Sins and sophistries in history of the Crusades



Herbert Butterfield, the great English historian, once wrote that “the study of the past with one eye on the present is the source of all the sins and sophistries in history”.

And yet we also tell each other that without knowledge of our past, in our present we will be doomed to repeat, again and again, the follies and crimes of our ancestors.

How do we resolve this paradox? Both these observations are true. But, as by definition a paradox is an apparent contradiction, not a real contradiction, we can happily subscribe to both. We must not forget our past but we must also make sure that while we become wiser by remembering it, we do not mistake it for the present.

The sad confusion evident in a small and apparently insignificant item of news from a small American university campus recently exemplified both the sophistry which Butterfield warned of and the foolish judgements made by those who do not really know their history.

The students of Holy Cross College, Worcester, Massachusetts, run a newspaper which – up until now – bore the masthead, The Crusader. From now on they are going to call it The Spire. I wonder do they know that Dublin’s iconic millennium spire in the centre of O’Connell Street, a sort of a steel needle soaring 121 metres over the rooftops, is famous for signifying precisely nothing?  In his leader article announcing the change, the editor has declared that after studying the history of the crusades, he and his colleagues have decided to disassociate themselves from that historical epoch.


OK, who cares? This is just one more entry in the growing catalogue of snowflake gestures of ‘virtue signalling’ which continue to pollute modern academia. But we should care. This is a disease of the mind, the wages of the sophistry and sins which  Herbert Butterfield warned us of and which Christopher Tyerman alluded to his superb and scholarly history of the crusades, God’s War. In that book Tyerman wrote:

A familiar but baneful response to history is to configure the past is comfortingly different from the present day. Previous societies are caricatured as less sophisticated, more primitive, cruder, alien. Such attitudes reveal nothing so much as a collective desire to reassure the modern observer by demeaning the experience of the past. Within the cultural traditions of Europe and western Asia, since the sixteenth century the crusades have regularly attracted precisely such condescension from hostile religious, cultural or ideological partisans. The crusades have been dismissed as a symptom of a credulous, superstitious and backward civilization in order openly or covertly to elevate a supposedly more advanced and enlightened modern society. Yet this hardly helps understanding of past events.

The editor of The Crusader – sorry, The Spire – writes, referring not just to the title of his paper but also to his college’s mascot,

No matter how long ago the Crusades took place, this paper does not wish to be associated with the massacres (i.e. burning synagogues with innocent men, women, and children inside) and conquest that took place therein. Surely, the word ‘crusade’ has come to mean ‘an energetic campaign’ in common parlance, but can a school whose mascot wields a sword and shield really lay claim to this interpretation?

The college authorities, clearly feeling under some pressure from the virtue signallers, have, however, stood their ground on the mascot. Nevertheless, they have also failed the Butterfield test.

While they acknowledge, they say, that the Crusades were “among the darkest periods in Church history”, they choose to associate themselves with the modern definition of the word crusader, one which is “representative of our Catholic, Jesuit identity and our mission and values as an institution and community.”

“We are crusaders for human rights, social justice, and care for the environment; for respect for different perspectives, cultures, traditions, and identities; and for service in the world, especially to the underserved and vulnerable,” they explained in an email to the college community.

Holy Cross’ president, Rev. Philip Boroughs, and board chair John J. Mahoney said that the board had decided that the literal definition of the name Crusaders — “one who is marked by the cross of Christ” — was consistent with the college’s mission.

This really does not get the college out of this pickle of its own creation – because this is exactly how the crusaders of the 11th, 12th and13th centuries also saw themselves. To be a crusader was to be designated crucignatus in the later 12th century.

These people, modern iconoclasts, should study the past seriously and do so in the spirit and with the intellectual discipline of a Butterfield or a Tyerman. We study history to understand our past, not to judge it by our standards. We study to learn, not to praise or condemn – because we have no right to bring our ancestors to a court of justice of whose statutes they have no understanding – no more than a citizen of one country has a right to judge a citizen in another by foreign laws. The past is another country.

