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Bishops, Saints, and Historians: Studies in the Ecclesiastical History of Medieval Britain and Italy (review)

From: The Catholic Historical Review
Volume 96, Number 3, July 2010
pp. 518-519 | 10.1353/cat.0.0817

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Bishops, Saints, and Historians: Studies in the Ecclesiastical History of Medieval Britain and Italy. By Robert Brentano. Edited with an introduction by William L. North. [Variorum Collected Studies Series, CS 898.] (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing. 2008. Pp. xxx, 416. ISBN 978-0-754-65942-6.)

When the influential ecclesiastical historian Robert Brentano passed away in 2002, he was in his fifty-first year of teaching at the University of California, Berkeley. He left a rich history of productive scholarship: four award-winning books and an impressive array of essays, articles, and book reviews. To make his most significant articles available to a broad audience of scholars on both sides of the Atlantic, William L. North has selected and edited twenty-seven essays that span fifty-six years. In his introduction North outlines several additional aims for this collection: to highlight articles that would “complement, rather than duplicate” (p. xviii) the principal themes in his monographs, and to help readers on both sides of the Atlantic better understand Brentano’s contributions to historiography and ecclesiastical history. The selection achieves all these aims admirably. Organizationally, the essays are arranged thematically rather than chronologically. There are three general subject headings: “Bishops,” “Saints,” and “History and Historians.” The absence of a chronological organization may make it difficult for readers to follow the development of Brentano’s ideas and methods over time, but North’s bibliography of Brentano’s works should help remedy that minor deficiency.

There are several themes that recur in the essays chosen for this selection. First, there is Brentano’s absorbing passion for archival documents and [End Page 518] sources, a devotion that deeply informed his research, writing, and teaching. As he writes in his most revealing essay, “Bishops and Saints,” “There is something terribly boring, it seems to me, about a printed edition of almost anything, and something very interesting about any unedited document, at least from the years between 1000 and 1400” (XXVII, p. 29). Second, Brentano possessed an ardor for the kind of historical writing that renders the past vivid and immediately accessible to the reader. In the cleverly titled essay “The Sound of Stubbs,” Brentano wrote that the historian was “a superb rhetorician” (XXII, p. 7). In “Frederick William Maitland (1850–1906),” he observed that Maitland wanted to “lead his reader-listener to a new reality,” making him “see what he sees” (XXIII, pp. 132, 142). He might as well have been writing about himself. Brentano championed these men precisely because he shared their view that the historian should use language to make the past lively and engaging. Inspired by his own experiences growing up in the Midwest (“Identities and National Formation: Does Religion Integrate or Disperse Communities?”), he chose religion as his principal field of study because he believed it provided a common language and set of values that made community and social cohesion possible. Such dynamics, he believed, are best observed by the historian in small communities.

The essays collected here demonstrate Brentano’s commitment to the practices of local history and comparative analysis. Whether he was writing about Rome, Amalfi, Sulmona, or Rieti, Brentano wrote energetically about the concrete experiences of the people he encountered in the documents, whether they were famous (like Margery Kempe and St. Catherine of Siena) or not. In “Italian Ecclesiastical History: The Sambin Revolution” (XXVI), he celebrated the emergence of a vigorous tradition of local church history in northern Italy that he thought could rival that of England. Brentano’s preference for the specific over the general also comes through clearly in these essays, and it is a method that can sometimes frustrate a reader looking for grand theories and all-embracing conclusions. This approach was intentional on his part, and it was rooted in his conviction that images and suggestions taken from the primary sources can tell us more about the past than theory and generalization.

George Dameron
Saint Michael’s College, VT