In the Roman and Byzantine Near East, the holy fool emerged in Christianity as a way of describing individuals whose apparent madness allowed them to achieve a higher level of spirituality. Insanity and Sanctity in Byzantium examines how the figure of the mad saint or mystic was used as a means of individual and collective transformation in the period between the birth of Christianity and the rise of Islam. It presents a novel interpretation in revealing the central role that psychology plays in social and historical development.
Early Christians looked to figures who embodied extremes of behavior—like the holy fool, the ascetic, the martyr—to redefine their social, cultural, and mental settings by reading new values in abnormal behavior. Comparing such forms of extreme behavior in early Christian, pagan, and Jewish societies, and drawing on theories of relational psychoanalysis, anthropology, and sociology of religion, Youval Rotman explains how the sanctification of figures of extreme behavior makes their abnormality socially and psychologically functional. The sanctification of abnormal mad behavior created a sphere of ambiguity in the ambit of religious experience for early Christians, which brought about a deep psychological shift, necessary for the transition from paganism to Christianity.
A developing society leaves porous the border between what is normal and abnormal, between sanity and insanity, in order to use this ambiguity as a means of change. Rotman emphasizes the role of religion in maintaining this ambiguity to effect a social and psychological transformation.
The title Insanity and Sanctity in Byzantium: The Ambiguity of Religious Experience does not quite prepare you for the contents of Youval Rotman’s book. This is not a criticism, but a warning not to assume and pass by, missing excellence…To see running side by side the events on the ground, the accounts of most of the leading scholars in the field, and the relevant contributions of prominent theorists—psychological, sociological, and literary—is a great stimulus to new thinking and a valuable addition.
Youval Rotman’s Insanity and Sanctity in Byzantium is a book likely to appeal more to the theoretician than to the Byzantinist. His rich collage of theories, spanning from psychology to literary criticism and from sociology to theater studies, is indeed stimulating and exciting…The author has charted a new analytical space for us through his composite of history, psychology, and religious studies.
Rotman breaks new ground in approaching Byzantine holy fools, a subject that has received little scholarly attention apart from studies of the hagiography of figures such as Symeon and Andrew…Rotman does show how the figure of the holy fool in Byzantine spiritual literature both allowed social change to happen and forced that change to happen, albeit over the course of many centuries. This volume is a substantial contribution to the knowledge of the field through the questions it raises. Its very interdisciplinarity challenges social historians and other academics to take a broader view of the phenomenon of insanity and its reception by the Byzantines as (sometimes) holy.
Youval Rotman’s book is a sophisticated and ambitious exercise in applying a number of current psychological theories to historic—Byzantine period—data in order to draw broad conclusions about religious experience and cultural change. For the most part, Rotman pulls this off impressively…Insanity and Sanctity in Byzantium is an impressive and important book. I am particularly sympathetic to the application of group psychology to historical data, and I believe that Rotman provides the best possible justification for applying those specific psychological methods.
Rotman shows how the Hellenistic and Jewish traditions intersected with the emerging Christian tradition and culture, which led to new forms of religious communities under Byzantine rule. He focuses here on figures who displayed extreme forms of behavior in that period: the holy fool, the ascetic, and the martyr. Their sanctification rendered their abnormalities functional in society, and shaped in complex ways the transition from paganism to Christianity.
Rotman’s contemporary application of the study of late antique holy fools provides insight into how religion provides a fluid option for the interpretation of reality, and his study is done with both insight and empathy.
Rotman’s approach and interpretation are bold and novel—Insanity and Sanctity in Byzantium gives a central and decisive role to psychology in interpreting the historical phenomenon of holy fools. This is an intriguing and inspiring book that will have a profound impact.
- 272 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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