We cannot understand the crusades unless we understand the world, the entire worldview, of the men, women and children who made them happen – and women and children were as much a part of the crusades as were men. Tyerman reveals this world to us. His work reveals to us that the glories of the Middle Ages, the faith, the gothic cathedrals, the great 12th century renaissance, the flowering of monasticism, the mendicant orders, the seeds of the 15th century renaissance and the enlightenment, all grew out of the same fertile soil as the crusades. They were ages in which violence was as endemic as other pestilences they had to live with – but live with them they did. With the passing of centuries and an ever-deepening understanding of humanity and what it is to be human, they helped us to deal more effectively with our propensities for violence – and eliminate a good number of the pestilences which afflicted us.

Tyerman points out that while “the moral certainties fostered by crusading left physical or cultural monuments and scars from the Arctic Circle to the Nile, from the synagogues of the Rhineland to the mosques of Andalusia, from the vocabulary of value to the awkward hinterland of historic Christian pride, guilt and responsibility”, nevertheless, one path to the thought-world of Christopher Columbus stretched back to Pope Urban II’s first call to arms for the Christian reconquest of Jerusalem in 1095.

Tyerman, who is Professor of the Crusades in Oxford University, reminds us that violence, approved by society and supported by religion, was a commonplace of civilized communities.

What are now known as the crusades represent one manifestation of this phenomenon, distinctive to western European culture over 500 years from the late eleventh century of the Christian Era. The crusades were wars justified by faith conducted against real or imagined enemies defined by religious and political elite as perceived threats to the Christian faithful.

The religious beliefs crucial to such warfare placed enormous significance on imagined awesome but reassuring supernatural forces of overwhelming power and proximity that were nevertheless expressed in hard concrete physical acts: prayer, penance, giving alms, attending church, pilgrimage, violence. Crusading reflected a social mentality grounded in war as a central force of protection, arbitration, social discipline, political expression and material gain.

We might say to the students of Worcester, Mass., “Get over it!” To look back at a time in the past, to see the good in it, the nobility, the faith and the idealism does not imply that you condone those things that we today know to be evil. Capital punishment in our time is now deemed morally unacceptable. That does not necessarily mean that our ancestors were morally culpable when they either executed or condoned the execution of justly tried and condemned contemporaries.

The students of Holy Cross, Worcester, could greatly benefit from Tyerman’s reflections on his task. His perspective is western European – and as he explains it, there is nothing wrong with that. It accords best with his own research experience. He is a professional. More importantly, he says, it matches the origins, development, continuance and nature of the phenomenon. Although having an impact far beyond western Europe, the crusade as an ideal and human activity began and remained rooted in western European culture.

The stance adopted by Tyerman in no way implies approval of everything associated with crusading. His perspective does not ignore the sources generated by the opponents and victims of crusading. Nor does it privilege the value or importance of the experience of western Europeans over others involved. His constant effort is directed at seeing the subject clearly and dispassionately through the fog of ignorance, obscurity, the passage of time and the complexity of surviving sources. His study is, he says, intended as a history, not a polemic, an account not a judgement, an exploration of an important episode of world history of enormous imaginative as well as intellectual fascination, not a confessional apologia or witness statement in some cosmic law suit.

As for the students of Holy Cross disassociating themselves from this epoch in history, they should think again. They, none of us, can anymore do that than we can disassociate ourselves from the genetic inheritance bequeathed to us by our ancestors. We may regret some of the things they did, and even while admiring their motives, we may regret their manner of pursuing them. But we can never, ever, say that they are not part of what we are. It is in reading history in this spirit that we resolve the paradox with which we began.

Media examination of conscience…sort of


While they still show that the media professionals are insufficiently self aware of their culpability for what has happened to public trust in what they do, there is some sign that the scales may be dropping for their eyes.
The elephant in the room which they fail to address, and which is at the heart of the distrust in relation to their reporting on this presidential administration, is their inate hostility to the man in the White House. Their distaste for the man, his manners and – for many of them – the conservative values they think he stands for, is seen by the public as colouring everything they write about “all his works…and all his pomps”.

