Ordinary Men

If you have driven much at all in any urban or suburban area, I’m guessing that you have experienced something like the following:

You are at a stoplight in a busy intersection, waiting to turn left.  You are towards the back of the line but have a hope of making the light, which usually lets several cars through.  By the intersection a person in need stands with a sign asking for money.

You have a few dollars and would gladly give it, but you are towards the back of the line before the man in need reaches your car.  The cars start to inch forward, anxious to make the light.  You have two choices:

  • Stop your car and give the man some money.  This would reasonably take 10 seconds of time, especially if you wanted to look him in the eye and address him as a person.  But this means that you might not make the light.  For sure, it means that cars behind you would not make the light and the intersection would pile up, with a rubberneck ensuing that would take perhaps three light cycles to clear out.
  • Go through the light and not stop, keeping up with the flow of traffic.

If you are like me in the situation I described, you have taken option 2 more often than you might care to admit.

Why does this happen?  Why does this feel like a no-win situation?  Why do we feel such tremendous pressure to get through the intersection as quickly as possible?

Aside from general answers to the question involving the human condition, we need to consider the specific situation.  When driving you enter into an unspoken covenant with other drivers that share your immediate space. When on the road other drivers–and not the rest of mankind–become your primary obligation  One part of this covenant involves being alert at intersections.  We all want to get to our destination.  Don’t be on your phone and miss the light change.  Be ready to go.  This isn’t about selfishness but courtesy to others.  Your primary and immediate obligation to other drivers overrides secondary obligations, even those of greater moral weight.  When you are behind the wheel, your fellow drivers, for example, get preference over the poor of the third world.

Sure, we don’t want honked at.  But we also don’t want to break the covenant with our momentary “brothers” behind the wheel.

Reading Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men brought this everyday situation into starker light.  Browning focuses not on Nazi ideology, nor the ideologically committed SS thugs.  Rather, he focuses on one particular reserve police battalion and the evolution of most of them into mass murderers.  We would like to believe that Nazi’s committed mass murder because they had a previous commitment to racial genocide.  The war simply gave them the opportunity to enact their beliefs.  This would be safer for us because we do not have a belief that we should mass murder in a racially motivated way.  Thus, we would not slaughter Jews. But Browning points out that, while beliefs played a role, what seemed more decisive was the particular situation the men faced.  Their actions transformed them over time into mass murderers, not their beliefs.  Indeed for many, their actions transformed their beliefs, and not vice-versa.

This means that no one is immune.  Our beliefs–what we hold true in our heads–won’t save us.

Those that comprised Reserve Police Battalions shared the following general characteristics:

  • They were middle-aged men with other careers apart from the war.  All of them came of age before the Nazi’s took power.
  • Most all of them had membership in the Nazi party, but most all of those had joined late, and one expects, rather as a matter of course.
  • Reserve police battalions were held in general contempt by the SS rank and file as lacking true commitment to the Nazi cause.
  • Perhaps most surprisingly, very few expressed overt agreement with Nazi beliefs about Jews.  Some of them even expressed specific disagreements with anti-semitic beliefs.
  • Nearly all of them had blood on their hands in one form or another.

As the Nazi’s occupied much of Eastern Europe by 1942 they sought to clear the area of Jews and other communist partisans–but most particularly Jews were the target.  Himmler and Heydrich would much rather have had the SS do the work of mass killing, but the army at that time fought desperately in Russia and could not spare the men.  Hence, the calling up of reserve police battalions for this job.

The Nazi’s were smart in how they managed these men.  The first job for the battalion involved murdering thousands of Jews point blank in a Polish town called Jozefow, but the officers kept this order secret right up until zero hour. They let bits of information trickle out slowly, none of it objectionable by itself, i.e., “report to place x,” “prepare to help keep order,” and so on.  In relaying the mass-murder order to his men, the major of Battalion 101 showed visible distress.  He broke down almost in tears, he expressed disagreement with the order, and even gave anyone the option of abstaining themselves from this action.

But he did give the order.

At this point what options do these men have?

  • If you have strong moral scruples, you have no time to organize any resistance.  But even if you wanted to resist, will you fire on your comrades, men with whom you have trained and share a bond, to prevent such a crime?
  • If the battalion refuses to carry out the order, what will the SS do to you?
  • You could take your commander’s offer and refuse to fire on the Jews and be given guard duty.  Does being on guard duty absolve you?
  • Perhaps most significantly, soldiering tells you that if you don’t do the job, someone else will have extra work.  The army runs on the principle of all for one, one for all.  Your “weakness” means that others have harder jobs and more work.  No one wants to put their fellows in such a position.  The institutional pressure not to shirk your duty and obey orders must have been enormous.

