‘A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century’


A Distant Mirror:  The Calamitous 14th CenturyA Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

She is always good, but this is not her best.


It is well worth an interested reader’s time, however. Tuchman’s idea is to tell her story through the life of a French nobleman, Enguerrand VII de Coucy. He was lucky enough, or unfortunate enough as the case may be, to have played a key role in nearly all the momentous events of the time, including the Crusades-ish (emphasis on -ish) Battle of Nicopolis.

Battle of Nicopol, 1396, by the Master of the ...

Battle of Nicopol, 1396, by the Master of the Dresden Prayer book from the Gruuthuse Froissart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In which he was captured.

And. After which he died in captivity of the plague.

Nicopolis (1396), of course, is an interesting battle because of the hubris displayed by the French knights. Interesting because the 13th and 14th centuries seem to be time spent waiting for French knights to display (fatally) their hubris.

In this case, though details of the battle are understandably murky, it seems that that the moderate gains won by an initial charge of French knights were foolishly spent by antsy, younger (probably snail-sucking) knights who believed they had already won a great victory. In the end, those in the Western army who were not killed or left to die were captured, a harsh, buzz-kill ending to what turned out to be the last thing anyone could uncontroversially call a crusade.

Forty years earlier, the French nobility basically pulled the same stunt against the English outside Poitiers in the was-longer-than-100-years Hundred Years War with perhaps even more disastrous effects. Apart from the concomitant death and destruction, the French king was captured and the wrangling over his ransom would prolong the war for decades. As a contemporary chronicler put it, “all went wrong with the Kingdom and the state was undone.”

Battle of Crécy between the English and French...

Battle of Crécy, from a 15th-century illuminated manuscript of Jean Froissart’s Chronicles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(But, wait. There’s more.) Ten years before that, at Crecy, terrain and English longbows frustrated a similar bold attempt with, if you will allow me, perhaps even more disastrous effects. Crecy transformed what was probably just a desultory English raid for plunder into the already-mentioned, generations-long Hundred Years War.

Never mind that, in 1302, a rash charge by knights against an army of Flemish amateurs outside Kortrijk should have been the only lesson the French needed to learn. So many French nobleman were skewered by angry farmers in this battle that the sanctuary of the local church was festooned with golden spurs. In fact, in perhaps the worst display of sportsmanship in history, the Flemish called it the Battle of the Golden Spurs.

Still, four blundering, bloody defeats in about 100 years time, certainly within living memory, was not enough to shift the medieval mind-set. Nineteen years after Nicopolis, 113 years after the Golden Spurs, the English defeated the French, thanks again to an ill-advised charge of knights, at perhaps the most famous tussle of the Middle Ages: the Battle of Agincourt.

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the Flemish line of battle during the Battle o...

The Flemish line of battle during the Battle of the Golden Spurs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



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.

‘A History of Western Philosophy’

A History of Western PhilosophyA History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell


Every time I told my wife I was reading this she would intone, That sounds so boring. Maybe it has a title only Mr. Russell could love but, really, this is a witty, readable history of the world — well, a history of the white, male, Western world — with the Homeric epics, the Crusades, the Renaissance, the whole bit. Does that sound boring?

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