Crusaders in the Holy Land: A Unique Civilization

The Crusades have long been a contentious topic, and over the years scholarship has largely fallen into two camps: those that view this enterprise as European aggression (Ur-colonialism) and those that view it as a response to relentless Muslim aggression. The former view tends to predominate, especially in popular culture, where films, television shows and novels favor the trendy explanation of the Levant falling victim to “European violence.” Given the wide reach of media, such simplistic views have become “settled history.” Various efforts are made to counter this ideological reading of the Crusades (and the Middle Ages in general), but with little effect. The mainstream narrative yet holds sway, and in the popular mind the Crusades are evidence of innate European belligerence unleashed upon the world. One of the major problems with this narrative approach is Presentism, which then poses the “East” and the “West” as two irreconcilable monoliths that can only but continually clash. Saner scholarship recognizes the silliness of such an approach and has slowly been trying to make a difference by showing that the medieval world was neither ignorant nor parochial, and in which violence was more controlled than in our own day. The most recent example of such scholarship is Helena P. Schrader’s latest book, The Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades: Kingdoms at the Crossroads of Civilization, 1100-1300.

This eloquent book is a comprehensive narrative history of a unique Christian civilization in Palestine—the Crusader States. It is also a noble and honest effort to “set the record straight,” by presenting the entirety of the crusading effort as one of interaction, in which the East and the West met and fashioned a unique civilization. In the words of Schrader:

“While historians of past centuries portrayed the Latin Christians living in these states as a tiny, urban elite afraid to venture into the countryside out of fear of their subjects, there is a growing consensus among the scholars of the twenty-first century that the majority of the population was Christian, not Muslim, and that the degree of intermingling and tolerance between Latin and Orthodox Christians was much higher than had been assumed” (xxxiv).

Towards this end, the book seeks to be as meticulous and well-researched as possible, in which it aptly succeeds. It begins with a 24-page chronology that details the history of the Levant within the context of Christianity (which brought Catholics, commonly known as the “Franks” or “Latins,” into the region, who then established various principalities, or “Crusader States,” which were politically linked with each other and with Europe) and Islam (which eventually gave the Turks enduring dominance in the Holy Land).

The book is divided into two parts, wherewith the analysis moves from the larger to the particular. Thus, Part I, “A Short History of the Crusader States,” describes the process through which the Franks came to the Levant and set up religious, political, cultural and military structures which would ensure that the Holy Land would remain territory essential and important to the Christian faith. This meant the establishment of permanent settlements, or what later became known as the “Crusader States,” or “Outremer” (“Overseas”), as the people of that time called this settlement. Schrader carefully traces the course that needed to be followed to ensure success in this undertaking, and as such follows the rise and fall of the Crusader States, from 1099 (when Jerusalem came under Frankish rule) to 1291 when Acre fell and Frankish influence contracted and eventually disappeared from the region.

The importance of Part I is that it gives the reader a thorough understanding of the complexity of the Crusades in their entirety, while never neglecting the dynamics at play in the Muslim world, where Mongol, Turk and Egyptian rivalries held sway. It is truly commendable that Schrader offers an all-inclusive review of the forces in contention in the Levant over a two-hundred-year period. What emerges is the real picture of the Crusades—that they were a massive investment of effort, talent, money and most of all of faith which allowed for a unique civilization to emerge and flourish, becoming an envy of the world in so many ways.

It is the quality and quantity of this “Crusader” or “Frankish” civilization that Schrader turns to in Part II of her book, which is sub-titled, “A Description of the Crusader States.” Here, Schrader really comes into her own as she takes the reader on a captivating “journey” into the world of Outremer. Each chapter presents facts and analysis, so that a lot of the popular myths about the Crusades are laid to rest. For example, we learn that the population of the Levant was predominantly Christian and not Muslim, as widely and mistakenly assumed. Indeed, the Christian population of what is now known as the Middle East and even Central Asia was heavily Christian. It was only in the fourteenth century that the Christians of the East were methodically annihilated, and the area became what it is today—the final chapter of this annihilation was the Armenian Genocide (which occurred in two parts: 1890-1909 and 1915-1917). Of course, this topic lies outside the scope of Schrader’s book.

Next, Schrader examines the complex polity that emerged in Outremer, the concept of the “nation-state,” which of course had a direct influence on the life of the West in the centuries ahead, down to our own time, where the nation-state is the prime form of civilization. In other words, Outremer was a two-hundred-year long success story—it was hardly colonial “occupation.” The reason for this success, as Schrader shows, is the stability of the institutions that were rather quickly established, such as the very effective judiciary, in which the Muslim peasantry prospered (unlike Muslim peasantry in Islamic-run jurisdictions), as well as the establishment of churches and monasteries which allowed culture, learning and the Christian faith to flourish, especially the ease of pilgrimage (which led to the rise of Holy Land “tourism,” and all of the support industries that tourists need).

Diplomacy was another key component of the success of Outremer, whereby a balance of power was effectively achieved and maintained between the various rivals, namely, Mamluk Egypt, the debilitated Byzantine rule, the many fiefdoms of the Turks, and the Mongol Empire. It was the Crusader States who “micro-managed” this balancing act, so that trade between the East and the West flourished, despite the ambitions of particular rulers: “The willingness… to treat with the religious and strategic enemy on a short-term tactical basis meant that de facto peace reigned in the crusader states far more frequently than war” (193) , because “the Franks maintained sophisticated and largely effective diplomatic relations with all the major players in the Eastern Mediterranean” (196).

As Schrader also points out, the Levant was a backwater before the Crusaders came—but because the land was holy to Christianity, it saw a massive input that transformed the region into a going concern: “Investment into infrastructure revitalised the rural economy and enabled the expansion of trading networks. Existing cities grew, and ancient cities such as Caesarea and Ramla, which had gone to ruin, were revived. Indeed, entire new settlements and villages were built. The larger cities, such as Acre, Tyre, Beirut, Tripoli and Antioch, became booming urban centres with larger populations than the capitals of the West. Not until the mid-thirteenth century did Western European cities start to compete in size with the cities of the Latin East” (197).

As well, this investment returned strategic importance: “Most importantly, the Franks connected the traditional oriental trade routes with the growing, increasingly prosperous and luxury-hungry markets of Western Europe” (198). The reason for this flourishing trade was the building of infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and water management. Trade agreements were struck and banking practices introduced, which then led to manufacturing. Sugar, textiles (especially silk, samite and siqlatin), soap, wine, olive oil, leather goods, glass were all manufactured in the Crusader States.

Given this revitalization program, agriculture returned to this land long considered barren, so that cities began to flourish, and a distinct Outremer culture emerged, such as icon painting, book production, shrines and holy places where the faithful came in droves to receive blessing in the land trodden by God Himself, as the famous 13th century Palestinalied (Song of Palestine) relates: “Ich bin komen an die stat,/ dâ got menischlîchen trat (I am come to the city where God trod as a man).” This spiritual “currency” lay at the heart of this region, a “currency” that could never be depleted. And here the work of charity was paramount, which saw the building of hospitals, caravanserais, inns, as well as monasteries, churches and many chapels by confraternities and monastic orders.

The cities themselves were well-planned, with effective sewage systems, baths and even flushing toilets. Trade supplied the many open-air and enclosed markets. There were orchards and gardens surrounding each city, with aqueducts, pools and fountains to supply water. It is important to note that many of these cities were not fortified—that is, they did not lie inside protective walls—cities such as Nazareth, Hebron, Nablus and Ramla. This detail is important—for it points to the fact that life was, in fact, very peaceful, which flies in the face of the usual and popular trope of Crusader brutality.

But this not to say that the military aspect was not important, for defense was necessary, given the endless ambitions of the rulers of the time (Mongol, Mamluk and Turk). Thus, Frankish Levant saw the emergence of unique castle styles, chief and most impressive of which was the concentric castle, the best examples of which is Krak de Chevaliers and Belvoir which overlooks the Jordan valley (“Belvoir” in Old French means, “Good view”).

Frankish architecture was unique also because it did not destroy what originally existed: “Beyond their sheer scale and number, one of the most striking features of these various projects was the degree to which the Franks sensitively and respectfully incorporated the remains of earlier buildings into their renovation projects. In sharp contrast to the prevailing view of crusaders as bigoted barbarians, when it came to architecture, the crusaders sought to preserve rather than destroy. This was true of Muslim structures as well as Christian ones” (233).

One of the greatest achievements of Outremer was its art and its literature, both little known and studied. There survives, for example, the exquisite Melisende Psalter, with its illustrations that perfectly combine Byzantine, Armenian, Syriac, Coptic and Latin elements to produce a style that is original to Outremer. And then there are the frescoes of the 12th century Church of St. Jeremiah at Abu-Ghosh (the biblical Emmaus), which are the finest expression of Crusader art (despite their Byzantine “look”), although they now survive in a much damaged condition.

This comprehensive book ends with the history of the Ibelin family who typify the kinds of people that came to Outremer and made it the splendorous civilization that it was: “…while the Ibelins were undoubtedly exceptionally successful, they were also in many ways typical. They embodied the overall experience, characteristics and ethos of the Franks in the Holy Land. They came from obscure, probably non-noble origins, and the dynasty’s founder can be classed as an ‘adventurer’ and ‘crusader’. They rapidly put down roots in the Near East, intermarrying with native Christian and Byzantine elites. They were hardened and cunning fighting men able to deploy arms and tactics unknown to the West and intellectuals who could win wars with words in the courts. They were multilingual, cosmopolitan and luxury-loving, as comfortable in baths as in battles” (267).

But why did this great civilization in the Holy Land end, after two hundred years of great success? The answers are as varied as the scholars who seek to give a response to this question. Schrader is accurate in her own conclusion—that Outremer was a victim of its own success. Because it was such a “shining city on the hill,” others fought to possess it. But more tragically, the bane of Frankish rule was the incessant in-fighting, where factions vied for power and where loyalty was circumscribed by personal ambition. As well, the latter rulers had divided loyalty—they were more interested in maintaining their holdings and influence in Europe than looking after what previous generations had built in the Holy Land. It is that old cycle of civilization—the generations that inherent wealth effectively waste it and lose it.

And the legacy of Outremer? This is how Schrader summarizes it: “… the crusader states in the Levant were the home to a rare flourishing of international trade, intellectual and technological exchange, innovation, hybrid art forms and unique architecture, advances in health care and evolution of the constitutional principles of the rule-of-law” (305).

For its scope, its depth and its variety of subject matter, this book truly succeeds as a work of exceptional narrative history. By glancing at the past, we may well learn something about the narrowness of our own age.


C.B. Forde confesses to being a closet history buff, that is whenever he can tear himself away from the demands of the little bit of land that he cultivates.


Featured: The Last Judgment, a fresco in the Church of St. Jeremiah (Emmaus), in Abu-Ghosh, Israel; painted in the latter parts of the 12th century.

The Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades

Helena P. Schrader has just published a very important book that we encourage you to read. It is The Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades: Kingdoms at the Crossroads of Civilizations, which counters common misconceptions and prevailing popular myths about the crusader states by demonstrating that religious tolerance rather than fanaticism, intellectual activity rather than warfare, and cultural exchange rather than bigotry characterized these unique societies. It is a fabulous and comprehensive history of the Latin East.

Helena Schrader holds a PhD in history from the University of Hamburg, which she earned with a ground-breaking biography of a leader of the German Resistance to Hitler. She served as an American diplomat in Europe and Africa, and since her retirement works as an independent scholar. Her areas of expertise are ancient Sparta, the Crusader States and the Second World War. She has also published six novels set in the Latin East. You can find out more at her website.

Please support Dr. Schrader’s valuable work by purchasing a copy of this unique book. To get you going, here is an excerpt.

Because of the ignorant or irresponsible misuse of the term “crusader” and “crusades” by politicians, journalists and Islamist terrorists, long-discredited theories from the last century about the crusades have been perpetuated with thoughtless references and careless comparisons. This shallow and sensationalist – not to mention intellectually lazy – commentary drowns out the voices of serious scholars. As a result, most of the public today believes that the crusades and the crusader states were characterised by bigotry, racism and brutality aimed at the oppression and destruction of the native peoples of the Near East.

Yet, the picture of the crusader states that scholars have meticulously pieced together based on contemporary chronicles, data mining and archaeology does not corroborate these popular assumptions. Instead, the historical record provides concrete evidence of Frankish tolerance, adaptability, peaceful co-existence and cooperation with the various peoples inhabiting the Middle East. For example, from the moment they arrived in Antioch, the crusaders preserved, cherished and expanded the Arab libraries they discovered. Rather than destroying mosques and synagogues, the crusaders either repurposed them or allowed them to continue to operate, preserving these architectural monuments for posterity. Furthermore, the crusaders allowed Jews, Samaritans and Muslims to build new houses of worship. They allowed these religious groups to live according to their laws and publicly celebrate their religious festivals without interference.

Likewise, from the First Crusade onwards, the Franks recognised and respected the Orthodox clergy, at times taking Orthodox priests for their confessors and consistently sponsoring the re-establishment and restoration of Orthodox churches and monasteries. As a result, Greek monasteries flourished and expanded, particularly around Jerusalem, in Antioch and Sinai.

The hospitals of one of the crusading orders, the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, employed doctors of any religion. In the luxurious wards, patients of all religions were treated equally as “lords” by members of an order that viewed themselves as “serfs” of the poor.

The courts sought to ensure that anyone accused of a crime was judged by his peers following local custom rather than an alien legal code. Civil and criminal conflicts between members of different ethnic and religious groups were adjudicated in accordance with the law of the defendant.

Absent from the popular image of crusaders and the crusader states are the more than one hundred truces and the many alliances across religious borders. Likewise, the native Christians who worked as scribes, customs officials, merchants and manufacturers, both forming the administrative backbone of and contributing materially to the economic prosperity of the Holy Land have been erased from popular history by the simplistic popular picture of the crusader states. Invisible too are the Arabic and Syriac-speaking native Christian infantry and archers that made up the bulk of the Frankish armies, even though these fighting men saved the crusader states from destruction on multiple occasions.

The popular picture of the crusader states does not include the icon workshops, mass book production, or a society that rewarded knowledge of the law as assiduously as skill with the sword. Forgotten are the Muslims who sought refuge in the Kingdom of Jerusalem during the Mongol invasion of Syria and the Jews who immigrated to the Kingdom of Jerusalem because it was an oasis of tolerance in an anti-Semitic world. The historical reality of Templars hosting the Ayyubid princes in their Acre headquarters in 1244 and Frankish noblemen translating Arab poetry into French is obscured by Hollywood depictions of Templars shouting for Muslim and Jewish blood and Frankish noblemen slaughtering unarmed Muslims.

Yet, it is not only the need to correct common misconceptions that make the study of the crusader states rewarding. These kingdoms, sitting on the crossroads of civilizations, were established by newcomers from the West who were compelled to adapt rapidly to their new environment or face extinction. Not only did they adapt, but they evolved into a unique hybrid society that mixed European culture with Near Eastern traditions. This was not a matter of imitating—much less “stealing”—technology, art or ideas from more sophisticated neighbours. It was a matter of developing new and innovative products, forms and concepts. In doing so, the Franks of Outremer made significant contributions to the evolution of European society, stimulating advancement across a range of fields.

The most obvious innovations came in the field of warfare. From the adoption of surcoats to the construction of concentric castles, the confrontation between the armies of the Middle East and Western Europe led to significant military advances. The Franks pioneered Western use of mounted archers, evolved the fighting box (combined arms warfare), and in the military orders, rediscovered the value of professional and disciplined regular forces. They perfected the massed charge of heavy cavalry yet also effectively exploited light cavalry in reconnaissance and hit-and-run raids. Finally, they deployed archers behind shield walls to good effect, while Frankish crossbows represented cutting-edge technology. In his study of crusader warfare, Steve Tibble concludes that “warfare in the east was a crucible of innovation for European warfare.”

The architecture of the Franks was unique and not only regarding castles. Frankish domestic architecture combined such Western features as outward-oriented multistorey structures, high ceilings, large windows, loges and balconies with Arab and Byzantine artisanry, such as inlaid marble, glazed tiles, running fountains and intricate decoration. The result was gracious and sunlit structures that used local products such as glass windows, glazed tiles and polychrome marble. Frankish houses included fireplaces with hoods that reduced smoke accumulation (a Western feature) and sophisticated plumbing systems of cistern-fed ceramic pipes feeding into centrally-planned sewage systems (an Eastern feature).

As noted earlier, hospitals as institutions for healing the sick and injured evolved in the Holy Land in the crusader era, based on Byzantine and Arab precedents. Along with hospitals came advances in medicine and progress towards the professionalization of medical practitioners and the protection of patients from malpractice. The Frankish states provided a meeting place for physicians from various cultures, and Antioch became a centre for the study and development of medical theory.

International banking was another field significantly advanced by the Frankish presence in the Levant. The need for cash transfers over enormous distances fostered the evolution of letters of credit, cheques, currency exchange and other financial services previously unknown, at least not on such a scale.

Last but not least, the Franks contributed to constitutional law. Nowhere else in the medieval world was interest in and discussion of the concept of good governance, the rule-of-law and the monarch’s role carried to such heights of sophistication or conducted on as wide a scale as in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the mid-thirteenth century. In no other kingdom did so many noblemen of a single era study and write about the law, let alone serve as advocates in the courts. The Kingdom of Jerusalem was also exceptional for the number of men of lower social standing who gained prominence through legal expertise. The inclusion of the commons in governing assemblies was equally innovative and progressive, albeit limited. Yet most important was the advocacy and defence of key constitutional concepts such as the monarchs’ subordination to the constitution and the right to due process. In defending these principles against the authoritarianism of Frederick II, the rebels of Outremer undoubtedly influenced the English parliamentary reformer, Simon de Montfort. They deserve credit for their steadfast opposition to tyranny.

The Frankish states of the Levant were not paradise. Even if not perpetually on the brink of collapse, they were vulnerable. They were subject to frequent small-scale attacks, periodic invasions and were ultimately destroyed by warfare. In the thirteenth century, they also suffered from absentee monarchs, political intrigue, and factional infighting. Yet, they were neither fragile constructs doomed to failure nor genocidal, apartheid regimes established by barbarians to oppress enlightened natives.

The evidence is overwhelming—preserved in stone and meticulously documented by Arab, Greek, Syrian and Jewish sources no less than in the Latin and French chronicles: The crusader states in the Levant were the home to a rare flourishing of international trade, intellectual and technological exchange, innovation, hybrid art forms and unique architecture, advances in health care and evolution of the constitutional principles of the rule-of-law. They brought forth a vivid, multicultural society in which tolerance outweighed bigotry. As such, the crusader states’ contribution to the evolution of European culture deserves more attention and appreciation as we struggle to integrate diverse cultures in our own time.


Featured: Knight, Westminster Psalter (BL Royal MS 2 A xxii f. 220); 13th century.

Revelation, Philosophy and Theology

Olivier Boulnois is a French philosopher, specialist in Duns Scotus, Saint Augustine and more generally in medieval philosophy. He is the Director of studies at the École pratique des hautes études and Associate Professor at the Institut catholique de Paris, where he teaches religion and Christian philosophy of the Middle Ages.

He has recently written an interesting book which traces the history of “theological science” from its Greek emergence to the “collapse of the cornerstone” at the dawn of the sixteenth century. Far from being limited to the alternative between the God of revelation and the God of the philosophers, the Greek theologia, recuperated by the Latin Fathers and raised up as the “queen of sciences” by Scholasticism, has been the object, from the Thomistic moment onwards, of a deconstruction that continues into the contemporary period. Professor Boulnois sits down with Philitt to discuss his book.

Philitt (PL): Your book tells of the epic of theology, from its Greek emergence to the “end of the desire for God” in the modern era. Why have you reread the history of theology in the light of the “desire for truth” and what link do you establish between this desire for truth and the “desire for God?”

