A buddy posted he just landed in Avignon, France. I commented:

Say hey to the Anti-Pope for me. Well, they don’t have anti-popes anymore. So say hey to the Anti-Pope impersonator. I read a book about Avignon in the days of the Anti-Popes, come to think of it. Swinging place. Wild. Like Hollywood in the twenties. When they call it the High Medieval period, they weren’t kidding.

Then it occurred to me I’d just done a stand up routine on 14th century papal schisms. Which would not go over in the Catskills. I’ll stick to jazz criticism. Not that the audience for that is much bigger. To think I could have been a doctor. No wait…my mom was Irish. She said be a writer.

(And yes, medieval scholars, I know it is antipope (antipapa). But antipope is too much like poloponies. So we’ll stick with the hyphen.)

Clement VII, or what was left of him after blasphemous French Revolutionaries got ahold of him. He eventually took up extortion and simony--selling parishes and bishoprics to the highest bidder--to maintain his anti-papal lifestyle. You do what you gotta do.

Clement VII, or what was left of him after blasphemous French Revolutionaries got ahold of him. He eventually took up extortion and simony–selling parishes and bishoprics to the highest bidder–to maintain his anti-papal lifestyle. Ya do what ya gotta do.




(Another essay I found in the drafts folder.)

Just saw another of those blog essays making the social media rounds that asserts that Christianity grew into a world religion because it killed its way to the top. It describes inquisitions and crusades and other bloody events. There’s no denying those. But the problem is that the author has the timeline wrong. Christianity spread without many inquisitions at all. Those came later when western civilization came close to being an afterthought in the medieval era (hammered as it was then by Islam, the Mongols, the Black Plague, poverty, endless warfare, backwardness, and low population growth). One of the reasons that Christianity spread like it did in Roman times was because the Middle East and Mediterranean world had already been leaning towards monotheism or ditheism anyway.  (Ditheism here means good vs. evil, basically, a god of good and a god of evil, and Christianity with its God vs. Satan shows just how closely related “monotheistic” and “ditheistic’ religions actually are.) The Good vs. Evil god (or two gods) was pretty much a Persian invention, and when Persia ruled the western world for several centuries their one god idea took root (including influencing early Judaism).  All the later western monotheisms came from it. Alexander the Great diffused it even more so by mixing Greek and Persian civilizations, giving Persian religious ideas access to areas throughout the Mediterranean world (and even into India) where they were unknown before. And then when Rome took over most of the Mediterranean, western Europe and Middle East, its own pre-Constantine religious tolerance protected monotheistic (and ditheistic) as well as polytheistic religions. In fact, monotheism/ditheism was particularly popular within the Roman military, and where there were legions, there was variations of both, especially the Persian form known as Mithraism (related to Zoroastrianism).  Christianity’s primary competition in ancient Rome was Mithraism…which was Persian religion. Other competitors included Manichaeism, Gnostic religions like Bogomilism and Mandeism (which still exists), even Judaism. To this day there are tiny remnants of other ancient religions in Iran and Iraq (including Zoroastrianism, the original Persian imperial religion, and Yazidism, a syncretic blend of pre-Zoroastrian Iranian monotheism with ancient Mesopotamian polytheist traditions and Sufism and currently under threat by ISIS), all of them monotheistic or ditheistic but neither Christian nor Moslem. Each is a fragment of the incredibly rich patchwork of religions in the ancient Middle East, any of which could have been big as Christianity or Islam had history run a different course. Christianity just won out by luck. The inevitability we see in its rise to dominance now is merely the innate tendency to see the course of history as inevitable. But it never is.

Christianity also spread the way Mormonism is doing so now–it provided a welfare state within a state that Rome did not supply. It took care of its own. It also developed a solid literary tradition, more so than most of its competitors (though Manichaeism matched it in output there.) And maybe most importantly, it patterned it structure on the Roman political system itself (a Catholic mass is like a Roman imperial time capsule) so that as Roman power weakened the Church was able to take its place in an almost identical form. Clever. Indeed, one of the reasons the pagan Roman government began to crack down on Christianity was because of its alternative power structure…a state within a state is always a threat. When Rome turned officially Christian, the state church began appropriating pagan sites, facilities and rites. It was easy to do because Christianity in Roman times was already a Roman political structure. As the pagan power structure disappeared the Christian power structure replaced it seamlessly…very little change in daily life happened. Taxes were collected the same, rituals performed in the same places, attire was even the same. Christians didn’t take over by force but by assimilation. The Roman empire (a republic ruling an empire at the time) that fought Hannibal in the third century BC was the same country that fell when the Turks finally took Constantinople in 1453. The Byzantine Empire certainly saw itself as Roman, up till the very end. That’s because the split between pagans and Christians that we see now as a great dividing line was not so visible to the Romans themselves. To them it was the same place with a new religion…but still, the same place.

