Sunday, September 06, 2015

Book Review - The Rending of Christendom Primary Document Catholic Study Course

In recent days, the study of history has become less a search for truth and almost exclusively about the creation of a narrative to further a political ideology. Some might argue that this has always been true. In my experience, however, such claims are most often put forward by the most egregious narrative-creators themselves when their lack of objectivity is called into question.

I first noticed this trend while in high school. As an avid student of World War II, it was perplexing to me that the entirety of the war was summed up in my so-called social studies courses in two events: the atom bomb and the Holocaust. Hardly anything else was deemed worthy of discussion. Church history suffered a similar fate in my ostensibly Catholic schooling. We were presented with a narrative that nothing particularly good happened in the Church until the 1960s. As a result, all the events, achievements, miracles, conflicts, saints, heroes, villains, doctrines and teachings up until that point were given very scant coverage indeed. When I later discovered on my own how fascinating, rich and beautiful Church history is, I was astonished and angry. To quote my parish priest, I felt like what I had been told was a diamond was actually a cubic zirconia--and that the real diamond had been purposely buried to keep anyone from finding it.

As a result of this experience, I have come to distrust most modern interpreters of history (particularly those who don't wear their subjectivity on their lapel) and greatly value the study of primary sources when learning or teaching history. And that's where Phillip Campbell's The Rending of Christendom comes in. In an accessible 100 pages, Campbell offers a gold mine of basic primary documents dealing with the root causes, major events and personalities of the Protestant Revolution. The objective is to give the student a sampling of important sources from that era and teach them how to draw inferences from them. The documents run the gamut of the conflict, from well known sources such as Luther's 95 Theses and the Edict of Nantes to less studied but equally fascinating documents such as Luther's "Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants" and the final letter of Mary Queen of Scots prior to her execution.

I feel quite confident that few if any high school and college students in Catholic institutions have ever seen these documents before. Unlike most traditional textbooks, these documents do the opposite of reducing history to a bland sequence of names, dates and capsule summaries. Rather, they add the excitement of the present to the events described and put intellectual faces to the key names: Martin Luther, Ignatius of Loyola, Thomas More, Richard Hooker, John Calvin, Francis de Sales, Elizabeth I, Charles Borromeo and many others. As such, the source documents here may be the beginning of innumerable conversations that have immediate relevance to the situation in our world today. Instead of creating their own narrative for credulous students to memorize and regurgitate, these documents allow students to contemplate the big issues of the time from the inside. They also provide fodder for students to draw their own conclusions, aided by Campbell's brief introductory statements and helpful study questions at the end of each document.

Of course, such a slim book as The Rending of Christendom can only provide an appetizer for the main course of historical research into the Protestant Revolt. My suspicion is that many more students will be tempted to dive into the ocean of such scholarship after using this introduction as compared to those using traditional textbooks. Because of this, I highly recommend The Rending of Christendom for use in both traditional Catholic educational settings and homeschooling. I look forward to seeing more such resources from Philip Campbell in this same vein--he is definitely on to something.

Really, resources like this should be a staple in Catholic schools that hope to do more than simply put a thin Catholic varnish on the secular American historical narrative. Other primary source compendia which fulfill much of the same function as The Rending of Christendom include The Christian Roman Empire series and Fontes Mediaevalium series, both by Evolution Publishing. Among these, I particularly recommend The First Crusade: The Accounts of Eye-Witnesses and Participants which chronicles the history of the much maligned and misunderstood First Crusade through the eyes of those who experienced it first-hand.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Deus le vult! Remembering the forgotten Defenders of Christendom

Quick quiz: You are Catholic, correct? How many of the following can you identify?

Dieudonne de Gozon
Janos Hunyadi
George Castriota (Skanderbeg)
Jean de la Valette
Don Juan of Austria

Can you identify any of them? Do you know when they lived or what they did? Why not? My excuse is that my 12 years of Catholic education was woefully deficient in teaching me much about actual Catholic history. What's yours?

In any event, every one of these men was called by God to play a particularly heroic role in preserving the Christian world. If not for their courage and sacrifice, it's not much of a stretch to say that most of us would not be Catholic today. In fact, it's likely many of us would never have existed at all.

Sadly, we live at a time when American civic leaders at the highest levels speak with profound ignorance about the Crusades and Catholic history in general. They are only able to get away with such statements because American Catholics have largely forgotten their patrimony. Defenders of Christendom by James Fitzhenry aims to remedy this deficit, offering an engrossing and enjoyable journey to the days when men "cared less about death than about shame" and were wiling to sacrifice everything to defend the helpless, particularly from the drawn sword of Islam.

