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‘One Who Does Not Need The Help Of A Man’: Women In Medieval Letter Collections

Church_of_Fontevraud_Abbey_Eleanor_of_Aquitaine_effigy

Letter writing was an important part of the transformation that notable medieval scholar Charles Homer Haskins describes as the ‘Twelfth Century Renaissance’.[1] This, among other changes, was a time of great intellectual progression in Western Europe. The ars dictaminis, or ‘art of dictating a letter’, was laid out in manuals to be studied, which included collections of letters written by famous scholars. 

Peter of Blois and Hildebert of Lavardin, both French ecclesiastics, wrote extensive letters during the eleventh and twelfth centuries that were admired by many long after their time. Their collections are complicated historical sources as they were heavily and carefully edited, often with a view to how they would be perceived by future audiences. While this must be taken into account when approaching these sources, they can also provide interesting insight into the contemporary views and aims of the writers. In this blog, I explore how the letter collections of the two famous writers help us to gain a better understanding of their attitudes towards women. In doing so, what stands out to me is the restriction placed on the letter writers’ abilities to communicate their views.  

Hildebert of Lavardin’s letter collection is recognised as one of the most important and influential manuscript collections of the Middle Ages. Indeed, Peter of Blois acknowledges that Hildebert’s work had a huge influence on him, having been made to memorise it during his own education. Hildebert’s collection portrays its author as a spiritual guide, advising people on matters ranging from their conversion to Christianity to the death of their loved ones.

He had many friendly relationships with powerful women, such as Matilda, the wife of Henry I, and Adela, Countess of Blois. Hildebert advised Matilda about death and mortality as well as the importance of marriage, virginity and motherhood, concepts traditionally associated with femininity. To Adela, he wrote three or four letters consisting of polite praise and requests, for example when he asked her for the chasuble, or liturgical vestment, she had promised him. Advising her on her regency in the absence of her husband, he wrote that she ‘does not need the help of a man’ to rule. He emphasised the power she had and advised her to show clemency to the realm. Additionally, when she decided to enter into a religious order, he wrote to praise her and to advise her on the virtues necessary to succeed there. 

It is worth noting that religion often acted as a leveller in gender relations as monks and nuns were treated equally, without the social hierarchy that prevented women from rising in lay circles. Adela’s decision therefore removed a level of paternal guidance from Hildebert’s letters and after her decision he advised her on qualities that he, as a deeply religious man, was also striving to adopt. 

Nevertheless, Hildebert’s letters do not come across as particularly personal. The letters all have a familiar tone, even though he often wrote to people he could not have personally known. This tone was used regardless of the people he was writing to and the relationship, or lack thereof, that he had with them. Due to this, his real feelings may have never been preserved, demonstrating the restrictions to expressing personal opinions that letter writing entails: the personal voice has been stifled by the rise of a formulaic approach to writing in which the author’s own motivations and their calculation of how to speak to the target audience interplay. 

Peter of Blois was also well-known for his collection of letters. Based on biblical teachings, he wrote on the importance of women choosing their own paths in life. In his correspondence with the archdeacon of Poitiers he criticised the latter for forcing his niece into a cloister and openly supported her decision to choose her own future. When the niece finally did become a nun, Peter wrote to her directly, congratulated her and advised her that it was a wise choice. He also wrote to his own sister and encouraged her in her life as a nun. He treated her with respect and motivated her to take responsibility for her own choices. Similarly to Hildebert, Peter’s writing concerning women is filled with paternal advice and he treats members of religious orders with great respect. 

Probably the most widely read of Peter’s letters today is his open correspondence with Eleanor of Aquitaine, attempting to stop her during her revolt against her husband, Henry II. Here, he took a completely different approach and made no pretence of equality between Eleanor and Henry. The famous medievalist Eileen Power, writing on the somewhat paradoxical view of women in the Middle Ages, states that women were constantly moving ‘between a pit and a pedestal’, with their status remaining confused.[2] Women gaining power were seen as dangerous, and powerful women were therefore in need of constant restraint. Power writes that women sometimes experienced a form of equality in this way, since, for example, Eleanor’s choice had the potential to destroy a powerful kingdom. This is reflected in the letter, where Peter often quoted scripture and warned of the doom of the kingdom in order to implore Eleanor to return to her husband. 