Browning wants us to face the truth that most of us would obey the order. Most of us would shoot Jews, and most of us would find the means to rationalize it.  Testimonies given years later reveal that nearly all of them found a way to make peace with this atrocity in different ways, such as:

  • War is terrible and cannot be redeemed. Besides the enemy bombs our own women and children.
  • Surely this is an isolated, one-time action.  It is horrible that we have this assignment.  But given the horrible nature of this job, these Jews must therefore be particularly dangerous.  Best to just “rip off the band-aid.”
  • Some stood in line and fired, but deliberately missed.  Perhaps they trusted that their fellow soldiers would not deliberately miss, and this will preserve them from the horror in some way.  Indeed, mop-up crews with sub-machine guns came through to finish the job.  So . . . some tried to technically not kill anyone.
  • One soldier even went so far as to say that (paraphrasing), “I paired up with someone who had no problem shooting the women, and then I would shoot the children.  I could not shoot mothers, but I figured, once their mother was dead, I could shoot the children as an act of mercy to them.  Their lives without their parents would be misery.  I could free them from suffering.”

Those that did not join in bore the stigma of cowards and shirkers.  Those that attempted to obey, but found that “their nerves” could not handle it, were viewed as those who “tried their best.”  Even Himmler himself said in 1943, that while firm obedience stood as the pinnacle of virtue, exceptions came to those whose “nerves are shot, to one who is finished, who has become weak.  Then one can say: Good, go take your pension.”  Even a small amount participation guaranteed your personal safety, no doubt a strong impetus to at least do something in a token way.

After Jozefow many men got violently ill and many showed acute emotional distress.  We might think that this rebellion of the body as a witness to moral truth would turn the tide and what happened would never happen again.  In fact, many men who openly wept and got terribly ill after the Josefow massacre later became hardened and even enthusiastic killers of more Jews.  Initially, the body rebelled against the mind, but eventually, with enough practice, the two worked in tandem.  Eventually, the SS could trust the battalion to commit larger and larger massacres:

The Numbers of Those Murdered by Battalion 101 in

1942: 7-8,000 (minimum)

1943: 30,000 (minimum)

In between their assignments to mass-murder, Battalion 101 received orders to clear the forests of Jews who had fled Nazi roundups.  These “Jew-hunts” (as they were known) could also be rationalized:

  • The main enemy of fascism is communism.  Many Jews are communists (so went the party line), thus, they are a threat.
  • Some of these Jews who fled now have arms.  They will likely engage in guerrilla operations against our forces.  Thus, they are not civilians but enemy soldiers, enemies too cowardly to come out and fight.  They deserve their fate.

Perhaps because one might possibly find even the thinnest “legitimate” military motive for such action explains why the battalion never had a shortage of volunteers for these missions.  It far more resembled “real soldiering” and may have helped them justify their actions in military terms.  Such missions made them soldiers in their minds, not murderers.

Ordinary Men demonstrates that one need not be an SS ideologue to commit such atrocities.  The commitment to your immediate circle of fellow men, your desire to “do something” for the war, your general patriotism, and perhaps even a lingering sense of guilt that in serving in the reserve police battalions made one a whole lot safer than a front-line solider–thus you might seek to make up for it with brutal deeds– all combine to wreak moral havoc on your soul.  Within a year normal middle-age men without overt Nazi sympathies, without being educated in Nazi ideology in their formative years, without defined anti-semitic beliefs, became butchers on an unreal scale.*

We can understand this if we remember the intersection with the man asking for money.

I think the main reason why we fail at the intersection is the competition between our two commitments, one to our fellow drivers, the other to the needy man.  Throw in the side-car of our selfishness and desire to get home and not be inconvenienced, etc., and game/set/match for our values.  The only way to really navigate this successfully is to park the car and approach him on foot.  In one sense this is harder, because it costs us more in time.  But in many ways this is the easier path, for now we need not worry about the drivers behind us at all.  We have removed ourselves from obligations to them and can act much more freely.

Of course the men in Battalion 101 faced a drastically more difficult situation.  You cannot escape blame by opting out of shooting and taking guard duty instead.  Reasonably, you would not (and perhaps even should not?) turn your gun against your comrades and go out in a hail of bullets.  The only thing you can do is remove your uniform, perhaps facing court martial and even death.  Perhaps you could do this if you were a bachelor, but if you have a wife and kids . . . ?  What happens to them?  Can you sacrifice them in addition to yourself? How many of us would shoot?  How many of us would take guard duty?