As for the crusades…remember that those were very bloody (and mostly very unsuccessful) attempts to reclaim lands and peoples lost to Christianity. The Moslem conquest took most of the Christian world away. All that remained were the underpopulated areas of Europe–and even some of that was lost. People don’t realize that Christianity was, until the 8th century, overwhelmingly an Asian religion. Europe represented perhaps a third of it. Then Islam spread like wildfire, in large part because it was spread by conquest and the conquered were generally given the choice of convert or die. Or at least convert or pay a nasty infidel tax. So people converted, and Christianity virtually disappeared east and south of the Mediterranean. Not entirely, and there remained large and influential minorities (such as the Copts in Egypt and Greeks in Asian Minor), and Armenia and Georgia remained Christian (as did Ethiopia) but what Islam gained in its first couple centuries at Christianity’s expense they still mostly hold today. Only Iberia, southern France, southern Italy, and Sicily were lost again to Islam. (A later expansion of Islam into the Balkan peninsula, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, under the Ottoman Turks, was almost completely reversed. Apparently the conversions didn’t have the same vigor as those made when Islam was new. Still, the Bosnian massacres in the 1990’s were a glimpse of how competing monotheisms had once routinely spread the Word.)

You will be hard pressed to find a major religion that has not been murderous, even genocidal, in its history. That even includes Buddhism, believe it or not. (Tibet in particular was a land of Buddhist warriors who raided Chinese domains mercilessly for centuries). And though I’m an atheist, always have been, it’s important to remember that atheism killed more people in sheer numbers than any religion ever did. The numbers of people killed by communist regimes in the 20th century is astonishing. Atheist revolutions–going back to Revolutionary France, have nearly always involved large scale state-ordered massacres, killings, genocide, repression, state controlled famine and murder. It’s a ghastly record. It’s hard to find anything in history more murderous than the fanatically atheist Khmer Rouge. But then communist regimes have an advantage of technology that earlier conquerors would have given their eternal souls for. It became vastly easier to kill enormous numbers of people in the twentieth century. Give medieval crusaders or Mohammed’s legions automatic weapons and they would have piled up the dead just as impressively as anything Mao or Stalin ever did. Indeed, you can think of Himmler’s demented SS quasi-pagan religion (we’ll never know what that would have developed into) as something right out of Roman times armed with state of the art 20th century weaponry and logistics. There was nothing new about the Holocaust–there had been ethnic cleansing for thousands of years–except that it was carried out with all the organizational skill that modern civilization offered. The Albigensian Crusade of the 13th century, where the French crown and the Church annihilated the dualist Cathars in a particularly brutal genocide could have been done in a fraction of the time by the Nazis.

The problem isn’t Christianity, or religion, or lack of religion, the problem is Homo sapiens. We find it very easy to kill when situations become unstable. Chimpanzees (but not bonobos) are the same. It’s not god or no god. It’s just that some of the great apes are prone to extreme violence. And Homo sapiens are one of those great apes. But we are killing each other at a much slower rate anymore–homicide is far less frequent than it was in Roman times, and is far less frequent than it was in the early 20th century, when people slaughtered each other at an astonishing rate. But it’s hard to tell if we are becoming less homicidal, or if our impulses are just in a lull, waiting.

Drawn and quartered

(July, 2013)

News item:

Soccer fanaticism in Brazil reached dangerously high levels when a mob attacked and murdered a referee following an argument with a player. Their argument turned into a fist fight and the referee fatally stabbed the player with a knife he had been carrying throughout the match. The spectators then rushed onto the field and proceeded to tie up, beat, and stone the referee to death, after which they quartered his body and put the severed head on a stake and stuck it in the middle of the field.

A suspect has been arrested. 

