Saturday, August 21, 2021

Six Book Reviews

For several months now I have been promising various book reviews, and seeing how hopelessly backed up I am, I decided to tackle them all in a single post. This means each book will have to be covered with more brevity than I would like, but I figure it is a case of something is better than nothing. If you would like to purchase any of these works, please use the links I have provided, so your ole pal Boniface can get a few bucks in affiliate income.

Bonds of Wool: The Pallium and Papal Power in the Middle Ages (Steven Schoenig SJ, 2016): At 544 pages, Bonds of Wool by Steven Schoenig was quite a read. It took me the majority of the year to get through. And it was dense. But wow, was it worth it! Bonds of Wool is an exhaustive study about the development of the papal pallium, the woolen garment that is conferred upon metropolitan archbishops upon their accession to their see. Covering the period from Gregory the Great to Innocent III, Bonds of Wool traces the story of how the medieval popes utilized this fascinating little garment to expand their influence and centralizing control over the medieval episcopacy. In the service of its prime emphasis, however, the book touched on many interesting ancillary subjects: relationships between metropolitans and suffragans, medieval concepts of gift giving, papal authority (in theory and practice), the dynamic between Rome and other archiepiscopal sees, and tons of historical anecdotes to illustrate the content. It got my mind turning on so many subjects; it also gave me material to blog about that will serve me for the next several years. Overall, I thought Bonds of Wool was a superb book—and really, an exemplar of what a good history text should look like. I have never heard of the author, Fr. Steven Schoenig SJ., but he is a consummate historian. If someone were to ask me how to write a well-researched, thorough, objective history book, I would hand them Bonds of Wool. I can't recommend it highly enough. That being said, be warned: it's a great book, but it's not an easy book. I consider myself an advanced reader, and it still took me 9 months to complete. It's a scholarly work, not a pop book, so take note. But, if you like wading through mounds of primary source text to see how history actually unfolded, this is your book.

Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair (Christopher Oldstone-Moore, 2017): I picked up Of Beards and Men at a library book sale just by virtue of the title and cover art. Being amongst the bearded, and a facial hair aficionado myself, I was amused by the concept of a history book about beards and shelled out $3.00 for a used copy mainly for amusement—something to leave in the bathroom to peruse while in the advanced stages of digesting my Taco Bell. So I didn't have high hopes for it. But I was surprised with how well researched and enjoyable this book was. It combined scholarly exegesis of historical documents with a witty, easy writing style that made it a pleasure to read. Dr. Oldstone-Moore is a senior lecturer of history at Wright University, and his familiarity with the subject matter is plain. I can't imagine what sort of work must have gone into compiling 5,000 years of documentation about facial hair and distilling it down into a 345 page book. But Dr. Oldstone-Moore succeeded admirably. Central to Of Beards and Men is the study of the perception of masculinity in the history of western civilization. When I first caught on to the gender perception theme of the book, I was worried it was going to turn into a Woke screed. To my pleasant surprise, it was nothing of the sort. I don't know Dr. Oldstone-Moore's religious affiliation, if any, and of course it was a secular book, but I was quite happy with how he handled the source material and the conclusions he drew without at all sliding into Woke gender-fantasy land. Of particular interest to me were the three chapters on facial hair during Christendom, which contained sources I had never run across and am interested to learn more about. The major takeaway from this section was that Christians have always tended to exaggerate the aesthetic styles and decorum of their own age as reflective of "natural law" and condemned deviations as contra naturam, usually without sufficient reflection of how these opinions have changed throughout over time. It was fascinating to see how Christian thinkers first eschewed beards, then promoted them aggressively, then went back to saying they are irrational and contra naturam, and then did an another about face to suggest that actually shaving was contra naturam. Not to say there are no valid universal norms of decency, but it is a fine example of why we have to be careful about dogmatizing our societal aesthetics. I thought overall it was an excellent read. I don't approve of every conclusion the author drew, but my objections were minimal.