Peter’s other letters to women include advice and encouragement on many different matters. His letter to Eleanor is not an accurate portrayal of his feelings towards women in general, however, but a demonstration of how outside motivations can impact what a person is able to write. Peter’s patron, the Archbishop of Rouen, instructed him to write on these issues, probably on separate instructions from Henry II himself. Therefore, the letter should be seen as part of a long tradition of fearing women in positions of authority. His promotion of gender equality on the one hand and preaching on the required subservience of women on the other at first seems confusing but can be understood as the actions of a man who needed to impress his masters. Peter later took up a position under Eleanor, and removed this particular letter from his collection, demonstrating the impact of patronage on the letter collections that survive today.[3]

There were many day-to-day issues limiting medieval men from portraying their true feelings towards women in their writing. Factors such as patronage, politics and social norms often seem to have limited these men in their ability to treat women as equals. The collections discussed here have, in some ways, still succeeded in demonstrating how these men saw women. Much like today, an individual’s personal views were overshadowed, not only by the opinions prevalent at the time but also by their desire to maintain their own social status. 

Rachael Haslam is a final-year History student at the University of Sheffield, looking to embark on an MA in Medieval History. She is particularly interested in twelfth century gender and intellectual history. This blog is based on a project supervised by Dr Danica Summerlin.

Cover image: Effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine in the church of Fontevraud Abbey. Photograph by Adam Bishop, 2011. Image licensed under Creative Commons: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

Further reading:

Cherewatuk, K., and Wiethaus, U., (eds.), Dear Sister: Medieval Women and the Epistolary Genre (Philadelphia, 1993)

Duby, G., Women of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge, 1997)

Ferrante, J., ‘Medieval Women’s Latin Letters’, Epistolae,  https://epistolae.ctl.columbia.edu/home

Haskins, C. H., The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge, 1971)

Hayward, P., ‘Seminar III: Letters and Letter Collections’, Medieval Primary Sourceshttps://www.lancaster.ac.uk/staff/haywardp/hist424/seminars/03.htm

Markowski, M. (ed.), ‘Peter of Blois: Letter 154 to Queen Eleanor, 1173’, Internet History Sourcebooks Projecthttps://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/eleanor.asp

Power, E., Medieval Women (Cambridge, 1978)


[1] C. H. Haskins, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge, 1971)

[2] E. Power, Medieval Women (Cambridge, 1978)

[3] It is possible that Eleanor herself implored him to remove it. However, it is more likely that Peter took it out as a courtesy to the person he worked for. Either way, his removal of it demonstrates that he did not feel strongly about the views it presented towards women. 

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‘Holy Satan’- Visualising the Letters of Gregory VII (1073-1085)

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‘You are seeking many things of me who am exceedingly busy, and you send a messenger who presses me too much at his own pleasure’.[1] Writing in 1076, it is unsurprising that Pope Gregory VII was annoyed by a bishop’s questioning.[2]

Only a few months earlier, Gregory had taken the astonishing measure of excommunicating (the first of three times!) Emperor Henry IV. He was simultaneously attempting to implement a reformation of Latin Christianity itself, now commonly known as ‘Gregorian Reform’.[3] It is safe to say that Gregory was indeed a ‘busy man’.

I’ve spent much of the summer looking into what kept Gregory busy, by studying the Register of his letters which is preserved in the Vatican Library. Using new digital techniques that have never been systematically applied before to Gregory VII’s letters, I’ve discovered a few things that might come as a surprise.

A page from the Register of Gregory VII (showing the so-called Dictatus Papae)

But let me begin with the Register itself, and its 389 entries. How can such an important figure have written so few letters over 12 years? Part of the answer lies with the use of messengers, with Alexander Murray noting that it was ‘more remarkable’ when a messenger came with a letter than without one.[4] As a result, although there certainly were some letters that weren’t copied into the Register, it’s likely that the Register is at least broadly representative of Gregory’s correspondence as a whole. [5]

The process of collecting and analysing the data led to some interesting discoveries even before we started to crunch the results. We noted for instance a probable mistake in the 1920s edition of the register by German historian Erich Caspar. Gregory wrote two letters on the first and fourth of March 1077 from a place Caspar identified as Carpineto, and two subsequent letters on the 21st and 23rd of March from Carpi and Bianello. But Carpi and Bianello are both around 500km away from Carpineto. It is therefore more likely that Gregory was in Carpineti which is only around 50km away and makes more sense travel-wise.[6]

These same entries may also shed light on Gregory’s travel speed. On the 21st of March, two letters are recorded, issued from different locations. The first, letter 16, is written from Carpi, while the other entry is written from Bianello. These locations are approximately 44km apart and so may show us something like the distance Gregory could potentially cover in a day’s journey.

