Saturday, 20 February 2010

Gibbon vs Augustine

I'm still working my way slowly through my Gibbon audiobook, with the occasional half an hour before I go to sleep or an hour on a train journey. The problem is that now it's Lent, and in Lent I like to read something, rather than actually going through the self-discipline of giving something up. This year it's Augustine on the Psalms, after Cassiodorus on the Psalms last year.

Gibbon is renowned for being anti-Christian, and he got into some trouble for parts of his work. When I listened to these bits my first reaction was that he was being surprisingly polite about Christianity -- imputing folly to misinterpretations rather than to anything intrinsic. I suppose his detractors were not very used to hearing people being rude about Christianity, whereas nowadays there's a constant stream of unpleasant and facile jokes made at our expense. Luckily we Christians, Protestants at least, rather like this, even if it is wearing over time, because of the bits that say "Blessed are you when people revile you" (see Matt 5.10-12) -- it makes us feel a little bit less like the pharisees -- most of the time I at least feel terribly like a pharisee. Anyway, Gibbon pays a lot of lip service to Christianity. The way in which he loses my sympathy is with his constant snide comments, which no doubt he could defend as simple quotations of ancient authors -- you get the impression that he felt himself terribly clever to be so rude while still staying within the bounds of what was politely permissible at the time. That sort of mealy-mouthed politeness with underlying jibes is not very likeable.

Gibbon thinks that Christianity came along and spoilt his lovely Roman empire -- not a view widely held by historians today, but it's true that it's not much use everyone having run off to become a monk if you're trying to raise an army. My contrasting opinion is that the Roman Empire took over and did not do much good to lovely Christianity, by making it all patrician. There's an excellent novel by Iain Pears, The Dream of Scipio, which treats this theme very well. (It's also the best novel ever about textual criticism, unless you count Pale Fire.) I also read a very good Peter Brown book about it not long ago.

The last time I read some Augustine it was his On Free Will, in which he writes about this issue in an old-school proper philosophical format, in a dialogue complete with those somewhat odd rather personal exchanges that you come across in the genre. It was very hard work, and several of his logical steps were ones I would have liked to have been the pupil for, and challenged; it really felt like he was making a point as much by the format as by the content. I was reading it at the same time as Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love, which it seemed to me tackled something very similar indeed, but from a hugely different angle. You can't help but warm to Julian, with her vision of the little thing the size of a hazelnut in the palm of her hand, and the revelation that this was all that existed, and that it only continued to exist because God loved it. Behind her visions and plain English speech lie a good deal of learning and sophisticated understanding, and Augustine was certainly very influential on her thought. They tackle the question "Why does God allow sin?" with similar points, but such a different tone. Julian conveys distress tempered by faith and hope, Augustine intellectual curiosity.

Augustine on the Psalms is a very different proposition. Last year when I read Cassiodorus over Lent I made myself targets of so much per day; usually three psalms, but four or five if I could manage it, because Psalm 118 is such a monster (really it's 22 short psalms). I pushed myself hard, and spent most of my daily rat-exercising hour on it. I enjoyed his practical attitude. He expressly says it's meant as a shorter and more accessible version of Augustine's work, and he likes telling us things, and occasionally remarking on how excellent this all is. Augustine on the Psalms is so much longer that I was never able to entertain the idea of reading it all in one Lent. But what has surprised me is that I keep finding it rather moving. He wrote it over thirty years, and some Psalms have more than one section on them; some bits were dictated to secretaries as notes for future reference, some were taught to pupils, while others were preached in churches to a mixed audience. It's some of his most personal material, after the Confessions, obviously; we know that Psalms were hugely important to him from his conversion onwards, and on his deathbed he asked to be left alone to pray the penitential psalms. Where Cassiodorus talks about all the things that one can learn from the Psalms, Augustine adds a significant emotional and spiritual dimension. It's very important for him that the Psalms are a way of exercising the emotions; you pray a Psalm and let it direct your emotions towards better places. Also here he does convey real sadness about damage and sin. I haven't always found it easy to like Augustine in the past, and one could argue that his own problems with lust have had a really strong and quite negative effect on the direction of the church. ("Please could the church get over Augustine's dick?" as one feminist theologian plaintively remarked recently.) But in his Enarrationes in Psalmos he comes across as a real human, and one with a remarkable sense of the inner human being. I think I shall read them slowly, one psalm per day, and carefully, and it won't matter if I never finish them all.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Things I have been up to

It was absolutely heavenly preparing my paper for the Rome conference, and I was lucky enough to talk in the very first session, which took off the pressure. Of course now I have to write it up for the proceedings, and I'm enjoying that so much that I keep going back to it instead of doing the things I need to do, viz., prepare teaching for Monday and Tuesday in York. This is particularly necessary because on the Monday I want to tell them why provenance is important. I feel very strongly that provenance is important, which is why I decided to add it into the course, but fitting the importance of provenance into a single session is going to challenging. Tuesday is just post-Conquest script in England, so it won't be too hard, but I need to amass lots of examples in a powerpoint.

