Monday, April 22, 2013


The word “trial” seems to come up often and in various contexts these last few days. I’ve watched the news, for instance, and tried (in vain) to understand why one U.S. citizen, no matter how heinous his act, would not be given a trial like that of any other U.S. citizen – the trial in fact that forms a cornerstone of the very definition of U.S. citizenship. Thinking about that debate is itself a trial.

Traveling is also a trial in many ways. Not to mention (a self-refuting phrase that always introduces a lie!) the strange beds, unreliable diet, and lack of exercise, traveling certainly puts a ten-year reading plan on trial. I’ve been covering a little of this and a little of that, reading some of it in the car to Nancy (who graciously marked several things on my plan that she would be interested in trying out) and other parts in the little motel downtime that occurs now and then. And it has put my blogging on trial; I can’t remember the last time I waited eight days between posts.

I started Richard II the other day, and it starts right out with a trial by combat. Well, OK, the combat never comes about because King Richard decides to banish both parties instead. But the two disputants start out ready to fight, willing to submit the outcome to God as an indication of right. Submission to trial by combat transforms the philosophy of “Whatever is, is right” into “Whoever lives is right.” The Duke of York extrapolates the attitude to all of life when he says, “By bad courses may be understood that their events can never fall out good.” Flipping another old epigram, the Duke essentially says here that the ends condemn the means. We could also say that he is reexpressing the proverb that tells us a tree is known by its fruit.

I’ve also been reading with fascination, in Durant, about the papal schism of the early fifteenth century. If that tree is known by its fruit, then it was a tree that needed to be cut down or pruned or regrafted – or something! Three popes at once. France and Bohemia recognizing none of them. Councils with hundreds attending from all over Europe declaring that the wisdom of Christendom as a whole held sway over the wisdom of a single bishop, no matter how glorious (or previously glorious) his city. Clearly some huge change was in the wind. Luther didn’t appear out of nothing.

Saddest of all the tales in this section revolves around the summit between Catholic and Orthodox leaders, held first at Ferrara and then moved to Florence by the fascinating Cosimo dei Medici. According to Durant, the conferees actually agreed on the combined hierarchy of bishops and patriarchs and on the all-important doctrine of the procession of the Holy Ghost (the addition of the word filioque supposedly precipitating the break between eastern and western churches in 1054). But the eastern delegates received nothing but scorn upon their return home, so nothing came of it.

From the viewpoint of the Duke of York, it would seem that Christianity should be rejected on the basis of this decadent, disorganized chapter in its history. But Boccaccio suggests a different kind of trial in one of the stories of his Decameron. I read it years ago, but we’ve also been reading other portions of Boccaccio’s monumental collection of stories in the car, and it certainly came to mind. In the story I’m thinking of, a Muslim going to Rome to assess the leader of Latin Christendom, finds bickering, gross immorality, and a complete lack of religious piety. But he concludes that Christianity must be true in order to survive in spite of such a horrible leader.

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