In the epilogue, Browning quotes from Primo Levi’s book, The Drowned and the Saved, and it seems a fitting way to close. In his book Levi argues passionately that,

It is naive, absurd, and historically false to believe that an infernal system such as National Socialism sanctifies its victims; on the contrary, it degrades them, it makes them resemble itself.

Such was the fate of Reserve Police Battalion 101.


*Browning also traces the evolution of their anti-semitism.  In time many came to hold the same kinds of beliefs about the Jews as Hitler and Himmler.  They didn’t start that way, but their actions formed their beliefs.

Prester John, Particularly

For a long time I had no understanding of memes. I still don’t, really, but possibly a bit more than I used to. Whereas before I had a grumpy old man reaction (“Kids these days and their crazy pictures), now I see them as highly condensed, symbolic, quasi-mythic kinds of communication. They contain multiple layers. Archaeologists of the future would almost certainly make many mistakes regarding memes. They would likely begin too literally, but even if they did not, they would lack the immediate cultural context necessary for interpretation.

I have always had great students and occasionally they invite me into their world. One such time, I played Apples to Apples with 5-6 other students. It was both bizarre and enlightening all at once. If the card was “Joyful” and you had an “Ice Cream Sundae” card yourself to put in the pile, one might think that would have a shot at getting picked. Wrong. Something so “straight,” so obviously 1-1 in connection, had no chance.

But neither did pure irony or sarcasm work either. Rather, the answer might be something that had an angular or parallel relationship to the subject. Something like “Ham Sandwich” might work, but not because it was joyful or its opposite, but because it had a very particular association for that particular group. “Ham Sandwich” got chosen because

  • One day Bill took a final exam, in which he thought he did ok/meh.
  • For lunch after the exam he had a ham sandwich with no mayo or mustard or anything. It was not terrible, but a bit blah, like the exam.
  • Linking the exam, which was not joyful, and the sandwich together, well–two negatives make a positive, and people during lunch laughed at the connection.
  • Now, 5 months later, “Ham Sandwich” became a phrase, or even a meme, associated with a double-whammy kind of blah, but that makes everyone laugh when said in the right way at the right time.

In other words, their associations were entirely their own, entirely understandable to them all, even with the layers of compressed meaning. When “Ham Sandwich” came up, everyone agreed that card would win. Again, a literal minded future archaeologist might see this and assume we thought ham sandwiches the greatest things around.

My students’ thinking no doubt appears to many of us old folk as odd or newfangled. Actually, their method resembles a lot of traditional thinking, with its layers of meaning not exactly verifiable for the modern mind. Future historians, take note.

Many historians today should take similar note with the past.

One of the more intriguing side cars of medieval history is the legend of Prester John. Otto of Friesing included a letter in his history supposedly from fabulously wealthy Christian king in in India, or perhaps Africa. It begins

  1. Prester John, by the power and virtue of God and our lord Jesus Christ, lord of lords, to Emmanuel, governor of the Romans, wishing him health and the extended enjoyment of divine favour.
  2. It has been reported to our majesty that you esteem our excellency and that mention [knowledge] of our High One has reached you. And we have learned through our delegate that you should wish to send us some entertainments and trifles [ludicra et iocunda], which would satisfy our righteousness.
  3. Of course we are only human, and take it in good faith, and through our delegate we transmit to you some things, for we wish and long to know if, as with us, you hold the true faith and if you, through all things, believe our lord Jesus Christ.
  4. While we know ourselves to be mortal, the little Greeks regard you as a god, while we know that you are mortal and subject to human infirmities.
  5. Because of the usual munificence of our liberality, if there is anything you should desire for your pleasure, make it known to us through our delegate through a small note of your esteem, and you shall have it for the asking.
  6. Receive the hawkweed in our own name and use it for your own sake, because we gladly use your jar of unguent in order that we mutually strengthen and corroborate our bodily strength. And, on account of (our) art, respect and consider our gift.
  7. If you should desire to come to our kingdom, we will place you in the greatest and most dignified place in our house, and you will be able to enjoy our abundance, from that which overflows with us, and you should wish to return, you will return possessing riches.
  8. Remember your end and you will not sin forever.
  9. If you truly wish to know the magnitude and excellence of our Highness and over what lands our power dominates, then know and believe without hesitation that I, Prester John, am lord of lords and surpass, in all riches which are under the heaven, in virtue and in power, all the kings of the wide world. Seventy-two kings are tributaries to us.
  10. I am a devout Christian, and everywhere do we defend poor Christians, whom the empire of our clemency rules, and we sustain them with alms.
  11. We have vowed to visit the Sepulchre of the Lord with the greatest army, just as it is befitting the glory of our majesty, in order to humble and defeat the enemies of the cross of Christ and to exalt his blessed name.
  12. Our magnificence dominates the three Indians, and our land extends from farthest India, where the body of St. Thomas the Apostle rests, to the place where the sun rises, and returns by the slopes of the Babylonian desert near the tower of Babel.
  13. Seventy-two provinces serve us, of which a few are Christian, and each one of them has its own king, who all are our tributaries.
  14. In our country are born and raised elephants, dromedaries, camels, hippopotami, crocodiles, methagallianarii, cametheternis, thinsieretae, panthers, aurochs, white and red lions, white bears, white merlins, silent cicadas, griffins, tigers, lamas, hyenas, wild oxen, archers, wild men, horned men, fauns satyrs and women of the same kind, pigmies, dog-headed men, giants whose height is forty cubits, one-eyed men, cyclopes, and a bird, which is called the phoenix, and almost all kinds of animals that are under heaven.

