Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321) was a Florentine poet who bridged the artistic cultures of the Middle Ages and of the Renaissance. Dante’s approach to his poetry foreshadowed the Renaissance with his use of vernacular Italian rather than Latin, and his frequent allusion to classical Greek and Roman literature and history. However, his subject matter was typically Medieval; the Divine Comedy trilogy concerns questions of salvation and of humanity’s relationship with God. It is designed as an imagined explorations of Hell (Inferno), Purgatory, and Paradise, set in the year 1300. Echoing some of the issues of the Investiture Controversy, Dante was also troubled with the church’s continued interest in secular matters, and the continued influence of secular leaders over the church. The following Canto from the first part of the Divine Comedy is about priests (especially popes) who bribed their way into office. To buy one’s office is the sin of simony, named for Simon Magus who in the New Testament Book of Acts attempted to buy the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Inferno of Dante Alghieri (London: JM Dent and Co. 1900)
Constantine the Great (272–337 BCE) became Roman emperor in 306; by 312 he had defeated his most powerful rival for power. Secure in his political power, Constantine quickly turned to matters of religion. He was responsible for issuing the Edict of Milan, along with Lucinius (a co-emperor and another rival) in 313. This Edict officially made Christianity legal within the empire. This was only the first of many steps Constantine took to promote Christianity.
Constantine also took on a leadership role in relation to the church. In 325, Constantine summoned a church council at Nicaea, to combat heresy and define a statement of belief, or a creed. Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, recorded the events of the council and the creed in his Ecclesiastical History, one of the most important sources for the history of early Christianity.
Eusebius, The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine. (London: Samuel Bagster and Sons, 1844),120-126
A Latin scholar, poet, and biographer, Boccaccio (1313–1375) is most famous today as the author of the Decameron. This compilation of 100 tales, by turns serious, bawdy, and irreverent, purports to be a rendition of the stories told over the course of 10 days by 10 young men and women who had fled Florence to escape the Black Death. Many of the tales are based on older legends, and they frequently reflect the humor of the common people of the era, often at the expense of their spiritual and social betters. Religious authorities were frequent targets of this sort of satire, reflecting their ubiquitous presence in the lives of medieval Europeans, as well as, perhaps, a deep undercurrent of resentment regarding their privileges.
Giovanni Boccaccio, “Putting the Devil Back in Hell” (3.10), from The Decameron: Selected Tales / Decameron: Novelle scelte, trans. Stanley Appelbaum (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2000), 87–93.
René Descartes (1596–1650) has been called the Father of Modern Philosophy because of his work in philosophy, metaphysics, theology, and mathematics. Perhaps best known for the groundbreaking maxim, “I think, therefore I am,” Descartes lays out a method for creating solid foundations upon which he can build theoretical arguments—an epistemology known as Cartesianism. The Discourse moves from autobiography to philosophical tract and recounts how Descartes came to the thoughts and processes that redefined philosophy.
From René Descartes, A Discourse on the Method of Correctly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences. Trans. Ian Maclean. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 5–11, 28–30, 374.
Pope Paul VI
Pope Paul VI (1897–1978) took office at a time of reform in the Catholic Church. In the wake of Vatican II (1962–1965), he extended the reforming spirit of John XXIII. Nonetheless, in the 1960s attendance at Catholic Mass continued to decline. Conservatives argued that the reforms were to blame. Liberals argued that the church’s ban on contraception and its refusal to allow women priests were the real culprits. The availability of the the Pill in 1961 put contraception front and center in the church. Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life”), Paul VI’s historic encyclical, was the result of several years of research on his part. Sex, he argued, produces offspring but also expresses human love. As such all forms of artificial contraception were to be rejected, leaving every sexual union open to the possibility of new life. This line of reasoning did not bring new converts to the church.
From Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae. American Eccesiastical Review 159: 290–300 (1968).
An Italian astronomer, physicist, and mathematician, Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) made many significant contributions to science—such as improvements to the telescope and work with sunspots—but is remembered for his support of a heliocentric model of the solar system. His conviction led him into conflict with the Catholic Church; he was accused of heresy and finished his days under house arrest. Aside from his astronomical texts, Galileo also corresponded with leading figures of his day. This letter, to the Benedictine mathematician Benedetto Castelli, addresses one of the main articles of the problem with Galileo’s heliocentrism: how to reconcile observable scientific fact with the words of the Bible, held to be literal and inviolable in 17th-century Italy.
From Galileo Galilei, Selected Writings. Trans William R. Shea and Mark Davie. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 55–61.
This letter, which Petrarca (1304–1374) never finished, represents something of an autobiographical obituary. In it he offers a summary of his life and achievements, which, interestingly, does not include the vernacular love poetry. He wanted above all to be remembered as a scholar, a lover of classical antiquity, and a Latin poet—above all, as the author of the (paralyzingly dull) epic poem Africa, about the Roman general Scipio Africanus. Petrarca carries his life story as far forward as 1341; he left no notes about what he intended to include in the presumed second half of the letter.
