"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).

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Ukrainian Nationalism and Ukrainian History

One of the longest "foreign" trips I undertook 20 years ago was to Ukraine. That capped a decade of extensive international travel to five of the world's continents, which included numerous trips just to Europe itself. In the summer of 2001 I left Canada in late June and did not return until late August, spending all but 24 hours in Ukraine (with an overnight stop in Warsaw en route). My two months in Ukraine were wonderful and I have always wanted to go back. In the meantime, I I keep a close eye on Ukrainian realities and national struggles. 

So I took special notice, when reading a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, of the ads from publishers of new books about Ukraine, including these two. First up is Ukrainian Nationalism in the Age of Extremes: An Intellectual Biography of Dmytro Dontsov by Trevor Erlacher (Harvard University Press, 2021), 654pp. About this biography the publisher tells us this: 

Ukrainian nationalism made worldwide news after the Euromaidan revolution and the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian war in 2014. Invoked by regional actors and international commentators, the “integral” Ukrainian nationalism of the 1930s has moved to the center of debates about Eastern Europe, but the history of this divisive ideology remains poorly understood.

This timely book by Trevor Erlacher is the first English-language biography of the doctrine’s founder, Dmytro Dontsov (1883–1973), the “spiritual father” of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. Organizing his research of the period around Dontsov’s life, Erlacher has written a global intellectual history of Ukrainian integral nationalism from late imperial Russia to postwar North America, with relevance for every student of the history of modern Europe and the diaspora.

Thanks to the circumstances of Dontsov’s itinerant, ninety-year life, this microhistorical approach allows for a geographically, chronologically, and thematically broad yet personal view on the topic. Dontsov shaped and embodied Ukrainian politics and culture as a journalist, diplomat, literary critic, publicist, and ideologue, progressing from heterodox Marxism, to avant-garde fascism, to theocratic traditionalism.

Drawing upon archival research in Ukraine, Poland, and Canada, this book contextualizes Dontsov’s works, activities, and identity formation diachronically, reconstructing the cultural, political, urban, and intellectual milieus within which he developed and disseminated his worldview.

The next book is by an excellent historian who needs no introduction, whose previous books have been fascinating and important: Serhii Plokhy, The Frontline: Essays on Ukraine’s Past and Present (Harvard University Press, 2021), 416pp. Plokhy is one of the most important and prolific historians of East-Slavic realities. About his newest work, HUP tells us this: 

The Frontline presents a selection of essays drawn together for the first time to form a companion volume to Serhii Plokhy’s The Gates of Europe and Chernobyl. Here he expands upon his analysis in earlier works of key events in Ukrainian history, including Ukraine’s complex relations with Russia and the West, the burden of tragedies such as the Holodomor and World War II, the impact of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and Ukraine’s contribution to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Juxtaposing Ukraine’s history to the contemporary politics of memory, this volume provides a multidimensional image of a country that continues to make headlines around the world. Eloquent in style and comprehensive in approach, the essays collected here reveal the roots of the ongoing political, cultural, and military conflict in Ukraine, the largest country in Europe.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

The Challenges of Historiography

It was thanks to the combined influence of the historians Robert Taft, late of the Society of Jesus, and David Reynolds of the University of Cambridge (especially in his absolutely spellbinding book In Command of History) that I first came, almost two decades ago now, to take such interest in historiography. This led one on to crucial new ways of critically understanding, e.g., how the story of the quasi-split of 1054 is told, or the Union of Brest, or the pseudo-sobor of Lviv of 1946. The usual renderings of all these--as well as other events--reveal deeply problematic tendencies on the part of Eastern Christians to amplify what Vamik Volkan has so memorably called "chosen trauma," which is so often paired with "chosen glory," both of them distorting the actual nature of the events in question and their long withdrawing roar. 

More recently that has lent itself into writing and lecturing about the shabby way in which Crusades history is recounted, with artery-clogging masses of tendentiousness more than enough to introduce a myocardial infarction in any serious historian--or, indeed, fair-minded observer. 