It continues past this, including a variety of specific details. Prester John’s pledge to help the west win back Jerusalem from the Turks interests historians particularly. In the early-mid 20th century historians reacted in a silly and superficial way, i.e., look at those dumb, credulous medieval people. Recently some have attempted more understanding, with one such effort surmising that “Prester John” was a well crafted (for medieval times at least) hoax of sorts perpetrated by Nestorian Christian heretics upon the orthodox west in an attempt to weaken them. In an era of fake news, this should make sense to us.

But it seems obvious that more exists to the story. Sir John Mandeville writes of Prester John in his famous travelogue, declaring,

This emperor, Prester John, holds full great land, and hath many full noble cities and good towns in his realm and many great diverse isles and large. For all the country of Ind is devised in isles for the great floods that come from Paradise, that depart all the land in many parts. And also in the sea he hath full many isles. And the best city in the Isle of Pentexoire is Nyse, that is a full royal city and a noble, and full rich.

This Prester John hath under him many kings and many isles and many diverse folk of diverse conditions. And this land is full good and rich, but not so rich as is the land of the great Chan. For the merchants come not thither so commonly for to buy merchandises, as they do in the land of the great Chan, for it is too far to travel to. And on that other part, in the Isle of Cathay, men find all manner thing that is need to man–cloths of gold, of silk, of spicery and all manner avoirdupois. And therefore, albeit that men have greater cheap in the Isle of Prester John, natheles, men dread the long way and the great perils m the sea in those parts.

Mandeville’s account mashes up a variety of details and motifs, and one can’t easily tell always what he seeks to communicate. But surely Mandeville had enough smarts to know that the Prester John of Friesing could not still live, and surely he knew that his readers would know this as well. Maybe he simply tells the story for fun, or we can assume that his Prester John is the heir of the original. More likely, the name “Prester John” served consciously as a stand-in for something, a meme of sorts.

But if one reads a bit more about medieval references to Prester John, we see that they at times referenced him in very specific and concrete ways. Suddenly, for example, “Prester John” nearly morphs into Ghengis Khan:

“…from ancient times, Tartaria was subject to the King of India, and up till that time calmly and peacefully paid him the tribute that was due. When the aforesaid king asked for the customary tribute from them, he also ordered that some of them submit themselves to compulsory service, either in the armies or in work; they began complaining at this offence from the hand of their lord, and [took] counsel whether to simply obey him or to withstand him as much as possible.”

That was when Genghis Khan entered the story, and he, “who seemed [most] sagacious and venerable, gave counsel that they oppose their king’s order.” Then, quote:

“…they conspired against their lord King David, namely the son of once lord and emperor of India, Prester John, and, cunningly plot….”

“…roused by the possibility of shaking off their servitude and obtaining triumph, with a huge number of them departing their own land with bows and arrows and clubs or staffs, strengthened by their more powerful weapons, … they invaded the land of their lord simultaneously from two directions and completely saturated it with an effusion of blood. But King David, hearing of their unexpected coming, and being in no way strong enough to resist them, when he tried to flee from one section of the army, he was prevented and besieged by the other, and at length he was cut to pieces limb by limb, along with his whole family except for one daughter, namely the surviving daughter which Genghis Khan took to wife, and from whom, so it is said, he produced sons.”

We have here a mixing of the precise and contemporary, and perhaps Biblical history, though I make no claim to know whom he meant by King David. But everyone knew Ghengis Khan, who suddenly has become “Prester John.”

