Thursday, May 31, 2007

The New Relevance of the Middle Ages at Virginia Tech

UPDATE: This is a slightly expanded version of a commentary that appeared in the Saturday, 6/2/07 Roanoke Times. Please comment below or at the Roanoke Times' blog.

As a medieval historian, one rarely feels that his expertise can shed some light on a current debate. But I teach at Virginia Tech. And now that the semester is over, now that there is time to reflect, I have been struck by how “medieval” the events of this past April seem – both Seung Cho’s violence and our collective revulsion to it.

In the snippets of Cho’s “manifesto” that have been released to the public, he speaks of: (likely imagined) persecution of the innocent, violent defense of the helpless, and Cho’s perception of himself as a martyr by appropriating Christian imagery – Jesus Himself, the cross, and even the torments the saints endured for their faith (burning like St. Polycarp, suffocating like St. Cecilia, and beheading like St. Denis, etc.). Even Cho’s oft-repeated statement that “Jesus loves crucifying me” reinforces the idea of martyrdom, suggesting, as countless biographies of the saints have, that God triumphs through the martyr’s sacrifice. Taken alone, these statements might be interesting from a purely academic standpoint. Unfortunately, we all know what followed Cho’s statements. It’s this combination of language and action that’s most “medieval,” since the essential elements of Cho’s manifesto mirror Pope Urban II’s speech, given in 1095 that launched the First Crusade.

From what we can reconstruct of that speech, Urban first railed against the sins of his listeners.(1) But then, when the hellfires beckoned, Urban offered them a way out – a path to Heaven. Go to Jerusalem. Reclaim the land where Jesus was crucified and where He would soon return. This land rightfully belongs to us, Urban continued, so emulate the suffering of Christ and “take up [your] cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Defend your fellow Christians who suffer under (an imagined) oppression by God’s enemies. Become a “soldier of Christ” and destroy “His enemies.” God would reward you with martyrdom if you died. Jesus. The cross. Suffering. Martyrdom. Violence.

Cries of “God wills it!” rang through the crowd. Over 100,000 people, many of whom had never left their village, decided to walk the 4,000 miles to Jerusalem. Again, we all know what came next.(2)

It’s important to note that neither the events of 1095 or 2007 “just happened.” There are explanations, even if they’re not comfortable ones. Urban’s message met a receptive audience because long-held ideas and traditions in the West came together just so. So too with Cho. He created a mental world which only rarely touched reality, a world created from our culture’s obsession with violence and guns as well as a radical Christianity, likely generated by his upbringing and continued interest in the religion, given the number of courses on religious topics he took here at Tech. This particular Christianity isn’t unlike that unleashed during the First Crusade and such language of violence can still be found at places in our own, modern society. Look, for example, at the violence in Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ immensely popular Left Behind book series, and especially the recent video game that the series inspired, in which believers wander around New York City after “the rapture,” killing non-believers. But even better, remember the recent events at Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA where a student planned to bomb protestors at Jerry Falwell’s funeral (the would-be bomber, Mark David Uhl, calls himself a “soldier of Christ” on his Myspace page).(3) Cho’s mental world divided everything between good and evil and called for the oppressed to rise and take vengeance upon their oppressors. His mental illness made him cross a line and act upon these ideas. Unfortunately, it didn’t generate the ideas themselves though.

But just as Cho was, in a way, an heir to the ideas of the First Crusade, so too are the rest of us for, in addition to violence and intolerance, the First Crusade was also about peace: true, lasting peace. As conceived in 1095, the violent reconquest of Jerusalem would hasten the arrival of God’s kingdom on earth, an earthly paradise in which all would share. Later in the Middle Ages, the influential thought of Joachim of Fiore changed this tradition, stripping away the violence that preceded this kingdom, saying that all would peacefully – peacefully ¬– come together.(4) And, just as Urban’s vision has endured, so too has Joachim’s. The world, without hesitation, now condemns actions like Cho’s. Violence is not normative anymore.

If nothing else, the Middle Ages show us how the intellectual path we’re on isn’t the only one available. In 1095, 100,000 people thought that violence could bring peace. In 2007, Seung Cho believed the same and the world cried out in horror. Cho took one path from 1095 and the vast majority took the other. In and of itself, and in the middle of all this sadness, this is a reason for hope.

  1. The surviving accounts of Urban’s speech, along with letters he wrote at that time, are well-translated in The First Crusade: The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres and Other Source Materials, ed. and trans. Edward Peters, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia, 1998). Many are also available via the Internet Medieval Sourcebook.
  2. The well-written and accessible Thomas Asbridge, The First Crusade: A New History (Oxford, 2004) is a good place to start exploring those events.
  3. The page has now been removed, but its contents are summarized well by Max Blumenthal, “Diary of a Christian Terrorist.” The case, as of May 31, 2007, is summarized by the Associated Press for the International Herald Tribune.
  4. For example, see Robert E. Lerner, The Feast of Saint Abraham: Medieval Millenarians and the Jews (Philadelphia, 2001).