Along come several recent scholars to keep our historical hearts and minds in fighting form. Up first: The Saint and the Count: A Case Study for Reading Like a Historian by Leah Shopkow (University of Toronto Press, 2021), 216pp. About this book the publisher tells us this: 

 While historians know that history is about interpreting primary sources, students tend to think of history as a set of facts.

In The Saint and the Count, Leah Shopkow opens up the interpretive world of the historian using the biography of St. Vitalis of Savigny (d. 1122) as a case study. This biography was written around 1174 by Stephen of Fougères and provides a rich stage to demonstrate the kinds of questions historians ask about primary sources and the interpretive and conceptual frameworks they use. What is the nature of medieval sources and what are the interpretive problems they present? How does the positionality of Stephen of Fougères shape his biography of St. Vitalis? How did medieval people respond to stories of miracles? And finally, how does this biography illuminate the problem of violence in medieval society? A translation of the biography is included, so that readers can explore the text on their own.

The second book, from the same publisher, is The Devil's Historian: How Modern Extremists Abuse the Medieval Past by Amy Kaufman  and Paul Sturtevant (2020), 208pp. About this book the publisher tells us this: 

Amy S. Kaufman and Paul B. Sturtevant examine the many ways in which the medieval past has been manipulated to promote discrimination, oppression, and murder. Tracing the fetish for “medieval times” behind toxic ideologies like nationalism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, misogyny, and white supremacy, Kaufman and Sturtevant show us how the Middle Ages have been twisted for political purposes in every century that followed. The Devil’s Historians casts aside the myth of an oppressive, patriarchal medieval monoculture and reveals a medieval world not often shown in popular culture: one that is diverse, thriving, courageous, compelling, and complex.

Monday, December 20, 2021

A Prophet Has Arisen

I have previously been delighted to interview on here the author of this new book, Stephen J. Shoemaker, A Prophet Has Appeared: The Rise of Islam through Christian and Jewish Eyes, A Sourcebook (University of California Press, 2021), 322pp. 

About Shoemaker's latest, the publisher tells us this:

Early Islam has emerged as a lively site of historical investigation, and scholars have challenged the traditional accounts of Islamic origins by drawing attention to the wealth of non-Islamic sources that describe the rise of Islam. A Prophet Has Appeared brings this approach to the classroom. This collection provides students and scholars with carefully selected, introduced, and annotated materials from non-Islamic sources dating to the early years of Islam. These can be read alone or alongside the Qur'an and later Islamic materials. Applying historical-critical analysis, the volume moves these invaluable sources to more equal footing with later Islamic narratives about Muhammad and the formation of his new religious movement.

Included are new English translations of sources by twenty authors, originally written in not only Greek and Latin but also Syriac, Georgian, Armenian, Hebrew, and Arabic and spanning a geographic range from England to Egypt and Iran. Ideal for the classroom and personal library, this sourcebook provides readers with the tools to meaningfully approach a new, burgeoning area of Islamic studies.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Continuing Controversy over the Crusades

There is no end to the debates around, controversies over, and myriad misunderstandings enveloping "the Crusades." This has been obvious for decades. A book set for release soon revisits some of these and extends the discussion.

Forthcoming in February of next year is a more affordable paperback edition of a hardcover that was originally published in July 2020: Controversial Histories – Current Views on the Crusades: Engaging the Crusades, Volume Three, eds. Felix Hinz and Johannes Meyer-Hamme (Routledge, Feb. 2022), 156pp. The hardcover was originally published in July 2020.

About this book the publisher tells us this:

Engaging the Crusades

is a series of volumes which offer windows into a newly-emerging field of historical study: the memory and legacy of the Crusades. Together these volumes examine the reasons behind the enduring resonance of the Crusades and present the memory of crusading in the modern period as a productive, exciting and much needed area of investigation.