I am not sure why they made such associations. But I venture that

  • Some may have believed Prester John (PJ) to be an actual, particular person, but many probably did not
  • In the various references PJ occupied a place on the fringe geographically, and the fringe is always a slippery place. Hence, sometimes PJ gets described as a Christian, and other times he seems something less than a Christian (and here the interesting link to PJ as an invention of Nestorian heretics takes on an intriguing hue).
  • We can speculate, therefore, that PJ served as something of a stand-in for a “Garment of Skin” (Gen. 3:24). Originally God granted these “garments” to Adam and Eve, but they come as a result of sin. A garment of skin functions as something one could use to make one’s way in the world, something powerful, but one must show caution. Such things easily get out of hand.

The concept of “Garments of Skin” has a more theological complexity than I could discuss on this post, or any other post, for that matter. I lack the dexterity and the depth of knowledge. As a start, we can consider these garments buffers between us and the world, as well as a tool to help us deal with the world. It amounts mostly to the same thing. For example, we can consider the internet as one form of such garment. It connects to the world in a way, and.shields from the world in another. Many have noted that conservatives have seemingly made better use of YouTube and other mediums to advance their worldviews than liberals. I would agree, and to the extent that I care about such things, am glad of the fact. But I would urge caution–any medium that subverts so many barriers is inherently not an ally of tradition. One day, the internet will likely turn against conservatives, though for now (Twitter aside), conservatives have their moment.

It seems that medievals thought of Prester John just in this way. The Mongols had tremendous power, and this power, properly directed, might help Christians. But one must ask oneself with a garment of skin . . . “Do you feel in charge?”

I have digressed from my main point, that of how the medievals wrote their histories. To me, Prester John seems something akin to a Ham Sandwich meme, sometimes as a stand-in for something specific, other times as a larger intertextual construct for a particular hope of an outside buffer against the encroaching Moslem world.* Whether I am right or not, I remain convinced that we have to adopt an approach like this if wish to understand medieval histories and texts.

To me we find the key in the idea of elasticity of specificity. Even when talking about Prester John as someone on the fringe of observable reality, the anchor is not a concept but a particular person. “Ham sandwich” can mean many things, but first, it was a ham sandwich.

In his Reflections on the Psalms C.S. Lewis writes,

If Man is finally to know the bodiless, timeless, transcendent Ground of the whole universe not as a mere philosophical abstraction but as the Lord who, despite his transcendence, “is not far from any one of us,” as a an utterly concrete Being (far more concrete than you and I) whom Man can fear, love, address, and “taste,” he must begin far more humbly, far more near to home.  Begin with the local altar, the traditional feast . . . . It is possible that a certain kind of enlightenment can come too soon and too easily.  At that early stage it may not be fruitful to talk of God as a featureless being, a disc like the sun.   

 Since in the end we must come to baptism, the Eucharist, the stable at Bethlehem, the hill at Calvary, and the empty rock tomb, perhaps it is better to begin with circumcision, the Ark, and the Temple.  For “the highest does not exist without the lowest.”   It will not stand, it will not stay.  It will rise, and expand, and finally we lose it in an endless space.  God turns into a remote abstraction.  Rather, the entrance is low, and we must stoop to enter. 

Some look at traditional religion in general, or perhaps Catholicism and Orthodoxy in the Christian world in particular, and see a confusing multiplicity. The Church calendar gets overlaid with the civic calendar, various different feasts, saints, and so on. At one glance it seems unnecessarily complicated, and a threat to true worship. Of course practitioners then and now would not see it that way. For them, as Lewis indicates, without these particular roots, and perhaps even (to the outsider at least) idiosyncrasies, one cannot scale up to the Highest Good, and the Highest Good cannot scale down. Absent all of the particulars, we get left with abstractions, and ultimately, the end of belief. Surely the west gives ample evidence of this over the last few centuries.**

One can start with the mythic Prester John of Friesing and work your way back down to Ghenis Khan, or start with a ham sandwich and work up to something grand about the flip that happens at the end of the world–i.e., two negatives becoming a positive. Either up or down works as a starting point, provided that you can complete the scale.


*The history of the Mongols bears out the unpredictable, powerful nature of Garments of Skin. Yes, on the one hand they did break Moslem power, in part through a horrifying massacre at Baghdad in 1258. Yet, many Mongols in fact became Moslems and not Christians, and this Mongol “Golden Horde” wrecked havoc on Christian Russia in the 15th century. Handle such garments with extreme care.

**The way I saw the students play Apples to Apples makes me wonder if the west is becoming more medieval, more symbolic or traditional in how it views the world. Of course this alone would say nothing, but other factors seem at work, such as a trend away from liberal transnationalism, the importance of images over text, and so on.

