What is History? This is actually a more difficult and debated question than it would first seem. To the average mind, particularly having gone through public education, history is what the textbook said and what the teacher tested me on. Boring dates and battles memorized by rote or movies we watched while the teacher was busy. The more banal rendering would be these guys did this to those guys.
In reality history is much more than this. History relies on collecting written documents, archeology, use and nuance of language, art and poetry and weaving it into a narrative of a given people or culture. But how do we know that? For example, have you ever stopped and asked: “How do we know what we’re told about ‘x’ is true?” This is a far more complicated question. When you look at an artist’s conception of what Ancient Rome looked like, how do you know it really looked this way? While it might not be hard to figure out what the Flavian Ampitheatre (Coliseum) looked like, what about a street model or plan of Ancient Rome? In reality these are guesses based on archeology or what few monuments survive form the period. In the end we don’t really know that. So what can we know about history?
For the last century perhaps, the knowledge of the average man on history has been formed by “textbooks”. In spite of their name, they are short on “texts” and strong on commentary. While certainly there is a place for such things, they are the only source for most of any concept of history. What is a textbook exactly? Well it is a summary of whatever the scope of the work is, written by someone who claims to be objective, who is going to tell you what really happened. In reality of course, the author is not unbiased for a multiplicity of reasons from the religious to questions of historical minutiae. Does the author follow a majority opinion? Is he weak in a certain area and regurgitating old biases? A perfect example can be seen in that textbooks today still argue that Columbus sailed to prove that the world was round, because everyone believed the world was flat, even though every historian of those periods knows this is false, that in fact no one believed the world was flat, and this is textually and archeologically certain. Rather Columbus was convinced based on an Ancient Greek calculation of the Earth that the world was 1/3rd of it’s actual size, and thus he could get to China and India in a few months rather than the Marco Polo route of 5 years by land through hostile Turkish controlled territory. But hey, who needs facts, it sounds great! And thus people’s ideas are formed for generations.
Furthermore, the fault in textbooks is twofold: their methodology and the expectation placed on them by students and educators alike. To the first, the methodology is positivist, that is to say the idea that we can present a unified theory of historical universals true in all circumstances. This fails because history is a social science, it studies human beings who have free will and make moral choices, and as such on the one hand, they applied moral choices that may or may not conform to a universal, and on the other we as human beings apply another set of moral judgments which may or may not be reasonable or just in interpreting the events we read about. In the second place, the expectations placed on textbooks are not realistic, there is no book, no matter how written with biases tuned to the minimum that can give us the totality of a historical period.
This is not a problem unique to history, but it is always present in historical textbooks. Fortunately there is a textbook series that proposes to alter this, The Rending of Christendom, by Phillip Campbell.
Rather than responding by writing an equally biased textbook, Campbell has proposed to do history the same way the professionals do, but tailored to High School students: Reading the sources themselves. As he notes in the introduction:
“Prior to the modern age and the ubiquity of textbooks, it was common for the students to learn history by the reading of primary sources. It was taken for granted that the best way to educate oneself about what the ancient Greek thought was to read the writings of the ancient Greeks. If one wanted to learn about the reign of Charlemagne, the best way to do so was to actually dig up and study the royal charters of the Carolingian kingdom. Not only was historical study based on primary sources common, but it was inconceivable that it should be conducted any other way.”
This is a highly important point. I could of course add to that, that they studied about the Ancient Greeks by reading the texts in Ancient Greek, or the Romans and Medievals by reading the texts in Classical and Medieval Latin, but that would be belaboring the point on education. The fact is, in the 16th and 17th century, to be an educated man was to be fluent in Latin, where you could converse in it regardless of whether you were Catholic or Protestant. To be super learned was to know Greek as well. The fact is that at that time the vernacular languages, even of high German and French, had not yet attained a common idiom and a universal renown, where as in our day Latin has long since fallen to the background and vernacular, particularly English on account of certain historical considerations (whereas a century ago we would say French) have dominated the course of international life. So, alas, we cannot expect a speedy return to forcing historians in High School to encounter primary sources in the original. For all that, however, we cannot say that primary sources are without value. In fact this is the error of most modern approaches to history, even at times, at the university level.
At the same time, a reliance on primary sources is also not to say textbooks have no place, as even I indicated above. Campbell, shows himself certainly to be a realist when he notes:
“History poses a particular problem for Positivism. Positivism seeks to find universally applicable laws in all things; history, since it concerns human beings with free will, deals only with particular people and events. Positivism desires universals and history offers only particulars. … To be sure if we study enough battles we will find certain similarities: it is better to have the high ground; the power of greater numbers can be neutralized by forcing a fight in a confined area; to secure victory, outflank the opponent on both sides. These are all generally true, but they fall far short of scientific precision. At best they are ‘rules of thumb’, and no sooner do we state them than a military historian can think of ten exceptions to each.”
The man knows how to use a semicolon, that alone tells you he is legit! In all seriousness, however, this is quite true and correct. To understand a historical period, you have to understand both the people and their times, a textbook does not necessarily give you that understanding, even it does a fair job at giving you a summary. As an amateur military historian (which in no way alters my civilian status) I know how I would win Roicroi for the Spanish or Waterloo for the French, but heck I know what happened! None of that means I could actually win those battles were I magically put in charge, or succeed in similar situations today. To understand what happened then, I need to read the sources, understand their mindsets, and the conditions they worked under, and that will not happen by reading a summary in a textbook, but reading the sources. This of course does not mean there is no place for a well written “textbook” in a history curriculum, but that it should not be the main source of study. Campbell agrees, and in his introduction evinces his pedagogical wisdom:
“I am not anti-textbook. I have actually authored textbooks. But if we are serious about classical education, we need to go back prior to the Positivist educational ‘reforms’ of the early 1900s, which means again incorporating primary sources into our history curriculum.”