However, things started to get really interesting when we began to work on the data itself. Two key themes that we explored using visualisations are the strategy behind Gregory’s letter sending, and factors affecting this strategy. As can be seen from the map shown below, Gregory’s recipients were far and wide, even reaching areas such as Norway. This matches Cowdrey’s view that the papacy increasingly saw its function as ‘one of world-wide vigilance and activity’.[7]

All the locations that Gregory VII sent letters to

This ‘world-wide’ aspect is demonstrated even more when we map the recipients of these letters onto the ancient Roman road network. While the majority fit on these Roman roads, we can also see that Gregory is communicating with areas not part of the ancient empire, especially in the northern areas of eastern Europe. This visualises Gregory’s personal strategy of making sure the Roman church was ‘in the fullest sense the universal mother’, concerned with Christians ‘whether or not they lived within the boundaries of the Roman empire at the apogee of its prosperity’.[8]

The destinations of Gregory’s letters in red, imposed onto a map of Roman roads at the time.

Another element of Gregory’s strategy is his politics. The historian Cowdrey believed Gregory wasn’t purposefully political, instead acting upon ‘flexible’ values and methods to pursue goals that were at root ‘religious and moral’.[9] Looking at the number of secular versus clerical recipients of his letters supports this idea of Gregory and his strategy. This data shows us that for the large majority of Gregory’s pontificate, the majority of his communication was with clerical figures. At no point did he really try and specifically increase his political involvement with secular figures.

The number of secular recipients and clerical recipients of Gregory’s letters over time

A second dimension of these letters that the data helps us understand regards the factors that determined their sending, notably the issue of travel. In a world where we can send a message thousands of miles almost instantly, it seems alien to think about a messenger carrying a letter over a number of months. This is how Gregory’s letters were delivered however, with 3-4 months being the standard time for a message and reply.[10]

With this amount of time travelling and the method of travel, weather conditions could become an important consideration. This is explored in the two visualisations below. The first one colour coordinates all the destinations of the letters by season, and seemingly doesn’t show any clear trend. It even shows some of the furthest away letters like those in Norway being sent in winter – which at first glance seems to contradict the idea of season being important. However, if we take the figure of 40km per day as an average speed estimate, we can see that by dispatching the letter in December, the messenger could be expected to arrive in Trondheim sometime around the start of March, and after a stay of a month or two arrive back in Rome well before the autumn, thereby
avoiding the Scandinavian winter.

The destinations of Gregory’s letters colour coded according to the season they were sent

And looking more closely, consideration of season seems to have been quite important to Gregory. By examining the average distance letters were sent in each month, it can be seen that letters sent in the months of March, April and May covered the most distance; with those sent in January and February generally travelling the least distance. This suggests that Gregory considered not just politics but also seasons and weather when sending his letters, with implications for medieval diplomacy more generally.

The average distance of the destination of Gregory’s letters according to the month they were sent

A linked issue concerns the average number of letters Gregory sent each month. Looked at in aggregate, it can clearly be seen that Gregory’s correspondence spikes around March and April, before falling off in the summer and rising again as winter approaches. This trend probably reflects the liturgical calendar. Easter would have been an important time for Gregory, and is also when he held a number of councils. February and August were by contrast very quiet times for the papal scribes.

The total number of letters sent by Gregory in each month

The use of data analysis and visualisation can give us an alternative and valuable perspective on sources that have already been extensively studied by conventional means. They shed new light on existing historiography, such as looking at whether Gregory really was a ‘holy Satan’ or ‘political pope’ by looking at the recipients of his letters. But they can also even perhaps open up new avenues to explore, such as how earthly limitations like seasonal travel may have played an important role in how figures like Gregory VII conducted business. The use of these tools can open up an array of possibilities that would greatly benefit any field of history.

George Litchfield is an undergraduate student at Sheffield. The project Mapping Pope Gregory VII’s letters was supervised by Dr Tom Stafford and Dr Charles West.