Olivier Boulnois (OB): We all live on clichés. For example, the idea that in the Middle Ages, philosophy was the servant of theology. But when we talk about philosophy being the “servant” of theology, we are taking the problem the wrong way round. For since its Aristotelian origin, theology is a philosophical science, the highest possible science, “theological science.” When I have embarked on a history of theology “as science” (subtitle of the book), it was to show how it develops by differentiating itself, like the branches of a tree—one branch of theological science remains purely philosophical (and sometimes in conflict with religious thought), while another branch takes up revelation and gives an interpretation of it. To say that philosophy is the “servant” of theology is to say in reality that one branch of philosophy is grafted onto another and depends on it.

It is in this perspective that we must read the “desire for truth.” Aristotle’s Metaphysics begins, from its very first words, by stating that man desires above all to know the truth. But what fulfills this desire is par excellence philosophy. And the summit of philosophy is the science of the divine (which Aristotle calls theologike episteme, “theological science”). We must not forget that even the intellectual life is itself a way of living; it is even, for Aristotle, the highest form of existence. Now, in speaking of the desire for God, Augustine says nothing less: if God is the sovereign good, He is also the one who fulfills our highest desires. There is thus a possible articulation between Aristotle’s desire for truth and Augustine’s desire for God. Moreover, for Augustine, God is the Truth; it is His most proper name. So, Augustine starts from the same analysis as Aristotle. In fact, he wrote: “Man desires nothing so much as the truth.” But he places the summit in God—to know God is to know the supreme truth, to satisfy our deepest desire.

Olivier Boulnois.

PL: Tracing the life and destiny of theology as a science leads you to study its apogee and notify its decline. When do you situate this apogee and when does its decline begin?

OB: In reality, I did not really build my investigation on the pattern borrowed from the history of empires: rise and fall, Aufstieg und Niedergang. The birth of a theological science can be described quite precisely, if we analyze Aristotle closely. Later, with the Stoics, the Aristotelian concept was transformed into mythical, physical, and political theology. In the Hellenistic period, it became the supreme science of Neoplatonism. So, it is not a question of a rise, of a progress, but of a restructuring and a transformation.

What bothered me more was the other end of this story. As a historian of philosophy and, through that, a philosopher, I had an impression that was hard to justify: from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, roughly, theology was the predominant discipline; but then it ceased to be so. Why is this? There are institutional reasons for its predominance, since it was the Church that sponsored the university, and institutionalized the teaching of philosophy in the faculty of arts. But there are also doctrinal reasons: we are in a system of knowledge, an episteme, where the great philosophers are also great theologians (from Albert the Great to Pierre d’Ailly, for example). But from the 17th century on, we are hard pressed to find great theologians who have contributed something to philosophy. So, there was a rupture. Where does it come from?

I think we can put forward three hypotheses: First, the condemnation of Pomponazzi at the Lateran Council (1513). By generalizing its rejection of Pomponazzi’s position and by demanding a philosophical demonstration of the immortality of the soul, the Council aimed at bringing philosophy to heel, by calling on philosophers to demonstrate certain essential truths of the faith (Descartes would still claim this). But this had an unexpectedly perverse effect. It actually stripped theology of its own object: if the philosopher becomes a “Christian philosopher,” if his task is to demonstrate the truths of the Christian faith, what is left for the theologian?

The second hypothesis is that theology has become detached from the logic of desire found in both Aristotle and Augustine. For some theologians, everything happens as if, on the one hand, there were henceforth the natural desire of man, which could only be satisfied by philosophical truths and by the God of the philosophers, and on the other hand, the supernatural, which no longer comes to fill the natural desire, but which is in a way superimposed in its own order, placed in us by God, which means that the desire of God is no longer the natural desire of man. It is truly the genius of Henri de Lubac to have perceived the subtle deformations that occurred at the end of the Middle Ages and that brought about these mutations. So, I took up the matter again, reworking the texts. What I discovered was quite astounding: originally, this new definition of the desire for God was explicitly directed against St. Thomas Aquinas. But when Cajetan makes it his own, he cannot speak out against Thomas, since he is the master general of the Dominican order and the defender of the Thomistic school. So, he slips this idea into his commentary on Thomas as if it were Thomas’. This is a typical example of what one does when one belongs to a school—one makes the master say what one thinks, not what he really said.

Finally, there is a third hypothesis, which is the idea that the new physics has supplanted theology. When we study the Galileo case, we see that Cardinal Bellarmine offered him a solution that was basically traditional; that maintained the superiority of theology while allowing him to support heliocentrism. It would have sufficed for Galileo to say that he spoke “according to the principles of natural science,” and that he did not claim to speak the absolute truth, which belongs to theologians. And yet Galileo, with astonishing courage and obstinacy, was not satisfied with this solution: scientific truth, physical truth, must be absolute truth, on the same level as theological truth. But then, in mixed questions, where Scripture and science intertwine, it is the physicist and not the theologian who has the last word. Theology was no longer the master of Scripture interpretation; it was no longer the queen of the sciences, an untouchable, unquestionable discipline.

So, to come back to your question, there was a beginning, and then there was a relative decline of theology in the 16th century. Of course, theology as a teaching subject did not cease to exist, but it largely retreated into positive theology, i.e., into the search for proof that theological interpretations are indeed based on the Bible and tradition. It no longer had anything to say to man’s desire.

PL: “All theology is therefore bound up with a metaphorology,” you write. What meaning do you give to “metaphorology” and what place does it hold in the history of theology?

OB: The expression “metaphorology” is not mine. It comes from Hans Blumenberg, the author of Paradigms for Metaphorology. But curiously, Blumenberg does not have a general theory of metaphorology—he analyzes a series of “absolute metaphors;” that is to say, what we commonly call images in French: the light of truth, the heart of the problem, etc. We know very well that truth is not a sensitive light, that the problem has no beating heart, etc. But we cannot replace the light of truth with the heart of the problem. We cannot replace the light or the heart with an adequate concept. These images take the place of a concept.

On the contrary, when I speak of metaphorology, I am speaking of the theory of metaphor that was developed by the “theologians” of the three great revealed religions: for example, by Augustine, Al-Farabi or Maimonides. The problem comes from the fact that the Scriptures are texts full of images: the hand of God, His throne of glory, His face and His back, etc. What are we to make of them? What are we to make of this? First of all, all authors agree on one point: we must go beyond any anthropomorphism. Unlike the gods of polytheism, the unique feature of the one God is that He is not visible; that He has no body, no representable form.

But then, should we say that these metaphorical images have no meaning and that the Scriptures are useless? A purely philosophical reading might be tempted to say so. But for most of our authors, the Scriptures serve a purpose: they are addressed, not to an elite of philosophers, but to the people who live by images and are guided by their desires and representations, in order to guide them towards salvation. The Bible and the Koran thus serve to form a people of believers, to frame it politically, to guide it morally and spiritually. But to make sense of metaphors, or to seek the truth beyond metaphors, is to interpret the Scriptures. Therefore, theology is an immense metaphorology. If the Scriptures are a forest of symbols, this means that we are never finished searching for their meaning. To go through them is to go through different levels of faith. This is Augustine’s experience—we begin by taking everything literally; but then we notice the tensions and contradictions; the text seems absurd. So, one goes in search of deeper, more spiritual, “allegorical” readings. All exegesis presupposes a metaphorology. And without metaphorology, theology would not be possible.

PL: In your book, you note how, at different times in its history, theology has seen the threat of “double truth” arise and how theologians of each era have sought to avoid this duplication. What threat does the “double truth” represent for theological science and how has it responded to it, up to Galileo?

OB: In reality, it is the theologians who have invented this threat. And in believing to exorcise it, they made it exist. Strictly speaking, the expression appeared in 1277 in the writings of the bishop of Paris, to condemn the error of the masters of the faculty of arts. According to him, when they taught philosophy, they taught Aristotle and affirmed things that were contrary to the faith; but at the same time they proclaimed themselves to be good Christians, who upheld the truths of the faith. Saying one thing and thinking the opposite is the fantasy of the “double truth,” which orthodoxy wants to fight.

Now what interested me was that we see, as early as Augustine, but obviously without the expression, the same fear, the same fantasy, being constructed. Except that Augustine’s solution is not at all the same. It consists in limiting the validity of what the theologian can say. In matters of science, his teaching has no relevance. It is better not to make a pronunciation on sciences that are beyond our understanding, for fear of being laughed at. But Thomas Aquinas brings up this argument several times. And Galileo makes it his main defense.

In the 13th century, there was clearly a problem of articulation between theology and philosophy. The condemnation of 1277 is only a symptom of a fundamental difficulty. But if we go beyond the bishop’s suspicions, we see that the masters of the arts, in order to practice philosophy, sought to defend the autonomy of philosophy. For that, they admitted that what they taught was not the absolute truth—either they limited themselves to quoting and commenting on Aristotle’s texts without holding them to be true, or they deployed their discourse from the data of natural science. For example, any serious interpreter of Aristotelian physics is obliged to admit an eternal world, because it is the cornerstone of his conception of the world. But of course, as a believer, the same individual can admit that the world is created; and this is for him an absolute truth. But it is precisely this form of autonomy, this way of basing philosophy on hypotheses, of seeing in it, truths that are true only relatively and not absolutely, that the bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier, interpreted as a “double truth.” For his part, he had a simple solution: we forbid all philosophical propositions contrary to the Christian faith; and to be sure that no one takes them up, we make a list of them!

So, to answer your question, it was the intervention of theology that was a threat to philosophy, much more than the double truth was a threat to theology. The double truth did not threaten anyone, since it did not exist. It is an inquisitor’s fantasy: nobody seriously supported it before the condemnation of 1277.

PL: The slow construction of theology as a science, from Aristotle to St. Thomas Aquinas, was suddenly shaken at the end of the 13th century. Do you share the idea that, from that time on, the history of theological science would be confused with that of Thomism? Who would you say was the last Thomist?

OB: I repeat, “theological science” goes back to Aristotle. It is not at all confused with Thomism. What we see is something else: the term theologia was a Greek term, foreign to the Latin language. Yet it emerged several times in Latin. First in Augustine, where it designated the Stoic conception of the various ways of relating to the gods (through myths, the laws of the city, or the science of nature). But, probably because the term was too deeply linked to polytheism, Augustine did not use the word to designate the discipline that he himself practiced. He preferred to speak of philosophia christiana (“Christian philosophy”), or “Christian doctrine.” Boethius (5th century), at least once, translates Aristotle’s expression, “theological science,” by the word “theologia.” Finally, Abelard (12th century) was the first to call a book Theologia, no doubt in the sense of Boethius. For him, it was only the title of the book, a pedantic way of saying “Treatise on God.” But it is from Abelard onwards, and it seems from his oral teaching onwards, that theology designates a separate discipline.

In the 13th century, what is new is that following the reception of Aristotle’s principal treatises (notably those on science, the Second Analytics), the scientific status of theology is questioned—in the name of what, can this discipline call itself a science? And there, one notes a progressive elaboration, where all the important theologians of the 13th century contributed their stone to the edifice: Alexander of Halss, Bonaventure, Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas. In this global movement, the great strength of Thomas is to have dared to make the great leap—to be the most Aristotelian of all. That is to say, to have had the courage to work, to assimilate and to criticize the greatest non-Christian philosophy available at the time. This is why his solution on theology as science is both the strongest and the most Aristotelian. It is the strongest because it affirms that our theology, the one we elaborate from revelation, depends on the science of the blessed (the one God and the angels have of themselves and of the truth); that it is “as if subordinated” (quasi subalternata, “quasi-subalternated”) to this other science, a bit like (quasi) optics depends on the principles established by geometry. It is also the most Aristotelian, because it can be shown that this superior science coincides with what Aristotle called the “theological science” (which comes down to the science that God has of Himself). It is therefore precisely the introduction of Aristotle’s metaphysical model into the heart of Christian thought.

As for the idea that theological science is then confused with Thomism, it is frankly false. In reality, Thomas was immediately attacked by his greatest successors precisely because he was found to be too Aristotelian. He was criticized for almost all his positions, and especially for theology as a science. For example, for his successor at the University of Paris, Henry of Ghent, the “quasi-subalternation” of which Thomas speaks is a deception—for those who have the science of revelation (men on earth) are not the same as those who have the divine science (the blessed). Then came other great theologians, all original—Duns Scotus, Peter Auriol, Ockham, Gregory of Rimini, Gabriel Biel, Luther. It was above all the Dominican order, and then the authority of the papacy, that allowed the maintenance of a Thomistic school (with all its internal contradictions, as we have seen in the case of Cajetan).

PL: If you establish the responsibility of certain Thomists in the decline of theology, you also insist on various “affairs” that toppled the medieval edifice, in particular the “Galileo affair.” Could one say that theological scientificity has been the object of a “deconstruction” in the modern sense of the term?

OB: As I said, the assertion that the supernatural is completely external to man’s desires was originally a non-Thomistic position. Then it crept into the Thomistic tradition, and it contaminated part of theology. But not all of it, since there were other traditions, more faithful to the Augustinian paradox—man desires to reach the truth, but he cannot reach it by himself; he needs grace. I have also spoken of the Galileo affair and I have mentioned the case of the Lateran Council V. There are surely other factors as well.

But then, can we say that there is a “deconstruction” of theological scientificity? Clearly, yes. Henri de Gand is only the first of a long series of criticisms. It is therefore a deconstruction that occurred at the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th century, one or two generations after Thomas. It is insistent on the idea that Christian theology has a specific status, that it rests solely on faith, and that it is therefore science only after the act of faith. It then becomes a hypothetico-deductive system—faith provides initial data, the articles of faith, which function as axioms, and theology speculates only afterwards, to deduce the consequences.

Consequently, the construction of theology as a science has only really held solidly for a century or so, between the first great Summits, such as that of Alexander of Hales, and the radical criticism made by William of Ockham. Then, we see the rebirth of new doctrinal syntheses, which are still called theological, but which each have their own model of scientificity. Each of them articulates, in different proportions, a part of exegesis and a part of rational speculation. At the end of the 14th century, it was the popes themselves who called for a “return to the sources;” that is to say to the Fathers of the Church against scholastic subtleties. And Thomas swings to the side of the classics—one must read Thomas because he is a more reliable source, because he supports a kind of common position prior to the conflict of interpretations in the 14th century. We also see the birth of “schools”: the great universities of the Renaissance begin to have chairs: a chair of Scotism, a chair of Albertism (inspired by Saint Albert the Great), a chair of Thomism, etc.

PL: Modern philosophy’s criticism of the “ontotheological constitution of metaphysics,” as Heidegger puts it, parasitizes the fate of both theology and metaphysics. To what do you attribute such an impasse? Does the alternative between thinking being without God and thinking God without being have a future?

OB: The problem, when revealed theology is understood as a science, is that, in order to be a science, it has to model itself on Aristotle’s theological science. At that point, it carries on its shoulders the whole history of metaphysics. Now Heidegger has described metaphysics as an ontotheology. It should be noted first of all that this is not in itself an insult; it is a description. I have criticized elsewhere (in the book Métaphysiques rebelles) this description, because I found it simplistic; this model must be multiplied, to adapt it to different cases.

But of course, this characterization of the God of metaphysics is also intended, according to Heidegger, to oppose the God of philosophy and the God of faith. And obviously, if we want to think philosophically today about the God of revelation (and not go around in circles talking only about the God of philosophers), we must think about the God of faith, hope and charity. If we want to think of the living God, we gain absolutely nothing by reintroducing here the question of being. To think the God of believers, and not an abstract concept, we must start from Revelation. We must also start from what it means to believe, hope and love; but this amounts to the same thing, since it is through Revelation that we can say and understand what it means to believe, hope in and love God.

PL: At the end of your study, you emphasize the emergence of a “new form of philosophia christiana.” Why did you use this expression? To what fate does “Christian philosophy” seem to you to be destined?

OB: Ah, I see that my sentence can be taken backwards. So, I have expressed myself badly. The “philosophia christiana” here is not what Gilson called “Christian philosophy.” It is the doctrine that the Fathers of the Church practiced, before the construction of theology as a science—it is the interpretation of the Scriptures, the interpretation of Christian existence in the light of the Scriptures, and the interpretation of the Scriptures in the light of Christian existence. Augustine also says, “Christian doctrine.” I sincerely believe that the work of deciphering the Scriptures, of interpreting their metaphorical images, of overcoming their apparent contradictions, and thus of discovering a spiritual meaning, is the work of a lifetime, in every sense of the word. The Christian faith is not a system, a worldview, an ideology, to which one adheres or not. It is something that one discovers, that one deepens, in which one progresses. When we try to acquire an understanding of it, it provokes a virtuous and endless circle—faith seeks intelligence, and intelligence seeks faith. Augustine said it very well.

It is in this sense that I was talking about returning to the philosophia christiana. This has little to do with what Gilson called “Christian philosophy.” Let us say that there are at least two meanings of the expression “Christian philosophy” in Gilson, depending on whether he is a historian or a philosopher. As a historian, his genius was to say, even if reason is a natural faculty, and if philosophy is an autonomous discipline, historically, we can see that Christianity did not leave philosophy in the state in which it had found it. Christianity has deeply affected, stimulated, modified, enriched and transformed the fundamental concepts of philosophy. In this sense, there was indeed a history of Christian philosophy; that is, of philosophy in a Christian regime. But as a philosopher, Gilson increasingly hardened his position, arguing that Christianity, in a way, required a certain number of philosophical theses, and that, basically, the truly Christian philosophy was that of Saint Thomas Aquinas. In the climate of the 1930s to 1950s, this theory is understandable. But today it no longer makes much sense. Today, a Christian philosopher does not have to defend certain pre-assigned theses. He is simply someone who tries to understand his faith better, and to think about contemporary questions in the best possible way, in the most rational and scientific way.


Featured: Jesus among the Doctors, by Albrecht Dürer; painted in 1506.

The Idea of the “Person” in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages still have a lot to teach us. This is the lesson that the historian Jérôme Baschet delivers to us in Corps et âmes. Une histoire de la personne au Moyen Âge (Bodies and souls. A History of the Person in the Middle Ages). Contrary to appearances, medieval Christianity was not dualistic. The body and the soul drew the contours of the human person—an “I” against a background of interpersonal relationships, far, far from Cartesian dualism. A lesson for our time!

The body and the soul are opposed, according to monotheisms. Even more so with the Gnostics, with what has been called the “demonization of the cosmos.” A demonization that included man, who is part of it—impure body; soul that tends towards purity. The scheme was comfortable. It outlined however a fatal spiral: the radical dissociation between the felt and the desirable. Between the sensible and the Good. Between what is and what must be.

Of course, the soul can improve itself, and the body too, but certainly not one against the other. This is the problem—we have pitted one against the other too much. The soul against the body, or the soul without the body—which is the same thing. And that’s how it has been since the Middle Ages, we are told. But what if it was the opposite? What if things have been like this since the end of the Middle Ages? And what if the body/soul dualism was established especially since, and with, modernity? What if it was since the mutation of Christianity into a religion more and more external to the life of society, more and more doctrinal, less and less popular, that the duality between body and soul had taken on pathological forms? That this duality had become dualism?

Medieval Personalism

It is the purpose of Jérôme Baschet to clarify this question. He is a historian, but not only. He also takes a philosophical look at this period of our European history. The breadth of his views and interests allows him to put Europe in perspective, in relation to other civilizations. Jérôme Baschet has two or three things to tell us. One is that the Christian Middle Ages saw a duality between the body and the soul, but that this duality is not a dualism. There are not two separate principles. What prohibits dualism is the idea of the human person. It is in this same perspective that we will see later that the communitarian personalism of the 1930s to 1950s is neither the rule of the masses nor individualism.

The second thing that Jérôme Baschet has to tell us is that the Middle Ages, which lasted a thousand years, are not static. And what we see is that they evolved in the following way: they were less and less dualistic. As Christianity permeated society, it made more and more room for the body. The more Christianity became a civilization instead of a religious doctrine, the more room it made for the body. It is the shift from the idea of God to the Incarnation that makes Christianity less dualistic. Perhaps also less Christian and less Judaic. More Europeanized. Now it is the opposite, Christianity, with Bergoglio, has become decivilized (Renaud Camus). It has returned to its origins.

