David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: christianity

New Horizons in the History of the Crusades

I was unaware of the somewhat dismaying recent trend of Crusades scholarship that emphasizes the “Holy” part of the “Holy War” equation. Unlike Steven Runciman and other earlier historians, some of these scholars are rather sympathetic to the Crusades and the Church of that time. To read this passage by Thomas F. Madden, author of The Crusades: An Illustrated History, is depressing:

Thomas Asbridge’s Pope Urban II, much like Erdmann’s, is a schemer whose primary motivation is to exert his own power. There was, Asbridge contends, no compelling external reason for the First Crusade. One would think the Muslim conquest of fully two-thirds of the Christian world might engender some bad feeling.

Given the frequency with which Tyerman refers to medieval anti-Jewish pogroms, one might well conclude that the purpose of the Crusades was to annihilate Jews. Indeed, he uses these massacres as evidence of the brutal nature of the Crusades and the success of the Church in whipping up hatred for “the other.” Nowhere does he mention that these attacks on Jews were isolated incidents in direct violation of Church law and condemned by churchmen and secular leaders alike. Anti-Jewish attacks were seen as a perversion of crusading, and people like St. Bernard of Clairvaux worked hard to keep them from happening at all.

Thomas F. Madden, “Crusaders and Historians”

[Note the passive “were seen” in that last sentence.]

That would be the same Bernard of Clairvaux who said the following:

‘They shall either be converted or wiped out.’ So Bernard of Clairvaux announced the extension of Jerusalem indulgences to the summer campaign of 1147 against the pagan Slavs, or Wends, between the rivers Elbe and Oder. This decision, reached at the Diet of Frankfurt in March 1147, set the tone for perhaps the most radical and effective association of holy war and territorial expansion.

Christopher Tyerman, God’s War: A New History of the Crusades

The nuanced and skeptical Tyerman does maintain that colonialization was not the only or even the greatest motivation for the Crusades, but herefuses to jump to Madden’s redemptive stance. And, belying Madden’s whitewash of the Church’s anti-semitism, he cites the words of Bernard and other clergy:

Overt anti-Semitism dominated the academy of western Christendom in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, often expressed by those unmoved by practical or communal resentment or fear. Abbot Peter the Venerable of Cluny argued a point very close to Radulf’s; if it is a meritorious act to fight enemies of Christianity in distant lands why are Jews allowed to live undisturbed in the heart of Christendom? If Muslims were detestable, how much more were the Jews? In profiting from Christians, even the church, through usury, they polluted Christendom. Abbot Peter was careful to follow the theologically orthodox line that Jews should not be killed but, he insisted, they should be punished as enemies of Christ.

Bernard of Clairvaux, ‘a decent priest’ in Rabbi Ephraim’s grateful memory, while rejecting simple and violent analogies, lacked sympathy or more than legal tolerance, stating:

The Jews are not to be persecuted, killed or even put to flight… The Jews are for us the living words of Scripture, for they remind us always of what our Lord suffered. They are dispersed all over the world so that by expiating their crime they may be everywhere living witnesses of our redemption. Under Christian princes they endure a hard captivity… when the time is ripe all Israel shall be saved [i.e. converted]. But those who die before will remain in death. If Jews are utterly wiped out, what will become of our hope for their promised salvation, their eventual conversion?

Christopher Tyerman, God’s War: A New History of the Crusades

While Bernard took a softer line than most, the general view, at best, was that “killing” was a perversion of crusading, but other attacks on Jews were acceptable.


Christianity in the 3rd Century: Gnosticism and Worldliness

Peter Brown writes in his great (and short) The World of Late Antiquity of the years leading up to Christianity’s big break, when Constantine converted in 312:

The Christian Church differed from the other oriental cults, which it resembled in so many other ways, through its intolerance of the outside world. The cults were exclusive, and, often, the jealously guarded preserve of foreigners; but they never set themselves up against the traditional religious observances of the society round them. They never enjoyed the publicity of intermittent persecution. While the oriental cults provided special means to salvation in the next world, they took the position of their devotees in this world for granted. The Christian Church offered a way of living in this world. The skillful elaboration of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the sense of belonging to a distinctive group with carefully prescribed habits and increasing resources heightened the impression that the Christian Church made on the uncertain generations of the third century. Seldom has a small minority played so successfully on the anxieties of society as did the Christians. They remained a small group: but they succeeded in becoming a big problem.

For men whose confusions came partly from no longer feeling embedded in their home environment, the Christian Church offered a drastic experiment in social living, reinforced by the excitement and occasional perils of a break with one’s past and one’s neighbors.

The suggestion, with a nod to Hans Blumenberg, is that Christianity grew in part through a cultish, gnostic mentality that allowed it to offer a niche, elite appeal. This mentality then had to be discarded by Augustine and the Church itself once the movement had reached a critical mass of acceptance. Yet by Brown’s account, the preparations for such a prioritization of this world were there from the beginning, which is what enabled it to make the transition successfully.

Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas

 S A T O R
 A R E P O
 T E N E T
 O P E R A
 R O T A S

One common translation is “Arepo the sower holds the wheels at work,” but if there does exist one authoritative meaning, it’s been buried among many dubious others.

