The Penguin History of Latin America by Edwin Williamson (revised edition 2009) (1)

Because it comes with the bright orange and white spine of the new-style Penguin histories, and because it said ‘New Edition’ on the front cover, I hadn’t quite grasped that the main body of this hefty 700-page history of Latin America was completed by 1990. The new edition is ‘new’ because it adds a 40-page chapter at the end, summarising events in Latin America between 1990 and 2008.

The text is divided into three big parts:

  • The Age of Empire pp. 3-192 (189 pages)
  • The Challenge of the Modern World pp. 195-310 (115 pages)
  • The Twentieth Century pp. 313-566 (253 pages)

Note how the section on the 20th century, plus the forty pages of the ‘new’ chapter, is as long as the first two parts put together. Here, as everywhere, the more recent the history, the more of it there is, the more people there have been (the higher the population) and the more records have been kept, until we reach the present age where every phone call, every text and every photograph anyone in the world takes is recorded and stored.

Conquest of the Aztecs and Incas

Williamson dives right in with the early, legendary history of the Aztecs, when they were a group of nomads traipsing round central Mexico, before they established the largest empire in pre-Colombian America around 1400. Their only rival was the Inca Empire, down in modern-day Peru.

There is, of course, a lot to say about both, but the thing that struck me was the way both of them were empires carved out by one particular tribe or ethnic group which subjugated all their neighbours, and demanded tribute in food, precious metals and slaves (some devoted to grisly human sacrifices).

Both generated complex religious ideologies accompanied by fascinating and complex theories of time – that it moved in cycles and was marked by moments of great significance – but the bottom line was that both the Aztec ruler and the Inca emperor believed they derived their authority from the gods, and were backed up in this conviction by the class of priests and the warrior castes which surrounded and defended them.

Of course the vast majority of the population was peasants, mostly living in abject serfhood, who slaved away for their entire short, unhealthy lives, producing the surpluses which paid for the elaborate costumes and rituals and treasures passed up to their rulers. And the entire populations of conquered tribes, for both the Aztecs and Incas lived by war, and by conquering, subjugating and exploiting neighbouring peoples.

The other striking thing was their backwardness. Both Aztecs and Incas, and all the hundreds of other tribes scattered across central and south America, were illiterate. The Aztecs and Incas had no written language, just a primitive system of markers, and so the important knowledge about the stars and the gods was handed down by word of mouth, and hence the semi-divine regard for the caste of priests who, alone, knew this vital celestial information.

They didn’t have the wheel, nor beasts of burden – no horses or donkeys or camels or bullocks. Therefore they had to carry everything by hand. It is staggering to realise that the awesome Inca city of Machu Picchu was built by massive stones, carried 2,430 metres above sea level, by human power alone.

All this was doomed to come crashing to an end when the Europeans arrived. Williamson describes in detail the four successive voyages of Christopher Columbus, his first landfall in 1492, the chaotic mismanagement of the first islands he and his men settled – Hispaniola – the slow, establishment of colonies and extension of Spanish rule onto neighbouring island, and then, 27 years later, Cortez’s expedition to the mainland against the Aztecs (1519-21).

The eeriest thing about Cortes’s conquest of the Aztec Empire, and then Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of Peru in 1532, is the theory that the rulers of both empires were too puzzled and confused by the invaders to respond adequately. They couldn’t believe these little gangs of a few hundred men were serious about planning to overthrow their empires of tens of thousands of warriors – but they couldn’t figure out what it was they really wanted. Williamson attributes the conquistadors’ success partly to guns and horses but shows that in both cases, the conquerors really had very few – when Pizarro finally met with the Inca emperor Atahualpa, in nothern Peru, he had a force of just 110-foot soldiers, 67 cavalry, three arquebuses and two falconets.

More decisive was the Europeans’ superior grasp of strategy, in particular realising that the empires they were encountering were themselves highly stressed, riven by faction fights or stretched by the continual need to control their subject peoples. The Spanish made alliances with enemies and groups wishing to be liberated. They were good at building coalitions.

He doesn’t say it in so many words, but the idea emerges that the Europeans triumphed because they were just more intelligent about strategy and warcraft.

The role of European diseases

Then there’s our old friend disease. As explained at length in Jared Diamond’s classic 1997 study Guns, Germs and Steel, wherever European explorers went they took with them the infectious diseases which, over thousands of years, we had built up immunity to – but which ravaged native populations which had no immunity to them.

This view is reinforced by the revisionist history of America told by Alan Taylor in American Colonies: The Settling of North America (2001). In this Taylor explains how the entire native civilisation of the Mississippi valley was wiped out by diseases, most probably smallpox, brought by a few shipwrecked Spanish sailors to the mouth of the Mississippi delta but which then spread catastrophically so that when, a century later, the first Anglo-Saxon explorers entered the region, they discovered entire cities with complex layouts, large palaces and temples and canals… all abandoned and overgrown by forest.

Indeed, Pizzaro’s job of conquering the Incas was made easier because the Incas were themselves in the middle of a bloody civil war, which was complicated by the fact that not one but two rival claimants to the throne had died from smallpox. Over the decades after the Spanish arrived, there was a catastrophic collapse in native populations caused by the invaders’ diseases. Some experts estimate as much as 90% of the native population of Mexico was killed by European disease within fifty years.

Still, Williamson is always at hand to say that in this, as in everything else, the reality on the ground, and across such vast areas as all of Mexico, Central America and Peru, were far more complex and uneven that contemporaries and many historians realise. Many many other areas of the continent remained relatively untouched and life went on in the same old way, only now you had to pay a tribute of your produce to a new boss, who wore armour and rode a horse.

The geographic limits of Spanish settlement

The book is packed with thought-provoking ideas and insights. I was fascinated to understand more about the geographic limits to the spread of Spanish rule.

When the Anglo settlers arrived in North America in the 1600s they found it relatively easy to spread out into New England and all along the Atlantic coast. But the Spanish, having established their key centres of administration in Mexico City and Lima a century earlier, with waystations and ports in the Caribbean, found it difficult to expand beyond them. Why?

North of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital which the invaders had renamed Mexico City, lies a vast area of arid desert – the territory which centuries later would become Arizona and New Mexico – where the Spanish explorers discovered nothing but impoverished villages of Indians surviving on subsistence agriculture.

Over to the east there were repeated attempts to explore the peninsula they named ‘Florida’, but the Spanish found it consisted of endless everglades with few settlements and nothing to plunder.

Heading south, the Spanish took over the coastal strip west of the Andes, conquering the Inca empire, but found the Andes mountains themselves too high to settle. Only a handful of expeditions went over the Andes to explore east. Williamson describes these expeditions, which got lost in the vast Amazon rainforests, and encountered only the most primitive tribespeople, if, indeed, they lived to tell the tale.

So, in a nutshell, central and south America were more difficult for the Spanish to settle than North America would turn out to be for the Anglos. And this explains the quite startling fact that some parts of South America – Williamson singles much of the interior of what is now called Argentina – weren’t really settled at all until the 20th century.

The other factor which limited the area of settlement was the Spaniards’ motivation. The conquistadors were adventurers, often from the very lowest parts of society. No nobles or aristocrats ventured their lives in the New World. Poor youngest sons of noble families led gangs of criminals and proles. None of them were the type of people who wanted to stake a claim and build a farmhouse and work the land – as the Anglo settlers were to do up north a hundred years later.

Instead, the Spanish wanted to exploit and loot as much wealth as they could from the New World before returning home and buying land, a house and a title. They came to loot. And here’s the important thing – you can only loot people who are already rich. The Spanish took over the two big empires, the Aztec in Mexico and the Inca in Peru, because an infrastructure was already in place whereby the native emperors and the upper class exploited large numbers of peasants in a well-organised system. The Spaniards simply took over the system, co-opting the best of the agricultural produce and all the treasure and artefacts for themselves.

It is this factor – the Spanish approach to colonisation – which explains the limited and very patchy nature of Spanish settlement. In the deserts of north Mexico, and in the south of the area they named California, were only desert dwellers, scraping a subsistence living from the soil by dint of elaborate water works. Nothing to steal. In Florida, endless swamps inhabited by scattered villagers. Nothing to steal, and no ‘society’ worth taking over. Ditto the Amazon rainforests. Nothing like an organised society whose power structures and tributes they could simply appropriate.

The Spanish only settled where there were established and relatively advanced societies which they could parasite onto.

How the Reconquista mindset was applied to the New World

Williamson lays out with beautiful logic and clarity just how that imperialist approach to colonisation had arisen in Spain.

It is an enormous historical coincidence that the year that Columbus made landfall in the Bahamas, 1492, just happened to be the very same year that – after nearly 800 years of war and crusade – the Spanish finally kicked the very last Muslim Moorish presence out of the south of Spain. (Muslim forces had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar to seize Spanish territory way back in 711 – the fightback is traditionally dated to their first defeat by Christian forces, in 718 – and it took nearly another 800 years, of slow painstaking battles and piecemeal conquest, for native Christians, sometimes fighting alongside Christian warriors from the rest of Europe attracted by the periodic ‘crusades’ against the Muslim –  to finally expel all the Muslim chiefs, emirs and so on from the final southern enclaves.

The point of this historical background is that expelling the Muslims from Spain wasn’t achieved by a modern-style mass army, and in a few years of continuous campaigning – but by ad hoc campaigns led by local Spanish warriors and adventuring knights, which liberated bits and pieces of territory, over a very long period of time.

As and when they seized territory from the Muslims, they applied to the king to rule it. (Spain itself was a very fractured entity, with a number of different kingdoms. It was only as the Reconquista reached its conclusion that the marriage of King Ferdinand of Aragon with Queen Isabella of Castile united most of Spain’s territory to form the basis of one unified Spanish monarchy.)

Sometimes large areas of land would be conquered and the new lords were granted what were known as latifundia, originally a Roman word describing a vast agricultural estate. The new owners co-opted the existing inhabitants as serfs to work the land, but often much of the original or Muslim population had fled and so the lords had difficulty filling them with workers and had to advertise for new workers to come in.

The point is that the Reconquista established a model for settling new lands, freshly conquered from the infidel, which was then applied wholesale to the new territory discovered by Columbus and his Viceroys across the ocean, and by the conquistadors and adventurers who followed them.

The Reconquista established the pattern of the monarch granting complete control over large swathes of territory, and all the people on it to, the conqueror or adelantado who had seized it. This resulted in a handful of rich swaggering lords riding among the large population of impoverished peasants working vast areas of land. In the New World it became known as the encomienda system and the grant holders encomenderos.

In fact it was a bit more complicated than that: the native Indians remained, nominally, free subjects of the Crown, which awarded encomenderos the right to enforce labour from the natives, but not complete power of life and death over them. That was the theory, anyway.

Williamson – once he has reported the main military and political events of the conquest – moves briskly on to discuss in considerable detail, this and all the other legal and administrative measures which the Spanish implemented in their new lands.

In fact, the ‘excitement’ of the narrative of Columbus’s voyages and the initial conquests of the Aztecs and the Incas which open the text, might give the reader quite a misleading impression of the book. Williamson is much more a historian of constitutional and administrative systems than he is a chronicler of exciting battles and against-the-odds expeditions. A lot of this book is quite dry. But he develops the constitutional and legal aspects of the conquest in such detail that, to my surprise, the conflicts between the settlers, and in particular between the Viceroys appointed to govern the new provinces and the monarchy back in Spain – and between both of them and Catholic church – at moments become quite gripping.

The Crown protects the Indians One counter-intuitive learning is that the Spanish crown, right from the start, was concerned about protecting the rights of the native Indians, indeed became their chief protector.

As Spanish adventurers opened up new territory and conquered more and more native peoples, the monarchs became concerned to make sure they were not simply enslaved. Queen Isabella personally forbade the enslavement of the natives, and a series of ‘Laws of the Indies’ tried to stem abuses wherever they were found. Encomenderos may have enjoyed almost complete power over the populations of their vast estates, but Spanish laws commanded them to also set up schools and hospitals, to educate the Indians, protect them from wars and raids, and to enact justice. This effort continued for the rest of the 16th century, for example with the ‘New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians’ of 1547, which explicitly forbade all forms of enslaving the native population. The New Laws prompted violent opposition among the oligarchies of Spanish settlers.

The Church takes the Indians’ side It’s also surprising to read about the broadly sympathetic line taken by the Catholic Church. The Pope and the Catholic organisations which sent cohorts of missionaries out to the New World took the line that these were people made in God’s image, like us, with souls that needed saving. Certainly, some of the first cohort of priests accompanying the conquistadors helped in the wholesale destruction of priceless documents and artefacts which they considered pagan and devilish. But within a generation, a new wave of clerics began for all kinds of reasons to take the native Indians’ side, deploring their brutal exploitation by amoral Spanish lords.

On a pragmatic note, they also realised they couldn’t convert the natives by preaching at them in Latin or Spanish, and undertaking ‘mass baptisms’ where the Indians didn’t have a clue what was going on. So a whole project was undertaken to learn more about the natives’ languages, which quickly extended into documenting their histories and beliefs. Most of what we know about native Indian religion and history derives from these records taken down by Christian missionaries.

The classic figure of this type was Bartolomé de las Casas, initially a coloniser himself, who became a Dominican friar and spent the last 50 years of his life fighting slavery and the colonial abuse of indigenous peoples. He was appointed by the Spanish crown the first ‘Protector of the Indians’, an administrative office responsible for attending to the wellbeing of the native populations, a function he enthusiastically carried out and which included speaking on their behalf in law courts and even reporting back to the King of Spain in person.

In 1550, Bartolomé participated in the Valladolid debate, in which Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (the noted Spanish Renaissance “humanist”, philosopher, theologian, and… er… proponent of colonial slavery) argued that the Indians were less than human and required Spanish masters in order to become civilized. Las Casas maintained that the Indians were fully human and that forcefully subjugating them was morally, legally, and theologically, unjustifiable. Las Casas is a hero (not a perfect hero, but by the standards of his own time a d brave and determined protector of the people.)

Williamson gives a long and detailed account of the numerous legal initiatives launched by the Crown to try and protect the Indians from exploitation, but in the end they all failed. No amount of legal or theological argumentation could avoid the fact that the Spanish remained the ruling caste with one law for them, while the Indians remained a separate caste, subject to completely different laws. Williamson calls them the Republic of the Spaniards and the Republic of the Indians.

And nothing could alter the simple fact that, on the ground, most of the laws designed to protect the Indians were ignored by the settlers, who looked after each other’s interests.

Theories of conquest and bureaucratic structures

I could have done with more about where the silver was discovered in the New World, and the technology of how it is mined and purified. We are told that mercury was vital to the purification process, but not really how or why. I had to google it to find out. He does eventually have three pages on the silver mines (two on gold-mining), but in general Williamson is light on that kind of thing, on technology, and on the diverse resources of the region.

Instead, as the book settles into its stride, you realise that Williamson is going to devote most of his energy to the legal and theological justifications of Spanish rule along with detailed descriptions of the bureaucratic structures the Spanish set up.

Thus there is a long passage explaining how the theory of monarchy evolved in Spain from its late-medieval form to the theory which underpinned the role of Philip II as head of an empire which stretched from California to Sicily. He explains the role of the Catholic Church as a vital prop to royal authority, and gives long explanations of the laws and the administrative structures set up to run the colonies.

He explains the main theories by which the Spanish justified their conquests, both to themselves and to the rest of the world (especially to their critical opponents in the Protestant world). There were two main ones:

  1. The well-established Law of Conquest, by which one ruler conquers another and is allowed to seize his land and titles, which had been worked out over long centuries of theological and legal debate during the Middle Ages.
  2. The more modern notion that the Crown of Spain had a ‘right’ to rule the Indians because the Europeans would convert the natives to Christianity and so save their souls. This was accompanied by a kind of sub-argument, which many missionaries put forward: that the New World represented an opportunity for Christianity – which had, by the early 1500s become widely associated with corruption and worldly ambition – to start again. Here, in the Garden of Eden, were a new kind of Adam and Eve, a First People uncorrupted by the Old World, and one thread of early colonisation is the devout wishes of the early missionaries to create a Christian Paradise on earth. Of course it was not to turn out that way; the secular settlers – and the terrible European diseases – made sure of that.

How the silver was squandered

Williamson does, however, clarify something which has always puzzled me, which is – if the Spanish monarchy began receiving ever-increasing amounts of silver from the New World (as the result of great silver strikes in North Mexico and Peru in the 1540s), how come Spain steadily declined in power and influence in the century and a half after the conquest?

Indeed, Williamson points out that by the death of Philip II in 1598, Spain was technically bankrupt and had experienced state bankruptcies (i.e been unable to repay its debts) in 1557, 1560, 1569, 1575, and 1596!

Where did the Spanish silver go? The answer turns out to be simple: Paying for Spain’s wars.

