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Monday, October 22, 2018

John Brown and Jerome Savonarola


Brown in jail
Savonarola's study
          It is noteworthy that the fiery Italian monk, Girolamo Savonarola—in many respects a controversial figure in European church history, not only has had the benefit of many different biographies and studies, but also the focus of the late Donald Weinstein, an eminent scholar who wrote his first biography of the monk in 1970.  After years of studying Savonarola and the religious, social, and political context of Renaissance Italy, Weinstein not only produced other books relating to his favorite subject, but another biography of Savonarola in 2011.  During the forty years between his first and second biographical studies, Weinstein undoubtedly perceived issues of depth and dimension that do not readily come from a first book’s labor—no matter how skilled and insightful the writer may be. 
Girolamo Savonarola

            Weinstein notes how Savonarola represents the medieval period but transitioned to the Renaissance, and was both “embraced and exalted” by the latter. He observed that in the span of his studies, he gradually “arrived at a new understanding of Fra Girolamo and his reception. "In so doing I had to discard the conventional labels that distort him and also to reject the practice of freezing history into such hard and fast designations as ‘Middle Ages’ and ‘Renaissance.’” After studying Savonarola for forty years, Weinstein concluded that the monk had been limited by “historical labels” and “the limitation of moral judgments—such as ‘saint,’ ‘fanatic,’ ‘charlatan,’ and ‘demagogue’—in explaining the behavior and ideas of charismatic figures.”  He also came to appreciate “the complex psychological, social, political and ideological reasons behind peoples’ belief in and rejection of their heroes and leaders."*
  
Execution of Savonarola by
Stefano Ussi (late 19th C.)
      This is an extremely helpful insight for the John Brown student too.  First, one cannot help but recognize the benefits of a life-long scholarship for any subject.  Brown has suffered from too many one-time biographies and studies--I call them "drive-by" efforts--by writers, whether academic or journalistic.  Some are notable works—some notably good, others notably bad, but they are often the only work the writer does on Brown before moving on to another topic. In the 19th century, only Franklin B. Sanborn devoted decades of reflection and writing on Brown, although his work is often diminished—and sometimes unnecessarily so—by scholars as having been partisan to the point of adoration.  Boyd B. Stutler, a life-long researcher and authority on John Brown, never produced his much-needed biography (or at least, the manuscript never made it to press).  Richard O. Boyer sadly died before he could write the second volume of his planned two-volume study of the abolitionist.  

Execution of John Brown
      I recently saw a video where it was remarked that there a profuse amount of scholarship on John Brown.  This is hardly the case in comparison to Abraham Lincoln or the military history of the Civil War.  Given his antebellum profile, Brown is not a minor historical figure and actually he merits far more--and far better--scholarship.  Consider how many thousands of books have been written about Lincoln. Despite Lincoln's importance, one might almost suggest that there is too much writing about him; but the same cannot be said about Brown.  What Lincoln has enjoyed, and what Brown deserves, is an extended, in depth, and well-developed biographical focus by scholars.  

            With exceptions here and there, many writers on the John Brown them traditionally privileged the same old sources and anecdotes without exploring (to borrow from Weinstein’s model) how Brown represents the colonial and post-colonial era, and yet has been both “embraced and exalted” by the modern era—not to mention, scorned and attacked too. And, if Savonarola has been victimized by “historical labels,” John Brown has more so been saddled with everything from “saint” and “fanatic” to “mad man” and “terrorist.”  None of these labels can accurately Brown’s life and actions, especially those that demean his sanity and criminalize him. Certainly, too, an extended and reflective study of John Brown necessarily entails coming to terms with “the complex psychological, social, political and ideological reasons” underlying people’s often strong response to Brown, either for him or against him.--LD

       *See “Donald Weinstein—On his book, Savonarola: The Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Prophet. Cover Interview of February 29, 2012,” Rorotoko (New York). Retrieved from: http://bit.ly/2q4ThZd.




A John Brown-Savonarola Parallel from The Topeka Daily Capital, 23 June 1882, p. 3







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