The Long View: The Holy Grail

The chalice in question

The chalice in question

A nice overview of the grail stories, and how they fit into European history. This was part of my background reading for Tim Powers' The Drawing of the Dark and Last Call.


The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief
By Richard Barber
Harvard University Press, 2004
463 Pages, US$17.61
ISBN 0-674-01390-5

 

At the climax of the French prose romance, The Quest of the Holy Grail, Sir Galahad looks into the dish that was the object of the long and perilous search by himself and his companions, Sir Perceval and Sir Bors. This is his report:

“For now I see openly what tongue cannot describe nor heart conceive. Here I see the beginning of great daring and the prime cause of prowess; here I see the marvel of all other marvels.”

That is as good a description of the Grail as we have. This survey of the subject defends the sensible thesis that the original Grail stories, which were written between 1180 and 1250, were closely connected with the development of Eucharistic adoration and of the concept of the Beatific Vision. The audience for these stories was a class of increasingly sophisticated knights, who wanted a transcendent ground for their careers of adventuring and their ethic of duty and loyalty. Now that's simple enough, isn't it?

The great merit of this excellent study is that its author, Richard Barber, realizes there is no single key to understanding the Grail. He has written many academically serious accounts of medieval subjects for a general audience. In this work, he does the service of lucidly summarizing the major versions of the Grail story. We get accounts, sometimes necessarily speculative, of the Grail authors, and of the history of the texts that have come down to us. Just as important, Barber describes the revival of interest in the Grail in the 19th and 20th centuries, with particular emphasis on its new role in conspiracy theories of history.

None of this is a debunking exercise: Barber is willing to give Jungians and comparative mythographers a respectful hearing, and he at least entertains the possibility that the “secrets of the Grail,” so often alluded to in the Grail poems and romances, may have included some spiritual exercises that bordered on “white magic.” He does, however, let us know where evidence ends and speculation begins.

The chief source for all streams of Grail lore begins about 1180, with The Story of the Holy Grail by Chretien de Troyes. Little about him is known. His Story is an unfinished poem, not obviously of cosmic significance. Young Sir Perceval, who had been knighted at King Arthur's court, comes a across a mysterious castle. There resides a wounded lord. He invites Perceval to a feast, during which a procession occurs. It includes a lance, which drips blood, and a beautiful dish. (“Grail,” “graal,” “greal”: they are all variations on the word used for “dish” here: it is not a new coinage.) These objects are borne through the hall and into another chamber. Perceval had been taught not to ask questions, so he does not ask, “Whom does the Grail serve?” Had he done so, the lord would have been healed, and order would have been restored to that land. As it was, he awoke to a deserted castle. Then he began a career of aggression and cruelty, in the course of which he forgets about God. At the end of the poem, he meets a hermit, who turns out to be his uncle. The hermit explains that the wounded lord (the Fisher King) is yet another uncle. The Grail, which the hermit describes as “such a holy thing,” carries a consecrated host to the Fisher King's father, on which the old man subsists. Perceval repents. He promises to find the Grail castle again and ask the question. Meanwhile, the hermit teaches him a regimen of penitence, including some secret names of Christ that are not disclosed to the reader.

Bits of this tale might be traced, but not the ensemble: the basic Grail story is as original as Tolkien's Ring story. It is barely conceivable that the motif of the clueless young knight comes from Wales. It is also possible that the Grail is a refined version of the Welsh “cauldron of plenty.” However, there is no obvious way that those elements could have come to Chretien's notice, and it is not clear how our understanding of the story would be enhanced if they had.

As it stands, Chretien's account is little different from the sorts of adventures that fictional knights routinely experienced. What we do know is that Chretien's hints and omissions provided hooks for new story elements that snapped into place with lightening speed. New versions of the story said the Grail was not just present at the feast in the Grail castle, but magically provided the food. The Grail's ability to cure the Fisher king expands to the ability to cure all maladies, and eventually to confer immortality on those who remained in its presence. By the time we reach the Quest of the Grail, the chief Grail-quester is Galahad, whose spotless character and ultimate success in his endeavor is contrasted with the failure of his father, the adulterous Lancelot. The disorder of the Grail kingdom occasioned by the wounding of the king becomes the uncanny Wasteland, the suspension of the natural order while the quest is unfulfilled. In some versions, King Arthur himself becomes a Grail hero.

The Grail knights achieve their quest by finding the castle and asking the right question, thereby curing the Fisher King. Then, depending on the version in question, they may take part in a Mass using the Grail, at which Christ himself is seen to be present.

The Grail itself undergoes many modifications and improvements. The most important is that the Grail becomes associated with Joseph of Arimathea, a minor character in the New Testament. In Grail stories, he is said to have come to Britain, bringing various relics with him. Thus, the Grail becomes the dish used at the Last Supper, or the cup that Jesus used then, which is sometimes also the cup in which the blood of Jesus was collected at the Crucifixion.

That lance, by the way, becomes the Spear of Longinus, which pierced the side of Christ at the Crucifixion. It, too, is sometimes the object of a quest within the larger Grail framework.

If you want to explore the Grail stories, there are two versions to start with. One is The Quest of the Holy Grail , an anonymous prose work in French from about 1220-1230 (actually part of an extended romance called The Lancelot-Grail). The other is Wolfram von Eschenbach's epic poem, Parzival, from about a decade earlier.

The Quest is the basis, more or less, of later Grail stories in French, and also of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. (Written about 1470, it was one of the first books printed in English.) King Arthur's Round Table in the French and English stories might seem like an Order of the Grail, but if so, the Order is ephemeral: the beginning of the quest is often the beginning of chaos. Their Grail is generally a plate or cup; it might appear in several such guises in the same story.