Even though it never accounted for more than 20 per cent of imperial revenues, silver was the fuel that drove the Spanish war machine. (p.106)

Philip II’s father had been Holy Roman Emperor and when Philip came to the throne in 1556, he inherited responsibility for territory in every continent known to Europeans – from the extensive empire in Central and South America to the newly conquered territory of the Phillippines, from the kingdom of Naples and Sicily in Italy, to the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands which began a protracted war of independence against Spanish rule in 1568. Not only this, but Philip saw himself as the defender of all Christendom in its wars against the Ottoman Turks in the East. He it was who organised ‘the Holy League’, bringing together ships from Spain, the Republic of Venice, the Republic of Genoa, the Papal States, the Duchy of Savoy and the Knights of Malta, to inflict a decisive defeat on the Ottomans at the naval Battle of Lepanto in 1567.

Philip also saw himself as the defender of Catholic orthodoxy against the shocking new Protestant heresy. Thus Philip gave large financial support to the Catholic League fighting the Protestants in France, and then went directly to war with the French King Henry IV, an intervention which secured the future of France as a Catholic country.

Last but not least, as we Brits know, Philip II built, armed, provisioned and manned an enormous armada which was designed, with the blessing of the pope, to conquer England, overthrow the Tudor dynasty and the Church of England, and impose Philip as the Catholic ruler of a Catholic Britain.

So that’s where the silver, hacked out of dangerous and unhealthy mines in the New World by Indian slaves and serfs, ended up being spent. Funding the impossible ambitions of the over-extended Spanish monarchy.

Spain went into decline because of proliferating military commitments for which it could not pay. (p.116)


Related links

Related reviews, mainly about Mexico

Europe’s Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom (1) by Norman Cohn (1975)

Norman Cohn (1915-2007) was an English academic historian. In the 1960s he became the head of the Columbus Centre, which was set up and initially financed by Observer editor David Astor to look into the causes of extremism and persecution. As head, Cohn commissioned research and studies from other academics on numerous aspects of persecution, and himself wrote several books on the subject, namely:

  • The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957) which traced the long history of millenial, end-of-the-world cults which, more often than not, seek scapegoats when the Great Awakening or Rapture or whatever they call it fails to happen
  • Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith (1993) which traced millennial religious themes to their sources in ancient civilizations
  • Warrant for Genocide (1966) about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-semitic forgery which surfaced in Russia in 1903 and claimed to describe a Jewish conspiracy for world domination

Europe’s Inner Demons is roughly in two halves: what it builds up to is a description of the witch craze and witch trials of early modern Europe and America (i.e. the 1600s and 1700s). But it’s the first half which interests me more. In this Cohn describes the origin and meanings of many of the absurd accusations which were later to be brought against the ‘witches’, following them from their origin in pagan times, through the early medieval period, and climaxing with their deployment in the arrests, torture and execution of the Knights Templar in the early 1300s.

It happens that I’ve just finished reading a book about the Knights Templars, which mentions Cohn’s book, and so I was inspired to read the first half, up to and including the Templars trial.

Cohn shows that:

  • In pre-Christian, pagan Rome writers and authorities attributed inhuman and uncanny activities to minority, outsider groups who they associated with secret societies dedicated to overthrowing the state. Chief among these was the (originally traditional) event of the Bacchanalia, which, originally, was an orgiastic festival celebrating the god Bacchus but, over time, became associated with dark nights, wine and promiscuous sex. Cohn shows how traditional Roman writers came to associate it with darker, anti-social motivations. A fateful link was made between tiny, minority sects who held secretive activities – the worry that these sects were in some way anti-social, dedicated to social revolution – and the attribution to them of increasingly absurd accusations, such as child murder, ritual sacrifice, the drinking of human blood, and deliberately indiscriminate sex – all designed to undermine traditional values and hierarchies and relationships.
  • In the early centuries of Christianity, pagan and Roman writers redirected the tropes they’d developed to blacken the followers of the Bacchanal at the new Eastern religious sect, accusing the Christians of unholy rituals at which they drank the blood of ritually murdered individuals, or engaged in promiscuous sex. Cohn points out that these are easily understandable distortions of a) the Eucharist, where Christians really are enjoined to drink the blood of Christ and b) the Loving Cup or various other references to group love, team love, Christian love, which had a purely Platonic, non-sexual meaning. But not for the accusers and propagandists who scraped the barrel of the human psyche to dredge up all the worst crimes they could think of.
  • Once Christianity had become established (by, say, around 400) the powers-that-be began to persecute Christian heretics and Cohn shows how these heretics now found themselves subject to the same slanders and propaganda as the early Christians had been – dark rumours of midnight masses, perverted rituals, the slaying of a victim whose blood was then drunk and body eaten. And he shows how the ritual victim was all-too-often said to be a baby.

Medieval pessimism

A big-over-arching idea which I found particularly powerful was Cohn’s contention that as the Middle Ages progressed, Christianity – and western culture, such as it was in the early Middle Ages – became more pessimistic.

Going back and reading the early Church Fathers – Tertullian and Justin Martyr and St Jerome and so on – he says you are struck by their conviction that the end of the world is just around the corner and the Day of the Lord is at hand. The early Christians are strong in their faith and happy, burning with conviction that the End is Nigh, that any day now the Lord will return in splendour and all their sufferings will be justified.

However, as the years, then decades, then centuries go by, hopes fade, the Roman Empire is overthrown, societies sink into less advanced forms, the economy collapses, waves of barbarians fight their way across the old imperial lands. And Jesus does not return. By around 1000 AD, medieval culture can be described as depressed. And in its disappointment, it looked with ever-greater desperation for scapegoats.

The atmosphere was changing. Fantasies which in the early Middle Ages had been unknown in western Europe were turning into commonplaces. (p.41)

This is reflected in the rise of the figure and role of Satan and his demons. Cohn has a fascinating chapter (pp.16-34) describing the development of Satan, the Devil. In the Old Testament he is barely mentioned. When bad things happen it is generally because the Old Testament God is wilful and capricious and swayed by his bad moods. Satan does appear in the Book of Job but he is more of a collaborator with God than his enemy; it is Satan who comes up with new ways to persecute Job. It is in the so-called inter-testamentary period – between the last of the accepted books of the Old Testament, written about 300 BC and the first books of the New Testament, written about 50 AD, that Satan undergoes a sweeping change of character. Historians usually attribute this to the influx of Eastern, Zoroastrian and Manichean ideas coming from the Persian Empire in the greater multicultural atmosphere created by the triumph of the Roman Republic and then Empire.

Anyway, in the New Testament, Satan has become a completely new thing, a tormentor and tempter sent to oppose Jesus at every step. Satan’s demons possess innocent people and only Jesus can exorcise them. In the climax of a series of tests, Jesus is made to go out into the wilderness to be confronted and tempted by the Devil in person.

Cohn shows how in the early centuries of the church, saints and holy men were still supposed to be able to drive out demons and Satan’s helpers, merely by revealing the consecrated host or a cross or saying Jesus’ name. But in line with the growth of medieval pessimism, the years from around 1000 AD saw greater and greater anxiety that the Devil was taking over the world which translated into ever-more paranoid fears that secret societies and heresies were flourishing everywhere, dedicated to the overthrow of existing society and to establish the triumph of the Antichrist.

Slowly and steadily, the myth of Devil worship, and the details of how this worship was carried out – by murdering a baby, drinking its blood or its ashes mixed with blood, and then weird rituals to do with black cats (lifting its tail to kiss its anus) – were carefully elaborated by successive generations of highly educated and paranoid Catholic intellectuals.

The stereotype of the Devil-worshipping sect was fully developed, in every detail, by 1100. (p.76)

Heretic hunting and the inquisition

Cohn devoted a chapter to the rise of inquisitions, carefully delineating the difference between secular courts and their power, and the power vested in one-off inquisitors by the pope. He describes the hair-raising campaigns of heretic-hunting inquisitors in Germany and the South of France in the 1200s, notably the egregious Conrad of Marburg appointed inquisitor in central Germany in 1231, or John of Capestrano, appointed heresy inquisitor by the pope in 1418. Already, in 1215 the Lateran Council, by insisting that bishops do everything in their power to suppress heresy on pain of dismissal, had incentivised people across society to come forward with denunciations. Basically a lot of people were tortured into confessing and then burned to death. A lot.

Along the way we learn about the beliefs, the demographics and then the terrible persecutions endured by groups such as:

  • the Paulicians – Christian sect which was formed in the 7th century and rejected a good deal of the Old and much of the New Testament, originally associated with Armenia and horribly persecuted by the Byzantine Empire
  • the Bogomils – sect founded in the First Bulgarian Empire by the priest Bogomil during the reign of Tsar Peter I in the 10th century, a form of opposition to the Bulgarian state and the church, they called for a return to what they considered to be early spiritual teaching, rejecting the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Dualists or Gnostics, they believed in a world within the body and a world outside the body, did not use the Christian cross, nor build churches, as they revered their gifted form and considered their body to be the temple, giving rise to many forms of practice to cleanse oneself through purging, fasting, celebrating and dancing.
  • the Waldensians – originated in the late twelfth century as the Poor Men of Lyon, a band organized by Peter Waldo, a wealthy merchant who gave away his property around 1173, preaching apostolic poverty as the way to perfection. Waldensian teachings quickly came into conflict with the Catholic Church and by 1215, the Waldensians were declared heretical and subject to intense persecution.
  • the Fraticelli ‘de opinione’ – members of the Franciscan order of monks who rebelled against its growing worldliness and corruption (St Francis had died in 1226) and tried to return to a really primitive material life, owning literally nothing, and having no food from one day to the next. Declared heretics in the 1400s, Cohn goes into great detail about the trial of leading Fraticelli in 1466.
  • the Cathars – from the Greek katharoi meaning ‘the pure’, the Cathars were a dualist or gnostic movement which became widespread in Southern Europe between the 12th and 14th centuries. They believed there were two gods, one good, one evil – diametrically opposed to the Catholic church which believes in only one God. The Cathars believed the God of the Old Testament, creator of the physical world, was evil. Cathars thought human spirits were the genderless spirits of angels trapped in the material realm of the evil god, and destined to be reincarnated until they achieved salvation through the consolamentum, when they could return to the benign God of the New Testament.

The self-fulfilling nature of torture

Cohn introduces the reader to each groups’ likely beliefs and social origins, then describes how the secular and religious authorities (i.e. the King of France or Holy Roman Emperor or pope) launched an inquisition, sometimes even called a ‘crusade’, against each of them. (The crusade to exterminate the Cathars in the south of France became known as the Albigensian Crusade, 1209-1229).

And then he makes his over-arching point which is that, time and time and time again, the use of torture made ‘heresies’ appear to explode, appear to be held by huge numbers of people, at all levels of society, as innocent victims were roped in and tortured and, quite quickly, would say anything and implicate anyone in order to stop the torture (or, more cruelly, to prevent their family and children being tortured, too).

Yet as soon as they were free to speak in front of secular courts, again and again these supposed ‘heretics’ recanted and said they only confessed to the bizarre rituals, murder, cannibalism and orgies, because they were tortured into saying so.

Cohn shows that there were real heretics i.e. groups who rejected the worldly corruption of the Catholic Church and tried to return to the simple, pure, ascetic life of the early apostles and that, on its own terms, the Church was correct to be concerned about them and to try and bring them back within the fold.

But that the way it did this – by trying to blacken their name by getting members to confess under torture to midnight masses where the Devil appeared in the shape of a black cat, and then a baby was ritually burned to death and its ashes mixed in with wine which all the followers had to drink to assert their membership — all this was fantasy cooked up in the feverish brains of Catholic propagandists and the inquisitors themselves.

What interests Cohn is the way these fantasies became formalised, and turned into part of received opinion, official ‘knowledge’ – not least when a list of these perverse practices was included in a formal papal bull, Vox in Rama, issued in 1233, which included the accusation that the Devil in person attended the midnight covens of the Waldensians and other heretics. In other words, by the early 13th century these absurd fantasies had received official sanction and recognition from the highest religious authorities on earth.

Although each of the heretic-hunting frenzies Cohn describes eventually burned out and stopped – sometimes due to the death or discrediting or, in the case of Conrad of Marburg, the assassination of the lead inquisitor – nonetheless, the period as a whole had established the absurd practices of all heretics and enemies of the Church as accepted, indisputable fact, sanctioned by the pope and the entire church hierarchy.

The crushing of the Knights Templar (pp.79-101)

Cohn then goes on to show how precisely the same old tropes, the same accusations of unnatural and blasphemous crimes, were dusted off and dragged out to accuse the Knights Templars, in their trials which lasted from roughly 1307 to 1309. His account is largely the same as Michael Haag’s in The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States namely that the whole farrago of trumped-up accusations was made by King Philip the Fair of France in order to get his hands on the Templars’ vast amounts of gold and land. Its more proximate cause was that Philip wanted to merge the two great crusading orders, the Templars and Knights Hospitallers, into one super-order and then place himself at the head of it in order to lead a mighty new crusade – but that was never very likely to, and indeed never did, happen.

Instead Philip’s loyal bureaucrats pounced, arresting all the Templars on the same day and submitting them to torture to force them to admit to the same litany of crimes: that at the initiation ceremony they were forced to spit on the cross, to kiss their initiator on the lower back, buttocks or mouth, agree to sodomy if requested by a senior brother, and other blasphemous acts such as worshiping a malevolent satanic head.

All the Templars who were tortured signed confessions agreeing this is what they had done – understandable, seeing that the tortures included:

  • having your hands tied behind you, being hauled up via a hook secured to the ceiling, then suddenly released, coming to a stop with a jerk, so that the tendons, muscles and sometimes bones on your shoulders and bones were abruptly torn or shattered
  • having your feet covered in grease and pit in a naked fire, where they roasted until the toe and feet bones fell out of the cooked flesh

As one Templar said, rather than submit to the tortures he would have confessed that he personally murdered Jesus Christ. The sorry saga dragged on for three years because Pope Clement feebly tried to rescue the order which was, theoretically, answerable only to him. But being himself French and a nominee of the French crown, and based in Avignon on French soil, he eventually, feebly acquiesced in the crushing of the order, the confiscation of its wealth and the burning at the stake of its four most senior officers (plus at least a hundred others).

The fate of the Templars is a sorry, sordid tale of greed, corruption and unbelievable cruelty, but for me is one more proof that the nominally Christian Middle Ages were a complicated mixture of genuine religious belief, almost incomprehensible religious fanatacism, alongside staggering cruelty, all underpinned by very recognisable motives of greed and ambition.

More generally, Cohn’s review of how society has tended to demonised outsider groups -from as far back as we have records – sheds sobering light on this permanent tendency of human nature, and shows how even the most ridiculous prejudices and bigotries can be entrenched as established ‘fact’, and then revived as and when needed to persecute the different, the strange, the non-conformist, the helpless. Couldn’t happen now? Well, the career of the fanatical heretic-inquisitor Conrad of Marburg could be usefully compared to that of Senator Joe McCarthy. And in our own time, right now, 2019, we are seeing the revival of all kinds of tropes and stereotypes designed to justify prejudice and persecution. At least we don’t strappado people or burn them to death – but the underlying impulses of human nature haven’t changed one whit.

Some Knights Templar being burned at the stake, illustration in the Chroniques de France ou de St. Denis.


Related links

Reviews of other books and exhibitions about the Middle Ages

The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States (1) by Michael Haag (2012)

From its title I expected this book to focus narrowly on the history of the Knights Templars, but it is much more than that.

The Knights Templar

The history of the order can be summarised thus:

The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, also known as the Order of Solomon’s Temple, the Knights Templar or simply the Templars, were a Catholic military order founded in 1119 after the First Crusade had seized Jerusalem. The order was recognised by the Pope in 1139 and was active until 1312 when it was suppressed by Pope Clement V.

The Templars became a favoured charity throughout Christendom and grew rapidly in membership and power. Templar knights, in their distinctive white mantles with a red cross, were among the most skilled fighting units of the Crusades. Non-combatant members of the order, who formed as much as 90% of the order’s members, managed a large economic infrastructure throughout Christendom, developing innovative financial techniques that were an early form of banking, building its own network of nearly 1,000 commanderies and fortifications across Europe and the Holy Land, and arguably forming the world’s first multinational corporation.

The Templars were closely tied to the Crusades so that when the Holy Land was lost, support for the order faded. Rumours about the Templars’ secret initiation ceremony created distrust, and King Philip IV of France – deeply in debt to the order – took advantage of this distrust to destroy them and erase his debt. In 1307, he had many of the order’s members in France arrested, tortured into giving false confessions, and burned at the stake. It was under pressure from King Philip that Pope Clement V disbanded the order in 1312. (Wikipedia)

From that time to the present day rumours have swirled around the Templars, and I have met conspiracy theorists who think that the tentacles of the transnational organisation they founded persist to the present day, and underlie modern banking/wars/global inequality.