Just like the double-negative flipping things the other way, so too the quick advancement of technology might bring back certain aspects of traditional cultures. Back in ye olden days, a written document had no authority in itself. Its contents needed incarnated, spoken, proclaimed, to be made “real.” Hence, the job of town crier. With AI video deep fakes getting more and more sophisticated, we may stop trusting anything except the actual person physically present.

The Royal Touch

As often as we may try and manage and control our experience of the world around us, we cannot avoid reality breaking into our lives from time to time.  Our secular age orients itself almost entirely around making our day to day lives workable and enjoyable on a strictly horizontal level.  We have long since abandoned ultimate “vertical” questions as unwieldy and unhelpful towards this end.  But then, the fact of death itself strikes us occasionally with great force.  As we have no common liturgies surrounding death, and no common way to experience loss, death lingers among us like a fog.  So too, the 2016 election in some ways exposed the thin veneer of our “horizontal” happiness, and ever since we have had to try and deal with the unconscious, sometimes darker Jungian aspects of our selves and our body politic.

Like life, history sometimes breaks in on us with sudden and unusual force.

One begins Henry of Huntingdon’s History of the English People:1000-1154 like any other medieval history book, and it reads similarly to other works in this genre.  Henry was nobleman with a good education in the Latin classics and knew Scripture well, and it shows.  He describes the political scene of his time with care and skill, and dances around enough hot-button issues of the day to make scholars wonder about his motives from time to time.  All of this falls well within the range of “normal” history.

But then . . .

On page 48 (Oxford Classics Edition) he drops in this comment when discussing the abrupt death of the rogue King William:

In the year 1100 King William ended his cruel life in a wretched death.  For when he had gloriously, and with historic pomp, held his court at Gloucester at Christmas, at Winchester at Easter [April 1], and in London on Whitsun [Pentecost], he went to hunt in the New Forest on 2 August. There Walter Tirel, aiming at a stag, accidentally hit the king with an arrow.  The king was struck in the heart, and fell without uttering a word.  A little earlier blood was seen to bubble up from the ground in Berkshire.

William was rightly cut off in the midst of his injustice.  For in himself, and because of the counsels of wicked men, whom he invariably chose, he was more evil to his people than any man, and most evil to himself . . .

“A little earlier blood was seen to bubble up . . . ”  What are we to make of this?  Yes, Henry wants to make a theological point, and some may feel the temptation to explain it away as allegorizing.  But he also carefully mentions specific dates and specific places, and he does not write in a “Once upon a time,” fashion. Well, perhaps we could sweep this oddity under the rug as scribal error or flight of fancy.  The casual, offhand nature of his remark, however, makes this an unlikely choice.

And then, a bit later in the book (p. 83):

In this year [1144], Earl Geoffrey de Mandeville harassed the king exceedingly, and in everything he did basked in vainglory.  But in the month of August the splendor of God showed forth a miracle worthy of His justice.  For He inflicted similar punishments on men who forcibly removed two monks and turned God’s churches into castles.  Robert Marmion–a warlike and evil man–had carried this out in the church of Coventry, and Geoffrey, as I have already said, perpetrated the same crime in Ramsey.  Robert Marmion, attacking his enemies in front of the monastery itself, was the only man killed, although he stood in the midst of a huge squadron.  As an excommunicate, he is being devoured by eternal death.

In the same way Earl Geoffrey, among the ranks of his own . . . was struck by an arrow from a foot-soldier.  He scoffed at the wound, but after a few days died of this injury, excommunicate.  See how the vengeance of God . . . is made known throughout the ages, and is executed in the same way for the same crime!  While the church in Ramsey was being held as a castle [by the Earl] blood bubbled out of the walls of the church and the adjoining cloister, clearly demonstrating the divine wrath and prophesying the destruction of the wrong-doers.  Many witnessed this, and I myself saw it with my own eyes.

Though Henry has theological points to make, this in no way should blunt the force of his report.  He mentions himself along with others as eyewitnesses to this additional sighting of blood.  Unless we wish to say he lied outright twice, we must consider whether our conception of how God, man, and nature interact needs abruptly altered.

Marc Bloch rightly deserves his reputation as one of the great scholars of the feudal era.  He has a rare knack for simply dealing with the texts before him without much evident preconception.   His book, The Royal Touch offers just such another slap of cold water, as he reminds us of the copious textual evidence for the power medieval kings possessed, at least at certain times, to heal their subjects.  Bloch’s Wikipedia page describes him as a “thoroughly modern” historian in outlook, and as he was Jewish, we would assume he has no particular theological axe to grind.  This makes his presentation all the more striking.

