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Diarmaid MacCulloch: Anti-Semitism, 10 June 2010

Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England 
by Anthony Julius.
Oxford, 811 pp., £25, February 2010, 978 0 19 929705 4
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... The leprous spawn of scattered Israel Spreads its contagion in your English blood; Teeming corruption rises like a flood Whose fountain swelters in the womb of hell. Your Jew-kept politicians buy and sell In markets redolent of Jewish mud, And while the ‘Learned Elders’ chew the cud Of liquidation’s fruits, they weave their spell. That is Lord Alfred Douglas on Judaism, further demonstrating what is apparent from other evidence, that he was a prize plonker ...

Purgatory be damned

Diarmaid MacCulloch: The Dissolution of the Monasteries, 17 July 2008

The Last Office: 1539 and the Dissolution of a Monastery 
by Geoffrey Moorhouse.
Weidenfeld, 283 pp., £25, March 2008, 978 0 297 85089 2
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... The focus of Geoffrey Moorhouse’s book is a great church with one of the most recognisable profiles in Europe: Durham Cathedral. The ‘last office’ – ‘office’ in its specialised meaning of a communal act of worship – was the last sung service of the Benedictine monks, which closed their life at Durham in the time of Henry VIII, on 31 December 1539 ...

Evil Just Is

Diarmaid MacCulloch: The Italian Inquisition, 13 May 2010

The Italian Inquisition 
by Christopher Black.
Yale, 330 pp., £35, November 2009, 978 0 300 11706 6
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... This is one of Christopher Black’s verdicts on the work of the Roman Inquisition: The human casualties among major thinkers were fewer than might have been expected; Bruno might have been saved, Galileo could have suffered worse; Campanella endured lengthy imprisonment; Giannone and Crudeli were partly just unlucky. So that’s all right, then: just unlucky ...

Paraphernalia

Diarmaid MacCulloch: Tudor Spin, 19 November 2009

Selling the Tudor Monarchy: Authority and Image in 16th-Century England 
by Kevin Sharpe.
Yale, 588 pp., £30, April 2009, 978 0 300 14098 9
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... The recent fuss over the fifth centenary of Henry VIII’s coronation (we will all be heartily sick of him by the end of 2009) has concealed the real surprise in the Tudor achievement: the rebranding of a failed cross-channel state as an island kingdom. In 1485, Henry’s father seized power in what had once been an example to all Europe of how to centralise government in a monarchy ...

A Bonanza for Lawyers

Diarmaid MacCulloch: The Huguenot Dispersal, 21 September 2017

Facing the Revocation: Huguenot Families, Faith, and the King’s Will 
by Carolyn Chappell Lougee.
Oxford, 488 pp., £37.99, December 2016, 978 0 19 024131 5
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... I must​ make a declaration of interest in reviewing this book: the author’s surname suggests that we are distant relatives. My mother’s family name was also Chappell: they dropped the ‘e’ from the end as they faded into the general population of this country, after arriving from France to settle in Staffordshire, the heartland of England’s nascent industrial revolution, at the end of the 17th century ...

The snake slunk off

Diarmaid MacCulloch: Jesus the Zealot, 10 October 2013

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth 
by Reza Aslan.
Westbourne, 296 pp., £17.99, August 2013, 978 1 908906 27 4
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... Academics, chief among them theologians, are deeply envious of Reza Aslan’s stroke of luck in encountering a particularly stupid Fox News reporter during his round of publicity interviews for this book. Apparently having got no further than the publisher’s blurb in wrestling with the work, she asked Aslan why he as a Muslim had written a study of the life of the founder of Christianity ...

Rome’s New Mission

Diarmaid MacCulloch: Early Christianity, 2 June 2011

Christians and Pagans: The Conversion of Britain from Alban to Bede 
by Malcolm Lambert.
Yale, 329 pp., £30, September 2010, 978 0 300 11908 4
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... Fortunate is the reader seeking the story of early Christianity in Britain. At its heart is one of the greatest and most readable of medieval historians, the Venerable Bede, and its modern exponents include such engaging and stylish writers as Charles Thomas, Leslie Alcock and Henry Mayr-Harting. The literary sources have attracted much idiosyncratic talent, for they possess the fascination of a cryptic crossword in which one must sift fact from propaganda, post-Norman Conquest forgery from dimly glimpsed ancient original ...

How good is it?

Diarmaid MacCulloch: Inside the KJB, 3 February 2011

The Holy Bible: King James Version, 1611 Text 
edited by Gordon Campbell.
Oxford, 1552 pp., £50, October 2010, 978 0 19 955760 8
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Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611-2011 
by Gordon Campbell.
Oxford, 354 pp., £16.99, October 2010, 978 0 19 955759 2
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The King James Bible: A Short History from Tyndale to Today 
by David Norton.
Cambridge, 218 pp., £14.99, January 2011, 978 0 521 61688 1
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The King James Bible after 400 Years: Literary, Linguistic and Cultural Influences 
edited by Hannibal Hamlin and Norman Jones.
Cambridge, 364 pp., £25, December 2010, 978 0 521 76827 6
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Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language 
by David Crystal.
Oxford, 327 pp., £14.99, September 2010, 978 0 19 958585 4
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... The quatercentenary commemorative King James Bible (KJB) sits on my desk as I write: a satisfying artefact in its chocolate livery enriched by opulently gilded top, tail and fore edges, with stout chocolate slipcase to match, impressive in its folio bulk, though not nearly as bulky as the originals of 1611, which needed a sturdy lectern to bear them, announcing their presence with a swagger equal to the most majestic of England’s medieval church buildings ...

