Saint Patrick’s Day

Today is St. Patrick‘s day and I thought it might be appropriate to write about St. Patrick. So, who is St. Patrick and why does he get a day? Not very much is known for certain about his life. It is possible that his story has been confused with one Palladius, a missionary who became the first bishop of Ireland. Still, Patrick wrote a short autobiography called “The Declaration” or “The Confession” as part of a letter which seems to be genuine.

Get out snakes!

Patrick, or Patricius was a Roman who lived in Britain. He may have been born around 387 and lived until 460 or possibly 493, so he lived during the twilight of the Roman Empire in the West. At the age of 16 he was captured by raiders and enslaved. He worked as a shepherd in Ireland for about six years. He managed to escape and return to his home, but then he became a priest and returned to the land where he was a slave and worked to convert the pagans to Christianity. He seems to have been very successful during his lifetime, though there were many other missionaries in Ireland. He helped to organize the Church in Ireland and is supposed to have traveled to Rome to seek the Pope’s assistance in this endeavor.

According to legend, Patrick died on March 17, so that date has become his feast day. He has never been officially canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. He became known as a saint long before the modern procedure for canonization was developed. He is, obviously, the patron saint of Ireland, and also Nigeria, Montserrat, engineers, paralegals, and the dioceses of New York, Boston, and Melbourne.

There are many legends about St. Patrick. The most widely known is that he chased all the snakes out of Ireland, thus ruining the local ecology. Another is that he used the example of the three-leaved shamrock to illustrate the trinity.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all the Irish, and Irish at heart, out there!

Sorry about the green text. I couldn’t resist.


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Europe in the High Middle Ages

Europe in the High Middle Ages by William Chester Jordan is the third book in the series The Penguin History of Europe. The High Middle Ages is the name given to the period of medieval history from 1000 to 1350. During these years, European civilization reached heights not seen in the West since the fall of the Roman Empire. The political situation in Europe stabilized somewhat, trade increased, cities grew, universities were established and learning flourished. The nations of Europe ceased to be helpless victims of foreign invasion and, through the Crusades even began to project power outside the continent.



Although the nations of Europe began to take their modern shape during the high middle ages, political power was extremely decentralized, especially in France, more than in the period immediately before and afterwards. The Papacy became more prominent on the international stage and powerful Popes could even challenge kings and emperors for influence.  It all ended in the middle fourteenth century with a change in climate that caused a decade of famine. Then the horrors of the Black Death struck Europe in 1349. No institution in Europe survived unscathed, and the optimism and vitality of the High Middle Ages was gone. When Europe began to recover from these disasters, it was no longer the Middle Ages, but the Renaissance, and the West was moving in a new direction.


William Chester Jordan brings this fascinating period of history to life in his book. Like the other books in The Penguin History of Europe, The High Middle Ages focuses less on a detailed chronology of events and more on a general overview of cultural and historic developments, especially including the political development of the emerging nation states of Europe and their relationship with the Papacy. There is also a lot of information on the intellectual trends of the High Middle Ages as well as a good account of how it all seemed to fall apart in the fourteenth century. Unfortunately, the author breaks of the story in 1350, just as the Black Death is ravaging Europe, leading to a kind of cliffhanger effect. He also doesn’t give much space for the influences of Islamic culture on Europe’s development. Still, I can recommend Europe in the High Middle Ages for anyone who wants to learn more about that fascinating period of history.



The Inheritance of Rome

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The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham is the second book in the series the Penguin History of Europe, following The Birth of Classical Europe. Like the earlier book, The Inheritance of Rome is more concerned with the uses the people of the era made of their understanding of the past than with giving a straightforward chronology of the era. In other words, this book deals with the inheritance the Roman Empire bequeathed to the peoples living in the centuries after its collapse in the West. These peoples, whether of the post Roman kingdoms of Western Europe, the Roman remnant of the Byzantine Empire in the East, or the Islamic invaders made differing uses of the institutions and cultural norms left behind by the Romans, each society adapting Roman ways to their particular needs.

The Inheritance of Rome covers the centuries between 400 and 1000. While these endpoints may seem somewhat arbitrary, in neither case do they indicate any sort of sharp division, they nevertheless are appropriate as the endpoints for the transformation of Europe from a continent dominated by a centralized empire to the decentralized, feudal Europe of the Central Middle Ages.  At the beginning of this period, the Roman Empire was still the same empire that had existed for centuries. No one could have guessed that the western half of the empire would soon be overrun by invaders within 80 years would be gone. For centuries afterwards, no one quite believed that the Roman Empire had actually passed away and much of the history of the Early Middle Ages is the history of trying to restore the Empire, culminating in the great Carolingian project.

The Carolingians very consciously made use of the rhetoric of restoration in their policies. They sought to create a universal Christian Empire and were, at least in theory, concerned with the souls of their subjects as much as their lives. The project failed in the end when the Carolingian dynasty died out. The Ottonians tried to continue this legacy, but Europe, under attack from Vikings, Arabs, and others was less inclined to see itself as a whole towards the end of this period. In fact, starting in the middle tenth century, we can begin to speak of the modern nations of Europe, France, Germany, etc. Europe was beginning to grow beyond the inheritance of Rome.

