SRS Book Series Interviews: Sam Kennerley

July 25, 2023
By SRS Book Series

In this interview with authors from the Society for Renaissance Studies book series, we talk to Sam Kennerley about his book Rome and the Maronites in the Renaissance and Reformation: The Formation of Religious Identity in the Early Modern Mediterranean, how the book developed as he was writing and the ire of Guglielmo Sirleto.


  1. What drew you towards Renaissance and Early Modern studies in general, and then humanism and intellectual history in particular?

I think it was as much as who as what. I first got in contact with the Renaissance as a field of study through a lecture by Chris Given-Wilson. I’d not really thought of early modern Italy as a field of study prior to that, as I was more interested in the history of Byzantium. But I liked what I heard, and so when the time came to revise for exams, I decided to focus some of my efforts on the Renaissance. That in turn led me to Paul-Oskar Kristeller, whose clarity of thought and writing I really loved. From there I attended some brilliant modules on the Renaissance held by Emily Michelson and on Byzantium held by Tim Greenwood, and decided to combine my interests in late antiquity and the Renaissance in a thesis on Marsilio Ficino’s reading of Neoplatonists like Proclus. In some ways I’ve been ploughing that furrow ever since, as my PhD and postdoctoral research has mostly explored the transmission of late antique texts and traditions into the early modern period.


  1. Apart from your own, what book would you recommend for people to read to learn more about your field of study?

A difficult question to answer, as there are new books and articles about east-west relations coming out all the time now. Nil Palabiyik’s book about Turkish has just been published in the same series as my study, for instance, as has an English translation of some of the key works by Bernard Heyberger. Picking one or two studies will then leave out a lot of important works, but I think that Giorgio Levi della Vida’s studies about Catholic Orientalism have aged incredibly well, and Lucy Parker’s work really changed how I thought about the eastern Christian perspective.


  1. What are the key facts or arguments from your book that you would like people to take away?

First is a challenge to periodisation. Lots of studies about exchanges between Catholics and eastern Christians begin after the Council of Trent, in the wake of which many of the major archives for this topic came into being. My book instead argues that developments after Trent can only be understood in light of events that took place during and after another council, namely the Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-1445). The sources that I read suggested that the many Church unions agreed at this Council caused most Catholics in western Europe to assume that eastern Christians were orthodox. That assumption was only challenged by the Reformation, as suspicion of Protestants from the north gradually led to suspicion of other Christians from the east and south too. In that way I think it’s possible to show that the Reformation, and so confessionalisation, already informed contacts between the eastern and western Churches in the 1540s, meaning that some of the changes dated to after the end of Council of Trent in fact took place before or during this Council.

Second is perspective. What I described above is narrated from the view-point of Italian Catholics. But the Maronites of course had a say in events too. One aim of my book was to show that the Maronites, rather than western Catholics, were often responsible for initiating and maintaining contact between Rome and Lebanon. Another was to show that different opinions existed among the Maronites about this relationship, where I benefited from the work of Joseph Moukarzel in particular.


  1. How did your scholarly journey develop over the course of your research for this book? Did you end up where you always intended to?

To answer the second question, no – I in fact re-wrote quite a lot of the book after receiving comments on it during peer-review. Those comments led to an entirely new chapter being added (chapter five), and the four old ones being restructured and brought into communication with the broader context of east-west contact in the sixteenth century. Those comments improved the book a lot I think, so anyone looking to submit their manuscript to this series can, from my experience at least, expect to receive informed and constructive feedback on their work.


  1. What were the most fruitful sources you found in your research?

The letters from Patriarch Musa al-Akkari to Cardinal Marcello Cervini, now in Florence, sparked the whole thing off, but the sources in the Archivio Apostolico (ex-Segreto) Vaticano were deeply rewarding too. As ever cataloguing is key to finding and making the most of these sources. The latter I found through the Guida delle fonti per la storia dell’Africa del Nord, Asia e Oceania nell’Archivio Segreto Vaticano (2005), which is not used as much as it might be, and the former through my ongoing project to catalogue the correspondence of Marcello Cervini.