Deep history, revisionist history

So much for the order itself. What is surprising about Haag’s book is the extreme thoroughness with which he presents the deep historical background for the crusades themselves, a history so deep it goes back before the founding of Christianity, and covers the conquests of Alexander the Great (333-323 BC), the rise of the Roman Empire, the fall of Rome to the barbarians, the endurance of the Byzantine empire, the rise of Persian power, and then the eruption of militant Islam into the Middle East in the 630s.

And the reason he goes back to such an early period is because…

Haag presents the entire crusading enterprise in a radically revisionist light.

The politically correct, modern view of the crusades is that they were a racist, orientalist, unjustified, colonial attack by rapacious, cruel and undisciplined European armies, motivated solely by greed and personal aggrandisement, against the peace-loving Muslim world upon whose civilians (and even local Christian populations) they perpetrated grotesque massacres.

By going so very far back into the deep pre-history of the crusades Haag aims to present us with the broadest possible historical context for them, a perspective which then forms the basis of his drastic reinterpretation. Thus he claims that:

1. At the time of the First Crusade the majority of the population of Palestine was Christian – so the crusades weren’t an attack on a majority population of Muslims, but an attempt to rescue the majority population of the area from subjugation by alien oppressors. He quotes a young Islamic scholar Ibn al-Arabi who stayed in Jerusalem from 1093 to 1096 and wrote that, four and a half centuries after the Muslim conquest, Jerusalem was still a predominantly Christian city, as was Palestine generally:

The country is theirs [the Christians’] because it is they who work its soil, nurture its monasteries and maintain its churches. (quoted on page 88)

2. Because it was not the Christians, but the Muslims who were the outsiders and conquerors – erupting into the Levant in the 7th century and imposing a violent, racist, imperialist ideology on the native inhabitants of the region over the next few hundred years.

You can see how that is completely opposite to the self-hating, anti-western narrative most of us are used to. Haag goes back to the start of the Christian era to show that:

  1. The entire Mediterranean basin, from the south of Spain through Italy and Greece on to Anatolia and the Levant, then around Egypt and along the whole coastline of North Africa to Ceuta opposite Spain – this entire region was part of the Roman Empire.
  2. Christianity did not spread via the sword; the exact opposite, for its first three centuries (from Jesus’ execution in 33 AD to the Emperor Constantine decriminalising Christianity in 312) Christianity spread like wildfire around the Mediterranean empire despite the violent and cruel attempts of the Empire to crush it. Christianity was not a religion of the sword but of proselytising and persuasion, which despite all efforts to stamp it out had nonetheless become the de facto religion of the Empire by the mid-350s, and was officially made the state religion by the Emperor Theodosius in the 390s.
  3. With the result that, from around 400 to around 700 AD, the entire Mediterranean basin formed one unified Christian civilisation.

The extent of the Roman Empire under the Emperor Trajan in 117 AD

The invaders were the Muslims, who erupted from Arabia in the 650s and quickly overran Persia and the Levant, then spread along North Africa, crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and pushed up through Spain, crossing the Pyrenees and raiding half way-up France until stopped at the Battle of Tours in 732. From about 718 onwards, various Christian princes and armies began the very long, slow process of reconquering Spain for Christianity – the so-called Reconquista – which was only completed in 1492, over 700 years later.

The spread of Islam 622 – 750

Meanwhile, Muslim armies continued pushing eastwards into Persia and on towards India, and north and west through Anatolia towards the embattled centre of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople, which they were only prevented from capturing by a series of heroic stands by succeeding Byzantine emperors.

During the 800s and 900s Muslims also seized the islands of Cyprus, Malta, Sicily (842) and the Balearic Islands, using them and ports along the North African coast as bases for pirate raids on Christian ships and ports. They even attacked the heart of Christendom in the West, the city of Rome, in 846, when Muslim raiders plundered the outskirts, sacking the basilicas of Old St Peter’s and St Paul’s-Outside-the-Walls, and were only prevented from entering the city itself by the sturdiness of the Aurelian Wall. In 849 another Arab raid targeted Rome’s port, Ostia, but was repelled.

This, then, was the broad – and often ignored – context for the crusades. Christian Europe was, in effect, under siege from extremely fierce warriors motivated by an ideology which aimed to suppress or wipe out all traces of Christian civilisation.

Haag goes on to make key points about the new Muslim overlords of the conquered areas:

1. The Muslim rulers generally despised agriculture and manual labour. In all the Mediterranean lands they conquered they saw themselves as a warrior élite whose fierce ideology justified them in subjugating the native inhabitants who were overwhelmingly Christian in culture and belief. The native Christians and Jews (in Palestine, particularly) were subject to punitive taxes, unable to worship openly, forbidden to repair their churches or synagogues and, in some periods, forced to wear specific clothes or even branded to indicate their lowly serf status.

2. The call for Christians in France and Italy – the ‘West’ – to come to the aid of their fellow Christians in the newly-occupied lands were not new to the 11th century (when the crusades began). Throughout the 800s, 900s and 1000s came repeated pleas for help from Spain, from the imperiled emperor at Byzantium, from Christian leaders in Alexandria and Jerusalem –  pleas to be liberated from semi-slavery, from the Muslim desecration of Christian holy places, and the destruction of churches and synagogues. From the suppression of the original Christian culture and belief of the native inhabitants.

Of the five original patriarchal seats of the Roman Empire – Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem – by the 1050s Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem had fallen into Muslim hands, and – as mentioned – Constantinople was under permanent threat.

In other words, seen from this deep historical perspective, it is not the Christians who were the aggressors. Christian armies didn’t march on Mecca and Medina and occupy them and tear down their holy places and plunder their treasures and force the native inhabitants to wear special markers on their clothes or even to be branded. Christian armies have never attacked the holy places of Islam.

But Muslim armies had by the 800s:

  • conquered Alexandria, the great centre of Christian learning
  • Jerusalem, where Jesus was tried, executed and rose from the dead
  • Antioch, home of the first Gentile Christian church and where the term ‘Christian’ was first used
  • and Constantinople, explicitly founded as the new, Christian capital of the Roman Empire

For Haag, then, the crusades are the precise opposite of a colonial Western attempt to conquer peace-loving Muslims; they were an attempt to recover authentically and originally Christian lands, shrines and holy places which the Muslims had seized and whose majority Christian populations the Muslims were oppressing.

Haag makes further arguments.

Jerusalem not a Muslim holy city By going back into the deep history he shows that Jerusalem was, for centuries, not the Holy City for Muslims which is it now generally seen to be. It is so now because the tradition grew up that the city was the location of the Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey. Just to be crystal clear, I’ll quote Wikipedia on the subject of the Night Journey.

The Isra and Mi’raj are the two parts of a Night Journey that, according to Islam, the Islamic prophet Muhammad took during a single night around the year 621. Within Islam it signifies both a physical and spiritual journey. The Quran surah al-Isra contains an outline account, while greater detail is found in the hadith collections of the reports, teachings, deeds and sayings of Muhammad. In the accounts of the Isra’, Muhammad is said to have traveled on the back of a winged mule-like white beast, called Buraq, to ‘the farthest mosque’. By tradition this mosque, which came to represent the physical world, was identified as the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. At the mosque, Muhammad is said to have led the other prophets in prayer. His subsequent ascent into the heavens came to be known as the Mi‘raj. Muhammad’s journey and ascent is marked as one of the most celebrated dates in the Islamic calendar.

But Haag points out that the sura in the Koran which is the basis of this belief in no way mentions Jerusalem, but simply refers to ‘the farthest mosque’ or masjid.

Glory to Him Who carried His beloved by night from the Sacred Masjid to the Furthest Masjid, whose precincts We have blessed, to show him of Our wonders! He it is Who is All-Hearing, All-Seeing![Quran 17:1 (Translated by Tarif Khalidi)]

In Haag’s view, the tradition that Muhammad’s flight took place from Jerusalem was created after Jerusalem was conquered by the Muslims. He describes in detail the career of Muslim warrior Abd al-Malik Ibn Marwan, who built the al-Aqsah mosque (which became known as the Dome of the Rock) in Jerusalem in order to promote and aggrandise his achievements, and in deliberate competition with the large Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

But, as Haag highlights, the carved inscription inside the al-Aqsah mosque in which al-Malik claims credit for building it (and also threatens Christians and Jews unless they obey their Muslim overlords) which is also one of the earliest written records of a text from the Koran – this inscription nowhere mentions the Night Flight. Thus:

far from commemorating the Night Journey, the Dome of the Rock seems to have generated the tradition. (p.34)

The point of this section is that Haag is seeking to undermine or question what most historians (and ordinary people) tend to take for granted, which is that Jerusalem was a Muslim Holy City at the time of the Crusades.

Not so, claims Haag. It certainly had been a Jewish and then a Christian Holy City – it had been founded by Jews and was the centre of their world for a thousand years before the Romans arrived, and it was where the Jewish heretic and/or Son of God, Jesus, was crucified and rose again and preached to his disciples before ascending into heaven, which makes it pretty obviously holy to Christians, too.

But for the Muslim rulers it was, at least to begin with, just one among numerous ports and trading centres in the Levant, with no particular strategic significance in itself, but with the notable perk that – as a destination for European pilgrims could be heavily taxed – it was a useful profit centre.

Saladin not a Muslim hero In another reversal of the usual story, Haag points out that Saladin (An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub), the legendary opponent of Richard the Lionheart during the Third Crusade (1189-92), was not an Arab at all, but a Kurd, who spent more time fighting against his fellow Muslims than against Christians.

For years before he finally took Jerusalem, Saladin fought Muslim rivals in Egypt and Syria in his efforts to found a new dynasty, the Ayyubid dynasty. Above all, Saladin aspired to supersede the Abbasid caliphate based in Baghdad and his seizure of Jerusalem was, for him, a great propaganda coup.

Thus if Saladin fought the Crusaders it wasn’t as part of a high-minded general Muslim resistance; it was as part of his attempts to gain kudos and respect in the Muslim world in order to reach his deeper goal, the establishment of his own dynasty, achieved through what Haag calls ‘an imperialist war.’ In fact, the core of the Muslim world, the caliphate based in Baghdad, hoped the Christians would defeat Saladin and thus remove this troublesome usurper.

Summary of Haag’s argument

In the section about the Night Flight, in his passages about Saladin, and in numerous other ways throughout this book, Haag sets out to counter the politically correct narrative and to show that:

  • the crusades were not a violent attack on the Muslim Holy City of Jerusalem because it was not in fact a genuine Muslim Holy City, not in the same way that Mecca or Medina were
  • the majority population of the Middle East was not Muslim, but Christian and Jewish
  • that the imperialists in the story were not the Europeans, but the conquering Muslims who (as he vividly shows) at various times massacred the native Christians and Jews (who had both been living there far longer than the Muslims) or imposed all kinds of restrictions on them – forbidding them to practice their religion in public, closing churches and synagogues, mulcting them for money, and making them wear special clothes, or even branding their skin

Which leads up to Haag’s claim that the Crusader States, far from being the oppressive intervention of Christian outsiders, were a rare period when the majority Christian population of Palestine had something approaching local rule, representing local interests.

These are the big, thought-provoking points Haag makes before he even gets to the origins of the Templars.

The vital role of Constantinople

It’s not the main focus of Haag’s book but, covering the Dark and Middle Ages in the East as he does, his narrative can’t help bringing out the way that Constantinople/Byzantium again and again and again proved a bulwark protecting the rest of Europe from the marauding Muslims.

Prompting the reader to reflect that, if Constantine had not happened to win the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 (the battle in which he defeated his main rival to the throne and thus became Emperor of Rome), and if Constantine had not become convinced of the power of Christianity – he would never have decided to create a new capital in the East and commissioned the mighty new city which came to be known as Constantinople. And this city and its outlying territories and warrior population would not have gone on to become Christian Europe’s main bulwark and protection against invading Muslims for eight hundred years (from the 600s until its fall in 1453).

And so, if it had not been for this sequence of fortunate events, might not the whole of Europe – and so its later colonies like America, Australasia and so on – not all now be Muslim?


Related links

Other medieval reviews

The Renaissance Nude @ the Royal Academy

In this review I intend to make three points:

  1. This exhibition is without doubt a spectacular collection of outstanding Renaissance treasures, gathered into fascinating groups or ‘themes’ which shed light on the role of the body in Renaissance iconography.
  2. It confirms my by-now firm conviction/view/prejudice that I don’t really like Italian Renaissance art but adore North European late-medieval/Renaissance art.
  3. Despite being spectacular and full of treasures, the exhibition left me with a few questions about the underlying premise of the show.

1. Spectacular Renaissance treasures

The exhibition brings together works by many of the great masters of the Renaissance, including Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, Dürer and Cranach. The small sketch by Raphael of the three graces is seraphic, the two pages of anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci are awe-inspiring and the Venus Rising by Titian is wonderful.

Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’) by Titian (1520) National Galleries of Scotland

However, it isn’t just a parade of greatest hits. The exhibition includes works by lots of less-famous figures such as Perugino, Pollaiuolo and Gossaert, and lots of minor works or works which aren’t striving for greatness.

Indeed, there are quite a few rather puzzling or perplexing prints and images, like Dürer’s woodcut of naked men in a bath-house, or a battle scene from the ancient world where all the axe-wielding men are naked. The exhibition is more notable for its diversity and range than its concentration on well-known names.

It is far from all being paintings. There are also large numbers of prints and engravings, alongside drawings and sketches, statuettes in metal and wood, some bronze reliefs, and fifteen or so invaluable books of the time, propped open to display beautiful medieval-style, hand-painted illustrations.

There’s even a case of four or five large circular plaques from the period, showing the patron’s face on one side and nude allegorical figures on the other, some 90 works in total.

In other words, this exhibition brings together works across the widest possible range of media, and by a very wide range of artists, famous and not so famous, in order to ponder the role of the naked human body in Renaissance art, showing how the depiction of the nude in art and sculpture and book illustration changed over the period from 1400 to 1530.

A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion (c. 1526) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

It does this by dividing the works into five themes.

1. The nude and Christian art

Medieval art had been concerned almost exclusively with depicting either secular powers (kings and emperors) or religious themes. For the most part the human figure was covered up. So a central theme in the exhibition is the increasing ‘boldness’ or confidence with which artists handled subjects involving nudity, and the increasing technical knowledge of the human body which gave their images ever-greater anatomical accuracy.

You can trace this growing confidence in successive depictions of key Christian stories such as the countless depictions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the classic locus of nudity in the whole Christian canon.

This version by Dürer seems more motivated by the artist showing off his anatomical knowledge and skill at engraving (and learnèd symbolism) than religious piety.

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer (1504) Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Of course the Christian Church still ruled the hearts and imaginations of all Europeans and the Pope’s blessing or anathema was still something to be feared. From top to bottom, society was dominated by Christian ideology and iconography. And so alongside Adam and Eve there are quite a few versions of subjects like Christ being scourged or crucified and a number of Last Judgments with naked souls being cast down into Hell.

In fact for me, arguably the two most powerful pictures in the show were the images of damned souls being stuffed down into Hell by evil demons, by the two Northern painters Hans Memling and Dirk Bouts.

The fall of the damned by Dirk Bouts (1450)

In these images the way the men and women have been stripped naked is an important part of their message. It symbolises the way they have been stripped of their dignity and identity. They have become so much human meat, prey for demons to eat and torture. Paintings like this always remind me of descriptions of the Holocaust where the Jews were ordered to strip naked, men and women and children, in front of each other, and the pitiful descriptions I’ve read of women, in particular, trying to hang on to their last shreds of dignity before being murdered like animals. The stripping was an important part of the psychological degradation which reduced humans to cowed animals which were then easier to shepherd into the gas chambers.

2. Humanism and the expansion of secular themes

Humanism refers to the growth of interest in the legacy of the classical world which began to develop during the 1400s and was an established intellectual school by the early 1500s.

Initially it focused on the rediscovered writings of the Greeks and especially the Romans, promoting a better understanding of the Latin language and appreciation of its best authors, notably the lawyer and philosopher Cicero.

But study of these ancient texts went hand in hand with a better understanding of classical mythology. In the 1500s advanced thinkers tried to infuse the ancient myths with deeper levels of allegory, or tried to reconcile them with Christian themes.

Whatever the literary motivation, the movement meant that, in visual terms, the ancient gods and goddesses and their numerous myths and adventures became increasingly respectable, even fashionable, subjects for the evermore skilful artists of the Renaissance.

In addition, classical figures also became a kind of gateway for previously unexpressed human moods and feelings. For some painters a classical subject allowed the expression of pure sensual pleasure, as in the Titian Venus above.