Medieval English kings didn’t mess around. You messed with them, they made a mess out of you. High treason wasn’t something let off lightly. The drawing and quartering began with the guilty part trussed up, tied to a board and dragged by a horse through the streets to the place of execution. Sometimes a priest followed, chastising, or a crowd would join in with stones and whips. Once at the gallows the traitor would be hanged till not quite dead, then revived. His genitalia would be lopped off and the entrails removed slowly through an incision in the gut, after which they were burned so he could watch. Then the victim was beheaded, and his heart cut out and also burned. The quartering was an anticlimactic chopping the headless corpse into four pieces, The pieces and the head were then parboiled, put on stakes and displayed in various places around the city as proof that treason does not pay. That would have been the birds’ favorite part. The people were most fond of the disemboweling, apparently, as that is when the victim would howl most vividly.

This didn’t happen often. High treason was a relative rarity, and even when it did, the guilty were often spared the supreme penalty. Simple beheadings were a sign of royal favor. The king liked you, even if you tried to kill him. You had to be some kind of real bastard to be drawn and quartered.

Even then, however, the full sentence could not always be carried out. As often as not, the crowd was cheated when the victim died before decapitation. I think Guy Fawkes managed to leap from the gallows and break his neck. Some one else managed to spit in the Royal Disemboweler’s face who then decapitated him in a fit of piqué. You can imagine the crowd’s disappointment.

Drawing and quartering was not purely part of the English legal tradition. In fact, I imagine a survey of legal systems all over the world would find examples, both judicial and extra-judicial. I know that as far back as twenty-three centuries ago the Chinese meted it out to especially deserving characters. Being practical, the Chinese would dispense with the preliminaries and go straight to the quartering. The limbs were each attached to a chariot or ox cart. I imagine the latter was slower. This is how my hero, Lao Ai, met his end. He was sundered into four parts in one messy moment, and then his grandparents, parents, uncles (and their spouses), siblings (and their spouses), grandchildren and children were all executed by some means or another. Zu zhu, they called it, “family execution”. We know of it as the nine familial exterminations, or execution to the ninth degree. Basically the idea being to annihilate the guilty party’s entire extended family. The fact that his blood aunts were excused is a fluke of Chinese patrilineal kinship. When a woman married she becomes a member of her husband’s family. Which came in handy when a no good nephew managed to get himself convicted of high treason.

Had the ancient Chinese been hip to mitochondrial DNA the aunts would never have been passed up. No matter how thorough your zu zhu, wiping out scores of people for the behavior of one rotten apple, some of that apple’s genes were carried on through those aunts. The family survived, genetically anyway, and the joke was on the emperor. Perhaps some of Lao Ai’s characteristics are hanging about even today.

Actually the simple dismemberment by quarters was refined by one legendary reformer in the third century B.C. He codified into law a five pointed judicial dismemberment that had a horse (or ox) for each limb, plus one for the head. It was so effective it was used on him when  he ran afoul of the bureaucracy and the emperor had him executed. His family was done away with as well, out to the ninth degree. If his mother had any sisters, though, some genes slipped by unnoticed. Who knows what they developed into later. Maybe another troublemaker. We can only hope.

In medieval England, however, there was no such extended familycide coded into law. It might have happened on occasion, but to ninth degree? Unlikely. I can’t see how it would have been managed. Unlike China, where the offspring tended to stay near the family village, in England primogeniture meant that the younger sons had to go far afield to make their fortune. Some might try looting some foreign land, but most would marry daughters who could cough up a hefty dowry. A crazy quilt of family relationships resulted, the nobility all related to each other somehow. Try executing someone to the ninth degree and you could have half of Europe wanting revenge. Best to just draw and quarter the traitor and leave the extended family out of it.

But then our poor Brazilian referee wasn’t somebody, he was just another nobody. Just some kid with a knife refereeing a futbol game. He orders some guy off the field for some egregious foul, the guy says he ain’t going. An argument ensues, then a tussle, out comes the knife, down goes the player. The knife victim’s family and friends pour onto the field, grab the referee, and apparently tie him to a stake, stone him to death, machete and chop off his limbs, then his head, which they mount on the stake as a triumph, I imagine, and a warning to others with knives and perhaps to referees in general. Barbaric but effective. On the other hand, they forfeited the game. Xangô can be cruel, but just.