The period covered in this book is often referred to as the Dark Ages. Wickham deals with this question through his book. On the one hand, the era was not nearly as dark as is sometimes supposed. There were some strong continuities between the society and institutions of the Roman Empire and the post-Roman polities that succeeded it. The Germans invaders did not simply sweep away Roman institutions and customs, but were rather, eager to adopt Romans ways. On the other hand, Wickham describes a clear simplification and localization of the economies of the entire region, particularly in the centuries of the worst crises, about 500-700. There was a step backwards for much of the region for which the reasons are not entirely known.

The Inheritance of Rome is an excellent way to learn about an interesting and important period of our past.

The Genesis of Science

The popular idea of the Middle Ages in Europe is that it was a thousand year period of ignorance and barbarism between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, a time of nearly complete intellectual stagnation. Everyone is supposed to have been illiterate with the exception of a few clergymen and the Catholic Church kept a tight rein on all learning,  burning any scholar who dared to have an independent thought or challenge the authority of Scripture.

Historians have recognized for some time that this stereotype is entirely false. The Middle Ages, or “Dark Ages” were, in fact, a time of extraordinary fertility and progress. Many of the concepts and institutions that came to distinguish Western Civilization were developed in this era, especially the beginnings of the intellectual enterprise we call science.

In his book “The Genesis of Science”, James Hannam traces the development of science, or natural philosophy as it was then known, through the Middle Ages, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the trial of Galileo. He begins in the very depths the Dark Age, the chaotic 5th to 7th centuries, where even then the Europeans were beginning to pull ahead in practical technology with such useful tools as the moldboard plow and the horse collar, which revolutionized agriculture.

The discovery of ancient Latin and Greek manuscripts from the Arabs and Byzantines led to the rise of the Scholastic theologians of the 11th to 13 centuries. The Scholastics, under the influence of Aristotle, established reason as the method for learning about God and His creation. There was some controversy in the Catholic Church about pagan learning but the Scholastics, especially Thomas Aquinas showed that faith and reason could be reconciled and the Church accepted the ancient learning to the extent that it did not contradict Christian doctrine. With the acceptance of reason as an adjunct to faith, the philosophers of the Middle Ages were prepared to see the natural world around them as the rational creation of a rational God, forming the foundation for later scientific thinking.

The Scholastics did not slavishly follow Aristotle, however. They were capable of observing that he was wrong in some instances and were willing to move beyond him. In fact, some of their ideas about motion and forces were surprisingly modern. Some, especially Roger Bacon stressed the importance of careful observation of the natural world.

With the increased knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome during the Renaissance of the 13th to 15 centuries, much of this learning was disregarded and forgotten. The Renaissance Humanists venerated the ancients and so were inclined to denigrate the achievements of their immediate predecessors. The authority of Aristotle and others was more respected than the thoughts of more recent philosophers. The Protestant Reformation did not help matters, as the Protestants were not eager to give the Catholic Church any credit.

Still, progress continued and in the last section of his book, Hannam explores the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries.  He closes with an account of Galileo. Although Galileo was a brilliant scientist who practically invented physics, he owed far more to his medieval predecessors than he was ever willing to admit. As for his troubles with the Inquisition, they had less to do with any Catholic opposition to science and were more due to politics and the folly of implying that the Pope was a simpleton.

The Genesis of Science is worth five stars. The perhaps over long summary that I have given above is only the merest foretaste to this brilliant work. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

God’s Battalions by Rodney Stark

    The premise of God’s Battalions is that everything you think you know about the Crusades is simply wrong. No, the Crusades were not an act of Christian aggression against the Muslims. The Crusades were, in fact, a belated response to centuries of Muslim aggression against Christendom. No, the Crusaders were not ignorant barbarians attacking a far more civilized enemy. The supposed golden age of Islam was not as much a high point of learning, as is generally supposed, especially since most of the learning was the work of non-Muslims. On the other hand, Europe, even during the so-called Dark Ages, was already beginning to pull ahead in practical technology. Anyway, as Stark points out, the concept of the Dark Ages is not particularly accurate and historians have largely abandoned it.

     Yes, the Crusaders did sack Jerusalem. This was standard practice against cities that resisted a siege. In any case, Muslim atrocities exceeded Christian. No, the Crusaders did not slaughter Jews on the way to the Holy Land. German peasants did that. The Crusaders were forbidden by the Pope to harm Jews and many times bishops protected the Jews from the mobs.

    Stark makes a strong case for the Crusades. They were, as I have said, a reaction to aggression. The Crusaders acted, for the most part, from the highest of motives. They did not expect to get rich from their endeavors. Many Crusaders went bankrupt. They truly believed they were God’s battalions.

     We, their descendants, have nothing to apologize for. Indeed, we should be proud of the men who marched across half the world, and won stunning victories against a foe who vastly outnumbered them. Their deeds were glorious.

     I did take issue with his description of the Byzantines as treacherous. The Byzantines had no reason to trust these armies who were marching across their territory, especially since their leaders included some of Byzantium’s deadliest enemies. The sack of Constantinople cannot be as easily defended as Stark does. It may have been standard practice and the Angeli emperors bore most of the responsibility for the events, nevertheless, it was a crime, it that Byzantium was permanently weakened and it tended to discredit future crusades.

    Overall, God’s Battalions is a noble work and well worth reading.