"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).

Monday, June 26, 2017

15th Century Crusades

As I have been arguing on here, as well as here, and in other places for years now, the propaganda of ISIS about the Crusades traffics in, inter alia, general Western ignorance, and blatant Western political abuse of, Crusading history. A recently published collection, edited by a sometime student of Jonathan Riley-Smith, looks at The Crusade in the Fifteenth Century: Converging and Competing Cultures, ed. Norman Housley (Routledge, 2016), 220pp.

Housley is the author of a number of other studies on the Crusades, including Fighting for the Cross: Crusading to the Holy Land (2008) and Contesting the Crusades, which is a good place to begin for those new to Crusading history. 

About this new collection we are told:
Increasingly, historians acknowledge the significance of crusading activity in the fifteenth century, and they have started to explore the different ways in which it shaped contemporary European society. Just as important, however, was the range of interactions which took place between the three faith communities which were most affected by crusade, namely the Catholic and Orthodox worlds, and the adherents of Islam. Discussion of these interactions forms the theme of this book. Two essays consider the impact of the fall of Constantinople in 1453 on the conquering Ottomans and the conquered Byzantines. The next group of essays reviews different aspects of the crusading response to the Turks, ranging from Emperor Sigismund to Papal legates. The third set of contributions considers diplomatic and cultural interactions between Islam and Christianity, including attempts made to forge alliances of Christian and Muslim powers against the Ottomans. Last, a set of essays looks at what was arguably the most complex region of all for inter-faith relations, the Balkans, exploring the influence of crusading ideas in the eastern Adriatic, Bosnia and Romania. Viewed overall, this collection of essays makes a powerful contribution to breaking down the old and discredited view of monolithic and mutually exclusive "fortresses of faith". Nobody would question the extent and intensity of religious violence in fifteenth-century Europe, but this volume demonstrates that it was played out within a setting of turbulent diversity. Religious and ethnic identities were volatile, allegiances negotiable, and diplomacy, ideological exchange and human contact were constantly in operation between the period's major religious groupings.
And we are given the Table of Contents:

List of figures and maps

List of abbreviations
Notes on contributors



1 Introduction: Norman Housley

Conquerors and conquered

2 Crusading in the fifteenth century and its relation to the development of Ottoman dynastic legitimacy, self-image, and the Ottoman consolidation of authority: Nikolay Antov

3 Byzantine refugees as crusade propagandists: the travels of Nicholas Agallon: Jonathan Harris

The crusading response: expressions, dynamics and constraints

4 Dances, dragons and a pagan queen: Sigismund of Luxemburg and the publicizing of the Ottoman Turkish threat: Mark Whelan

5 Alfonso V and the anti-Turkish crusade:Mark Aloisio

6 Papal legates and crusading activity in central Europe: the Hussites and the Ottoman Turks: Antonin Kalous

7 Switching the tracks: Baltic crusades against Russia in the fifteenth century: Anti Selart

Diplomatic and cultural interactions

8 Tīmūr and the ‘Frankish’ powers: Michele Bernardini

9 Venetian attempts at forging an alliance with Persia and the crusade in the fifteenth and early-sixteenth centuries: Giorgio Rota

10 Quattrocento Genoa and the legacies of crusading: Steven Epstein

Frontier zones: the Balkans and the Adriatic

11 The key to the gate of Christendom? The strategic importance of Bosnia in the struggle against the Ottomans: Emir Filippović

12 Between two worlds or a world of its own? The eastern Adriatic in the fifteenth century: Oliver Jens Schmitt

13 The Romanian concept of crusade in the fifteenth century: Sergiu Iosipescu

14 Conclusion: transformations of crusading in the long fifteenth century: Alan V. Murray


Housley, a busy man, has another even newer collection released just this spring: Reconfiguring the 15th-Century Crusade (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 344pp.

About this book we are told:
This collection of essays by eight leading scholars is a landmark event in the study of crusading in the late middle ages. It is the outcome of an international network funded by the Leverhulme Trust whose members examined the persistence of crusading activity in the fifteenth century from three viewpoints, goals, agencies and resonances. The crusading fronts considered include the conflict with the Ottoman Turks in the Mediterranean and western Balkans, the Teutonic Order’s activities in the Baltic region, and the Hussite crusades. The authors review criticism of crusading propaganda on behalf of the crusade, the influence on crusading of demands for Church reform, the impact of printing, expanding knowledge of the world beyond the Christian lands, and new sensibilities about the sufferings of non-combatants.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Lost Kingdom of Russian Nationalism