Against dualism, the Middle Ages thought of the person. Persona. The etymology refers to “wearer of a mask.” It goes back to the Etruscans, and at least to Boethius, in the sixth century AD. True or false, this etymology means that we have a role to play. A mask is a role. And it’s not necessarily concealment. But this role does not exhaust our whole identity. The etymology of “person” also refers to “that which resonates.” And all for that, it came down to this—the body is what manifests itself, what makes a sounding board of our moods, our pains, our joys. It is therefore both physical and psychic.

This is what our ancestors of the Middle Ages understood. A person—is the capacity to say “I.” To be a person is to possess the sense of one’s individuality, “spiritual and body at the same time” (Marcel Mauss). “I am, I exist”, says Descartes. But the person was not waiting around for Descartes in order to exist. It is not precisely the Cartesian cogito. Descartes says: “I will now close my eyes, I will close my ears, I will turn away all my senses; I will even erase from my mind all images of corporeal things, or at least try, as this can hardly be done; I will consider them as vain and as false; and thus, speaking only to myself, and considering my interior, I will try to make myself, little by little. better known and more familiar to myself” (Meditations on First Philosophy, III). This is a bedtime story. A mental burp trying to be a philosophical “find.” It is the grail without the Arthurian poetry. Nobody serious can actually believe in this Cartesian man who would separate his self from the world. Who can possess an interior without exterior? The Middle Ages tell us something else. They tell us that the person is the center of a cluster of relations, and that these relations pre-exist the person. The person is what exists before the individual, who is an impoverished version of it. The individual is only a modern, rationalized derivation of the person. A step backwards towards the return to a body/soul dualism.

The “I” is a “We

The idea of the person is this: it is not the “I” that builds his relationships. It is the relationships that build the “I.” A person is thus a fraction of a cluster of relations. A sequence in a relational flow; and for all that, it is not an arbitrary division. The person really exists. It is not a simple convenience of description. But a person only exists in relation to others. It is undoubtedly the meaning of the formula of Aragon: “One does not die, because there are the others.” In others, with whom we are and have been in relationship, there remains a little of us. All life is, as Aragon said, a “narrative carnival;” and a carnival is a community movement.

There is thus a singularity of the European Middle Ages. It is this invention of the person—or this rediscovery of the person in a Christian context. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries are thus the least dualistic period in the history of the West, Baschet tells us. It is the golden age of the person. To this period of beautiful balance is opposed modernity—the a-relational conception of the person. Modernity is a self-founded conception of the person, and such a one is no longer the simple individual. Modernity rests thus on “a self-referential conception of the person,” writes Jérôme Baschet, a conception quite different from the medieval conception which it succeeds. We have to speak of naturalism when it comes to this post-medieval conception of the person as isolated monad. Naturalism (in the philosophical sense) means—all that exists has natural causes. Nature is thus decoupled into a system of causalities. Into mechanism. By this, it loses its enchanted character. It is no longer the focus of energy that Vedic India called aditi. It is the beginning of the disenchantment of the world. From the 1600s (the Discourse of Method is from 1637 and Meditations on First Philosophy is from 1641, for the Latin version), and in a process that will lead to the French Revolution, the relational character of the person is erased. And with him, the dimension of collective transmission, which was attached to the constitution of the person, disappears little by little.

Putting an End to Guilt

In the end, it is Rabaut Saint-Étienne’s famous formula that triumphs: “History is not our code” (Considérations sur le Tiers-état). Poor Rabaut! His formula was intended to be nuanced, explaining that it is not enough for a law to be old for it to have value—but his formula was quickly interpreted as legitimizing the clean slate in the name of the “goddess of reason.” We see it nowadays—our code is the refusal of historical legacies, except in the form of repentance. In the latter case, forgetting about forgetting is the rule. Let us forget everything, except our “crimes.” A dolorous and incapacitating hypermnesia. Is this not the goal? Let’s be ashamed of slavery, of Vichy, of our nuclear power plants, and even of Fabien Roussel and François Ruffin, who are too attached to the defense of the way of life of the working classes! And let’s get rid of the “affluent society,” except for migratory abundance, which is non-negotiable.

The individual of the modern world is then hypertrophied, in a mixture of “all to the ego”—the “dictatorship of the ego” of which Mathias Roux speaks in his eponymous book—and of over-responsibility in the manner of Levinas (the latter taking up Dostoyevsky’s words: ” each of us is undoubtedly guilty on behalf of all and for all on earth, not only because of the common guilt of the world, but personally, each one of us, for all people and for each person on this earth”). Hypertrophy of the “responsible” self, which comes down to the following—to be responsible for everything is ultimately to be responsible for nothing. Who wants to embrace too much embraces nothing. “Man, being condemned to be free, carries the weight of the whole world on his shoulders,” said Sartre (Being and Nothingness). In the end, every man for himself triumphs, accompanied by great ideals too abstract to commit to anything. Some are in favor of welcoming “climate refugees,” who do not exist, but some will not make a detour to bring a bunch of leeks to one’s old invalid neighbor. “Contemporary narcissism would like to think of the individual as an autonomous entity that detaches itself from any belonging and wants to ignore the society in which it lives,” writes Marcel Gauchet.

In contrast to the modern individual, the Middle Ages saw the person as the product of relations between oneself and others, and the product of a shared horizon. The person, in this perspective, is never the beginning of a story. He is a moment in it. “All human life begins… in the middle of the action which has already begun”, notes Irène Théry (La distinction de sexe). It is with this continuistic conception of the person that modernity broke. It established a triple separation of which Jérôme Baschet gives an account—separation of man from nature and the living, of the body from the soul, of the person from what preceded him and what surrounds him. It is now necessary to stitch together what has been disjointed. The Middle Ages have things to tell us. Let us hear!


Pierre Le Vigan is an urban planner who has also has taught at the universities of Paris XI-Orsay, Paris XII-Créteil, and at the IUP Ville et Santé in Bobigny. He has also worked in adult education. This article appears through the courtesy of the revue Éléments.


Featured: “Vision 4: Cosmos, Body, and Soul,” Book of Divine Works, Part I; painted by Hildegard von Bingen in 1230.

Memory of Andalusia… Yes, But which One?

Orientalism (especially so-called “scholarly,” i.e., institutionalized) is a European phenomenon whose complex history essentially concerns the three great nations of France, England and Germany. The other orientalisms, little or badly known, have been qualified as “peripheral”—thus, Spanish orientalism, neatly called “domestic” or “domestic orientalism.” This is because it emerges against the background of the past of Al-Andalus, which exerted a real fascination on Spanish writers and Arabists, such as Francisco Javier Simonet, Francisco Codera Zaidín and the theologian Miguel Asín Palacio. From the tentative resurrection of Arabic studies in the eighteenth century to the present day, an ideology and a scale of values underlie the work of many Spanish Arabists.

By what mystery was spread the historiographic myth of Al-Andalus as the oasis of a sweet, gentle life and harmonious religious understanding, in a world of brutes? The prize goes to Danielle Rozenberg for “recovering the memory” of a Spain presumed to be amnesiac. A few careful hours of reading is enough to pulverize this fashionable mythology.

First, there is Rosa María Rodríguez Magda, who published Inexistente Al Ándalus, De como los intelectuales reinventan el Islam (Ediciones Nobel, 2008) [Inexistent Al Andalus, How Intellectuals reinvented Islam]. She shows that the three communities, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, had limited relations, most of the time tense, not to mention the specific laws that were applied to them.

In another vein, the three volumes of Reinhart Dozy, Spanish Islam: A History of the Moslems in Spain (4 vols. 1861; 2nd ed. 1881) constitute a vast panorama of the history of the Muslims of Spain; that is to say a tiresome series of murders, betrayals, massacres, revenge, reprisals, taking and retaking of kingdoms or citadels, attempts at unification, broken and betrayed alliances.

Let’s be honest, there is no doubt that Islam was imposed by force wherever Muhammad’s warriors went, driven by the thirst for plunder and the prospect of the spoils of war.

The blood of the Umayyads flowed in 755 in Damascus when they were massacred by the Abbasids, whom the Persians had preferred to them. The only survivor, Abd al Rhaman, took refuge in Cordoba and ended up being proclaimed emir. From then on, these Umayyads were to be the propagators of the Arab greatness before the mass of converts coming from the submitted nations. These Umayyads were not ethnically Arabs. But their “blondness” did not prevent them from defining themselves as Arabs and claiming to be the best, purest and most faithful sons of the Prophet’s nation, in the ideological struggle they waged against the Abbasids of Baghdad and the Fatimids of Cairo. The Arab theme is central to Umayyad propaganda. This land, Al-Andalus, where the descendants of the caliphs of Damascus regained their rank, undeniably foreign to the Arabs, was an issue.

The fundamental choices of Al-Andalus were “Arab” choices: the Arab culture and the religion of the one God, a religion born on Arab-soil. They kept from those early times the arrogance proper to these Bedouins of the desert. The hatred between Berbers and Arabs continued from generation to generation. When the Berber princes governed, they oppressed the Arabs and the indigenous (Christians and converted Muslims). When the Arabs took over, it was their turn to shamelessly enrich themselves and oppress. Nietzsche described this phenomenon very well, applying it to Christianity, which he hated. In reality, it is the old animal programming, the ancestral and tribal rages that govern the Bedouin world and that have been infused into their primitive religion with such force that it has become almost invincible. Through power rivalries between Visigoth factions, some of them (including the archbishop of Seville) and the Jewish community, openly resorted to the help of the Muslims. Hence the meteoric success of their conquest of the peninsula.

Thus disappeared the Visigothic and Christian kingdom of Toledo, once magnificent, which yet remained in collective memory as a beacon of the Reconquista de Hispanae; and this from 722. A discontented fringe of the population turned to the newcomers, as in Byzantium. But the invaded populations were disappointed very quickly, when the true face of the conquerors showed itself—destruction of churches and places of worship, desecration of holy bodies; for the converts, prohibition to leave Islam under penalty of death. Chained to the religion of their masters, they derived little benefit from it and bore their contempt.

The first period of resistance was essentially religious, marked by spectacular provocations leading inexorably to martyrdom (on the model of the Christian martyrs in the first centuries of the Roman Empire). Eulogius was the leader of this rebellion.

It the second period, there were more uprisings, rebellions and revolts, inexorably drowned in blood. On the side of power, these three centuries were marked by cunning, treachery, and cruelty towards the indigenous, Christians and Muslims. The political facts gathered by Arab sources, stresses Gabriel Martinez-Gros, “do not show the social structures which emerged from beneath the froth of events but the consolidation of the political intrigue,” fundamental font of the history of this prolonged, ruinous and bloody occupation.

The Umayyads of Cordoba prospered for nearly two centuries until Emir Abd ar-Rahman III proclaimed himself caliph in 929, rejecting the spiritual authority of the Abbasid Caliphate. This so-called “golden age” was because of him; but in reality, it was merely a pause in the long oppression of the Spanish people. The reduction of tax allowed a moment of economic and cultural development. It did not last, and a civil war finally brought down the dynasty in 1031. Andalusia was then divided into a multitude of taifas (principalities). After a period of “splendor,” the khalifate of Cordoba succumbed to its divisions.

In the second half of the eleventh century, the vigorous Christian offensive of the “Reconquista” reached its peak and Islam could only hold out in Spain thanks to the help of the Berbers of Morocco:

Coming out of their deserts of Mauritania, these great Berber Sanhaja nomads, wearing the black veil with which the Tuaregs still cover their faces, after having conquered half of North Africa, went to Spain. They set back the Christian Reconquest; but also, taking advantage of their holy mission, they annexed the small Muslim kingdoms that they had come to save from the Infidels” (Georges Marçais).

These primitive Berbers of Morocco gave religious power a weight reminiscent of today’s mullahs, with their tyrannical, fussy and vicious morality. In Seville, in particular, these new masters replaced the Abbadids (the Abbad dynasty) who had called them to their aid. The last ruler, the poet king EI-Motamil, embarked with the princesses of his house on a boat that, going down the Guadalquivir, took them to the Maghreb, from where they would not return. Succeeding the sultans of Arab race and artistic tastes, hardly bothered by religious scruples, the rough Berber conquerors established the reign of austere virtue. Al-Ghazali, the most famous of them all, bore the fine title of “gravedigger of reason.”

At the head of the cities were appointed men of their own. Above all, the foqaha, Malikite jurists, who enjoyed the favors of the Berbers all the more because they issued opinions in accordance with Berber policy. The Almoravids added them to the provincial governors (qadi) to serve as advisors. To maintain the garrisons and prepare future expeditions, they obviously had their Sanhaja relatives from the desert, but also the “blacks” whom they had once defeated and converted to Islam and who were readily more arrogant than their masters and converters.

The deference owed to the new masters cannot be extended to the brigands they brought over. The wearing of the veil, which confused them with their leaders, was an attribute of nobility whose abuse was intolerable. Such were the trustworthy Andalusians and the “colored Berbers.” This division of labor expressed the distinction maintained in this Muslim society between the two fortuitously juxtaposed elements of the population: on the one hand, the Berber Almoravids (replacing the Arab and “Syrian” caste, which was very much in the minority) and the “muladi” or converted Christians, and on the other hand, the indigenous mass (the Andalusians), a mass divided between Christians, called “Mozarabs,” and Jews. At the bottom of this pyramid, the slaves.

Things did not go softly for the African conquerors and the people of Andalusia. The dynasties defended this Islamized Andalusia, but for their own benefit. They demanded of the people the literate, architects and artists not out of a taste for culture, but to increase the glitter of their reign. And yet hardly by the end of two generations, the sons of the big Saharan barbarians were seduced by Andalusian softness. The conquered land initiated them into the joy of living and to the charm of the common culture; the poets of Seville gave them the taste of the beautiful language; the art of Cordoba lived again in the mosques that they built in Fez, in Marrakech and in Tlemcen. Made of Berber robustness and Spanish elegance, the Hispano-Moorish civilization was established and flourished on both sides of their empire. It owed nothing to Islam, having borrowed everything from the civilization that it worked to destroy, but which tirelessly revived. It was made of the Arab taste for poetry and music, but above all for the ardent desire of the human soul to actualize the resources and treasures of beauty that it carries within, by casting them into the cultural molds at its disposal. It is neither Christian, nor Moslem, nor Jewish—it is a deep aspiration which finds its particularized expression in the psalms as well as in the lyric and love poetry, in the musicality of the language (the prosody), where the “Arab” poets exceled, an inheritance from the “times of ignorance.” It was this property of the soul and of human nature that austere Islam did not cease to repress because it felt an instinctive hatred of freedom and of the creative power inherent in any culture, (carried by some of its sons and daughters).

Are the Andalusians of today Arabs as the new ideology would like to make believe? The “balance of blood and race” (Gabriel Martinez-Gros) of the Andalusian compound is largely favorable to Spain and the West. The Islamization was also an Arabization, after the Romanization and the influence of the Visigoths, Romanized barbarians. In the Maghreb, the fact of bearing a name of Arab origin is most often only a sign of allegiance to power, and not proof of any descent from Muslim conquerors. But there is no “ethnic” particularism in Andalusia from the point of view of its population. The progressive reconquest by Spaniards first from the north and then from the center resulted in the same destructive behaviors towards the conquered populations: displacement, exile of those who refused to convert or even destruction.

The Muslim “umma” claimed to erase tribal distinctions. In reality, in the first centuries, it was confused with the “asabiyyah” of the Arabs instituted by the Prophet. A powerful asabiyyah, i.e., clan cohesion, reinforced by belonging to Islam, the religion of the masters, facilitated or even allowed the accession of a large family to power. Until another family took it over. To maintain power, one needs a “government.” Muslim power was corrupt from the outset, based on prebends, and continued only through intrigue, plots, betrayed alliances and violence.

And yet, the delirious ideology of Blas Infante (1885-1936) emerged, who was even awarded the title of “Father of the Andalusian Homeland” by the Parliament of Andalusia on April 3, 1983. For him, the Arab presence in Andalusia was not a lasting invasion but eight centuries of freedom, cultural influence, well-being and scientific progress. The Andalusian people were the product of a process of assimilation, resulting from the cohabitation of populations of different origins and religions. He went so far as to advocate the creation of a federal state which would delegate to Andalusia international relations with the peoples of Africa and the East.

In these semi-fantasy modern perspectives, special mention should be made of the novelist Juan Goytisolo, a sort of Spanish Roger Garaudy, but more subtle and intellectually equally ambiguous (he was buried in Marrakech and spent most of his life outside Spain). His book, Crónicas sarracinas (1982) [Saracen Chronicles], gives an idea of the weight of the Islamic past in the ideological struggles over the formation of national identity. In this work, Goytisolo had the elegant objective of “sodomizing myth” and defending his “Saracenicity.” The review of P.R. Baduel Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée gives a small idea of this edifying work.

Three chapters each are devoted to Ali Bey, to Gustave Flaubert and to Sir Richard Burton, “pilgrim and sexologist.” While Flaubert shamelessly and at the expense of the government went to pursue his fantasies of an oriental lupanar, Ali Bey, (pseudonym of Domingo Badia), administrator of the Royal Tobacco Monopoly in Cordoba and self-taught Arabist, was on a secret Spanish mission in Morocco, from where he then left for the East, where he was the first European to go (disguised) inside Mecca which he described and drew. Back in Europe and in France, he lamented, “the atrophy of the heart produced by the narrowness of a society of individual property, for he who returned from the great desert spaces.” Sir Richard Burton ventured to India and then went to Mecca, an act of unprecedented courage. Goytisolo compares his interest in Muslim society with that of Lawrence of Arabia: “Both feel the same fascination for Islam and the harsh and austere world of the Bedouins, placed entirely under the sign of masculinity. Both aspired to the wild freedom of the desert, to this hospitable and fraternal world from which woman is excluded.” Lawrence’s homosexuality, Goytisolo says, was linked to this choice of a society of males. This is a faulty parallel that reflects either great intellectual dishonesty or great ignorance about the life of Lawrence of Arabia, who, as we know, was illegitimately born and raped by a Turk when he fell into their hands, and who apparently never recovered from either injury.

Seeing the world through the lens of one’s homosexuality (even belatedly assumed) is not the most reliable light. Let’s be serious: Goytisolo’s ” Saracenicity” is nothing more than a figure of speech. In Las virtudes del pájaro solitario (1988) [The Virtues of the Solitary Bird], he builds his fiction on the Sufi origins of the mystical poetry of Saint John of the Cross.

At this point where the imagination erases fifteen centuries of history, the only answer is an appalled silence.

The Spanish Civil War halted the process of autonomy in Andalusia, which was resumed when the autonomies were established with the 1978 Constitution: Andalusian socialism then took over the nationalist theories of this Andalusia presented as the crucible of a civilization where Judaism, Islam and Christians coexisted in harmony, under the rule of the Muslim emirs and khalifahs, a civilization that could be the prelude and model of a tolerant multicultural society.

The same one that the French Islamo-leftism dream about.

The official flag of Andalusia includes two green bands, in clear reference to the color and banner of Islam.


Featured: “Abd al-Rahman III Receiving an Ambassador,” by Dionisio Baixeras Verdaguer; painted in 1885.

Eastern Caesaropapism: History and Critique of a Concept

To understand what “caesaropapism” means, we must compare and contrast this vague term with another, much clearer one, namely, “theocracy.” A theocratic society can be described as one ruled by, and over which “reigns,” God (1 Samuel 8:7), manifesting, directly or indirectly, His will in everything. The word itself, applied to the Jewish people, was created by Josephus Flavius. It fits both the original covenant theocracy embodied in the titanic figure of Moses, the divinely anointed kings of Israel, and the theocracy of the High Priests. The rigidity of the system was only marginally mitigated by the creation of the Levitical priesthood and the emergence of state authority: orders were always given by God, and in His name the prophets and interpreters of the Law spoke. Thomas Hobbes, followed by Spinoza, perfectly described this model: the agreement with God which this model presupposes, and the transfer of legal rights which it imposes. But while the latter declares the age of the prophets over, and warns against the slightest interference by the clergy in affairs of state, the former deduces from the example of Israel a “Christian republic,” in which the ruler “will take the same place as Abraham in his family” and will himself determine “what is the word of God and what is not.” This ruler would become by divine right the “supreme shepherd,” tending his flock and presiding over the Church in his state.

