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Sacred History: Uses of the Christian Past in the Renaissance World

Katherine Elliot Van Liere, Simon Ditchfield, and Howard Louthan (eds)
Published by Oxford University Press in 2012

Reviewed by Melissa Franklin Harkrider, History, Wheaton College

This collection of essays provides a detailed and comparative evaluation of sacred history in Renaissance and Reformation Europe. Sacred history here is broadly defined as the study of the Christian church – its clergy and laity as well as the doctrinal and institutional developments that shaped it in medieval and early modern Europe. As Katherine Van Liere notes in her introduction, ecclesiastical history has often been neglected in Renaissance studies. Its subject matter and methodologies seem counter to the emphasis in Renaissance writing on human agency and the critical assessment of texts. Yet, as the essays in this volume demonstrate, early modern writers continued to compose texts on sacred history and drew not only from medieval models of historical writing, but also utilized the new techniques and methodologies associated with humanism to produce innovative and insightful studies of the Christian past. The thirteen essays included in this monograph range widely across historical disciplines, literary genres, national borders, and confessional identities to provide a rich comparative survey of sacred historiography. Editors Katherine Elliot Van Liere, Simon Ditchfield, and Howard Louthan organize the text in three thematic sections focused on “Church History in the Renaissance and Reformation,” “National History and Sacred History,” and the “Uses of Sacred History in the Early Modern Catholic World.”

In Part I, contributors examine how Renaissance humanism, religious reform, and developments in the post-Tridentine Church shaped the writing of sacred history in this period. In chapter 1, Anthony Grafton argues that the history of the Church was a central concern of Renaissance writers. Humanists such as Poggio Bracciolini and Lorenzo Valla drew upon medieval intellectual traditions in their ecclesiastical histories. Eusebius’ History of the Church, for example, offered a literary and methodological model for the writing of ecclesiastical history. Renaissance scholars also developed creative and innovative methodologies of their own. Flacius Illyricus, Matthew Parker, and Cesare Baronio followed Eusebius’ methods of compiling primary sources, yet they and other humanist writers also differed in the expanded scope of their work, the collaborative nature for their research, and their use of new production methods to distribute their texts. Euan Cameron’s essay in chapter 2 examines the tension between humanism and Protestant traditions in the creation of Protestant Church histories. Protestant historians began with the assumption, shared by other Christian humanists, that many medieval Christian practices were not rooted in Scripture and were based upon flawed doctrine. Protestant historians responded to this problem in two ways. First, inspired by humanism, scholars focused upon human initiatives and stressed human fallibility. In their accounts, they described how well-intentioned practices may have drifted from scriptural truth. Second, Protestant historians adopted a more dogmatic and apocalyptic approach. As Cameron argues, the two approaches were not separate, but often influenced one another as Lutheran and Reformed scholars drew from both in their ecclesiastical histories. In chapter 3, Giuseppe Antonio Guazzelli focuses upon Cesare Baronio’s Annales ecclesiastici in his study of Catholic approaches to ecclesiastical history. Baronio employed humanist techniques to compose a strong defense of the Roman Catholic Church and challenged Protestant claims of its deterioration. Rather, he argued that the Church was semper eadem, always unchanging. Its doctrines and practices were correct and continuous from its origins in antiquity. Using evidence from Scripture, material culture, and texts by Eusebius and Jerome, Baronio stressed the primacy of Peter and the validity of ceremonies, such as the celebration of mass and the cult of saints, challenged by Protestant reformers. In chapter 4, Simon Ditchfield examines the breadth and diversity of ecclesiastical writing among Catholic scholars following the Council of Trent. Sacred history for these writers encompassed the history of the institutional church, saints’ lives, the collected lives of popes, diocesan histories, and studies of individual churches. Ditchfield emphasizes the continuities evident in medieval and early modern conventions of writing church history. For these Catholic writers, sacred history with its emphasis on the rights and privileges of the church was crucial to ecclesiastical governance in an age of religious conflict.