Link to the dataset and expanded overview this article is based on: https://doi.org/10.15131/shef.data.12781049

[1] H. E. J. Cowdrey, The Register of Pope Gregory VII 1073—1085: An English Translation (Oxford, 2002), p. 208.

[2] Ibid., p. xi.

[3] Norman Tanner [Review], Reform and the Papacy in the Eleventh Century: Spirituality and Social Change (Manchester, 2005), by Kathleen Cushing, The Heythrop Journal 48.2 (2007), pp. 293-94.

[4] Alexander Murray, ‘Pope Gregory VII and His Letters’, Traditio 22 (1966), pp. 176-77.

[5] Cowdrey, The Register of Pope Gregory VII 1073—1085, p. xii; Murray, ‘Pope Gregory VII and His Letters’, p. 163.

[6] Cowdrey, The Register of Pope Gregory VII 1073—1085, pp. 224-229.

[7] H. E. J. Cowdrey, Pope Gregory VII, 1073–1085 (Oxford, 1998), p. 10.

[8] Ibid., p. 2.

[9] Ibid., p. 2, 86.

[10] Murray, ‘Pope Gregory VII and His Letters’, p. 168.

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There is No War on Christmas

(not so) Happy Holidays!

There is hardly a Christmas in memory upon which there wasn’t a war waged—or, at least, so it seems if one is tuned into American right-wing media. According to Bill O’Reilly in 2004, as a part of a plot to banish religion from the public sphere and bring forth a ‘brave new progressive world’, liberals were banning religious floats from parades and calling Christmas trees ‘holiday’ trees instead. Similar (but fewer) complaints have been made in the U.K.—say, about the use of the phrase “Winterval” instead of Christmas.  But fear not, dear reader. The great and powerful Trump has singlehandedly won the war on Christmas by making it acceptable to say ‘Merry Christmas’ again—a phrase which, according to Trump,  was never uttered publicly during the Obama years.

In reality, however, the so called ‘War on Christmas’ doesn’t exist. It never has.

Now, don’t get me wrong—there has been (what historian Stephen Nussbaum called) a battle for Christmas for centuries: a fight over how Christmas is celebrated. As Earl Count points out, December celebrations originate from pagan festivals (like Zagmuk and Saturnalia) which date back at least two thousand years before Jesus would have been born. And during the 300s, Constantine tried to Christianize these celebrations by declaring 25th December (the sun god Sol’s birthday) to be Jesus’ birthday. But it never really worked; people forgot the pagan origins sure, but throughout the middle ages (what came to be known as) Christmas was celebrated in mainly pagan ways: with drinking, feasting, and sex. It was so debaucherous, in fact, that the Puritans banned the celebration of Christmas all together.

Now, thanks to people like Clement Clarke More, Charles Dickens, and Queen Victoria, Christmas did make a comeback in the early 1800s—but when it did, it was again as secular drunken celebration. Thanks to capitalism, however, it was quickly domesticated into a holiday about giving gifts to your children (and, later, to nearly everyone you know). And once it was popular again, Christianity renewed its efforts to ‘Christianize’ it.[1] But despite what we now call it, ‘Christmas’ has never been celebrated, primarily, as a religious holiday. Christians lost that battle.

Once Christmas was popular again, however, it was very useful for vilifying one’s enemies. In the 1920s, for example, the anti-Semite Henry Ford claimed that Jews were waging a war on Christmas in his anti-Semitic tract, ‘The International Jew.’ In 1959 it was the communists that were targeted. The right-wing conspiratorial John Birch Society claimed that ‘One of the techniques now being applied by the Reds to weaken the pillar of religion in our country is the drive to take Christ out of Christmas.’ And in 1999, it was right-wing pundit (and founder of the hate group VDare.com) Peter Brimelow complaining about liberals using phrases like ‘Happy Holidays’ and government Christmas parties being called ‘A Celebration of Holiday Traditions.’ Of course, the phrase ‘Happy Holidays’ is just a short way to reference all the holidays celebrated in December and January. It dates back to at least 1863, and was popular (and uncontroversial) in the ‘30s and ‘40s—especially after the song ‘Happy Holiday(s)appeared in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn. But today, it’s use is viewed as ‘political correctness gone mad.’