Going beyond Jewish history, these constructions and analyses have led sociologists to distinguish between several types of political organizations based on revelation and closely tied to religion: in some cases, the priests are content to lend legitimacy to secular authority (“hierocracy”); in others, the high priest or head of the community of believers ex officio also possesses supreme authority (theocracy proper); in still others, secular authority subordinates the religious sphere to a greater or lesser degree (forms of caesaropapism). This is how theocracy and caesaropapism, the model of the priest-king and the model of the king-priest, are opposed to each other.

Thus, the word “caesaropapism” stigmatized any “secular” sovereign who claimed to be a pope. The term itself has a sociological character, but it was used with an obvious polemical purpose, within the framework of a general classification that contrasted the theocratic or caesaropapist East with the West, where the independence of the “two powers” was perceived as dogma: in the first case there is confusion; in the second—distinction. Justus Henning Böhmer (1674-1749), professor at the University of Halle, in his textbook on Protestant ecclesiastical law (Jus ecclesiasticum protestantium), devoted an entire passage to the two main types of excesses of power in the religious sphere: “Papo-caesaria” and “Caesaro-papia.” In this way he sought, on behalf of the Reformed Church, to equate and denounce both the pope, who appropriated political power, and secular rulers dealing with religious problems, as Justinian had already done. Of the two opposed terms, only the second term was successful: it was often used in the second half of the nineteenth century, though not so much as a theoretical concept but to stigmatize Byzantium and its Orthodox successors: the “schisma” between the Christian East and the Christian West was said to have been caused by “Constantinian” or “Justinian” interference in matters of faith.

Such an approach turned the distinction between secular and spiritual authority into a complete incompatibility between the two. The vague notion of “caesaropapism” was reduced above all to a murderous-sounding word, which, however, could not be mollified by introducing a more genial definition; it was therefore impossible to raise the meaning of the word beyond the various currents of thought that gave it the derogatory character that has survived to this day. Thus, a brief review of historiography must precede any analysis of the essence of the problem.

To understand the essence of our problem and the ways in which it developed, it is necessary to mention briefly the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, that struggle of ideas which gave rise to Christian historiography as a reaction to critical reflections on the original truth of Christendom before its immersion in history.

Protestants instinctively disassociated themselves from all historical legitimacy, from that evolution which separated the clergy from all “other Christians, from that tradition which had established the Church in power. In his treatises On the Freedom of a Christian (1520) and On Secular Authority (1523) Luther paradoxizes the difference between the spiritual and the secular, starting from the Augustinian theory of the “two cities”: being part of both the spiritual and the secular cities, the Christian, according to Luther, is at the same time both absolutely free and absolutely enslaved. God created these two cities because only a small minority of true Christians belong to His city, while the vast majority need the “worldly sword” and have to submit to it, according to the covenant of Paul (Rom. 13:1: ” for there is no authority except from God”) and Peter (1 Peter 2:13: “accept the authority of every human institution”). But although worldly princes have their authority from God and although they themselves are Christians, they have no right to claim to “rule as a Christian” and in accordance with the Gospel. “The Christian kingdom cannot extend to the whole world, not even to one single country.” Between religion, understood primarily personally, and State, understood primarily in a repressive way, there can be no mutual accommodation; Luther sneers at those secular rulers who “arrogate to themselves the right to sit on God’s throne, dispose of conscience and faith, and… bring the Holy Spirit to the school pews,” just as he scoffs at popes and bishops “who become secular princes” and claim to be endowed with “authority” and not merely “office.” However, this radical separation of secular and spiritual does not lead to the recognition of the two powers, “since all Christians truly belong to the body of the Church,” and there is no reason to deny secular rulers “the title of priest and bishop.” It was not been easy to abide by these principles, and sometimes turned Lutheranism into a kind of caesaropapism (and Calvinism a kind of theocracy). But this new approach to “religion” undoubtedly carried with it the leaven which began the fermentation process by which the question of the origins of the Christian empire was fundamentally reconsidered in the 19th century.

The Council of Trent (1545-1563) made no determination on this question, but in proclaiming the Church to be the mediator between Christians and God, and giving sacred tradition the same weight as sacred Scripture, this Council brought together what Luther tried to divide. Both at the Council and around it, attempts were made to bring the two powers together rather than to separate them. The policy of the concordat was intended to find a difficult compromise between religious universalism and national churches. The Jesuits, on the other hand, supported the thesis of the “indirect power” of the pope in political affairs. And the justification they found, of course, in history. In thirteen volumes. of the Croatian Lutheran Matthias Vlacic (or Flacius Illyricus) and the Magdeburg “Centuriators” (1559-1575), who boldly called Pope Gregory VII a monster and thereby sowed confusion in the Catholic milieu; Caesar Baronius gave a belated response in twelve volumes of his Annales ecclesiastici (1588-1607). In this history of Christianity loomed the central character—Constantine the Great. Baronius looked upon him through the eyes of his apologist Eusebius of Caesarea, but also took into account orthodox and clerical corrections to the legend, according to which the first Christian emperor was baptized in Rome by Pope Sylvester, and that the popes’ secular authority and their royal prerogatives date back to Constantine’s imperial grant. It is not surprising that the volumes of the Annales, which were devoted successively to secular rulers and to Catholic pontiffs, were warmly received in the Orthodox world, and subjected only to a slight revision by the Russian hierarchs.

The union of secular and ecclesiastical authorities was as little questioned in Catholic Europe as in Eastern Christianity, and Constantine was a symbol of this union. In 1630, Jean Morin, priest of the Oratory, wrote his Histoire de la délivrance de l’Église chrétienne par l’empereur Constantin, et de la grandeur et souveraineté temporelle donnée a l’Église romaine par les rois de France (History of the Liberation of the Christian Church by the Emperor Constantine, and of the Temporal Sovereignty Granted to the Roman Church by the Kings of France), in which he rebutted Baronius, and disputed the fact of Roman baptism and the reality of Constantine’s gift—but all this only in order to claim that the emperor had been converted and had seen the heavenly cross in France, that he had been catechized under French bishops, and that it was the French kings who are the only initiators of the greatness and temporal power of the Holy See.

Ultramontanism and Gallicanism had different goals, but followed almost the same line of in interpreting the beginnings of the Christian Empire. It would take a long time before the Lutheran movement seriously threatened the Constantinian myth; which happened when criticism of the very foundations of “political Christianity” led, in Protestant countries, to the condemnation of caesaropapism. The sharp-eyed detective Santo Mazzarino noticed that a certain Johann Christian Hesse defended at Jena. in 1713. a thesis with a very telling subtitle: “On the Difference between True Christianity and Political Christianity.” And that’s where it all began. From then on, Constantine always served as a scarecrow. He, they say, chose Christianity ex rationis politicis, “for political reasons,” and made it serve the interests that he considered to be his own.

Next the baton was taken up in a book by Jacob Burckhardt, who in 1853 [Die Zeit Constantins des Grossen] rendered judgment on this false Christianity in the service of power; under his pen Constantine’s “psychological portrait” came out even harsher. The historian reproached the emperor for insidiousness and shamelessness, and Eusebius for concealing the truth. As a Western humanist and typical Protestant, Burckhardt believed that between religion and power there could be nothing but a constant friction; he rejected all forms of state Christianity and wrote against it; he was obviously antipathetic to what he called “Byzantinismus” [“Byzantinism”] which was soon to be called “Caesaropapismus.” He likened it to Islam, thereby expelling it from Europe. Historical interpretation played on all possible moral oppositions: between sincerity and opportunism, between religion and politics, between Church and State, and, in the end, between West and East.

In the same manner was the later shift from a moral critique of “political Christianity” to a more fundamental critique of “political theology.” To describe and eradicate this perversion was the task of Erik Peterson in in his brilliant essay, “Monotheism as a Political Problem,” which he published in Leipzig in 1935, under the conditions of Nazi Germany. He wrote about the dangers of monolithic and charismatic power. The reader immediately grasped the allusions that the author himself later revealed in 1947, well after the disaster. Constantine receded into the background and the proscenium was now occupied by Eusebius of Caesarea: the theologian, historian and panegyrist was now turned into a dangerous ideologue (and was disqualified as such), who wanted to make Christianity a continuation of Alexandrian Hellenistic-Judean philosophy and integrate it into Roman history. The notion of divine monarchy as developed by the Arian Eusebius and refuted by trinitarian dogma, was to be interpreted not as a theological reaction to the issue of deity, but as a political reaction to the threat of the demise of the imperium romanum. This is why the delusion of Eusebius is revealing, which is why his rejection of the proclamation of God as simultaneously one and threefold, which took the religion of Christ beyond the boundaries of Judaism, was so liberating. By so doing, it was forbidden to transfer to secular power and to the secular world models of Christian monarchy and “peace,” which could not be other than in the Godhead.

The false eschatology of Eusebius, who exaggerated the importance of the Empire in salvation history, Peterson contrasted with the distinction of the “two cities.” His preference is made all the more evident by the fact that he dedicated his book to the Blessed Augustine. He thus sketched the contradiction, which others would later develop with far less subtlety, between the East, secretly Arian and totalitarian—and the West, which had managed to get rid of political theology brought on by monotheism, and thereby destroyed all grounds for the contamination of the religious with the political.

Erik Peterson was neither the first nor the last in the line of those who made the connection between Arian “subordinatism” and the ideal of a monarch who, like the Byzantine emperor, receives directly from God both the anointing and the covenant to lead His people to salvation. But Peterson was the only one who, departing from this historical perception of caesaropapism, clearly dating back to the fourth century, made a general condemnation of any political speculation based on Christian theology. In 1969-1970 he was critiqued by Karl Schmitt whose text, both confusing and harsh, is not very convincing in which he argues about history and which is more interesting when he demands the sociologist’s right to investigate the process of secularization of Christian concepts and models.

Many historians, whether they have read the 1935 essay or not, assimilated the same perspective and turned Eusebius, whose Arianism was, we note, condemned, into the inspirer and mouthpiece of “Byzantinism,” i.e., caesaropapism; and in so doing they take at face value the opposite myth of the cynic Constantine and contrast the Western “mentality” to the Eastern one. Thus, it seems reasonable to speak of a sequence, from the Reformation to Burckhardt and Peterson (although the latter converted to Catholicism). In this perspective, the concept of caesaropapism is built on a critique of all religious authority; the debunking of “political Christianity” and the defeat of any “political theology.” At the same time. it is difficult to name beyond the university walls the source of this historiographic direction (distinctly French, sometimes tinged lightly with Catholic anticlericalism) that has arrived at a similar result, from an analysis of “modernity. No doubt, it took as its starting point the last chapter of Fustel de Coulanges’s La cité antique (The Ancient City) written in 1864, which set out to demonstrate how Christianity had “changed the conditions of government” and “marked the end of ancient society.” The historian insisted on the universality of the religious idea, which severed the connection of cults to family and polis, as well as the interiorization of faith and prayer which released the individual and allowed him to realize his freedom. What had been the privilege of a tiny elite of Stoic philosophers—the distinction between “private virtues and public virtues”—became the domain of all mankind. [Christianity] preaches that there is nothing in common between state and religion; it separates what throughout antiquity has been mixed. It must be observed, however, that for three centuries the new religion lived absolutely outside the limits of any activity of the state, able to do without its patronage and even to struggle against it—these three centuries dug a chasm between the domain of government and the domain of religion.

Since the memories of this glorious era cannot fade away—the distinction has become an indisputable truth—which even the efforts of some of the clergy cannot shake. History thereby recognizes a certain role in the separation of secular and clerical powers, the function of a certain inhibition is attributed to the church hierarchy, but as a whole is explained by the first principles of Christianity which laid a natural, non-religious foundation for law, for property and for the family; these principles are what has drawn the boundary “which separates ancient politics” from “from the politics of modernity.” With a fervor that led to accusations of his “clericalism,” Fustel de Coulanges briefly jumped through the centuries, leaving others to investigate in detail the phenomenon of caesaropapism, that remnant of antique paganism in the Eastern Christian Empire, the transformation of which was slow and incomplete.

These few pages from La cité antique had nearly the same impact in France as Burckhardt’s book had had in Germanic countries. They have been quoted in many articles and studies on the relations of Church and State. The teacher’s ideas were picked up and developed especially by one of his pupils, Amédée Gasquet, in 1879, in his doctoral dissertation, De l’autorité impériale en matière religieuse à Byzance (On the Power of the Emperor in Religious Matters in Byzantium), which he dedicated to “Academician Mr. Fustel de Coulanges.” The scientific apparatus of this dissertation is somewhat weak; but the mode of expression is sustained in the spirit of academic propriety—the author carefully avoids using the term “caesaropapism.” In any case, the intent of the work is quite clear—”ancient societies,” explains Gasquet, referring to La cité antique, which by that time had already gone through five or six editions, “did not know the division between political and religious power.” The Christian emperors of Byzantium, without renouncing any of the prerogatives of their pagan predecessors, claimed a dominant position not only in the secular but also in the ecclesiastical community; and in so doing they flaunted the title priest-king, and claimed holiness just as the pagan emperors had made the claim to apotheosis. Having embraced Christianity, they were confident that they could reform it at their own whim and adapt to their imagination “the immutable text approved by the Great Councils.” But Rome staged against the Caesars a grandiose revolution, which consisted in the separation of powers; “the pope, the vicar of Christ, deprived the imperial majesty of that power which did not belong to the title.” In the midst of this constant struggle and upheavals caused by the “caprices of the eastern rulers,” “the center of the universal church shifted from Constantinople to Rome.” The contradictions were aggravated. The pope “as a result of a bold usurpation,” began to distribute crowns in the West to those loyal to him. Thus, a political schism took place, soon followed by a religious one. Hence came the modern world, divided into those who remained faithful to the Byzantine tradition, and those who accepted the separation of powers and the supremacy of the spiritual over the secular. This division, boldly carried to its extreme consequences, was the principle which “awakened the Western nations, which grew, dwindling in barbarism.”

Consecration does not necessarily imply assent and patronage, and there is no guarantee that some of Amédée Gasquet’s assertions would have been fully endorsed by Fustel de Coulanges. But it is well to see how a generally fair idea of the inherent distinction between the spiritual and the temporal in Christianity could give rise to the false idea that this was a distinction between “two powers;” and how the image of the modern world, born of such a division, prompts one to declare “caesaropapism” a pagan legacy, preserved in the stagnant East, from which the liberated West quickly separated itself. The term, conciliatory or provocative, is not the least important. The image of an emperor scarcely washed of his paganism and all too used to playing the pontifex maximus runs through virtually all subsequent historiography. To pay tribute to Peterson, it is usually added that the ideology of the Hellenistic king, skillfully applied by the heretic Eusebius of Caesarea to a Christian monarch, served as a mediator and gave an appearance of new religious legitimacy to the successors of Augustus. But the conclusion, whether declared or implied, is always the same: Constantine’s conversion did not lead to a profound Christianization of the Empire; where imperial tradition survived, namely in the East, power remained secretly pagan. This is what polemical literature has always tried to convince the reader of, whether in the days of iconoclasm or the Union of the Churches, to cast as tyrants, persecutors and Antichrists this or that Byzantine emperor, who donned his religious role and tried to uproot the remnants of paganism from the Church.

The more “Romanesque” tradition in historiography makes some important adjustments to this scheme. The abbot Luigi Sturzo, in his book widely circulated in France, takes as his point of departure “the novelty of Christianity in comparison with other religions;” that Christianity had “severed any binding connection between religion, on the one hand, and family, tribe, nation or empire on the other, and also established a personal basis for these connections.” “For the Christian,” he continues, “there was an inherent dualism between the life of the spirit—and the worldly life, the religious and supra-worldly tasks of the Church—and the earthly, natural interests of the State.” But If unification is always harmful, the diarchy, “sealed in facts,” corresponded not so much to the separation of powers, but to their mutual accommodation. “From the Edict of Constantine and up to the formation of the Carolingian Empire, two types of religious and political diarchy developed: the Byzantine Caesaropapist and the organizing Latin.” The first represented “a political-religious system in which the power of the State became for the Church an effective, normal and centralizing power, though external to it; a system in which the Church participated in the exercise of certain worldly power functions; and in a direct form, though not independently.” Such was the position of the Eastern Church after Constantine, which led to a loss of autonomy, to subordination to the State, to the preservation of the economic and political interests of the secular elite and the privileged caste of clerics. In contrast, in the “Latin organizational diarchy,” “the Church, while constantly calling on the aid of the civil authorities and constantly ceding to the rulers some powers, some opportunities and some privileges within the ecclesiastical body, nevertheless almost always protested against any real dependence on them and, when necessary, insisted on its independence.” The author goes on to analyze in detail the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the development of national Christian churches, and the politics of the “concordat.” Of course, he fails to draw a line down the centuries between the mixing of powers inherited from antiquity and their differentiation as an innovation of Christianity. However, he draws a distinction between the Eastern model (modern rather than medieval)—and the Western model, which, a better knowledge of the subject, permits him to present in a more nuanced way.

The nuances give way to polemics in literature which more openly declares its confessional character; one of its most recent representatives is Fr. Martin Jugie a great connoisseur of the East, but also a great persecutor of schismatics: “Caesaropapism, as the term itself shows,” he writes, “means a State where civil power, Caesar, substitutes himself for the pope in exercising supreme power over the Church; this is—a totalitarian state, arrogating to itself absolute power both over the mundane and over the sacred, both over the earth and above, practically ignoring the separation of civil and spiritual powers, and at the least subordinating the latter to the former.” The roots of this evil stretch back to the pagan past: “The pagan empire was Caesaropapist in the full sense of the word. It was unfamiliar with the distinction between the two powers. The pagan emperor, who was called summus pontifex, possessed both the fullness of the priesthood and the fullness of authority over the clergy and over sacred matters. This absolute caesaropapism is incompatible with the Christian religion, in which we find a hierarchy endowed with special liturgical powers inaccessible to the laity… The head of the Christian State cannot be analogous to the Roman Pope, for he never had the authority of an ecclesiastical person. He can only usurp the role of the pope in the Catholic Church.” Such invasions have occurred frequently. “But it was in the East that caesaropapism was given a green light; it happened as early as the fourth century, the day after Constantine declared himself the patron of the Christian religion…. The pernicious example set by the first Christian emperor was followed by his successors, especially those who, after the division of the empire into two halves, ruled the eastern part… It is true that imperial caesaropapism often served the interests of the Church… But in terms of the unity of the Church it has had disastrous consequences: such are the nationalization of the Church, the enslavement of the clergy, the muted or open hostility to the popes… Unlike the Western Church, which, in spite of temporary abuses, found in the popes staunch defenders of its independence, the Byzantine Church had very few such fighters, although they were not absent altogether. On the whole, the eastern episcopate showed itself very obedient to dogmatic antagonisms and political heresies of their emperors.” Here we have a really well-stuffed bag of prejudices that, under the influence of the spirit of ecumenism and simple historical objectivity, are somewhat out of fashion and no longer in vogue, even in clerical circles.

The spread of the term “caesaropapism” is of course on the conscience of Roman Catholicism, but reformist Russian Orthodoxy also had a hand in this. In the last decades of the 19th century, Vladimir Solovyov debunked tsarist absolutism and its claims that the Eastern Church “itself gave up its rights” to hand them over to the State. He especially blamed the Syriac Orthodox Church for having become “a national church” and therefore losing the right to represent Christ, to whom all authority on earth and in heaven belonged. “In all countries, the church is relegated to the position of a national church,” he wrote, “and the secular government (whether autocratic or constitutional) enjoys the absolute fullness of all power; the ecclesiastical institutions appear exclusively as a special ministry, dependent on the general state administration. Here again it was pointed to Byzantium, which in the ninth century (in other words, during the time of Photius) claimed to be the center of the universal Church, but in reality gave the impetus to the deviation to nationalism.” Even closer to the present day, Cyril Toumanoff put across the same point of view—according to him the “Byzantine evil” consisted in the absence of a clear distinction between the spiritual and the temporal, in the predominance of the latter over the former, and in “Caesar taking responsibility for divine matters.” In this perspective, he described Russia as a “provincialized and barbarized Byzantium,” noting in passing the fusion of caesaropapism “à la Rousse,” with Protestant ideology, which seemed important to him. This time the problem shifted; and if we are still talking about pagan survivals in the Constantine Empire, now the birth of caesaropapism was attributed to a “later time,” the period of schism and the explosion of “Greek” nationalism, as opposed to Christian universalism.