Part II examines the complex relationship between sacred history and national histories in Renaissance and Reformation Europe. David Collins’ essay in chapter 5 argues that sacred history was an integral component of the patriotic histories composed by writers including Aeneas Silvius Piccolomineus, Conrad Celtis, and Veit Arnpeck. In their texts, German writers frequently minimized the role of Roman evangelization and stressed instead the work of local figures such as St. Walpurgis, the canoness Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, and St. Rupert. In chapter 6, Katherine Elliot Van Liere evaluates efforts by Spanish humanists to construct complex narratives of the apostolic origins of the Spanish Church. Van Liere demonstrates how Spanish writers often modeled their chronicles after histories such as Baronio’s Annales Ecclesiastici and drew upon their familiarity with classical sources to develop their narratives. Yet, in making the case for the antiquity of the Spanish Church, these writers often utilized questionable sources, such as the Codex Calixtinus that blended the story of the apostle James’s martyrdom, early medieval narratives of James’s mission to Spain, and liturgical accounts of seven apostles and their foundation of seven bishoprics in Spain. Later Renaissance writers, including Ambrosio de Morales, adopted a more critical stance toward suspect accounts, but ultimately accepted the apostolic origins of the Spanish Church. Indeed, it was so frequently reiterated that it became an integral component of Spain’s national history. In chapter 7, Howard Louthan describes efforts by Catholic writers to counter Protestant critiques with their own narratives that described Central Europe’s rich Catholic heritage. Stephan Broelmann, Hermann Crombach, and Johannes and Aegedius Gelenius composed detailed studies of the Christian origins of Cologne. In Bavaria, Matthäus Rader described the efforts of Hermagoras, Lucius of Britain, and Afra to bring Christianity to Bavaria. Bohuslav Balbín’s survey Epitome historica rerum Bohemicarum countered contemporary evidence of Protestantism’s growth in Bohemia by detailing the ministry of St. Adalbert in the tenth century and the work of Emperor Charles IV and bishop Arnošt of Pardubice in the fourteenth century. In chapter 8, Rosamund Oates shows how Catholic and Protestant writers utilized humanist approaches in their polemical works. John Foxe and Matthew Parker emphasized the role of Joseph of Arimathea and King Lucius to demonstrate the antiquity of the English Church and its governance by godly rulers. Catholic writers including Thomas Stapleton countered that Bede’s history clearly showed that the impetus for the evangelization of England began with papal initiatives and reiterated the importance of Augustine’s mission in the Christianization of England. As Oates demonstrates, sacred history, however, was reinterpreted differently by those Protestants who supported the Church of England and those who opposed its doctrines and practices. In Chapter 9, Salvador Ryan describes the dynamic interest in ecclesiastical history in early modern Ireland. Irish Catholic writers used humanist standards to construct a history of Irish Catholicism that emphasized the shared religious heritage of indigenous Irish men and women and the Anglo-Norman families who had settled in Ireland in the twelfth century.

The final four essays in Part III offer wide-ranging studies of the diverse ways in which Catholic writers constructed sacred history. Jean-Marie Le Gall’s essay in chapter 10 focuses upon hagiography in early modern France. French Catholic writers described saints’ lives in a diverse array of literary genres intended to challenge Protestant denunciations of the cult of saints. Despite political and religious pressures, French writers continued to produce studies of the saints of antiquity and their narratives were integral to civic and provincial identities. In chapter 11, Liam Brockey examines the search for primitive Christian communities in India. Portuguese writers sought to reconcile legends about the travels and ministry of the Apostle Thomas with indigenous accounts of his work in India. Portuguese scholars worked diligently to reconcile written sources about Thomas’s life with the relics, shrines, and oral traditions celebrated by local Christians. Ultimately, later Jesuit scholars would reiterate the traditional understanding of Thomas’s work and describe his endeavors as prefiguring their own ministry in India. In chapter 12, Irina Oryshkevich evaluates how Catholic writers used early Christian art in the Roman catacombs to argue for the antiquity and importance of holy images. Oryshkevich shows how Jean l’Heureux, or Macarius as he was more frequently known, composed a nuanced study of the origins of Christian art modeled upon a humanist appreciation for the critical evaluation of sources and the im- portance of context. His Hagioglypta duly recognized pagan and Jewish influences on early Christian paintings and stressed the development of sacred art over time. In chapter 13, Adam Beaver examines Renaissance constructions of the Holy Land. Antiquarians believed that a more accurate understanding of the geography and historical context of scripture was crucial to biblical scholarship. Such narratives were equally dependent upon pilgrim accounts of the sacred landscape.

The breadth and depth of the essays offered here provide a comprehensive survey of sacred history in Renaissance and Reformation Europe. Unlike many essay collections that seem disjointed and uneven in the rigor of their scholarship, this monograph clearly and persuasively develops its overarching argument on the importance and richness of sacred history in the Renaissance world. Each of these essays offers insight into how humanist assumptions and methodologies shaped the study of the Christian past in such diverse regions as Ireland, Spain, and Bohemia. Another strength of this collection is its attentiveness to the nuances within Catholic and Protestant scholarship. Essays by Euan Cameron, Howard Louthan, and Rosamund Oates assess the diversity and differences within these confessional traditions and demonstrate how they frequently shaped one another’s construction of ecclesiastical history. Contributors Grafton, Brockey, and Beaver also delineate the diversity of sources, including Jewish texts, oral traditions of Thomas Christians in Indian, and pilgrim accounts of the Holy Land, that shaped humanism and ecclesiastical history in this period. The essays also range broadly from Oryshkevich and Guazzelli’s assessments of the early Church and its art to Le Gall and Ditchfield’s evaluations of Catholicism in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Contributors also noted the influence of Jewish and Islamic traditions on ecclesiastical writing and that further study of both would be fruitful. Given the emphasis here on Catholic writers, further attention to Protestant constructions of sacred history in such a volume would also have enriched this study. Similarly, this work encourages more nuanced assessment of how laymen and women received, shaped, and adapted the depictions of sacred history. Overall, this collection succeeds admirably in providing a robust study of sacred history for Christian scholars.

Cite this article
Melissa Franklin-Harkrider, “Sacred History: Uses of the Christian Past in the Renaissance World”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:1 , 99-102

Melissa Franklin-Harkrider

Wheaton College
Melissa Franklin-Harkrider is Associate Professor of History at Wheaton College.