Parzival established a somewhat different Grail tradition, which we see in Richard Wagner final opera, Parsifal, the work that so infuriated Friedrich Nietzsche. In the German version, the Grail is a mysterious stone, the center of a sort of Grail utopia from which the world is secretly regulated. In Wolfram's version there is even a Grail dynasty. The connection of the Grail with a sacred bloodline has been revived sometimes, rarely to good effect. Some bad etymology helps here: “Holy Grail,” or “Sangraal,” was quickly mistaken for “sangre real,” or “royal blood.”

Some of these ideas are not self-evidently orthodox, and conceivably they came from a theological underground. I for one would suggest that Barber pays too little attention to the Grail tradition that the first bishop was Joseph of Arimathea. That would give England priority over Rome; it would certainly give Joseph's traditional seat at Glastonbury priority over Canterbury. Still, the medieval religious authorities took no official notice of the Grail stories. Several relics were identified as “the Grail,” in the sense of the cup or dish used at the Last Supper, but no one tried very hard to connect them with the Grail romances.

Interest in the Grail waned with the Middle Ages. Because of the strong Eucharistic associations of the stories, the new Protestant establishments condemned the whole Grail tradition, to the extent that they knew of it. Even in Catholic countries, though, literary taste moved on to other things. It was only in the 18th century that systematic interest in the subject revived, largely for antiquarian reasons. With the beginning of the Romantic movement, the Grail reentered popular culture. It also began to acquire an esoteric dimension that, probably, it had not had before.

Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur was being reprinted by the early 19th century, and soon became a favorite source for artists. There was a revival, or a reinvention, of the rhetoric of chivalry and quest, quite often in the service of movements for social reform. The immensely influential Pre-Raphaelite Movement embraced the Grail. There was great demand for murals depicting Grail themes, for instance. In France, and especially in Germany, there were parallel developments.

There was a problem, though. The key scenes of Grail imagery were also often Catholic imagery. This was awkward in Protestant England when such works were commissioned for public places. It required tact on the part of the Anglo-Catholic artists to whom the subject most appealed. But it was also a problem in Catholic countries. People who might be attracted to the Grail material esthetically might also be alienated from the Catholic Church, whether theologically or politically. A trend began to separate the Grail from its obvious Christian context; or better, to show that the Grail was actually subversive of that context. Thus, perhaps inevitably, the Grail became part of the furniture of the occult revival.

Already in the 18th century, the suggestion had been made that the Grail knights were really Templars. The Masons had rather favored unsubstantiated theories that linked themselves to the Templars, too. One result was that, when a vast Masonic conspiracy was blamed for the French Revolution, the Grail tradition became an object of suspicion. In Metternich's Vienna, the theory was not unknown that perhaps the plot to overthrow Christianity had been operating as early as the 13th century. The people who identified the Grail with the Templars, and later the Cathars, generally regarded the identification as an indictment. However, even paranoids have enemies. By the end of the 19th century, there were people who were attracted to the Grail precisely because they thought that subverting Christianity was a really keen idea.

Of these perhaps the most flagrant was Otto Rahn, the Nazi researcher who is sometimes credited, on dubious evidence, with actually finding the Grail. What we know he did do was publish several books with titles like The Crusade against the Grail and The Courtiers of Lucifer. His argument was that the Grail legends masked Cathar doctrine. The Cathars worshipped Lucifer, understood as the liberator from the Jewish God, and the true Grail was the lost Cathar treasure.

One can see where these ideas might come from. In later German tradition, the Grail is made from a jewel that fell from Lucifer's crown, and of course Wolfram himself introduced the disturbing idea that the guardians of the Grail had been the Neutral Angels, who neither rebelled against God nor remained obedient to him. On the other hand, there is no way to connect these notions with the Cathars, much less with the Grail. There is also no reason to believe that these issues, or Rahn's researches, were especially interesting to the Nazi government. Still, they are not as idiosyncratic as one might suppose.

Much more intellectually serious was the attempt by Rene Guenon, one of the most influential of obscure 20th-century intellectuals, to incorporate the Grail into his theory of the Primordial Tradition. Tradition in this sense is the supposed orientation toward the transcendent that is shared by all the great religions. In their exoteric forms, these religions may be more or less corrupt, but Guenon suggested, along with other occultists, that the Grail stories might have been created by an esoteric Christian elite. Barber does not note this, but Guenon was always looking for means in the great religions of “initiation.” Guenon claimed to be frustrated in his search for a living initiatic tradition in Western Christianity. The vision of the Holy Grail, however defined, would have done quite nicely. Eventually, though, Guenon gave up on Christianity, and became a Muslim Sufi.

One of Guenon's disciples, Julius Evola, undertook to create, or recreate, an anti-Christian elite. Evola argued, along with Dante, that the Holy Roman Empire was a divine institution, and essentially the European expression of the primordial archetype of universal dominion. Unlike Dante, he dismissed Christianity, in both its contemporary and historical forms. Rather, Evola said the Grail represented the spirituality of the empire, and especially of a secret movement of knights and crusaders who were the true Grail knights. As a notable ideologist of fascism both during and after the Mussolini regime, he hoped to create a new Order of initiates around which the empire could form again, but this time without the Christian trappings. His success was mixed at best.

(But speaking of imperial Grail conspiracies, what about Lord Alfred Milner's Round Table Groups, so clearly derived from the Pre-Raphaelite Grail craze? But no: that way madness lies.)

