Terrorism and the Middle Ages

It was only when I had left the International Medieval Congress and started looking at newspapers again that I properly realised that I’d just been staying in the home town of Britain’s first suicide bombers. (I’d heard one or two vague rumours only at IMC). I felt mildly interested, no more. If you live or stay anywhere in urban England nowadays, there’s probably a Muslim community in the town and I’ve now got quite used to this. (Coming from Sussex, which is very white, I used to find any ethnic communities strange at first). A few months ago there was the trial of a would-be bomber from Gloucester, where we used to live. (On the other hand, that’s nothing compared to some of the things whites in Gloucester do: we were there just after the discoveries of the crimes of Fred West, the serial killer.)

A few days in Leeds has given me absolutely no insight into why suicide bombers might come from there (from a suburb at the other end of the city from us). Though I suppose it does make a kind of sense that it was northerners, not southerners (or even Londoners) who attacked London. I think it would be harder to summon the callousness for such an act if you regularly travelled on the tube and knew the stress of it at rush-hour at the best of times, and what a mix of people travel on it. I don’t know whether you carry out such an arbitrary attack if you could imagine yourself the victim of the same thing. (Or maybe this is naïve, knowing that there are conflicts, such as Northern Ireland, where both sides have used terrorism).

Some of us at the conference were idly speculating that we ought to run a conference on medieval terrorism. (Before anyone thinks this is tasteless, almost all of the group either work or study not just in London, but in the area targeted, which is one of the heartlands of academic London). However, apart from the Assassins (and I’m not sure how much of that is history, rather than myth, since it’s Not My Millennium), there aren’t actually many examples of terrorism in its modern form of small groups of non-state actors targeting civilians randomly in order to spread alarm.

What there was a lot of was terrorism in what I believe its original (French revolutionary) sense is: the use of terror tactics by states/quasi-states. Charlemagne’s mass executions and ethnic cleansing, all the chevauchees of the Black Prince, the free mercenary companies etc. I suppose the small terrorist group really has to wait till the invention of explosive and the mass media to be able to achieve widespread devastation and publicity from relatively small-scale acts. (Even the 11th September atrocity was tiny in its results in comparison to e.g. the two destructions of Magdeburg in the Thirty Years War and World War II).

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