Monday, November 27, 2017


The 'Crusades'. 

If a person knows nothing about history at all, they have heard of the 'Crusades' and they know all about the Crusades. The Crusades in this telling are the exemplar of the violence they see as endemic to religion, and by 'religion' they mean Christianity. To Muslims who also remember the Crusades, they are an epithet to hurl at that false religion Christianity. They are also a call to arms to recover what they see as the proper place of Islam in the world and also to recover 'Andalusia', their poetic word for Spain and Portugal.

When I mention the Crusades at all in teaching, it is that the first Crusade was preached by Pope Urban II in 1095 ostensibly to recover the Holy Land from Islam. I add another layer briefly and state it also had the purpose of keeping medieval western warriors from the pleasures of killing each other and to kill those who adhered to the wrong faith instead. These words of mine typically have no impact on students who are embedded in our anti-religion (Christian) culture of today. That religion (Christianity) is evil is a meme now that is heard from the mouths of those entirely ignorant of history to those with some knowledge. It is heard from the mouths of the highly educated and from those with only a basic education.

What started me thinking about this, now? Well, I don't get much time to read and what time I do have to spare I use in writing. But I have decided to discipline myself to set aside a few minutes each day in the morning for reading. I have three books on the go  at present. One is a Christmas gift from about ten years ago (that time span is a perfect illustration of my lack of reading time), called London: the biography by Peter Ackroyd. I am reading this because I, too, have written several 'popular' histories although mine are as minimally popular as his are maximally so. The second is Indian School Days by Basil H. Johnston. I am reading this for work purposes, to get a handle on the residential schools furor that grips Canada at present. As an historian I take a cool and careful attitude, but I want to understand the ongoing furor. I knew a close friend of Basil Johnston and know from that reference that his account of residential schooling is likely to be absent emotionally unverifiable extremes and thus, for me, believable. The third is the concern of this blog post.

Ways of the Christian Mystics by Thomas Merton is gripping (I wanted to say 'fascinating' as that word properly defined is a more accurate representation of the book's impact on me, but the word 'fascinating' like so many words today has become weak and watery from overuse and improper use alike ... somewhat like saying 'awesome' has nothing much to do with 'awe' anymore... but that is a topic for a whole blog post or even book of its own.). It is gripping on more than one level. Thomas Merton was a superb craftsman, even artist, of the English language. He was also that rare commodity in the modern western world, a Christian mystic. Mysticism still imbues the Christianity of the broader Eastern Orthodox world, but the 1960s burned mysticism out of western Christianity except for a few isolated pockets. Secondly, the book itself is a joy:  a Shambhala Pocket Classic, books which are true pocket books, bound with sewing not just glue, lovely cover designs, readable fonts inside and each page embossed with a red margin and red titles at the top. I carry this book or Merton's Thoughts in Solitude with me when I travel. Even in a busy airport terminal I can enter a universe of mystical thought through these portals.

I am re-reading Ways of the Christian Mystics and have arrived at Thomas Merton's meditation on the Crusades. Like most mystics, Merton lived in this world and understood it in a way academic historians should but sometimes do not. That is, he sees and even touches the warts along with the smooth unblemished parts of life. He sees them as a whole, in context and not from the modern view of accusation and moral superiority that has become endemic recently.

In the section I am currently reading, Merton is discussing pilgrimage. He talks about its origins and its inevitable institutionalization, hedged about with rules and regulations in the manner of all human endeavours, whether linked to the purely secular, or to the human craving for the transcendent. (My apologies for using a compound/complex sentence in this day of short sentences and short thoughts).  Eventually he gets to the First Crusade, which was preceded by the practice of pilgrimage to Jerusalem as a form of penance for great sin. As an example, he mentions Duke Robert II of Normandy who walked barefoot to Jerusalem as penance for the murder of his brother. This is to say that the medieval West knew the way there and knew what was there; they were not ignorant of geography or the political and military situation.

When the Pope, Urban II, preached the crusade it was not only to free the Holy Land from non-Christians, but as a massive redemptive and penitential act for western Christianity as a whole, according to Merton. The ultimate goal was oddly similar to that of the 19th and 20th century evangelical millennialists: to prepare society for the Second Coming of Christ by cleansing the world of the sin and violations of the teachings of Christ that had become too common in the eyes of many. We are and have been a civilization here in the West always seeing decline and alway proposing ways to correct and do penance for our sins, errors and crimes. The Pope saw the Crusades as a means to bring about a purity and unity among all the world's Christians, centred on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. To quote Thomas Merton here:  "Thus we see that in the course of time the peaceful and defenceless pilgrimage, the humble and meek 'return to the source' of all life and grace, became the organized martial expedition to liberate the land promised to Abraham...." 

Merton was of the opinion that the Crusades were linked to the later development of the Renaissance and of the modern versions of Christianity, but in the situation of the times, an unmitigated disaster.
Beward of unintended consequences is a useful axiom. The First Crusade, which among all the many military ventures into the Middle East was the purest in intention, was a disaster from the point of view of the Pope's prayers. Not only was Christendom not united, but it was more deeply and lastingly divided as a result. Christianity in the West in particular also took on a militant tone. I recall singing Onward Christian Soldiers lustily as a boy in Sunday School in the United Church and the Anglican both. The late 20th century saw a recession of this confident and bold Christianity established by the Crusades into the minds of the West and its replacement by an anemic and apologetic faith.

Thomas Merton looked back at the Crusades from the attitude of a mystic and a devout Christian. I look at these military ventures from the more contextual and holistic attitude of the trained historian. The trick to being an  historian in the 21st century is to do as I never tire of quoting:  'To re-think the thoughts of the past', that precious bit of wisdom from R.G. Collingwood. You must practice a kind of backwards looking anthropological participant observation and immerse yourself in that other country, the past, and think and feel as its citizens did, while keeping a part of yourself as an observer. You must understand especially when dealing with faith, that religion/faith/ritual/ etc was not a hobby, nor an add-on but integrated and embedded into individuals and into society at the deepest levels of psychological, emotional and lived experience.

The Crusades are a useful lens to enter the medieval mind and the incipient modern mind. They are also useful delimiters of the shifting and always vague boundaries between purity and impurity that are one of the marques of being human.

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