In response to these many attacks, the wounded “Orientals,” whose beliefs and whose concern for truth had been questioned, attempted to offer resistance. It was not too difficult for them to introduce significant nuances to this black picture of retrograde “Byzantinism,” and to show that “caesaropapism” was a flawed word, an anachronism, incorrectly projecting to the East the Western notion of the papacy, and to the Middle Ages—the concept of separation of powers—applicable only to the New Age. Byzantium never denied the distinction between temporal and the spiritual, never officially allowed that the emperor could be a priest; those autocrats who ventured to suggest such a thing were regarded as heretics, and those who encroached on ecclesiastical rights (or, worse still, on ecclesiastical wealth) were branded as sacrilegious. So goes the rebuttal. But historians have also tried to make a distinction. They said, the interventions of the Empire in the affairs of the Church should not to be lumped together: some of them were permissible (the right of the emperor to summon and preside at councils; the promulgation of laws and canons; the maintenance and modification of the church hierarchy); others were reprehensible (the appointment of bishops; the formulation of the creed).

The global disapproval of Byzantine practice was casuistically dissected thus: The Byzantine emperor did not go beyond his powers if he was content to enforce canons or conciliar decisions; he went only a little beyond these limits when, on his own initiative, he passed laws concerning the Church, if they were in accordance with her own wishes (as Justinian and Leo VI had done in their Novels); the emperor was allowed a harmless violation when he imposed his personal preferences on the Church with her consent—but when he did the same not only without consultation, but sometimes with a minority of bishops against their majority, especially in matters of faith, then this was a flagrant abuse. Only the last two cases were attacks on the independence of the Church—the first two, although based on the same legal principle, at least respected the rules of the game.

Theologians or canonists have always been less tolerant than historians—but they oppose actual interference with a legal division written in the canons and constantly commemorated. They sought and found those responsible for the perversion: the authoritarianism of Constantius II (so as not to offend the inviolable Constantine); the Justinian mania for lawmaking; the “imperial heresy” of the iconoclasts, or the “Scholia” of Balsamon—all of which flirted with the concept of a quasi-priest emperor. Interpretation of canonical heritage, given at the end of the 12th century and taken up by Matthew Blastares, absorbed this stable tradition without any rethinking. Even though there was a deviation, the position of the Eastern Church was not (or was not always) conciliatory; it had to fight the “paganism” that persisted in the imperial ideology. How late it remained there is evidenced by titles like “epistemonarch” or “intercessor.”

At any rate, the word “caesaropapism” is annoying. It sounds like a slap in the face. It is attributed to the “Latins,” without realizing that the physical evidence for the accusation was fabricated throughout the Byzantine Middle Ages. Given the charge of Eastern caesaropapism, an accusation of Western “Papotsarism” is made. On the whole, this is a weak objection: it drags one into a polemic—when what is required is an analysis of the mechanisms, as suggested in our brief historiographical review.

In any case, of course, Byzantium itself is “not without sin;” but of it was made a scapegoat. In the artificially constructed concept of caesaropapism is a mix of contradictory elements. At its inception, Roman fundamentalism entered into a strange alliance with the spirit of the Reformation; the radical distinction between the spiritual and the temporal, which was supposed to purge religion from politics, curiously led to the recognition of the “authority” of the clerics; the founder of the Christian empire was blamed for lack of secular ideals. It is clear that Europe cannot understand medieval Byzantium— this is not allowed by European history, geography and culture.

Without going into detail, let us recall a few obvious truths. The opposition or dialogue between “Church and State” is possible only for a secular power, more or less irreligious and confined to the framework of a single state, and for the Church, identified with its clergy. This opposition reveals the originality of the Christian Empire: its universality (at least theoretically), its place (as a political structure, as a society, and as a historical phenomenon) in the divine government, centered on it, with all its ruptures, with all its reversals, with its past and especially with its completion. The rupture? And what else can one call the Incarnation of Christ, by which the coming of the age of Grace was heralded in the midst of a political regime pleasing to God—for the Empire of Augustus was chosen as the cradle for the new religion. Return? What else was the curious projection of the Jewish past onto the Christian present, when Byzantium and its emperors lived as if on two levels, the level of Old Testament models, read as “images” from the Christian future, and the level of Christian history, which was nothing more than the realization of these “images.” Completion? This is a programmed end, as announced by Daniel and all the Apocalypses, because of it. Christian time, since the reign of Constantine, has become a “countdown.” Within this timeframe, empire is presented as a setting, and the emperor as the principal actor. Notions of “this age,” “the State,” or “worldly power” are useful for delineating the domain of imperial institutions in contrast to the institutionalized Church, handed over to the cares of the clerics. But these same concepts ignore the aforementioned alchemical transformation of time, this sacred history, within which the emperor was something like a High Priest. Back in 1393, Patriarch Anthony IV of Constantinople reminded Prince Vasily of Moscow about the role of emperors in the formation of Orthodoxy, about the unity of the empire and the Church. The idea of two separate powers is not prerogative; but this is where it took the “modern” form, the form of the political revolution that accompanied the separation, later the collapse, of the empire in the fourth and fifth centuries.

In the East, the reaction was neither so rapid nor so unequivocal. The dispute was accompanied inexorably by vestiges of messianism and the expectation of an eschatological denouement. Although the emperors seldom dared to publicly proclaim their priesthood “according to the order of Melchizedek,” they still believed in their special mission: to dispose of that double heritage, Davidic and Levitical, which Christ declared to be His, having come into the world in the flesh, during the first “advent,” but which He will enter into possession of, having finally established His kingdom, when the end of the world, called the second “coming,” will soon come. The royal priesthood in Byzantium was a continuation of the messianic spirit during that interval between the two “comings” which exactly corresponds to the period of the Christian Empire.

Needless to say, in this matter (as in all others), history does not decide who is right and who is wrong. It only allows us to understand past justifications and measure the bias that has been created to date by any history that has become a tradition, and then any tradition that has become an ideology. The West, for which Judaism played almost no role as the main standard and which grew up on the ruins of the Empire, made valor out of necessity. The West underestimated and dismantled that majestic building, which was the result of the meeting of two traditions, Roman and Jewish. It divided the “authorities” in order to create a spiritual power in the backyard of modern states, which was often nothing more than a powerless theocracy. As for the East, it prolonged that grandiose and fruitless dream which was already illusory in the Empire of the Second Rome, a dream which served as an alibi for the retrograde autocracy in the Russian Empire of the Third Rome and which in today’s world often appears under the ugly mask of nationalism. The political aporia “priest and king,” “priest or king” is undoubtedly one of the basic problems of mankind, and its solutions in history grow out of each other in the process of mutual adaptation of cultures.

In conclusion, let us give the floor to Dostoevsky. In one of the first chapters of The Brothers Karamazov, the most Byzantine of his novels, Dostoyevsky sets forth, in the form of a paradox, the problem we have been discussing here. Ivan Karamazov, an intellectual revolutionary and atheist, has written a treatise on church tribunals in which he denies the principle of separation of Church and State. He is questioned about this by the participants in the conversation, who embody the entire spectrum of opinion: Miusov, a secular man, landowner, Westerner, and skeptic; Father Paissy, a worthy representative of Orthodoxy; and an elder who speaks his heart. Ivan justifies his position by explaining that the mixing of Church and State, intolerable in itself, will always exist because there can be no normal relationship between them, “because lies lie at the very heart of the matter.” Instead of asking about the place of the Church in the State, we should instead ask how the Church is to be identified with the State in order to establish the kingdom of God on earth. When the Roman Empire became Christian, it naturally included the Church; but the Church, in order not to renounce its principles, must in turn seek ways of gaining control over the State.

Miusov observes that this is a trivial utopia, “something like socialism.” The elder hesitates for another reason: he fears that in a world where law and love will merge, the criminal will no longer have the right to mercy, as he believes there is no such right in “Lutheran countries” and in Rome, where the Church has proclaimed itself the State; and yet he foresees the distant day when the Church will revive. “What is this really about,” exclaimed Miusov, as if suddenly bursting out, “is the State being eliminated from the earth, and the Church being elevated to the degree of a State. It’s not just ultramontane, it’s arch-ultramontane! This was not even imagined by Pope Gregory VII! Quite the opposite of what you mean!—Father Paissy said sternly.—It is not the Church that turns into a State, understand that. That’s Rome and its dream; that’s the third devil’s temptation! On the contrary, the State converts to the Church, ascends to the Church and becomes the Church in all the earth, which is quite the opposite of both Ultramontaneism and Rome and your interpretation, and is only the great destiny of Orthodoxy on earth. From the East the star shall shine forth” (The Brothers Karamazov, Part 1, Book 2, Chapter 5).

Such debates were waged in Russia in the 1870s-1880s. They somewhat confused the concepts of theocracy and caesaropapism. Here the ideological costs of the church-state may have been anticipated, but they were generally found to be more consistent with the spirit of Orthodoxy than the spiritual betrayal the church-state seemed to represent. The one point on which all agreed was the recognition that the fundamental separation of the two powers rested on a lie.


Gilbert Dagron (1932-2015) was a foremost scholar of Byzantine history, whose best-known work is Emperor and Priest: The Imperial Office in Byzantium.


Featured: Double-headed Eagle, anonymous, from Filenka, ca. 1740s.

Manuscript Hunting in Late Seventeenth-Century Iceland

The fervent collecting of ancient and medieval manuscripts—in Italy and Greece from the late fourteenth century, in France, Germany and England from the early fifteenth century, and in Spain and Iceland from the late sixteenth century onwards—resulted not only in the accumulation of new texts and information. It was also a reason for perplexity as scholars struggled to design methods for sifting evidence, for defining options, and for making choices concerning the texts they wished to use or publish, their struggle at times ending in despair and exhaustion. As more and more manuscripts were brought to light and made accessible in continuously growing libraries and private collections, scholars needed new tools to understand and manage textual variance. Which manuscripts should be used, and how could their quality be gauged? Why did their texts differ? How should they be transcribed and published? Should vernacular texts be translated into Latin? What kind of comments were needed – factual, historical, or textual?

Such technicalities, in other words the painstaking travails of textual scholarship, deserve to be a focus of attention in an overarching history of the humanities. This history should not restrict itself to the brilliant ideas of philosophers and theologians. Developments in the humanities were based on the “rough” material of ancient textual sources, and in this article I hope to show how scholarship in the Early Modern age needed to plough through vexed issues of textual variance, manuscript hunting and compilation that, although often coming to dead ends and not always resulting in successful publications, were nevertheless seminal to developments in history writing, philology, and language scholarship.

I will focus on an area to which the history of scholarship has paid scant attention: the kingdom of Denmark-Norway in the late seventeenth century. Somewhat earlier, the English antiquarian Henry Spelman characterized this “unlearned” kingdom as being on “the confines of the Arctic Circle.”

Although an abundance of Icelandic and Norwegian medieval texts and manuscripts was rediscovered and the first editions appeared in 1664-1673, none of them was based on a critical assessment of manuscripts. In the 1680s and 1690s a renewed effort was made that, had it succeeded, would have delivered interesting results. Lamentably, however, this endeavour did not produce editions, partly due to a lack of funds but chiefly because of methodological difficulties. The scholars involved were aware of the value of vellum manuscripts but unable to solve the problem of textual variance, that is the fact that manuscripts of any specific work differed in many ways, and a scholar who wanted to produce an edition would have to make choices based on critical discernment and clear principles.

Instead of using standards of philological correctness of our present age to judge these late seventeenth-century efforts, I shall base my estimate on the exceptional insights of the late fifteenth-century Florentine scholar Angelo Politian, the enfant terrible of late medieval and early modern scholarship. In a way, Politian’s philological ideals were so close to modern procedures that they seem almost too good to be true; his practice in that sense resembles what Ezio Ornato has calleduna semplice curiosità archeologica” [a mere archaeological curiosity]. Politian’s example was only followed by scholars in more recent times, but nonetheless his philological ideal can be used as a benchmark for developments in the Early Modern period. Arrogant and impatient at times, he was an incredibly observant scholar who wished to outperform his contemporaries as he strove to establish better versions of ancient Greek and Roman texts through linguistic refinement and the meticulous observation of manuscripts. He wanted to base his work on a thorough investigation of as many manuscripts as possible, preferring older ones but not discarding more recent texts that might be copies of ancient books.

Politian’s work demonstrates his critical assessment of the quality of manuscripts and the ways in which they were related. He made very careful collations of manuscripts and printed editions, rigorous transcripts of texts that he borrowed, and emendations, judiciously based on other texts written by the same author or his direct environment. Politian loathed inexactitude and harshly criticized his predecessors and contemporaries for making too many mistakes. In his Miscellaneorum centuria prima of 1489, for one, he attacked the late Domizio Calderini for his sloppy method. Jacopo Antiquari, Calderini’s friend in Milan, complained about this in a letter and claimed that since Calderini was long dead, it was like attacking a ghost. Politian retorted on 30 November 1489 that he could not know whether Calderini would have corrected his mistakes if he had still been alive:

How should I know this? Are you really saying that it is always and everywhere a good idea to expect intellectual progress? [An usquequaque de ingeniorum profectu bene sperare est?] Were not all of this particular person’s final contributions even more inaccurate?

In Politian’s view, progress came with hard work. His influence, however, was limited—like Calderini, in this respect, he died too soon. Most scholars continued to make many mistakes, and even the best were careless in their choice of manuscripts and variants. When Erasmus, for instance, published his Greek edition of the New Testament in Basel in 1516, he used five manuscripts. One of them is preserved, a twelfth-century vellum now known to be devoid of textual value. Although aware of the value of old manuscripts, Erasmus relied mostly on recent ones with scant merit. Where the Greek text was lacking, he even added bits of his own translation from the Vulgate, thus revealing, to quote L.D. Reynolds and N.G. Wilson, “a lack of a set of logical principles for the evaluation of manuscripts.” In his edition of the works of Seneca in 1515 and 1529, Erasmus recognized the worth of a ninth-century manuscript he had acquired, but he did not use it much: “Instead of basing his text of these works upon this prime witness, he drew on it spasmodically to emend what he had before him.”

It soon became standard practice for most editors to use first editions as a basic text—textus receptus or textus vulgatus—adding selected readings from manuscripts that were mentioned only vaguely (“emendatio ope codicum”) and various conjectures (“emendatio ope ingenii”), at times original, but just as often borrowed or stolen. Th ere were some exceptions, however. In around 1530-1570, scholars of Roman law, such as Antonio Agustín, Piero Vettori, Jacques Cujas and Joseph Scaliger, criticized older editions severely, tracing the genealogy of manuscripts and publishing transcripts of those they considered important. They normalized orthography and corrected errors, and even made typographical distinctions between variants and conjectures.

Such efforts were consolidated every time that scholars made a determined effort to gather manuscripts in growing libraries. Although most libraries were private, the biggest ones, kept by kings, dukes and universities, were public. From the 1640s onwards, this enabled Dutch scholars such as Nicolaas Heinsius and Isaac Vossius to produce better editions, partly through their ingenuity in making emendations and conjectures based on a wider knowledge of texts, but also through a closer scrutiny of manuscripts. Scholars came to prefer their specific texts above earlier editions, although at times some were overwhelmed and only produced heaps of variants without distinction.

This process of strenuous and uneven progress was mirrored further to the north, but developed more slowly and with less spectacular results in terms of editions. Influenced by Italian humanists, scholars in Northern Europe had begun searching for documents and manuscripts already in the early sixteenth century. Interesting texts were discovered such as the plays and poetry composed by Hrotsvitha von Gandersheim in the tenth century; they were edited and published by Konrad Celtis in Nürnberg 1501.

In 1515, his friend Konrad Peutinger used recently found manuscripts to publish The History of the Goths, written by Jordanes in the sixth century, and The History of the Longobards by the ninth-century historian Paulus Diaconus.

In 1514, Christiern Pedersen, a Danish student of theology in Paris, published the extensive early thirteenth-century Latin History of the Danes (Gesta Danorum) by Saxo Grammaticus—and was actually among the first editors to use the blurb text for claiming that this was the first time a text appeared in print: “nunc primum literaria seriæ illustratæ tersissime que impressæ.” Later, he wished to make a Danish translation of Saxo with detailed explanations on Nordic history. Aware of the existence of manuscripts of medieval sagas of Norwegian kings, he hired a Norwegian man of learning who knew the old language to make excerpts.

A Danish translation of Saxo first appeared in 1575, when the historian Anders Sørensen Vedel concluded one. The first Danish translation of the Norwegian kings’ sagas appeared in Copenhagen in 1594 and a more thorough one in 1633, when Ole Worm, in his introduction, compared the writings of the thirteenth-century Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson to Greek and Roman historical works, stating that they were just as useful and truthful.

As late as the 1630s, the Dutch historians Johannes Meursius and Johannes Pontanus wrote eloquently on the medieval history of Denmark without using a single manuscript. It was by then well known that medieval manuscripts of great interest for the medieval history and culture of Scandinavia were to be found in Iceland. The first batches were sent as gifts to the Danish king in 1656 and 1662 by the learned bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson who hoped that Icelandic texts would be published with a Latin translation and a scholarly commentary.

Swedish scholars, arguing with Danish ones about the age of their two nations, also showed an interest in Icelandic texts containing references to Swedish kings. In 1664-1673, a series of text editions appeared in Uppsala and Copenhagen with translations into Danish, Swedish and Latin, but all of them were worse than anything produced in Europe at the time. Any available manuscripts were used regardless of their scholarly value, mostly recent and inexact copies from Iceland, and the editors’ commentaries reveal a credulous attitude towards the text and a blatant lack of critical zeal.

This was the scholarly norm when Árni Magnússon [1663-1730], or Arnas Magnæus as he will be called here, arrived in Copenhagen in 1683, at the age of twenty, to study theology at the university, just like many promising young men of good families in Iceland. A year later he became assistant to Thomas Bartholin the Younger, the recently appointed royal antiquarian, and provided numerous Icelandic texts for his fairly voluminous book on the fearlessness of medieval Danes, published in Copenhagen in 1689.

Magnæus developed rapidly as a textual scholar. In 1684-1685 he made hundreds of short excerpts from Icelandic manuscripts of sagas and historical works, using recent copies available in the city, most of them of disputable quality, copied without care for reading purposes and not for scholarly use. The Icelandic vellums that belonged to the king and the university were all at Stangeland, on the west coast of Norway, with the Icelander Þormóður Torfason or Thormod Torfæus, royal historiographer of Norway.

Magnæus’s method of transcription was simple. He used his own orthography and expanded the abbreviations in the manuscript he copied (exemplar), so that he gave everything his personal touch. Bartholin and Magnæus did not care about the age of the manuscripts or texts they used. To them, all texts were equally interesting, and they used what was at hand, such as an early seventeenth-century copy of Knytlinga saga, a saga on Danish medieval kings that Ole Worm had received from Iceland some decades earlier. In collaboration with an unknown Icelander, Magnæus copied the legendary Hrólfs saga kraka from a paper copy and translated it into Latin. He also made a copy of the Norwegian thirteenth-century Speculum regale (Konungs skuggsjá), again in collaboration with an unknown scribe, but now from a vellum manuscript that belonged to Peder Resen, professor of law at the university. In one place, Magnæus commented on the fact that a leaf was missing. He corrected what the other scribe had done, and they both modernized the spelling.

Although one of his exemplars was on vellum and the other a recent copy, the method was consistent. The goal was to make texts readable and accessible, so that information would be available on a variety of relevant issues. The transcripts were meticulous, and few changes were made, except for the spelling. This is how Icelandic scribes had worked earlier in the century. Magnæus followed their tradition and not without success.