  1. What was the biggest obstacle to conducting your research?

Quite frankly my inability to read Arabic or Syriac. I had help there, but I am sure that I still missed out as a result.


  1. Did you discover anything that made you rethink some of your initial ideas?

My initial idea was quite naïve, as really this book started with the simple aim to show that contact between the Maronites and Rome existed between the councils of Ferrara-Florence and Trent. But pointing out the existence of sources can only get you so far, so the biggest shift was probably from description to an attempt at analysis, leading to the arguments mentioned in my answer to question three.


  1. Was there anything that you were unable to include in the book?

I had some material that would have taken the story past 1555, and to the foundation of the Maronite College in 1584, where most of our knowledge about early modern contact between Rome and the Maronites begins. For now the period between 1555 and 1584 is still a bit of a mystery, so if I were to work on a second edition of my book, I’d probably look to add a chapter about that.


  1. Do you have a favourite discovery or favourite fact from your research?

There are lots of characters and vignettes that come to mind. However I think Gabriel ibn al-Qila’i deserves to be much better known than he currently is, as besides living fascinating life, he has had quite a significant impact on later Maronite historiography. I also enjoyed Guglielmo Sirleto’s incredulous rage when he was told by an Ethiopian in Rome that the acts of the Council of Nicaea had originally been written down in Ethiopic.


  1. What are your future research plans?

I’m currently cataloguing the correspondence of Marcello Cervini with a view to writing studies of the early modern postal system and the involvement of women in the early Roman inquisition. I also have an interest in changes to the Greek communities of southern Italy from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, which overlaps a lot with the history of the inquisition.


  1. If you were not an early modernist, is there any other period or history or historical field you would like to work on?

There’s a number of often depressing similarities between the sixteenth century and the present day, so I’d probably want to work on extremely contemporary history.


  1. Is it necessary to be able to read and understand Latin to work in Renaissance / early modern studies?

I am sure that there are some areas of early modern history that can be satisfactorily studied without a knowledge of Latin, as that language was not present everywhere in the world at the time, nor were there texts in Latin about every aspect of human experience across the globe. One could work probably work on sixteenth-century farming practices in what is now Thailand without needing to know any Latin, for example. I also wrote a book about the Maronites without knowing Arabic or Syriac, so it would be hypocritical of me to suggest that knowledge of languages is everything that a historian needs in order to make a contribution to scholarship, particularly in less-well studied topics.

However I think that a knowledge of Latin vastly expands the horizons of any researcher studying western Europe or western Europeans, even in some unexpected ways. Some of the key sources that I read about the Maronites were for instance written in Latin, rather than in Italian or Arabic. The question posed here suggests that Latin is dispensable, perhaps because it might be seen as an elitist relic of an older way of doing scholarship that is no longer worth the effort needed to learn it. But Latin can be accessible and enjoyable, where teaching and learning it like a modern language really helps, I think.


  1. If you could instantly acquire one skill or ability to help your research, what would it be?

Too many to choose – knowledge of all the languages, perfect recall, ability to always see the value of what I’m reading, always knowing how best to structure that information…


  1. Is there any advice you would give to PhD students or early career researchers for finding their feet or developing their work in your field?

I have found Collingwood’s exhortation to focus on questions and answers in history to be incredibly helpful, and so would recommend readers of this interview to consult his discussion of this method in his autobiography, or in his piece of detective fiction “Who killed John Doe?” that is in his The Idea of History.


Sam Kennerley is Hannah Seeger Davis Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies, Princeton University. He is co-editor of “The Reception of the Church Fathers and Early Church Historians in the Renaissance and Reformation, c.1470-1650”, a special issue of the International Journal of the Classical Tradition.

His book, Rome and the Maronites in the Renaissance and Reformation: The Formation of Religious Identity in the Early Modern Mediterranean, was published in 2021:


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