Published on Jan 24, 2018

Do we really have to swim in this sludge?

“Something is happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones.” That was Bob Dylan back in the 1965, with the “sexual revolution” just getting into its stride.  Dylan at that time may have been, at best, ambivalent about what was happening. He wasn’t innocent but I venture to think that he wasn’t a fully paid up subscriber to everything that Mr. Jones was confused by. He was no Mick Jagger.


Has the revolution finally run its course? Certainly the news stories by the day recount casualty after casualty among those who are or were its fully paid up members. The stories come not as single spies but in battalions now.

On Wednesday the fallout of the scandal involving The Presidents Club gala dominated the headlines after an undercover reporter for the Financial Times revealed hostesses had been subject to groping and lewd comments. “Sexists and the City” was Metro’s take, while the Guardian reported that guests have “rushed to distance themselves” from the event.  The Sun called the gala the “sleaze ball” and the Times reported that the prime minister was expected to take action over the “gagging orders” women were allegedly forced to sign before “hosting” the all-male paying guests at the event. Yesterday the story was all over the world. Mercifully, The Presidents Club has announced it is closing.

A British Government minister was reprimanded for attending the gala. He apparently left the fundraiser event early but tweeted that he had “felt uncomfortable” He said he had not seen any of the “horrific” events reported. Why was he uncomfortable if he had not seen anything, we might ask?

But we still have a long way to go to clear up the mess left in the wake of that ground-breaking “liberation” which the ‘sixties brought us. As a sign of the contradictions embedded in our confused culture, on Wednesday the BBC World Service gave full coverage to the FT’s scoop. The day before, it had carried a very “non-judgemental” interview with a spokesperson for those who are now routinely described as “sex workers”.  She explained in detail the difficulties they encounter in fulfilling their role in our society.

While we are not in the business of changing human nature, we do need to get into the business of clearing up Mr. Jones’ confusion about it. The poisonous essence of the sexual revolution was not that it told us what mankind has known forever but that it told us that “anything goes”,  and that if it does, the more the merrier.

A recent article in The Atlantic pointed to one of the prime movers of that revolution which is still in full swing and is creating mayhem with the confusion it has been spreading, generation after generation – at least since hedonism became respectable in the ‘sixties. As yet there is little sign that the so-called  #MeToo backlash has touched this pulsating nerve.

“Entertainment glorifying or excusing predatory male behaviour is everywhere—from songs about ‘blurred lines’ to TV shows where rapists marry their victims”, writes Julie Beck.

She lists a few examples: Edward Cullen. Chuck Bass. Lloyd Dobler. Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That guy from Love Actually with the sign. The lead singers of emo – short for “emotional hardcore” – bands with their brooding lyrics. “Many of the romantic heroes that made me swoon in my youth”, she reflects, “followed a pattern and, like a Magic Eye picture, only with a little distance did the shape of it pop out to me. All of these characters in some way crossed, or at least blurred, the lines of consent, aggressively pursuing women with little or no regard for their desires. But these characters’ actions, and those of countless other leading men across the pop-culture landscape, were more likely to be portrayed as charming than scary”.

Is that all over? Not yet.

I grew up watching movies in which women found it flattering when their pursuers showed up uninvited to hold a boombox under their window, or broke into their bedrooms to watch them sleep, or confessed their feelings via posterboard while their love interest’s husband sat in the next room. So I found it flattering, too. I sang along with The Killers’ “Change Your Mind” (“If the answer is no, can I change your mind?”) and Fall Out Boy’s “7 Minutes in Heaven” (“I keep telling myself I’m not the desperate type, but you’ve got me looking in through blinds”) without a second thought about what the lyrics implied.

