paleo Ideofact

Friday, December 20, 2002
Missing time
In the X-Files, missing time was always a sure sign of an encounter with aliens. For me, it means that most of the week I was too busy or too tired to sit down and write anything. Tonight is another such occasion -- I'll have a few long posts the next few days, then I'll be taking a brief hiatus.

Speaking of missing time, this... well, I'm not sure what to make of it. It's a paper claiming that the early Middle Ages didn't exist. It argues that there are roughly 325 extra, phantom years of history, roughly 600 to 900 A.D., and that we've been dating all sorts of things -- the rise of Islamic civilization, the starting date of Augustus' rule of the Roman empire, the Carolingian period, etc. etc., all wrong for centuries and no one noticed.

For the record, I don't put much stock in the theory. I read the paper twice over lunch today, and I had the bizarre feeling that the argument refers primarily to itself. On the other hand, I took a few classes on the 600 to 900 period -- if it didn't exist, perhaps I can persuade my alma mater to refund the tuition for those classes...

Tuesday, December 17, 2002
Paine & Islam
I know I promised a post on this subject, but it'll have to wait until tomorrow. In other news, the last part of "The Strange Case of Jean Gimpel" is also in the works -- I found the book I was looking for in the morass of texts that lie in dangerous piles on my desk....

Hermetic guys
That was the title of this excellent email I got from longtime Ideofact reader Peter Larsen, who wrote:
I'm a big fan of science and the scientific method (as you may recall from earlier emails), but I think you are a little hard on the Renaissance Hermetic Philosophers. They were, in their way, pursing knowledge in the best way they knew how. Look at John Dee -- a man who understood, more or less, all the fields of knowledge in Europe. Once he did that, he was pretty much stuck with seeking divine guidance for further growth.

Sure, he could have started experimenting, but that wasn't the direction he was primed to go. It's kind of like chastising da Vinci for not building an airplane. From our vantage, it's obvious that most Renaissance magic/mysticism was pointless theorizing; they didn't know that, however.

A bibliophile friend who collects reprints of Hermetic texts one told me that the Renaissance magical thinkers were stumbling towards a sort of proto-Reformation -- essentially seeking a direct and personal interaction with God unfiltered through a church hierarchy. I have no real opinion on this, but it's an interesting idea. Not, perhaps, as useful as translating the Bible into the vernacular, but....
In this context, it's probably worth noting that in Peter French's work, John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus, on page 161, footnote 3, we find this curious sentence:
It is well known that both Boyle and Newton were interested in Hermetic alchemy and that, in terms of volume, Newton's mystical writings far exceed his practical scientific ones.
Of course, I wouldn't throw out the law of gravity because of those mystical writings, and I should probably be a little more balanced when writing about the Renaissance.

Xavier Basora of the very fine Buscaraons blog takes me to task for this post in which I wrote:
At the same time it was justifying its use of force with its monopoly on religious interpretation, the Catholic Church suppressed the very book which it was interpreting. As incomprehensible as it may seem, the Church regarded the Bible as a threat to its own authority, and executed anyone brazen enough to attempt to translate it into a vernacular language.
Xavier, who links to the this discussion, asks me a series of questions, at the behest of the expert (whom I think it fair to say probably knows more than I do about this stuff):
...if the Bible was indeed prohibited how could've Chaucher- who wrote in the 1300s- so casually took for granted that his readers knew the Bible if the Church suppressed it? The same question applies to Dante who wrote in the 1200s.

Another question that comes to mind are the various passion plays, the stained glass windows in the cathedrals as well as the stations of the cross? If the Bible was indeed prohibited, why then would the Church authorize reprsentation of the various biblical stories and characters through different media? Even a cursory look at the various European languages show a deep influence of the Bible- long before the printing press and the Reformation came.
I don't think it's a heretical idea to note that passion plays, stained glass windows, and biblical stories portrayed through various media (Chaucer and Dante included) aren't the same thing as the Bible -- they're substitutes for it. David Daniell, in his excellent work William Tyndale: A Biography, describes one of these substitutes at length, Nicholas Love's compendium, a kind of "Mirror of the Life of Christ." The work contains much that was not in the Gospels, and very little that was. For example, Daniell describes the section on the passion of Christ:
Half the book, as was traditional both with Gospel harmonies and medieval lives of Christ, is given to the Crucifixion. But most of those pages in Love is extensive maternal contemplation. Many pages are given to the deeds and long speeches of Mary at the Cross, which are not, of course, in the Gospels. Whenever Mary can be presented, she is there with some vividness. The outline of the Gospel story of Jesus is just visible there, but Jesus is secondary. The emphasis throughout the book is on Mary, to the extent that it is her suffering, and her words, that occupy page after page. Christ is seen, movingly, in relation to those who knew him on earth: movingly, but fictitiously. (The woman who touched Jesus' hem becomes Martha.) It is no doubt excellent Catholic piety, and suitable for devotions of a certain kind, but is absolutely not what is in the Gospels. Nicholas Love's book does give a simple outline of the Gospel story, in English: the very basic events only. Nothing at all of the teaching of Christ, and few of the incidents, are present. Moreover, not only is hardly anything of the Gospels there: most of what is printed in Love's Mirror is not in the Gospels at all.

It is tendentious to maintain that such books point the way to the probability that the Church would 'sooner or later' have given the laity the New Testament in the vernacular...
It's worth noting that Nicholas Love's compendium was released soon after many of the Lollards were burnt at the stake for translating the Bible into English, with the approval of the Catholic Church. The Lollard Bible, incidentally, is the Wycliffe translation referred to as the first English Bible in the list of Old English Bibles that Xavier provides:
The first complete translation into English occurred in the late fourteenth century; the effort was organized by John Wycliff circa 1380. The work was later condemned by the Bishop of Arundel, mostly for the unorthodox notes it contained. Previous translations were in no way affected by his edict, and the Wycliff version itself found common usage among clerics and laymen alike without its notations.
The next translation was performed by William Tyndale; his work was burned in London, and Tyndale was strangled and then burnt at the stake. I seem to recall a tale from my undergraduate days about Wycliff, along the lines that he was posthumously condemned as a heretic, his bones dug up and burnt at the stake (that'll show him!) but I might have him confused with another proto-protestant.

Sunday, December 15, 2002
Sorry I missed it the first time around, but Aziz of Unmedia asked whether what Islam needed was a Renaissance (Aziz says "another" Renaissance -- I'm not sure if I agree with him if he's referring to the flowering of Islamic culture c. 800 to 1200 C.E. -- that seemed less a rebirth than a birth, but perhaps I'm misreading him) as opposed to a Reformation.

One of his commenters wrote,
If you want the Muslim world to discover the virtues of secular humanism, then what you want is an Islamic RENAISSANCE. If you want the Muslim world to go through convulsions of violence and war as it struggles within itself to define the proper practice of the religion, you want an Islamic REFORMATION.
I've always had mixed feelings about the European Renaissance. On the one hand, the art is incredible, and the rediscovery of any number of classical authors wasn't a bad thing. On the other hand, there was the intellectual cult of Hermes Trismegistus, and the return of magic as a respectable intellectual pursuit. And the secular humanists weren't entirely useful either -- Erasmus' program for reform came down to writing good Latin, and Sir Thomas More arranged book burnings and may have supervised the torture of one Protestant heretic in his own home.

While I don't think reading Plato or Shakespeare is ever a bad thing, such pursuits in and of themselves offer no certain rewards.

I think what's needed is a specifically and culturally distinct Islamic reform; I think Thomas Paine's Common Sense, particularly the second section, is a good place to look for a model. I'll write more about this tomorrow, if I'm up to it...