In this wonderful drawing by Raphael something more is going on – there is certainly a wonderful anatomical accuracy, but the drawing is also expressing something beyond words about grace and gracefulness, about eloquence of gesture and poise and posture, something quite wonderful. This little drawing is among the most ravishing works int he exhibition.

The Three Graces by Raphael (1517-18) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The replacement of sex by desire in artspeak

About half way round I began to notice that the words ‘sex’ or ‘sexy’ don’t appear anywhere in the wall labels or on the audioguide, whereas some of the paintings are obviously and deliberately sexy and sensual, blatant pretexts for the artists to show off their skill at conveying the contours and light and shade of bare human bodies, often deliberately designed to arouse and titillate.

However, blunt Anglo-Saxon words like ‘sex’ are, apparently, banned. If you are an art scholar you are only allowed to use the word ‘desire’ (and preferably ‘same-sex desire’ because that is the only permissible form of male sexuality, since it is not targeted at women but at other men).

Straightforward male sexual attraction to women is, nowadays, the love that dare not speak its name. Any way in which a man can look at a woman is, certainly in modern art scholarship, immediately brought under the concept of the wicked, controlling, shaping, exploitative, objectifying, judgmental and misogynistic Male Gaze.

The English language possesses many, many other words to describe these feelings and activities, but absolutely all of them are banned from the chaste world of artspeak. Stick to using the bland, empty, all-purpose term ‘desire’ and you can’t go wrong. Here’s an example:

Within humanist culture, much art created around the nudes was erotic, exploring themes of seduction, the world of dreams, the power of women and same-sex desire.

‘The power of women and same-sex desire.’ These are the values promoted by art institutions and art scholars in most of the art exhibitions I go to, and the values which the narrow world of contemporary art scholarship projects back onto all of history.

I don’t even really disagree with them as ideas, it’s just the sheer tedium of having them crop up in every art exhibition, and above all, the way the repetitive use of a handful of ideas and buzzwords limits and closes down analysis and discussion and enjoyment.

Saint Sebastian

A good example of the unashamed sensuality of Renaissance art is the image the Academy has chosen for the posters of the exhibition, Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino.

Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino (1533) Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Saint Sebastian was an early Christian convert who was killed by Roman soldiers by being shot to death with arrows (around the year 288 AD, according to legend). There are four or five depictions of the arrow-peppered saint in the exhibition and what comes over powerfully in all of them is the way that the supposedly tortured saint is obviously experiencing absolutely no pain whatsoever. In fact, in the hands of Renaissance painters, the subject has become an excuse to display their prowess at painting (or sculpting) beautiful, lean, muscular, handsome young men often seeming to undergo a sexual rather than religious experience.

Bronzino’s painting takes this tendency – the conversion of brutal medieval legend into Renaissance sensuality – to an extreme. The audioguide points out that the unusually large ears and distinctive big nose of this young man suggest it is a portrait from life, maybe the gay lover of Bronzino’s patron?

Whatever the truth behind this speculation, this painting is quite clearly nothing at all to do with undergoing physical agony, torture and dying in excruciating pain in order to be closer to the suffering of our saviour. Does this young man look in agony? Or more as if he’s waiting for a kiss from his rich lover? It is easy to overlook the arrow embedded deep in his midriff in favour of his hairless sexy chest, his big doe eyes, and the show-off depiction oft he red cloak mantled around him.

It is a stunningly big, impactful, wonderfully executed image – but it also epitomises a kind of slick superficiality which, in my opinion, is typical of Italian Renaissance art – a point I’ll come back to later.

3. Artistic theory and practice

This is a scholarly room which explains how Renaissance artists began to submit the human body to unprecedented levels of systematic study and also to copy the best of classical precedents. We see examples of the sketches and sculptures made as copies of newly discovered classical statues, such as the Laocoön and the Boy with a Thorn in his Foot.

At the start of the period covered (1400) life drawing was unheard of, which is why so much medieval art is stylised and distorted and often rather ‘childish’. By the end of the period (1530) drawing from life models was standard practice in all reputable artist’s workshops.

It is in this section of the exhibition that we see the enormous guide to anatomy, the Vier Bucher von menschlicher Proportion of Albrecht Dürer, in a display case, and two examples of Leonardo da Vinci’s extraordinarily detailed drawings of human anatomy, in this case of a man’s shoulder.

The Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck by Leonardo da Vinci (1510-11) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

It was a fleeting idea, but it crossed my mind that there is something rather steampunk about Leonardo’s drawings, in which intimately depicted human figures are almost turning into machines.

4. Beyond the ideal nude

This small section examines images of the human body being tortured and humiliated.

The founding motif in this subject is of Christ being stripped, whipped, scourged, stoned, crucified and stabbed with the spear, and there is an exquisite little book illustration in the Gothic style of a Christ naked except for a loincloth tied to the pillar and being scourged. Not the blood streaming from his multiple wounds, but the detail on the faces and clothes and the pillar and architecture are all enchanting.

The Flagellation by Simon Bening (1525–1530)

This room is dominated by a vast depiction of the legend of the ten thousand martyrs who were executed on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian by being spitted and transfixed on thorn bushes. The odd thing about images like this is the apparent indifference of those being skewered and tortured, but there is no denying the sadism of the torturers and, by implication, the dark urges being invoked in the viewer.

Here again, I felt that modern art scholarship, fixated as it is on sex and, in particular, determined to focus on women’s sexuality and/or the ‘safe’ subject of ‘same-sex desire’, struggles to find the words to describe human sadism, brutality and cruelty.

I had, by this stage, read quite a few wall labels referring to the subtle sensuality and transgressive eroticism and same-sex desire of this or that painting or print. But none of them dwelt on what, for me, is just as important a subject, and one much in evidence in these paintings – the human wish to control, conquer, subjugate, dominate, punish, and hurt.

Reflecting the civilised lives lived by art scholars, wafting from gallery to library, immersed in images of erotic allure and same-sex desire, art criticism tends to underestimate the darker emotions, feelings and drives. The universal artspeak use of the bluestocking word ‘desire’ instead of the cruder words which the rest of the English-speaking word uses is a small token of this sheltered worldview.

These thoughts were prompted by the scenes of hell, the numerous battle scenes and the images of martyrdoms and the whippings which I had, by this stage, seen and were crystallised by this image, which prompted me to disagree with the curators’ interpretations

This is Hans Baldung Grien’s etching of a Witches’ Sabbath. The curators claim the image represents ‘male anxiety’ at the thought of ‘powerful women’ and ‘presents women as demonic nudes, rather than as beauties to be desired’. (Note the way the buzz word ‘desire’ being shoehorned even into this unlikely context.)

Witches’ Sabbath by Hans Baldung Grien (1510)

This is, in my opinion, to be so bedazzled by feminist ideology as to misread this image in at least two ways.

Number one, is it really the women’s nudity which is so scary? No. It is the thought that these are humans who have wilfully given themselves to the power of the devil, to Satan, and become his agents on earth to wreak havoc, blighting harvests, infecting the healthy, creating chaos and suffering. That was a terrifying thought to folk living in a pre-scientific age where everyone was utterly dependent on a good harvest to survive. The nudity is simply a symbol of the witches’ rejection of conventional notions of being respectably clothed.

Number two, the nudity is surely the least interesting thing in the entire image. In fact the print is packed full of arcane and fascinating symbolism: what are the two great streams issuing up the left-hand side, and ending in what looks like surf? Are they some kind of wind, or actual waves of water? And why does the lower one contain objects in it? Are they both issuing from the pot between the woman’s legs and does the pot bear writing of some sort around it, and if so, in what language and what does it say? Why is the woman riding the flying ram backwards and what is in the pot held in the tines of her long wooden fork? What is lying on the plate held up in the long scraggy arm of the hag in the middle? Is is just a cooked animal or something worse? Are those animal bones and remains at the witches’ feet? What is the pot at the left doing and what are hanging over another wooden hoe or fork, are they sausages or something more sinister?

Feminist art criticism, by always and immediately reaching for a handful of tried-and-trusted clichés about ‘male anxiety’ or ‘the male gaze’ or ‘the patriarchy’ or ‘toxic masculinity’, all-too-often fails to observe the actual detail, the inexplicable, puzzling and marvellous and weird which is right in front of their eyes. Sometimes it has very interesting things to say, but often it is a way of closing down investigation and analysis in a welter of tired clichés, rather than furthering it.

5. Personalising the nude

During the Renaissance individual patrons of the arts became more rich and more powerful. Whereas once it had only been Charlemagne and the Pope who could commission big buildings or works of art, by 1500 Italy was littered with princes and dukes and cardinals all of whom wanted a whole range of works to show off how fabulous, rich, sophisticated and pious they were, from palaces and churches, to altarpieces and mausoleums, from frescos and murals to coins and plaques, from looming statues to imposing busts and big allegorical paintings and small, family portraits.

Thus it is that this final room includes a selection of works showing the relationship between patrons and artists, especially when it came to commissioning works featuring nudity.

The most unexpected pieces were a set of commemorative medals featuring the patron’s face on one side and an allegorical nude on the other.

Next to them is a big ugly picture by Pietro Perugino titled The Combat Between Love and Chastity. Apparently Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, was one of the few female patrons of her time and commissioned a series of allegorical paintings for her studiolo, a room designated for study and contemplation.

Isabella gave the artist detailed instructions about what must be included in the work, including portraits of herself as the goddesses Pallas Athena (left, with spear) and Diana (centre, with bow and arrow), as well as various scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses which have been chucked into the background (for example, in the background at centre-left you can see what appears to be Apollo clutching the knees of the nymph Daphne who is turning into a laurel tree.)

The Combat Of Love And Chastity Painting by Pietro Perugino (1503)

Maybe the curators included this painting an example of the way nudity had become fully normalised in Western painting by about 1500, but it is also an example of how misguided devotion to ‘the classics’ can result in a pig’s ear of a painting. And this brings me to my second broad point.

2. I prefer northern, late-medieval art to Italian Renaissance art

Why? Because of its attention to sweet and touching details. Consider The Way To Paradise by Dirk Bouts, painted about 1450. This reproduction in no way does justice to the original which is much more brightly coloured and dainty and gay.

In particular, in the original painting, you can see all the plants and flowers in the lawn which the saved souls are walking across. You can see brightly coloured birds perching amid the rocks on the left. You can even see some intriguingly coloured stones strewn across the path at the bottom left. There is a loving attention to detail throughout, which extends to the sumptuous working of the angel’s red cloak or the lovely rippled tresses of the women.

The Way to Paradise by Dirk Bouts (1450)

So I think one way of expressing my preference is that paintings from the Northern Renaissance place their human figures within a complete ecosystem – within a holistic, natural environment of which the humans are merely a part.

The people in these northern paintings are certainly important – but so are the flowers and the butterflies and the rabbits scampering into their holes. Paintings of the Northern Renaissance have a delicacy and considerateness towards the natural world which is generally lacking in Italian painting, and which I find endlessly charming.

Take another example. In the centre of the second room is a two-sided display case. Along one side of it is a series of Christian allegorical paintings by the Northern painter Hans Memling. I thought all of them were wonderful, in fact they come close to being the best things in the exhibition for me. They included this image of Vanity, the age-old trope of a woman looking in a mirror.

Vanity by Hans Memling (1485)

I love the sweet innocence of the central figure, untroubled by Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific enquiries into human anatomy, undisfigured by flexed tendons and accurate musculature.

And I like the little doggy at her feet and the two whippets lounging further back. And I really like the plants at her feet painted with such loving detail that you can identify a dandelion and a broad-leaved plantain and buttercups. And I love the watermill in the background and the figure of the miller (?) coaxing a donkey with a load on its back.

The other side of this display case shows a series of allegorical paintings by the famous Italian artist Giovanni Bellini, titled Allegories of Fortune (below).

In the image on the left, of a semi-naked figure in a chariot being pulled by putti you can see the direct influence of ancient Roman art and iconography which infused all Bellini’s work. It is learnèd and clever and well-executed.

But my God, isn’t it dull! The figures are placed in generic settings on generic green grass with generic mountains in the distance. All the enjoyment of the life, the loving depiction of natural detail, has – for me – been eliminated as if by DDT or Agent Orange. Unless, maybe, you find the little putti sweet and charming… I don’t. Compared to the delicacy of medieval art, I find Renaissance putti revolting.

Thinking about these pesky little toddlers gives me another idea. They are sentimental. Northern gargoyles and kids and peasants and farmers and figures are never sentimental in the same way these Italian bambini are.

Four Allegories by Giovanni Bellini (1490)

In my opinion, by embracing the pursuit of a kind of revived classicism, many Renaissance paintings lost forever the feel for the decorative elements of the natural world and a feel for the integration of human beings into the larger theatre of nature, which medieval and Northern Renaissance art still possesses.

3. Reservations about the basic theme of the exhibition

This is without doubt a wonderful opportunity to see a whole range of masterpieces across all forms of media and addressing or raising or touching on a very wide range of topics related to the iconography of nudity.

The curators make lots of valid and interesting points about nudity – they invoke the revival of classical learning, the example of classical sculpture, they describe the importance of nudity in Christian iconography – the almost-nudity of Christ on the cross echoed in the almost-nudity of countless saints who are depicted being tortured to death.

They discuss nudity as symbolic, nudity as allegorical, nudes which appear to be portraits of real people (presumably beloved by the patrons paying the painter), nudes which warn against the evils of sin, nudes which revel in the beauty of the naked male or female body, nude old women acting as allegorical reminders of the passage of Time, nude witches supposedly exemplifying ‘male anxiety’ at the uncontrolled nakedness of women — all these points and more are made by one or other of the numerous exhibits, and all are worth absorbing, pondering and reflecting on.

And yet the more varied the interpretations of the nude and naked human form became, the more I began to feel it was all about everything. Do you know the tired old motto you hear in meetings in big corporations and bureaucracies – ‘If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority’? Well, I began to feel that if the nude can be made to mean just about anything you want to, maybe it ends up meaning nothing at all.

According to the exhibition, nude bodies can represent:

  • the revival of classical learning and yet also the portrayal of Christian heroes
  • the scientific study of anatomy and yet also unscientific, medieval terrors
  • clarity and reason and harmony and yet also the irrational fears of witches and devils
  • key moments in the Christian story or key moments in pagan myth
  • warnings against lust and promiscuity or incitements to lust and promiscuity
  • warnings against the effects of Time and old age, or celebrations of beautiful young men and women in their prime

Nakedness can be associated with Christ or… with witches. With the celebration of sexy, lithe young men or with stern images of torture and sacrifice. With suffering martyrs or with smirking satyrs tastefully hiding their erections.

In other words, by the end of the exhibition, I felt that nudity in fact has no special or particular meaning in Western art, even in the limited art of this period 1400-1530.

The reverse: the exhibition suggests that nudity had an explosion of meanings, a tremendous diversity of symbols and meanings which artists could explore in multiple ways to the delight of their patrons and which we are left to puzzle and ponder at our leisure. Nudity, in other words, could be made to mean almost anything an artist wanted it to.

When is a nude not a nude?

There is another, glaringly obvious point to be made, which is that a lot of the figures in the exhibition are not nudes.

  • The Bronzino Saint Sebastian is not nude, he is wearing a cloak which obscures his loins.
  • Christ is always shown wearing a loincloth, never naked.
  • Adam and Eve are held up as examples of the nude but they are, of course, almost never depicted nude but, as in the Dürer woodcut, wearing strategically placed loincloths. 
  • One of the medieval illustrations of Bathsheba shows her fully dressed except that she’s pulled up her dress to reveal her thighs.
  • None of the figures in Dirk Bouts’s Way to Paradise is actually nude.

So I became, as I worked my way round, a little puzzled as to how you can have an exhibition titled The Renaissance Nude in which quite a few of the figures are not in fact… nude.

The more you look, the more you realise that something much more subtle is going on in the interplay between fully dressed, partially dressed and completely naked figures, and I felt the full complexities of the interrelationships between nudity and various forms of dress and bodily covering pictures wasn’t really touched on or investigated as much as it could have been.

Take the Perugino painting, The Combat Of Love And Chastity. I count sixteen figures in the foreground (not counting the irritating cupids). Of these sixteen no fewer than eight are fully dressed, two are partially dressed and only six are nude. So this is not a study in the naked human body. It is a far more subtle study of the interplay between dressed, partially dressed, and fully nude figures, drenched in complex meanings and symbolism.

Again, I wondered whether the curators’ modish obsession with sensuality and desire and ‘the erotic’, and the notion that this era saw the Rise of the Daring Naughty Naked Nude as a genre, has blinded them to other, far more subtle and interesting interplays between nudity and clothing, which are going on in many of these works.

