Posted: Wednesday, March 5, 2008 (10:13 pm), by John W Gillis
Yesterday, I wrote that I’ve been spending some of my commute time listening to the Modern Scholar series from Recorded Books – specifically the volumes from Thomas F Madden, a Medievalist and chair of the History department at Saint Louis University. The lecture set I probably learned the most from was Empire of Gold: A History of the Byzantine Empire. I knew very little about this culture, and the lectures helped me to piece quite a few things together – in both the political and religious spheres.
As the lectures wound down, I must confess that I was growing a bit weary of the Michaels, Constantines, Alexioses, and others. In part, that may have been because the lectures could sometimes move through several reigns in the space of a minute or two – lending a sense of having a revolving door leading to the throne room. But I also had a sense of frustration at the way imperial politics and palace intrigues seemed to lead almost invariably toward the eventual demise of this culture, which was so drenched in Christianity. I get a similar – but much more profound – discomfort reading the book of the prophet Jeremiah. What was especially frustrating to listen to was the ways unity between the Greek and Latin churches was repeatedly torpedoed by various circumstances – even when unity had been formally agreed upon.
So it was with a palpable sadness that I listened to Madden describe the Fall of Constantinople. The worst of it, though, was listening to his description of the preceding evening. As Madden tells it, it was clear to all involved on the night of Monday, May 28th, 1543, that the city would fall the following day, and that the Roman Empire was about to come to an end. So the defenders of the city gathered in the great cathedral, Hagia Sophia, and celebrated the Divine Liturgy. This included, not only the Emperor Constantine XI and his men (Greeks), but also the Venetians and Genoese (Latins) who had come or stayed to defend this bulwark of Christendom.
I was flabbergasted when I heard that. When all was finally lost, when the Muslims were poised to take permanent possession of, not only Constantinople, but also of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria – of all the major patriarchates of ancient Christianity except Rome – the Greeks and the Latins in the great city decided it was time to put aside their doctrinal differences, and share the Eucharist together. There had been struggles over union going on for some time, and maybe the sharing of Communion was not as unusual as I suspect it was at that time. But still, I can only wonder how differently history would have played out had the Greek and Latin churches not been at such cross-purposes over the preceding 800 years or so. What a shame. What a shame.
Posted: Tuesday, March 4, 2008 (10:14 pm), by John W Gillis
In the spirit of always trying to look on the bright side of things… One of the advantages to spending two hours or so each weekday commuting to and from work is the opportunity it affords me to listen to audio books. I was in the local public library over the weekend, and noticed that they had a new title from Thomas F. Madden in Recorded Books’ Modern Scholar series. Unsurprisingly, the series overall is a bit of a mixed bag, but, having listened to all of Madden’s volumes so far, I can vouch for the quality of all of them.
These are not actually recorded books, but sets of about seven hours worth of lectures on various subjects – in Madden’s case on the history of Christianity, broadly speaking. Madden’s work is by no means overwhelming – these are survey-level mini-courses, and an overlap in subject matter among his volumes leads to some redundancy, but he does a nice job of walking through the material briskly while still demonstrating the complexities of the historical situations. I was particularly impressed with his agility in avoiding fashionable, oversimple cliches in his surveys of the Crusades and the Inquisitions – each of which he managed to cover fairly comprehensively in what would amount to about three weeks worth of classroom lectures in a traditional undergraduate environment.
I’ve been able to fill some gaps in my knowledge of European history while listening to these CDs, and it struck me a while back just how fundamental this knowledge is to understanding the world we’ve inherited from the ancients, the medievals, and the early moderns. And yet, where is this knowledge to be found in our culture? I know so many people who have absolutely no clue about any of this – including many with college educations. What little previous knowledge I had of this history was almost entirely gained through personal reading over the years. As a product of the public schools, I had almost no exposure to this – beyond, perhaps, memorizing the details of major military skirmishes, and of changing political fault lines. I certainly was offered no clue as to how the set of ideas we call the modern world (if we can still call it that) was forged in the interplay of the ideas of our cultural ancestors.
Maybe teenagers are too young to grasp human history as the story of ideas, but if that is true, then our system of education teaches history to the wrong people. Actually, I think that is true, and it suggests a gaping question regarding how we might rectify the problem of a rampant ignorance of the meanings of ideas. And when the Daily News Product is feeding us political ‘debate’ that tries desperately to find the right marketing mix of ‘change’ branded slogans and ‘experience’ branded slogans – all in an attempt to manipulate the election of the leader of the free world – we’d be hard pressed to show that ideas are not in crisis in our culture. Ideas are packaged for consumption – as trivia.
“For $10,000 and a weekend in Barbados with an upscale hooker: Who was the father of Charlemagne?”
This series is a good place to at least start rectifying the problem – Madden’s volumes are, at any rate.