The Templars

the templarsThere’s a thing about the Knights Templar, something romantic lodged in the European brain. Maybe it’s the idea of monk-like knights dedicated to fighting for Christendom, or the tales of valour in the holy land and the Iberian peninsula, or their tragic ending at the hands of the king of France… Who knows why stories get lodged into the collective imagination, but this one did. Historian Dan Jones’s very readable book The Templars tells the story well.

The Templars arose in the aftermath of the first crusade, which culminated in the taking of Jerusalem in 1099. When the main Christian forces had returned home the occupied lands were always vulnerable to being recaptured by local or regional forces. The Knights Templar were established to help protect these Christian outposts and keep safe routes for pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

The Knights Templar were founded in 1119, and in 1129 rules were established for the lives of these knights, based on the rules that had been established for the recently established Cistercian order of monks. The hugely influential Bernard of Clairvaux was instrumental in this. They were effectively fighting monks, with a code that meant they would fight to the death for the cause.

How strange to the modern mind that the rules of monasticism should be applied to the battlefield.

In subsequent battles, particularly from the second crusade in 1147, preached by Bernard himself, the Templars proved to be the most effective European fighting force, often, with the similar Knights Hospitaller, formed the vanguard or rearguard of the advancing forces.

Through the many crusades and the Spanish reconquista, up to the mid-1250s, the Templars played a major role. They provided trans-national services such as banking and fighting forces to the various kings in Europe. They became very powerful, which was fine while they held the confidence of those kings.

But the various crusades were not well organised and the Templars took the brunt of failures of the leaders who came looking for glory. There were a number of massacres of Templars and eventually the crusader project seemed to be coming to nought, with all gains being cancelled out. It seems there was some blame pointed at the Templars for these failures.

Jones tells the story of the various crusades and battles in an engaging manner. The balance of power clearly changed when the Mongols arrived and sacked Baghdad in 1258, and the Mamluk state joining Egypt and Syria was established in 1260. The Christians were effectively squeezed out.

The Templars remained influential across Europe until the coming of the French king Philip IV. Philip was a new sort of French king, establishing a strong centralised state, and moving against other sources of power. His first target was to get rid of the Jews, next came the Templars. On Friday 13 October 1307 all Templars in France were seized, imprisoned and tortured.

Neither the French pope Clement V nor the other European leaders agreed with Philip’s move, but it seems that the pope was persuaded to spread the investigation of Templars throughout Europe. These were the days of inquisition to detect heresy, so it was not difficult to trump up charges. The net effect was that the order of the Temple was suppressed in 1312, and the last leader of the Templars, Jacques de Molay, was burnt to death after recanting his forced confession a couple of years later.

It had been less than 200 years. What a story!

Footnote. Since the fall of the Turkish (Ottoman) Empire Western forces have been engaged in the Middle East in many ways, including establishing the Israeli outpost safeguarding Jerusalem, several encounters in Iraq, Syria, catastrophe in Egypt (Suez),… Le plus ça change…

Featured image from the website Knight Templar International.

 

 

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Interview with René Descartes

I recently came across this interview, dated 2001/1649.

Interviewer: Bonjour, Monsieur Descartes. Can I call you René?

Descartes: Allô, allô. Mais of course!

Interviewer: I have come back from the twenty first century to ask you a few questions. People there are very interested in your ideas, but you have been getting some bad press lately. Are you happy to take part?

Descartes: I think so.

Read More »

Travellers in the Third Reich

The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People

As one of a generation haunted by discovering the then-recent calamity of WW2, now disturbed by the rise in populism across the world, I found this a timely book by Julia Boyd.

It tells the story of the Third Reich through the eyes of people who visited or lived in Germany through the days of Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power, its consolidation, the increasing drumbeats towards war, and the war itself.

What is remarkable is how many people gave the Nazi regime the benefit of the doubt, despite the clear signs, such as the centralisation of all power, rescinding of civil liberties and press freedom, the early concentration camps, the persecution of Jews, the burning of books (all in 1933) through to Kristallnacht (1938) and the subsequent descent into war.

Of course, the desire to avoid another war was a major part of this, and there is the interesting story of Neville Chamberlain’s vain attempt to make peace in Munich in 1938, and Hitler’s dismissive attitude to the whole affair.