Summary

This is a fascinating dance around the multiple meanings of nakedness and (near) nudity in Renaissance iconography, and a deeply rewarding immersion in the proliferation of new techniques and new belief systems which characterised the period 1400 to 1530.

But, in the end, as always, the visitor and viewer is left to dwell on with what they like and what they don’t like.

For me, the Renaissance marked a tragic break with the gloriously detailed and eco-friendly world-view of the high Middle Ages, a world of genuine delicacy and innocence. Surprisingly, maybe, this late-medieval world is represented in the exhibition, by the works by Memling and Bouts which I’ve mentioned, but also by a clutch of exquisite, tiny illuminated illustrations from a number of medieval books of hours which, surprisingly, continued to be made and illuminated well into the period of the High Renaissance (around 1500).

So I marvelled, as I am supposed to, at the skill of Bronzino and his sexy Saint Sebastian, at the subtle use of shadow to model the face and torso, at the way he shows off his ability to paint the complex folds of the red cloak which sets off the young man’s sexy, hairless chest, and so on.

But I got more genuine pleasure from studying the tiny illuminations in the books of hours, including this wonderful image by Jean Bourdichon, showing the Biblical figure of Bathsheba having her famous bath (in the Bible story she is ‘accidentally’ seen by King David who proceeds to take her to bed).

Note the details – the apples on the tree in the centre and the cherries (?) on the tree on the right. And the flowers on the hedge of bushes across the middle, and the careful detailing of the lattice-work fence. The filigree work of the cloth hanging out the window where King David appears. And the shimmering gold of Bathsheba’s long, finely-detailed tresses.

‘Bathsheba Bathing’ from the Hours of Louis XII by Jean Bourdichon (1498/99) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Compare and contrast the modesty and sweetness of Bourdichon’s image with the big, grandiose, heavy, dark and foreboding symbolism of Italianate Renaissance painting like this one.

Allegory of Fortune by Dosso Dossi (c. 1530) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The final room is dominated by this enormous painting by Dosso Dossi, the kind of sombre, portentous allegory you could, by the mid-1500s, order by the yard from any number of artists workshops, the kind of thing you find cluttering up the walls of countless stately homes all across England, helping to make dark, wood-panelled rooms seem ever darker.

I find this kind of thing heavy, stuffy, pretentious, dark and dull.

But that’s just my personal taste. You may well disagree. Go and see this fabulous exhibition – it is packed with wonders – and decide for yourself.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by Thomas Kren, Senior Curator Emeritus at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in collaboration with Per Rumberg, Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Conclave by Robert Harris (2016)

‘No emotion, Ray,’ warned Lomeli. ‘We need to think very clearly.’ (p.330)

The Pope dies in the middle of the night. Heart attack, according to the Vatican doctors. The Dean of the College of Cardinals, Jacopo Baldassare Lomeli, Cardinal-Bishop of Ostia, is woken in the early hours to come see the body and set in train the host of formal procedures prompted by the death.

Immediately we are thrown into the midst of the procedural and political complexities of the Holy City, and quickly ushered into a melee of bustling cardinals and archbishops, and to the monsignors and priests, secretaries, nuns and security men, who staff and run the Vatican.

It turns out that we are going to see the entire story from Lomeli’s point of view. The text is not a first-person narrative, it is a third-person narrative, but it follows Lomeli very closely and continually eavesdrops on his thoughts and feelings as the story unfolds.

This is because, as Dean of the College of Cardinals, it falls to Lomeli to make all the practical arrangements for the conclave which must now be called to elect a new pope – to invite the cardinals to Rome, to organise their accommodation, to supervise the transformation of the Sistine Chapel into a voting chamber, the whole thing. Thus Lomeli is the perfect character to accompany through all these arcane mysteries and also the man best placed to confront and unravel the knotty problems which the conclave, in the event, throws up…

Harris skips over the state funeral of the dead pope, which is irrelevant to his purpose, in order to jump to the moment three weeks later when the conclave of all the cardinals foregathers to elect the next pope. One hundred and seventeen cardinals are called from all over the world to the conclave. The successful candidate must gain two thirds of the votes i.e. 79. If the classic thriller is a question of Whodunnit, Conclave is a Whowillgetit: who will be the next pope?

Factual research and conclave procedure

In fact there are more than 117 cardinals in the world but, back in 1970, Pope Paul VI introduced an age limit: no cardinal over the age of eighty can vote. The procedure was further amended by Pope John Paul II in 1996. Thus only 117 are eligible.

Harris is a former investigative journalist, and the book is heavily loaded with factual information, from an intimate description of the interior of the Sistine Chapel as it is prepared for the Conclave of Cardinals, to a detailed description of the hostel on the south side of the Vatican, the Casa Santa Marta, where the cardinals all stay, with all kinds of scattered insights into the roles of the serving nuns or security police, and so on. Building up an in-depth and persuasive picture of how the place runs.

I was particularly fascinated by his description of the actual process of voting, which is surprisingly straightforward: each of the cardinals has a sheet of paper placed in front of their seat at the benches lined up in the Sistine Chapel and, after some preliminary prayer, they simply write down the surname of the cardinal they’re voting for in big block capitals then fold the piece of paper in half.

Then, one by one, they process up to the altar of the chapel where tellers are waiting, say a short formal prayer, place the folded paper on a chalice and tip the chalice up so the paper falls into an urn, while a secretary counts off their name. When all 117 have voted, the pieces of paper are then counted by one teller, another teller unfolds each one and reads out the name, handing the paper to an assistant who skewers it on a big needle attached to a red thread, so there can be no accidental double counting.

When all 117 have been read out and the votes totted up, the teller announces them, then the pieces of paper on thread are bundled into an oven and burnt.

There is another oven next to it (both being makeshift installations inside the famous chapel) beside which are two piles ‘cartridges’ filled with a chemical mix. After the count, an assistant places one or other of these cartridges into the second oven and ignites it. One produces a billow of black smoke, indicating that a pope has not been elected, the other produces white smoke, indicating that a pope has been elected.

I thought there might be speeches or presentations from the leading candidates but no: they all just vote and the results are read out. Then they traipse back to the Casa Santa Marta where lunch is served amid a hum of gossip and intrigue. And then they traipse back to the Sistine Chapel (or pack into the cheesy little white minibuses which are laid on to take them the half mile or so round the back of St Peter’s, in case it’s raining), troop into the chapel, take their places at the makeshift benches, listen to another prayer, then one by one write out their preferred candidate, walk up to the tellers table, tip their voting slip into the urn, and so on.

Generally, it only takes four or five ballots for a winner to gain the necessary two-thirds majority. In 1978 it took eight ballots to elect Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, Archbishop of Kraków, as Pope John Paul II. The rules have changed several times in recent decades but the current rule is that, if the first ballot gives no clear result, there follow four ballots a day, two in the morning, two in the afternoon. Wikipedia gives the full, current procedure:

In Harris’s novel, the process is given a sense of urgency and suspense because Cardinal Lomeli gets unofficial bulletins from the reliable Monsignor O’Malley, ‘Secretary of the College of Cardinals’, about the press speculation going on outside the Vatican, and in reply gives generalised advice for O’Malley to pass on to the Vatican press office.

The set-up

Even as Lomeli is called to the bedside of the dead pope on that fateful evening, he realises that the two or three other cardinals in attendance are already beginning to assert their authority and – gently but firmly – compete for the vacant position.

By the time we’ve jumped forward three weeks to the start of the conclave, the competition is overt and jostling for position among the three or four main contenders has become open. There is worldwide attention – as many as a billion and a quarter Catholics are waiting on the result, as well as every media organisation on the planet.

(The three week delay is to give time for every cardinal around the world to sort out their affairs, and fly to Rome, to get settled in at the Casa Santa Marta, and prepare physically and spiritually for the conclave.)

The media and the cardinals themselves acknowledge the leading candidates, representing the various wings of the church. Most obviously there is a liberal, Secretary of State Aldo Bellini, and a man-of-the-people conservative, the Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Tedesco.

But there is also the smooth-talking, silver-haired operator, the Canadian Chamberlain of the Holy See, Joseph Tremblay, plus a number of ‘outsiders’, including the African cardinal, Joshua Adeyemi from Nigeria who, if elected, would obviously be the first black Pope.

Revelations

But just as the conclave is about to begin, just as the last of the cardinals arrives at the gate of the Vatican, and the last of the non-essential staff leave in order to ensure there are no distractions and no communication with the outside world (all phones and laptops must be handed over), Lomeli is thrown into turmoil by two revelations:

1. The Polish Woźniak, Prefect of the Papal Household, makes a fearful confession to Lomeli: on the very afternoon of his death the former Pope had summoned smooth Cardinal Tremblay and dismissed him from all his offices i.e. sacked him. Why? Woźniak doesn’t know.

2. Lomeli is still reeling from this revelation when he is summoned back to the gates and told that there is an unexpected cardinal there, one who is not on the official list. How can this possibly be the case? It turns out that Vincent Benítez, Archbishop of Baghdad, was made a cardinal by the dead Pope in his last few weeks, by a process known as in pectore, in his heart’, meaning the Pope didn’t tell anyone else.

This is pretty irregular but not unknown. Pope John Paul II had also created a cardinal in pectore, it was widely thought because the new cardinal was dispatched to work in China, where he had to conceal his identity from the authorities.

In the event the other cardinals take this discovery in their stride, welcoming cardinal Benítez during the first group meal, and he turns out to be a slender, quiet, but popular figure.

The plot

Having set the scene the book then rattles along at a steady pace, mixing factual background about this or that aspect of the voting, with acute insights into Lomeli’s own personal doubts and hesitancies – after the votes and communal meals we follow him back to his spartan quarters where he often prays for guidance, and the reader shares these moments of vulnerability, indeed all his moods – but the driver of the book is the well-calibrated description of the Race To Be Pope.

And, because it is a thriller, you won’t be surprised to learn that there is a steady stream of further revelations which shock and horrify Lomeli, who then has the agonising responsibility of whether to share them with the rest of the conclave. And face the accusation that when he does, he is only doing so in order to sabotage his opponents and place himself in pole position.

And although we are privy to all his thoughts – Lomeli repeatedly tells all the other cardinals, and himself, that he does not want to become pope, he saw what it did to the previous incumbents – nonetheless, as scandal engulfs not one but two of the leading candidates, in each consecutive ballot the vote for him increase, and the reader wonders whether he will, despite all his protestations, end up being elected. Whether, in fact, the man whose inner doubts and worries we have been party to, will turn out to be the next Pope.

But quite apart from his place inside the story, Lomeli plays a far more important function as our eyes and ears into what is going on, providing appropriate explanation whenever needed – and for his pondering over the meaning of the hints and implications which drive the plot.

In fact, slowly and inexorably Lomeli, who is supposed to be a frail 75-year-old Italian cardinal, turns into Hercule Poirot, a slow-moving, thoughtful but acute observer of other people, who puts together various pieces of evidence to piece together the mysteries hanging over the conclave.

Spoilers

Two more revelations dominate the main body of the story.

1. it emerges that the African cardinal, Adeyemi, thirty years earlier had had a brief affair with a very young novice and got her pregnant. Now she has turned up, assigned among the nuns who silently and reverently prepare and serve the cardinals’ meals between voting sessions. This middle-aged nun confronts Adeyemi in the canteen in front of all the other cardinals during dinner, and the resulting scandal ends his promising candidature.

But Lomeli is prompted to ask who arranged for this African nun to be transferred at short notice from Nigeria to Rome. And a trail of clues eventually leads him to a further revelation. When Woźniak told him about the former Pope dismissing Tremblay, there was mention of a report into his alleged misdeeds. Where can this report be? Probably among the dead Pope’s belongings. In his apartment. Which is sealed up with plastic ribbon and papal seals.

Well, Lomeli prays for guidance and decides he can’t do nothing, and so in the middle of the night he calmly breaks into the former Pope’s apartment and searches it until – in the tradition of schoolboy adventure stories – he discovers that the old Pope’s massive, antique wooden bed contains hidden compartments. And in these compartments Lomeli discovers the report the late Pope had commissioned which turns out to be a root and branch investigation into the finances of each and every one of the cardinals, with generally shocking results.

But in particular Lomeli discovers indisputable proof that smooth-operator Tremblay had been paying other cardinals to vote for him. This is the sin of corruption or simony.

Not only that, but he discovers it was definitely Tremblay who arranged for the African nun to be brought to Rome to stymie Joshua’s chances! What a schemer! What a crook!

As usual we are given access to Lomeli’s private thoughts as he ponders what on earth to do, before deciding that God has helped him discover all this, and it is not his job to conceal it: if he waits till after Tremblay is elected pope and this all gets out – as, he ruefully reflects, every secret the Vatican has tried to smother for the previous fifty years does, eventually, leak out – think what damage it will do to the institution he has served all his life.

And so he co-opts the assistance of the steely-willed head of the Vatican’s nuns, Sister Agnes, head of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul, and between them, overnight, they make 118 photocopies of the dead Pope’s damning report into Cardinal Tremblay’s activities and place one on every seat in the cardinals’ refectory. As they come down to breakfast the next morning, one by one they read it, leading to uproar. In a dramatic scene Tremblay stands, confronts the accusations head on, and claims Lomeli has only done this to sabotage him, Tremblay, and promote his, Lomeli’s, chances of becoming pope.

Which, for a moment, sways the cardinals against Lomeli until the steely little nun Sister Agnes breaks all convention by speaking in the refectory, demanding to be heard, and announces to the horrified cardinals that she can vouch for the fact that it was Tremblay who requested the African nun be transferred to Rome and thereby sabotaged cardinal Adeyemi’s candidature.

After which the tide turns against Tremblay, and he can only stand begging for understanding and denying it’s true as the rest of the cardinals turns their backs on him.

And so, with only eighty pages of this 380-page-long book left to go and the two front runners, Adeyemi and Tremblay, dramatically withdrawn from the race, who on earth is going to win?

Two bombshells

With Adeyemi and Tremblay knocked out, the next ballot puts Lomeli ahead as front runner, though without the necessary two-thirds majority, when there is an abrupt and shocking change in the tone of the book. A car bomb goes off in St Peter’s Square out front of the Vatican. And a suicide bomber blows himself up. And a terrorist goes into a Catholic church in Munich and starts machine-gunning the congregation.

Suddenly, and irrevocably, the rather charming, old-world if intriguing atmosphere of the novel is shattered. If you have any imagination, you can hear the screams of the wounded, the smell of burned flesh, the body parts scattered across the cobbles. For me this sudden eruption of the real world shattered the rather quaint, almost Ealing Comedy era atmosphere Harris had created.

Lomeli finds out what has happened from O’Malley and then, as usual, agonises about whether to even tell the other cardinals. they heard the loud explosion. Indeed some of the stained glass in the lobby of the chapel was blown in, but it is against the rules of the conclave to bring in any extraneous subject – otherwise it would turn into a political talking shop, not a retreat for spiritual meditation.

Eventually, Lomeli decides he will tell the assembled cardinals what is going on (it is, as it has been all the way through, his job to run the conclave, as Dean of the College of Cardinals: that’s why Harris chose him to be the main protagonist of the story).

Once he has it prompts two speeches from the assembled cardinals. First of all the son of peasants, the ultra-conservative Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Tedesco, declares that, in light of this atrocity, all the Catholics in the world will be looking for strong leadership. If he’d stopped there he would have seized the meeting, but he unwisely goes on to lambast all the progressive tendencies of the last 50 years, tolerance of homosexuality, of divorced Catholics remarrying, up to and including the mass immigration which has seen countless mosques being built across Italy, home of the Catholic Church, and it s during his tirade against Islam that the first cries of ‘Shame’ and ‘Boo’ are heard.

When he finally sits down, to everyone’s surprise it is the shy, retiring and inexperienced Vincent Benítez, Archbishop of Baghdad, who asks to be heard, and makes an impassioned plea for tolerance and forgiveness. He has tended to Christians dying in Muslim lands and can tell his fellow cardinals that not one of them wanted vengeance. they all died in the spirit of Christ, asking for their murders to be forgiven.

This quiet speech for the first time creates a real sense of religion, of holiness, in the chapel. Lomeli finds himself being lifted by it, and when the next ballot is held he unequivocally votes for Benítez and then listens, dazed, as the votes are counted and the secret cardinal of Baghdad is voted Pope!

But that isn’t the second bombshell. This comes when Prefect of the Papal Household, Woźniak, staggering at the news, asks to take Lomeli aside for a hurried word. Right back at the start of the narrative it had been Woźniak who told Lomeli that the previous Pope had dismissed Tremblay and Lomeli had asked him to do a bit of digging, which led to the revelation that the former Pope had commissioned the report. But  Woźniak had also done a bit of digging into Benítez while he was at it.