The idea that there is a liberal war on Christmas really took flight in 2005 with the publication of John Gibson’s book The War On Christmas: How The Liberal Plot To Ban The Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought and with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly becoming obsessed with the idea that December—and (along with Fox News) remaining obsessed with it pretty much every December since. But, in reality, none of the events that they saw as ‘shots across the bow’ in this war actually occurred.  As I point out in the second chapter of my book The Myths that Stole Christmas, religious floats were not being systematically banned from parades. No school in Plano, Texas banned the colors red and green during Christmastime. [2] Ridgeway Elementary School in Dodgeville, Wisconsin didn’t change the lyrics to ‘Silent Night’ to eliminate all references to religion.[3]  And while it’s true that Democratic Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee didn’t call the tree in the Rhode Island Statehouse a ‘Christmas tree’ in 2011, neither did the Republican governor Donald Carcieri from 2003 to 2010…and yet Fox News never made a peep.

It’s true, of course, that Walmart once encouraged (but did not require) its greeters to say ‘Happy Holidays’ (instead of ‘Merry Christmas’) because not all their customers celebrate Christmas. And there have been a number of lawsuits in response to courthouses or other government entities (like schools) putting up lone nativity scenes or otherwise favoring Christian ways of celebrating. But such actions do not constitute a war on Christmas. They are simply efforts to be more inclusive, and (in the latter cases) to protect against violations of the separation of church and state enshrined in the constitution. But there has never, ever, been any effort to make the celebration of Christmas, or the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’, illegal.

This, of course, hasn’t stopped people from trying to capitalize on the idea that there has. Rick Perry cited it as part of ‘Obama’s war on Religion’ in a 2010 campaign ad. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich did something similar during the 2012 Republican campaign. And, of course, Donald Trump cited the ‘War on Christmas’ numerous times during his 2016 campaign. Indeed, he (and his family) have been taking a victory lap ever since (2017, 2018, 2019) by declaring that he ended the war by allowing everyone to say ‘Merry Christmas’ again. This is why, without any evidence at all, or any clarity about what he meant, Trump this year declared that liberals are now waging a war on Thanksgiving. Declaring that your political enemies are waging a war on things that are universally loved is just too useful for vilifying them.[4]

Before you fall for it, however, realize: in 2005, when he was raging about the liberal War on Christmas, Bill O’Reilly’s website was selling ‘holiday ornaments’ to hang on your ‘holiday tree’, and the Bush White House wished everyone a ‘Happy Holiday Season’ in their ‘holiday card.’ And today, despite all the rhetoric, Trump’s online store has a ‘holiday gift guide’, a ‘holiday collection’, and wishes people ‘Happy Holliday’s’ [sic], and avoids the term Christmas altogether. The same is true in Trump Tower, where the word ‘Christmas’ is nowhere to be found.

In reality, the only wars on Christmas that have ever been waged were waged by Christians, either to Christianize it (like Constantine) or shut it down (like the puritans). But just one look around this December will show that these wars were the most unsuccessful wars in all of history. [5] Not only is Christmas celebrated in mostly secular ways, but in our society (unlike in Trump Tower) Christmas is literally everywhere—taking over the calendar and our entire economy for over a month every year. If there was a war on Christmas…Christmas won.

David Kyle Johnson is Professor of Philosophy at King’s College (PA) and author of the book ‘The Myths that Stole Christmas: Seven Misconceptions that Hijacked that Holiday. His latest book, Black Mirror and Philosophy: Dark Reflections, is available now. You can find him on Twitter @kyle8425

[1] By, for example, falsely declaring Jesus to be the ‘reason for the season’.

[2] Other towns where this supposedly happened include Saginaw Township, Michigan and Orlando, Florida. None of the stories are true. All the schools in question proved as much by posting their guidelines online.

[3] In reality, a church choir director had changed the lyrics to make them easier for children to learn.

[4] Indeed, the stories that circulate about the war on Christmas are part of a larger, absolutely false, ‘Christian victimization narrative’ that tries to paint Christians as a persecuted minority.

[5] And the only causalities were these poor birds.

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A day as an anchorite

corpus ms 79 fol 96r

In January 2017, an unusual job opening was reported in the international press: an Austrian town seeking a new occupant for its 350-year-old cliffside hermitage. With no modern amenities, no real job description, and no pay, the role was clearly not for everyone – although a candidate was found and has since moved in (along with his dog).