The keynote poem of the 20th century was The Wasteland, a term from Grail mythology. In general, the 20th century tended to treat the Grail as an ominous symbol: Barber's survey of the literature is fascinating. The great exception he finds is the work of Charles Williams, who was a former occultist, a long-time editor at the Oxford University Press, and a friend of C.S. Lewis. He wrote several novels with Grail themes, and a major poem, Taliesin Through Logres. Barber credits Williams with doing what the medieval writers never quite managed: recasting the Arthurian material in a coherent structure around the quest, and giving the search for the Grail a universal significance. Moreover, Williams did this while returning to the idea of the Grail as the Beatific Vision, but with the added notion of the Grail as a mode under which the divine intervenes in history.

My quibbles with this book are very minor. Barber does not attempt a systematic history of the liturgy of the Eucharist, but his offhand remark that the Mass started as community morale-boosting sessions is almost certainly wrong. It might have been well to emphasize that there is more than one theology of the Real Presence, even though Aquinas's theory of Transubstantiation did become the orthodox one in the Catholic West. For that matter, it is a little misleading to define that latter doctrine as saying that the bread and wine at the time of consecration “are transformed into physically different substances.” Actually, they are transformed into different substances, but their physical “accidents” remain the same. (What's the difference? Go ask Aristotle.)

Despite the great length of this review, there is much more in this book than I have been able to cover. Anyone interested in the subject must read it.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Inventing the Middle Ages

By Anton Graff - Originally uploaded to de.wikipedia (All user names refer to de.wikipedia):18:53, 24. Nov 2005 . . Caro1409 (Diskussion) . . 286 × 350 (17967 Byte)18:51, 24. Nov 2005 . . Caro1409 (Diskussion) . . 286 × 350 (17967 Byte), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=529840

By Anton Graff - Originally uploaded to de.wikipedia (All user names refer to de.wikipedia):18:53, 24. Nov 2005 . . Caro1409 (Diskussion) . . 286 × 350 (17967 Byte)18:51, 24. Nov 2005 . . Caro1409 (Diskussion) . . 286 × 350 (17967 Byte), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=529840

By Julius Schrader - http://www.britishbattles.com/frederick-the-great-wars/seven-years-war/battle-of-kolin/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48757267

By Julius Schrader - http://www.britishbattles.com/frederick-the-great-wars/seven-years-war/battle-of-kolin/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48757267

Looking up images for this post, I was taken with portraits of Frederick the Great. The man's gaze pierces you even at the distance of 230 years. He isn't the subject of the book in this post, but I couldn't resist!


Inventing the Middle Ages:
The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century
by Norman F. Cantor
William Morrow and Company, 1991
447 Pages, US14.00
ISBN 0-688-12302-3

 

There is an old joke in literary criticism that is really a serious question: What effect did T.S. Eliot have on Shakespeare? While a time-travel story involving Eliot and Shakespeare would not be without interest, the import of this question is really about the development of critical method. Scholars had to invent new ways of looking at poetry in order to handle Eliot and the other modernist poets. When these methods were turned on Shakespeare, they revealed what almost seems to be a new body of work. In much the same way, scholars in the 20th century can be said to have "invented" the Middle Ages, since their own age has sensitized them to see things in the material that would have meant nothing to prior centuries. By the same token, of course, the study of these scholars will tell you almost as much about the 20th century as it will about the Middle Ages.

It is interesting to read this book in the year 2000, a decade after it was finished. Norman Cantor, a noted medievalist associated with New York University at the time this book was written, is familiar with the major US and British universities. (He was born in Manitoba.) Cantor has a taste for macrohistory and cultural speculation on the grand scale, so "Inventing the Middle Ages" preserves in amber many of the concerns and unconsidered assumptions that were common among thoughtful people just after the end of the Cold War. There is declinism regarding the United States, the off-hand dismissal of historical teleology, and a certain degree of exasperation with the politicization of the academy that occurred in the 1970s and `80s. Also, something that seems increasingly shocking these days, the author is completely credulous of Freudian psychology. Still, this book should never become dated. Cantor knew many of the scholars he discusses, almost all of whom were characters, and his gossipy accounts of their lives and ways will surely remain among the primary sources for these people. Last but not least, his conviction that the Middle Ages are the future will bear repeated examination as various futures arrive.

According to Cantor, the serious study of the Middle Ages really began only around 1900. While he expresses some admiration for the Romantic engagement of the Middle Ages found in the novels of Walter Scott and Victor Hugo, and even in the somewhat imaginative history of Jules Michelet, he says that it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that enough archival research and textual analysis had been done to make serious study possible. This is a bit odd, because certainly there were numerous people in the last half of the 19th century who were working in archives and writing lengthy studies on medieval art and law and politics. However, according to Cantor, even Henry Adams, who by his own account brought the pure Germanic gospel of the documentary method to Harvard, was not a serious medievalist; Adams' "Mont Saint Michel and Chartres" is dismissed as just a good read.

Frederic William Maitland, an English lawyer turned Cambridge don who wrote a landmark study of the origins of common-law procedure, is the first medievalist whom Cantor chooses to take seriously. (He died in 1906.) Maitland's approach was "modern." For Cantor, this means a sharp focus on the "thing in itself," on the concrete details provided to us by the records. Maitland's explanations were "self-referential," in the sense of not invoking larger principles or higher forces. Not all of the modern medievalists whom Cantor discusses were "Modern" in these ways, but they all resembled Maitland in favoring "thick," highly detailed descriptions of the medieval worlds they described. Recreating the context is the point of the exercise; explaining particular events is sometimes a secondary consideration. Histories with thick descriptions, in fact, sometimes forego narrative almost entirely.