Controversial Histories assembles current international views on the Crusades from across Europe, Russia, Turkey, the USA and the Near and Middle East. Historians from the related countries present short narratives that deal with two questions: What were the Crusades? and What do they mean to "us" today? Narratives are from one of possible several "typical" points of view of the related country and present an international comparison of the dominant image of each respective historical culture and cultures of remembrance. Bringing together ‘victim perspectives’ and ‘perpetrator perspectives’, ‘key players’ and ‘minor players’, they reveal both shared and conflicting memories of different groups. The narratives are framed by an introduction about the historical and political significance of the Crusades, and the question of history education in a globalized world with contradicting narratives is discussed, along with guidelines on how to use the book for teaching at university level.

Offering extensive material and presenting a profile of international, academic opinions on the Crusades, Controversial Histories is the ideal resource for students and educators of Crusades history in a global context as well as military history and the history of memory.

Monday, December 13, 2021

Byzance après Byzance Indeed!

Forthcoming in January next year from (appropriately enough) the premier centre in North America for Byzantine studies is The Invention of Byzantium in Early Modern Europe (Dumbarton Oaks Press, 11 January 2022), 400pp. edited by Nathanael Aschenbrenner and Jake Ransohoff. About this book the publisher tells us this: 

A gulf of centuries separates the Byzantine Empire from the academic field of Byzantine studies. This book offers a new approach to the history of Byzantine scholarship, focusing on the attraction that Byzantium held for Early Modern Europeans and challenging the stereotype that they dismissed the Byzantine Empire as an object of contempt.

The authors in this book focus on how and why the Byzantine past was used in Early Modern Europe: to diagnose cultural decline, to excavate the beliefs and practices of early Christians, to defend absolutism or denounce tyranny, and to write strategic ethnography against the Ottomans. By tracing Byzantium’s profound impact on everything from politics to painting, this book shows that the empire and its legacy remained relevant to generations of Western writers, artists, statesmen, and intellectuals as they grappled with the most pressing issues of their day.

Refuting reductive narratives of absence or progress, this book shows how “Byzantium” underwent multiple overlapping and often discordant reinventions before the institutionalization of “Byzantine studies” as an academic discipline. As this book suggests, it was precisely Byzantium’s ambiguity―as both Greek and Roman, ancient and medieval, familiar and foreign―that made it such a vibrant and vital part of the Early Modern European imagination.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Dostoyevsky, Kristeva, and Williams Meet in the Bar of a Bulgarian Dacha

Look at this highly interesting trifecta of writers: Dostoyevsky, Julia Kristeva, and Rowan Williams. All three appear in a new book just published: Dostoyevsky, or The Flood of Language by Julia Kristeva. Translated by Jody Gladding. Foreword by Rowan Williams (Columbia University Press, 2021), 112pp. 

Kristeva is a fascinating scholar and psychoanalyst I have paid too little attention to on here and elsewhere. My sole venture so far was here, writing about her book on psychoanalysis and faith. I also started her Nations without Nationalism but don't think I ever finished it. She comes out of a Bulgarian Orthodox background and has written many books, most of which remain on my endlessly expanding To Be Read list--including New Maladies of the Soul. 

Williams, of course, is the former archbishop of Canterbury, and easily the most scholarly and accomplished man to hold that office in centuries. His scholarship on the Christian East, as seen in such books as his most recent, Looking East in Winter: Contemporary Thought and the Eastern Christian Traditionis highly respected. And he has--of course he has--written his own book on Dostoevsky, along with scores of others of interest to Eastern (and Western!) Christians. 

Back to the new translation of Kristeva for which Williams has provided the foreword. About this new book, we are told this by the publisher:

Growing up in Bulgaria, Julia Kristeva was warned by her father not to read Dostoyevsky. “Of course, and as usual,” she recalls, “I disobeyed paternal orders and plunged into Dosto. Dazzled, overwhelmed, engulfed.” Kristeva would go on to become one of the most important figures in European intellectual life—and she would return over and over again to Dostoyevsky, still haunted and enraptured by the force of his writing.

