Tag Archives: Religious History

Review: “The Abacus and the Cross”

Pope Sylvester II (Gerbert) doesn’t have time for your lack-of-science-and-math bullshit.

Remember when I very enthusiastically reviewed Nancy Marie Brown’s Song of the Vikings? Well during the papal elections (I’m a not so secret Vatican/Pope fanatic. Not in the sense that I’m Catholic but in the sense that I am in love with the crazy shit that the Bishops of Rome used to get up to.) I picked up one of her older books, The Abacus and the Cross, which bills itself as “the story of the pope who brought the light of science to the Dark Ages.” Yes, this book is a biography of Gerbert (later known as Pope Sylvester II) but it’s more than the life of one man. In the same way that Song of the Vikings was a biography of Snorri that also told a grander story of Icelandic history and culture this biography uses Gerbert’s life to tell the story of the end of the first century in Christian Europe.

Gerbert is the sort of person who you have to feel bad for.  A peasant born monk who probably could have spent his life happily working away on various scientific and mathematical problems in the libraries of Europe Gerbert ended becoming involved in some of the big political kerfuffles of his time. The reader watches as the somewhat (Well, maybe more than somewhat) naive Gerbert is forced to learn the diplomacy needed to interact with kings and empresses and men with big tempers and even bigger armies. As Gerbert attempts to reunite the Holy Roman Empire it’s impossible not to want to hug him and say, “It’s alright, honey, you tried your best.”

Song of the Vikings helped provide a nuanced and more realistic portrait of Viking Iceland and The Abacus and the Cross does similarly for Plutarch’s “Dark Ages.” Following Gerbert’s travels to Spain we see the multicultural city of Corboda where Jews and Christians could advance to the upper levels of government in this Muslim city. There is no sugar coating in this book, no attempt to make the Dark Ages look like a “Kumbaya” singing group of multiracial people holding hands but it does put a clearer perspective on the cultural politics before the early 1000s.

Ms. Brown also preforms a service by reminding us of the importance of Muslims in not just preserving Greco-Roman science and culture but in adding to and advancing them to new heights. Indeed, Gerbert’s own achievements would have been impossible had it not been for the teachings of Muslim scientists and mathematicians. (Ms. Brown’s writings on the political motivations behind the demonizing of non-Christians that would follow only a few years after Gerbert’s death are also particularly interesting.)

The subject of the Church and its relationship with science and math and logic and reason (I’m working really hard to keep my agnostic evidence based snarky bastard side in check right now.) isn’t a new discussion but Ms. Brown provides more context by discussing how a Gerbert, a scientist who would become pope, found his faith and his science came together like one big happy family. By using him as an example for the more traditional faction of the Church that viewed science and math as forms of better understanding God versus those who were beginning to look at arithmetic as Devil worship Ms. Brown describes the contrasting sides quite nicely. The look at how this scientist pope was treated after death when those that disagreed with his views on science and math became the dominant voice is a fascinating way of understanding the shifts that occurred with the Church.

The Abacus and the Cross might not be as accessible as Song of the Vikings (I mean, the latter is about Vikings and who doesn’t love Vikings?) but if you give it a chance I think that most readers will find themselves engrossed in this book. This book could also be perfect for any reader who is looking for a solid history that provides nuances to their understanding of the history of the Catholic Church.

The Abacus and the Cross; Nancy Marie Brown; Basic Books, copyright 2010

Sod Off (Give Away)REMINDER: I’m giving away two copies of this print for free. Details are here.




Review: “God’s Secret Agents”

I’m going to lay this out right here and now: God’s Secret Agents is the best non-fiction book that I’ve read this year (Song of the Vikings is an exceedingly close second) and this review is going to be heavy on the praise. The Cliffnotes version of this post reads something like this: You should read God’s Secret Agents.

In God’s Secret Agents Alice Hogge has produced a book that hits full marks for every aspect I judge history books on. Text is accessible and engaging? Yes. Presents a point of view that is as objective as possible/acknowledges potential biases? Yes. Offers a new interpretation or understanding of subject? Yes. Provides insights into modern culture? Yes. 10 out of 10, you go Alice Hogge.

God’s Secret Agents follows Catholics in England from the early years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign when Catholicism went from the state religion to the religion of traitors up until the extremely unsuccessful Gun Powder Plot that made Guy Fawkes so famous. Though the book’s cover implies that it is focused just on the Catholic priests who fled England to study in Europe and then risked their lives to return to England in an attempt to bring their home back to what they saw as the true and proper faith the book’s subject is far more expansive. While the narrative of these priests would be fascinating by itself Ms Hogge goes above and beyond by providing a history that puts the idea of the “revolutionary priests” in the context of its time and lays out the driving forces of all parties involved.

There are two points that I feel Ms Hogge deserves extra praise on. The first is that she takes apart the whole concept of the Catholic priest plotting to kill the Monarch and bring the Roman Catholic faith back into England. Priests in elaborate hiding holes and Guy Fawkes (who wasn’t a priest) style agents dominate our notion of this time period but Miss Hogge explains how this notion is rooted in the English government’s propaganda which was itself rooted in paranoia and not so much in fact. Yes, there were certainly some who did want to kill Elizabeth (and later James) but from the accounts of the active Catholics themselves these seem to be a minority. Despite a Papal decision that could be interpreted as allowing the assassination of Elizabeth most of the priests who traveled incognito throughout England were more concerned with the spiritual salvation of their countrymen than with Elizabeth’s life. Indeed the idea that a Catholic could not be a true Englishman loyal to his country was much more firmly held by the English government than the Catholics, many of  whom didn’t see such a firm contradiction between holding onto the old religion and supporting their Queen. This is not to say that all was peaceful but it was certainly more complex than we like to imagine. Another important distinction that we tend to forget is that it wasn’t just Catholic priests (Jesuit or otherwise) who were active in trying to restore the Catholic religion to England.

The second point that I thought Ms Hogge addressed very nicely was how violent and terrifying this period could be. While the reign of Bloody Mary is well remembered for the persecution of Protestants and Puritans the reign of Queen Elizabeth has been more sanitized (I have two pet theories on why this is: Our desire to remember elevate Queen Elizabeth to impossibly high standards and the fact that Catholics never returned to power.) Ms Hogge introduces us to an England where suspected Catholics faced not just financial persecution but also gruesome tortures and executions. Indeed this is an England where one nobleman felt that if his friend had been a murderer or thief or pirate or anything other than a Catholic he would be able to ask for leniency from the courts but since his friend was accused of being a Catholic he would be risking his own life in asking for leniency that would not be served. This book is an important and strong reminder that even golden ages can be filled with horrific details that we try our best to forget.

Ms Hogge’s final chapter is a particularly important aspect of this book as it presents one of the best connections between the past and present that I have ever seen. She first dismantles the connections frequently made between this period and modern events and then offers up more reasonable ones that actually, you know, make sense. Her history on the evolution of Catholic identities in England from the Tudor/Stewart era to modern politicians is also highly fascinating.

God’s Secret Agents is a thorough and comprehensive history that brings light into an aspect of history that has been obscured by retention to the propaganda of the time and should engage even the most casual student of history.

God’s Secret Agents; Alice Hogge; HarpersCollins, 2005