Following on the heels of two outstanding previous efforts in the same vein (see also El Cid: God's Own Champion and Saint Fernando III: A Kingdom for Christ), Fitzhenry has done a remarkable job making the Crusading era approachable for modern youth. Though very much a history book, it is written in a narrative style that is far from boring. Including about a dozen spot illustrations, Defenders of Christendom is probably best suited for young people ages 10 and up, but I found it to be an engaging and educational read as a parent of kids that age. I particularly appreciated the way Fitzhenry cited the historical works he consulted throughout the text, giving me a pathway back to his original sources, one of which was very familiar: Krey's The First Crusade: The Accounts of Eye-Witnesses and Participants.

What made Defenders of Christendom most compelling, though, is the immediate parallels that jump to life of their own accord between the Crusading era of the Middle Ages and our own time, when militant, barbaric Islam has risen from the crypt to prey upon innocent Christians without pause or pity. For example, in chronicling the bloody reign of the Islamic conqueror Tamerlane, Fitzhenry describes an incident in India when Tamerlane "ruthlessly ordered the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of helpless captives that he thought of as nothing more than 'food for the sword.'" It is hard to read such words and not immediately flash to the massacres inflicted upon men, women and children in Iraq and Syria today for the heinous crime of following Christ. One must pray that God will raise up Hunyadis, Skanderbegs, and La Valettes in our present generation to meet the modern challenge from both barbaric Islam and hedonistic secularism, and revivify the dream of a unified Christendom.

If you or your kids enjoyed Angels in Iron by Nicholas Prata or Crown of the World by Nathan Sadasivan or my own books on Belisarius, you will find this book right in your wheelhouse.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Highly Recommended: The Joyful Beggar by Louis de Wohl

During the late 12th century AD, Italy is a simmering political caldron about to overflow. In the north, the powerful Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV threatens invasion. In Sicily, a young but ambitious Norman king sets his sights on a much greater office. In between, the Popes attempt to protect the independence of the Papal States while encouraging the crusading movement abroad. It is a time when the temporal leaders are only nominal Catholics and when Church leaders are often too concerned with worldly affairs.

Into this setting author Louis de Wohl introduces two characters: Roger of Vandria, a knight-errant whose only goal in life is to regain his lost patrimony, and Francesco Bernadone, the light-hearted young scion of a rich merchant family from Assisi. Their paths cross when Assisi attempts to raid the rival city of Perugia. Both march with the Assisian forces, and both are imprisoned in Perugia after the raid ends in failure and defeat. But where their lives go afterwards is a study in contrasts, brilliantly told by the great story-teller de Wohl.

The Joyful Beggar is subtitled A Novel about Saint Francis of Assisi, but it is much more than that. It is a history lesson in the religious and political turmoil into which the great saint was born and which he, in a very significant and unexpected way, influenced and turned to the good. With great flair, de Wohl brings the historical figures to life: the put-upon yet good-hearted Pope Innocent III, the tyrannical excommunicant Otto IV, the intelligent but worldly Frederick II and his Islamic reflection, Sultan Al-Kamil. 

The novel highlights the great moments in St. Francis's life--his call from God to "rebuild the Church which is falling down"; his trek to Rome to have his Friars Minor officially approved; the miraculous growth of the order; his famous meeting with Sultan Al-Kamil. There is also plenty of action supplied by the parallel tale of the dashing Roger of Vandria which frequently intersects with the life of Francis. In the hope of regaining his castle in Sicily, Roger follows the Sicilian king, Frederick II, becoming his henchman. He falls in love with the beautiful Clare Offreduccio and goes on crusade. But ultimately, he comes to respect and admire the incredible courage and drive of the little man from Assisi who he had previously disdained as a coward.

The Joyful Beggar is a great little book. De Wohl's writing moves elegantly back and forth between the parallel story lines, keeping the reader's attention and making for a very enjoyable reading experience. I blew through the book in a couple days and I suspect that it would hold the attention of most young readers aged 14 and older. With deep themes such as the vanity of worldly desires, the ultimate futility of political machinations, and the beauty of following God's call, no matter how difficult, The Joyful Beggar teaches some valuable lessons and helps put the fascinating life of St. Francis into its historical context.