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40.2.Drake

In Sacred Violence, Brent Shaw devotes more than 800 pages to the study of two centuries of religious violence in North Africa without once invoking, or even acknowledging, the paradigm that ancient historians have long relied upon to explain such violence: that it was bred by inherent Christian intolerance derived ultimately from the inability of monotheists to recognize belief in other deities. Paradoxically, I will argue that this may well be his book's most important contribution to our understanding of this period. The reason for this apparent neglect seems to reside in two traits that have distinguished Shaw's career as a whole. The first is that Shaw, whereas the intolerance argument relies primarily on a priori reasoning, Shaw is rigidly empirical in his approach. As he says on numerous occasions, the specifics of acts of violence work against any effort to provide a universal explanation for the violence of this period. Second, Brent Shaw is one of the few ancient historians who have ventured out of their comfort zone to compare religious violence in the ancient and modern world, and the intolerance argument results in an inward-looking scholarship that discourages such an effort. Shaw's decision to open his study by looking at acts of what might be called traditional civic violence is decisive, for it allows Shaw to situate his study under the rubric of "violence," rather than "religion." This in turn accounts for a crucial insight. He discovers that the "circumcellions" who are usually held up as examples of a peculiarly north African form of religious violence are a literary construct used by Catholic bishops like Augustine of Hippo to lobby for government support against their sectarian rivals. Far from being unique or irrational, these "bad boys" as Shaw has labeled them here and elsewhere, were no more than a subset of itinerant laborers whose brawling conditioned them to serve as both enforcers and guardians of a religious identity deeply rooted in the tradition of martyrdom. The result is a book that contributes to our understanding of religious violence not only in this period, but also in the pre-modern and modern periods.

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