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Unearthing Footprints of Old - An Introduction to Pre-Reformation Literature
We left the house at 11:00 to go and pick up a new laptop for Anna, we didn’t get back home until 17:00, a whole six hours later. What should have been a quick trip to the local computer store became a test of our patience and the endurance of our phone batteries—a battle my phone sadly lost. One section of the motorway (highway) had been closed entirely, and in the ensuing chaos, two severe crashes had taken place. The result was almost a week of road closures, accidents, and angry drivers. One small gap in an otherwise constant road had caused more trouble than anyone could have predicted.
As protestants, we love our history and the books which have survived from it, but often with a large exception. Recently in an article on Tim Challies' website, Challies answered a question from a reader who wanted to know which old books she should begin with from the Christian canon. The list was a sound one, with many notable inclusions such as Augustine’s Confessions, Brooks’ Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, and Ryle’s Holiness. Though this wasn’t by any means meant to be an exhaustive list, it still presented a common and unfortunate flaw in the way we, as protestants, often view Christian history.
Confessions → Pilgrim’s Progress
“…as far as I can tell, this was not an era in which there were a lot of devotional works that have since been affirmed by Protestants. (Authors like Thomas à Kempis and Brother Lawrence are still read and treasured today, but typically not by Reformed Protestants.)”
The era Challies is talking about here—from Confessions to Pilgrim’s Progress—spans 1200 years, an absence which is frankly absurd and saddening. To be clear, I’m not knocking Challies at all, he’s right, we often miss this period, but that doesn’t mean that we should continue to do so. Imagine if instead of one section of the motorway being closed last week, it had been twelve what kind of havoc would that have wrought? Though work has been done to remedy this in recent years, I don’t think we’re nearly as aware of this era as we should be. To my mind, there are three main reasons we can’t continue like this, and why we need to read more broadly from this time period:
We need to dispel the notion that the post-early-church-father → pre-reformation period is devoid of helpful and theologically invigorating work which we can acknowledge and affirm
As well as explicitly Christian writings, there are also works from this period which we ought to be more aware of because of their influence on our cultures and/or the history of the church
To round out our understanding of history before Zwingli & Luther, and to retrieve texts which are of vital importance for the life of the church today
If any of those three points tugs at you, I hope this series will give you an oppurtunity to respond. I’ve often said that in the life of the Christian there are only well-worn paths, many have trodden them before, and their footsteps are to be found in the literature they’ve left behind. Unfortunately, many of them have been covered up by the dust of the decades and are still waiting to be uncovered once more, at least by those in our camp.
Accounting for the Absence
For many of us, when modern audiences think of this era, four major focal points spring to mind:
The period between the 5th and 14th centuries which some still think of as “the Dark Ages”
The schism between the Western and Eastern Churches
The Rise of Islam
In addition, we as protestants enter with another point, that being the issues within the Catholic church which lead to the second major Church split, after which we’re named. In the time since we’ve experienced the worst and longest-lasting mental health pandemic the world has ever known, more denominational splits than anyone could possibly count, the “Rise of the Modern Self",” as well as two worldwide wars in the last century alone. Our “era” is not all that different. In addition, while we’ve adopted an unfavourable understanding of the period from badly researched documentaries and wildly inaccurate period films, the truth is that bastions of knowledge and learning were founded during this time, one notable inclusion being Oxford University which was established in 1096. Due to the efforts of both the Catholic Church, as well as Muslim communities and establishments, original copies and translations of both newer books and older ones were being kept and protected like never before. This retention and dissemination of knowledge were what lead to works like Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, and Lombard’s Sentences before it, which laid the groundwork for later works of a similar nature. In addition, this period introduced Christianity’s most enduring and impressive opponent, the Quran and the religion that it upholds. Though it’s long been available to read in English, and though many of us now rub shoulders with Muslims on a daily or weekly basis, most of us have never read and never intend to read what is, arguably, one of the most influential books in history. Whilst I don’t believe it should in any way inform our own faith or understanding of it, it’s nonetheless important that we not unduly disregard it as unimportant.
Sidenote: With each book, we’ll also look deeper into the specific history of that time. This is by no means an exhaustive history of the period.
A New Old Thing
A friend of mine often talks about what’s next for the church as a “new—old—thing,” because truly there’s nothing new under the sun, and we ought to remember that. This series may contain books which are new to you, or even to me, including some you’ll have heard of but never personally read. These include:
The Book of Pastoral Rule by Gregory the Great
Bede - The Ecclesiastical History of the English
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
Foxe's Book of Martyrs.
As well as seven more which to cover the period, one hundred years at a time. This will not be an exhaustive list, in fact, one book every hundred years is about as break-neck as we could get, but it’s necessary. My aim is to release one article in this series every month for a year, starting at the end of October and running through until next September.
My hope is not that you’ll read the articles, get the cliff-note versions and then forget about them. I would love it if you would commit to purchasing—or simply downloading in some cases—one or more of these books, taking the advice in mind, and then work through it/them at your own pace. In addition, if there’s a greater interest in one or more of the books, we might even run a month-long read-through where we can gather with others to share insights, thoughts, and struggles.
This is a pretty short article today I know, but one I hope has convinced you to think about the gaps in your own reading. In around a month we’ll be looking at Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule, but until then, let me leave you with this:
“It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”
Grace and Peace,
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