"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, June 5, 2015

Medieval Heresies

I inhabit two worlds, both of which have more in common than either would ever admit: the modern academy, and the modern Church. In the former, it is customary on the part of some modern scholars to disdain the whole concept of "heresy" (always in scare-quotes) as nothing more than a nakedly political power-grab in which the "victors" impose certain views ("orthodoxy") on the vanquished. In the latter, one encounters, as I sometimes do, certain self-selecting "traditionalist" Christians--both Catholic and  Orthodox--who profligately toss around the word "heretic" and its cognates for every idea, person, or practice they do not understand or do not find compatible with their own straitened and highly modern concept of orthodoxy. The former assume that heresy does not really exist; the latter raise continual doubts as to whether orthodoxy really exists any more except in small, and ever shrinking, groups--whether "old Mass" groups, "old calendarist" groups, or similar bodies. Neither group, in other words, is disciplined enough when it comes to dealing with heresy and both groups paint with too wide a brush.

Still, for all that, I'd rather have people too concerned with heresy than indifferent to the whole question of truth, which seems to be our lot today if my students are a representative sample. Not a few of them regularly express not just amazement but even a certain degree of disdain for the debates of the ecumenical councils--especially the first four, and the seventh. High-level debates over doctrinal orthodoxy make about as much sense to them as fisticuffs in the grocery store over which brand of margarine is superior: who cares. None of this stuff matters, right? Just go along to get along.

How different an approach that modern indifference is to most of Christian history--but also, as a new book makes clear, to Jewish and Islamic history as well: Christine Caldwell Ames, Medieval Heresies: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (Cambridge UP, 2015), 368pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us:
Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the Middle Ages were divided in many ways. But one thing they shared in common was the fear that God was offended by wrong belief. Medieval Heresies: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is the first comparative survey of heresy and its response throughout the medieval world. Spanning England to Persia, it examines heresy, error, and religious dissent - and efforts to end them through correction, persuasion, or punishment - among Latin Christians, Greek Christians, Jews, and Muslims. With a lively narrative that begins in the late fourth century and ends in the early sixteenth century, Medieval Heresies is an unprecedented history of how the three great monotheistic religions of the Middle Ages resembled, differed from, and even interrelated with each other in defining heresy and orthodoxy.
The publisher also gives us a the table of contents here: PDF; and a list of the books virtues thus: 
  • The only comparative survey of medieval heresy to consider Islam, Judaism, and Greek Christianity, in addition to Latin-European Christianity
  • Features images and maps from all of the traditions and periods covered in the book, as well as suggestions for further reading, timelines and a full bibliography
  • Outlines and incorporates the major historiographical trends and contested issues
  • Vivid examples and quotations from primary sources break up the text and enliven the narrative

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