Pew! Pew! Pew!

An interesting article on Christ and Pop Culture, by Luke T. Harrington:

The History of Pews Is Just as Terrible and Embarrassing as You’d Imagine

Is there anything more reassuring than a church pew?

Simple. Humble. Sturdy. Two rough-hewn planks, fastened with a handful of nails, permanently fixed to the floor—and open to all. Occasionally padded, often not; not comfortable, exactly, but comforting. An invitation to the weary traveler to sit and hear the Word of God proclaimed; a simple reminder that we follow a humble, crucified carpenter; the perfect symbol that all are equal at the foot of the cross. From the greatest king to the poorest pauper, from the holiest saint to the most desperate sinner, all have sat in these pews before us, pondering their failings and begging for mercy. Despite the advent of stadium-style seating and auditorium-like worship halls, the simple, ancient pew endures—and no wonder, because it is, and always has been, the perfect metaphor for the faith.

Seating in churches didn’t really become a thing until parishioners got bored enough to wish they were sitting down—that is, about the time of the Protestant Reformation.Except—nothing I just said is even remotely true. In fact, it’s pretty much the exact opposite of all that. Would you like to know the true story of the pew? Okay, then—buckle up. (But not actually, though, because pews don’t have seatbelts.)

It turns out that there’s no evidence of churches having seating of any kind for at least the first 1,400 years or so of Christianity. In other words, Augustine, Athanasius, Jerome, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin—all those guys very likely lived their whole lives attending churches that were standing-room-only. During ancient Christian worship, parishioners could stand, kneel, or even mill about the nave if they so chose. There’s no record of whether they engaged in stage dives and crowd surfing, so we’re forced to assume they did.

If this sounds insanely uncomfortable to you, keep in mind that which body postures are considered comfortable or uncomfortable is a highly culturally constructed thing. The ancient Romans, for instance, almost never sat in chairs, preferring to stand or recline, while modern Japanese are still perfectly happy sitting on the floor, even well into their elder years. The idea that sitting in a backed chair is comfortable is a modern, Western notion, and one we’re currently learning has all sorts of health drawbacks. Also keep in mind that ancient and medieval Christian worship involved the average parishioner much more actively, with a lot of kneeling and recitation, and climaxed with the entire congregation coming forward for communion.

In other words, seating in churches didn’t really become a thing until parishioners got bored enough to wish they were sitting down—that is, about the time of the Protestant Reformation. In order to emphasize how not-Catholic we were, we began to jettison everything from our worship: confessions, creeds, communal prayer, a weekly Eucharist—basically everything except long, boring sermons. And when your “come to church” sales pitch is essentially “Listen to me yammer about Jesus for several hours!” the response is predictably going to be “Uh, can I at least sit down for that?”

And so, the pew was born.

When pews first began to gain in popularity, however, they weren’t anything you probably would have recognized as pews—they were more like those luxury skyboxes they have at sports stadiums. So-called “box pews,” which were particularly popular in England and America, were anything but the austere benches you’re used to, and featured four walls—often shoulder-height or higher—along with doors, windows, curtains, kneelers, tables, and sometimes even fireplaces. Basically you could hide in them and do whatever the 17th-century version of playing games on your iPad was (I’m guessing cock fights?).

They were also bought and paid for—and frequently custom-built—by each congregation’s wealthiest families, who held actual deeds to them and frequently passed them down to their children as real estate, like the world’s worst timeshares. On the rare occasion that the deed to a pew would free up, there was more often than not a public fistfight (a metaphorical one, usually) over which family would get it—being seen in a prominent pew was an important status symbol, like having the biggest beard at an Acts 29 church or having the dorkiest fedora at Hillsong.

In other words, they were pretty much the exact opposite of what Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke:

“When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, “Give your place to this person,” and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher.” Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

There’s a little bit more, and a good picture, at the link. I had heard about box pews; I wouldn’t quite say that they were “terrible and embarrassing,” but yeah, I’m glad that nowadays you can sit anywhere and contribute what you can as the plate gets passed.