The news value of the story was its strangeness. Religiously motivated solitude is a difficult concept for many modern people to relate to, even the fairly relaxed version practiced in Saalfelden’s hermitage (the hermit only lives there for half the year, and schnapps and cake are always available for visitors).

Medieval reclusion is another level entirely. Can you imagine deciding to spend the rest of your life in a single, small room, every day strictly regulated by the same routine? I can’t – but recently I tried to experience a small part of it, by living a day as an anchorite. I researched, carried out in real time, and recorded my impressions of the prayer routine a thirteenth-century recluse would have used.

The reason I decided to try this ‘experiment’ was to bring my doctoral work to life through experience.

I study literature written for and about anchorites – recluses enclosed in a cell, often beside a church. A big part of the interest for me is the sheer difference of their mindset. Where we prize freedom, comfort, and a social life, medieval anchorites were committed to restriction, discipline, and solitude.

Trying to think myself back into this world is challenging, to say the least. So in my experiment, I focused on the most important part of the anchoritic day: their prayer life. I can’t easily recreate living in a medieval cell or wearing medieval clothes, but I do have an authentic medieval prayer routine for anchorites.

This comes from Ancrene Wisse, a spiritual and practical guidebook written around 1215 for anchoritic women and a central text in my research. I must have read it half a dozen times, but I wanted to know how the routine would work in practice. How much of the day would an anchorite spend praying? And what would that day be like as an experience?

My day began before the sun was up, at 3:30am, with a sequence of Latin prayers to be said as I got up and dressed. The day’s work was well under way before I ate breakfast, with the first Hour of the Daily Office of prayer beginning at sunrise.

The morning was particularly dense with devotional work. I recited various kinds of prayer: Latin and Middle English, verse and prose, well-known and obscure. It wasn’t just speaking, either: there are lots of recommendations for engaging the body, from kneeling repeatedly to crossing yourself to raising your hands. This all built up to mid-morning Mass (I watched a re-enacted version of the medieval rite on Youtube) and a long period of responsory prayer.

By the time I had eaten my midday meal I was tired out – this seems to be something the Ancrene Wisse author expects, as he notes that if his readers are going to have a nap, it should be at this point in the day. I happily followed this part of the routine! The quieter afternoon was punctuated by the remaining Hours, and the final sequence of prayers took place before bed, around 7pm.

By recording the timings of the routine, I established that just under five hours were spent in prayer (counting Mass, closer to six): about the length I expected.

The more striking aspect of practicing the routine in real time, however, was how prayer dominated the shape of the day. I was never more than 90 minutes or so without praying, and so, although I read and worked during the ‘free’ periods, the spiritual posture of prayer – placing myself before God, trying to shape myself to the prescribed words – was a much more continual part of my thinking than I’m used to.

Of course, this kind of re-enactment is limited in experiential terms: I’ll never know what it was like to practise this routine daily, over months and years. But even this small taste helped me appreciate how anchorites gave up the right to order their own time. No one can concentrate on spiritual things continuously, but anchoritism is designed to enable people to turn their lives over to God more completely than anyone else.

There are a few hermits and anchorites around today, but by and large this way of life has vanished. Just like monks and nuns, anchorites seem to have been turned out of their cells under Henry VIII. Their history after that is even more patchy and unwritten than it was before.

Ancrene Wisse, however, had become a popular religious text even for laypeople and was copied and translated multiple times. It played a large part in the developing study of medieval English literature in the twentieth century. A text originally written for just three specific women continues to intrigue and challenge modern readers almost a millenium on.

Experiencing a small part of this ancient lifestyle for myself – echoing the words of eight-hundred-year-old prayers – was a strange, but ultimately illuminating experience.

Alicia Smith is working towards a DPhil in English Literature at the Queen’s College, University of Oxford. She can be found on Twitter @thetimekeptcity and also blogs at the Thinking Faith Network.

