Book Review: Sacred History by Van Liere et al.

Van Liere, Katherine, Simon Ditchfield, and Howard Louthan, eds. Sacred History: Uses of the Christian Past in the Renaissance World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

What if ecclesiastical history in the era after the Reformation was not just a detour or even an impediment to “modern” secular history, but rather a venerable tradition in its own right, mutually interacting with other forms of history, and continuing into the present? Then Sacred History can serve as a valuable into this oft-neglected discipline. This book of essays grew out of a 2008 colloquium at Calvin College and its 2010 counterpart at Notre Dame. The time between its 2008 inception and 2012 publication appears well spent; the book is composed logically and many of the essays evidence a season of careful reflection.

The book is divided into three parts. The first contains four essays offering general introductions to the practice and noteworthy practitioners of ecclesiastical history from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. The second part takes a local approach, focusing on various ecclesiastical histories in early modernity’s developing nation-states. The third explores different approaches to and uses for ecclesiastical history in the Roman Catholic world. Catholicism is overrepresented in this volume in order to counter Protestant predominance in the field at large.

First I’ll take a paragraph to talk about particular essays of note. Grafton’s opening essay is unsurprisingly brilliant. In firm command of both the primary and secondary literature, he is able to maximize the educational value of his anecdotes. Particularly striking is his description of the seventeenth century’s novel collaborative research programs for ecclesiastical history. Also intriguing is his claim that modern intellectual history owes more to the ecclesiastical histories of this period than to the more politically focused secular histories. Giuseppe Antonio Guazzelli’s chapter on Cesare Baronio, author of the Annales eclesiastici, the most comprehensive work of Catholic ecclesiastical history, highlights how easy it is to subordinate vast erudition to ideological agenda. Baronio’s magnificent historical and antiquarian knowledge was marshaled to prove that the Catholic Church was semper eadem, ever the same, which is effectively using history to deny history. David Collins’ survey of the Germania illustrata demonstrates that supposedly secular nationalist writers found religion a source of national pride and identity, whereas Rosamund Oates’ essay on the Elizabethan era shows how quickly political events could alter the shape and message of ecclesiastical histories. Jean-Marie Le Gall’s investigation of French hagiography contradicts any simple narrative of disenchantment, as critical challenges are seen to have spurred new traditions. Irina Oryshkevich, discussing Catholic views on early Christian art, ably sketches general trends and probes an intriguing contrarian document. Finally, Adam Beaver addresses the rise of Holy Land studies among antiquarians, emphasizing the atypical approach many humanists took to the genre.

Now for some general reflections. Most generally, this volume has impressed upon me yet again the need for scholarship to transcend narrow disciplinary boundaries. Ecclesiastical history was an international and in many ways inter-confessional (though not ecumenical) activity. Most of the ecclesiastical historians cultivated broad networks of influence, keeping them close to the pulse of European intellectual life. Local and confessional studies are invaluable but insufficient by themselves to grasp the aim, character, and influence of ecclesiastical history. A second idea I gleaned from reading this is just how inaccurate ecclesiastical history was. Otherwise sober, critical humanists failed to maintain objectivity when their own legacy was in question. Even outright fabrication was not uncommon. However, the source of this distortion was not always purely or even primarily religious. Both Katherine Elliot Van Liere’s essay on Spanish Christianity and Oates’ on Elizabethan England play up the extent to which ecclesiastical history was pressed into political service. Howard Louthan’s account of the Holy Roman Empire details outright fabrication in order to salve dynastic and patrial pride, as well as to promote piety. Salvador Ryan’s chapter on Irish Catholicism features history as a tool of ethnic discrimination. We historians are but men and women, biased creatures, prone to crafting reassuring fables. This is so much more the case when our work is linked directly to tribal and/or political agendas.

In summary, Sacred History contains many essays useful to the early modernist and is one of those rare essay collections that can be read enjoyably and profitably cover to cover.