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Outline ReviewIn 1987, Craig Harline, professor of history at Brigham Young University, and Eddy Put, senior assistant at the Belgian National Archives, struck gold. In a dusty Belgian archive, they found a detailed daybook kept by Mathias Hovius, who served as archbishop of Mechelen (part of modern Belgium) from 1596 to 1620. Harline and Put spent the next 13 years turning that daybook into A Bishop's Tale: Mathias Hovius Among His Flock in Seventeenth-Century Flanders, an extraordinary work of historical biography.
It would be difficult to overstate the pleasures of this book. Its historical method is unusually accessible and sophisticated. ("In seeking to understand a world long past, we found it highly illuminating to begin with a single human being rather than a large abstraction such as 'society.'") Its style is straightforward and novelistic, with a wealth of detail that humanizes its exotic subjects. (For instance, the archbishop had "no protruding hairs on his upper lip, lest while celebrating Mass he obstruct the blood of Christ.") Even individual sentences often display a stunning, wide-angled perspective on individual events. (An explosion "sent stones rocketing up to two miles away, flattened houses, damaged churches, killed 300 people, wounded 150, and decapitated fish in the river.") And its characters--monks, nuns, millers, peasants, saints, who incidentally illustrate major themes of the Reformation-- are vital and ribald and doomed and striving. Harline and Put say they chose to write about the Reformation because of "its massive rupturing of a seemingly eternal premise of Christianity: that it was one." In an afterword, Harline and Put explain that "Never before had there been such widespread teaching, preaching, and fighting over souls, or such excellent preservation on paper of these efforts. Rich documents are often the fruit of zeal." The authors' own zeal to show readers the world of this bishop has created a very rich book about Reformation Christianity. --Michael Joseph Gross
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