We may surmise that the medievals lived in an “age of faith” which made them credulous.*  Bloch will not allow this.  Medieval people may have had different standards of what constituted proof, but they argued over the evidence.  He cites William of Malmsbury’s (a respected historian in his own right) account of the miracles of St. Edward the Confessor:

But now to speak of the miracles of St. Edward.  A young woman had married a man but had no children, and the humors gathered about her neck, she contracted a sore disorder.  Admonished in a dream to the have the affected parts washed by King Edward himself, she entered the palace and the king did as she wished.  Joyous health followed his healing hand–the lurid skin opened so that worms flowed out with the putrid matter, so that the tumor subsided.  Nothing of the original wound could be found after many weeks, and she soon gave birth to twins. She increased the admiration of Edward’s holiness.

A certain man, blind, persisted in walking around the palace, certain that he should be cured if he could touch his eyes with water in which Edward had washed.  This was related to Edward, who looked angrily upon the man, confessing himself sinner, and that the works of holy men did not belong to him.

But his servants tried the experiment when he was ignorant of it, praying in church.  They gave some water to the blind man, upon which the darkness fled from him and his eyes filled with light.  

That you may know the perfect virtue of this prince, I will excite your wonder still more.  Wulwin, surnamed Spillecorn, one day cut wood and fell blind as a result, perhaps because of his excessive sleep after his labors.  He was admonished in a dream to go round to 87 churches, and earnestly entreat relief from his blindness from the saints.

At last he came to the king’s court, where he remained for a long time, being held back by the king’s men.  Finally he received admittance, whom after he had heard the dream, answered mildly, “By my lady St. Mary, I shall be truly grateful, if God, through my means, shall choose to take pity upon you.”  Though with no confidence in himself with respect to miracles, yet he placed his hand, dipped in water, on the blind man.

In a moment blood flowed from his eyes and the man restored to sight, cried, “I see you O king, I see you!”  In this recovered state he was given charge of the royal castle at Windsor, for that is where his cure was effected.  He held this job many years, having outlived his restorer.

In our day, some have used the miracles of King Edward to support a false idea.  They have claimed that the king possessed this power to heal illness, not by virtue of his holiness, but by hereditary title, as a privilege of the royal line.

Bloch comments, that

This is a doubly valuable observation, because it informs us of both William’s ideas and of the very different ones held by his contemporaries.  They disagreed about why he had power to heal, but not about the fact that he did heal.

So this text (and there are others like it) will not leave us the “out” they lacked critical thought.

Eyewitness accounts to miracles like this date back many centuries, with Gregory of Tours (another respected historian) perhaps with the first written account of this phenomena in ca. A.D. 540:

It was commonly related among the faithful that a certain woman whose son lay stretched out upon a bed of pain, suffering from fever, made her way through the crowd from behind the king, and without his noticing it, managed to pull off part of the fringe of the royal cloak.  She soaked it in water, and then gave this water to her son to drink.

The fever immediately abated, and the disease was cured.  

For my part, I do not doubt this matter.  For indeed I have often seen demons who inhabit the bodies of those possessed cry out in the name of the king, and being unmasked by the virtue proceeding from him, confess their crimes.

Bloch considers many important questions in the book.  One major topic of discussion and disagreement among medieval chroniclers had to do with whether or not

  • The power to heal came exclusively from the dignity and chrism of the office itself, or
  • If such grace to heal required personal sanctity in addition to the chrism of kingship.

But again, no debate existed as to whether or not such healings in fact took place.

Bloch also wonders why such miracles seem mostly confined the French and English monarchies.  Perhaps it happened elsewhere, but we have little textual evidence to support it.  We might also plausibly wonder why it reports of such miracles slowed considerably during the 17th century and cease practically altogether in the 18th.

For that matter, we not see blood bubble up from the ground anymore either.

Such questions are certainly uncomfortable, but we should not ignore them.  Amidst its sometime “one thing after another” tedium, History can occasionally wake us up and show us a different world.


*”Stupid” is a less polite, but more accurate description of what those that use this word really mean in such contexts.

8th Grade: The Country Rome and the City Rome


This week we started our unit on the Romans, where will remain for the rest of the year.  We began by looking at Italian geography and made the following observations:

  • Roman civilization began not in the more fertile southeast of Italy, but in the more challenging south-central area near Rome itself.  We have met the concept that civilizations flourish not in ideal circumstances, but moderately challenging ones, as in other civilizations like Egypt.
  • We noted that unlike Greece, Italy favored more agriculture. While Italy is a peninsula and never too far from water, it has a fairly even coastline without many ports.  The best ports are in the southeast, but Rome did not get there until nearly five centuries of its history had elapsed.  By that time, Rome had a thoroughly rural bent to their way of life.
  • If one stands in Rome, it seems the land tended to run downhill in a north-eastern direction.  If true, even slightly, this may help explain why Rome’s conquests ran initially towards that direction.  This in turn meant that Rome would not have any significant interaction with the naval oriented cultures of Greece and Carthage until around 300 B.C.  So, while Greece and Rome would inevitably share certain similarities due in part to their common geography, Rome developed along different lines than Greece in the early part of its history.