Rex inutilis

An interesting post on the OUP blog by Sophie Thérèse Ambler, courtesy my friend Bill Campbell:

What to do with a simple-minded ruler: a medieval solution

The thirteenth century saw the reigns of several rulers ill-equipped for the task of government, decried not as tyrants but incompetents. Sancho II of Portugal (1223–48), his critics said, let his kingdom fall to ruin on account of his “idleness,” “timidity of spirit,” and “simplicity”. The last term, simplex, could mean straightforward, but here it meant only simple-minded, foolish, stupid. The same term was used to describe the English king Henry III (1216–72), as well as John Balliol, the hapless king of Scotland (1292–96) appointed by England’s Edward I. As the elites of these kingdoms knew too well, it could happen on occasion that a man rose to officewhether he had been born to claim it, had won the right to hold it, or had found it thrust upon himwho did not have the intelligence to wield power.

Such a situation was dangerous, for subjects would suffer. In Portugal, it was claimed that Sancho’s inability to govern had allowed Church liberties to be attacked, women to be defiled, and the common folk to be oppressed. England’s Henry III had frittered away his resources, monies needed desperately to maintain his government; the result, it was claimed, was that Henry did not even have the cash to buy food and drink for his household and had turned to seizing victuals from his people, leaving them impoverished. The subjects of John Balliol had, perhaps, the most to fear from their king’s simplicity: John was incapable of standing up to Edward I, when a stand was needed urgently to defend his people from the bullying English king.

The people of Portugal, England, and Scotland knew of a potential solution to the problem of their simple-minded rulers: the rex inutilis theory (literally, “useless king”). This was a tenet of Church law that provided, when a bishop was too infirm to fulfill his duties, for the appointment of a coadjutor to exercise power on his behalf. The theory could be applied to lay rulers too, though it addressed here the problem of incompetence rather than infirmity.

It was the pope who held the power to pronounce a king rex inutilis. The papal court was like a medieval United Nations: its interests ranged from the making of peace between polities to the proper conduct of rulers, and the well-being of all those under the Church’s care. To this end, the pope had a mighty moral weapon in his arsenal: he could depose rulers and free subjects from their oaths of fealty or, as in the case of a rex inutilis, take effective power from his hands.

More at the link.

Angel Roofs

From my friend Tim Emmett, pastor of the Waleska UMC, an interesting gallery on BBC Travel of photographs of angel roofs, which were a regular feature of late medieval English church architecture. The first caption reads:

Think of medieval England’s finest gems, and castles probably come to mind first. But the country has another type of treasure that few people know about: angel roofs. Built between 1395 and the English Reformation of the mid-1500s, these roofs are decorated with intricately carved wooden angels. Only 170 survive today. Because so little of the art from England’s medieval churches survived the Reformation, that still makes these cherubim “the largest surviving body of major English medieval wood sculpture”, writes photographer and expert Michael Rimmer in his book The Angel Roofs of East Anglia: Unseen Masterpieces of the Middle Ages.

Click the link to see a collection of Rimmer’s photographs. I had no idea these were a thing, nor that the Reformation had such a problem with them (after all, angels were biblical – unlike saints!).

The Queer Middle Ages

From my friend Bill Campbell on Facebook:

Today’s bit of “you couldn’t make this up” medieval weirdness: The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) ruled that “All the faithful of both sexes, having reached the age of discretion, must confess to their own priest at least once per year.” But “own priest” seemed to rule out confessing to a friar, and this caused lots of problems. In 1379, one enterprising English Dominican, Richard Helmslay, tried to cut this Gordian knot by arguing that the law really only applied to hermaphrodites – that is, the faithful of “both sexes”. (The bishop was not amused.)

Icons

The icon (from Greek εἰκών, meaning “image”) is a distinctive feature of Orthodox Christianity (Greek, Russian, Serbian, etc.). The classic icon is a frontal portrait of Jesus, Mary, or some other saint, although icons illustrating a scene are also common. You know them when you see them: the style is unmistakable. They tend to be flat and richly ornamented, giving a deliberately otherworldly appearance to their subjects. There are also many rules that one must follow in the making [sic – not “painting”] of an icon. Bishops hold a bible in their left hand and give a blessing with their right. Jesus wears a red tunic and a blue cloak, and his halo has a cross on it. And so on. Here are two examples from my collection:

George1

The original image of St. George, as a young, beardless man with tightly curled hair, in armor and carrying a shield and lance.