Anyway, to return in focus at least to Rome, here is the view from my bedroom window in the Domus S. Marthae.

You look across the Piazza S. Marthae to the northern side of the dome of St Peter's. On the left-hand-side of the curve of the dome there's a door with a guard outside it, tiny in that picture because St Peter's is so huge. I was told that this was a way for Vatican residents to enter St Peter's without going through the tourist queues. The guard led me through a narrow dark passageway and opened a door for me, and suddenly I was about ten feet away from a red velvet rope behind which large numbers of people were taking photos with flash going off right at me. It turned out I had come out of a door in the middle of a tomb. Here is a picture I took afterwards from behind the photographing tourists; I emerged from the darkness under the skeleton.

It was very disconcerting and I had to go and sit by the confessional boxes for a while just to try to look spiritual, and like the sort of person who might justifiedly take shortcuts through the Vatican and appear out of renaissance tombs.

In general St Peter's is not to my taste. The first time I ever went to Rome I was rather shocked by it. I was not there as a tourist, but to read a wonderful manuscript in the Vatican Library, so I had just one morning, out of a busy week, set aside for seeing things. I went to visit some catacombs as a contrast. The rows of bare tombs, and the scratched messages of vulgar Latin commemoration like "Vibas in Christo", are far more congenial for a Protestant.

I also found an amazing place to eat, so good that I went back for lunch the day after Fiona took me there for dinner. It's called Antica Taverna, and is at 12 Via di Monte Giardino.

I just made it back to Devon in time for Shrove Tuesday -- which I realised on the plane made my present to my mother of some Trappist-made chocolate spread rather inappropriate, since she always gives up chocolate for Lent. Yesterday I was off again, to London this time, for the Annual John Coffin Palaeography lecture, which was a really excellent paper and well worth the journey. Also I had been invited to the dinner afterwards, which was rather flattering. A certain palaeographer of recently increased fame was there, being his unique self, fun but challenging until you've had enough wine to just go with it. (For a flavour, see his comments on this blog entry.) I haven't been to a dinner with so many toasts in a long long time. My contribution was Humfrey Wanley (1672-1726), who is the closest thing I have to a hero, a cheerful man of remarkable learning. The eminent Professor in question indignantly refused the suggestion of M. R. James -- "I will not toast that over-rated gynophobe!" he said with a high degree of firmness. It occurred to that if, when we revere past scholars, we start to leave out all the over-rated gynophobes we may be in trouble -- I did not say this. But it was really an excellent evening.

Today was the BL, where I was trying to disentangle Jerome from pseudo-Jerome in a manuscript of considerable codicological interest, and Lambeth Palace, where I was looking at a lovely simple Anglo-Saxon Psalter of deceptively sophisticated learning. Then a lamb shashlik with a friend. Then back to Devon for cocoa and rats. Hurray!

Friday, 12 February 2010

Various -ographies

I am at a glossography conference in Rome. It's one of the best conferences I've been to in ages, but is also very exhausting. Favourite moments so far:

1. Flying out on easyjet from Bristol I was forced to overhear teenage girls (about 15, 16, obviously thinking themselves very grown up). Some had arrangements with male friends that if they hadn't managed to find anyone to marry by a certain age they would marry each other -- the age in question was 25 years old. Daft puppies. Also they were asking each other if when they were 30 they would rather go out with an 18-year-old or a 50-year-old, and all went for the 18-year-old. Luckily for university professors few women live this principle.

2. On the first night we stayed at a place just like in Father Ted where versions of normal things are intended entirely for priests. This was a priest hotel. Everyone there was a priest, except anyone doing anything practical, who was a nun. The rooms were plain and functional with en-suites -- no hairdryers, but a helpful notice informed us that if we wanted to concelebrate mass we could borrow an amice and purificator from the reception desk.

3. Now we're in the Domus S. Marthae. The view from my window, across a piazza to St Peter's, is spectacular, and every time we go in or out of the Vatican the Swiss Guards salute. This is a lodging house for cardinals when they elect a new pope, and again there is a heavily ecclesiastical clientele. (The reason that we couldn't stay the first night was because of a sudden influx of cardinals.) It's nice and plain in the rooms, without even bad religious art (the first place was full of terribly saccharine madonnas) but downstairs it's really rather lavish and gilded. And everything is carefully adapted to the elderly, as many of the cardinals are not young. Anyway now I know what a cardinal has for breakfast: it's disappointingly like a normal breakfast. There are Coco Pops, and All Bran "Per La Tua RegularitĂ !". But today was Friday so maybe it's a plain breakfast for religious reasons.