In this book, Kristeva embarks on a wide-ranging and stimulating inquiry into Dostoyevsky’s work and the profound ways it has influenced her own thinking. Reading across his major novels and shorter works, Kristeva offers incandescent insights into the potent themes that draw her back to the Russian master: God, otherness, violence, eroticism, the mother, the father, language itself. Both personal and erudite, the book intermingles Kristeva’s analysis with her recollections of Dostoyevsky’s significance in different intellectual moments—the rediscovery of Bakhtin in the Thaw-era Eastern Bloc, the debates over poststructuralism in 1960s France, and today’s arguments about whether it can be said that “everything is permitted.” Brilliant and vivid, this is an essential book for admirers of both Kristeva and Dostoyevsky. It also features an illuminating foreword by Rowan Williams that reflects on the significance of Kristeva’s reading of Dostoyevsky for his own understanding of religious writing.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Ukrainians and the Holocaust

If you do not know the work of John Paul Himka, you should, not least for such books as Last Judgment Iconography in the Carpathians. Himka has been a well respected historian of Galician realities for decades now, as seen in such important books as Religion and Nationality in Western Ukraine and then The Greek Catholic Church and Ukrainian Society in Austrian Galicia.

He has a new book published this fall on a topic whose controversies and debates have raged for some time now, and are regular features in anti-Ukrainian propaganda coming out of Russia: Ukrainian Nationalists and the Holocaust: OUN and UPA’s Participation in the Destruction of Ukrainian Jewry, 1941–1944 (Ibidem/Columbia University Press, 2021). About this book the publisher tells us this:

One quarter of all Holocaust victims lived on the territory that now forms Ukraine, yet the Holocaust there has not received due attention. This book delineates the participation of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and its armed force, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (Ukrainska povstanska armiia—UPA), in the destruction of the Jewish population of Ukraine under German occupation in 1941–44. The extent of OUN’s and UPA’s culpability in the Holocaust has been a controversial issue in Ukraine and within the Ukrainian diaspora as well as in Jewish communities and Israel. Occasionally, the controversy has broken into the press of North America, the EU, and Israel.

Triangulating sources from Jewish survivors, Soviet investigations, German documentation, documents produced by OUN itself, and memoirs of OUN activists, it has been possible to establish that: OUN militias were key actors in the anti-Jewish violence of summer 1941; OUN recruited for and infiltrated police formations that provided indispensable manpower for the Germans' mobile killing units; and in 1943, thousands of these policemen deserted from German service to join the OUN-led nationalist insurgency, during which UPA killed Jews who had managed to survive the major liquidations of 1942.

Monday, December 6, 2021

Armenian Artefacts on the Silk Road

This exciting book brings together my two favourite Oriental Orthodox churches, the Ethiopian and Armenian in a fascinating survey of cross-cultural economic exchanges down a celebrated route: the Silk Road, especially in its western stretches: Christiane Esche-Ramshorn, East-West Artistic Transfer through Rome, Armenia and the Silk Road: Sharing St. Peter's (Routledge, 2021), 224pp. The publisher provides the following blurb, giving us additional details: 

This book examines the arts and artistic exchanges at the ‘Christian Oriental’ fringes of Europe, especially Armenia.

It starts with the architecture, history and inhabitants of the lesser known pilgrim compounds at the Vatican in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, of Hungary, Germany, but namely those of the most ancient of Churches, the Churches of the Christian Orient Ethiopia and Armenia. Without taking an Eurocentric view, this book explores the role of missionaries, merchants, artists (for example Momik, Giotto, Minas, Domenico Veneziano, Duerer), and artefacts (such as fabrics, inscriptions and symbols) travelling into both directions along the western stretch of the Silk Road between Ayas (Cilicia), ancient Armenia and North-western Iran. This area was truly global before globalization, was a site of intense cultural exchanges and East-West cultural transmissions. This book opens a new research window into the culturally mixed landscapes in the Christian Orient, the Middle East and North-eastern Africa by taking into consideration their many indigenous and foreign artistic components and embeds Armenian arts into today’s wider art historical discourse.