George2

St. George “the trophy-bearer” in action – riding a white horse and spearing the dragon through its mouth.

Why the particular style? Why are they so important to Orthodox worship? One must realize that these are not just pictures for the edification of the faithful, of the sort that might appear in The Bible Story, The Watchtower, or the Book of Mormon. Orthodox icons have power. You could pray to a saint near his image, and he would be much more likely to hear your petition. Particular icons are even thaumaturgic, such as the icons of the Virgin Mary on Mount Athos in Greece – one of which is formally appointed the abbot of a monastery, and has two feast days. In other words, in the east, icons function like saints’ relics. (I like the theory that it is on account of relics that icons acquired their special purpose. No one is going to keep the bone of a saint just lying around, but is going to house it in a nice reliquary. A picture of the saint on the top of the reliquary would tell you whose relic it was; as long as you made an accurate copy of the picture, the miraculous qualities of the relic would be transferred to the new image.)

But there’s a problem here, isn’t there? Christian practice evolves, of course, but seldom to the point where it is completely at odds with an important dictum from scripture, in this case the Second Commandment:

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.

Now, only the most eccentric Christians would interpret this to mean that all representational art, or even just religious art, should be forbidden (Martin Luther: “If it is not a sin but good to have the image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes?”) And given that this rule is found in the Old Testament, has it not been trumped by the New, and to be cast aside like kashrut or the prohibition against sowing different crops in the same field? Perhaps – but surely of all that we find in the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments are still binding. And praying to (a saint through) an icon sure looks like “bowing down” and “worshiping” an image, doesn’t it, thereby violating the real spirit of this law?

Thus did Byzantine Emperor Leo III, in the 720s, order the removal and destruction of icons from the lands under his control. Was this spurred by a genuine religious feeling, prompted by recent natural disasters and military losses? Or was there something more political to it? (The theory I’ve heard is that the monasteries that produced icons were growing too powerful, and Leo wanted to undercut them – apparently there may have been a “class struggle” aspect to it as well). This iconoclastic movement survived Leo and did not fully end until 842, at which time Theodora, regent for the young Michael III, called it off. Ever since then the first Sunday in Lent is designated the Feast of Orthodoxy and celebrates the return of icons to their rightful place in Orthodox worship. At the time, though, all it succeeded in doing was driving the Greek and Roman Christianity further apart and may have had a role to play in the pope’s consecration of Charlemagne as Emperor of the West in AD 800. The Catholic Church did not venerate icons as such, but they were fully behind religious images and were appalled at how the Byzantines had apparently gone insane. As far as they were concerned, Jesus himself invalidated the Second Commandment – when he came to Earth, he became an “image” of something in heaven. Thus to reject images is to reject the Incarnation.

Christianity

Early Christianity offered its adherents contact with the divine, community with fellow believers, and the promise of eternal life in heaven. But the religion was suspicious to the Romans for a number of reasons:

• It was not classy: it was a novelty (Romans respected antiquity in religion), and attractive to those on the lower end of the social pyramid, e.g. slaves, women, and merchants. Plus, they worshiped an executed criminal! As I like to say, it was like Scientology without the celebrities.

• Christians also met privately in people’s homes for their religious rituals. What were they up to? Romans practiced their religion in public, and the Twelve Tables forbade people meeting at night. If Christians had nothing to hide, then surely they wouldn’t be so secretive? It may have been a caricature of anti-Christian sentiment, but the notions of one Caecilius Natalis, a character in the Octavius of Minicius Felix (d. ca. 250), probably reflect a certain strain of opinion:

I hear that they adore the head of an ass, that basest of creatures, consecrated by I know not what silly persuasion, a worthy and appropriate religion for such manners. Some say that they worship the genitals of their pontiff and priest, and adore the nature, as it were, of their common parent. I know not whether these things are false; certainly suspicion is applicable to secret and nocturnal rites…

Now the story about the initiation of young novices is as much to be detested as it is well known. An infant covered over with meal, that it may deceive the unwary, is placed before him who is to be stained with their rites: this infant is slain by the young pupil, who has been urged on as if to harmless blows on the surface of the meal, with dark and secret wounds. Thirstily – O horror! they lick up its blood; eagerly they divide its limbs. By this victim they are pledged together; with this consciousness of wickedness they are covenanted to mutual silence.