Back then, three days earlier, he’d told Lomeli that Benítez had been involved in a car bomb explosion in Baghdad, been injured but (obviously) survived, and there were some references to him being booked into to go to a clinic in Switzerland, a visit which was then cancelled and here he is at the conclave, having just been voted Pope. But Woźniak has only just had time to find out more, to contact the clinic and discover it is a clinic for gender reassignment.

My God. Lomeli runs through to the small Room of tears where Benítez is already being fitted into the papal robes. They have sent the white smoke out the chimney. Already the crowd in St Peter’s Square is roaring. He is only minutes from making his appearance and his first speech.

Lomeli turfs everyone else out the room and demands Benítez tells him the truth. So he does. Benítez was born with the genitals of a girl, but his parents (like so many parents in developing countries, wanting a boy) raised him and dressed him as a boy and, of course, as soon as he started attending seminary school, and then into the junior priesthood, he didn’t give sex a thought, he didn’t see other men’s genitals, his looked normal to him. It was only when he was injured in the car bomb and went to hospital, that a full inspection revealed he was a woman. He went straight to the former Pope to discuss it, and himself made a booking at the gender reassignment clinic. But then realised this is the way he’s made. This is the way God made him. And this is the destiny God has chosen for him. Who is he to say no to God.

And leaving Lomeli perplexed and bewildered the new Pope continues dressing ready to greet his flock of over 1 billion souls, the first ladyboy to be Pope!

Clichés and clarity

On page one we read a description of cardinal Lomeli making his way at two in the morning to the pope’s apartment.

The Rome air was soft and misty yet already he could detect the first faint chill of autumn. (p.1)

Later on we read that:

Once, in his youth, Lomeli had enjoyed a modest fame for the richness of his baritone. But it had become thin with age, like a fine wine left too long. (p.115)

A cliché can be defined as a thought or description which you’ve read or heard so many times before that it slips past the eye or ear with the minimum amount of disturbance, barely registering, like soothing background music in a restaurant or hotel lobby. It is designed not to detain you but speed you on your way to your business appointment.

This is true of a great deal if not most of Harris’s writing – it is smooth and effective without stirring any ripples. If you pause for thought, it is at what he is reporting – documentary explanation of the byzantine procedures of the Vatican or the latest revelation in the fast-moving plot – but never the way he reports it. As befits a man trained by years in journalism, Harris’s English is unfailingly clear and lucid.

Harris isn’t an awful writer, he is a very good writer, but of a kind of clear and rational prose which is almost devoid of colour. This is very effective when conveying factual information (and his novels tend to be packed with factual information which needs to be written out as clearly as possible in order for the reader to understand what is at stake.) But it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to character.

I’ve just read Munich, his thriller set during the 1938 Munich Crisis and the best parts of it, the bits which have stayed with me most, are his documentary descriptions of the actual meetings between Neville Chamberlain and Hitler. The personalities of the two male protagonists of the thriller plot pale into insignificance next to the factual content. They are like competent watercolours placed next to an oil painting.

Same here. Lomeli is meant to be Italian, a crusty, 75-year-old, dogmatic, Catholic cardinal of an Italian; just imagine what a rebarbative, rich, gnarly old cuss he must be, and all the sins and corruption he must witnessed, and the decades of in-fighting and politicking he has had to navigate. You’d imagine he would have wildly un-PC views about race, homosexuality, women and so on. Just imagine the depths of cynicism this tottering old Italian must have sunk to, what a monstrous character could have been created.

And yet, in Harris’s hands, Lomeli is a decent chap who thinks in perfectly lucid, grammatically perfect, English sentences. There is no confusion in his mind. He reacts to new information or insights with the thoroughness of a computer, processing them and thinking entirely rationally about what to do next. If he is temporarily at a loss, things soon reappear to him in a cool rational way.

Harris makes a few gestures towards Lomeli’s age, his decrepit body, his wavery voice and the fact that he has difficulty sleeping, but these are all on the surface. Lomeli’s mind is never confused or overcome by bias or prejudice or cantankerous feelings. In fact he hardly has any feeling. Harris gives him ‘moments of doubt’ when he kneels and prays to God for help and advice. But none of these convey any emotion at all, let alone a sense of genuine religious anguish or loss. They are window dressing.

This is because Lomeli is a cypher, a cog at the centre of the plot. In a thriller, the plot is everything, literally everything. Each new development must be communicated in as clear a way as possible so that the reader can share the sense of suspense and thrill and excitement. Any lingering over description or psychology just gets in the way of the slow release of new information to build up suspense.

So Lomeli is given a few superficial trappings of age and experience:

He switched on the stuttering light and checked himself in the bluish glow: front first, then his left side, then his right. His profile had become beaky with age. He thought he looked like some elderly moulting bird. (p.138)

But no real psychological depth, no sense of the countless physical degradations of age or the incredible depth of experience such a man must have. Instead he sounds much like you or me, a decent chap doing a tricky job.

Instead he is Hercule Poirot in the Vatican, on the trail of several mysteries, as the clock ticks on and the conclave votes go by – breaking into sealed apartments, investigating the dead pope’s last wishes, uncovering sin and corruption.

And, at the end of the day, what he uncovers (until the final revelation) is relatively clean and straightforward:

1. Adeyemi had an affair with a pretty young woman which, to most of us, is acceptable and forgiveable. It was a breach of trust and an abuse of his position. But it wasn’t the systematic sexual abuse of under-age boys, which is the real story in the modern Catholic Church. This subject is referred to a couple of times by Harris’s cardinals but is treated very much as something of the past, something that has been dealt with and is behind the church now. Which we know not to be true. The opposite. It shows every sign of growing to really profoundly undermine the Catholic Church forever.

2. Similarly, we learn that Cardinal Tremblay has doled out what appear to be mere tens of thousands of Euros to cardinals to get them to vote for him; but there is no mention of the far, far bigger, scandalous involvements of the Vatican Bank with the Mafia, with organised crime, drugs and people smuggling, and a shadowy network of freemason, which emerged in the 1980s.

In the middle of the book, when not much had been revealed and it is full of dark premonitions, I imagined the big secret would turn out that Tremblay had murdered the Pope because he was uncovering a vast web of financial corruption. It all turns out to be that Tremblay was directing Church funds towards the generally backward and impoverished dioceses of cardinals he hoped would vote for him.

In other words, Harris’s protagonist uncovers ‘scandal’ but it is relatively clean and respectable scandal. Nothing to seriously frighten the horses.

Maybe this is part of the deal he did with the Vatican, whose authorities gave him such full access to the Vatican, even rooms off limits to the public and gave him every help and advice. Maybe in return Harris pledged to keep the ‘scandal’ on the safe side. Or maybe there was no deal or understanding, Harris was just being tactful and polite. Or maybe these relatively minor transgressions were his plan all along.

Whatever the motivation, in his earlier novels, protagonists proceeded from the everyday world and slowly uncovered vast and horrifying conspiracies which underlie it – hence their tremendous grip and excitement. Whereas this ‘thriller’ about the Vatican, in the end delivers ‘revelations’ which are pale and insignificant compared to the actual scandals which have rocked and continue to rock the Catholic Church.

Hence, for me anyway, a tremendous sense of disappointment and anti-climax.

The car bombs

That said, the midly intriguing narrative is turned upside down by the car bombs which, for me, ruin the tone of the book. they introduce a note of real tragedy and bloodshed which is all to recent and real for a Londoner like me. And all the less necessary as, in the end, their only use in the plot is to provide the opportunity for a speech by the arch conservative which loses him the papacy, and the quiet speech in favour of forgiveness which wins it for Benítez.

And then there is the revelation that the new pope is a woman!

This, for me, reduced the whole thing to an extended joke, with this revelation as the punchline. The climax of Harris’s first and best book, Fatherland, was the revelation of the Holocaust in a Nazi Germany which had won the war and successfully covered its appalling secret. The slow uncovering of the truth and the final scenes of full knowledge, made my hair stand on end with genuine fear and terror.

The last few pages of Conclave did quite the reverse, and make me laugh out loud at its politically correct, bien-pensant, North London liberalism.

Not only have almost all the cardinals all the way through been immaculately correct in their attitude to black and other Third World cardinals, none of them has had a flicker of a thought about women, let alone choirboys (with the egregious, scapegoating exception of Adeyema), and now the result of all this praying by all these decent, upstanding, compassionate old men turns out to be… electing a woman Pope!

Very funny. Very suave. Very slick. But more like a Guardian editorial turned into a novel than his earlier, genuinely gripping, thrillers.


Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.

1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?

1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.

2007 The Ghost – The unnamed narrator is a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.

2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.

2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

2016 Conclave We follow Dean of the College of Cardinals, Jacopo Lomeli, as he supervises the conclave called in the Vatican to elect a new Pope, only to discover a number of scandals which compromise most of the leading candidates, and lead up to a very unexpected result.

2017 Munich A young German civil servant tries to smuggle a key document showing Hitler’s true intentions to his opposite number during the fateful Munich Conference of September 1939, complicated by the fact that the pair were once friends who shared a mistress until she met a terrible fate at the hands of the Gestapo.

Villa and Zapata by Frank McLynn (2000)

Almost immediately Villa lost his temper and began ranting at Obregón… Obregón replied in kind and both men seemed on the point of drawing their guns.
(Description of a typical political discussion between ‘revolutionary’ leaders, page 253)

In the autumn of 1913 the young American journalist John Reed spent four months embedded in the army of Mexican ‘revolutionary’ Pancho Villa. He was present at the general’s meetings with fellow leaders, met ordinary soldiers and peasants fighting for change, and rode into battle with the villistas. During one conversation Villa suddenly asked Reed: ‘And the war in America? How is that going?’ Puzzled, Reed replied that there was no war in America. ‘No war,’ exclaimed the amazed Villa. ‘Then how do you pass the time?’

Exactly. Fighting was a full-time activity for Villa and the various bandits, rebels, criminals, psychopaths, idealists, chancers and mercenaries he led in the so-called Army of the North, as it was for an array of other rebel leaders who flourished throughout Mexico, not to mention their counterparts in the various state militias and in the Federal Army.

Combine their itchy trigger fingers with the spectacularly two-faced, corrupt and scheming politicians who made a mess of running the country, and you have the toxic social and political mix which plunged Mexico into anarchy and violence between 1910 and 1920.

Frank McLynn is a popular historian who assimilates scholarly works on historical topics and turns them into rip-roaring narratives. In the introduction to Villa and Zapata: A Biography of the Mexican Revolution, McLynn candidly admits he has piggy-backed on Alan Knight’s two-volume history of the Mexican Revolution (Knight makes regular appearances in the text, quoted as giving the definitive view on this or that event) on Friedrich Katz’s award-winning biography of Pancho Villa, and on John Womack’s biography of Emiliano Zapata, to produce this book – although the ten-page bibliography gives evidence of a mass of other reading as well.

As the writer Patrick Marnham puts it, the so-called ‘Mexican Revolution’ presents ‘a fiendishly complicated story’, and it is quite an achievement by McLynn to have converted it into one coherent, and very readable, narrative. As the title suggests, McLynn builds it on the scaffold of the twin biographies of Zapata and Villa, but ranges far further afield to end up giving a panoramic portrait of the whole period.

Mexico: a whistlestop history

Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821. The following decades were characterised by political turmoil dominated by the figure of general-turned-president Antonio López de Santa Anna: hence it is known as the era of Santa Anna.

Attempts at stability weren’t helped by the big war with America, from 1846 to 1848, which resulted in Mexico losing over a third of its territory to the Giant in the North, a vast area which became the American states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

In 1858 civil war between liberals and conservatives broke out and was won by the liberals in 1861. But when they stopped repaying foreign debt to their European creditors, France sent an army to invade, claim the money, and impose on the Mexicans an Empire ruled by the Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria.

Resistance to this bizarre foreign imposition was never quelled in the more far-flung provinces and, when threats from post-Civil War America forced Napoleon III to withdraw the French army in 1867, Maximilian’s remaining forces were quickly defeated and Maximilian was executed outside Mexico City. This was the War of the Intervention.

The decade or so after Maximilian’s death was dominated by the Liberal politician, Benito Juárez. In 1876 Porfirio Díaz, a republican general during the French intervention, was elected president. He lost the 1880 election but was re-elected in 1884, and ruled continually from then until 1911. Hence this period of Mexican history is known as the Porfiriato.

Diaz encouraged foreign (mainly American, but some British) investment and influence, invested in the arts and sciences, expanded the railroad network and telecommunications, all resulting in a period of economic stability and growth. ‘Order, peace and progress,’ was his motto. He created concentric circles of advisers, cronies, bankers, financiers and big landowners, to bolster his rule, known as the scientificos.

All great and good – if you were rich. But the Porfiriato did little or nothing for the majority of Mexico’s population, the extremely impoverished peasants and peons who worked the land.

McLynn paints a vivid portrait of Mexican society on the eve of the Revolution. The most important feature was the power of the hacendados, owners of the vast haciendas, centralised settlements which owned most of the agricultural land in Mexico. They ’employed’ millions of peons, debt slaves who were born or compelled into debt to the hacendados, forced to do back-breaking work seven days a week, for a pittance (25 cents a week) which they were then obliged to spend in the hacienda stores. The hacendados as a class were wealthy and, of course, backed Diaz. Beyond the cities, towns and haciendas lay the hundred thousand or more dusty villages where ‘free’ peasants, only a notch or two above the peons, scratched a living from whatever common land was left over.

During the 1900s many of the hacendados, in all of Mexico’s thirty states, made illegal attempts to co-opt and fence in what had previously been common land, using their armed militias to make examples of any villagers foolish enough to try to defend traditional ‘rights’. This included beating up or plain murdering uppity villagers.

It was during the early 1900s that Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa (born in 1878), Emiliano Zapata Salazar (born in 1879) and thousands like them, born and raised in big peasant families, saw at first hand how their fathers and fellow villagers were treated with contempt by hacendados who could beat, kill and even rape at will, and who, since they controlled the local police and legal system, got off scot-free. Resulting in a mounting sea of anger and frustration.

The challenge from Madero

The so-called ‘revolution’ was triggered by a mild-mannered, well-educated and rather other-worldly liberal, Francisco Madero, who announced his intention to run for president in 1910 against Diaz who was, by now, nearing his 80th birthday. Diaz tried to use state power to intimidate Madero and then ran him out of Mexico. From exile in America, Madero announced that he would lead an ‘uprising’ against Diaz commencing on November 20.

A number of rebel or bandit forces rallied to Madero’s call, including those led by Villa, already a noted bandit, train and bank robber.

Key fact: Villa throughout his career operated in the northern state of Chihauaha, Mexico’s largest state. Emiliano Zapata operated mainly in the state he grew up in, Morelos, a fairly small state just to the south of Mexico City.

Villa was a larger-than-life bandit-turned revolutionary, who loved publicity and the high life and, when he won power, redistributed land and money to his loyal followers, while continuing to support American-owned mines and oil wells, in order to cream off big money from them, which he used to a) buy arms b) enjoy life.

Zapata, by contrast, was an intensely honest, upright peasant with a peasant’s mystical attachment to the land. When he gained power in Morelos, Zapata instituted widespread land redistribution which in effect simply gave the peasants more land on which to practice their back-breaking work. He was against big cities, factories, capitalism and the future. He wanted his people to live in a timeless peasant utopia. Principled and incorruptible.

So Madero’s contest with Diaz sparked uprisings all across the country, led by a kaleidoscope of local leaders, sometimes of small criminal gangs, sometimes of larger supposedly ‘revolutionary’ groupings.

Pressure from inside and from international sponsors, most notably the States, eventually forced Diaz to hold genuine elections, which Madero won in 1911. Diaz went into exile in France. Phase one of the ‘revolution’ was over. But, in McLynn’s account, Madero made the fatal mistake of acquiescing in Diaz’s parting plan which prevented the new president from taking active power for a long five months, while civil servants prepared a handover phase.

In practice, this was long enough for the well-entrenched forces of reaction to consolidate and plan their resistance to the incomer.

Villa and Zapata, among numerous other rebel leaders who had led wide-ranging attacks on Diaz’s Federal troops, thought the job was done when Madero was elected.

It took everyone a year or so to realise that Madero, even when fully in power, was not prepared to make the slightest changes to the economic and especially landholding system. He had only ever been a liberal pursuing the idea that elections ought to produce a genuine change of leader. He was a sort of theoretical democrat. Once a meaningful election had been held, he thought his job was done. He didn’t actually plan to change anything about Mexican society. The hated hacendados remained in power.

Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa

The hundred or so pages which bring us to this point have consisted of an incredibly detailed account of the military campaigns of not only Villa in the north and Zapata in the south, but of numerous other rebel or revolutionary leaders, plus the elaborate politicking which went on in Mexico City, and in the Modera and Diaz camps, plus the machinations of other political players, plus the changing attitudes of the American president Taft and his diplomatic advisers. It is all fiendishly complicated.