Pharaohs and Kings (David Rohl, 1996): It was only a few weeks ago that I picked up Pharaohs and Kings by David Rohl at the illustrious John K. King bookstore in Detroit. Pharaohs and Kings is an older book (I think outside the U.S.A. it was released under a different title: A Test of Time), but I am a sucker for Egyptology and ancient archaeology so I lugged this 425 page hardcover tome home with me and started reading it. I finished it in five days. It was that good. Rohl's book is essentially a promotion of something called the "New Chronology" in Egyptology, which is the theory that traditional Egyptian chronology is errant before around 624 B.C. based on a miscalculation of the length of the Third Intermediate Period (1069-525 in traditional dating). Rohl says this period was actually much shorter, perhaps by three hundred years, and thus traditional Egyptian regnal dates should be adjusted downward. For example, he proposes Rameses II reigned in the 10th century B.C., not the 13th century B.C. The book is chock full of archaeological minutiae upon which Rohl bases his theory. In truth, it's probably too much archaeology for the layman to follow cogently, but at least it cannot be said that the argument he presents is without merit. The implications of the New Chronology are pertinent to understanding the archaeological record as it pertains to the Old Testament. While Rohl does not set out to argue about the historicity of the Old Testament, it happens incidentally that adopting his proposed New Chronology situates the Old Testament much more securely within the archaeological record. For example, if Pharaoh Akhenaten ruled not during the 14th century B.C. but the 11th century, then the Amarna Letters of his reign can conceivably be referring to the consolidation of the Israelite monarchy under Saul and David, while such a connection would be impossible in the traditional chronology. Rohl's chronology was not created to "prove the Bible" (it is based on anomalies in the extant archaeological record of ancient Egypt), but it does support the Old Testament record as a secondary effect. It appears that Rohl's thesis is not widely accepted in Egytpological circles, though it is not written off as a fringe theory either—even critics of Rohl seem to admit that he makes valid points about the difficulties of traditional Egyptian chronology and possesses considerable mastery of his material. The jury is still out for me on the New Chronology, but Pharaohs and Kings was a delightful read that I recommend to anybody interested in Egyptology, archaeology, or the historicity of the Old Testament. 

Defending the Faith Against Present Heresies
(edited by John Lamont and Claudio Pierantoni, 2021): Some of the finest work in the traditionalist corpus of late has come from Arouca Press. Defending the Faith Against Present Heresies is Arouca's answer to the controversy over Amoris Laetitia. It's difficult to explain the format of this book; it is not primarily a systematic rebuttal to the "Bergoglian" approach to divorce and the sacraments, but it does end up presenting such a rebuttal. It's primary purpose is to serve as a chronicle of the traditionalist responses to Amoris Laetitia, as it unfolded in real time. It contains, for example, the Dubia of the four cardinals, letters and statements to the pope and bishops, and various articles and interviews, along with a forward by Archbishop ViganĂ². With around 37 chapters by different authors, I can't possibly give a breakdown of the entire book. It suffices to say that this is the definitive tome for the traditionalist response to the theological and pastoral problems posed by Amoris Laetitia. Every possible angle is examined and addressed with blistering clarity. As a piece of scholarship, and a testament to who stood on what side of the line at this time in history, it is unparalleled. That being said, this book made me depressed. When I read it, I felt a heaviness and a deep anxiety. It was not a pleasant book to read. Not because of any deficiency in the authors or the content. There is just something quixotic and pathetic that in the universal Church the only ones to offer any substantial rebuttal to Amoris Laetitia were the random smattering of scholars featured in the book. The principled resistance of the authors did not inspire me or make me feel optimistic about the traditionalist cause. My visceral response was more along the lines of, "So this is what we got, eh?" Kind of like being utterly surrounded by an enemy force ten thousand times your size with unlimited resources and ammunition, and you look down and see you only have two bullets—good bullets, strong bullets, sure bullets, but still...only two. To be sure, faithful responses to things like the "pastoral theology of accompaniment" are necessary, but my intellect pushed back against the book's attempt to position itself as a monumental, historic, groundbreaking tour de force. That can hardly be laid at the feet of the book, its authors, or Arouca, all of whom did admirably. After all, I am speaking now about how the book made me feel, not what I thought of it. I'd definitely recommend the book for anyone who wants to educate themselves on the traditionalist critique of Amoris Laetitia and its entire supporting superstructure. Every trad who cares about this issue should own this book. As a shot across the bow of Bergoglianism, this book is beyond compare. We have some accurate gunners on our side. I just doubt that, in the scope of the entire battle, their precision shots will even be noticed much less felt. 

