God when they developed those talents. This is not necessarily anti-Christian, and indeed the Pope later became one of the greatest Renaissance patrons of all, but it did entail a certain skepticism towards traditional Christianity, and the Church that sponsored it. That Lorenzo Valla, using humanist philology, proved conclusively that the Donation of Constantine was a fabrication, is emblematic of this. Emperor Constantine (d. AD 337) did not actually grant to the pope the rights to the papal states, nor the right to name the western emperor. The pope himself invented the notion in the eighth century.

A similar philological critique was launched by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, who set himself the task of publishing an authoritative edition of the New Testament in Greek. To this end he collected as many manuscripts as possible which, he discovered, did not necessarily agree with each other. To help determine which was the original reading, he adopted the “principle of maximum embarrassment” – that is, the reading that was most likely to be true was the reading that the Church liked the least. In other words, Erasmus implicitly accused the Church of being a bad steward of the Bible. And just as Italian humanists returned to Cicero for his Latin, and for his ideas about human nature, so also did Erasmus believe that this original text ought to be the main arbiter of Christian practice. Thus did Erasmus write Praise of Folly, a scathing attack on the mechanistic, superstitious, non-Biblical Christianity he saw around him. Instead, he believed that everyone should have access to the Bible, so that they could consume the word of God directly.

These two strands, skepticism towards the claims of the Roman Catholic Church, and the idea that we should go back to the Bible to determine our own Christian practice, came together in the program of Protestant Reformer Martin Luther. Everyone knew that the Church was corrupt, in that it often did not live up to its own ideals, but Luther went further than that, and identified non-Biblical Christian practice (starting with purgatory and indulgences) as part of that corruption. If he wasn’t going to be elected Pope, the next best thing would be to get certain German princes to declare their territories free from the Pope’s writ, and reorganize the church there according to his own understanding of Christian practice. And if Luther could do this, then so could others – with or without the support of the local government authorities.

In this way did the Reformation grow out of the Renaissance.

Psalm 137

A useful primary source to illustrate the Babylonian Captivity, the sixty-year period in the sixth century BC when large numbers of Jews were enslaved in Babylon, is Psalm 137, one that I always use for HIS 111. This is the translation that appears in the New International Version:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.

Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. “Tear it down,” they cried, “tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,  happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.

The last two verses are always jarring – rather like the third stanza of “In Flanders Fields” – but otherwise this Psalm succinctly and beautifully expresses Jewish sadness over their enslavement and exile (although I’m sure that to scholars of the period, who are better versed in theories of exactly who composed it and when, the story is more complicated).

Although I insist that primary sources come from a particular time and place, I can’t resist noting that some historical episodes become tropes, through which subsequent generations interpret their own experience. (The inspiration that Moses had for African-American slaves is a prime example.) The Babylonian Captivity comprehends the themes of both slavery and exile, thus did people in the fourteenth century speak of the “Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy” when it was located at Avignon between 1309 and 1377, or did Martin Luther compose his tract On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), asserting that the Papacy itself held the true church in captivity. Closer to home, the trope of the Babylonian Captivity has resonance with Afro-Caribbeans for obvious reasons, hence the Melodians’ rendition of Psalm 137, later done by Boney M. And, of course, “Babylon” retained its relevance for the Jews themselves, following the diaspora, as a symbol of exile from their homeland.

(This is to say nothing about other Babylonian tropes, like the Tower of Babel from Genesis, or the Whore of Babylon from Revelation.)

UPDATE: Something amusing from a friend’s Facebook feed:

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Reformation Sunday

One of the delightful features of the church I currently attend is that it celebrates Reformation Sunday, the Sunday before October 31. That was the day on which Martin Luther, in 1517, nailed the Ninety-Five Theses on the church door at Wittenberg, thereby inaugurating the Protestant Reformation! (Of course, there is no primary source evidence that he actually did this, although he may very well have, given that the church door functioned as the university bulletin board. What really mattered is that they were translated into German and published with the printing press, an example of an academic idea bursting out of the confines of the university and into the wider culture. This happens from time to time.)

The church bulletin yesterday did not feature Martin Luther composing, nailing, or printing his theses. Instead, the illustration was of him at the Diet of Worms of 1521, when he stood up to no one less than Emperor Charles V! (Even if he did this in April – actually, I think that Savior of All should celebrate Diet of Worms day, too. Unfortunately, there is no proof that he ever said “Here I stand; I can not do otherwise.”)