And this, I’m guessing, is the main reason that most educated people don’t know much about the Mexican Revolution: it went on for such a long time, and was so incredibly complex. Not only that, but at no point did one actual revolutionary socialist leader come to power.

Compare and contrast with the Russian Revolution, which was not only more important in its impact, but easier to remember: 1. the Tsar was overthrown and executed 2. Lenin took power and 3. instituted a communist society. Easy to understand.

1911 to 1920

The sequence of events from 1911 to 1920 is unbelievably complicated, which explains why it takes McLynn 300 more large-format pages to explain them – but the outline can just about be summarised.

In February 1913 Madero was murdered by the military leader he had himself appointed, Victoriano Huerta in La Decena Tragica, the Ten Tragic Days, during which Mexico City itself became a battlefield between Army and Constitutionalist forces.

Madero’s murder sparked further uprisings all over Mexico which amounted to a ‘second revolution’. (It is grimly fascinating to read about the role played in the overthrow of Madero, the elected liberal leader, by the American ambassador to Mexico, the unhinged Henry Lane Wilson.)

All the old rebel leaders rose against General Huerta. The Constitutionalist army of Venustiano Carranza created an alliance of Northern states, the most powerful component of which was Pancho Villa’s ‘Army of the North’, which won a series of military victories taking them right to the perimeter of Mexico City. With his own army collapsing and even arch-conservatives turning against the economic and military anarchy he had precipitated, Huerta fled the country in 1914.

By 1915 Carranza had consolidated his power to become president, going on to create a new constitution in 1917, and then set about quelling his former allies, who included Villa, leader of rebels in the north, and Zapata, leader of rebels in the south.

Emiliano Zapata, leader of revolutionaries in Morelos from 1911 to his assassination in 1919

Emiliano Zapata, leader of revolutionaries in Morelos from 1911 to his assassination in 1919

After a great deal more complicated fighting and toing and froing of alliances, the great generation of ‘revolutionary leaders’ was assassinated – Zapata in 1919, Carranza himself in 1920, Villa in 1923, and another key leader, Villa’s rival in the north, who made the transition to political office, Álvaro Obregón in 1928.

That’s a high-level summary, but it’s precisely the details of the countless battles with the federales, of the tentative relationship between Villa and Zapata, of the Machiavellian politicking of Carranza, of kaleidoscope of alliances, pacts, backstabbing and betrayals, which make the story so human and enjoyable. And appalling.

Socialism or personalism?

None of these leaders was a socialist. None of them had much following among the urban working class which, in Marx and Engels’s view, ought to be at the forefront of a communist revolution.

Their followers, who made up the bulk of their ‘armies’, which fluctuated wildly in size depending on success or failure, were made up of peasants, escaped peons, criminals, bandits and psychopaths, with a handful of literate educated men who liked to think they were fighting for a national cause.

The only thing remotely like a political policy which they had was a wish for land reform – Tierra y Libertad was the rather vacuous cry of all the ‘revolutionaries – but they had no idea how to carry it out with the result that… it wasn’t carried out.

Instead, the fighting was intensely regionalised and the rebel groups followed not a ’cause’ but their regional leader – the leader who was strongest and most effective in their region, who won battles and embodied the ideals of machismo better than their rivals. In this respect, it reminds me of Beowulf and the Germanic warrior tribes of the 5th century AD.

This explains – or is typified by the way that – Mexican politics of the period was not characterised by political ideas (or nothing more sophisticated than that the rebels wanted land reform and the conservatives didn’t), instead what you get is that every one of these leaders created an –ism or, in Spanish, an –ismo, which simply reflected whatever that leader proposed; and the followers of each macho leader were given the leader’s name plus –ista at the end to indicate who they were followers of.

Thus something called villismo was attributed to rebel leader Pancho Villa, even though he was illiterate and uneducated and unintellectual, and changed his mind about key decisions from day to day – and his followers were called villistas.

Emiliano Zapata was the exponent of Zapatismo – embodied in his so-called Plan of Ayala of 1911 – and was followed by zapatistas.

But merely having an –ismo didn’t make this pair special or unique; the same rule applied to all the leaders of the time. Followers of Pascual Orozco were Orozquistas, followers of Ricardo Flores Magón were Magónistas, followers of Carranzo were Carrancistas, followers of the dictator Huerta were Huertistas and so on.

The thirty odd years of economic progress before the Revolution were and still are referred to as the Porfiriato, after Porfirio Diaz. Which in turn was followed by the Maderism of Madero. Maderismo? ‘Its main objective was to achieve democratic regeneration of the country through effective suffrage and no re-election of public officials.’ People not ideas. Personalities not policies,that,arguably, has been Mexico’s curse, as of many developing countries.

Villa in Chihuahua

McLynn devotes a chapter to Villa’s rule over the state of Chihuahua from 1913 to 1914 which he managed with surprising effectiveness. He imposed law and order, provided pensions, free food and cheap meat for his followers and their families. Cut the cost of food and other basics, organised rationing, abolished abuses and corruption with a draconian code (execution for almost any wrongdoing), got his army to repair railroads and telegraph lines, expanded the school budget, raised teachers’ pay, built more than 100 new schools and set up a military college. (p.190)

But Villa and even the most educated of his followers were economic illiterates. Most of these ‘reforms’ were paid for by simply stealing money from rich hacendados and levying punitive taxes on the wealthy mining operations in Chihuahua (themselves profitable because it was so easy to ship iron, silver, copper and so on over the border into nearby America.)

Once income from these sources ran dry, Villa simply printed money – which caused runaway inflation. Like so many illiterate dictators, he then blamed ‘saboteurs’ and set up a secret police to track them down. McLynn gives a colourful portrait of Villa’s court at the time, which included literate managers and secretaries, but also genuine psychopaths such as Rodolfo Fierro, ‘el carnicero’, who shot men for the fun of it – although even he eventually overstepped the mark when he killed English landowner William Benton and sparked an international incident.

None of this was made to introduce equality – the focus was on redistributing land and resources to his followers, just like, say, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe redistributed land to his followers, and with the same net effect.

The labouring peons and peasants remained dirty poor, and simply had a new class of even more anarchic and unpredictable rulers lording it over them. It was, in the words of John Reed who saw all this in action, ‘the socialism of a dictator’ (p.191) or, in Alan Knight’s judgement – ‘Villa’s “socialism” was a figment of the Brooklyn Eagle.’

Zapata in Morelos

Of the 15 points in Zapata’s 1911 Plan of Ayala, only three were actually about economics or reform, articles 6 to 8 stating that:

6. property taken from the people by ‘landlords, científicos, or bosses’ will be returned to the citizens who have the titles to that property
7. one third of property of Mexican monopolies will be redistributed to villages and individuals without land
8. owners of monopolies that oppose this plan will lose the remaining two thirds of their properties which will be used as war reparations and as payment to the victims of the struggle of the revolution.

After Huerta’s ouster in 1914, Zapata set about implementing these proposals in his home state of Morelos but found it difficult in practice. Much remained to be done when he was assassinated in 1919. Permission for agrarian reform was sought by Zapata’s successor from Carranza’s successor, Álvaro Obregón, by then president of Mexico, in 1920, but was only ever implemented in Morelos, and then only partially.

If any of these characters had had clear, wide-reaching social and economic policies for the entire country – towns and cities as well as simply the peasants of one small state, industries and utilities as well as agriculture – then maybe they could have acted as a foundation on which to build coalitions, create political parties, attract voters and take the issue towards some kind of settlement.

But instead, leaders of both right and left encouraged – or simply operated in – a culture soaked in personality. The only question that ever mattered was, Are you for or against Villa or Carranza or Zapata or Modera or Huerta – or any of their hundreds of representatives at regional, state and local level?

The result was a style of politics based around personal alliances and vulnerable to all kinds of psychological whims and disagreements between the main players – a system which seems almost guaranteed to ensure that no one individual or party can ever come to uncontested power, and that armed uprisings, and the violence, looting, pillage and rape which this book is absolutely full of, spread across your country uncontrollably.

Since none of them were proposing clearly defined political ideologies with specific policies, you couldn’t co-opt them, pinch them, incorporate them into your policies, discuss them or reach compromises – as we do in democratic countries. The only way to end a cult of personality is to eliminate the personality. The only way to end villismo or zapatismo was to kill Villa, to kill Zapata.

That’s certainly what it looked like to the newspaper readers in the great big neighbour to Mexico’s north – an exasperated sense that the uprisings and violence never seemed to end, that whichever bloodthirsty leader rose to the top would soon be overthrown by another bloody coup.

'What?...Again?' Cartoon by Clifford Kennedy Berryman in The Washington Star (1919)

‘What?…Again?’ Cartoon by Clifford Kennedy Berryman in The Washington Star (1919)

Fame and the media

Zapata and Villa remain names to conjure with because, at various times, and in their respective states (Morelos for Zapata, Chihuahua for Villa) they both managed to pull off impressive military feats, often against superior Federal Army forces, which hit the headlines, sometimes around the world.

To a U.S. readership puzzled by the issues at stake, these military victories brought the two men to a peak of fame about 1914, and climaxed with the overthrow of Huerta and the triumphant entry of rebel armies into Mexico City.

In this the duo were helped by enthusiastic newspaper promoters like John Reed, and, strikingly, by the new medium of film. Rather mind-bogglingly, Pancho Villa signed with a Hollywood studio to make several films about his life and struggle while he was still fighting in the revolutionary war – namely the Life of Villa (1912), Barbarous Mexico (1913), With General Pancho Villa in Mexico (1913), The Life of General Villa (1914) and Following the Flag in Mexico (1916).

Villa’s name was further kept before the American public when, in 1916, the U.S. Army under General Pershing was sent to Mexico in response to an uncharacteristic raid Villa made on the American town of Columbus. Pershing led no fewer than 5,000 troops and employed aircraft and trucks in a huge co-ordinated manhunt, with the public kept informed by regular newsreel footage. He spent eight months in the hunt but failed to catch the wily bandit – thus adding to Villa’s latterday Robin Hood, Jesse James, Ned Kelly glamour.

Zapata’s legacy is completely different. Shy of the floodlights, far less garish, Zapata is associated to this day with inflexible, incorruptible, unflinching commitment to the issue of the peasants and their land. His example has been cited by land reform movements around the world and as recently as the 1990s a neo-Zapatista movement was started in Mexico’s impoverished south-east.

But, as far as I can tell, his only idea was a semi-mystical one that the land belongs to he who tills it: a notion generally referred to as ‘Agrarianism’. Still very relevant to the places in the world where landless peasants, peons and serfs are still forced to work for big landlords – it is totally irrelevant to the urbanised majority of the modern world’s population.

The revolutionary legacy

As to the so-called ‘Mexican Revolution’, it did not lead to any revolutionary or socialist policies. Venustiano Carranza, who claimed political suzerainty over both Villa and Zapata (in an uneasy relationship which becomes a central theme of the story) replaced Huerta as president in 1917.

Carranza wasn’t a cold-blooded killer like Huerta, but he ruthlessly pursued the centralisation of all political power, and continued what was effectively a civil war against the remaining warlords which lasted from 1915 to 1920. This apparently endless turmoil prevented anything much in the way of ‘reform’ except for continuing burning, looting, pillaging, raping and murder on an epic scale all across Mexico.

Carranza’s Constitution of 1917 was written by young professionals and, among other political changes, called for the expropriation of hacienda lands and redistribution to peasants, empowered the government to expropriate holdings of foreign companies, demanded an 8-hour work day, a right to strike, equal pay laws for women, and an end to exploitative practices such as child labour and company stores.

But just writing and ‘adopting’ a constitution doesn’t change anything on the ground and meanwhile the style of Mexican politics carried on unchanged.

Carranza was finally forced to flee when his one-time puppet Obregón launched a political campaign for the presidency in 1920. Before running away, Carranza looted the chancellery of all its gold and the capital of as much treasure as he could transport on the so-called Golden Train which he headed to the port of Vera Cruz. From here he planned to sail off into exile, as more or less every Mexican leader before him. Instead, the Golden Train was ambushed and Carranza was squalidly shot down in a mud hut where he had been taken by bandits who then betrayed him. Horrible.

Obregón won the presidential vote of 1920. The northern ‘revolutionary’ general Elías Calles succeeded him in 1924. Obregón ran again but was assassinated in 1928, allowing Calles to plan to become another long-term power behind the throne, another Diaz.

Since he wasn’t allowed to be president two terms in a row, Calles appointed Lázaro Cárdenas to be a puppet front-man for four years till he could himself return, but Cárdenas took the role seriously, won a power struggle with Calles, and expelled him from the country. Intoexile trotted another Mexican ex-president.

Same old story. In polities with a cult of personality, civilised negotiation is impossible. Either x is ruling or y is ruling. Whoever loses doesn’t go and get a job with a big corporation and cease commenting on politics – they have to be run out of the country in order for the country to function.

In the late 1920s Cárdenas set up the Party of the Mexican Revolution designed to be ‘a big tent corporatist party’, to bring political factions and interest groups (peasantry, labour, urban professionals) together, while excluding conservatives and the Catholic Church.

In 1946 the party was reorganised and renamed the PRI, or Institutional Revolutionary Party (‘a mesh of corruption’, according to McLynn, p.399), the party which went on to run Mexico until 2000.

The PRI declared itself the embodiment of the glorious ‘Mexican Revolution’ in order to justify its existence and its hold on power for nearly 70 years.

Who knows whether the social and economic changes which Mexicoexperienced in the 1930s and 40s would have come about anyway, without any of the raveing bloodshed, as a simple result of unstoppable technological and economic change, population growth, better exploitation of natural resources and so on?

But, in the Mexican way, social progress ended up requiring so much violence. So many brutal and cruel deaths. So much breathtakingly duplicitous, dishonourable backstabbing.

My view is influenced by this two-hour documentary which seems to conclude that the ‘revolution’ led to some big political changes (i.e. a readjustment about who ran the political system) but absolutely did not lead to the fair redistribution of land, or to anything like ‘equality’. Even now, over a hundred years after the ‘revolution’ began, there is still mass poverty in Mexico, and large numbers of workers still toil miserably on the land.

The Storm That Swept Mexico

A two-hour-long American documentary covering the Mexican Revolution, which includes contributions from Friedrich Katz, author of the prize-winning biography of Pancho Villa which McLynn quotes from extensively.

Why 1910 to 1920?

1910 is usually given as the start date of the Mexican Revolution because it was in this year that Francisco Madero launched his bid to become president and to end the Porfiriato. 1920 is often taken as the end date (though historians still squabble about this) because it marked:

  1. The murder of the man who had lorded it over Mexico after the flight of military strongman Huerta, Venustiano Carranza – Head of the Constitutionalist Army, 1913–1915, Head of the Preconstitutional Government, 1915–1917, President of Mexico, 1917–1920 – who had himself been the unremitting enemy of Villa, Zapato and the leaders of uprisings in other provincial states.
  2. The surrender of Pancho Villa, who was granted an amnesty for himself and his closest supporters, who were allowed to go and live in peace on a hacienda in Chihuahua.

Although Mexican politics continued to be a treacherous and dangerous business for decades to come (‘the years 1924-28 were dark and barbarous’), the half-war, half-bandit violence which had brought terror and destruction to most of Mexico for the decade since 1910, substantially came to an end.

Unlike the obsessive centraliser Carranza, who couldn’t allow any other centres of power, Obregón was a natural politician and fixer who was able to negotiate peace with all factions and create genuine stability. Well. For a few years…

The assassination of Pancho Villa

However, as the 1923 presidential election approached, the two likely contenders to replace Obregón were De la Huerta from the Right and Calles from the Left. Obregón had indulged Villa in peace and quiet on his hacienda as the old revolutionary became more right-wing and took to drink, but a series of misunderstandings led Obregón and his cronies to suspect Villa was about to throw in his lot with De la Huerta, possibly in exchange for a state governorship.

Numerous other enemies with a grudge against Villa had never given up their determination to take revenge. Obregón appears to have given his blessing to the complicated assassination conspiracy against Villa which McLynn lays out in great detail.

On 20 July 1923 Villa was driving a car packed with friends and bodyguards out of the town of Parral, where he’d been visiting one of his many mistresses, when it was bombarded with bullets by a gang of gunmen and Villa’s body was riddled with bullets. Think Bonnie and Clyde.

The Cristero Rebellion (1926–29)

In 1926 a massive rebellion broke out among Catholic peasants against the fierce anticlerical campaign of Obregón’s successor, Calles, which eventually spread across 13 of Mexico’s states, leaving as many as 100,000 dead, with some 250,000 fleeing to America.

The assassination of Alvaro Obregón

In 1927 Obregón announced his intention to run again for president. The various factions who tried to stop him found themselves blackmailed or stitched up, arrested or murdered, but powerful forces were determined to stop him.