The book presents an interesting story, perhaps a bit long-winded at times. It certainly opened my eyes to some things, such as the fact that Germany welcomed English and American tourists throughout the 1930s, and many found the country very efficient and friendly, except where they came face to face with the persecution of Jews and supposed non-aryans.

The stories from the 1920s and early 1930s show that, after making a fair recovery from WW1, Germany was not in a good place after the shock of the great depression. The arduous reparation terms imposed by the Allies at the end of WW1 were a major cause of German suffering and dissatisfaction. It seems that these were major factors in the rise to power of Hitler.

The evident parallel today is the rise of populism following the 2008 financial crash, and the subsequent failure to make due reckoning with its causes. The missing factor today is there is no sense of national persecution similar to that caused in Germany by the WW1 armistice terms.  

In the case of Donald Trump and the US, it is maybe too early to say how far the parallels go – but he clearly came to the presidency by exploiting white male dissatisfaction with the status quo that had come about – economic, racial and misogynistic. On the positive side, the US constitution appears to be much more robust in resisting over-centralization of power than was Germany in the 1930s.


Cistercian Simplicity

I’ve long found inspiration and sustenance from the beauty and simplicity of the Cistercian abbeys, still found in various states of repair across Europe. For me their simplicity of form is unfailingly beautiful.

In this context I’ve also been aware of the towering spiritual figure of St Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the main instigators of the Cistercian movement, and wondered what sort of person he might have been.

spirit of simplicitySo I couldn’t resist the book ‘The Spirit of Simplicity’, being translations of classical French texts by that modern spiritual seeker Thomas Merton. The book is in two parts. The first part is a text with the book’s title, attributed to Jean-Baptiste Chautard in the mid 1920s. The second part contains selected texts by St Bernard himself on Inner Simplicity. Could this explain what lay behind the beauty of those old Abbeys?

The original Cistercian movement was one of renewal, aiming to return to the Rule of the monastic life originally established by St Benedict (c. 480-550 AD). Inner simplicity was a founding principle, and from this flowed the external simplicity of the forms created. The fathers of the first Abbey at Citeaux in the early 1100s were dedicated to this.

Chautard suggests that there was a golden age of 150 years for the Cistercian movement, when this simplicity was effectively maintained. This was followed by a silver age of another 100 years when it was not so effectively maintained and embellishments crept in. After the middle of the 14th century decline set in – with several causes: the Black Death, religious wars, and then the Reformation. (Paradoxically, Protestantism saw a return to simplicity in the form of religious buildings. Many of the older decorated Gothic buildings now show an almost Cistercian simplicity.) Another renewal movement at the end of the 19th century ensured that there are still some Cistercian Abbeys operating today.

St Bernard himself is regarded as the finest exemplar of the movement. The second part of the book contains his reflections on that simplicity, the need for humility, and obedience in the context of the monk’s life, the importance of the monk knowing himself – so actually quite modern psychologically – the overcoming of pride and dedication to the love of God.

I was quite struck by one particular quote:

And what greater pride is there than that one man should try to impose his own opinion upon the whole community, as if he alone had the spirit of God?

Modern dictators and populists please note. Pride always comes before a fall.

So the outer simplicity of the Cistercian abbey is a reflection of the inner simplicity of the monks. The evident beauty is a reflection of the inner beauty of their souls.

I would not suggest that the life of a monk is right for everyone, but it is clear that this dedication to inner simplicity produces this wonderful contribution to the beauty in the world. Go see some of these superb buildings for yourself – Fountains Abbey in UK, Fontenay, Senanques, Silvacane, Fontfroide, Pontigny and many others in France, Orval in Belgium. There are far too many to list them all. Here are just a few random selected photos.

For most, you must travel to less frequented parts of the country. The communities were built to be self sufficient, away from centres of population. These journeys provide a scenic mini pilgrimage in themselves. Even the less well preserved abbeys, such as Abbeycwmhir in an isolated valley in mid-Wales, once one of the largest abbeys in the UK, have a special atmosphere about them.

abbeycwmhir
Abbeycwmhir

And the book is certainly very readable if it aligns with your interest. Merton knew his stuff.

 

An unfortunate legacy of Justus von Liebig

Every good idea that takes off in human thinking seems to have its downside that eventually requires correction, as it is taken to extremes. I think this is what Hegel’s dialectic of thesis –> antithesis –> synthesis was about. The German chemist Justus von Liebig provides an example very relevant today, in a story told by Beata Bishop in the recent SciMed newsletter.

