I just finished reading a very bad book, although I owe it thanks for leading me down some interesting intellectual paths. The book is Derek Wilson’s Charlemagne, which came my way through my book club (and it’s because of the book club that I actually finished a book I normally would swiftly have abandoned). The book’s failure lies, not in its subject matter (natch), but in the writing, which is confused, facile and unable to support its fundamental principle that Charlemagne is the founder of modern Europe.
In fact, as one of the book club members pointed out, Charlemagne was the founder of of something much more important than some amorphous “Europe”. Instead, Charlemagne inaugurated Christendom.
But for Charlemagne’s commitment to creating a federation of formerly Pagan territories owing allegiance to the Papal view of Christianity, the world as we know it would never have existed. He stood as the bulwark to the pressures if Islam from the south and west, and anarchy (in the form of Vikings, Saxons, Magyars and Bulgars to the north and east). Further, since anarchy is explosive, but not lasting, there’s no doubt but that the Islamic pressure, which matched Charlemagne in single-minded devotion to a religious idea, which have been the ultimate victor. The book’s author managed not to touch upon any of this.
The book’s failures aside, it did get me thinking about today’s religious wars and, more specifically, about the nature of religious wars. As you know, I was raised in a completely liberal environment (San Francisco and Berkeley in the 60s, 70s and 80s). Although I’ve conquered that liberalism intellectually, I still have some nice knee-jerk reactions left in me. One of those kicked in when I read about Charlemagne systematically overthrowing pagan people (Celts to the west, Saxons to the north, etc.), and forcing Christianity on them. It just seem to be so wrong that some imperialistic Christian bully would deprive those sweet tree-worshippers of their indigenous religious beliefs. After all, aren’t we all supposed to worship Mother Gaia now?
Fortunately, reason kicked in. Those tree-worshippers were anything but sweet. For almost all of them, human sacrifice was the name of the game. Whether drawing “volunteers” from their own ranks or committing mass slaughter against their enemies, these tree-hugger pagans engaged in brutish practices that we now pretend never existed.
We can get some glimpse into these practices, however, by looking at what marauding, Christianizing Europeans found when they met Native Americans on our shores. Contrary to what is taught in public schools, many of the native tribes were not merely benign hunters and gatherers, or noble, PC warriors. Instead, as Danny Lemieux explained in an email correspondence with me:
I love reading about the history of that period [early European contact with North America], especially given the involvement of my French forebears. A wonderful read on the subject that links that past to our present is Phil Marchand’s book Ghost Empire: How the French Almost Conquered North America. It’s an easy, entertaining and highly thoughtful book. A good movie on that period is the Canadian Black Robe, which came out right about the time of “Dances with Wolves” but was xxxx-times better. Another excellent (but very long read) is the very authoritative Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 by Fred Anderson, probably the leading authority on the French & Indian War.
The descriptions of what the Indians used to do to other tribes and captives are horrific. They went well beyond cannibalism, and included forcing captured women to roast their babies live on spits before making them eat them, flaying prisoners alive, and consuming the flesh from living prisoners (the likely origin of a particularly bloody scene in Michael Crichton’s book State of Fear, warning about where the eco-environmental Gaia movement is taking us.) Ghost Empire has a very interesting and sad discourse about how the Hurons tried to change their ways and modernize themselves in the original settlement of Detroit under the leadership of the black robes.
As Danny’s last sentence indicates, many of the Indians were grateful for an alternative to the horrors of their own religious and tribal practices. It is reasonable to believe, therefore, that a significant number of the pagans that Charlemagne subdued were equally grateful for a respite from the horrific demands of the own societies. After all, as Danny explains:
A forgotten trait of the Carthaginians is that they were worshippers of Baal (another name for Satan). Carthage had a large bronze statue of Baal with outstretched hands under which a large fire was built during an annual ritual. First-born babies were placed on those hands and roasted alive. The Carthaginians were loathed by other Mediterranean cultures (including the Jews). When the Romans finally defeated them, they found piles and piles of children’s bones.
As Chesterton put it, the Romans were pagans but they understood the difference between good and evil. They made sure no structure of Carthage remained standing. Shortly afterwards, Roman Society degenerated and was on its last legs until revitalized by Christianity. For the Druids, it was the Burning Man and other ceremonies. Ditto for the Aztecs. Might I suggest that we have a similar phenomenon at work in our society today, or am I being too un-PC harsh?
And then, suddenly, there was Christianity. I’m not blind to the nuances of Christianity. I understand them intellectually, although they do not resonate with me spiritually. In that way, I’m pretty much like the smart pagan after his first lecture from the missionary.
The one thing, though, that all pagans understood right away, whether or not they grasped the greater subtleties of Christianity, was the fact that the days of human sacrifice were over. What came through loud and clear was that Christ had offered himself as the ultimate sacrifice for all mankind. You no longer needed to slaughter your babies, burn your youth, or behead all of your enemies to placate the invisible forces that dominated the world. Instead, through the miracle of transubstantiation, you only needed to drink the wine and eat the wafer. What a blessed relief!
Of course, the acceptance of Christ and the abandonment of pagan brutalities did not end the horrors of life in the pre-modern era. (Although our periodic convulsions, whether in Germany, the Soviet Union, China or elsewhere remind us that man is always prone to horror.) Life in Europe then was undoubtedly Hobbesian: “The life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Whether for the benefit of the state or the church, people who ran afoul of the authorities were routinely burned, flayed, beheaded, dislimbed, disemboweled, blinded, etc. Nevertheless, under Christianity’s civilizing rule, it was still better than before. Christianity also paved the way to the abolition of slavery, the end of child labor and the civil rights movement. It was a slow process, but it was definitely a process.
So here I am, coming out in favor of an imperial urge to spread religion. Why, then, am I so opposed to Islam’s same impulse? The answer is simple. All religions are not created equal. Just as Christianity was superior to the paganism that preceded it, so too is it superior to the aggressive Islamism that now seeks to dominate.
Christianity increased the rights of man, and this is true even in times when men’s rights were limited almost beyond our modern conception. Sharia Islam aims to decrease the rights of man, and destroy the rights of women. We would trade the intellectual freedom and equality that are the gifts of Charlemagne’s Christendom and receive, instead, a stifling doctrinal world, with feudal practices. It’s a bad deal and we are right to resist it. No PC thoughts should pollute our will.