A pilgrimage with weapons

Due to my habit of reading the newspaper (The Christian Science Monitor) a week or so late, I just came across this book review from last Tuesday. I don’t know how much longer it’ll be available on the web for non-subscribers.

They were savage and barbaric, with a special fondness for beheadings. Their spiritual leader assured them they were doing God’s work and that if they died in battle, they’d go straight to heaven.

These weren’t modern-day terrorists, but 11th-century Christian crusaders. At the behest of Pope Urban II, eager to shore up his position as the head of the church, they set out in 1095 to retake the holy city of Jerusalem. Urban’s fictitious tales of Muslim atrocities – pure propaganda – had sent an electric shock through Europe. Some 100,000 people – knights, clergy, and peasants – began an armed pilgrimage, the biggest mobilization of manpower since the fall of the Roman Empire. It was a response that astounded Urban himself.

The book under review is The First Crusade: A New History, by Thomas Asbridge (Oxford University Press, 408 pp., $35). (Oddly, the Monitor got the subtitle wrong.) The author apparently displays an unusual level of dedication to his topic:

In 1999, he even walked 350 miles of the crusaders’ route. But he warns us not to read contemporary views of morality into this era. “In the minds of the crusaders, religious fervor, barbaric warfare, and a self-serving desire for material gain were not mutually exclusive experiences,” he says, “but could all exist, entwined, in the same time and space.”

I’ve never accepted the idea that the human capacity for moral action has grown over time – if anything, the reverse is probably true – and that therefore we shouldn’t judge barbaric acts of the past by today’s standards. Ethnographies of contemporary peoples largely avoid examining their ethical systems, but when they do, it becomes fairly obvious that a sophisticated understanding of morality is not out of reach of people in any type of culture. (I plan to give a detailed example of this here in the next few days.)

In any case, the twisted ideology and power-lust that drove the First Crusade seem little different from the forces behind the modern neo-conservative movement and the Republican Party as a whole. “Religious fervor, barbaric warfare, and a self-serving desire for material gain [are] not mutually exclusive.” Mmm-hmm.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.