Von Liebig (1802-1873) is variously regarded as the founder of organic chemistry and the father of the fertilizer industry. He notably discovered that nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are key minerals that plants need to grow and thrive. Thus came about the modern fertilizer industry, which gradually supplanted traditional farming techniques based on manure, compost, crop rotation, leaving fields fallow, etc.

Of course, initially this approach appeared successful and crops thrived. With the development of modern pesticides the industrial approach to agriculture seemed sensible and was commercially successful. But what has only become apparent after many decades is that this approach is over-simple and other vital minerals and organic matter are being gradually lost from the now-depleted soils. The organic movement arose to try to counteract this, but still only has a foothold where people can afford it. And the agrochemical industry has become so powerful that it is difficult to change towards the organic antithesis, or indeed any new synthesis.

Of course the pendulum will swing back, they always do. Unfortunately, this is also a critical time of climate change, caused by the related explosion of fossil fuel exploitation over the same period.

Historically, civilisations come to an end when changes of climate and crop yields eventually make them unsupportable. We really now are in a critical period of human history, partly thanks to the worthy efforts of Justus von Liebig. But never say die, necessity is the mother of invention, and humanity is a very inventive and adaptable species.

 

Northwich’s Swing Bridges

Northwich in Cheshire is notable as being an old salt town, so much so that during its history there have been frequent occurrences of subsidence as the land has subsided into old salt workings below. This proved a big problem for bridges over the River Weaver, which provided Northwich’s water link with the River Dee. The bridge pillars gradually subsided.

This was solved in 1898 with the building of the Hayhurst Bridge, followed the Town Bridge in 1899, the first electrically powered swing bridges in Great Britain. Two bridges meant that one was always open to traffic.

To avoid the subsidence problem, these bridges were built on floating pontoons, said also to be also the first of their kind in the country.

I’ve included monochrome images, trying out the capabilities of my new phone’s camera. I thought the black-white bridges could look better this way, but the colour versions actually look better to me.

What Newton really thought

Alert readers of this blog may have realised that I am reading Henri Bortoft’s book Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought. Bortoft throws interesting insight into the role of Isaac Newton in creating the modern scientific world, confirming Edi Bilimoria’s article mentioned in an earlier post.

Isaac Newton basically invented modern mathematical physics in his masterwork, Principia Mathematica (1687). To the theory of atomism and mechanical philosophy he added the notion of forces which act between bodies that are not in contact.

Bortoft suggests that from the eighteenth century onwards,  gravity began to be thought of as a ‘property of matter’, as if it were an attractive force inherent to matter. This is not what Newton thought. He did not believe in attraction as a real, physical, force.

For example, in a letter Newton said:

Pray do not ascribe that notion to me, for the cause of gravity is what I do not pretend to know and therefore would take more time to consider of it… Gravity must be caused by an agent acting constantly according to certain laws, but whether this agent be material or immaterial I have left to the consideration of my readers.

So Newton’s major discovery was to the effect that we could create mathematical models of the real world, what we now call ‘physics’. Subsequent founders of modern science were dedicated to the mathematical approach to nature, but ultimately the ascendancy of the mathematical was accompanied by the downgrading of the sensory and increasingly seeing the world as a mathematical abstraction. To many scientists the world became de-spiritualised and dead.

This was not Newton’s intention, although his name is often invoked as the originator of such a viewpoint.

The four little girls

Birmingham (Burr-ming-HAM) Alabama is renowned for its role in the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s, that were spearheaded by Martin Luther King Jr. In 1963 there was the bombing by the Ku Klux Klan of the 16th Street Baptist church that was at the heart of the movement, 4 little girls were killed. Birmingham police with dogs and water cannon attacked defenceless crowds, including children, in the nearby park. All this was orchestrated by the renowned mayor Bull O’Connor. I remember it all so well from the UK media of that time.

That park (Kelly Ingram Park) is now a moving memorial to these events, with a number of evocative statues. Near the entrance are statues to the four little girls, and to King himself.Read More »

Geography and Stupidity

The breakout of WW1 is a haunting occurrence for those of us born in the dying days of WW2, which finally brought an end to the European conflict begun in 1914, leading to the peace of the European Union since then.