Figuring Catholicism: An Ethnohistory of Santo Nino de Cebu
(Julius Bautista, 2011)
: From 2017 through year I had been working on composing a book on the history of the Philippines (which will be available through Arx Publishing, probably around Christmas). In the course of my research I read a number of works on Filipino history and culture, one of which was this text, Figuring Catholicism: An Ethnohistory of the Santo Nino de Cebu by Julius Bautista. Figuring Catholicism is an interesting work. Bautista is a sociologist, and his primary interest is the social importance of the image of Santo Nino de Cebu in Philippine society. If you are not familiar with the Santo Nino, it is the most widely venerated image in the Philippines. Housed in the basilica of Santo Nino in Cebu City, it annually draws more pilgrims that Lourdes. This image of the Child Jesus was presented by Ferdinand Magellan to Rajah Humabon and his wife Queen Juana upon their conversion to Catholicism in 1521. Bautista's book focuses on the various meanings of the image in Filipino culture, and how Filipinos contextualize the image in different aspects of their society. He spends the first half of the book talking about the history and the official cultus of the image. The second half of the book is devoted to "unofficial" meanings of the image—ways Filipinos appropriate the image and its power beyond the boundaries of the official cultus. For example, in the 1986 People Power Revolution that ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos, protestors bore images of the Santo Nino in procession in front of government facilities. The Santo Nino's reputation for endurance against overwhelming odds made it a suitable image for the People Power Movement. After the fall of Marcos, it was widely accepted that the Santo Nino image was responsible for the ouster of the dictator. Bautista's book is written from a sociological perspective for people interested in that field. To that end, it uses a lot of sociological jargon that I felt made it less accessible than it could have been. Even for me it was a challenging read, but still rewarding, and it gave me a lot of insight into Catholicism in the Philippines and the particular devotion to the Santo Nino de Cebu. I would recommend it if you have a studious interest in Philippine culture or Far Eastern Catholicism, but it's definitely not a book for casual reading.

Power from on High: Theocratic Kingship from Constantine to the Reformation
(Cruachan Hill Press, 2021): Finally I get to indulge my ego by reviewing one of my own latest works, Power From On High. I actually teased this book some months ago on this blog when I posted a sample section from the chapter on church controversies under the Normans and Angevins back in February. The book chronicles the development of sacral kingship in the Middle Ages—the idea that the king, by virtue of his coronation, had a kind of sacred or theocratic authority, held directly from God, which enabled him to exercise a trusteeship over the Church within his realm. I proposed this idea as a fusion between Eastern and Western models of authority that were wedded in the Catholic Church; Catholic Christendom made medieval monarchy possible. From there the book becomes a study of medieval propaganda, not so much tracing the development of kingship qua kingship, but rather of kingship's intersection with theology, and how theology was appropriated to serve political ends. For the better part of a thousand years, laymen exercised almost unhindered control over local episcopacies under theories of sacral kingship. The book features cases studies of the late Roman Emperors, the Anglo-Saxons, Carolingians, and Ottonians. For those with an interest in historical liturgy, it spends two chapters covering early medieval liturgies for battle and coronation liturgies. Then it covers the collision between Church and State during the Investiture Controversy, and then up to the eve of the Protestant Revolt. One interesting take away from this research was learning why the Church was dominated for so long by the temporal lords. It is well known that the kings of Christendom attempted to use precedent and propaganda to solidify their influence over the Church and pass that influence to their heirs; what is less well-known is that the Church itself approved and even encouraged this arrangement. Bishops of the first millennium generally preferred royal custody over the Church because it gave them access to resources—monetary, legal, and administrative—to support the the Church's mission. It took centuries for the Church to repudiate this arrangement. Even after the Investiture Controversy saw the papacy break free from imperial domination, local episcopacies continued to favor royal custody for many generations. This submerged preference for state control would fester and erupt into the Reformation doctrine of the State-Church. At 200 pages hard cover with dust jacket, its a lovely looking book, and long enough to give you a meaty study but brief enough to digest in a few sittings. I present it for your consideration, especially for those of you interested in Church-State quibbling during the medieval period.

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So, that's it. What did you think? Do you like this format of reviewing plenty of books at once rather than devoting entire posts to a single book? If you'd like me to review a book, you can email me at uscatholicam [at], but please note I am generally months out; a book sent to me today will not get reviewed until December or January. Thanks for reading as always!


Marissa said...

I like both formats, for what that's worth.

As an Egyptologist, what do you recommend for people wanting to learn the cultural aspects of ancient Egypt? Last year I read a novel set in ancient Egypt called Soldier of Sidon. It mentioned many very strange practices like women shaving their heads and wearing wigs wigs being fashionable or that millions of clay straws were fashioned for drinking beer and smashed once used. I always wondered how true any of these very lively details were.

Also, did the Phillipines book mention much about the image during the time of the Japanese occupation?

Boniface said...


Two books I really liked on ancient Egyptian culture were "The Mind of Egypt" by Jan Assman, and "Ancient Lives" by John Romer. I can't promise they get into *all* the nitty-gritty, but they are great books that spend a lot of time talking about culture.

The Philippines book did not mention the Japanese occupation at all, regrettably.