A new book from Serhii Plokhii always commands attention, and rightly so. Author of various and well-received studies on the history of Ukraine, of Cossack history, of the Yalta conference of 1945, and many other works, he has a new book forthcoming this fall which could not be more timely: Lost Kingdom: A History of Russian Nationalism from Ivan the Great to Vladimir Putin. That is the title given the book by its European publisher, while, most curiously, the North American version is to be titled Lost Kingdom: The Quest for Empire and the Making of the Russian Nation (Basic Books, October 2017), 416pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
In 2014, Russia annexed the Crimea and attempted to seize a portion of Ukraine. While the world watched in outrage, this blatant violation of national sovereignty was only the latest iteration of a centuries-long effort to expand Russian boundaries and create a pan-Russian nation.
In Lost Kingdom, award-winning historian Serhii Plokhy argues that we can only understand the confluence of Russian imperialism and nationalism today by delving into the nation's history. Spanning over 500 years, from the end of the Mongol rule to the present day, Plokhy shows how leaders from Ivan the Terrible to Joseph Stalin to Vladimir Putin exploited existing forms of identity, warfare, and territorial expansion to achieve imperial supremacy.
An authoritative and masterful account of Russian nationalism, Lost Kingdom chronicles the story behind Russia's belligerent empire-building quest.
I was gratified to learn just this week of the forthcoming advent of this book for the topic of Russian nationalism has been much on my mind. I was in Italy last week, in the wonderful Alpine town of San Felice del Benaco, half-way between Brescia and Verona, attending the congress of the Russian Greek Catholic Church, where I was keynote lecturer. Organized by the splendid Fr. Lawrence Cross of Australia, it was an important gathering whose resolutions you may read here.

Russian nationalism came up insofar as it plays a role in Rome-Moscow relations over the vexed question of Eastern Catholics ("uniates") in both Russia and Ukraine. But much more than that was discussed at the congress, and in the coming days I shall have more to say about it at Catholic World Report. 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

In Search of Catholic Propaganda

Having spent the better part of two years analyzing, lecturing on, and writing about ISIS propaganda, it has become clear to me that what is needed now is Catholic, and more generally Christian counter-propaganda about the Crusades, as I argued in a new piece in the Catholic Herald of London, which you may read here.

For those who want to do more reading on the Crusades, I direct your attention to dozens of discussions of them on here. You may want to begin here with Jonathan Riley-Smith's works. The other books are linked here.

The Church in Iraq

The recent and appalling news that certain Chaldean Christians from Iraq may be deported from the United States is an outrage of the first order. But it is not a surprise. The foreign policy of this country, as with most other historically identified "Christian" countries, has rarely if ever given two hoots about the plight of Eastern Christians. That was as true during, e.g., the Crimean War of the 19th century through any of the conflicts of the 20th, and now 21st, centuries.

The Christian communities in Iraq have, for a very long time now, been living under less than ideal circumstances, but since the 2003 war, which the Catholic Church rightly opposed, their plight has been almost unbelievable. But prior to the recent violence, Christianity in Iraq has a long and noble history, some of which is told in a book set for release this coming September: The Church in Iraq by Fernando Cardinal Filoni, trans. Edward Condon (Catholic University of America Press, 2017), 216pp.

About this book we are told:
The persecution of the church in Iraq is one of the great tragedies of the twenty-first century. In this short, yet sweeping account, Cardinal Filoni, the former Papal Nuncio to Iraq, shows us the people and the faith in the land of Abraham and Babylon, a region that has been home to Persians, Parthians, Byzantines, Mongols, Ottomans, and more. This is the compelling and rich history of the Christian communities in a land that was once the frontier between Rome and Persia, for centuries the crossroads of East and West for armies of invaders and merchants, and the cradle of all human civilization. Its unique cultural legacy has, in the past few years, been all but obliterated.
The Church in Iraq is both a diligent record and loving testimonial to a community that is struggling desperately to exist. Filoni guides the reader through almost two thousand years of history, telling the story of a people who trace their faith back to the Apostle Thomas. The diversity of peoples and churches is brought deftly into focus through the lens of their interactions with the papacy, but The Church in Iraq does not shy away from discussing the local political, ethnic, and theological tensions that have resulted in centuries of communion and schism. Never losing his focus on the people to whom this book is so clearly dedicated, Cardinal Filoni has produced a personal and engaging history of the relationship between Rome and the Eastern Churches. This book has much to teach its reader about the church in the near East. Perhaps its most brutal lesson is the ease with which such a depth of history and culture can be wiped away in a few short decades.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Early Pavel Florensky

Eerdmans yesterday put into my hands a book so new Amazon lists its official release only later this month: Pavel Florensky, Early Religious Writings 1903-1909, trans. Boris Jakim, 240pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:

Profound writings by one of the twentieth century's greatest polymaths

"Perhaps the most remarkable person devoured by the Gulag" is how Alexandr Solzhenitsyn described Pavel Florensky, a Russian Orthodox mathematician, scientist, linguist, art historian, philosopher, theologian, and priest who was martyred during the Bolshevik purges of the 1930s.
This volume contains eight important religious works written by Florensky in the first decade of the twentieth century, now translated into English—most of them for the first time. Splendidly interweaving religious, scientific, and literary themes, these essays showcase the diversity of Florensky's broad learning and interests. Including reflections on the sacraments and explorations of Russian monastic culture, the volume concludes with "The Salt of the Earth," arguably Florensky's most spiritually moving work.
For those new to the genius that was Florensky, you could do well to start with Pavel Florensky: A Quiet Genius: The Tragic and Extraordinary Life of Russia's Unknown da Vinci by Avril Pyman (Bloomsbury, 2010).

