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Religious Warfare in Europe, 1400-1536.

Norman Housley. Religious Warfare in Europe, 1400-1536.

Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. x + 238 pp. index. bibl. $55. ISBN: 0-19-820811-1.

It is not usual to consider the causes of war in the time and place dealt with in this book as "religious." Most would say that the age of religious war belongs to the latter sixteenth century, and of course the grand guignol of the Thirty Years' War in the following century. But just as we now know that many nonreligious motivations underpinned the classic "wars of religion" we should not be too surprised that religious motives played a part in an earlier period.

Yet the causes of war as opposed to the motivations, justifications, and conceptions underpinning the question of "why they fought," can frequently be two different things. This is the general subject of the book. That is--when were people engaging in war for a religious reason? That the people of the age might hold this opinion, regardless of the actual motivations of the "powers that be," is not surprising. It is human nature to attempt to ascribe to events some rationality, order, and cause and effect. People living in an age before a scientific-materialistic world view had gained credence, where attribution is to God, and to God's will, see a conflict's outcome as a working out of that will, or a transgression against it. Indeed, as Housley says "In the Middle Ages and Early Modern period religious values did not simply provide terms of reference but a specific worldview which profoundly shaped the way contemporaries approached the practice of organized violence" (1).

Housley states that four patterns of thoughts or beliefs made war religious. These were the crusade, sectarian apocalypticism, national messianism, and the need to defend doctrinal truth against external assault. As to the crusade, Housley accepts the common view of a war to extirpate or convert the infidel. Sectarian apocalypticism is of course the belief nourished by a particular group that they were God's elect and possessed of an inescapable mandate to wage holy war to bring Christ's kingdom to earth. Third is "national messianism" or the vesting of divine missions in chosen peoples, and last, the need to defend doctrinal truth against external assault. This last is far more important than it may seem, for it assumes that the "new covenant," the newly rediscovered "God's Law," was given to mankind in general and that was sufficient over time to accomplish the regeneration of man, if only it was not suppressed. The impact of all this, and this cannot be emphasized enough, is that transforming a war into a religious war "ups the ante" for all concerned. Compromise and adjustment--willingness to make do with "half a loaf"--is something that can be taken in stride by cool, calculating men, of the new Machiavellian type, but it would not do when "world view" and the very existence of God's plan, the working of God's will, and perhaps God himself were in the balance.

The only shortcoming in the book is the lack of a very small chapter of even a few pages on how the shift to religious war transforms the actual forensics of the conduct of war, if at all. This is admittedly a very minor quibble, yet it is important only because we know there is a world of difference between "Kill them all--God will know his own!" from the Albigensian Crusade and the genteel "Gentlemen of France you may fire first" in the eighteenth century. In the period of Housley's concern, it was rather much more of the former, and atrocity and unspeakable acts were the common coin of war. This is especially true in the east in the wars against the Turks who were particularly accomplished masters of that way of war.

On the positive side Housley has accomplished an admirable work. He has delved into that field beloved by the deconstructionist--the archeology of "men-talite"--without descent into jargon and obfuscation. But beyond that he has been careful in his case studies not to confine them to one war or theater. Significantly, many of these come from the "borderlands of Europe," and here, of course, we meet the figure of the Turk--no--three Turks, to be precise.

In this chapter ("The Three Turks") Housley examines the face of the enemy against which the four transformations, key to Housley's theory of "Religious War," are formulated. The "enemy" so framed justifies the response. "The Three Turks" are first, the Ottoman Empire, representing the very real threat of the Turkish expansion into Europe; second, the "Internal Turk" representing the Christian ruler who abdicates his responsibility and justice to his subjects and works depredations upon his subjects "worse than the Turk." Significantly, this "Internal Turk" can become the infidel and a cause of civil rebellion, even when of the same faith as the rebels. Finally, there is the "Interior Turk," which was seen as lack of fidelity to Christian values in the individuals--that is, lack of Christian charity, kindness, and love to one's fellow man, even the "external Turk" as symbolic of Satan's control of men's hearts--that is, divorcing the man from the deed and hate the sin but love the sinner. It is very hard for us, so far removed from the time, to appreciate the emotional baggage that was carried by "The Turk." Combining seemingly irresistible military might, ruthless cruelty, and almost automaton-like single-mindedness, the Turk was indeed terrible, and the threat posed by him could be used to justify any means to resist him. Yet we must not forget that much of the horrific image was largely true. The Turks waged a war of terror as a means to psychologically unnerve their opponents and weaken resistance, and here again a short chapter on the forensics of war might be helpful.

Finally, Housley mentions that even in the highly secularized era of World War I, soldiers went off to the front in the firm belief "God is with us" as a proof of the enduring appeal of the religious dimension. But a more cogent example is at hand. As we, at this moment, go to war with a people who still largely have a medieval "world view" and who conceive of struggle with "The West" (and indeed have a view of the "Three Americans" to match Housley's Three Turks) as a command from God, Housley's book has a strange urgency and ought to be read, and several times, to acquaint ourselves with a dimension of waging war that may once again become very real.


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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Schmidt, Victor
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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