The best known variety of historyless history is that associated with the French journal "Annales." One of its co-founders was the medievalist Marc Bloch. His martyrdom in the French Resistance during the Second World War gave both "Annales" and its materialist, soft-Marxist approach to history a degree of credibility that Cantor suggests it might not otherwise have had.

Readers interested in French academic culture will be fascinated by Cantor's somewhat jaundiced account of the French system of academic celebrity. The great French masters ("mandarins" they are called) are a lucky minority who come up through the elite schools. They become the centers of learned cults and end, if all goes well, as the founders of state-supported institutes dedicated to their greater glory. While Cantor is hardly dismissive of "Annales" and its worldwide Diaspora, he does note that this approach works best for subjects like peasant communes, Bloch's own area of study. When we do not know the names of individuals or what they did from day to day, it makes sense to focus minutely on their material and institutional circumstances. In situations where we do know quite a lot about individuals, however, and particularly when they lived in times of dramatic change, it is perverse to concentrate on the "long duration" of historical continuity. Additionally, "Annales" has had the unfortunate effect of discouraging the best historians from writing ordinary narrative history for the intelligent public, thereby leaving the field to popularizers.

Of the medievalists whom Cantor mentions, the names with the most resonance for most readers are certainly those of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Cantor is actually a bit patronizing about Tolkien as a scholar. According to Cantor, Tolkien, whose subject was Anglo-Saxon literature, was considered a burn-out case by the 1930s. He even says that there was some sentiment that Tolkien should have resigned his prestigious chair at Oxford in favor of a younger man. Oxford sentiment was rendered irrelevant by the explosive success of Tolkien's six-hundred-thousand-word work, "The Lord of the Rings." Cantor calls it a novel; Tolkien called it a "romance." Whatever it was, it disseminated a view of history and ethics and the human condition to a public that seems only to grow with time. Cantor suggests that the book is a permanent addition to the great works in English, one that will last after the more consciously propagandistic fiction of Lewis is in eclipse. On the other hand, Cantor finds little to fault in Lewis's work in medieval allegory and Renaissance literature.

Cantor suggests that Tolkien and Lewis are to be credited with making the spirit of the Middle Ages accessible to the general public, but here he is surely wrong. Tolkien and Lewis did popularize many of the themes and images that are found in medieval literature. They also conveyed something of the little epiphanies that the medieval mind found in particular things and people and places. Still, all this was put to the service of 20th century themes by 20th century minds. No medieval epic, and indeed no epic of which I am aware, conveys the sense of the world in motion that the "Lord of the Rings" does. The work is more like "The Winds of War" than "Le Morte d'Arthur." Though Lewis hated psychology (almost as much as I do), nonetheless his characters have an interiority that was not a prominent feature of medieval literature. The 20th century saw grace operating from an angle other than the one understood by the 13th.

Cantor comes close to hitting the nail on the head when he remarks that there is something apocalyptic about Tolkien and Lewis. Reading them, he says, one almost gets the impression that they would have liked to join with other wild people and take over the world to protect it from the Shadow. The remarkable thing about "Inventing the Middle Ages," at least to me, is the number of medievalists it discusses who had explicit thoughts along just those lines.

Take, for instance, the Weimar-era scholars whom Cantor calls "the Nazi Twins," Percy Ernst Schramm and Ernst Hartwig Kantorowicz. The appellation is not entirely fair. It is true that they were both right-wing. Schramm spent much of the war as a historian attached to the General Staff; for a while, he was daily in Hitler's presence. Kantorowicz was a friend of Goering, and took care to have a swastika placed on the cover of the book that made his reputation. Still, Schramm was not a party member. His friend Kantorowicz was not eligible: he was a Jew who emigrated, to the United States, quite late in the 1930s. What ties them to the Nazi Party is the historical and even mystical support they gave to the doctrine of the "leader principle."

They did this through biographies that became wildly popular in the 1920s. Schramm's book covered Otto III, the Holy Roman Emperor in the year 1000. He hoped to inaugurate the renovation of the world, aided by his ecclesiastical sidekick and reputed magician, Pope Sylvester II. Kantorowicz's subject was the even more uncanny 13th-century emperor, Frederick II, who was called Emperor of the Last Days by his friends and Antichrist by his enemies. Both Schramm and Kantorowicz hoped to aid the recovery of Germany from defeat in the First World War by reacquainting its people with the full depth and force of the ancient idea of kingship, thus preparing the way for a charismatic leader. Their work probably was not without effect. As Cantor remarks, you don't always get the messiah you asked for.

Less dramatic use of the Middle Ages was made by many scholars who nonetheless felt that the period was urgently relevant to modern times. Among the scholars of the "formalist" school, probably the best known is another German, Ernst Robert Curtius, whose book "European Literature in the Latin Middle Ages" still shows up on reading lists. The point of "formalism," as the name suggests, is to identify and describe the forms and typical ideas that run through medieval literature, indeed through all Western literature back to antiquity. The formalists, as Cantor describes them, seek to disclose and preserve an essential tradition in Western culture, one that can survive the tumults of modernity. As a practical matter, formalism is more than just nostalgia for the past. Indeed, since it emphasizes the degree to which the past is still with us, it is actually a bit anti-historical. One formalist, Erwin Panofsky, expanded the technique of "iconography" that had been developed for medieval studies to the criticism of film. Very few medievalists, in fact, seem to have been tub-thumping reactionaries, perhaps because reactionaries rarely wish to restore a past more than a generation old.