How did that prosperous and confident Europe of the late 19C descend to such a self-defeating process?

It seems the answer lies in geography and stupidity. Read More »

Vanity and Happenstance

Archduke Franz Ferdinand was heir to the Habsburg Monarchy, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. On 28 June 1900 he married Countess Sophie Chotek. The Countess was too lowly placed for an imperial Habsburg marriage, so did not become her imperial highness, and their children did not have the right of succession. She was not allowed to sit by the Archduke’s side on public occasions.

Franz Ferdinand was irked, but there was one loophole – his wife could be by his side when he was acting in a military capacity as Inspector General of the army. Thus it was that, in 1914 on their 18th wedding anniversary, he inspected the Bosnian army in Sarajevo, in an open carriage with his wife by his side.

With hindsight this was not a good plan. Bosnia was recently acquired by the Habsburgs and there was unrest from young men who wanted it to join Serbia instead. Several conspired, aiming to assassinate the archduke. They were young and inexperienced and there were several blunders.

By accident the archduke’s chauffeur took a wrong turning and had to turn round. One of the conspirators just happened to be there, saw them and shot the couple. Thus began a World War that was only fully resolved 31 years later.

Did it all really begin by chance? Some would say otherwise.

This story is told at the beginning of AJP Taylor’s book ‘The First World War’, an engaging read first published in 1963. I well remember Taylor’s articles in the Daily Express around that time – he was one of the great popularisers of history and then very controversial.

Parkgate

One of the delights of living is Cheshire is the occasional visit to Parkgate, a pretty village facing onto the marshes of the estuary of the River Dee. I remember visiting in the 1960s and seeing the most spectacular of sunsets.

parkgate

Parkgate has an interesting history, and provides a pleasant walking promenade along by the marshes, which are an RSPB reserve. There are plenty of birds to be seen, albeit usually at some distance. The biggest high tides are always popular, as the birds are driven closer to the land, and the occasional rodent emerges from the marshes to escape the rising water.Read More »

How the Renaissance Began?

the swerve coverHow did the Renaissance begin? If we knew that, it would surely be useful in understanding what is needed for a New Renaissance. Well here’s a book that claims to give an answer: The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began by Stephen Greenblatt.

In a way, it does, although I suspect this is a gross over-simplification. Roughly, the story is that a very clever man Poggio Bracciolini, one time right hand man of a disgraced pope, discovered and had copied key texts that had been preserved over the centuries by monks regularly copying manuscripts.

The key text, De Rerum Natura (On The Nature of Things), by Roman philosopher/poet Lucretius contained explosive ideas that, once they began to circulate, overcame the stranglehold of the church on European ideas and led to the explosion of creativity that was the Renaissance.

In particular they directly influenced men such as Marsilio Ficino, Botticelli, Raphael, Giordano Bruno, Galileo, Thomas More, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, Dryden,  Isaac Newton, Darwin, Thomas Jefferson, and on and on…Read More »

Conques

The village of Conques in Aveyron, France, has been a target of pilgrimage since medieval times, lying as it does on the route from Le Puy en Velay to Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain. The isolated position of Conques in hilly terrain means that it has never been subject to much modern development, so the medieval streets are essentially as they were.

conques rainbow

This view is the first the pilgrim coming from Estaing sees of Conques, nestling in the treed valley. We were lucky on our recent visit when, after a day of rain, the sun came out as we reached Conques. The dramatic welcome became spectacular when this rainbow appeared over the village.Read More »

Le Puy en Velay

I first visited Le Puy en Velay nearly 30 years ago, with Alf, as we traced the steps of pilgrims on the route from this starting point to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain – one of Europe’s most popular pilgrimages since the Middle Ages. What a special place to begin a pilgrimage.

st michel aiguilhe

This area of the former county of Velay, in the south western Massif Central, is volcanic. As well as numerous dead volcanoes, it contains various strange landscape features, notably several isolated plugs of rock pointing skywards. On one of these is the chapel of St Michel d’Aiguilhe. The well-formed stairway up this rock brings you to wonderful views over Le Puy and the tiny Romanesque chapel at the top. Linger a while in here and it provides an experience of perfect peace before the start of the journey.