She cites, for example, the first season of Game of Thrones, where the relationship between Daenerys Targaryen and Khal Drogo—which is portrayed as a great love, one through which Daenerys eventually comes into her own as a ruler—begins with a wedding night on which the teenage girl cries and tries unsuccessfully to keep Drogo from undressing her.  Beck continues:

Even more pervasive than the redeemed rapist is the romantic hero whose efforts at seduction look more like harassment. In the Twilight series, the brooding vampire Edward Cullen not only breaks into his love interest Bella’s house in the first book to watch her sleep, but later on, in the third book, he also disassembles her car engine to keep her from leaving her house. But readers are supposed to see it as a protective gesture: He did it because he loves her, because he wants her to be safe.

In music, too, there’s no shortage of songs that glorify a man’s threatening overtures, from “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (“Say, what’s in this drink?”), to “Every Breath You Take” (“I’ll be watching you”), to “Blame It (On the Alcohol)” (“I hear you saying what you won’t do / But you know we’re probably gon’ do”). And of course, there’s Robin Thicke’s literal anthem for the “Blurred Lines” I’m talking about (“I know you want it … Just let me liberate you”).

For six decades at least, all of that has been, and is still, pervading pop culture – through Hollywood, its off-shoots and the pop music industry. How could we not expect that the human agents driving those industries would not themselves be corrupted by the content they generated? Will the feminist-driven rage against personal assault, disrespect and offensive behaviour get to these root sources of the problem? What strategy, what change of attitude to the nature of sexuality, has to be effected to bring about a change in a culture in which its artefacts do not simply help us to understand our human condition but glorify and advocate behaviours which corrupt us, cause untold pain and which may ultimately destroy us.

Beck’s colleague at The Atlantic, Megan Garber, has described our current era as “a time in which feminism and Puritanism and sex positivity and sex-shaming and progress and its absence have mingled to make everything, to borrow Facebook’s pleasant euphemism, Complicated.”

Beck concludes that our culture is beginning to complicate things, to question the value of romanticizing stories where one person chases another, or wears her down, or drags her along against her will. She adds, “But recognizing the flaws in these ideas doesn’t make them go away. They still float in the spaces between people; they are the sludge through which we have to swim as we try to see each other clearly.”

Well, we do our best to sort out problems with actual sludge when it interferes with our quality of life. Why can’t we have the prudence and fortitude and engage our brains to deal with this metaphorical sludge which is probably doing us much more harm?

…but a good week for art and history


So, was it a hoax? But I do like the conclusion to this observation from Micah Mattix‘s Prufrock:

You may recall that last week French president Emmanuel Macron agreed to loan the Bayeux Tapestry to Britain. (The work depicts the Battle of Hastings and other events.) Like many young technocrats eager to appear nice, he may have promised too much, too quickly. Curators said that in order to move the 224-foot and extremely fragile embroidery “a host of major technical and conservation issues” would have to be overcome: “Curator Pierre Bouet, who cares for the tapestry at the museum, said he thought ‘it was a hoax’ when he first heard of the plan.” Still, a week that finds heads of state and journalists discussing history and art is a good one.

That goodness continues this week, with Emily A. Winkler providing a history of the embroidery and a brief discussion of its varying interpretations: “It was probably commissioned by Odo of Bayeux – famous as William the Conqueror’s half-brother, Earl of Kent and Bishop of Bayeux – and made in Canterbury by English seamstresses. The Bayeux Tapestry is not, in fact, a tapestry (a woven textile) but an embroidery made of linen and wool yarn. Some art historians have campaigned to rename it the ‘Canterbury Embroidery’, to acknowledge its probable place of production. Both within and beyond the scholarly world, the Bayeux Tapestry has attracted varying interpretations. Taking sides – or trying to determine the degree of Englishness or Normanness it conveys – has been difficult to resist. The tapestry was long thought to be a piece of Norman propaganda, celebrating a Norman achievement. Wolfgang Grape’s The Bayeux Tapestry (trans. David Britt, 1994) proclaimed the tapestry to be a Monument to a Norman triumph. On the other hand, more recent work has stressed its English production, revealing the subtle English sentiments in the tapestry’s artwork. The historian Stephen D. White has recently cautioned against reading it as an English or Norman story, showing how the animal fables visible in the borders may instead offer a commentary on the dangers of conflict and the futility of pursuing power.”