This discussion hardly exhausts the list or even types of medievalist whom Cantor discuses. He gives a great deal of space to his dissertation adviser from Princeton, Joseph Reese Strayer, a Wilsonian liberal who advised the CIA during the Cold War and emphasized the high level of instrumental rationalism that informed some medieval governments. There is the great proponent of neo-Thomism, Etienne Gilson, about whom Cantor seems to admire everything but his Thomism. Readers will also learn that Johan Huizinga's famous book, "The Waning of the Middle Ages," is not actually the beginning and the end of all wisdom about late medieval culture. Readers get a double helping of everything: the Middle Ages were a fascinating time, and during the last 100 years they have been studied by fascinating people.

Fascination is one thing, but is any of this relevant to the 21st century? Writing just at the end of the Cold War, Cantor suggested that it will be. Socialism may not be quite dead, he says, but its loss of prestige is probably irreparable. Capitalism is therefore being asked to underwrite hope and ethics, something that is beyond the capacity of a mere economic system. When the modern era declines from its period of inordinate greatness, then may come an age of "retromedievalism."

In Cantor's telling, retromedievalism sounds an awful lot like a more cheerful form of neoconservatism. For Cantor, the essence of the medieval heritage is two things: civil society protected by the rule of law, and a "sentimental formalism" in private life that leaves room for personal love and feeling. Something else that we may recover is medieval cheerfulness. It was the doctrine of the Incarnation that made the Middle Ages fundamentally optimistic. The good is visible, not just in heaven or in the future, but in the world around us: symbolically, we already live in the City of God. And even when the future looked dark in medieval times, the greater pessimism simply occasioned the greater optimism: Antichrist in the final analysis was just a harbinger of the Second Coming. The memory of the Middle Ages is indelible in the Western mind, Cantor tells us, and what once was can be again.

Well, certainly there was a sunny Middle Ages, the Middle Ages of the Peace of God and the Cluniac reforms. There were moments when, as St. Augustine counseled, Europe did not seem to take history altogether seriously. On the other hand, there was also the Middle Ages of Frederick II and Joachim of Fiore, when the whole West seemed to be carrying the same eschatological tune. Ten years ago it was hard to believe that such a thing could happen again. Those were the days of "the end of history." History looks less dead today, however, and teleology is making a comeback.

Copyright © 2000 by John J. Reilly

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The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise Book Review

Pelagius, thorn in the side of the Umayyads

Pelagius, thorn in the side of the Umayyads

The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise
by Dario Fernandez-Morera
ISI Press 2016
$29.95; 358 pages
ISBN 978161017095

It has been quite a while since I've read a proper work of non-fiction in book form. I tend to get all of my non-fiction reading as journal articles, blogs that usually reference journal articles, or international consensus standards. Thus my book reading tends toward fiction as a palate-cleanser and method of winding down.

However, I saw this one on the shelf at my local public library, and I just had to take a look. One of the most fun things about reading is way one can make connections between all of the different things on my mind. Here, I found a perfect alignment between Stirling's Ice, Iron, and Gold, the Way of St. James, and Islamic millennial movements like the Almohads. I love it when everything comes together.

Fernandez-Morera has written a rather polemical book. I don't mean this as a criticism; I rather like polemical books, as long as the author can make a case. Fernandez-Morera can indeed make a case that in popular Western culture, Islamic Spain has been consistently presented as something that it was not. As evidence of this, Fernandez-Morera starts each chapter with a quotation from a well-known person or persons claiming it was a paradise of tolerance between different religions and ethnicities. These quotations are generally pulled from other works of popular history, although in at least two cases, Carly Fiorina and Barack Obama, the setting was a political speech. Whatever specialists might say in their journals, I think this is the popular conception.

The rest of each chapter is devoted to listing counterexamples to this myth of tolerance, focusing on broad topics such as Jihad, women, Jews, or Christians. Here, I am a little less convinced that Fernandez-Morera has made his case. While I do think the broad outlines of what Fernandez-Morera says are broadly true, I can find some examples of analytical overreach. For example, the colonial practice of renaming places in order to assert control comes up in several chapters. Broadly, this is correct, but footnote 119 in Chapter 1 says:

Ironically, the word Istanbul, used to eliminate the memory of the politically and religiously charged Constantinople, arises from the conquerors' mispronounciation of the Greek phrase εις τήν πόλι "eesteen pohlee" or "To the Polis!"—that is, "to the CIty!", or "to Constantinople!"

That is certainly one interpretation. Another is that the invading Turks ended up calling the city the exact same thing the locals had been calling it for 1,000 years: "the City". In a strange twist, this ended up confirming my prior belief that any idea labeling itself as "colonialism" is probably dumb. [although I am open to alternative explanations]

I also suspect some exaggeration by exclusion in the chapter on the Jews. While I appreciate the important context that Jews were used by the invading Muslims as a counter to the initially more numerous Catholics, the Jews themselves seem to have enjoyed the wealth and status that resulted, at least until the more literal-minded Almoravids and Almohads showed up and ruined the party.

On the gripping hand, I wept for the Visigoth culture of Spain that was destroyed by the invading Berber armies. All that remains now is a few ruins, and the Mozarabic rite of the Catholic Church. If you want a flavor for what might have been, then L. Sprague de Camp's classic Lest Darkness Fall imagines a world in which the Visigoths weren't destroyed [albeit helped by a visitor from the future].