Read More »

Ghent

The Friday SquareIn the square of the Vrijdagmarkt in the delightful medieval centre of Ghent in Belgium, there is a statue of a local luminary – Jacob van Artevelde. He is so honoured because Ghent survived the 100-year war between England and France due to his efforts at ensuring neutrality and maintaining links with England. The statue points towards England.

Of course England has always had close ties with Europe, and periods of major influx of Europeans, such as the Romans, Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Normans. And we’ve been involved in so many continental wars over the centuries, culminating in the World Wars of the 20th century, when we took in many more as refugees.

The wise men of the immediate post-war world decided to link the countries of Europe together to avoid the possibility of future pointless wars, encouraged by the British, and Winston Churchill in particular. Of course this led to today’s European Union.

Strange then, that unscrupulous UK politicians have fostered the very nationalism that potentially leads to wars to engineer the UK’s exit from that Union. Something about ‘taking back control’ and ‘making Britain great again’ – the freedom to go off on our own, ‘do deals’, form alliances, and repeat unlearned lessons of history.

They should be ashamed of themselves.

Hopefully the duped UK populace will support a change of course in time.

Inline image by Sergey Ashmarin, via Wikimedia Commons

J’accuse

officer and spyReview of the historical novel An Officer and a Spy by Richard Harris.

There are many examples of group think and injustice in the history books. Few are quite as dramatic as the Dreyfuss Affair that gripped France in the late 19th/ early 20th century. The story is told as a historical novel in Richard Harris’s book, from the perspective of Colonel Georges Picquart, a key central character in the story of uncovering the antisemitic conspiracy and subsequent cover-up.Read More »

Cause of The Renaissance?

We’ve travelled around Europe a fair amount over the years and it is clear from the evidence of art and architecture that something special happened around the 12th/13th centuries and again the 15th/16th centuries. The Romanesque and Gothic architectures, the paintings and sculptures of Tuscany, the establishment of universities, printing, the beginnings of great literature,…

What was it that led to this original Renaissance? What special combination of circumstances caused that great explosion of the human spirit? Philosopher Jean Gebser had an answer in his book The Ever Present Origin (1949), and it goes back to the basic nature of our own consciousness.

Humanity has gone through four basic ‘structures of consciousness’: the ‘archaic’, the ‘magical’, the ‘mythic’ and the ‘mental-rational’. He dates the period when the transition began from ‘mythic’ to ‘mental-rational’ at around 1225. This was the period when left brain consciousness began to assert itself against the submersion into a right-brain dominated world. For a period the two were in some sort of state of balance which led to the creative explosion of those periods of Renaissance.

Then as time progressed the dominance of left brain was gradually asserted (see The Master and His Emissary), interconnectedness was reduced and the emphasis moved to individuality and competition. Of course, this has been creative in its own way, see the explosion of science and technology, but it has been at a cost of the basic connection with life itself. Hence increasing problems of pollution, environmental degradation, global warming, species extinction, mega-wars, terrorism,…

Gebser postulated that we are on the threshold of a fifth structure of consciousness – the ‘integral’ – which would begin to redress the balance that has gone too far one way. Such a new consciousness would re-establish that creative balance between the two halves of the brain, but at a higher level – leading to a New Renaissance.

Many thinkers have since then built on Gebser’s ideas, including Ken Wilber and Iain McGilchrist.

I am indebted to Gary Lachman’s book The Secret Teachers of the Western World for inspiring this post.

Featured image of Botticelli Venus courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Uncle Paul

Uncle Paul turned up at our house on his battered old pushbike once a year in the 1950s. After a cheery hello to us kids, he’d have a cup of tea, maybe a piece of cake, and a chat with my dad.

Then the old bags hanging on his handlebars would be filled with apples from our trees, eaters and cookers – it was always that time of year.

Totally laden, Uncle Paul would set off ever so slowly, a bit wobbly at first, and gradually disappear off down the road.

Uncle Paul was a distant relative of my dad and, I think, lived out in the sticks of the Lincolnshire countryside. We were townies, on the edge of Lincoln. But this gave us a glimpse of life in rural Lincolnshire then – sharing natures bounty where possible, travelling everywhere by bike.

Next year Uncle Paul would be back again to repeat the ritual.

Featured image is not Uncle Paul but about the right age
– old man by Klearchos Kapoutsis, via Wikimedia Commons