On 17 July Obregón was shot five times in the face at point blank range by a devout Catholic linked to the Cristeras during a banquet in his honour. Obregón was the last of the generation of Villa and Zapata. he had fought alongside them, and then turned into their political enemy – which is why McLynn takes his book up to this point, eight years past the official end of the ‘revolution’, but long enough to make the reader realise there was plenty more political and social violence following the nominal ‘end’ date. What a country!

Zapata’s son

Almost at the end of the book McLynn tells us that the son of Emiliano Zapata the incorruptible, Zapata the peasants’ friend, ended up becoming a landowner himself, got elected mayor of Cuautla, sold out to the old élites and became a contented member of the Morelos plantocracy. Ha!

Conclusions

McLynn’s conclusion is that the bandit groups of both Villa and Zapata were co-opted, despite their best intentions, into struggles not to change the ruling class, but between different factions within the ruling class. Villa and Zapata were suborned to the death-contests fought between Diaz, Madero, Huerta, Carranza and Obregón.

The net result of these ten violent years was to replace an ageing, traditionalist ruling class with a younger, more thrusting ruling class – but one which went on to use the same age-old Mexican techniques of treachery and violence to seize power and, almost as an afterthought, drag Mexico into the twentieth century.

The old landowning aristocracy was killed or fled into exile, the hacienda system was broken up and replaced by more modern forms of industrial farming, cash crops, mining and so on. The look and dress of the old ruling class was abandoned. Superficially, to look at, Mexico and Mexicans had become more ‘modern’ and ‘democratic’. But,as the documentary makes clear, plenty of Mexicans still live in grinding rural poverty.

McLynn’s final, damning, conclusion, is that the ‘revolution’ made Mexico safe not for its peasants – but for the new brand of 20th century capitalism.


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A History of the English Church and People by the Venerable Bede (732)

Bede’s life

Bede was a monk who spent most of his life in the monastery of Saint Peter at Monkwearmouth and its companion monastery, Saint Paul’s in what is now modern Jarrow, both situated in the Dark Age Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.

He lived from 672-735. The honorific Venerable (as in ‘the Venerable Bede’) apparently derives from the tombstone erected some years after his death.

Bede was fortunate in that his monastery was run by the enlightened abbot, Benedict Biscop, and his successor, Ceolfrith, who both encouraged his historical studies.

It also contained probably the most extensive library in Anglo-Saxon Britain. Thus encouraged by kind sponsors and in a uniquely well-provisioned environment, Bede began to write, and went on to compose some 40 works, including commentaries on numerous books of the Bible, a life of St Cuthbert, lives of famous Saxon abbots, and so on. (He usefully provides us with a list of his works.)

But Bede is best-known for his masterpiece, regularly described as the first and greatest work of English history, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People). I have the old 1955 Penguin translation by Leo Sherley-Price, who translates the title as A History of the English Church and People.

Bede is called the Father of English History for several reasons:

  • He checked his sources, requesting documents and information from libraries in all the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, correlating documents against each other, enquiring of eye-witnesses or descendants of eye-witnesses wherever possible. He clearly lays out his methodology in the introductory letter, and thus established a tradition of scrupulously checking the facts.
  • He describes in wonderful detail a period – from the Roman departure 410 until his own day, the 720s – for which we have pitifully little alternative material. Without his history there would be a big hole in our knowledge of the period and, since this was when our country was founded, he is an invaluable source for the earliest years of our nation.
  • Bede’s whole conception of History is wonderfully rounded. At a time when his contemporaries were struggling to produce the blunt line-for-each-year Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bede set the events he reports in the contexts of Papal, European and wider British history, going backwards and forwards in time to situate events within broader historical themes as well, of course, as setting everything he describes within the overarching framework of God’s great redemptive plan for Man.

Structure of the Ecclesiastical History

The work is divided into five books, each of which covers a certain period. But the more important division is of each book into 30 or so one- or two-page chapters. These focus on one incident or theme (the miracles of so and so, the death of one bishop, the succession of another, and so on) and were obviously designed to provide good, practical meditations for his (entirely religious) audience to hear read out loud and ponder.

Leo Sherley-Price

Sherley-Price’s prose translation is crisp and brisk, presumably a faithful translation of Bede’s practical style. But the most striking thing about this translation is Sherley-Price’s attitude: he is himself a devout Christian and his beliefs come out in the introduction and (brief) notes, in a way a modern writer would not permit themselves. Thus his note on Pelagianism:

Pelagianism, ‘the British heresy’, denied the reality of original sin, and affirmed that man could attain perfection by his own efforts, unaided by the grace of God. This misconception is still strong today! [emphasis added]

In the introduction he gives a stout defence of miracles and the presence of the miraculous in the History:

Even when ruthless pruning has greatly reduced the number [of plausible miracles in the text], there remains an indissoluble core that cannot be explained by any known natural means, and attributable solely to the supernatural power of God displayed in and through His saints. And this is as it should be. For a true miracle (and who may doubt that such occur?) is not due to the supersession or inversion of the natural laws of the universe ordained by the Creator, but to the operation of cosmic laws as yet unrealised by man, activated by non-material forces whose potency is amply demonstrated in the Gospels. (Introduction, page 30, italics added)

These are confidently Christian words from a pre-1960s era which, in its own way, seems as remote to us today as Bede’s 8th century.

But the most telling sign of their datedness is, I think, not his Catholic faith as such – there’s no shortage of relic-kissing Catholics in 2013 – it is that Sherley-Price tries to make a rational, scientific distinction between improbable or forged miracles, and those which are undoubtedly the real thing. He thinks it is worthwhile to make this distinction and, in so doing, sounds like a member of the Brains Trust, like a reputable academic wearing a tweed jacket and puffing a pipe, debating atheism and belief with Bertrand Russell;he sounds like C.S. Lewis in his apologetic works, naively confident that you can reason someone into belief.

Our understanding of texts and discourses has leapt forward massively in the past 60 years.

The miraculous in Bede

In my opinion, Sherley-Price is missing the point by his nitpicking. The miraculous is the element in which Bede lives and breathes. God is all around him and his angels regularly appear to the people he is describing, to people he actually knows, with important messages and predictions.

Bede’s world is full of miraculous recoveries, holy rescues and blessed cures because God’s angels and saints are continually battling demons and spirits, the forces of the Old Enemy, who are at work everywhere and in everyone.

The miracles in Bede aren’t incidental; they are symptomatic of a world utterly drenched in the presence of God’s powers. To try and unpick the more likely from the less likely ones is to misread the coherence of the imaginative world, the worldview, the psychology, the culture which Bede inhabits. It is to apply absurdly flat and literalistic criteria to a world of wonders.

It is like undertaking a scientific assessment of which bits of magic in Harry Potter might actually be feasible. You are missing the point; the point is to abandon yourself entirely to the endless wonder and richness and unceasing miraculousness of Bede’s world, a world in which God always helps his saints and always punishes his sinners.

Some miracles

  • Book I, chapter 7 St Alban, sentenced to execution by the Roman authorities, can’t cross the packed bridge into Verulamium, so the river blocking his way dries up just as the Red Sea did. As the executioner decapitates Alban, his own eyes pop out.
  • I, 17 as Germanus sails to Britain, devils raise a storm and the ships are in peril of foundering so Germanus prays and sprinkles holy water on the waves, which puts the demons to flight and the storm passes.
  • I, 18 Using relics he’s brought from Rome, Germanus cures the blindness of a tribune’s young daughter.
  • I, 19 A fire threatens the house where Germanus is staying but he calls on the Lord and the flames turn back. Demons throw Germanus off his horse and he breaks his leg. In a vision an angel raises him and lo! his leg is healed.
  • I, 20 Picts and Saxons invade but bishops Germanus and Lupus organise the Britons into a defensive force. They call on the Lord and leap out of hiding shouting so effectively that the Saxons and Picts all run away, many of them drowning in the river.
  • I, 21 Germanus heals the crippled son of the chieftain Elaphius.
  • I, 33 The priest Peter is drowned off the coast of Gaul and buried by the locals in a common grave but God makes a bright light shine over the grave every night until the locals realise he is a holy man and bury him properly in a church in Boulogne.

The power of Christianity

The miracles are just the most striking way in which, for Bede and for all the early missionaries, bishops and believers he describes, Christianity works. It is better than paganism because its believers wield the real power which drives the universe, not the foolish, deluded voodoo of illiterate peasants who believe in amulets and spells and worship stones and trees.

For many profaned the Faith that they professed by a wicked life, and at a time of plague some had even abandoned the Christian sacraments and had recourse to the delusive remedies of idolatry, as though they could expect to halt a plague ordained of God by spells, amulets, and other devilish secret arts. (IV, 28)

Christianity is the Real Thing, it is the real magic that pagans only pretend to harness.

Believers in it win victories and become kings or emperors (as Constantine famously won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge after invoking Christ’s name), they heal the sick and raise the dead and cast out demons and do battle with devils and quench fires and bring down rain and make the crops grow. It is all the supernatural things paganism falsely claims to be – except it actually is.

Crediting witnesses, believing in miracles

Bede goes out of his way to tell us that he has many of these stories from people who knew the saints in question, that he personally has listened to their stories of angelic visitors and wrestling with devils and curing the sick and of coffins which magically resize themselves to fit the bodies of deceased saints.

An old brother of our monastery, who is still living, testifies that he once knew a truthful and devout man who had met Fursey in the province of the East Angles, and heard of these visions from his own mouth (Book III, chapter 19)

I have thought it fitting to preserve the memory of one of these stories, often told me by the very reverend Bishop Acca, who said that it was vouched for by some very reliable brethren of the monastery. (IV, 14)

Among those who told me this story were some who had actually heard it from the mouth of the man to whom these things happened, so that I have no hesitation  about including it in t his history of the church as it was related. (IV, 23)

My informant in all these events was my fellow-priest, Edgils, who was living in the monastery at the time. (IV, 25)

Even if we disbelieve every story, we are impressed by Bede’s conception of the historian as one who seeks out eye witnesses, who listens, who writes it down.

Anyway, even our sceptical age is alive with urban myths, and still suffers from the profound irrationality and credulousness of human beings. There are still people who under stress clutch any straw, who pray and promise God they’ll believe in him, who believe it was their prayers that saved the plunging plane or their sick relative or clinched the extra-time winner.

But we also know about the Somme, the Holocaust, about 9/11, we know that vast massacres occur and no-one is saved and God is nowhere to be seen.

Personally, I apply David Hume’s Calculus of Probability to all accounts of miracles. Is it more likely that the vast and universal laws of Nature were suspended, often for childish and petty ends? Or that the people who claim to have experienced a miracle, simply have a need to appear important, or are propagandising for their faith, or are naive and credulous?

It will always be the latter. An entirely rational assessment will always militate against miracles. But where, then, is the point or pleasure in reading Bede or indeed any other Christian literature?

For me such Christian literature can still be immensely rewarding, you just have to suspend disbelief. You just have to make the effort to cast yourself back into that mental world. Indeed, that is precisely the point of reading old literature: to expand your mind.

Some more miracles

  • Book IV, chapter 28 Cuthbert makes spring water appear on a barren hillside and crops to grow out of season.
  • IV 29 Cuthbert prophetically foretells his own death.
  • IV 30 Eleven years after his death Cuthbert’s body is found to be uncorrupted, soft and sweet.
  • IV 31 Brother Baduthegn suffers a paralytic stroke but drags himself to Cuthbert’s tomb where he dreams a great hand touches his wound and he awakens healed.
  • IV 32 Hairs from Cuthbert’s corpse cure the tumour on a brother’s eye.
  • V 1 The hermit Ethelwold calms a storm threatening to drown some monks.
  • V 2 Bishop John cures a dumb, scrofulous servant.
  • V 3 Bishop John cures Coenburg, a sick serving girl.
  • V 4 Bishop John cures the thane Puch’s wife.
  • V 5 Bishop John cures thane Addi’s servant.
  • V6 Bishop John cures a brother who foolishly races a horse, falls off and cracks his skull.
  • V 8 Archbishop Theodore foresees his own death in a vision.
  • V 9 Holy Egbert plans to evangelise the Germans but is prevented by God who sends visions and a storm.
  • V 10 Two missionaries to the Old Saxons are murdered by pagans but their bodies are washed upstream and a light shines over them every night till their companions find them and give them decent burial.

And so it goes on… To try to weight up the ‘valid’ miracles from the ‘invalid’ may be an interesting academic exercise but is pointless. Take out the miracles and there’d be nothing left. The entire story of the growth of the English church is, for Bede, miraculous and made up of miracle piled upon miracle.

Therefore, we should embrace the supernatural elements of Bede’s history unquestioningly, both as a vital component of his worldview, without which his whole history is pointless; and also because of the sheer pleasure it gives. How wonderful to live in this world of angels and demons! Surrender to its visions and what a wonderful, informative, imaginative, delightful book this is!

But what did the pagans believe?

Notoriously,and tragically, Bede (like all the Christian writers of the Dark Ages) tells us almost nothing about what his heathen and pagan opponents believed.

Worshiping trees, stones and rivers, wearing amulets and slaughtering horses seem to be part of pagan belief but we only glimpse these as throwaway asides. There are only a few exceptions, a few places where Bede paints a ‘conversion scene’ and allows us to see what the pagan worldview actually consisted of.

The most famous is in Book II, chapter 13, where King Edwin of Northumbria has already converted to Christianity but needs to take his nobles with him. He convenes a council (AD 627). They are sitting in the king’s large hall, illuminated by a huge fireplace and maybe other torches, but with glassless windows. And one of the king’s thanes uses their setting for a famously beautiful metaphor of human life.

Another of the king’s chief men signified his agreement and went on to say: ‘Your majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thanes and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.’

Yes, but what were they converting from? Bede doesn’t sully his book by telling us. Probably the mere act of writing down pagan beliefs would in some sense validate them. It might even conjure them up. Best left unmentioned, undescribed.

The conversion of King Sigbert of the East Saxons

There is another exchange, less poetic but, I think, more revealing in Book III, chapter 22:

About this time also, the East Saxons, who had once rejected the Faith and driven out Bishop Mellitus, again accepted it under the influence of King Oswy. For Sigbert their king, successor to Sigbert the Small, was a friend of Oswy and often used to visit him in the province of the Northumbrians. Oswy used to reason with him how gods made by man’s handwork could not be gods, and how a god could not be made from a log or block of stone, the rest of which might be burned or made into articles of everyday use or possibly thrown away as rubbish to be trampled underfoot and reduced to dust. He showed him how God is rather to be understood as a being of boundless majesty, invisible to human eyes, almighty, everlasting, Creator of heaven and earth and of the human race. He told him that he rules and will judge the world in justice, abiding in eternity, not in base and perishable metal; and that it should be rightly understood that all who know and do the will of their creator will receive an eternal reward from him. King Oswy advanced these and other arguments during friendly and brotherly talks with Sigbert, who, encouraged by the agreement of his friends, was at length convinced. So he talked it over with his advisers, and with one accord they accepted the Faith and were baptised with him by Bishop Finan in the king’s village of At-Wall, so named because it stands close to the wall which the Romans once built to protect Britain, about twelve miles from the eastern coast.

In the context of the Dark Ages this is gold dust. How fabulous to be told so much detail about these obscure kings, Oswy and Sigbert, about social intercourse between the kings of these early English kingdoms, about the relationship between a king and his advisers, about the geography of the region.

Christianity trumps paganism

But the core of the passage is the absolute crux of Bede’s History – the sheer majesty and breathtaking sweep, the intellectual, moral and imaginative scale and thoroughness and universality of Catholic Christianity compared with the thin, local, petty, shallow gods and practices of paganism.

For me this one chapter shows how Christianity was a VAST improvement on the limited, dark, unintellectual world of the pagan gods.

Miracles and all, if you compare the intellectual coherence of Bede’s position with the worldview of the pagan Poetic Edda, Christianity wins hands-down for its scope and thoroughness.

Thor throwing his hammer at giants is for children, the Last Battle between gods and giants is a fable for fatalistic warrior-kings.

Neither can stand comparison with the wonder and coherence of the Christian notion of one, all-powerful, all-loving Creator, with his flocks of angels ready to help the mightiest king or the lowliest serf to lead a more holy, just and – ultimately – satisfying life.

One by one, the kings of Dark Age Britain who Bede describes, realised this mighty truth and bowed to the inevitable.

Little was Bede to know that just 60 years after his death in 732, furious straw-haired pagans were to appear from across the sea and do their damnedest to destroy everything he and his brothers had built up. But that is another story…

"The Venerable Bede Translates John" by James Doyle Penrose (Wikimedia Commons)

The Venerable Bede Translates John by James Doyle Penrose (source: Wikimedia Commons)


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