In 1685-1686, Magnæus changed his mind completely, as if he suddenly discovered that things could be done so much better. In the spring of 1685, he went to Iceland in order to collect manuscripts for Bartholin; he stayed until the autumn of 1686. He found nothing that Bartholin needed, but obtained for himself a few legal codices and made copies of medieval legal texts in a manner totally different from what he had done so far, in more detail and with greater exactitude. As he returned to Copenhagen, he responded to this “revelation” by transcribing several texts from a late fourteenth-century collection of Icelandic sagas, recently acquired by Resen from a student who had been with Torfæus as a scribe for three years.

The transcript is exceptionally detailed and can be situated on what philologists now call the diplomatic level. Magnæus strove to imitate the orthography and abbreviations of the original, and succeeded except for minor inconsistencies in some details. He emended the text in a few places and put his additions within square brackets. This “new” method seems to have been based on a mixture of foreign models and personal fascination due to direct contact with vellum manuscripts.

The exceptional attention to detail was probably inspired by his reading of scholarly books and editions in Bartholin’s library of at least 2400 volumes. Here, Magnæus had access to hundreds of editions of classical and medieval texts and to the most recent scholarly feats of Jean Mabillon and others—not to mention Angeli Politiani opera, published in Paris in 1519. By now, Magnæus had decided to acquire as many Icelandic texts as possible in good copies, probably hoping to establish a research library of sorts. However, he soon found the newly developed diplomatic method too time-consuming and opted instead for a somewhat easier way of copying texts in a normalized orthography with expanded abbreviations. He did not go so far, however, as to use his own orthography like he had done earlier. In the winter of 1687-1688 he copied another fourteenth-century vellum of Icelandic sagas, Möðruvallabók, with two friends who studied at the university, Ásgeir Jónsson and Eyjólfur Björnsson. They expanded all abbreviations and wrote all names with a majuscule. Corrections were not indicated, and not all medieval letter-forms were maintained.

In the autumn of 1688, Torfæus came to Copenhagen to claim his salary that was long overdue. He was working on books on the medieval history of Denmark and Norway, published in 1702 and 1711, respectively. He befriended his much younger countryman Magnæus who confided that he planned an edition of a crucial historical work, the early twelfth-century Book of Icelanders (Íslendingabók). Written by chieftain, priest and historian Ari Thorgilsson the Wise, it succinctly narrates the discovery and colonization of Iceland in the late ninth century and its subsequent Christianization. The edition was intended for scholarly readers and was to contain a Latin translation and an extensive historical commentary. It would have added invaluably to the knowledge of Icelandic medieval history and was accepted for publication in Copenhagen in spring 1691, but never appeared. My contention is that Magnæus abandoned the edition because textual and factual inconsistencies in medieval manuscripts stretched the limits of his method. Rather than accepting these inconsistencies as some sort of challenge by integrating them in his work, he discontinued the project.

Magnæus’s first problem was that he had no decent copy of the text and had to use whatever manuscript he could lay his hands on. To our present knowledge, an early thirteenth-century vellum manuscript was extant in Iceland in around 1650. A highly qualified scribe, Jón Erlendsson, made two copies for the aforementioned Bishop Brynjólfur before the manuscript disappeared, one of them (AM 113 b fol.) better than the other (AM 113 a fol.)—now both in the Arnamagnæan collection. Several copies were soon made of the version that was most faulty; subsequent copies of these copies grew more deficient with each generation. At some point in 1688, Magnæus received one of those bad copies, unfortunately not preserved, and made a copy for himself that he intended to use in his edition.

In the summer of 1688, the Book of Icelanders was published together with the much longer Book of Settlement by Bishop Thordur Thorlaksson at the only printing press in Iceland. The text was based directly on the manuscript AM 113 a fol. with a few judicious corrections. The editorial principles are explained in a short introduction, but there is no commentary and no translation. When Magnæus received the printed book in the autumn of that year, he must have realized that this edition was far better than the copy he had made for himself. Paradoxically, he showed no sign of using the edition in his work but instead insisted that Torfæus should send him a manuscript of the text even if it contained exactly the same text as the printed edition.

In early 1690, Magnæus added to his copy a few marginal notes based on this manuscript, but should have made many more had he wanted to be thorough and consistent. In 1691 and 1692, Magnæus received both of Jón Erlendsson’s mid-century copies from Iceland and corrected his text in various places on the basis of the better copy, but again not consistently. Simultaneously, he collated that copy with the other good one. He now had the best manuscripts and knew it, but as he saw that there were more and different copies, he seems to have lost his way and instead of redoing the text, he abandoned the project. Magnæus’s other problem was the commentary. The Book of Icelanders is only five thousand words in length, but poses intricate issues of chronology that appeared insoluble—and some of them really are. Magnæus went to stay with Torfæus at Stangeland for a few months in 1689.

On his way back to Copenhagen, he wrote a letter asking Torfæus where he had read that the Norwegian king Harald Fairhair was born at the moment that King Gorm of Denmark had been in power for seven years. Torfæus replied that this conclusion was “ex hypothesi,” since medieval chronicles claimed that Gorm became king in the year 840 and Harald was born in 848. The problem Magnæus and Torfæus encountered was that medieval chronicles and kings’ sagas hardly ever mention dates and do not agree with each other on how many years various kings stayed in power.

About Harald Fairhair, allegedly the first king of a unified Norway, Magnæus concluded at one point that there was so much confusion that he saw no possibility of figuring out anything at all. Torfæus claimed that only the oldest historians should be used and not the ones that followed them. No author, however, could be entirely trusted since all of them made their own guesses and even mixed things up. For this reason, Torfæus repeated, a scholar had to work “ex hypothesibus.” Having done what could be done, the scholar should decide, or better still the community of scholars, or as Torfæus wrote on 2 October 1690: “It is best that both of us agree, and Bartholinus, and exclaim a single adieu!”

When Magnæus insisted, Torfæus offered to include his arguments in the book. Magnæus should also publish both versions, and it would be left to the readers to decide. Any further discussion would be a waste of time and paper. Torfæus went on to write several learned volumes, discussing various options for a variety of problems in the texts, but Magnæus only produced handwritten notes. It needs to be said that a contributing factor to Magnæus’s failure to produce an edition of the Book of Icelanders may have been the perceived or real lack of interest in Nordic medieval history on the continent. This lack of interest is apparent, for instance, in the fact that the only writers of Danish history mentioned in Adam Rechenberg’s general presentation of necessary learning, published in Leipzig in 1691, were Saxo Grammaticus and Pontanus, whose Rerum Danicarum historia was published sixty years earlier.

Perhaps in response to this lack of interest, Magnæus published a short Danish medieval chronicle in Latin in Leipzig in 1695, transcribed from an old vellum manuscript (“pervetusto codice membraneo“) that belonged to the university library in Copenhagen. In his introduction Magnæus shows his debt to his predecessors by connecting his modest effort to famous names in the scholarly world, praising Marcus Meibomius, Roger Twysden and Jean Mabillon for their exemplary editions. His hope of publishing a manuscript fragment on Danish kings did not come true, however. In his own words, this was because of the reluctance of German printers to print a text in the Icelandic language, although it is clear that his Latin translation was far from ready and the commentary in shambles, as Magnæus constantly changed his mind, and he was, as with The Book of Icelanders before, overcome with doubts.

The lesson Magnæus learned from his erudite struggles was that instead of writing and publishing, he should do two things, both of them within what can be called Politian’s program of a necessary assessment of the quality of manuscripts and the making of rigorous transcripts of borrowed ones:

1. Transcripts should be made with great care and exactitude. One example of this notion will have to suffice, relative to two Icelandic vellum manuscripts in the Ducal Library in Wolfenbüttel, registered as Icelandic mythology and poems. In the early months of 1697 the dukes sent their librarian [Lorenz] Hertel to Stockholm in order to pay their respects to Sweden’s new king. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, philosopher, historian and head-librarian in Wolfenbüttel, had recently become interested in septentrional matters and sent one of the manuscripts to his correspondent, the Swedish scholar Johan Gabriel Sparwenfeld. Leibniz did not know the contents but thought that the manuscript was written in verse without rhyme “en Islandois ou en vieux Scandinave.” Sparwenfeld persuaded Hertel to take the manuscript to Magnæus in Copenhagen, something Leibniz agreed to afterwards:

Mr. Hertel left our Icelandic manuscript with Mister Arnas Magnæus in Copenhagen, if it is useful to him, so much the better. Libraries and manuscripts need only be available for the use of skilled people.

Magnæus had the aforementioned Ásgeir Jónsson, again in Copenhagen, make a copy of the two Icelandic thirteenth-century family sagas: Eyrbyggja saga (AM 450 a 4to) and Egils saga (AM 461 4to). As the first and last pages were illegible, Magnæus copied them himself. He already had several copies of both sagas and filled two gaps in the Wolfenbüttel manuscript with a text from other versions. Another scribe helped him to compare the transcript with the original, and Magnæus concluded that, although not copied letter by letter and except for the poems and some important sentences, the transcript was reliable.

In June 1701 he sent the manuscript back with a report on its contents. In his collection as it survives to this day, there are at least 500 copies that he made or had his assistants make, all of them based on these principles, besides thousands of transcripts of Icelandic, Norwegian and Danish charters and other documents.

2. All extant manuscripts should be tracked down. Many interesting and quite dramatic stories could be told about Magnæus’s search for manuscripts. A good example is his chase after a fourteenth-century manuscript of the historical work Sturlunga saga, only preserved there and in another contemporary manuscript, acquired by Magnæus in 1699 (AM 122 a fol.).

The so-called Reykjarfjarðarbók (AM 122 b fol.) was torn to pieces in 1676-1679 as it was damaged by moisture. The owner, a well-to-do farmer, gave leaves to his friends for use as book covers. Magnæus was informed about the manuscript’s tormented existence in 1693 and went on to trace its remains for three decades. In all, he retrieved 30 pages out of an estimated 180 that made up the original manuscript. At least seven colleagues sent him one or more leaves, the last two leaves arriving in 1724. His painstaking efforts can be seen in his request to Árni Gudmundsson in 1707, as he asked where and when the first known owner at Reykjarfjörður had obtained the book. Was it complete when Árni saw it? If not, what was missing: how much or how little, in the beginning, middle or end? Was the whole book readable or was it damaged because of moisture or black stains? Who exactly possessed leaves, and would it be possible to retrieve them?

When Magnæus died on 7 January 1730, his collection comprised close to three thousand manuscripts and fragments, almost one-third of them on vellum. Half of those are fragments of less than six leaves. In a limited sense it can be claimed that he thus came close to the idea of recension—fully developed in the late eighteenth century, according to Timpanaro—as he desired to gather together all manuscripts of a determined text, not only vellums but also seventeenth-century copies. In this wish for completeness, Magnæus went further than any contemporary scholar or collector of manuscripts. Unlike Politian, however, he never developed a clear sense of how to manage the difference between manuscripts. He was not alone in this, as shown from the careless and arbitrary method of Lenglet de Fresnoy in his edition of Le Roman de la Rose in 1735; but it must be said that some or even many editors of that time were more scrupulous.

In the course of his studies, Magnæus’s understanding of textual variance hardly improved, as can be seen in his handling of some seventeenth-century copies of an otherwise lost medieval text on church history called Hungurvaka. It was hopelessly confused, and I shall spare the reader the details. Before 1700, one of his assistants made a copy (a) of one (b) of these manuscripts and Magnæus collated it with another one (c). He then asked another assistant to make a copy (d) of his collated copy (b), but without the added variants (“varias lectiones”). In 1724, Magnæus compared this second copy (d) “accuratissime” with the original (b) used to produce the first copy (a), making numerous corrections. Finally, he collated his copy (d) with a third seventeenth-century manuscript (e) and wrote down all the differences in the margins. His copy now contained an “accuratissima collation” of the two oldest manuscripts (b, e) of this important text, as he happily concluded. The only reason for doing all this appears to have been to throw away the first copy (a), useless since he now had its text on the margins of other copies.

Returning to the Book of Icelanders in his later years, Magnæus concluded, erroneously as we have seen, that as a young man he had copied the text as exactly as he then could. In around 1720 he made an exact copy of his best copy and most likely recognized that his own version of 1688-1690 was useless, although he did not discard it. He copied some of his old commentary and revised a number of items. When, ultimately, he did not publish an edition, he now justified his inactivity by claiming that the world of books was replete with products of vanity. He had never intended to write books himself and was convinced, as he explained to an assistant, “that a man could spend almost his whole life in putting together a little booklet.”

As a philologist, Magnæus gradually gained a finer understanding of the quality of texts and manuscripts, but this understanding was never brought to fruition in printed editions. His scholarship, seminal as it may have been for the origin of Icelandic studies, did not reach the public arena of European philology. The Republic of Letters allowed the participation of Scandinavian scholars of course, but there was limited interest in northern languages, culture and history. The thriving Anglo-Saxon studies in England were the closest field of research, much of it just as admirable in the details and the driving force the same, that is to replace or at least displace the old view that the origin of European languages and culture should be sought in Greek or Roman Antiquity. There was little contact, however, and scholars of medieval Iceland remained isolated.

We can thus safely conclude that Magnæus’s diligent but inconspicuous scholarship, inspired as it may have been by the wish to transplant the ideas of humanistic philology to Scandinavia, was only partly successful in the sense that his activities did not become an integrated part of the wider European developments in philology and historiography. His image in the historiography of the humanities therefore remains that of a hunter for manuscripts and maker of copies, and he left the task of coping with textual variance to posterity by donating his collection to the University of Copenhagen after his death. To be fair, some of the problems he encountered remain unresolved to this day.


Már Jónsson is professor of history at the University of Iceland (Reykjavík). This article originally appeared as a chapter in The Making of the Humanities. Volume 1: Early Modern Europe.


Featured: etching of Árni Magnússon (1663-1730), Icelandic scholar and collector of manuscripts.

Inventing The Fantasy Of The Convivencia In Al-Andalus

1. Al-Andalus Propaganda

The notion of the Convivencia began with the studies of the philologist, Américo Castro, which he put into writing during his American exile. Contrary to the traditional, nationalist discourse of the eternal nature of Spain and the Spaniards, which marginalised the role of Islamic-Arab rule, Castro sought to ascribe a central role in the formation of the “homo hispanicus” to precisely this historical period.

In his first work on this subject, España en su historia. Christianos, moros y judíos which appeared in 1948 and was later reprinted in a revised edition in 1966 and also published in English translation, Américo Castro explained the “convivencia de christianos, moros y judíos” (“the Convivencia of Christians, Moors and Jews”) by way of “tolerancia islámica (“Islamic tolerance”). Castro explained that during the period of the caliphate, this led to a unique fusion of the three religious “castes.” The attitude of the subjugated population was characterised by submission and at the same time by admiration for the superiority of the conquerors; but then also by the endeavour to overcome the position of inferiority, whereby later military victories over the Muslims are said not to have changed their admiration for them.

Kenneth Baxter Wolf, Maya Soifer Irish, Bruna Soravia and especially Eduardo Manzano Moreno have all made insightful contributions to this concept of the Convivencia. Manzano Moreno’s studies show that Spanish al-Andalus experts are on the whole very critical of the Convivencia myth, and have been so since the 1960s. It was and is considered an ideological construct that has neither foundation in real history nor a basis upon the sources available to us.

According to the unanimous assessment of most Spanish historians, Américo Castro had mainly indulged his personal convictions, relying selectively on individual literary passages, while neglecting the available historical sources. Manzano Moreno lists in detail several points of criticism from a historian’s point of view: Castro’s scant interest in the chronological sequence of historical events; the mixing of data from numerous different and distinct periods; the search, taken to an extreme, for parallels, even the most far-fetched, in various literary texts; the far-reaching neglect of all economic factors; and finally, the idea that only native-born Spaniards could adequately understand their own history.

Postmodern and postcolonial humanities scholars, mostly in Anglo-American academia, took up this idea and went on to reinterpret the presumed utopia of the Convivencia as a kind of distribution station for the unimpeded flow of cultural and artistic paradigms from the Arab to the European worlds, as a symbol of a beneficial globalisation process that resisted the narrow-minded local interests of individual nations.

This glorification of al-Andalus goes hand-in-hand with a blatant misjudgment of the real circumstances and events, indeed with a general ignorance of the primary and secondary sources, unless they are available in English. In addition, the unscientific, anti-historical and anti-philological attitudes of many American postmodernists was spurred on by post-colonial studies, especially the completely baseless attacks on European Oriental studies by Edward Said. The most significant representative of such is the late María Rosa Menocal, formerly Sterling Professor of Spanish Studies at Yale.

Menocal used many of the arguments and some of the same examples that Jewish historians of science in the 19th and 20th centuries used to justify the concept of a “Golden Age” in al-Andalus. However, unlike the Jewish historians of science, she consciously employed anachronistic concepts. Thus, for example, when she defines the Middle Ages as being “postmodern” vis-à-vis Modernity, it fits very well with her desire to tell the story “in the lyric mode.” Naturally, this was very popularly received in the mass media and at university campuses, where departments of comparative literature, and especially those of cultural studies, enthusiastically embrace all new fads, such as, postmodernism and postcolonial studies, irrespective of their scientific merit.

Such utopian and idyllic views of Islamic rule in al-Andalus, propagated by Menocal and her followers, are further promoted by mass culture because of political demands for fruitful dialogues between cultures and by the culture industry’s need for simple models and solutions to complex problems. Such tendencies, however, naturally also have an impact on academic studies, as can be clearly seen in the section devoted to the literature of al-Andalus, edited by Menocal, in the Cambridge History of Arabic Literature.

According to Menocal, the resplendent culture of the Court of the Caliphs in 10th century Cordoba is linked to a great respect for the Other and a willingness to accept one’s own contradictions. This, she says, triggered a tremendous creative surge that manifested itself in significant intellectual, artistic and social achievements. The most positive thing about the Islamic tradition would thus have been a resultant attitude that accepted and integrated the most diverse world-views, religions and tendencies without renouncing the particularities of its own identity. One looks in vain in her essay in the Cambridge History of Arabic Literature for evidence that this narrative has any factual foundation in reality.

Unrealistic praise of Islamic Spain is, however, not limited to the academic world. This can also be found on the UNESCO website. Long before 9/11, UNESCO had already granted Convivencia propaganda a large international platform. Al-Andalus in particular was praised as a model of a society with free interreligious dialogue: The “fruitful dialectic between the three great monotheistic religions” led to the flourishing of a universalism in the light of which “the rationalist, philosophical and scientific thought of ancient Iran and Greece” was reformulated, wrote Haïm Zafrani, for example.

Under the auspices of UNESCO, Pierre Philippe Rey (“Al-Andalus: Scientific Heritage and European Thought”) underlines the importance of Andalusia as the crucible of European rationalism. According to him, no figure stands so clearly for this origin as “Ibn Rushd (Averroes) physician, jurist and philosopher;” and also his contemporary “Ibn Maimūn, a Jew by religion (known in mediaeval Europe as Maimonides).” Tolerance and inter-religious cooperation in al-Andalus are also highly praised on the UNESCO page. Mohamed Benchrifa, for example, says: “Throughout the period of Islamic rule, Andalusia… was home to forms of tolerance not observed until modern times. It was a genuine land of dialogue, a dialogue that was both serene and lively.”

A more differentiated view of the historical conditions in al-Andalus (a view certainly not very widespread among Anglo-American academics, such as the humanities scholars mentioned above) can hardly be expected from politicians or Muslim imams. First and foremost, the Islamic terrorist attacks of 9/11 strongly promoted political yearnings to see Islam as a peaceful and tolerant religion, and al-Andalus seemed to offer itself as a historical archetype, a legendary dream-destination of religious tolerance, at least according to academic propaganda.

Therefore, it was only logical for the New York Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf to propose “Cordoba House” as the name for the Islamic centre planned near the destroyed New York towers (now Park51). In this city, after all, “Muslims, Christians and Jews would have co-existed in the Middle Ages, during a period of great cultural enrichment created by Muslims.” He thus indirectly echoed a comparable assessment of Islamic Spain by then President Barack Obama in a speech at Cairo University, in the course of which he referred to the “proud” tradition of Islamic tolerance: “Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance – as we see in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition.” It was also Islam, Obama continued, that brought forward “the light of learning” and paved the way for the European Renaissance and Enlightenment.