You can see how the liturgical consumption of bread and wine, designated the “body” and “blood” of Jesus, might lead to this accusation of ritual murder and cannibalism. (Ironically, Christians would accuse Jews of doing much the same thing during the Middle Ages.)

• Perhaps most important, the religion was monotheistic. Or rather – Christians claimed to be monotheists, and spent a good deal of mental energy attempting to save this particular appearance, even though their God had three different aspects in a complex relationship. But they were not tolerant of any other gods, and unlike the Romans, who were religiously broad-minded and instinctively syncretic, Christians refused to acknowledge even the possibility that other deities existed. The Romans, for their part, could not understand this. They didn’t care what you actually believed; participating in the state sacrifices was like standing for the national anthem. Just do it! Then go and do whatever else you want. But when Jupiter looks down and sees that not all the people in the city are honoring him, he might get cranky and punish it. So Christianity was sporadically persecuted by the Roman authorities, not because of anything that the Christians believed, but because of their refusal to participate in the state sacrifices. They represented a security risk.

But in one of the most remarkable reversals in history, Emperor Constantine (306-337) called it all off (his predecessor in office, Emperor Diocletian, was a particularly enthusiastic persecutor of Christians). Constantine’s mother was a Christian, and the Battle of Milvian Bridge (312) sealed the deal: he claimed that God gave him the victory, so he became the patron and protector of Christianity over the course of his long reign. Not only that, but he established a Christian dynasty; following Constantine, all emperors were Christian (except for Julian the Apostate, who reigned for only two years in the 360s). Thus, over the course of the fourth century, the Roman Empire was increasingly Christianized, and its traditional paganism increasingly denigrated. The two classic documents to illustrate this trend are Edict of Toleration of 313, which granted protection to Christians and restored their expropriated property, and the Theodosian Code of 380, which essentially outlawed paganism.

Needless to say, this shift profoundly changed the Roman Empire. But it also changed Christianity – for good and for ill. If nothing else, Christians had to go from hating the empire to defending it, which was psychologically discombobulating. They had to imagine that the conversion of the empire was all part of God’s plan all along. Now it is safe to say that this phenomenon is why Christianity exists today. If the conversion had not occurred, Christianity may very well have gone the way of Mithraism or the cult of Isis. So some people see the conversion of the Empire as a profound triumph. Others see it as an example of someone gaining the world but losing his own soul. In the third century, there were certain benefits to being a Christian, but you stood a very real chance of dying for your faith if you became one. So you had to mean it. Now that Christianity had the backing of the state, people started to convert opportunistically, and so it lost some of its fervor. You didn’t need to be a Christian to get a job with Constantine, but it sure helped. So people became Christians, but did they really mean it? At the same time, Constantine may have been Christian, but he was still the emperor, meaning that he had to do all the political things that emperors do, like executing criminals, waging war, cheating people to reward others, etc. Like a political party out of power, at one point Christians could afford to be ideologically pure, but once they got their hands on power, they needed to make all sorts of compromises. (Right from the start! Does the God of the Christians really make his will known by the results of battles?)

Some other effects of the conversion of the fourth century include:

• A concern with orthodoxy (“correct belief”). The longer that Christianity went on, and the wider it spread, the more likely it was that different people would adopt different opinions about what it all meant. When the state was persecuting Christians, these differences were of secondary importance, but once the state started to favor Christians, they immediately started sniping at each other and jockeying for position. Constantine, embarrassed by this, personally called the Council of Nicaea (325) to sort out the question of whether “there was a time when Jesus was not.” (Answer: No! Don’t be fooled by the titles “God the Father” and “God the Son” – the one did not give rise to the other, as the names would suggest; both of them, along with the Holy Spirit, existed from before all time.) Since Christianity is not tied to a particular ethnic group, there is nothing to distinguish the Christian from the non-Christian except belief, expressed through the Creed (from credo, “I believe”). Christianity acted like Communism, with a party line that you had to adhere to. If you didn’t, you were a heretic (from the Greek word for “choice,” which was invariably a wrong choice). The early Christians did not “celebrate diversity” the way we do – “following the devices and desires of our own hearts” will lead straight to Hell, and people need firm guidance to in order avoid it. Other opinions declared heretical around this time included Pelagianism (the idea that you can work your own salvation), Donatism (the idea that the sinfulness of a priest renders the communion he performs inoperative), and Monophysitism (the idea that Jesus had only one divine nature while on earth, instead of two).