This book will be of interest to scholars in art history, architectural history, missions, trade, Middle Eastern arts and the arts of the Southern Caucasus.

Friday, December 3, 2021

Ethiopian Christian History, Theology, and Practice

Early last month I drew attention to three recent books on the glories of Ethiopian culture and theology. Now we have another book to look forward to reading: Ethiopian Christianity: History, Theology, Practice by Philip F. Esler (Baylor University Press, Nov. 2021), 326pp.

About this book the publisher tells us this:

In Ethiopian Christianity Philip Esler presents a rich and comprehensive history of Christianity’s flourishing. But Esler is ever careful to situate this growth in the context of Ethiopia’s politics and culture. In so doing, he highlights the remarkable uniqueness of Christianity in Ethiopia.

Ethiopian Christianity begins with ancient accounts of Christianity’s introduction to Ethiopia by St. Frumentius and King Ezana in the early 300s CE. Esler traces how the church and the monarchy closely coexisted, a reality that persisted until the death of Haile Selassie in 1974. This relationship allowed the emperor to consider himself the protector of Orthodox Christianity. The emperor's position, combined with Ethiopia’s geographical isolation, fostered a distinct form of Christianity—one that features the inextricable intertwining of the ordinary with the sacred and rejects the two-nature Christology established at the Council of Chalcedon.

In addition to his historical narrative, Esler also explores the cultural traditions of Ethiopian Orthodoxy by detailing its intellectual and literary practices, theology, and creativity in art, architecture, and music. He provides profiles of the flourishing Protestant denominations and Roman Catholicism. He also considers current challenges that Ethiopian Christianity faces—especially Orthodoxy’s relations with other religions within the country, in particular Islam and the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. Esler concludes with thoughtful reflections on the long-standing presence of Christianity in Ethiopia and hopeful considerations for its future in the country’s rapidly changing politics, ultimately revealing a singular form of faith found nowhere else.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

On Eschatology

Whose thoughts, as the night draws in earlier and earlier in the northern hemisphere, and the cold deepens, and the trees enter their season of dormition, do not turn to questions of ending and dying? Such thoughts and questions are as old as time, but form the focus for a new, large, and very diverse collection of scholars: Eschatology in Antiquity: Forms and Functions, eds. Hilary Marlow, Karla Pollmann, and Helen Van Noorden  (Routledge, 2021), 654pp. About this book the publisher tells us this:

This collection of essays explores the rhetoric and practices surrounding views on life after death and the end of the world, including the fate of the individual, apocalyptic speculation and hope for cosmological renewal, in a wide range of societies from Ancient Mesopotamia to the Byzantine era.

The 42 essays by leading scholars in each field explore the rich spectrum of ways in which eschatological understanding can be expressed, and for which purposes it can be used. Readers will gain new insight into the historical contexts, details, functions and impact of eschatological ideas and imagery in ancient texts and material culture from the twenty-fifth century BCE to the ninth century CE. Traditionally, the study of “eschatology” (and related concepts) has been pursued mainly by scholars of Jewish and Christian scripture. By broadening the disciplinary scope but remaining within the clearly defined geographical milieu of the Mediterranean, this volume enables its readers to note comparisons and contrasts, as well as exchanges of thought and transmission of eschatological ideas across Antiquity. Cross-referencing, high quality illustrations and extensive indexing contribute to a rich resource on a topic of contemporary interest and relevance.

Eschatology in Antiquity is aimed at readers from a wide range of academic disciplines, as well as non-specialists including seminary students and religious leaders. The primary audience will comprise researchers in relevant fields including Biblical Studies, Classics and Ancient History, Ancient Philosophy, Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Art History, Late Antiquity, Byzantine Studies and Cultural Studies. Care has been taken to ensure that the essays are accessible to undergraduates and those without specialist knowledge of particular subject areas.

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