Archbishop of Canterbury killed by Muslims

Although this is a wonderful headline, it is unfortunately somewhat out of date, since a) the Archbishop concerned is Baldwin of Exeter, who died in 1190 and b) I heard about him at an IHR seminar a couple of weeks ago. There’s also the minor problem that although Baldwin died at the Siege of Acre, I don’t know if he was actually killed in action or not (although the alternative headline: ‘Archbishop of Canterbury dies from horrible foreign disease’) would look nearly as good in the Daily Mail.

The seminar paper was given by John Cotts on ‘English clerics and the problem of the Third Crusade’, drawing partly on a forthcoming book he has about Peter of Blois. John was looking at the role of clergy in the Third Crusade, both as preachers of it and also participants, and particularly the role of courtiers and intellectuals like Peter (who he thought probably went on the crusade himself and who certainly wrote tracts encouraging participation in it). There were several other prominent English clerics who definitely did go on the crusade, including Baldwin, who had already done a preaching tour to encourage participants (accompanied by Gerald of Wales). This was one of the things that John’s paper brought out – that a whole tight-knit bunch of writers and scholars were connected to the support of the crusade. (In many cases they had also been in the faction that backed Henry II in his dispute with Thomas Becket).

John followed that with discussion of some of these intellectuals’ disputes and comments on the specific role of clerics in warfare, focusing particularly on the differing views of Peter of Blois and Ralph Niger (who was an early critic of the crusade, although not necessarily of clerical participation in warfare as a whole). He was arguing for two specific contexts of such works. One was the new scholastic thought, although it’s hard to show specifically what is distinctively scholastic rather than in a long Carolingian and pre-Carolingian tradition of justifying war. John also argued for texts on the Crusades as part of a wider debate/concern about secular clerics’ participation in ‘the world’, which was a frequent worry of Peter of Blois. The very difficult relationship of twelfth century courtiers to their occupation does seem different from Carolingian views.

It was one of those papers, however, when I kept getting distracted by the modern day parallels. Or rather the big one: what would the effect have been if the 101st Fighting Keyboarders, all those stay at home enthusiasts for the Iraq war, had actually taken part in the war they promoted and seen its reality? (Although even embedded journalists would have had it far safer than men like Baldwin and Peter). What happens when you’ve created theories of war you’ve created and then must face actual war?

That analogy also provides a possible answer to John Gillingham’s later comment about the issues raised in the paper: aren’t these all the concerns of a few intellectuals which had no effect on anyone? It’s pretty clear that the intellectuals and would-be intellectuals enthusiastic for war with Iraq did have a substantial effect, both on the US and UK governments and on public opinion. You could say at this point that that’s simply the effects of mass media. But what is a preaching tour but an attempt to use the mass media for propaganda purposes? And when you’ve got intellectuals at the right hand of senior government figures, whether secular or religious, their arguments are going to feed into that. Admittedly, Peter of Blois and Ralph Niger’s subtle arguments about the meaning of pilgrimage and the significance of the earthly as opposed to the heavenly Jerusalem weren’t the kind of debates that the man in the street of Anglesea cared about, but in a dumbed-down and sound-bite/sermon point form, that may well have been some of what the audiences in 1188 were getting. To deny the significance of intellectuals for propaganda is to ignore one of the main reasons why governments for millennia have been so prepared to employ intellectuals.

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One thought on “Archbishop of Canterbury killed by Muslims

  1. Don’t forget the recent research finding that shows that propaganda has a very strong effect on the people who spread it — stronger perhaps than on the supposed audience. You might call it the promotion and consolidation of groupthink among the “willing”, rather than an effort to convince the doubtful.

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