A sane voice in a zany bubble

Beta plus to the Washington Post for giving us this alternative judgement on the President of the United States one year into his term. I suppose calling it his first depends on whether or not there will be a second. Within the framework of what we normally get from the Post by way of analysis of This administration, this is refreshing. We can only hope that it might be a sign that the media paranoia about Trump is abating and that we will enjoy a little more balance in year two of this presidency.

Molly Ziegler Hemingway (picture) is a sane voice in the zany world of US political journalism where opinions about the President are so predictable that reading them is a pointless exercise. No matter what he does, you know what they are going to say.

Like most people, I don’t particularly like Trump’s rhetorical style, juvenile insults and intemperate disposition — on full display in recent days. At the same time, having followed his career for decades, I am not surprised that he wakes up each morning as Donald Trump. And that boorish attitude has come in handy after decades of media bullying of conservatives. Ironically, the very lack of conservative bona fides that worried me two years ago means he’s less beholden to a conservative establishment that had grown alienated from the people it is supposed to serve and from the principles it ostensibly exists to promote. His surprising conservatism might also be the result of the absolutism and extremism of his critics, whether among the media, traditional Democratic activists or the anti-Trump right. If Trump were ever inclined to indulge his liberal tendencies after winning the election, the stridency and spite of his opponents have provided him with no incentives to do so. My expectations were low — so low that he could have met them by simply not being President Hillary Clinton. But a year into this presidency, he’s exceeded those expectations by quite a bit. I’m thrilled.

Read her article here.

Making history and unmaking humanity

A war for the heart and soul of Ireland is currently waging and the battle for the right to life of the unborn is revealing a divide in its people of the most fundamental kind. The very nature of humanity is at issue.

It is amazing that what Maria Steen points out here needed to be said in a public debate. The Marxism implicit in the determinism of those who tell us we are on “the wrong side of history” is frightening.

We are a free people and we make history. History does not make us. History is the record of our greatness and our folly, of our capacity for good and our dreadful capacity for evil. To surrender ourselves and our freedom to ‘History’ as some blind force is to abandon our humanity. To surrender ourselves and our freedom to ‘History’ without questioning the human choices which made it what it is have left us is to is to abdicate moral responsibility. To define our freedom as simply a matter of making choices without asking ourselves about the good or evil character of what we choose is the way to a hell on earth.


Stop this trivial pursuit

Well said. Brendan O’Neill hits the nail on the head again. We are being badly served by the politics of rage. This is what makes our world a really dangerous place.

It’s a year since Trump was inaugurated and, amazingly, the world hasn’t ended. The West hasn’t been plunged into 1930s-style extremism, the American constitution hasn’t been trampled under goose-steps, and Muslims haven’t been marched off to camps. That’s what we were told would happen. Cast your mind back to early 2017: liberal circles fizzed with warnings of a ‘New Hitler’, even whispers of another Holocaust. This spectacularly irresponsible posturing against Trump had two terrible impacts. First, it trivialised historic events like the rise of Nazism, chasing historical accuracy and reason itself out of political debate. And secondly it made criticising Trump more difficult. The Trump of Guardianistas’ rash nightmares came to dominate public discussion, making the real Trump – the man who is politically problematic but not Hitler – more difficult to see, and analyse, and oppose. This year, can we please park the shrill historical illiteracy and get back to grounded debate?

Coping with digital guilt

A little bit of irony (or is it?) from The Spectator’s agony aunt, Mary Killen.

Q. Further to your advice to F.B. (9 December) regarding the annoyance of people getting out their smartphones during lunch, may I pass on a tip? The person I most enjoy having lunch with is 20 years older than me but knows how addictive smartphones can be. During a lull in conversation, she will say: ‘Shall we have an iPhone break?’ and the two of us will spend guilt-free minutes scrolling through messages and Instagram likes that have piled up. We then put our phones away and enjoy each other’s company, free of the anxiety that (regrettable but true) builds up after no ‘screen time’.

