I haven’t made too many posts this year. This is mostly because I have very peculiar research interests that I doubt too many followers of Exploring Classics care much about: late medieval and early modern religion and philosophy. I’ve read 33 books this year, but I haven’t written reviews for even half of them. And I don’t think I will. But in case you’re interested, here’s a list of some of my favorites this year in no particular order:
1) The Middle Ages by Johannes Fried (here is an extract)
If you want a good introduction to the Middle Ages, this is it. In a little over 600 pages, Fried covers a lot of ground without being superficial. The author is professor emeritus of medieval history at the University of Frankfurt; he is a leading historian in the field. Most recently, he published a massive introduction to Charlemagne, which I hope to get to soon. The Middle Ages traces major philosophical, religious, artistic, technological, and political movements through the ages. Particular emphasis is on the history of the Germanic lands. England and Scandinavia get scant treatment. The political sections were also admittedly hard to understand because Fried, unfortunately, does not supply us with any maps. Still, this is the best introduction to the Middle Ages I’ve ever encountered. Fried’s thesis is that what we now call the Middle Ages actually paved the way for the 18th century Enlightenment. Medievalists know that Fried is right, but the average reader still thinks of the Middle Ages as barbaric and dark. The Middle Ages is definitely the best book on this time period you will find in the bookstore. Most popular books on the Middle Ages are just plain awful.
2) Augustine of Hippo: A Biography by Peter Brown
Brown’s 1968 biography of the great bishop of Hippo spearheaded modern Augustinian studies. Peter Brown is a big name in Late Antiquity, and this biography is well-written and engrossing. It has been cited by every Augustine scholar since. Augustine is definitely the most influential and controversial Christian thinker in the West. He is responsible for the bitter debates Christians have had in the past 1600 years about original sin, predestination, grace, the human will, and church and state. But it is Augustine the man whom Peter Brown concerns himself with the most. By the end of the book you feel like you’ve known Augustine your whole life. I have never read a greater biography.
3) Confessions by Augustine of Hippo
Phenomenal work! I especially loved Augustine’s commentary on true vs. false mercy, memory, and the limitations of language to talk about a reality.
O God, most high, most deep, and yet nearer than all else, most hidden yet intimately present, you are not framed of greater and lesser limbs; you are everywhere, whole and entire in every place, but confined to none. In no sense is our bodily form to be attributed to you, yet you have made us in your own image, and lo! here we are, from head to foot set in our place!
My 16 year-old self hated it for its intellectualism and pessimism. But my 24 year-old self loved the brutal honesty and humanity of this autobiography.
4) Archbishop Anselm: Bec Missionary, Canterbury Primate, Patriarch of Another World by Sally N. Vaughn
Archbishop Anselm is one of the most recent books in the Archbishops of Canterbury series, and it is written by the living Anselm scholar, Sally Vaughn. While Anselm is mostly known as a scholastic, he was the Archbishop of Canterbury under the 2nd and 3rd Norman kings William Rufus and Henry I. As bishop, he was involved in the 12th century Investiture Controversy. Vaughn has spent decades studying Anselm’s archiepiscopal career. While Richard Southern argued that Anselm was reluctant to assume the office, Vaughn insists that Anselm always desired it. Archbishop Anselm is a masterpiece of historical criticism. Vaughn demonstrates convincingly that what Southern took on face value was actually a trope concealing Anselm’s true intentions. The weakest section of the book is the one on Anselm’s scholastic writings, written mostly while the bishop was in exile. Vaughn fails to consider Anselm’s writings in the context of older thinkers, such as Augustine of Hippo, but that is not Vaughn’s main concern in this book. Much has already been written about Anselm’s theological views. It’s his archiepiscopal career that we know less about, so Vaughn has done us a great service. Never before published letters from Anselm to monks, kings, and popes are also included in Latin and modern English in the appendix.
5) The Friars: The Impact of the Mendicant Orders on Medieval Society by C.H. Lawrence
The title is pretty self-explanatory. This is a brief introduction to the history of the friars from the 13th century to the eve of the Protestant Reformation. Lawrence not only introduces us to the Catholic mendicants, he also discusses the radical preachers in the same time period who were condemned as heretics. Most people don’t realize that Francis of Assisi was not the first preacher of radical poverty. There were literally hundreds in his lifetime. Many were heavily persecuted, such as the Waldensians, Albertines, Humiliati, and Albigensians. The new Franciscans were not embraced with open arms either. Pope John XXII condemned Franciscan poverty as heretical, claiming that Christ and his disciples owned property. William of Ockham, in nominalist fashion, condemned the pope as an anti-pope, was excommunicated, and lived under the protection of the not-so Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (he was excommunicated 4 times!) until his death. Ockham may have been rehabilitated before his death, but his life bore witness to the tension existing in Late Medieval Catholicism on the eve of the Reformation when a whole new wave of radical and magisterial preachers emerged. The friars contributed to the spirituality, intellectual advancements, horrors, and scandals of the late medieval world.