I ultimately found this an interesting book, but probably one I remain cautious about. I am not really familiar with the popular historical literature that Fernandez-Morera is reacting against, and I suspect that the book would probably seem far more reasonable in light of the many foolish assertions made on this subject. Considered in isolation, I think many of the things said are narrowly true, and perhaps broadly a bit misleading, but that is very context dependent. I think this book is worth a read as a counterweight to far more seriously flawed popular histories of Islamic Spain.

My other book reviews

 

The Long View: Dante's World Government

This is an absolutely beautiful exposition of the idea that a universal state is the best for the flourishing of man. I'll let the words speak for themselves.


Dante's World Government:
De Monarchia in the 21st Century

 

By John J. Reilly

“In writing the introduction to a work of political philosophy there is a temptation to attribute more importance to the work in question than it can properly claim. With Dante's Monarchy this temptation scarcely arises; for many have dismissed the treatise as a dream, the vision of an idealist out of touch with political realities who was yearning for an Empire that had passed away.”

So wrote Donald Nicholl in his introduction to the English translation (Noonday Press, 1954) that I used for this essay. There is a sense in which his assessment remains true 49 years later. It has been a long time since many people had much enthusiasm for the Holy Roman Empire, which was the particular instance of universal polity that Dante was defending. The paucity of translations of De Monarchia into English might also be taken as evidence of lasting irrelevance. (The Latin original is, oddly enough, available online, at no charge.) Some things have changed in the past half-century, however. The prospect of new forms of transnational governance is often discussed these days, either as a promise or a threat. Moreover, the dream-like abstraction of Dante's arguments may allow for modern re-interpretation in a way that would not be possible to a more concrete and historically grounded analysis. It is very unlikely that De Monarchia will someday be hailed as a guide to restructuring the international system. Nonetheless, in intellectual history, there are some issues that never really go away. In this book, Dante gives us an early formulation of some perennial ideas.

Even the most Platonic political theory has some history behind it, of course. Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was born into Florence's Guelph party, which was the faction that generally supported the papacy against the Holy Roman Empire. (The imperial party was the Ghibellines.) Briefly a member of Florence's governing council, he was exiled in 1301, when the Guelph faction that was backed by France took control of the city. The French were there because Charles of Valois had entered Italy at the pope's invitation to restore order to the peninsula. The next year, Pope Boniface VIII issued the famous bull, Unum Sanctum, which advanced the broadest claims to the supremacy of the church over temporal authority, particularly over the empire. De Monarchia may be considered an answer to those claims; or maybe better, their dialectical opposite.

The date of De Monarchia's composition is disputed, though it was probably finished in the second decade of the 14th century. Its arguments in favor of the autonomy of the empire are not greatly different from the political theory of the Convivio, which Dante abandoned unfinished about 1308, and The Divine Comedy, which he completed shortly before his death. It probably was not finished before the arrival of the new emperor to Italy, Henry VII, in 1310. He, too, came to restore order, this time with the blessing of Clement V, the French pope who initiated the removal the papacy to Avignon that would last until 1377. These events turned Dante into what he described as a “party of one.”

De Monarchia asks three questions: Is the secular monarchy necessary? Did the Roman people receive the monarchy by right? Does the monarch receive his authority directly from God, or through the intermediation of some minister of God? These terms require a little explanation. By “monarchy,” Dante does not mean simply the rule of a single individual, though his argument does tend toward the Aristotelian proposition that legitimate monarchy is the most perfect form of government (in contrast to tyranny, which is monarchy's opposite and the worst form). The later Roman Republic was the “monarch” of the ancient world, in Dante's terminology. De Monarchia is really about the structure of the international system. As for the “Roman” element, Dante does not distinguish between the Republic and the Empire, or between ancient Rome and the medieval empire.

So, then, to take Dante's first question: Is the secular monarchy necessary?

Remarkably, Dante derives the necessity of monarchy from an argument that is almost Hegelian. Universal government is necessary, because it is the way to universal peace; universal peace is necessary, because it is the only way the human race can attain its end, or purpose; this end is actualization of the “possible intellect,” which is possessed by the human species as a whole.

The possible intellect got Dante into a lot of posthumous trouble; it was one of the reasons De Monarchia stayed on the Index of Forbidden Books from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The notion comes from the 12th-century Iberian Islamic philosopher, Averroes (Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Rushd), who deployed it in a way that argued against personal immortality in favor of a collective human soul. Dante himself thought no such thing, of course. His version rests on the scholastic commonplace that human beings are only partly intellectual beings (unlike angels, whose substance is intellect). Because of this defect, no single human being, however intelligent, could fully embody the intellectual capacity common to the species. That could be done only collectively and, since knowledge is cumulative, historically. The human species, if it is to achieve the state of intellectual perfection possible to it, required a peaceful and therefore unified world.

Since the 19th century, we have been more inclined to expect the advancement of intellect to come from competition than from harmonious peace. To that, perhaps, a medieval would have argued that even a market of ideas requires rules to keep the market functioning. Certainly a dynamic world is not quite contrary to the medieval ideal of the tranquility of order.

Be that as it may, Dante insists that the ideal political order is a universal polity. The good inherent in the whole, he explains, exceeds the good inherent in the parts, though these parts may have an internal constitution that resembles the order of the whole. Thus, only a polity that encompasses the whole human species could really be perfect.

The universality of the universal monarch would not be expressed by promulgating the positive law for every district. Rather, the universal law would be a common law, which deals only with those things all men have in common. Neither would it mean that the several nations could not have their own princes and other magistrates. However, those rulers could rule justly only by virtue of their relationship to the universal monarch.