One of the earliest studies in English by one of the most perceptive scholars of the Slavophile and Silver Age scene in Russia remains Robert Slesinski's Pavel Florensky: A Metaphysics of Love, published in 1984 by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, and still widely available.

Jakim has translated several other works of Florensky, some of which you may find here.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

All the Saints of God

Apologies for the gap in posting: I was in San Felice del Benaco last week to give a paper at a Russian Catholic congress, and working simultaneously to finish another paper at another conference next month. I will, in several places, have much more to say about this congress and the plight of Russian Byzantine Catholics today, whose treatment by Rome is, and has for decades been, an absolute scandal and utter disgrace. They, more than any other Eastern Catholic Church, illustrate the truth of Flannery O'Connor's observation that one is called upon to suffer ever so much more from the Church than for her.

But on this All Saints day, I pause to record a few thoughts by way of introducing a new book that arrived on my desk some weeks back:

I confess to a rather pronounced dislike of most of what passes for popular hagiography, that is, story-telling about those called saints. For too much of that literature has rendered too many men and women into little more than what Cardinal Newman called “clothes racks for virtues.” They seem, improbably, to be dripping with all the right attitudes and behaviors; they have primly checked all the proper boxes; they seem not even so much as to have sworn at stubbing their toe, never mind to have violated a single moral precept. They do not, as it were, have a single hair out of place on their perfectly sculpted, halo-bedecked heads. They are bloodless portraits of humourless and tedious bores. If you were seated beside one such as this at a dinner party or on a bus, you would curse your bad luck and move as fast as possible.

But the vision in the letter to the Hebrews used in the Byzantine lectionary on today's feast is much livelier and more exciting: “so great a cloud of witnesses.” Here I think immediately and vividly of a great crowd of the most diverse people, all pressing around, huddling in ever closer and cheering ever more boisterously at the finish line of a race on a bright, sunny, warm day as each of us—some huffing and puffing, most walking awkwardly and lamely in some pain, and only a very few racing smartly across the finish line—makes it to the end. That cloud of witnesses is filled with liveliness, with hope, with great good cheer, and above all with a love that overflows: they love us enough to want us to finish the race set before us so that we can join them in their endless feasting. They love us and so do not laugh at our funny walk, or strange running style, or badly misshapen bodies. They love us and so only want us to win the crowns of eternal life spoken of in today’s gospel.

How do we run this race? Some may be called to heroic achievement, to spiritual Olympics, as it were. But most of us are not--and we have, inter alia, Michael Plekon most recently to thank for his tireless reminders of ordinary and hidden holiness, and for showing us saints as they really are.

Beyond Plekon, the greatest figure of 19th-century English Christianity, John Henry Cardinal Newman, in a short meditation from 1856, argues that “it is the saying of holy men that, if we wish to be perfect, we have nothing more to do than to perform the ordinary duties of the day well.” That, Newman says, is  “a short road to perfection—short” but not always easy. For sometimes daily work seems like drudgery and we crave excitement. But Newman, with the whole weight of the desert fathers and mothers behind him, reminds us to resist those desires for adventure, saying instead:
If you ask me what you are to do in order to be perfect, I say, first—Do not lie in bed beyond the due time of rising; give your first thoughts to God; make a good visit to the Blessed Sacrament; say the Angelus devoutly; eat and drink to God’s glory; say the Rosary well; be recollected; keep out bad thoughts; make your evening meditation well; examine yourself daily; go to bed in good time, and you are already perfect.
All of which is just a homiletical introduction to the book I mentioned by Leonard J. DeLorenzo: Work of Love: A Theological Reconstruction of the Communion of Saints (University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), 362pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
The saints are good company. They are the heroes of the faith who blazed new and creative paths to holiness; they are the witnesses whose testimonies echo throughout the ages in the memory of the Church. Most Christians, and particularly Catholics, are likely to have their own favorite saints, those who inspire and “speak” to believers as they pray and struggle through the challenges of their own lives. Leonard DeLorenzo’s book addresses the idea of the communion of saints, rather than individual saints, with the conviction that what makes the saints holy and what forms them into a communion is one and the same. Work of Love investigates the issue of communication within the communio sanctorum and the fullness of Christian hope in the face of the meaning—or meaninglessness—of death. In an effort to revitalize a theological topic that for much of Catholic history has been an indelible part of the Catholic imaginary, DeLorenzo invokes the ideas of not only many theological figures (Rahner, Ratzinger, Balathasar, and de Lubac, among others) but also historians, philosophers (notably Heidegger and Nietzsche), and literary figures (Rilke and Dante) to create a rich tableau. By working across several disciplines, DeLorenzo argues for a vigorous renewal in the Christian imagination of the theological concept of the communion of saints. He concludes that the embodied witness of the saints themselves, as well as the liturgical and devotional movements of the Church at prayer, testifies to the central importance of the communion of saints as the eschatological hope and fulfillment of the promises of Christ.
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