‘God’s War: A New History of the Crusades’

God's War: A New History of the CrusadesGod’s War: A New History of the Crusades by Christopher Tyerman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Two caveats to an otherwise enthusiastic recommendation. The author, I am guessing, sleeps with a worn and weighty thesaurus not far from his head. And he is occasionally shunned at parties, if his storytelling is anything like his sometimes roundabout writing style.

Still, and especially if you are still reading this pithy review, enthusiastically recommended.

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I joke about a “worn and weighty thesaurus;” in truth, I was flat-out stumped, frequently, frustratingly, by the author’s vocabulary. Words like fissiparous, apothegm and termagant stud the numerous pages of this book, like angry thorns in an unsuspecting backside. In fact, they frustrated my early attempts to get through it all, and only after I endeavored to take a few notes and keep a dictionary close at hand was I able to gain momentum.

And I should not, probably, have maligned “his storytelling” either. I truly enjoyed this book. But many of the summary remarks that begin chapters seem to presume a reader is already halfway there. Proper nouns are casually introduced, events blithely referred to. But once the reader adjusts to the style, realizes that the early intricate compound sentences are expounded upon (in spades) later on, these introductions become welcome mileposts.


I have been craving the reading of this book for years. So. A few more things after all 922 pages of it (not including the footnotes):

The first was that it fits snugly into my developing Theory of Long Books. After you finish your first one, each succeeding doorstop-worthy title becomes easier and more satisfying to digest. (I wonder if anacondas think the same way.)

English: Medieval miniature painting of the Si...

Medieval miniature painting of the Siege of Antioch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The second was how the subject remains timely stuff, and not for obvious reasons. I had just passed out of a multichapter seminar by the author, Christopher Tyerman, on the justification for holy war when I read a seemingly authoritative essay on how President Obama might justify his drone war in the words of Augustine, among others. (It says here that he cannot.) Later, I had digested pages on papal authority when I saw “Medieval Play” by the self-indulging playwright Kenneth Lonergan. (My nine-word review: The play makes Tyerman’s book seem breezy and short.)

Another was Tyerman’s seemingly magisterial grasp of the subject. Do not read too much into this — I am unnaturally in awe of writers like Tyerman, who I am sure had a lot of help researching and writing. Still, I was impressed by how he thoroughly defends his reasoning for writing the book in the first place — as described in the introduction — by continually pointing out how previous assessments had fallen short, for whatever reason. No less impressive were Tyerman’s own assessments, and his many moments of bright, light wit.

Tyerman displayed a nimbleness, too, in both introducing esoteric subjects and thoroughly dissecting them, all in a matter of pages, so that a novice reader can follow along with more experienced ones. By the time the Third and Fourth Crusades roll around, even a distracted reader is able to anticipate the failures — political, logistical, strategical or otherwise.

English: Capture of Jerusalem during the First...

Capture of Jerusalem during the First Crusade, 1099, from a medieval manuscript. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A fourth was the author’s willingness to make unsparing judgments of the actions of the various participants. These critiques, leavened as they were with clear warnings that a modern worldview has no place in medieval decision making, were among the highlights of the book. And the commentary covers everything, from inside-baseball analysis of crusader leadership (i.e. Why does Richard I turn back from Jerusalem, anyway?) to the hearts and minds of everyday people. I mean, why did any of these men and women sacrifice so much for what were consistently, obviously futile endeavors?

Tyerman’s book also makes a compelling case for how 500-some years of crusading informed the succeeding 500 years of world history. Nothing as consuming as the crusades would have failed to have impact, but Tyerman skillfully and persuasively connects a myriad dots — Spain to its imperial heights and Europe toward the Reformation, for starters.

And finally, a lasting impression is of all those upturned faces, breathing their last under an oppressive Anatolian or Levantine or North African sun. Nameless infantrymen who, especially for later expeditions, signed up knowing they would probably never return. Knowing, too, that their well-born leaders would probably let them down.

No final judgment on the crusades, or on its historiography, can be complete without accepting that their sacrifice cannot be simply explained.

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The Students of War

Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret “nominations” process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical. …[lots of stuff deleted]… A student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he believes that he should take moral responsibility for such actions.

via Secret ‘Kill List’ Tests Obama’s Principles – NYTimes.com.

Assessing the dystopian reality that emanates, almost robotically, from the above excerpts, David Luban of The Boston Review shook the bug parts and dried skin from his paperback Penguin Classics and asked himself “what the president may have taken from these two Christian writers and, more important, whether their arguments in fact support the morality of the president’s actions.”

I can save you a lot of time here by simply saying, War is not moral.

Nevertheless, I digress: “The central themes of just war theory,” Luban begins earnestly, even cheerfully, “are easy to grasp.” That is the good news and, as far as it goes, of course, that much is true. The roots of “just war,” you know, actually wrap seductively around the sprawling ouerve of the too-popular-for-his-own-good Aristotle and, perhaps, stretch tantalizingly to the tiresome, anti-egalitarian Plato, who more than even Erica Benton (Jill Clayburgh) in an “Unmarried Woman” was looking for good, moral men. It is a long, if futile, intellectual tradition.