4. Wonderful conference moment: southern gentleman from Baton Rouge, plays washboard in a band, short grey beard, intrinsically relaxed, is having a little trouble with his powerpoint. "Clic! Clicca lĂ !" shout lots of Italian women from the audience, at a high pitch of excitement and urgency, and with some degree of contradiction. He stops fiddling with the computer and looks up at his audience. "Do not worry", he says, in his wonderful unshaken drawl, "Everything is going to be alright". And it was alright. I think I need to record him saying it, to keep about me for moments of high stress.

5. Snow in Rome. Unfortunately we couldn't get to the Pantheon to see the snow falling into it. Actually it was a pretty pathetic snowfall, but it made the people from Sicily very happy.

6. I have been at dinner with Big Names, loudly defending palaeography after too much wine. And possibly telling too many anecdotes, and being my usual socially maladjusted self, but I've had just the right amount of wine not to care! Hurray!

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Strano, ma interessante

Last time I went to Rome it was from Bologna. It struck me then that I preferred Bologna, with its compact centre, its portici so easy for the walker, and its clear and efficient bus system. But I think Rome has reexerted its pull today, through its sheer glorious anythingness. As we walked from the private Catholic university where we are having our conference towards our accommodation in the Vatican we cut through St Peter’s square, where many people were singing Salve regina and holding little candles. Suddenly they all started waving their handkerchiefs like crazy and the pope appeared at a very far window. There was something oddly touching about this tiny tiny figure so high up and far away – though we could see him clearly on a large TV screen down at our level. He said a prayer for the sick, and then blessed us, and the nuns waved and waved.

We managed to find someone who told us what it was about – it was for the sick, she said. Then fireworks started over the southern curve of columns. They went on and on, in inventive forms with multitudinous colours, and huge bangs that reverberated back and forwards across the square. They didn’t stop for a surprisingly long time. I don’t remember when I last saw such a display – it was a good deal more impressive than the several times I have been to the Lord Mayor’s fireworks in London.

One of our party, an American-Italian lexicographer, said her Catholic mother would be absolutely thrilled that she was blessed by the pope (a moment I managed to capture on my camera phone). It occurred to me then that the whole spectacle would most probably have depressed my mother severely. If she were thinking of something to do for the sick then she would start with prayer, but I doubt her next move would be a firework display which I just cannot believe could have come in under several tens of thousands of pounds. Visits would be more her style, helping to take people out, reading letters for blind friends, and talking to the lonely however difficult they may be – these are things which my mother, of whom I am proud, makes an effort to do. And I must say that the papal way did seem odd to me, when we’re so used to fireworks as celebrations – “there’s loads of sick people in the world – let’s make some noise!” Like the pharisees said, the money could have been spent on other things, and as a general rule I couldn't myself take part in the strange exuberances of Roman Catholicism. But it’s still quite joyful to stumble across them unexpectedly at dusk.

The white speck in the window on the top floor, second from the right, is the pope:

Here are some nuns watching fireworks:

Monday, 1 February 2010


I don't usually like to listen to audiobooks which I haven't already read. It's not only a snobbery thing, I also don't like to risk investing the listening time in something which I haven't already decided I like. But I've only read some of Gibbon's Decline and Fall -- I had a little six-volume Everyman set which is the only thing I regret getting rid of in my pre-Italy clear out, and I'd only read the first volume of that. I'm now listening to it on audiobook and it's fantastic. It helps that the narrator has a voice like Oliver Postgate, only instead of "Listen! I will tell you the tale of Noggin the Nog, as it was told in the days of old by the men of the Northlands", or "He was just an old saggy cloth cat, baggy and a bit loose at the seams, but Emily loved him", he says things like "Trained from his earliest youth in the exercise of arms, he set too small a value on the life of a citizen, chastised by military execution the slightest offences, and transferred the stern discipline of the camp into the civil administration of the laws", etc etc.

So far I am about 18 hours into the first of three unabridged volumes, each volume about 40 hours in length. Gibbon's beautiful rolling sentences were made to be read aloud by an Englishman of mature years with an understated wry inflection. The only problem with audiobooks is that it's harder to stop and reread something that's particularly good. So far the things that have made me want to go and find out more are 1) the way that Gibbon obviously loathed Galiennus but makes him sound really interesting 2) Zenobia seems pretty interesting too. Gibbon is very sniffy about her not committing suicide. (I hope there are good readable biographies of these people, but I expect not.)

The audiobook is from, read by Bernard Mayes, who has also done an unabridged City of God, apparently, nearly 48 hours long. I don't think I could face that; you'd be about twenty hours in before he stopped telling you why it's not a good idea to worship Romulus.

Other good audiobooks on audible are: the comedy of Laura Solon; a brilliant unabridged Moonstone with each narrator done by a different actor; and anything with Sue Perkins in.

(Here is the famous Gibbon quote on the younger of the Gordians: "His manners were less pure, but his character was equally amiable with that of his father. Twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes, attested the variety of his inclinations, and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than ostentation.")