Ever notice how on occasion you learn something new, and it promptly crops up in multiple places afterwards? I’ve been reading Gibbon’s “History of the Decline and Fall of the
Roman Empire” lately. I came across a mention of it in Dickens’ novel “Our Mutual Friend”, and was just waiting for a chance to take the whole whack (5 volumes) out of the library. Sounds horrifically dull, right? I suppose it could be, but I’m actually finding it very interesting, and Gibbon is clear (despite being 18th C.), balanced, and humorous in places (the mental image of St. Martin who apparently “…mistook (much as Don Quixote might have) an innocuous funeral for an idolatrous procession and imprudently committed a miracle.”, for example). Anyway, mixed up in the history is a good deal on the spread of Christianity at the time, and its effects on society, along with a commentary on what a lot of these bishops and saints were actually like, and the arguments they got into about points of doctrine, and the political cross-over, etc.
Now, I don’t take most organized religion seriously anyway, but I think I would be even less inclined to now. The week after I started reading this, I had to go to my grandmother’s funeral. And the one part of me was, of course, crying through the service, but the other half was looking at the words of bits like the Nicene Creed and remembering the image of a bunch of reverend holy fathers duking it out and how often the ‘right’ version was the one the emperor supported or the one whose faction was more bloodthirsty. Charming idea for something that was supposed to be a religion of peace and love – and this was only a few hundred years AD. (The same irreverent bit of me was verifying the stereotypes that a) apparently French and Irish blood does mean you’re related to half the town and b) the Irish cousins were identifiable as the ones who smelled as if they’d had a drink beforehand.)
The second thing I ran across that related to Gibbon was at the Weaving Guild meeting. I found a whole book on Coptic and
Eastern Mediterranean textiles from 300-600 AD. And was stunned. Tapestry pieces in beautiful intricate patterns and many colors, looking almost painted. Tunic decorations so detailed that probably only the guy wearing them saw everything. I mean, who now would not just stripe a sleeve but make the stripe with animals and vines woven into the pattern? And this at a time when the empire had been split in two and was getting overrun by outside tribes like the Goths, who took advantage of the indolence of the Romans and the factions within the government. A time when the arts were going downhill, and even on a good day you still had to spin everything on a spindle and weave it on a pretty basic loom. Simply amazing.