In the troubled times in which we live now-a-days, when sectarian violence, antagonisms between different religions, and pejorative representations of religious opponents abound, it is refreshing and educative to read a book such as Anne Marie Wolf's Juan de Segovia and the Fight for Peace. As we hear calls for "crusade" and "jihad," it is comforting to see that, when many European intellectuals and ecclesiastics preached crusades against the rising power of the Sublime Porte, a few scholars and clerics, too few one must admit, preached a peaceful dialogue with their Muslim others.
Although Juan de Segovia's life and writings have been carefully covered in the monographic literature (mostly in Spanish), Wolf's work is quite original and comprehensive. She exemplarily mines Juan de Segovia's numerous works, always doing so with a delicate touch, praising the contributions of others without damning the errors of a few. In her impressive book, she wisely avoids attempting a biography of Juan de Segovia, a University of Salamanca master, an envoy to the council of Basle, an ardent supporter of the conciliar movement even after almost everyone had sided with the Pope, a prolific author, and, finally, an advocate for a peaceful dialogue with Muslims and a staunch dissenter to his contemporaries' frequent call for a crusade against Islam.
What Wolf offers, in lieu of a biography--which has already been attempted in the past, and for which there may not be sufficient material--is a three-fold approach to the central themes present in de Segovia's life and in his essays and treatises on these three specific topics. Throughout her book, Wolf pays careful attention to context, providing mini-histories of the University of Salamanca, of the conciliar movement in general and the Council of Basle in particular, and of the tenor of European intellectual and political life in the wake of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks. These mini-histories are valuable contributions by themselves, allowing the reader to place Juan de Segovia firmly within a European-wide debate on ecclesiastical politics and on crusades, whether against Hussite heretics or Muslims. Wolf's insistence on the cultural and political context in which de Segovia lived, engaged in fierce debates, and wrote is one of the many aspects of this work that deserves commendation. Through her vignettes, and clear and effective depictions of each of these overlapping contexts, we get to see the wider world in which the Salamanca master lived and, far more important, de Segovia's place in that world and his contributions to the critical debates over conciliarism and crusade against Islam in the fifteenth century.
Second, she adroitly places Juan de Segovia, whom she describes as one of the most significant intellectuals in mid-fifteenth century Europe, within the intellectual milieu of the raging debate over papal authority and the conciliar movement. Although most medievalists not working on this particular topic or period would immediately recognize Jean Gerson and Nicholas of Cusa among the leading figures of that debate, Wolf makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of the period by highlighting and describing in luxury of details both de Segovia's work and his enduring support for the authority of a Church's council over that of the pope. De Segovia's monumental history of the Council of Basel--Wolfe describes him as the chief intellectual in the conciliar movement--his refusal to compromise on conciliar authority, which resulted in a kind of semi-exile to a remote region in Savoy (never to return to his homeland), and his polemical writings (when most of the earlier supporters of the conciliar movement, including Nicholas of Cusa, had bent their knees to papal authority) surely give him a special place of honor in one of the most important debates about papal authority in late Middle Ages Europe.
Third, de Segovia, from very early on in his life, maintained a view of crusades which, although having roots in a well-established medieval tradition of peaceful attempts to convert Muslims rather than to do so by military actions, was novel and important. His "fight for peace[ful]" approaches to Christian confrontations with Islam has, as noted earlier, as much relevance today as it did in the fifteenth century. Although his later works focused on these issues, he had certainly written and thought about these matters long before the fall of Constantinople re-ignited a feverish Christian crusading zeal. Wolf speculates that de Segovia's familiarity with Muslims in Castile may have played an important role in his attitudes towards crusades against Islam. Above all, de Segovia's long relationship with the enigmatic Yça Gidelli played a significant role in his evolving attitudes towards Islam and in his attempts to produce a faithful translation of the Qur'an. In fact, Gidelli, a notable Sufi mystic and leader of the Muslim community in Segovia, traveled to Aiton in Savoy to work on the aforementioned translation of the Qur'an. Gidelli, mentioned prominently in Cynthia Robinson's recent book on representations of the Passion in Castile during the late Middle Ages, is someone, that, as was the case with Segovia, deserves a long study.
Juan de Segovia envisioned his arguments for peaceful relations and the cessation of hostilities between the two religions as part of a two-fold approach, described by Wolf in two distinct chapters. Chapter 4 examines the arguments that de Segovia made to his fellow Christian scholars and ecclesiastics against crusades. As Wolf pointedly remarks, this was not a popular position on the wake of the fall of Constantinople. For de Segovia, however, to seek peaceful conversion was the way of the Gospels and to follow Jesus' command to love one's enemies. Besides, as he argued often, the crusades had not worked in either converting Muslims or removing the perennial Islamic threats. Chapter 5 turns its attention to de Segovia's ambitious program for a peaceful dialogue between the two religions and his hopes for the eventual conversion of Muslims to Christianity. He described a thorough program of action that included: convening meetings between leaders of both religions, as well as people of low rank; a more faithful translation of the Qur'an (to show that the Qur'an was not accurate), explanation of relevant Christian dogmas to Muslims to prove, most of all, that the dogma of the Trinity did not mean that Christians embraced polytheism.
It may be important to note that, as Wolf points out, de Segovia's views on Islam included the typical stereotypes common to the European world then and now. Moreover, de Segovia's arguments for peaceful treatment were not about an engagement between equals. His ultimate end was not really peace but conversion, though that was to be achieved through peaceful means. In a sense, while de Segovia emphasized the apostolic mandate to deal peacefully and lovingly with enemies and eschewed any reference to Muslims as barbaric or uncivilized, Nicholas of Cusa, devoted friend and adversary during the conciliar battles after Basle, had a far more progressive and enlightened attitude towards Islam, advocating a shared religion or the mutual understanding of differences. But most of all, this is a significant and thoughtful book. Well researched and clearly written, it shows Wolf's careful and thorough reading of de Segovia's extant works. It wonderfully places de Segovia into the overlapping contexts of his life in Salamanca, Basle, and eventual semi-exile in Aiton. It restores de Segovia to a central place in the debates over conciliarism and relations with Islam. And it is as relevant to the conflicts between Islam and Christianity then, as it is to the so-called and incorrect notion of the "clash of civilizations" today. This is a book that deserves to be read not only by scholars of late medieval Europe but by politicians and religious leaders today. There is a great deal we can all learn from Juan de Segovia, and, even more so, from Nicholas of Cusa about how to face those religious differences and conflicts that are an important aspect of our modern society.