• A concern with theology. When educated pagans converted to Christianity, they were appalled at its intellectual poverty. Thus did St. Augustine (354-430) and other so-called Doctors of the Church attempt to provide some philosophical heft to the religion. Augustine’s City of God, for instance, provided a Christian interpretation of all world history. In one of his letters to the Corinthians, St. Paul had declared that the world’s wisdom was foolishness. After the fourth century, this was no longer the case.

• A reimagining of the concept of sainthood. At the very start, I understand, Christians called each other “saint” (“holy”) in the same way that Communists used to call each other “comrade.” Members of the LDS church still adhere to this custom. Soon the title was reserved for martyrs: people who had been witnesses for their faith, even unto death. Martyrdom was a one-way ticket to heaven and martyrs were hugely prestigious for the Christian communities that produced them. Tertullian said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”; a more contemporary way of putting this would be “You can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” But with the conversion of the empire, there were no more martyrs being created. Some people felt relieved about this, I’m sure. Others were deeply disappointed, as though they were always hoping to achieve this happy state. The disappearance of martyrdom did not lead to a withering of the concept of sainthood, however: other servants of the church like competent and well-loved bishops, generous church patrons, or learned theologians could all became saints, and did.

• The advent of the intercessory power of sainthood. With the conversion of the empire, it was easy to figure heaven as parallel to the imperial court. Just as a supplicant could not approach the emperor directly, but had to go through one of his courtiers, so also Christians started to think that it was presumptuous to pray directly to God. It was much better to go through a saint, who was in heaven with God and who had his attention, but who had once been human and was familiar with human concerns. The saint could pass your prayer on to God; he might even be deputized to answer prayer himself. Thus did certain saints come to exercise particular competencies, which were often suggested by details from their lives: if St. Lawrence was executed on a gridiron, he could become the patron saint of cooks; if St. Lucy had her eyes gouged out, you should pray to her if you’re experiencing eye trouble.

• An emphasis on relics and pilgrimage. Some people claim that the Christian veneration of relics (the bones of saints, and other things they left behind) grew out of the pagan cult of heroes. Indeed, there is an interesting story in book one of the Histories of Herodotus, when the Spartans asked the Oracle at Delphi whether they should go to war again against Tegea, and the Oracle replied they should acquire the bones of Orestes, son of Agamemnon – which they did, and which helps to explain the Spartan advantage in war. But the pagans were nowhere near as obsessed with relics as Christians were, and to my mind the Christian interest in relics derives from their doctrine of the resurrection of the dead – in the Last Days, the dead will be raised for the final judgment. Saints retained a certain connection with their earthy remains, which Christians treated with the utmost respect. (All the same, I suppose the notion of relics holding power would be something that a newly-converted pagan would understand.) Prayers to saints were particularly effective in the presence of these relics, so people would sometimes travel long distances to make their requests (or to give thanks for prayers already answered). This is known as pilgrimage and it was a distinctive feature of medieval Christianity.

• The rise of monasticism. If martyrdom was no longer an option, some people tried to become ascetic “living martyrs.” The entire empire was ostensibly Christian, but it was just as bad as it ever was, so some people wanted to withdraw from it. St. Anthony (d. ca. 356) was one such – he withdrew into the Egyptian desert, ate as little as possible, and prayed full time to God. (Unfortunately for him, he achieved such a reputation for holiness that he attracted great throngs of people seeking his advice.) His performance was designated “eremitical” monasticism, and it inspired numerous other people hoping to reach the same level of holiness. Not everyone was quite as dedicated as Anthony, however, and eventually some of these desert fathers began pooling their efforts – one person went to look for food, while the others stayed behind to pray or do other tasks. This represents the beginning of “cenobitical” monasticism, which achieved its most celebrated form in The Rule, a blueprint for establishing a community of monks, by St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547). Monks, especially Benedictine monks, became a regular feature of life throughout the medieval west.

Needless to say intercessory sainthood, relics, pilgrimage, and monasticism are not endorsed by the Bible and as a consequence were rejected by most Protestants in the sixteenth century. A lot of them were skeptical of the conversion of the empire.