This is essentially the same argument that Julius Evola made in connection with his critique of 19th century imperialism. An empire in competition with other empires for national glory was mere violence, in his estimation. The distinction between “the empire” and “an empire” is also fundamental to the analysis of the postmodern world in Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt's book, Empire. They point out that the global system of governance has a moral basis that was lacking in the competitive empires of early modernity. The empires were imperialistic; though they might sometimes benefit their subjects, they were founded on ambition and greed. The “empire” of the late modern international order, in contrast, though it may cause endless disaster, is founded on the principle of eternal justice. The former were imperialistic; the latter is imperial.

All things being equal, the universal law would better be made by one agent, rather than by several, according to Dante. Human concord can be attained only by a concord of wills, which needs a human director. One may note that this reasoning would work almost as well as an argument to move beyond a law of nations enforced by nations to a world system with a genuine executive, if not necessarily a “monarch” in the conventional sense.

Dante, who spent the last two decades of his life in exile because of the chaos among the petty states of Italy, saw nothing odd in also asserting that the empire is necessary for human freedom. Freedom is the perfect condition of man, the state he was designed for. However, man is free only when his judgment may operate undeflected by the appetite. The monarch could create the institutional basis for a society in which the most people would be able to approach this condition. This is because only the monarch could himself be entirely free; having the greatest honor in the world, there would be nothing further for him to desire. Thus, being wholly disinterested, his reign would have no object other than the common good.

This reasoning might perhaps seem non-obvious to moderns, who are quick to point out that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Neither would there be general assent today to the proposition that satisfying all a man's desires would necessarily make him a good person. On the other hand, Dante's reasoning does bear a family resemblance to Francis Fukuyama's hypothesis that liberal democracy is the end of history because it satisfies all aspects of human nature. Moreover, there have been several recent arguments to the effect that something very like Dante's empire is necessary to human freedom, or at least to the highest level of human freedom that is possible in much of the world. So said Niall Ferguson, in yet another book named Empire, with respect to the British tradition. On a somewhat higher level of abstraction, that is also what Patrick Kennon says in Tribe and Empire.

The modern apologists for empire use reasoning that is not as different from Dante's as might at first appear. They say that the empire is the institution best suited to mitigate ethnic strife, because the empire is transnational and, like the monarch, disinterested. Further, Dante says that only the perfectly free monarch can impart a measure of freedom to the wider world because only he possesses this quality himself; similarly, only a liberal democratic empire could impart liberal democracy to societies that lack it.

Before proceeding to Dante's second question, this might be a good point to examine Dante's method. Readers will have gathered that, in fine scholastic style, he favors arguments “in the alternative.” Indeed, in this summary I have taken some liberties by integrating arguments that Dante leaves side by side. The internal logic of each argument is formal and partisan; unlike Thomas Aquinas, Dante does not trouble to state possible counterarguments systematically. These two paragraphs are typical of the whole:

“On the basis of this exposition we reason as follows: justice is most powerful in the world when located in a subject with a perfect will and most power; such is the Monarch alone; therefore justice is at its most potent in this world when located in the Monarch alone.

“This preparatory syllogism is of the second figure, with intrinsic negation, and takes the following form: all B is A; only C is A; therefore C only is B. That is: all B is A; nothing except C is B. The first proposition clearly holds, for reasons already given; the other follows by reference to the will and then to power.”

This procedure tries to reach conclusions about the world by arguing from first principles. In effect, Dante formulates archetypes and then hunts for their incarnations. This type of metaphysical reasoning has fallen out of fashion, particularly in the social sciences; but it, too, is always with us. Modern physics is littered with examples of mathematical objects that had first been formulated as merely speculative exercises, but which later turned out to describe things in the real world. This is not so different from what Dante is doing: sifting through the products of history to find incarnations of the ideal forms.

This brings us to the second question: did the Roman people receive the monarchy by right?

Dante tells us that the history of the rise of the Roman Empire had seemed an inexplicable wonder to him. Then he realized that the Roman people did not acquire the monarchy of the world by ferocity, but through right, guided by providence. The progress of the Roman people was at many points attended by miracles, like the history of the Hebrews. Thus we see that God approved of the empire; Christ Himself chose to be born in the “fullness of time,” the peaceful age of Caesar Augustus.

Indeed, Christianity requires that the Roman Empire be legitimate. The central doctrine of Christianity is that Christ was punished for the sin of Adam. If the magistrate who sentenced Jesus was not an “appropriate judge,” then the suffering of Jesus was not a punishment, and we are not saved. Only the representative of the government of the whole world could have had the authority to inflict punishment on He Who suffered for the whole world.

Providence is not always expressed through the clearly miraculous. Sometimes God's hidden judgments are revealed by the outcome of duels, which in effect was what happened when the Romans defeated all others in the contest for world empire. The empire expressed the natural hierarchy among the peoples, of whom the Romans were the noblest. Even regarded simply as a matter of natural right, the citizens of the Roman Republic were working for the public good by creating a structure of universal peace. Nations, like individuals, should resort to force only as a last resort. However, whatever is acquired in a duel is acquired by right.

In the modern era, the idea that the historical process gradually expresses natural right is not rare: we see it from Hegel to Francis Fukuyama to Robert Wright. This is the intuition behind the dedication of transnationalists to the evolution of the network of supranational institutions and non-governmental organizations, which for them is now the seat of legitimacy in the world. Arguments even closer to Dante's have been made by macrohistorians who predict that the modern era will end in a universal state very like the Roman Empire. In any case, though the actors differ from theory to theory, the fundamentally providential structure of history remains.