Further Readings suggested by the author:

  • Bella Millett’s translation of Ancrene Wisse (2005) is very accessible, with an introduction and notes which provide a helpful guide to its context and ideas.
  • Ann K. Warren’s Anchorites and their Patrons in Medieval England (1985) is a classic and readable study of English anchoritic life.
  • For a less academic approach, Robyn Cadwallader’s The Anchoress (2015) is a novel which draws extensively on the details and ideas of devotion found in Ancrene Wisse, and also manages to be enjoyable historical fiction.
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Empire and Reformation: Perspectives and Possibilities

View_of_the_west_end_of_St_John’s_Church_Calcutta,_showing_houses_fronting_onto_the_churchyard_and_the_Rohilla_monument_1830

National histories have been and still remain influential. Yet historians increasingly explore the history of Britain in terms of the histories of the various parts of Britain’s former empire. How might we view Reformation as part of Britain’s imperial experience?

Throughout the past year, the University of Sheffield has hosted a range of activities connected to the theme of Reformation. In late April, I spoke about my core research at Sheffield Central Library. The talk covered art, power, and early British Indian empire, and was linked with the BBC Civilizations season. Afterwards, I began to ask myself about how “Reformation” might matter to me as a historian of British India.

European Reformation outside Europe

Reformation in Britain is usually understood within the framework of Britain’s relation with the rest of Europe. The ‘non-European’ world is largely absent from the discussions. Yet this ‘non-European’ world became the theatre of conflict between different European parties, and those parties were divided by Reformation. Beginning with Henry VIII’s declaration of English independence, the Reformation helped define what became a British national identity. This idea of the British nation was accompanied by a British understanding of the ‘other’ (as explained in Linda Colley’s work).

Struggles to uphold the Protestant character of Great Britain often coincided with key developments in her empire. Considering the histories of Britain and British empire together lets us highlight the importance of Protestantism. We then come to see Reformation as an important factor.

Protestant Christianity and national identity

The idea of Britain as a free, parliamentary state with a Protestant monarch on the throne became part of national pride. This national pride led to the discounting of others. This applied to ‘others’ within Europe and to ‘others’ within the empire. Both were viewed as tyrannical, backward, and even uncivilised. Ideas of ‘Britishness’ and ‘Otherness’ were as much cultural and social as they were political. So Protestantism defined the ‘Britishness’ of the British nation and supported a claim to British ‘uniqueness’. This created a contrast with the rest of Europe. It also served to justify the subordination of Britain’s colonies.

Reformations beyond Europe?

Scholars have studied the impact of Protestantism in British empire through the analysis of missionary activities. Yet such studies should be brought in dialogue with a broader understanding of what the Reformation is. This is only possible if the legacies of the Reformation are understood in terms of the worldview and actions of the British empire. Scholars of European Reformation ought to pay attention to developments in the non-European world, its religions and cultures. European countries may have determined the historical and political fate of the non-Europeans. Yet their own (European) histories cannot be understood in isolation.

I would like to see scholars engage with moments of religious, cultural, and political change outside of Europe. Combining the history of empire and the Reformation could challenge Eurocentrism. Widening the scope of history in this way would also improve how non-white researchers are represented at all levels of the academy.

 

Apurba Chatterjee is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield working on the visual representations of British imperial authority in India during the mid-eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. Her research interests lie in the intersection of imperial history, art history and conceptual history.

Featured image: “View of the west end of St John’s Church, Calcutta, showing houses fronting onto the churchyard and the Rohilla monument,” watercolour, by Amelia Rebecca Prinsep. (Digital version: The British Library, http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/apac/other/largeimage68452.html.)

Built and consecrated in the 1780s, the architecture of this church in colonial Calcutta is based on that of St. Martin-in-fields, London. The church used building material from the ruins of mosques and monuments from Gaur, the Islamic capital of Bengal in the medieval and early modern periods. The courtyard of the church housed several British memorials. There was a huge controversy surrounding the acquisition of land for the church. It was truly a statement of British power, and presented its spiritual basis.

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Top 10 Books on the Historical Jesus

Cefalù_Pantocrator_retouched

There is simply no end to the deluge of books written about Jesus. The author of the Gospel of John already opined, at the end of the first century, that the world could not contain them!

This list is one person’s choices. It represents fixed points to which I find myself returning, with profit. I’ve presented the titles not in chronological order,[1] but in a suggested order of approach. One can start anywhere—but whatever you do, steer clear of the conspiracy theorists, the paranoid style of American pop-Jesus-research that goes by the name ‘mythicism’, and operates with the same absurd historiographical sensibilities as holocaust deniers and Templar enthusiasts.

1. Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide  (1998)
In the grand German tradition, this introduction does what it says on the tin: it offers a comprehensive guide to the sources, context, activities and message of Jesus. Those who seek an answer to the question, ‘Why would we seek for a historical Jesus behind the Gospels in the first place, and how might one go about doing that?’ will find a learned induction here.

2. Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (2nd German edition 1913; English, 2001)[2]
This great polymath achieved the seemingly impossible in writing a sprawling history of Jesus research in the 18th and 19th centuries that ended up as one of the most fascinating books on Jesus ever written. Relentlessly pointing to the flaws in the work of his predecessors, Schweitzer presented his own vision of Jesus, relying heavily on Matthew’s Gospel, as a failed apocalyptic prophet who announced the coming of the kingdom of God but died in disappointment at its non-arrival.

3. Martin Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ (1964)
Writing in the 1890s, Kähler rejected the very possibility of doing historical Jesus work since the Gospels are entirely invested in presenting Jesus from the standpoint of Christian faith. Kähler’s project found important twentieth century heirs in scholars like Rudolf Bultmann and Luke Timothy Johnson

4. E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism(1985) and The Historical Figure of Jesus (1993)
These two books – the former more scholarly, the latter less so – offer a vision of Jesus firmly grounded in the Judaism of his day. Sanders proposes that Jesus be seen as a proponent of ‘Jewish restoration eschatology’, and sees Jesus as attempting to achieve a restoration of Israel’s theological-political fortunes.

5. John Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (1991)
This ambitious undertaking—five volumes and counting—is the most rigorous application of a criteria-based approach to authenticating the words and actions of Jesus in the gospels. He applies his criteria for historical verification—multiple attestation, embarrassment, discontinuity, coherence, and rejection & execution—with vast erudition and subtlety. Even those who disagree with Meier’s conclusions benefit from his learning and his engaging style.

6. Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne, eds., Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (2012)
The search for authenticity and the role that authenticating criteria have played in historical Jesus research, come under critical consideration here. Particularly focused by the turn to memory in recent historiography, these scholars pose acute questions about the nature of human subjectivity as it bears on the task of historical reconstruction.

7.Dale Allison, Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (2010)
Together with his brief volume of lectures The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, this book offers the mature synthesis of one of the leading scholars of the historical Jesus. Allison proposes a move toward considering ‘recurrence’ in the tradition as a sort of macro-criterion to help us grapple with the impact of Jesus in the memories of his earliest followers.

8. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony(2nd ed., 2017)
Bauckham re-investigates the role of named bearers (e.g., Matthew, John) of the memories of Jesus in the early church. He finds more reliability in some early patristic testimony than has often been allowed, and rejects a long tradition of viewing the gospels as the end-product of a long process of anonymous shaping of the tradition.

9. Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth (2007-2012)
Not a conventional work of historical Jesus scholarship (some of my colleagues will roll their eyes in seeing this here), these three volumes offer a remarkable attempt to make a serious use of the results of historical scholarship for the church. On the historical front the results are mixed; yet, one should recognize that these books would have been an unthinkable a century ago.

10. Shawn Kelley, Racializing Jesus: Race, Ideology and the Formation of Modern Biblical Scholarship(2002); Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany(2010); Halvor Moxnes, Jesus and the Rise of Nationalism: A New Quest for the Nineteenth-Century Historical Jesus (2012)
Finally, this trio of works, each in its own way, considers how the study of the life of Jesus has served ideological programs. Together, they offer a salutary caution about the motivations for and uses of historical reconstruction.

Dave Lincicum is Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Paul and the Early Jewish Encounter with Deuteronomy (Mohr Siebeck 2010; repr. Baker Academic, 2013). His research focuses on the reception of Scripture in early Christianity, the strange and unfriendly text known as the Epistle of Barnabas, and the history of biblical interpretation. 

Image: Christ Pantocrator in the apsis of the cathedral of Cefalù, c. 1130. Photograph by Andreas Wahra [via WikiCommons].

[1] Or in the order of the standard division of ‘quests’ for the historical Jesus, which I view as a flawed, German-centered historiographical periodisation

[2] Be sure to read the 2001 translation published by Fortress/SCM Press, which translates the second substantially expanded edition.

Our “Best Books” feature asks a historian to recommend the most important books to read in order to get started in their subject area. All of these blogs will appear here, as they’re posted.

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