Crosses

To mark the first Sunday in Advent, the start of the Christian liturgical year, a post about crosses. I’ve often thought that Christianity was lucky in that Jesus was crucified (as opposed to guillotined, hanged, shot by firing squad, killed by lethal injection, etc.) because it has provided the religion with a simple and instantly recognizable symbol: the cross, two line segments intersecting at ninety degrees. At the same time, one can do endless artistic variations on this theme, some of which acquire local, ethnic or sectarian significance. Off the top of my head, and in no particular order, we have:

200px-jerusalem_cross-svg

A cross of Jerusalem, a product of the Crusades, and perhaps representing the five wounds of Christ (Wikipedia).

200px-cathar_cross-svg

A cross of Toulouse – now a symbol of Occitania (Wikipedia).

200px-cantercross-svg

A cross of Canterbury, based on a bronze brooch unearthed at Canterbury in the nineteenth century. It’s now a symbol of Anglicanism (Wikipedia).

greek_cross-svg

A Greek cross (Wikipedia).

390px-orthodoxcrossblackcontoured-svg

A cross used by Slavs, particularly the Russian Orthodox church. The top crossbar represents the INRI sign, the bottom a footrest (Wikipedia).

440px-maltese_cross-svg

This is a cross used by crusading orders, particularly the Knights of St. John. This group was headquartered on the island of Malta for many years, thus the designation of this device as a Maltese Cross (Wikipedia).

440px-coptic_cross-svg

A Coptic cross (Wikipedia).

220px-cross_of_lorraine-svg

A cross of Lorraine, famous for being a symbol of the French resistance during World War II (Wikipedia).

complex_celtic_cross

A Celtic Cross. The interlaced pattern is decorative, but the halo around the arms marks this as having Irish origins (Pinterest).

217be3e55b2abbfc58021837079ef622

Again, one can do infinite variations on this. Ethiopian crosses are famous for their complexity (Pinterest).

 

Robert the Monk

One of my favorite pieces of medieval rhetoric is Pope Urban II’s speech at the Council of Clermont in 1095, when he called the First Crusade. The version I have my students read is by Robert the Monk, which was written some twenty years afterwards, but is very much from the mental world of the Crusades. I reprint it from the ever-useful Internet Medieval Sourcebook, with interlineated comments.

“Oh, race of Franks, race from across the mountains, race beloved and chosen by God – as is clear from many of your works – set apart from all other nations by the situation of your country as well as by your Catholic faith and the honor which you render to the holy Church: to you our discourse is addressed, and for you our exhortations are intended. We wish you to know what a grievous cause has led us to your country, for it is the imminent peril threatening you and all the faithful which has brought us hither.

First rule of giving a speech: flatter your audience!

“From the confines of Jerusalem and from the city of Constantinople a grievous report has gone forth and has repeatedly been brought to our ears; namely, that a race from the kingdom of the Persians, an accursed race, a race wholly alienated from God, ‘a generation that set not their heart aright and whose spirit was not steadfast with God’ [Ps. 78.8], violently invaded the lands of those Christians and has depopulated them by pillage and fire.

Second rule: denigrate the opponent. They were Turks, not Persians, but the latter word adds a nice classical touch. Note the Pope’s use of scripture to buttress his insults.

They have led away a part of the captives into their own country, and a part have they have killed by cruel tortures. They have either destroyed the churches of God or appropriated them for the rites of their own religion. They destroy the altars, after having defiled them with their uncleanness. They circumcise the Christians, and the blood of the circumcision they either spread upon the altars or pour into the vases of the baptismal font. When they wish to torture people by a base death, they perforate their navels, and dragging forth the extremity of the intestines, bind it to a stake; then with flogging they lead the victim around until the viscera having gushed forth the victim falls prostrate upon the ground. Others they bind to a post and pierce with arrows. Others they compel to extend their necks and then, attacking them with naked swords, attempt to cut through the neck with a single blow. What shall I say of the abominable rape of the women? To speak of it is worse than to be silent. The kingdom of the Greeks is now dismembered by them and has been deprived of territory so vast in extent that it could be traversed in two months’ time.