The chronological reference “during the Inquisition” is, of course, nonsensical. The Christian Inquisition was not officially introduced until the end of the 15th century – but its critical mention here is probably intended to make the radiant splendour of a peaceful, tolerant and scientifically productive Islamic rule shine all the brighter in contrast to the Christianised West, which remains “ignorant” of the Islamic roots of its modernity!

2. Islamic Orthodoxy, Intolerance And Violence

However, as Manzano Moreno has already pointed out, the documented history of the period of Islamic rule does not confirm the aforementioned intellectual and political praise of the conditions in Córdoba, since most of the rulers of this period made a name for themselves primarily as strict guardians of intolerant Sunni Malikite orthodoxy. Mention should be made, for example, of the persecution of the followers of Ibn Masarra, the first independent thinker in al-Andalus, the suppression of all Shiite and Ismaili movements; or, in the case of Almanzor, the destruction of the philosophical and astrological books of the great library in Córdoba.Charges of heresy (zandaqa) were brought against theologians, philosophers, literary figures and poets. However, it is not known what the charges consisted of, in detail. In many cases, Muʿtazilite theorists, for example, but also scientists, such as, the Andalusian “Euclid” ʽAbd al-Raḥmān b. Ismāīl ibn Badr, who had made a name for himself in geometry and with a compendium of Aristotle’s Organon, fled to the seemingly more tolerant Orient.

If such violence could erupt within the ruling population group itself, it was all the more a permanent and imminent danger towards those of other faiths. The Arab sources, however, are generally rather silent about them. We learn about the situation of the Christians mainly thanks to the hagiographies of the “voluntary martyrs” of Córdoba, who caused a sensation in the 9th century and were executed during the time of the caliphate.

Violence though was generally nothing out of the ordinary in pre-modern times. This is why it is also to be expected in Islamic societies and hence its idealisation by the Convivencia propagandists is simply out of touch with history. First and foremost, of course, was politically motivated violence, which could also be directed inner-dynastically against one’s own children and family members. This was possible even among the Ṭāʾifa kings of Seville, who are viewed as having been particularly liberal and obsessed with poetry. Veritable orgies of violence and murder in the power struggles characterised the rule of the Naṣrids in the 14th century, who are praised in Convivencia propaganda above all as the builders of the Alhambra in Granada.

During periods of weakened central power, the administrators of the rulers, fighting for influence, then rampaged murderously against each other. In addition to the regular judiciary with its prisons, the Cordovan seat of power, set up its own penal regime which were not controlled by any Islamic judge, and in which, as a rule, no one was supposed to survive. And finally, there were murders not only of Christians but also of the Jewish population, often but not exclusively religiously motivated, especially in the 1066 Granada massacre, in which thousands of Jews perished.

3. Native Christians: From Participation In Public Governance To Oppression And Marginalisation

For several decades, autochthonous Christians and Saracens allegedly shared the church of San Vicente in Córdoba. If it were true, this would speak for tolerance in the context of a conflict-free coexistence in the early days of al-Andalus, i.e., at a time when Sunni Malikite law was not yet known. However, this claim is only found in later Arabic sources.

ʽAbd al-Raḥmān, the first Umayyad emir, is then said to have bought the church from the Christians in 785 and destroyed it in order to build a new house of prayer in its place. The third emir, al-Hakam I, had no confidence in his Arab palace guard in view of the unrest in Cordoba and bought slaves to make a new force, whose commander he appointed the leader of the Cordovan Christians, the Comes Rabiʽ, son of Theodulf of Orléans.

However, the Emir’s son, ʽAbd al-Raḥmān II, had the Christian count Rabiʽ crucified in order to secure the sympathies of at least parts of the Muslim population and the Islamic jurists. Rabīʾ had been accused of misconduct both towards the “faithful” and towards the Christian community. Above all, he was said to have been guilty of having set up a public granary where wine was sold and thus given cause to public transgression. The religiously and morally indignant emir, who was himself known for his dissolute and wine-fuelled festivities, had the granary razed to the ground. The judges, however, had disavowed Rabīʾ both his Christianity and his origin from the indigenous Visigothic population, for he was executed both as an “infidel” (kāfir) and as an ethnic or linguistic stranger (ʿağām).

In the mid ninth century, the famous protests of the Cordovan Christian martyrs occurred. By 858, almost 50 Christians publicly confessed Jesus Christ, rejected Islam as false doctrine and called Mohammed a false prophet. They were all executed. On the one hand, these Christians were monks, including those who had come to Spain from the Orient, that is, priests – but, on the other, also lay people, some of whom came from Christian families; others from mixed Christian-Muslim families. Since the fathers in these families were Muslims, the children were also legally Muslims. So, if they professed Christianity and insulted the Prophet, they had to be punished by death, not only for blasphemy but also for apostasy from the Muslim faith. At least, this is what the Malikite law (discussed below) unequivocally requires. In some cases, their bodies were crucified as a deterrent, and hung on the city gates. However, when it became known that their bones were collected and venerated as relics, the sentences of the executioners stipulated burning them and then scattering the ashes on the Guadalquivir.

John V. Tolan has justified the critical attitude of the voluntary martyrs towards Islam with the argument that they had countered the culture of the colonisers with their own culture of resistance. In doing so, they would have been doing exactly what Edward Saïd defined in Culture and Imperialism as the right of the oppressed to affirm their own oppressed values and culture. This right implied the right to attack the positions of the colonial masters. According to Tolan, the martyr Eulogius used hair-raising insinuations to this end, which could in no way be substantiated by Muslim tradition. As an example, he cited the accusation that Mohammed had announced that he would deflower the virgin Mary in the afterlife. However, this criticism should be countered by the fact that a hadith does indeed report an announcement by Muhammad that God would marry him to the virgin Mary in the hereafter.

Tolan’s justification of the Christian martyrs is an exception in recent historiography. Other, equally serious, historians are not afraid to take the executions of the martyrs as proof that the Muslim “authorities” behaved in a particularly tolerant and profoundly reasonable manner (“…the incident… does show the tolerance and essential reasonableness of the Muslim authorities”). For such friends of al-Andalus, anti-Muslim rebellion and criticism of Islam can apparently only be explained by blindness to reality and ingratitude towards their Muslim masters (For example, Georg Bossong’s Die christliche Märtyrerbewegung gefährdete das gute Zusammenleben zwischen den Religionen (“The Christian martyrdom movement endangered good coexistence between religions”). But on the basis of which set of values are the executioners of the critics of Mohammed to be regarded as particularly tolerant and peaceful?

During the period of the governors and emirs, Christians had long been able to play an increasingly important role in the administration of al-Andalus. This changed with the accession of Emir Muḥammad I (852-886). Even before that though, the ʽulamā had stirred up public resentment against Christians and Jews in high offices. These offices were henceforth finally to be entrusted to Muslims alone. Under Muḥammad I, his Christian secretary Qūmis b. Antunyān therefore converted to Islam. He aspired to the office of vizier and hoped to be able to accommodate this growing anti-Christian propaganda through his conversion, which, however, only affected himself, not his family. But his conversion was considered spurious. He was convicted of apostasy and the Emir therefore confiscated his not inconsiderable property.

Muḥammad I’s policy of weakening the Christians of Córdoba and al-Andalus in general by dividing the clergy bore its first visible fruit at the Synod of 862. Here, there was a split among the bishops, with the forces allied with the Emir initially gaining the upper hand. Bishop Hostegesis, who had been condemned by Abbot Samson (Sansón de Córdoba) for heretical theological teachings, succeeded on this occasion in having Samson himself expelled from the Christian community by the other bishops and barred from all offices when Samson refused to oppose a traditional Spanish antiphon.

Hostegesis had acquired the episcopate of Malaga by purchase at the age of 20. His father, who had previously held it, had converted to Islam in order to avoid conviction for serious fraud against Christians under Christian Visigothic law, which secured him immunity from prosecution. Hostegesis excelled in extreme tax extortion of Christians, which he had had authorised by Córdoba, and squandered the wealth he acquired in this way way, among other things, orgies with high Islamic dignitaries in the capital of al-Andalus. On behalf of the Emir, he worked closely with the head of the Cordovan Christians, Servandus, with whom he had agreed not only to fleece Christians for taxes, but also to spread heresies and propaganda for conversion to Islam.

Most of the bishops, at the insistence of Valentius, Bishop of Córdoba, later withdrew their condemnation of Samson, reinstating him in office. Nevertheless, the power of the Christian enemies Hostegesis and Servandus was not broken. Thanks to the authoritative intervention of Muḥammad I, they unceremoniously deposed Valentius as Bishop of Córdoba and appointed as his successor, supported by Muslim legal advisors, one Stephanus Flacco. A church assembly, to which all the Christians of Córdoba were invited, but most of whom did not appear out of fear and were replaced by Jews as well as Muslims, approved this procedure, which contradicted all canonical regulations.

Thus, Islamic rule, in cooperation with corrupt and heretical bishops, ensured that the organisational foundations of Christian life were increasingly destroyed. It was already being eroded by the pressure to conform and by excessive taxation, as well as by the legal discrimination, which corresponded with the enforcement of Malikite law.

4. Intolerance And Oppression Of Women In Sunni Malikite Law

I. The Introduction And Dominance Of Sunni Sharia Law

In almost all accounts of al-Andalus, the rule of Islam is seen to have lasted from 711 to 1495. However, such a sweeping view undercuts the fact that inscriptional evidence for terms such as “Islam” and “Muslim” from the first half of the 8th century is just as unattested as is the Sunni Malikite law that later shaped jurisprudence in al-Andalus. Contrary to traditional historiography, the latter was not already established by legendary companions of the Prophet or their descendants, nor, as is often reported, by the Syrian Muʿāwiya b. Ṣāliḥ al-Ḥaḍramī (d. 158/774), but only in the 9th century, primarily, though not exclusively, by Ibn Ḥabīb.

Therefore only from the 9th century on could Islamic rulers gradually begin to enforce Malikite law. Then, however, it became binding for the Muslims of al-Andalus for centuries and in this respect became thereafter a defining feature of the Islam that prevailed there. That it would have encouraged tolerance, which is supposedly so characteristic of this Andalusian Islam, is certainly not justified by the code itself.

The most widespread legal treatise here was the Kitāb al-Tafrī (collection of Malikite legislation by the scholar al-Tafrī) from the 10th century, which was translated into an Aragonese-tinged Romanesque using the Arabic script in the 14th century. It retained validity for Muslims even under Christian rulers into the 16th century. The latest manuscript dates from 1585.

Similarly important were: the North African Mudawwana from the 9th century and its supplement, the ʿUtbiyya; the Risāla fī al-Fiqh (10th century); the Maḍāhib al-ḥukkām fī nawāzil al-aḥkām (12th century); Ibn Āṣim al-Andalusī’s (1357-1414) Tuh’fat al- ḥukām fī nukat al-ʿuqoūd wal-aḥkām; and Ibn Rushd’s (1126-1198) – known in the West as the great Aristotelian Averroes – Bidāyat al-Muğtahid wa-Nihāyat al-Muqtasid.

All the works listed refer primarily to the teachings (muwaṭṭa: “The Well-Paved Path”) attributed to Mālik ibn Anas (8th century), cited here according to the compilation transmitted by Yahya Ibn Kathīr al-Andalusī. More often than to Mālik ibn Anas himself, however, the ʿUtbiyya referred to the Malikite jurist Ibn al-Qāsim. In al-Andalus, Malikite law aspired to permeate all aspects of private and public life.

II. Jihad, Ğizya (“Poll Tax”) And Other Forms Of Discrimination Against Non-Muslims

The interpretation of jihad as war to be waged against all “infidels” for the purpose of spreading and defending Islam is often confronted with the objection that jihad first and foremost means, according to the Qur’an, the “inner struggle on the path of God,” i.e., as in an “effort for personal purification and avoidance of evil.” Those who understand this term in this way, however, overlook the fact that this spiritual understanding was a special feature of the Ṣūfīs, i.e., it did not apply to the Sunni world as a whole, in which, by the way, the Ṣūfīs were repeatedly subjected to persecution. This is also true of Muslim Spain.

The military significance of the jihad provision, according to which its aim is to fight the idolaters or the infidels (dār al-ḥarb), is completely undisputed in the literature. Armed struggle for the purpose of spreading Islam can only cease when the whole world is subjected to the rule of Islam (dār al-islam). This is how jihad is understood throughout the early literature from aṭ-Ṭabarī, al-Buḫārī or Ṣaḥīḥ Tirmiḏī to Ibn Saʾd or as-Suyūṭī. From the Sunni perspective, Muslims of other religious observances, such as Shiites or Kharijites, are also considered “infidels,” and thus are to be fought.

The bellicose meaning of jihad described above also existed in Muslim Spain, at least since the introduction of Sunni Malikite law. It unequivocally demands war against infidels unless they submit, and it promises paradise to those who wage this war.

The great Aristotelian Ibn Rushd (Averroes), who was also a jurist in the Malikite tradition, in his writing Bidayat al-Muğtahid also considered jihad as armed struggle, obligatory if the opposing infidels do not accept Islam after being asked to convert. If they do not convert, however, they can be left alive, provided they submit and pay the poll tax (ğizya). It is nevertheless permissible to enslave them, both men or women. But it is also permitted to kill them immediately. According to Mālik Ibn Anas, only the chronically ill, the blind, old people incapable of fighting, the feeble-minded and hermits were exempt. Scholars are not in complete agreement about these exceptions, however. If golden crosses were found in churches during the conquest, they were to be broken before being distributed to the soldiers as booty. The holy books of the Christians, however, should be made to disappear.

Such intolerant rules do not really need any further comment. They show manifestly enough that it was not “Islam” to which we owe the development of European rationalism, for which, according to the UNESCO website, Ibn Rushd/Averroes is a prime representative. For him, “Islam” is clearly defined by the deeply intolerant Malikite law.

The poll tax (ğizya) was not an invention of the Muslims. What distinguished the Muslim poll tax from the taxation practised in the Roman Empire, for example, was its religious discriminatory function. It did not exist for Muslims, but only for “protected” (better, “tolerated”) infidels or ḏhimmīs. Mālik ibn Anas’ Muwaṭṭa explained the difference between dues that a Muslim had to pay and those imposed on the ḏhimmī by saying that the zakat (“almsgiving”) was necessary for the purification of Muslims and brought them honour, while the ğizya served to humiliate the ḏhimmī.

Thus, the focus here was not on the idea of protection, which is always emphasised as central in the literature, but on humiliating the “unbelievers.” In addition to the poll tax, a tax was levied on income from agriculture (ḫarāğ). The “protection contract” (ḏhimma – much like a “protection racket”) was, of course, only valid if the “protected” also paid on time and meticulously fulfilled all other (unilateral) contractual obligations. Otherwise, they were deprived of their rights and could be killed without further ado.

Darío Fernández-Morera has compiled a whole series of further rules applied by Muslim al-Andalus to the ḏhimmī, at least some of which I will mention here with reference to the relevant sources:

  • A Muslim who raped a free Christian woman was whipped; a Christian who raped a free Muslim woman was killed.
  • A Muslim who slandered a Muslim was flogged; a Christian who slandered a Christian was not whipped. A Muslim who killed a Christian was not executed. Such a murder counted for half as much as the murder of a Muslim. A Christian, on the other hand, was to be executed whether his murder of a Muslim was insidious or not.
  • If a debtor converted to Islam before he had paid his debt to a member of his former religion, he was (according to the Mudawwana) immediately free of debt.
  • A Muslim could have a Christian slave, but a Christian could not have a Muslim slave.
  • A Muslim was allowed to have sex with a Christian slave, but a Christian was not allowed to have sex with a Muslim slave.
  • A Muslim was allowed to marry a free Christian woman, but a Christian was not allowed to marry or have sex with a Muslim woman. This was punishable by death. All children fathered by a Muslim were to be raised as Muslims themselves, even if their mother was not a Muslim. Since Muslims were allowed to have up to four wives and as many concubines as they could afford, this legal provision led to an inexorable shift in the demographic balance in favour of Muslims, who were already attracted by the other legal and above all fiscal privileges.

In disputes with Muslims over property, trade and market issues, Christians and Jews could appeal to Muslim judges or other officials, but they had to bring an officially recognised witness for their accusation. Whether this gave them equal legal rights, however, is not only uncertain, but actually unlikely because of the requirement for official recognition of such witnesses – for non-Muslims could not in principle be recognised as witnesses according to the Muwaṭṭaʾ and the Mudawwana, not even in disputes betwixt non-Muslims. Only if they were indispensable experts, such as in medical matters for example, was it permitted for their testimony to be taken into account.

Business relations with Muslims were encumbered for Jewish lenders or lessors by the general assumption that Jews would invariably try to cheat Muslims. Therefore, in legal disputes in which Jews sought to recover their loans or leased land from Muslims, an oath by the defendant Muslims that they owed nothing to the Jews was sufficient to leave the Jews empty-handed.

The primary concern of the Muslim jurists was and remained the possible defilement of Muslims by touching things and food that had previously been touched by impure non-Muslims. They were unclean mainly because they might have eaten forbidden food, such as, garlic or pork or even drunk wine. But this Islamic jurisprudence also made the ground unbelievers, i.e., Jews and Christians, walked on with their bare feet unclean. In order to avoid touching them, as early as the 9th century, Christians and Jews were supposed to wear a distinguishing piece of cloth or belt. Food bought from unbelievers could be eaten, but meat had to be slaughtered in accordance with Islamic rules, etc.

The demand for fundamental distancing from all non-Muslims, which contradicts all Convivencia myths, is also articulated in the fatwa issued more than a hundred years later by another respected jurist, who was able to refer directly to the Qur’an for this purpose: “It is better for you if you do not enter into any kind of association with anyone who adheres to a religion other than yours” (Sura 60: 13; 3: 118-119).

III. Oppression Of Women And Genital Mutilation

In depictions of al-Andalus, which are primarily concerned with promoting Muslim Spain as a model of a tolerant and open society, it is often emphasised that women in al-Andalus enjoyed a much higher degree of self-determined freedom than women in the Christian world of the Middle Ages. Such propaganda, however, is only possible if one closes one’s eyes to the evidence of Muslim legal decrees.

This, in the case of the Malikite regulations on female genital mutilation, is claimed, for example, even by researchers who have otherwise dealt with the situation of women in al-Andalus in an extremely learned and thorough manner, such as Manuela Marín, Janina Safran or Soha Abboud-Haggar.

How self-evident female circumcision was for the author of the Muwaṭṭa is shown by the fact that it is only mentioned in connexion with questions that were apparently considered more important, such as, when a great ritual ablution or the repetition of the pilgrimage was necessary. They are necessary when the circumcised genitals of sexual partners have met. The circumcision of women is explicitly discussed in later Muslim legal literature. Thus, the Risāla of al-Qayrawānī states: “Circumcision is an obligatory tradition (sunna) for men, and for women (clitoral) circumcision (khifaḍ) is a recommended practice;” “…male circumcision is a sacred duty (sunna), and for women (clitoral) circumcision is a recommended practice.” The work by al-Tafri, which was particularly important for Spanish Muslims until the 16th century, also states that circumcision is obligatory for men and honourable for women.

Incidentally, women were not allowed to go out in public alone, but only in the company of their husbands or a male relative with whom no sexual relationship was possible due to kinship. Otherwise, they were only allowed to go out in the street in the company of women; and even then, only for an important reason. And, of course, veiled.

Manuela Marín relates the following anecdote from 10th-century Umayyad Cordoba: A scholar takes his wife and son, who is still a child, to a jurist for a legal opinion concerning the wife and child. The woman is said to have been veiled when she left the house. The jurist, after the scholar had sat down, allowed the child to sit down as well. The mother, however, remained standing. The jurist pointed to her and asked the child who that was. The child replied that it was his mother. Although the legal issue related to her as well, she played no further role. Her husband spoke exclusively on her behalf and her identity was witnessed by the child. She was not permitted to speak for herself.

