The striking aspect of this volume is its focus on violence and war. Three chapters center on the Crusades and a fourth on the Mongol invasions. The latter, in terms of violence and mindless destruction, were far worse than all the Crusades put together. Nevertheless, most of the wars in the volume were instigated by Christian leaders, fought as Christian endeavors, and consequently dominated the Christian story in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
In considering the Crusades, two indisputable facts should be noted. First, they were not an attack; they were a counterattack. They are often presented as an unprovoked assault by avaricious Christians against the tranquil and irenic Muslim civilization in the Middle East. This is far from the truth. All the lands the Christians sought to conquer had been seized from them by Muslim armies that burst out of Arabia in the seventh and eighth centuries, as detailed in volume 5, The Sword of Islam. The Muslims occupied Spain, and then in the following three centuries, they ruled southern France for a time, Sicily, Greece, and southern Italy, and three times attacked Rome. It seemed obvious to the Christians that unless this aggression was stopped at its source, sooner or later Europe too would become Muslim.
Second, the Crusades did not work. As both a military endeavor and a religious one, they failed miserably and left eastern Europe wide open to the next Muslim attack, which came over the following three centuries. From this whole experience, the Christians could conclude that while they must resist Islamic aggression by force, they could not hope to overcome Islam itself in that way. If Christ is to conquer, it must be by love, not by violence.
Paradoxically, the same violent centuries also witnessed an astonishing outburst of Christian creativity. Throughout western Europe there appeared cathedrals and churches whose soaring height and staggering beauty have awed humanity ever since. This phenomenon, Gothic architecture, we have covered more in image than in words.
Meanwhile, a second conflict, which many would hold more pivotal to Christendom than the clash with Islam, raged in western Europe. It concerned the ultimate power to make the law. Should that power reside with what we would now call the secular authority, represented then by the emperor? Or should it reside with religious authority, represented in western Europe by the pope? Three chapters describe this ferocious dispute.
Is it relevant today? It most assuredly is. For the point at issue is the making of the law, and the problem, then and now, is that every law rests on or expresses some moral principle. So whose principles should the law embody? Behind all our “cultural” conflicts lies that essential question. Sooner or later it must be answered, and the answer will not be easily found.
Finally, one chapter centers on the remarkable Thomas Aquinas and his perceptive analysis of the relation between reason and faith. Here we see the first appearance of a generally neglected question. Why is it that the whole scientific revolution, which has transformed the world, arose exclusively in countries with Christian foundations? In the story of Thomas we get the beginning of the answer.
But this volume, like all its predecessors, is not a book about issues. It’s about the people who made the issues and fought them. And in the Christian view, that is surely how it should be. Issues come and go. People live forever.
To read any of the stories contained in Volume Seven of The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years click on its title on the menu to the right. If you prefer to experience the stories beautifully laid out in print with hundreds of magnificent illustrations of the period then we encourage you to support this project by ordering the book from The Christians website.