It does not hurt to have, say, a textbook summarizing the Reformation. Yet, a summation saying Catholics beileved this, and Lutherans believed this, and Calvinists believed this, but followers of Illyricus and Oeculampadius believed this, is not going to tell you why for instance Prince Rupert of the Rhine, the son of the Elector Fredrick, who was raised in Holland in exile, later fought for his adoptive country England as a naval commander against the Dutch who had shown his family so many favors, even though he was a staunch Calvinist which made his religious beliefs closer to them than to the closet Catholic Charles II. Letters, writings, circumstances and the like will rather illustrate that and make a stronger argument for the “why” than any summary in a textbook.
Thus we proceed to look at the Rending of Christendom. The Reformation is a complicated period of history both for students and experts in the field, yet its importance cannot be underestimated. How to study it via primary sources? There are indeed so many! Therefore the first task is to select which ones, how much of them, etc. Campbell makes no pretensions to objectivity, while at the same time not “papering over” wrongs on the Catholic side. This is important. Every textbook writer as well as editor has his biases, this should not be marveled at as much as it should be known. If I write an article here, or a book, you have a right to know where I’m coming from because this necessarily will impact the narrative. That doesn’t mean you throw out the narrative, but you do need to know that. I have no problem reading a biography of John Calvin by a Calvinist, but I would rather the author tell me he is a Calvinist and I evaluate his work based on his adherence to the sources rather than have him blithely claim some kind of phony objectivity. I would hope for the same from a Calvinist reading a book that I would write on Calvin or any other Reformation figure.
This books is designed to help Catholics study the Reformation via the primary sources, and Campbell does not eschew the Protestant sources which are indispensable to reading the history correctly. The book begins, however, with three pre-Reformation sources, Pope Gelasius on Papal Authority, and two Bulls of Pope Boniface VIII. These are important, in establishing both the conflict of Church and State that prefigure the battles of the Reformation, as well as provide an introduction to the corpus of doctrine on the Papacy going into the Reformation. Then it proceeds straight to Luther, by providing the 95 Theses. This is monumental. When you read about the Reformation in a textbook, they will say something about Indulgences, but will they quote from the 95 Theses? Rarely. The impact in reading them to get into the mind of Luther is paramount. It continues with more from Luther, and then a life of St. Thomas More by William Roper, which is the basis of all subsequent lives of Thomas More, given that Roper was his son-in-law and a contemporary. It adds on decrees from the Council of Trent, and writings from great Saints such as Ignatius of Loyola, Charles Borromeo, and the great Jesuit theologians of the period, St. Robert Bellarmine and Francisco Suarez, and historical accounts of the Murder of Coligny. Add to, the Anglican Injunctions of 1559 and the 39 Articles, the Edict of Nantes, and the last letter of Mary Queen of Scots. The writings cover the period of 1517 through 1648, which is a good period if we want to talk about the matter of what makes the “Reformation” period. These are not offered in a vacuum however, but with some introductory notes. The classroom value should be immediately apparent, with what we said above. It is not that we throw out the textbook, but that we place the onus on primary sources assisted with a textbook. Thus in conjunction with reading the 39 articles, the instructor is also free to use a text dealing with religious issues in the reign of Elizabeth I, or while reading Luther’s writings, one can also read a summary of the Peasant’s revolt, having what Luther actually wrote at the back of his mind. This method provides far more depth to historical analysis as well as helping the student grasp the unity of history properly speaking, not in a rote memorization of dates and battles but rather in ideas and influences.
It is not that the primary sources are infallible, far from it, rather in reading them we, who also are not infallible, must make judgments about them and appreciate their relevance in the period.
To improve the pedagogical value of the work, Campbell has composed a number of questions on to follow the chapters. Now anyone who, like me, is a product of public education, knows that in history books you just have to read the questions, then go back and find where that was talked about in the chapter and regurgitate the account as the answer. You will get marked correct and move on to the next chapter without much thought, that is if your fellows won’t lend you their paper to cut out the messy work of moving a few pages to regurgitate the book. Not so here! These questions require the student to think. For example: “How does Luther propose resolving difficulties when there is no direct Scriptural evidence available?” This requires thought and examination of what has just been read. There is no easy shortcut to avoid analysis!
This work is designed primarily for homeschool curriculums, so it also solves the problem of what to do if parents aren’t sure they have the right answer, by providing an answer key to make sure you’re not teaching your kids the wrong answer.
The book quality is top notch, with easy to read font and excellent layout. Where paragraph numbering is not present in the original it has been added for easy reference. All in all, this work is excellent not just for a homeschool curriculum, but for a Church study, private study or even for a school classroom. Truly a tour de force of sound pedagogy and well selected source material. As a historian of the 16th and 17th centuries, I cannot recommend it highly enough!
Cruachan Hill Press is devoted to works along the same lines, primary source or biographies utilizing primary sources to present good information on the Catholic faith. I certainly recommend you look at their other works, using the tabs on their menu bar. I look forward to more works as excellent and high quality as this.