5. Discriminatory Sunni Malikite Regulations In The 12th Century

From the time of the Almoravid rule in al-Andalus, we have, for example, the anti-Christian and anti-Jewish statements of a legal scholar or market overseer from Seville, Ibn ʽAbdūn. The discourse found in chapter 169 of this treatise is particularly discriminatory:

“One must not allow any tax collector, policeman, Jew or Christian, to wear the splendid clothes of an honourable person, neither those of a lawyer, nor even those of a decent man; on the contrary, one must rather detest and shun them. Nor should they be greeted with the formula, ‘Peace be with you,’ for ‘Satan has taken complete possession of them and made them forget the name of God; they are the party of Satan, and, verily, the party of Satan is the party of those who lose.’ They must wear a badge that they may be recognisable and that they may be abased.”

The fact that splendid raiment is forbidden for Jews as well as Christians and that they are supposed to wear identifying insignia on their clothing could be suggestive that there may well have been “unbelievers” in splendid attire and without discriminatory insignia. However, whether this was actually the case can no longer be clarified today. Even from the following prohibitions or precepts, it is not easy to draw reverse conclusions:

“A Muslim must not massage a Jew or a Christian, nor take away their rubbish or clean their latrines, for the Jew and the Christian are better suited for these hard jobs, which are jobs for the inferior people. Nor must a Muslim take care of a Jew’s or a Christian’s mounts, nor serve them as a muleteer, nor hold their stirrups; and if one learns that someone does, then he should be rebuked for it. And Muslim women must be forbidden from entering the detestable churches, for priests are libertines, whoremongers and sodomites.”

The ban on ringing church bells (“The ringing of bells in Muslim territory must be forbidden, for they should only ring in the land of the infidels” ), which was also pronounced in this context, could indicate that such demonstrations of ecclesiastical presence, which had already been banned in the 9th century, were practised again during Ṭāʾifa rule and therefore now had to be banned again under Sunnite Almoravid rule.

6. Convivencia At The Caliphal Court?

In the Arabic sources dating to the period of the caliphate, the heyday of interreligious cooperation according to al-Andalus propaganda, only one Bishop Recemundus (or Bishop Rabīʾ ibn Sid al-Usquf or Bishop Ibn Zaīd) has attracted greater attention as a collaborative partner, namely, as translator and envoy (to the German emperor Otto I, to Byzantium and Jerusalem); and then also as co-author (the other author being the Arabic physician and historian ʽArīb b. Saʽīd) of the famous Calendar of Cordoba, in both Latin and Arabic. Particularly noteworthy are the notes on medicine attributed to him, which are inserted at the beginning of each month, as well as the details on agricultural questions and administrative matters that he provides.

The scientific traditions relevant to the explanations of astronomy in connection with meteorology are, on the one hand, of Latin-Mozarabic origin, insofar as they deal, for example, with the festal days of saints and their dates relevant to agriculture. In addition, pre-Islamic oriental traditions play a role, for example, in the area of meteorological predictions. Furthermore, we find Greek-Alexandrian traditions, which go back to the physicians Hippocrates and Galen. Finally, the Calendar also contains elements of the “new astronomy,” which hearkens back to Indo-Iranian and Ptolemaic investigations.

Bishop Recemundus, who operated in different cultures, also provides the template for the hero of a best-selling novel in modern Spain that is suitable for the prevailing propagandistic views. A voluntary Christian martyr would certainly not have been particularly suitable as a prototype.

Christians and ecclesiastical officials, such as Recemund, could be successful at the caliph’s court and be accepted as collaborative partners in important publications. Recemund’s student, Bishop Abū-l-Ḥārith al-Usquf, is also said to have belonged to a religiously mixed work group, which is said to have worked on philosophical writings concerning logic. However, nothing more specific is known about this bishop or the results of this working group.

Christian doctors also seem to have played a larger role. Ibn Juljul al-Andalusī (b. 943) mentions in his “Categories of Physicians and Scholars” (Kitāb ṭabaqāt al-aṭibbāʾ wa-l-ḥukammā) for the late 9th and early 10th centuries a total of six important physicians by name, five of whom were Christians. Even later in the 10th century, the caliph ʿAbd al-Raḥmān III still consulted a Christian physician (Yaḥyà b. Isḥāq).

However close the connection of these doctors may have been with the court, they can no more make us forget, as Recemundus did, that ʿAbd al-Raḥmān III enslaved thousands of Christians whom he was able to seize in his raids against Christian territories. Nor can they conceal how difficult the situation of Christians was, generally speaking, during this period. They were obliged to obediently submit to the will of the rulers, if they wanted to continue living at all in that society with the Muslims.

According to the Vita Johannis Gorziensis, written by John of St Arnulf in Metz, St John of Gorze rebuked Recemundus for the fact that the Cordovan Christians had made themselves subservient to the Muslims. They had adopted not only their eating habits but also their circumcision ritual (“et melius omnino fuerat, hominem christianum famis grave ferre dispendium, quam cibis ad destructionem aliorum consociari gentilium. …ad ritum eorum vos audio circumcisos” – “and it would have been better for a Christian man to bear the suffering of a grievous famine than to be associated with food for the destruction of other gentiles… I hear you circumcised according to their rite”).

Recemundus justified this behaviour with the coercion exercised by the rulers (“Atque ille, ‘Necessitas’, inquit, ‘nos constringit; nam aliter eis cohabitandi nobis copia non est’” – “And he said, ‘Necessity forces us; otherwise we would not be able to live together”). They would have to submit to the Caliph if they wanted to continue to be able to live in Muslim al-Andalus. But since the Christian faith itself was not affected by this, they could otherwise obey their Muslim masters (“…quia religionis nulla infertur iactura, cetera eis obsequamur, iussisque eorum in quantum fidem non impediunt obtemperamus.” – “because no loss of religion is inflicted, let us go along with them and the rest, as far obeying their orders, as much as they do not hinder the faith”). At any rate, this attests as much to a “tolerant” and “peaceful” attitude towards Christians and Jews, in a modern understanding of coexistence, at the time of the first caliph, as it does for a fruitful dialectic between the three religions.

7. Al-Andalus As The Cradle Of Modern Sciences?

The myth of “Islamic Spain as the birthplace of rational thought and the European sciences,” for which names, such as Averroes or Maimonides are repeatedly invoked, has, as was mentioned in the first section (“Al-Andalus Propaganda”), become conventional wisdom, not only of such honourable international institutions as UNESCO, but by politicians such as Barack Obama, as we have already noted. However, the fact that the great Aristotelian Averroes, not only in accordance with the Malikite legal tradition (see above on “Jihad”), called for jihadist enmity on all non-Muslims, and even all non-orthodox Sunni Muslims, but in addition also demanded submission to the rules of the Sharia even in questions of practical philosophy and jurisprudence, is regularly overlooked or suppressed.

Neither Averroes nor his predecessors ever considered addressing the question of whether the understanding of reason and rationality that applied to theoretical philosophy as a matter of course should not also apply to practical philosophy, as it did to Aristotle. For this reason, Franz Schupp, for example, thinks, or rather fears, that he must reproach the “commentator” Averroes, similar to Arnaldez, with a certain blindness in this philosophical question. At no point in the “decisive treatise” did Averroes consider it worthwhile to derive the rules of Islamic law from general theoretical principles. In his eyes, the law is sufficiently legitimised by the Prophet and the consensus of Muslims (§ 15). With regard to its interpretation, he also does not refer to theoretical principles, but solely to the customary procedures of Islamic jurists (§ 4). There are no dark passages in the law that would require scientific explication. Only in theoretical questions, but not in practical ones, is there room for philosophical interpretation. Practical science, as Averroes explains in § 38, only requires obedient observance of the rules, namely, the observance of jurisprudence (fiqh) for external actions, and the observance of “asceticism” (zuqd) for mental actions. Any justification of the revealed law by philosophy is out of the question.

In the case of Maimonides, on the other hand, whom UNESCO merely praises as evidence of the importance of Islamic Spain, as the fountainhead of European rationalism, no mention is made of the fact that he, the greatest Jewish scholar of the Middle Ages, had to flee from al-Andalus to North Africa and from there to Cairo because of religious persecution. In his letter to the Jews of Yemen, he described the Muslims at that time as the worst of all Jew-haters and persecutors. Never had a nation oppressed, humiliated, belittled and hated the Jews as much as the Muslims.

Incidentally, the myth of al-Andalus as a sanctuary of enlightened thought, science and philosophy was already dismissed by Ignaz Goldziher, well over a hundred years ago. Goldziher, one of the founding fathers of critical Oriental studies, who is still regarded as an internationally respected Islamologist, summarised the results of his research on this subject in 1877 to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences as follows:

“The first Spanish caliph to promote and cultivate the sciences was al-Ḥakam II in the 4th/10th century; he himself was also a scholar of the first rank. But already under his successor, his majordomo, Ibn Abī ʽĀmir, had won the favour of the people and Islamic religious scholars by destroying al-Ḥakam’s library and all his scientific output. But since Andalusia had not yet produced any important and free-thinking philosophers at all in the 4th/10th and 5th/11th centuries, the fanaticism of Ibn Abī Amir destroyed only the Eastern philosophical literature. Then, in the 6th/12th century, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Ibn Bāǧǧa (Avempace), Ibn Ṭufaīl (Abubacer) and Ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar), and Ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar), a few philosophers emerged among the Spanish Arabs; for a short time, at least, their personal security was guaranteed by the Almoravid Caliph Yūsuf ibn Tāšfīn, who was himself a friend of scholarship. Later, however, after a “golden age” of a few decades, philosophers and scholars were forced to withdraw from public life or leave al-Andalus under pressure from the ʿUlamāʾ and the proletariat. Their persecution put an end to the entire philosophical movement in Islamic Spain. Averroes, who owed his fame in the history of Aristotelianism to his outstanding influence on Christian scholasticism and Jewish religious philosophy, was almost completely forgotten by the Arabs. His work was not continued; although it must be said that Averroes’ scholarship was neither dependent nor linked to Spanish Islam, but was rather a continuation of Eastern Islamic philosophy, where it had developed organically over centuries. These two circumstances clearly show that Arab Spain was not a suitable milieu for philosophy, a fact that the historian of Arab Spain, al-Maqqarī, also acknowledges when he writes: “Philosophy is a science hated in Spain, which can only be studied in secret…”

While numerous liberal movements, both relating to science and in everyday life, manifested themselves in Eastern Islam, we look for such in vain in Western (Spanish) Islam, which is because of the different circumstances and conditions in which these two branches of Islam emerged. The history of Arab sciences begins with their contact and intermingling with the Persians. And the initiators of this scientific movement, which later developed into a separate Islamic in its own right, were mostly non-Arab foreigners, especially Persians…”

Muslim authors of the Middle Ages such as Ibn Ḥazm (994-1064) or Ibn Ṭumlūs (1164-1223) also mentioned the limited interest in philosophy and the low currency of philosophical works in al-Andalus. Compared to North Africa, al-Andalus was renowned for its unusually rigorous suppression of philosophy and Greek science, which the orthodox religious teachers and judges there considered un-Islamic. The intellectuals affected by this suppression were Muslims, but their philosophical works oriented towards Greek philosophy were however not viewed as being “Islamic.”

Conclusion

Our criticism of the lack of seriousness with regard to the Convivencia-construct mentioned at the outset of this article has been elucidated in the preceding through the sketch of historical developments and the discriminatory, intolerant regulations of Islamic law, which we have proffered.

Furthermore, we have shown inter alia that the contemporary accolades for the purported promotion of science by Islamic rulers, and that of Averroes, for example, as the alleged founder of a European rationalism are in need of nuanced differentiation. At the very least, they need to be accompanied by an account of the oft anti-scientific, blind adherence to Islamic law. We must not forget that only this law was Islamic and binding, but not, however, e.g., Aristotle’s commentary on natural philosophy.

Of course, we are still a long way off from a representation of the real social conditions and the real forms of interreligious coexistence in al-Andalus, although not so distant as the portrayals of the Convivencia propaganda. Our insufficient knowledge of the real living conditions is primarily because of the fact that we hardly have any first-hand testimonies of the victims of Islamic rule, apart from those of the voluntary Christian martyrs touched upon in the preceding. It was all the more important for us to make critical distinctions between the otherwise mainly positive self-portrayal of Islamic rule itself, i.e., the narrative by perpetrators and their adherence to Islamic law which legalised their actions.


Johannes Thomas is a Classicist and Romanist at the University of Paderborn. He is also the founding senator of the University of Erfurt. He is the author of Engel und Leviathan, Logik des Zufalls. Kunstkritik im Kontext von Moderne, Postmoderne und Antike and many other articles and books. This article is translated from the German by Robert M. Kerr.


The featured image shows, “The Flagellation of St Engratia,” by Bartolomé Bermejo; painted ca. 1474-1478.

Medieval Philosophy Redefined As The Latin Age

Through the kind courtesy of St. Augustine’s Press, we here offer to our readers an excerpt from Medieval Philosophy Redefined As The Latin Age, a newly published work of the late John Deely, one of the foremost semioticians of our time. He taught at the University of Saint Thomas and Saint Vincent College and Seminary. He passed away in 2017.

In this excerpted work, Deely brilliantly establishes the continuity of medieval thought in modernity.

Please do support the great work being done by St. Augustine’s Press by purchasing a copy of this book.


The 17th century crash and burn of Scholasticism—the tradition of commentary on Aristotle (in philosophy) and Lombard (along with the Bible in theology) begun in the late 1100s—resulted from accumulated abuses on the part of authorities civil and religious, abuses in which the scholastic “establishment” within the universities was all-too-often complicit. What discredited the Scholastics in the end was the actual demonstration b men we now call “scientists” of basic truths about the universe that scholastics denied—while encouraging church and state officials to take actions of repression and thought-control. Not until 1757 did the Roman Church lift its prohibition from 1616 of books dealing with Copernicus’ view that the earth was not the center of the physical universe, and not until 1835 did an edition of the Index of Forbidden Books appear which no longer listed as prohibited the works of Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler!

However understandable, the turning away from scholasticism in philosophy turned out to be a matter of throwing out the baby with the bathwater; for thinkers of the time were so taken with the experimental and mathematical techniques that had shown the earth to move and the stars to be other suns that they came to believe that the whole edifice of human knowledge, without remainder, could be rebuilt on the basis of science in this modern, empirical and mathematical sense. The ascendancy of this belief defined the historical epoch that has come to be called the Enlightenment, the belief that philosophers might ask questions, but only scientists could actually give answers. If you think that this Enlightenment attitude is a thing of the past, you are mistaken. Yet increasingly has it come to be recognized that if the whole of the knowledge we acquire before becoming scientists has no independent validity, then science itself would have no validity.

The first major thinker seriously to recognize this situation, or at least most completely to do so, was Charles Sanders Peirce. Borrowing a terminology coined by Jeremy Bentham, Peirce pointed to the difference between critical knowledge based on common experience or “cenoscopy”, presupposed to the validity of the specialized foci of modern experimental and mathematical science, in contrast with the knowledge that only experimentation and mathematization of results can produce, or “ideoscopy”, which is science in the modern sense. Until now, philosophers generally, in desperation, have tried appealing to “common sense” as the basis upon which philosophy has a legitimacy of its own prior to and independent of science. But so discredited has the notion of “common sense” become in intellectual culture that appeal to it has little chance of persuading a wide audience. What is needed, rather, is the recognition that, while both science and “common sense” depend upon “the total everyday experience of many generations of multitudinous populations”, yet “such experience is worthless for distinctively scientific purposes”.

The “distinctively scientific purposes” includes, however, both exploration of human experience that requires experimentation to advance knowledge and the more general “scientific purpose” to evaluate and expose in critically controlled terms that overall framework of knowledge within and on the basis of which scientific research comes to be conducted in the first place. Articulation of the presupposed overall framework of knowledge and of independent results attainable within it too requires “science” (as critically controlled objectification), but not ideoscopic science: here is the domain proper to philosophy, cenoscopic science. It has a legitimacy of its own, and this is what the early moderns lost sight of in their enthusiasm for the then-firmly-established-possibilities of ideoscopy. Moreover, the most basic of the cenoscopic lines of investigation proves to be precisely inquiry into the action of signs, “semiosis”, because it turns out that cenoscopy and ideoscopy alike depend on this action throughout for whatever knowledge they succeed to establish.

Now it so happens that the first realization of semiosis as underlying the whole of animal experience and human knowledge — that it is the action of signs which makes experience and knowledge so much as possible in any form—was the distinctive achievement of the Latin Age. That is not the whole story of medieval thought, but it is the untold part of the story, the part without which (as all the modern “histories of philosophy” taken together illustrate) medieval philosophy cannot be seen in its distinctive unity overall, extending from the break with ancient Greek philosophy around Augustine’s time to the modern break with Latin philosophy in the lifetime of Galileo, Poinsot, and Descartes. The articulation and exposition of this cenoscopic foundation of all science, termed today “semiotics”, the Latins termed simply doctrina signorum.

Philosophy, then, as cenoscopic science, not only precedes ideoscopic science and provides its framework. Philosophy also, rightly understood, shows the inevitability of ideoscopic development in order for human thought to reach maturation—just what the authorities, Church and Civil, in the closing Latin centuries, failed to understand.

Exactly as Hannam says in the subtitle of his book: “the medieval world laid the foundations of modern science”; but the Latins achieved this feat, as it were, indirectly, mainly as a consequence or by-product of their exploring the dimensions and depths of cenoscopic knowledge out of which ideoscopic inquiries inevitably arise.

Latin focus on the doctrine of signs achieved clarity only late, and precisely in the closing scholastic centuries of the age glossed over or omitted entirely in the standard “history of medieval philosophy”; yet it is far from the whole or only story of medieval thought that this book aims to tell. Just as important are the broader results scientific in a cenoscopic sense that the Latins are able to achieve in exploring those dimensions of experience which cannot be reduced to experimental results available to sense-perception, as is required in ideoscopy. To restore in new light the remarkable preceding achievements of medieval philosophy in thinking through those larger dimensions of human experience which go beyond sensible instantiations is just as integral to the story of medieval philosophy as is semiotic as the doctrine of signs. So the doctrine of signs (or semiotics, as we now say) is only part of the “medieval story” that this book aims to tell; but it is that part which provides an “Ariadne’s thread” through the larger maze of medieval noetic development, the thread without which the whole does not appear.

This book, then, is a work equally of philosophy and of history. The two are not perfectly separable; for while it is possible to do history without doing philosophy, the converse is not equally true, as the Analytic tradition of late modern thought is just beginning to learn. Ideoscopic science requires laboratories to explore the consequences of its theories. Just so does cenoscopic science require historical awareness. The philosopher ignorant of the history of philosophy is crippled in ways that we have only to read Wittgenstein to realize—provided that we have ourselves come to that reading with an historical consciousness including Aristotle’s work (which Wittgenstein made it a point of pride not to read). (Plato provided the best prenotes to Aristotle; but in the history of philosophy after Aristotle, Plato himself becomes a footnote.)

So this book aims to redress the imbalance in human intellectual community that the “Enlightenment mentality” understandably introduced, and to do so mainly by restoring, while for the first time telling in the light of semiotics, something like the full story of Latin Age scholasticism, when cenoscopy achieved some of its highest peaks at the same time that it made the modern development of ideoscopic science inevitable in its own right—over the dead bodies of the “authorities” presuming to speak for God.


The featured image shows Saint Jerome offering his work to Saint Marcella, who is accompanied by Saint Principia. From a manuscript from the Notre Abbey in Citeaux, France; early 12th century. (Bibliothèque municipale, Dijon – ms. 132 folio 1).

The Myth Of The Spanish Inquisition

In our continual efforts to bring quality material to our readers, this month we are very honored to showcase this detailed lecture from Father Joe Shea, who is the pastor of St. Rose of Lima, Simi Valley, California.

Here, Father Joe dispels the many, many myths and lies told about the “Spanish Inquisition” by those who still (often unwittingly) repeat the propaganda of John Foxe.


The image shows, “Scene from the Spanish Inquisition,” by Henri Regnault, painted ca. 1868 to 1870.