Something about Mary

Diarmaid MacCulloch: The First Queen of England, 18 October 2007

Mary Tudor: The Tragical History of the First Queen of England 
by David Loades.
National Archives, 240 pp., £19.99, September 2006, 1 903365 98 8
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... To understand someone, meet their mother – and so it was with the Tudor princesses. Mary, the daughter of Katherine of Aragon, was straightforward, pious, brave in a crisis, not especially bright. Her whole life was shaped by her mother’s straightforwardness and bravery in a crisis: when Henry VIII wanted Katherine to accept that she had never been married to him, she refused to do so, and by her unchanging refusal, gave her daughter an example of how to behave ...

Tidy-Mindedness

Diarmaid MacCulloch: The Crusades, 24 September 2015

How to Plan a Crusade: Reason and Religious War in the High Middle Ages 
by Christopher Tyerman.
Allen Lane, 400 pp., £25, September 2015, 978 1 84614 477 6
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... Here is​ a description of terrorism: ‘Observers were stunned by the insurgents’ violence. By the time they reached the city, they had already acquired a fearsome reputation, but never anything like this massacre … wars had always been conducted within mutually agreed limits; in horror it was reported that they did not spare the elderly, the women, or the sick ...

Who kicked them out?

Diarmaid MacCulloch: St Patrick’s Purgatory, 1 August 2019

St Patrick Retold: The Legend and History of Ireland’s Patron Saint 
by Roy Flechner.
Princeton, 320 pp., £22, March 2019, 978 0 691 18464 7
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... What​ do we know about St Patrick? Most people could probably place him in Ireland, amid every short cut to Irishness – shamrocks, Guinness, lots of green things – while a little more knowledge may attach to him the legend that he is responsible for Ireland’s lack of snakes, having ordered them all to leave. The picture becomes more complicated for those who have discovered that he wasn’t Irish at all but from somewhere in the island of Britain, captured and enslaved by Irish raiders, escaping home and then returning to the land of his captivity, to convert the Irish to Christianity and preside over the Irish Church as bishop in Armagh ...

Nobody’s perfect

Diarmaid MacCulloch: ‘The Holy Land’, 27 September 2018

In the Footsteps of King David: Revelations from an Ancient Biblical City 
by Yosef Garfinkel, Saar Ganor and Michael G. Hasel.
Thames and Hudson, 240 pp., £24.95, June 2018, 978 0 500 05201 3
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... The Middle East​ isn’t short of ruins (there are many more now than there were a few years ago), and until the turn of the millennium archaeologists believed that those at Khirbet Qeiyafa, twenty miles south-west of Jerusalem, belonged to a large farm of the fourth to third centuries bce. It was an interesting, ancient but hardly unusual site. But then excavations beginning in 2007 revealed something of much greater antiquity and significance ...

Faking the Canon

Diarmaid MacCulloch: Forging the Bible, 6 February 2014

Forgery and Counter-Forgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics 
by Bart Ehrman.
Oxford, 628 pp., £27.50, January 2013, 978 0 19 992803 3
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... On my bookshelves is a handsome set of late Victorian printed books in a plum-coloured binding. I take down a volume, and read on the spine the name ‘David Copperfield’; underneath, in slightly smaller letters, is another name, ‘Charles Dickens’. I open the book, and find the same combination repeated on the title page. I have heard of Dickens, and conclude that what I am holding is a novel written by Dickens about a character he has invented and named David Copperfield ...

Young Man’s Nostalgia

Diarmaid MacCulloch: William Byrd, 31 July 2014

Byrd 
by Kerry McCarthy.
Oxford, 282 pp., £25, August 2013, 978 0 19 538875 6
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... We know​ a gratifying amount about William Byrd, partly thanks to quite recent archival rediscoveries, and Kerry McCarthy splendidly and concisely presents it all in this intelligent and affectionate biography. Alas, the one thing we don’t have is a contemporary portrait, not even anything as clumsy as the universally recognisable dome-headed icon of Shakespeare: the portrait-image of Byrd adorning CD sleeves and scores is an unimaginative Georgian-Tudor pastiche ...

How to Be a Knight

Diarmaid MacCulloch: William Marshal, 21 May 2015

The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power behind Five English Thrones 
by Thomas Asbridge.
Simon and Schuster, 444 pp., £20, January 2015, 978 0 7432 6862 2
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... Among​ many technical advances in archaeology in recent years, dendrochronology is one of the most satisfying. Now cloven and carved wood can speak to us and tell us its age. It needs the prompting of a computer, but informed by masses of e-data charting the sequences of variations in tree-rings, we can know when and even roughly where a tree was felled ...

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