-— M.B., Florence

A. It is appalling that your advice needs to be taken seriously. However it presents a reasonable compromise in this age of addiction where so many people feel anxious if they can’t monitor their screen. We need look no further for the reason behind the drop in church attendance figures.

Response to Iran uprising: shallowness or wilful hypocrisy?


Brendan O’Neill in once again exposes the shallowness – where it is not simply blatant self-serving hypocrisy – of liberal progressive (what misnomers they are) media in its response to the Iranian uprising. The Islamist mullahs seem now about to crush resistance to their regime as ruthlessly as soviet communism crushed the uprisings in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the Fifties and Sixties respectively – while the rest of the world just looked the other way.

This is O’Neill’s take on our latest perfidy:

‘Where is the world media?’, asked Iranian-heritage actress Nazanin Boniadi this week as people across Iran continued to confront the theocratic authorities. It’s a good question. Iran has been rocked by brave, liberty-demanding revolts, and its Islamist rulers have responded with severe, fatal repression, yet much of the Western media has looked the other way. Liberal hacks in Britain have been too busy poring over Toby Young’s tweets from eight years ago to think about Iranian women fighting for the right to wear what they want and live as they please. Some media outlets, including the HuffPost, have churned out protester-shaming reports that could have been authored by the Ayatollah himself. We are now seeing the extent of Western observers’ disdain for the idea of democracy in this era of Brexit and Trump: they’ve become so convinced that politics is better done by wise, expert cliques, rather than by grubby, ‘low-information’ little people, that they are unmoved, and probably a little horrified, by ordinary Iranians’ democratic revolt against the theocrats and the Guardian Council and the Assembly of Experts. Having demeaned democracy at home, they cannot cheer it overseas.

The great manipulator strikes again


In spite of all the blustering tweets, conservatives in America – and indeed across the world – probably feel that President Trump hasn’t actually done anything to harm us yet. The tone of his regime is bit of a problem but our culture is probably robust enough to recover its decorum. The rawer end of mainstream media, Hollywood and elements operating in social media bear far more responsibility for the coarsening our our discourse that the Donald has.

The rhetoric of his foreign policy is hopefully very different from the actual policy being pursued. As rhetoric, it is pretty unerving. For the people across the world who took the risk of pinning their flags to his mast, he has not – as yet – done anything to really make them regret doing that. He kept the Clinton dynasty out of the White House and for that alone they are still happy to live with a bit of risk.

Fraser Nelson in today’s Daily Telegraph puts the whole Trump project in a sensible context. As he sees it, Trump just wants to keep people talking about the things which he feels they need to talk about. The most recent twitter outrage is one perpetrated to get Europe thinking about an immigration problem which no one – with the exception of Douglas Murray – seems to accept for what it really is – an invasion.

Fraser’s assessment should allay the worries which some might have – for another few months at least. He also estimates that the Trump risk may be something that all of us will have to live with for another seven years. Fasten your seat belts. He writes, in his concluding remarks:

A few weeks ago, I met an American fund manager who calculated that his father – who quarried sand in Long Island – would be paid 45 per cent less today if he was still working. This, he said, was why Trump won: because globalisation, immigration and automation are conspiring against the ordinary American and no one else (other than the vanquished Bernie Sanders) seemed to care. The aim of the Trump project, from the get-go, was to convey this anger, a sense that they understood the desperation (a word that those around Trump often use) of the American working class.

Team Trump’s other working assumption is that partisanship now governs American politics. That the Reagan era was the last one with politicians who fought in wars together, and were bound together by a shared experience. Today, it’s tribal – and the winner is the one that best enthuses their core supporters. Much is made of Trump’s low national approval ratings but among Republicans they’re pretty high: 81 per cent, at the last count. So it’s probable that he’ll be a two-term president.

It’s very rare for any American president, no matter how unpopular, to lose a bid for reelection in a growing economy – and even now, there are no signs that the Democrats will find a decent candidate to pit against Trump. He might tire of the job, fake an illness or implode for some other unthinkable reason. But we might well have to live with The Donald for another seven years. The trick will be to take him seriously, but not literally – and as far as is decently possible, ignore those tweets.