Translation by Clifford R. Backman
Just before his death in Babylon in June 323 BCE, Alexander the Great was the unrivalled conqueror of an enormous portion of the known world, counting modern Greece, Egypt, the Middle East, Iran, and Afghanistan among his possessions. However, when he died, leaving his kingdom “to the strongest,” conflicts immediately broke out among his Macedonian successors to determine who that strongest man was. A part of the military and political struggle that followed was an attempt to Hellenize, with varying levels of success, the older and more entrenched cultures Alexander had defeated as he raced through Africa and Asia. This process continued for the next three centuries, and, in the mid-second century BCE, one of these successor kings, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, attempted a brutal imposition of Greek cultural values on the Jews in Jerusalem. This effort, and the revolt it triggered, is described in the apocryphal (i.e., not part of the standard canon) Jewish book of 1 Maccabees. Notice that the Hellenistic era did not appear to everyone to have been a fortuitous blending of disparate cultures.
The Apocrypha: Revised Standard Version of the Old Testament (New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1957), 190–192.
The eastern Mediterranean around the beginning of the first century CE was a world of religious ferment. In addition to the civic and emerging imperial cults of the ruling Roman Empire, mystery religions—often secret groups who looked to some particular god for eternal life, Truth, and so forth, usually by means of sacrificial ceremonies and other rituals—were gaining popularity. Prominent also were many of the ideas associated with Persian Zoroastrianism and a variety of dualistic, proto-salvationist faiths influenced by it. Finally, a number of Jewish sects took varying approaches to the problem posed by Roman control of Palestine, the land they believed had been promised to them by their god. A militant strain in Judaism would rise in revolt against Rome in 69 CE, leading to the war chronicled by Josephus. But before then, a different sort of Jewish rabbi, or teacher, and his followers had already made their mark on the religious world.
Jesus of Nazareth (c. 4 BCE–c. 30 CE) was a prophet, who preached the coming, not of a military Messiah (Anointed One, a sacred leader) who would lead the Jews to repossession of the promised land, but of the coming of a spiritual Messiah who would lead not just Jews but all of mankind to the promised land of salvation and heavenly reward. At some point, his followers became convinced that he was that Messiah. Despite his emphasis on a heavenly Kingdom, his popularity among the Jewish population made both the Romans and the leaders of the Jewish community (who had no desire to irritate the Romans) nervous, and they had him executed by crucifixion. His followers, however, believed that he rose from the dead and visited his apostles before ascending to his Father in heaven, promising to return to sit in judgment on mankind.
The teachings of Jesus himself clearly formed the basis of what became a new religion, Christianity, so called because Jesus’ title of Messiah in Greek is Christos, and his followers were therefore Christians. Jesus left no writings of his own. Therefore, the working out and refining of Jesus’ message in theological terms, as well as defining who the message was aimed at and what constituted the community of believers, was largely the work of a Jew named Saul (3 BCE–64 or 67 CE) from Tarsus in Asia Minor. Trained as a rabbi and scholarly religious leader in the Jewish tradition, he underwent a sudden conversion experience, changed his name to Paul, and became early Christianity’s most influential missionary and teacher. He wrote many epistles, or letters, to different communities of converts, explaining and developing the new faith and, most crucially, opening it up decisively to Gentiles, or non-Jews. His letter to a group of Christians in Rome is his fullest, most complete statement of the tenets of the new religion, and it came to be part of the authoritative texts of the faith. These texts, including Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, came to be known collectively as the New Testament of the Bible, to distinguish it from the Old Testament, the Jewish portion of the Bible. A section of this epistle is the first reading here.
Also included as the foundation of the New Testament were accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings, known as Gospels, or Good News. Four came to be considered canonical, with pride of place taken by that of Matthew. Early Christians attributed this book to the Matthew who was one of Jesus’ original twelve Apostles, but modern scholarship places the author as a second-generation Christian, probably from Antioch, writing around 80 CE. Included here is the section of the Gospel of Matthew known as the Sermon on the Mount, which almost certainly represents not a verbatim transcription of a single speech but Matthew’s summary of Jesus’ key teachings set in an appropriate setting. Together, the writings of Paul and Matthew give a good sense of the foundations of this new salvation religion.
The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Edition (New York: American Bible Society, 1952): Romans 1, 5, 10; Matthew 5, 6.
The discovery of 13 shells in a cave in eastern Morocco in 2007 has led to a discussion about the oldest known form of human ornamentation. Because each shell contains a pierced hole and traces of red ochre (a pigment derived from clay), archaeologists concluded that the shells had been strung together as necklaces or bracelets. Another important detail is that the shell is from a genus of marine snail called Nassarius. The closest this snail is found to the site (at least today) is an island off the coast of Tunisia, more than 800 miles away.
Smithsonian’s Human Origin Program, J. Di Loreto and D.H. Hurlbert. Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, http://humanorigins.si.edu/category/tags/292
Thomas the Eparch and Joshua Diplovatatzes
The siege and conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks under Mehmet II (r. 1451–1481) was one of the turning points of world history. Unfolding over two months between April 5 and May 29, 1453, the siege exposed the inability of the Byzantine emperor Constantine XI to withstand a sustained and massive attack. Outnumbering the defenders 11 to 1, the Ottomans battered Constantinople’s walls with heavy cannons and took advantage of the natural weaknesses of the city’s geography. This account, told by two survivors and (self-proclaimed) eyewitnesses to the siege and its aftermath, details some of the specific stages of the defeat—and the suffering for Christians that came as a result.
trans. William L. North from the Italian version in A. Pertusi, ed., La Caduta di Constantinopoli: Le testimonianze dei contemporanei (Milan: Mondadori, 1976), 234–239, available online at https://apps.carleton.edu/curricular/mars/assets/Thomas_the_Eparch_and_Joshua_Diplovatatzes_for_MARS_website.pdf.