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I like that the artist has rendered the double-headed Imperial eagle on a gold field. Alas, he has also simplified the coat of arms beyond recognition. Here is what Wikipedia has:

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Here is another work of art featuring Luther, discovering justification by faith:

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The original of this painting may be found in the Bob Jones University Museum and Gallery in Greenville, South Carolina, which we visited in the spring of 2014, and which houses the most fantastic collection of late medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque art. Apparently Bob Jones, Jr., son of the founder and university president for many years, had a predilection for Christian-themed art and so began acquiring it when he could. (The painting above is not representative; it is nineteenth century in origin and Protestant in theme. Most of the BJU collection is older than that and quite Catholic, which is somewhat at odds with BJU’s historic principles.) I highly recommend a visit to the Museum and Gallery should you be visiting Greenville.

More Saint Georges

Dr. Roger Simpson, a parishioner at St. George’s Tombland, Norwich, sends some more pictures from his church. As one might expect, St. George is depicted quite a few times in the building, and in different media.

1. Near the kitchen, a wooden plaque of Flemish or North German origin, from the mid-sixteenth century. I always like these ones: not only do we have an equestrian St. George and a dragon, but also the princess, her sheep, and the walls of their city Silene.

Photo: Paul Dennis, churchwarden. 

2. On the south porch, a roof boss from c.1485, showing a scarlet-coated St. George slaying the dragon.

Photo: Paul Dennis, churchwarden.

3. In the south aisle, a stained glass memorial window by C. C. Powell, c. 1907. Here we see St. George’s distinctive red cross on his surcoat and his banner, along with Gothic-style initials for “Sanctus” and “Georgius.” Very nice!

Photo: Paul Dennis, churchwarden.

Dr. Simpson writes that “St George Tombland is a medieval church just across the road from the Cathedral. It is Anglican and ‘High’, and is still a working church. Services are held on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings, and of course there is a Sung Eucharist on Sundays. I am one of a group that helps to keep the church open for visitors also most days a week.” I am glad to know this. Norwich has a lot of churches in its city center; my hunch is that many of them were built with profits from the wool trade in the late Middle Ages, when sponsoring a church was deemed a good deed, regardless of the size of the population it was to serve. (The Reformation put an end to such a practice, deeming it wasteful.) Whether or not there was an actual demand for all of them in late-medieval Catholicism, there certainly isn’t one now, when all of 2% of the English population attends Church of England services on a weekly basis. Many Norwich churches, therefore, are maintained as museums by the Norwich Historic Churches Trust, and have been converted into cafes, flea markets, etc. The two churches of St. George, however, remain open for Anglican worship (and for visiting at other times, courtesy volunteers from the parish).

A Good One

From Euan Cameron, The European Reformation (1991):

Marriage was traditionally seen as a sacrament on the grounds that it was an analogy of the relationship between Christ and the Church. The reformers denied that this was sufficient reason to turn it into a ‘sacrament’ as such. Calvin mischievously remarked that on those grounds burglary would be a sacrament, since ‘the day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night.’

A Discovery!

From the Guardian:

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Henry VIII’s evidence to support break with Rome turns up in Cornish library

Book of legal and philosophical advice on king’s efforts to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled helped change the course of English history

A book which helped changed the course of English history, part of the evidence Henry VIII and his lawyers gathered in the 1530s to help win an annulment from Catherine of Aragon and ultimately to break with Rome, has turned up on the shelves of the magnificent library at Lanhydrock, a National Trust mansion in Cornwall.

The book, a summary of the theories of the medieval philosopher and theologian William of Ockham, has been newly identified by a US scholar and expert on the history of Henry’s library. The book was damaged but escaped destruction in a disastrous fire at the house in 1881, and crucially the fly-leaf survived. It still carries the number 282, written in black ink in the top right-hand corner, which Prof James Carley identified as corresponding with an inventory taken in 1542 of the most important of Henry’s books, five years before the king’s death.

Paul Holden, the house and collections manager at Lanhydrock, said: “It was an amazing moment. The old long gallery here is about the length of a football pitch, and the professor lapped it about six times when we found the book.”

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Read the whole thing.