Something that does change, of course, is the relationship of this providence to religion. One of the few specifics in which Hardt & Negri's empire differs from Dante's is that theirs is equated with the Kingdom of God. Possibly this was a mere rhetorical flourish on their part; they are also keen on the idea that the empire excludes the transcendent. Dante, in contrast, did insist on a transcendent foundation for the empire, but he strongly distinguished the empire from the Church, which is part of the Kingdom of God. This is the burden of his answer to the third question:

Does the monarch receive his authority directly from God, or through the intermediation of some minister of God?

In a rare display of tact, Dante said that those popes who asserted the empire owed its existence to the papacy were merely misguided by zeal. However, he says that the kings and princes who follow the popes' lead in this matter are not sons of the Church, but sons of the devil. He dismisses the claims of the class of ecclesiastical lawyers called the decretalists, because it is irrational to claim authority for the Church from its own legal rulings, when it is precisely the authority to make those rulings that is in question.

Much of the discussion about the relationship between Church and Empire is taken up with distinguishing the implications of a metaphor: the Church is the sun and the Empire is the moon. Dante accepts this then-common equation for the sake of argument. Just because the sun provides the moon with its light, he points out, that does not mean the existence or the operations of the moon are derived from the sun. Both sun and moon were created directly by God. The light the moon receives is more properly likened to divine grace, which makes everything appear different. In no way, however, is this illumination analogous to a grant of authority.

Dante assures us that God is the lord of all things, spiritual and temporal, and that the pope is His vicar. However, it does not follow from this that the pope is the lord of all things. Vicars do not have all the powers of their principals. The pope, for instance, does not have any special power over nature.

Dante also addresses the venerable allegory of the Two Swords. The proof-text is Luke 22:38, in which Peter offers Jesus two swords, and Jesus says they are enough. The lesson usually drawn from this exchange is that church and state are separate. Papalist propaganda, however, noted that the two swords remained in Peter's keeping, and so argued that both the spiritual and temporal power were both ultimately in the pope's keeping. Dante simply denies that the analogy is relevant, dwelling instead on the meaning of the verse in context.

No doubt the doctrine in question is not worth much, but one wonders how a poet could dismiss such an important metaphor. The analogy of the two swords runs right through Western history. When US senators debate whether public funds should be available to faith-based organizations, that is still the pope and the emperor arguing about who has the authority to invest the bishops of Germany. Unlike in other civilizations, church and state in the West are always distinguished, even in those periods when they closely supported each other. Even when the ecclesiastical power seems to have wholly lapsed, it is natural for academics and artists to claim the privileges and influence traditionally granted to priests.

Inevitably in any medieval discussion of the temporal power of the papacy, Dante addresses the Donation of Constantine. This legend, aided by some forged documents, had it that, in the fourth century, the Emperor Constantine had given the pope the authority to govern Italy and the western empire. Dante does not dispute the authenticity of the Donation, but he says that nothing more could have been involved than the transfer of a right of guardianship.

Why so? Because, as Dante tells us, whatever is contrary to the nature of a thing is not to be numbered among its powers. Now one of the essential features of the empire is its universality; it has the right of universal jurisdiction, even when it does not have the fact. To divide the empire by ceding sovereignty over a particular region would have been to destroy the empire as such. The powers of the emperor, which derive from the nature of the empire, could not have included such a grant. Moreover, the Church by its nature could not have received such a grant, since the Church cannot own property, but only the fruits of property. (This was, of course, the ideal of the radical Franciscans.)

The tranquility of order that the emperor protects is important for the salvation of all men. The emperor's authority is therefore providential, but the authority belongs to the office itself. The authority of the emperor could not have come from the Church, since the empire antedates the Church. Furthermore, since the emperor's authority comes directly from God, the Electors of the Holy Roman Empire do not really choose the emperor. Rather, they simply declare where the right to the office lies.

* * *

I have occasionally noted that the instrument of abdication and dissolution issued by the last Holy Roman Emperor in 1806 seems to contravene the provisions of the Golden Bull of 1356, which guaranteed the prerogatives of the electors. Thus, it is arguable that emperor did not have the authority to dissolve the empire. However, even if that is a correct reading of the law (which I rather doubt), that is still not the kind of indissolubility that Dante was talking about. Even if the constitutions of the empire had contained explicit provisions for its dissolution, the empire still could not have been dissolved. Its existence is not contingent on politics; it is the one politically necessary being.

The political theory of the modern era was designed specifically to do away with this kind of thinking. There have been schemes for world order in that time. Some, like the Concert of Europe, were reasonably effective. However, even the most idealistic internationalists thought in terms of positive law, of flesh-and-blood legislators creating laws and treaties with visible texts. Only toward the end of the 20th century did we see a return of the insistence that a universal law must already exist in some sense; more important, we have seen a return of the willingness to act as if such a law existed. This is as true of the neoconservative establishment in the United States as it is of proponents of the International Criminal Court. Neither group is likely to get quite the world it expects, but their worldviews are not as far apart as they imagine.

The empire is like the doctrine of the Two Swords: it is among the insistences of the West, which take different forms at different times. Dante's Holy Roman Empire is long gone. So is Charles V's. So, one suspects, will be the United Nations in its current form. Even today, though, we see that men are beginning to repeat in modern form the reproof that Dante wrote to his own obdurate city during an imperial siege:

“Why are you stirred by this will o' the wisp to abandon the Holy Empire and, like builders of a second Babel, to embark on new forms of state so that the Florentine sovereignty should be co-ordinate with the Roman?” 

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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The De Monarchia
By Dante Alighieri