The ideas of just war that come from Augustine and Aquinas, though, are not particularly meaningful or well-explained innovations. They are the same, starry-eyed Platonic politics hardened in the kiln of Roman law (casus belli), and then lacquered insensibly with a Christian sensibility.

I do not mean to criticize Augustine; he had a lot on his plate. Remember, Augustine was not conjuring ideas out of thin, olive-scented air like Plato, or from the inchoate Scriptures like Origen. Augustine lived at a time when civilization, at least in the West, was crumbling disturbingly down around the fringes of his toga. “City of God” was written immediately after the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 and and Augustine is never really able to find peace of mind. He dies in his home of Hippo in 430 as the Vandals are besieging the city.

In between, Augustine was part of a shift in biblical commentary from allegorical interpretations to more historical ones, a shift that follows the church’s movement out of the cultic shadows and that concerns itself increasingly with political aims. Above all, in musing about just war, he is trying to provide some hopeful comfort — and to reinforce the relevance of the church — to a literate elite that was supremely worried that hairy-chested barbarians would come out of the forest and string them up their you-know-whatses.

Luban, for himself, proceeds with a thoughtful discussion of what in war is “morally permissible,” and it does not take long for him to remark that “there are no simple answers.”

Urban II.

Perhaps he should have considered a more apt teacher for Mr. Obama: Pope Urban II.

Urban II, of course, is the pope who initiates the first crusade with a 14-month revival-style tour of what is now mostly France. Urban glad-handed with church officials and nobles and, probably, the least-offensive peasants, schlepping around the countryside in a calculated attempt to assert his political authority as a church reformer. A part of this campaign, and only a part, was an appeal for people to “take up the cross” and shake the infidels loose from the idealized holy city of Jerusalem. Ironically, these infidels were, at that moment, probably smug in the belief that they had already shaken the city loose of infidels themselves a few centuries before. (That is the notion of just war in a nutshell.)

I do not mean to revive the tired comparison of the United States military’s expeditioning (or that of any Western power) to the Crusades. Luban is talking about just war, and so am I. And the justifications that Urban promulgated in his sermons, Masses and general politicking while trudging through the mud and snow have the same admirably malleable characteristics vaguely expounded upon by Augustine. Urban’s innovation was to back it with political will and good timing.

Consider it the polished turd of old Roman foreign policy. To wit, just war is best assessed after the fact. Were you righting a wrong? Were you defending yourself? Did you win? Congratulations, that is a just war. There does not have to be a logical, rational justification from Scripture or Augustine or Aristotle or anyone else. Never mind that there isn’t one.

Whereas Augustine felt shudders in the foundations of civilization, Urban relied on the strength of it, of a Western Christian identity. His just war was not for survival, it was for control. In 1095-96, Urban was, like Gregory VII before him, embracing the ideas of just war in the context of a program of reforms intended to strengthen the church’s power, by rooting out corruption and other generally non-Christian elements. In short, at a time when the idea of a just war probably had real currency, Urban had already given up the ghost.

He probably was not thinking of the actual, prolonged conquest of the Holy Land, or about the Ten Commandments, or about the safety of pilgrims who were not in any danger anyway. In a warrior culture that had absorbed Christianity without changing its core values, he probably was thinking about the popes who, not too many years before, had in the absence of meaningful Roman authority or military power been effectively held hostage by enterprising Frankish warlords.

The world had become too sinful, Urban argued on his evangelizing and recruiting tour, allowing Muslim invaders to squeeze the frontiers of Christendom. Penance had to be done, and what better aim than the liberation (i.e. sacking) of Jerusalem, thereby bringing into sharper relief one of the important symbols of the church? By focusing the aggression of a society that was predisposed to knocking heads together, and by creating appealing motives (mainly, salvation) for the head-knocking (i.e. just war), Urban II gave a whole generation of bloodthirsty, land-grabbing noblemen valuable peace of mind while asserting the moral authority of the church and fashioning a crude political weapon for himself.

The thinking today has not advanced too far past such practical matters, as is evident on the op-ed pages of The Times:

What we need is not anxiety over targeted killings but a third way between the longstanding models of war and peace.

via The Legal Fog Between War and Peace – NYTimes.com.

For that matter, why not a side way and a slant way and a long way and a back way and a front way and a square way and any other way you can think of?

It goes too far to say that the United States is predisposed to cracking heads, but it does have the second-largest military in the world without having anywhere near the world’s second-largest population. It does not go too far to say that the idea that Mr. Obama is studying Augustine and Aquinas is, as another great philosopher on the subject of war, Col. Sherman Potter, would say, “mule fritters.”

In the end, a just war is, poetically, just war.

Nothing Is Not What You Think It Is

Ill be the first to say that empty space as Im describing it isnt necessarily nothing, although I will add that it was plenty good enough for Augustine and the people who wrote the Bible. For them an eternal empty void was the definition of nothing, and certainly I show that that kind of nothing aint nothing anymore.

via Has Physics Made Philosophy and Religion Obsolete? – Ross Andersen – Technology – The Atlantic.