Brilliant stuff. Lurid tales of inventive tortures and executions, with a good deal of blasphemous behavior for good measure. You can tell he’s addressing a male audience, because he passes over the rape of women but dwells on forced circumcision – the idea of sharp objects near a man’s groin are always going to make him pay attention.

“On whom, therefore, is the labor of avenging these wrongs and of recovering this territory incumbent, if not upon you, you upon whom, above all other nations, God has conferred remarkable glory in arms, great courage, bodily activity, and strength to humble the heads of those who resist you? Let the deeds of your ancestors encourage you and incite your minds to manly achievements – the greatness of King Charlemagne, and of his son Louis, and of your other monarchs, who have destroyed the kingdoms of the Turks and have extended the sway of Church over lands previously possessed by the pagan. Let the holy sepulcher of our Lord and Saviour, which is possessed by unclean nations, especially arouse you, and the holy places which are now treated, with ignominy and irreverently polluted with the filth of the unclean. Oh, most valiant soldiers and descendants of invincible ancestors, do not be degenerate, but recall the valor of your progenitors.

Be worthy of your ancestors! This is always an effective appeal, especially when one of those ancestors is the mighty Charlemagne. Calif Hakim ordered the Holy Sepulcher destroyed in 1009; clearly the memory of this animated the Crusades almost ninety years later.

“But if you are hindered by love of children, parents, or of wife, remember what the Lord says in the Gospel, ‘He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me’, ‘Every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life’ [Matt. 10.37; 19.29]. Let none of your possessions retain you, nor solicitude for your family affairs.

I’m not sure that this is quite what Jesus had in mind when he said these things, but hey, why not use them? WWJD?

For this land which you inhabit, shut in on all sides by the seas and surrounded by the mountain peaks, is too narrow for your large population; nor does it abound in wealth; and it furnishes scarcely food enough for its cultivators. Hence it is that you murder and devour one another, that you wage war, and that very many among you perish in intestine strife.’

This is tendentious, but revelatory. In some ways the Crusades were an admission of failure on the part of the Church – a big “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Knights weren’t always upstanding or chivalrous. Sometimes they could be like armed gangs, and they loved fighting each other when there weren’t any real wars to join. They didn’t want to kill each other in tournaments, but sometimes they did, and the Church hated this needless shedding of Christian blood. It repeatedly proscribed tourneying, to no avail. Finally, it turned around and blessed this class of people – only if they killed non-Christians, far from Europe. So here the pope is trying to denigrate France – you’re a great people, but your land is bad, and you need to get out of it. There’s not enough of it for all of you, which is why you fight each other! (Probably not true: they liked fighting each other anyway – it’s what they did.)

“Let hatred therefore depart from among you, let your quarrels end, let wars cease, and let all dissensions and controversies slumber. Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulcher – wrest that land from the wicked race, and subject it to yourselves. That land which, as the Scripture says, ‘floweth with milk and honey’ [Num. 13.7, Num. 14.28, Lev. 20.24, etc.] was given by God into the power of the children of Israel. Jerusalem is the center of the earth; the land is fruitful above all others, like another paradise of delights. This spot the Redeemer of mankind has made illustrious by his advent, has beautified by his sojourn, has consecrated by his passion, has redeemed by his death, has glorified by his burial.

And if France features a good people in a bad land, then Palestine features bad people in a good land! What more natural a thing than to take the good people and give them the good land, as God originally did for the Hebrews? (There are plenty of biblical quotations to justify this.)

“This royal city, however, situated at the center of the earth, is now held captive by the enemies of Christ and is subjected, by those who do not know God, to the worship of the heathen. She seeks, therefore, and desires to be liberated and ceases not to implore you to come to her aid. From you especially she asks succor, because as we have already said, God has conferred upon you above all other nations great glory in arms. Accordingly, undertake this journey eagerly for the remission of your sins, with the assurance of the reward of imperishable glory in the kingdom of heaven.”

More praise of his audience, and more denigration of the enemy. Note how here he personifies Jerusalem as a sort of damsel in distress, appealing to the natural protective instincts of his audience (even if this particular aspect of chivalry didn’t really become prominent until later in the Middle Ages). Note too how participating in a Crusade will put you straight on the road to heaven.