Here is a topographical map of Italy:

This agricultural bent of Rome shaped their civilization in ways similar to other agriculturally oriented areas, like Egypt.  Just like rural cultures today, Rome based much of their way of life around tradition, the past, routine, and practicality.  Both urban and rural cultures have strengths, but a key question for Rome would how they would react when they did interact with the more cosmopolitan Mediterranean.   When it comes, this clash will determine the fate of Rome, Greece, and Carthage.  As Rome conquered others, they could not avoid confronting the possibility of changing their own identity.

We likened Rome to a young farm boy (we’ll call him ‘Jim’)who goes off to New York City for college, and postulated three different outcomes.

  • Benign Awkwardness — Jim doesn’t really fit in city life, and knows it.  He try particularly hard to fit in either, and soon wearies of his clumsy attempts.  He keeps his rural identity, plugs along more or less alone at school, goes home on weekends, and returns home after graduation.
  • A Happy Medium — Here Jim keeps his roots, but also approaches NYC with an open mind.  He learns to see the good and bad of both city and rural life, and picks and chooses from both like a cafeteria menu.  The experience changes Jim, but he learns to enjoy both environments without changing who he fundamentally is.  This ideal reaction, however, is probably the least likely of the three possibilities I list here.
  • Drink from the Fire hose — Jim becomes completely enamored with his new surroundings.  He chucks his rural identity and jumps in with both feet into city life.  Tragically, he doesn’t even manage to attach an urban identity to himself.  He so obviously ‘tries too hard’ that he fails to find acceptance, and this rejection only makes him try harder.  His actions leave him with no identity at all.

How Rome faces this challenge will be the subject of our study in the weeks to come.

Next week we will look at Roman religion and the extreme emphasis on the practical over the theoretical.  Again, it will help us if we remember that Rome was a nation of farmers, who often have little use for theory and speculation, and who focus on soil, crops, and so on.

Ancient chroniclers agree that the Romans were a religious people, unlike the Greeks.  But their sense of religion was also much different than in Egypt, for example, another ancient “religious” people.  In Egypt, their beliefs filtered down into the government, architecture, and where they lived.  Their literature is filled with stories of the gods.  They wrote psalms/hymns of praise to their gods.

We see nothing like this in Rome.  The Romans had devotion to their religious duties, but they saw “religion” usually in terms of “checking off the box.”  They would do what they needed to do, but rarely did their religion touch their souls, and a variety of stories from their past illustrate this.

Machiavelli recounts a story from Livy, where a Roman general wanted to attack the enemy, which I recount below. . .

The consul Papirius, in conducting a war against the Samnites, [saw a favorable moment to fight], and ordered that the priests take the auspices.  The birds, however, did not eat.  But the chief priest, seeing the great desire of the army to fight, and their confidence in victory, reported to the consul that the auspices were in fact favorable.  But one of the assistant priests told the consul that the chief priest lied.  . . . And so the consul put the Chief Priest in the front ranks of the army, and it happened by chance that a Roman arrow struck the chief priest, whereupon he died. When Papirius heard this, he declared that whatever wrath the gods felt toward them had been appeased, and thus by apparently to accommodate his designs to the auspices, Papirius gave battle without giving the appearance of neglecting his religious duty.

Was the general ‘impious?

According to the Romans, not at all.  He did his duty.  He took the sacrifices.  A priest told him that the gods approved.  And they won.

Machiavelli relates another story. . .

Appius Pulcher acted just the contrary way in Sicily during the first Punic war; for wishing to fight the Carthaginian army, he caused the priests to take the auspices, and when they reported that they did not eat, he said, “Then let us see whether or not they drink,” and threw the birds into the sea.  He then went into battle and was defeated, for which he was punished in Rome.

The historian Livy goes on to say that Pulcher was not punished for losing, but for his brazen impiety.  Paprius “kept up appearances,” whereas Pulcher did not.  But I have doubts.  If Pulcher had won the battle, would he have been punished?  What these stories show, I think, is that Rome really worshipped Rome itself.  All things bowed to glory of Rome.  Was then their religion a mere smokescreen?  We know, for example, that Roman religion technically forbade offensive war of any kind, yet they became one of the greatest conquering empires they world has ever known.  Something it seems, gave at some point.