1. Webern

The square above is inscribed on Webern’s gravestone. Webern had some peculiar obsession with it, since by this dissertation, he dropped it in lectures, and the structure of his Concerto, op. 24 is apparently derived from it. The only definite characteristic I know of is the (multi-dimensional) symmetry, but this quote from a letter cryptically elaborates on what he was after:

You ask about the shape: at the center [of the song] are the the words “Because he fell silent on the cross, we must go after him, in all seriousness of bitterness, our breath follows him.” What went before is now repeated backwards. Repeated. All shapes are similar and none are the same; thus, the chorus points to the secret law, to a holy riddle…. But the fact that it was just these words that constitute the center of the musical shape came about of its own accord– indeed it could not have been otherwise.

The words to the song are Hildegard Jones’. The translation I have gives the lines as “Because it [the Word] fell silent on the Cross we must follow it,” and the subtext is the equation of God and Word. The Jewish Webern was probably less interested in the Biblical implications than in the notion of the center, and of having a piece lead in and out of a central, exalted point rather than having a differentiated start and end. I.e., from the center flows its surroundings, which do not form a circle, but a multiplicity of paths to the center.

2. Osman Lins

Osman Lins constructed the entirety of his book Avalovara around this square, with each letter representing a different concurrent plotline, environment, and/or lover. The book was then structured by superimposing a spiral on the square, which makes a full rotation fourteen times before converging on the middle ‘N’. The path from outside to center is equated with an explicitly Christian movement from perception to immanence, dialogue to unity, and impurity to purity. The book ends with a the narrator, who is possibly insane (it’s a rather abstruse book), being elevated to the Garden of Eden with his quasi-divine lover and turning his back on what is evidently Augustine’s City of Man.

Translator Gregory Rabassa provides a helpful essay on Avalovara. Lins is explicit about seeing the word square as a circular entity, abandoning the linear reading as far as I can tell. But it’s certainly a weighted circle, and the spiral causes its traversal along neither line, and nor any path given by the reflection of the letters per se. The geometry of the book does not work; not in two dimensions, anyway.

3. Rome
Andrew Hughey gives a history of the acrostic. Its main “hidden” feature is that it can be rearranged to form two “PATERNOSTER”‘s with an overlapped ‘N’, leaving out two ‘A”s and ‘O”s, which, in a fiddly and lexicographically weird stretch, could be read as alpha and omega. (This page gives a far more unbelievable anagram.) It was first discovered in the Pompeii ruins, but has since been found from Britain to Egypt, maybe further. The “secret Christian handshake” interpretation seems reasonable, but pagan and Roman interpretations exist, and it’s more than possible that the meaning has evolved over the millenium in which the square was used. This classics-list page gives the rough outlines of what’s known and what’s not.

What’s interesting, though, is that the alpha/omega Pater Noster interpretation undercuts the square’s own design, giving a differentiated beginning and end (without, but especially with, the ‘A”s and ‘O”s) and the center loses all meaning except as a stopover from beginning to end, which is all part of the undifferentiated “PATERNOSTER.” This a very convenient allegory for the evolution from gnosticism to orthodoxy and the ensuing death of esoteric gnostic traditions. It also leaves the symmetry and multiple paths open to non-Christian interpretation for those who don’t take the anagram approach. The word square is lost with the anagram, which removes the entire apparent rationale for the set of letters. Whichever way you go, relating the two versions is self-defeating.


The scholar Malcolm Stewart offers a more informed analysis of the origins and usage of the word square:

“… fiddly and lexicographically weird” – the Alpha/Omega interpretation? No. Latin had no equivalent for omega and “o” was often used. This came forward into medieval church latin from which we still have a carol with a verse:

“O and A and A and O
cum cantibus in choro
let the merry organ go
benedicamus Domino, benedicamus Domino.”

Pater Noster was not a phrase exclusive to Christian usage, it was a known term. Sometimes used of Jupiter, sometimes even of the Emperor. But it almost certainly is Christian taken together with the A and O. And almost certainly was an acrostic to reveal/hide christian affiliation. The fish sign took two people to make – you made a curved line casually on the ground with a toe, if the other person didn’t add the other curve you kept mum. This too I think was a recognition signal of the kind that could be displayed fairly securely.

One can contrive all sorts of other possibilities. For instance if you decode the square according to current numerology you find all vertica and horizontal lines add to 19 = 1 (by casting out the 9. 19 itself has a sacred numerical pedigree in the ancient world owing to the metonic cycle). However that can’t apply becuase Latin didn’t have some of the letters that lead to the numeration involved so the sums can’t be like that. Contrivances …

The Pater Noster AO solution is elegant, uses without any spare leftover parts, three Christian elements. The Phrase, the Cross and the AO. It’s conclusive … though we all like to think that something further may be hidden ….

An ad hominem indication of what the square encodes is simply to ask people who’ve come across it and solved it for themselves what the found in it. I’m one of the many who have done this (years before the existence of the omniscient www.) It’s always the Pater Noster reading.

I find his case compelling, but there is part of me that still holds out hope for a generative usage of the square in the style of Giordano Bruno. The acrostic explanation does not hold enough of the square’s symmetry to be fully attractive. Consequently, I’m more drawn to Lins and Webern’s symbolic usage of the square.

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