When Pope Urban had urbanely [nice!] said these and very similar things, he so centered in one purpose the desires of all who were present that all cried out, “It is the will of God! It is the will of God! [Deus vult! Deus vult!]” When the venerable Roman pontiff heard that, with eyes uplifted to heaven, he gave thanks to God and, commanding silence with his hand, said:

“Most beloved brethren, today is manifest in you what the Lord says in the Gospel, ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’ [Matt. 18.20]; for unless God had been present in your spirits, all of you would not have uttered the same cry; since, although the cry issued from numerous mouths, yet the origin of the cry as one. Therefore I say to you that God, who implanted is in your breasts, has drawn it forth from you. Let that then be your war cry in combats, because it is given to you by God. When an armed attack is made upon the enemy, this one cry be raised by all the soldiers of God: ‘It is the will of God! It is the will of God!’

A war-cry is always useful, especially one as self-righteous as this!

“And we neither command nor advise that the old or those incapable of bearing arms, undertake this journey. Nor ought women to set out at all without their husbands, or brother, or legal guardians. For such are more of a hindrance than aid, more of a burden than an advantage. Let the rich aid the needy and according to their wealth let them take with them experienced soldiers. The priests and other clerks, whether secular or regulars are not to go without the consent of their bishop; for this journey would profit them nothing if they went without permission. Also, it is not fitting that laymen should enter upon the pilgrimage without the blessing of their priests.

And here we have the equivalent of the middle section of a drug commercial, when they list all the disclaimers (e.g. “pregnant women should not take Propecia or even handle broken tablets for risk of birth defects”). He has riled up the audience, but he knows that enthusiasm is not enough – he wants to inspire a discrete set of competent participants, and to avoid a large, undisciplined mob (unfortunately this didn’t quite work: the first, “People’s” Crusade, was a disaster). But he ends on a high note, and with another brilliantly self-serving scriptural quotation:

“Whoever, therefore, shall determine upon this holy pilgrimage, and shall make his vow to God to that effect, and shall offer himself to him for sacrifice, as a living victim, holy and acceptable to God, shall wear the sign of the cross of the Lord on his forehead or on his breast. When, indeed, he shall return from his journey, having fulfilled his vow, let him place the cross on his back between his shoulders. Thus shall ye, indeed, by this twofold action, fulfill the precept of the Lord, as he commands in the Gospel, ‘he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me’” [Matt. 10.38].

The Christian Fish

Everybody has seen the Christian fish sign on the backs of motor vehicles, and the various parodies of it (the Darwin fish, a Truth fish eating a Darwin fish, the Gefilte fish, etc.). Some illustrations courtesy the Wikimedia foundation:

fishpiaggiodarwin_fish_01-svg truth_fish

1280px-gefiltefish

There is plenty of fish imagery in the New Testament (fishers of men, the feeding of the 5000 with five loaves and two fish, cast down your nets, etc.) but this is different – Jesus not as a fisherman or ichthyphage, but as a fish himself (a parallel situation to his portrayal both as a shepherd and as a lamb). How did this happen? Putting aside pagan-holdover theories of fish representing primordial life, the standard line is that fish, in Greek, is ΙΧΘΥΣ (“ichthys”), and forms an acronym for “Ίησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ” (i.e. “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”).

ichthys_c-class

The movie Quo Vadis (1951) depicts Christians recognizing each other through the use of the sign: one would draw a semi-circle, and the other would complete the fish with another semi-circle. According to Wikipedia, the Jesus fish was revived in the 1970s as a symbol of contemporary Christianity. Also according to Wikipedia, in the early days of Christianity, ΙΧΘΥΣ could be rendered as an eight-spoked wheel, if one lays all the letters on top of each other.

ephesus_ichthyscrop

It would be great to revive this as a Christian symbol, although it might conflict with the Buddhist symbol of the Dharma Wheel, representing the noble eightfold path.

dharma_wheel-svg

Professor Buzzkill

In honor of the feast of St. Francis, a podcast debunking several myths about him, by my friend Bill Campbell. The teaser:

St. Francis of Assisi is one of the most popular saints in the Christian religion. He’s known as a lover of animals, the first eco-warrior, and a peace-negotiator during the crusades. How much of this is true, and how much is myth? “Make me the instrument of your buzzkilling!”