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by SEAMUS BREATHNACH Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2010 at 11:38 AM

As one who watched both Professor Robert Bartlett's 'Normans' and Dan Snow's 'Norman Walks', let me say how much I enjoy the BBC's sense of history and these two items in particular. BUT CAN THESE AUTHORS SEE THE WOOD FOR THE TREES/


As one who watched both Professor Robert Bartlett's 'Normans' and Dan Snow's 'Norman Walks', let me say how much I enjoy the BBC's sense of history and these two items in particular.

Hitherto I have admired the BBC’ ‘sense of history’. But on recent reflection I find that I must reconsider this view. Indeed, I have to admit of a general problem that now pervades my entire viewing of these wonderfully formal historical offerings, one’s prejudices drawing one decisively if reluctantly towards Pillars of Wisdom, where, as Oscar Wilde reminds us, even in a pitiable medieval gutter some spirits see the stars.

The problem revolves entirely around our notion of the Papacy as well as our notion of the ‘Nation State’. By my reckoning, the Normans not only beat the crap out of everyone for not being Normans and good Christians, but they made French the language of the people for at least 400 years after their conquest. In administration, law, architecture -- practically everything -- any notion we have even of Saxon England is reviewable backwards. Moreover, what does that say of our idea of ‘England’, ‘Ireland’ , ‘Scotland’, ‘Germany’, ‘Italy’, and the European Nation State?

One cannot be blamed for thinking that during the Dark Ages and the Early Middle Ages, there was little or nothing known of the Nation States or how -- if at all -- they were conceived. And while the middle ages was ubiquitously violent and volatile -- and can often be likened to a game of chess, played out for real by endless petty kings (mostly relatives) and neighbouring city states (especially in Italy) -- the real governor of the European land mass, never to be found on a Chess Board, was the Pope.

It was a time when everyone was running off to Rome to pay one’s respects to the sole overlording religion in Italy. The story of Jesus had been doing the rounds and, as Wycliffe had pointed out, the corruption of mother Church was so horrific, that the Pope’s next move was to swamp Europe with young men called Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans, etc., etc.. The church became the biggest


employer in Europe for hordes of unwanted young men and women who could not afford a horse, a sword, a helmet, a suit of mail, a kite shield, a long bow and a romping great horse! In a way, the crusades was a means of enlisting holy men into the church’ s military knighthood: and this is an insight that ought not to be discounted today, when the RC Church recruits all over the world for people who are prepared to embark upon an individually inspiring career, but who in reality are co-opted into a terrible army.

In any event, the emergence of the institution of the Papacy, should be kept in mind, not just as a means of understanding the coincidence and agenda of the Normans, but also with the part played by the Papacy with respect to the military exploits of those who came before the Normans as well as those who came after -- the Papal manipulation of the Byzantines, for example, the Lombards, the Franks, and only then, when needs must, with the Viking-cum-Normans.

The ‘Normans’ are neither the beginning nor the end of history; nor are they an item -- however interesting -- to be considered solely in their own environment. If -- as we are tired of reiterating -- ‘All history begins now, with our consciousness and knowledge of the past, and of what the past means for us now’, then the Normans are most instructive by reference to their relationship with the more enduring Papacy. While the genius of the bloody Normans was partly to be seen in their assimilability, the messianic designs of the Papacy are infinitely more significant to our understanding of Western and World history as a whole.

With the present enthusiasm for Norman history and the Middle Ages at an unprecedented ‘high’, there is the very strong possibility that we (and the gurus at the BBC) may not see the wood for the trees, thereby missing one of the great opportunities (and to my mind ‘duties’) of public broadcasting, namely, to educate the public, thereby making the much more aware of the daily contemporary forces at play in our time.

Although it might be reserved for another programme, it is unfortunate that this rather central aspect of the middle ages is never really captured by the historians. It is as if there is some protocol that precludes the influence and management of these


military affairs by the Papacy from being recounted in the same breadth as the 'secular powers'. It is as if the ‘Normans’ were entirely autonomous in their military agenda and the raging antagonisms between Papacy and Emperor, between the ‘spiritual sword’ and the ‘temporal sword’ was never an ubiquitous military reality.

And this is my problem, mostly with Professor Bartlett's otherwise excellent account. Catholicism’s (and Christianity’s) need for constant crusades is not just an incident of the twelfth century, but whenever the thinking public have reason to discard the Christian myth-makers, a new antagonism specifying the fears between Communism-and-Fascism or Jewry-and-Catholicism or Catholicism- and-Islam is made to appear on the world scene. This ‘historical’ division and its orchestrated amplification has its uses today as much as yesterday, and if we do not learn to recognise it for what it is, then we are doomed yet again to repeat it, and allow ourselves to be defeated by those powers who best use these religious division.

And while Professor Bartlett is absolutely correct to point out that the Norman conjuncture has a significance for us all today, I would suggest that the most important aspect of this conjuncture is not so much a description of Norman triumphs (however important) but the continual alliances made by the Papacy with the most militarily gifted (and brutal) contemporaries available, whether they be Lombard, Frank, Norman, Spanish, Austrian, Italian, German or Croatian, or whether, like the Americans, they possess and are prepared to use the Atomic bomb.

Which brings me to my second -- and connected -- problem!

If, instead of following up the Invasion of Britain with the Norman exploits in Southern Italy, the story as told is reversed -- that is, to demonstrate the exploits of the Normans in Southern Italy first, and the ensuing clash and shared agreement between Papal and Norman forces, then one might all the easier see the enduring deal which the Papacy struck with the Normans -- reference being made perhaps to a similar deal being struck with Constantine as far back as the fourth century, and respectively with the Lombards, and with the Franks, etc..


This perspective could well be moved forward through the crusades against the Pagans,Jews, Albigensians, Huguenots and assorted Protestants. Indeed, if we look at the reign of King John (1167 – 1216), we see this thesis of expanding Papal and Christian hegemony made perfectly real. And if we look to Wycliffe for an explanation of these events, it becomes clear that it is Papal greed that prompts a new consciousness of the nation state (of England), as well as the perpetual role adapted by the Roman Church in world politics.

It is a thesis that is capable of being carried forward to the religious wars, the religious affiliations of Charles 1 (and his wife), as well as the litany of wars in Europe down to our own times. (Is Tony Blair’s position so different to that of Charles 1?)

More recently, we can follow the thesis right down to crusade against the Masons, to the Cristeros War in Mexico in the 20s, to the crusade against the Communists in the 30s 40s and ad infinitum, inspiring protocols with Mussolini, Franco, Hitler, Salazar, Croatia, and the Americans, and even forward to the assault on Russia and Vietnam by the combination of JP11, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and in our own time through the illegal war in Iraq and Afghanistan by Benedict XVI, Tony Blair and George Bush.

Nothing, it seems to me, provides a greater threat to world peace than the present unstable state of Christianity. Without a crusade -- or at least a juxtapositional defining of Christianity and Islam, Christianity and Atheism, etc. -- Christianity sees itself as a wasting back-water. The several Jesuitical ‘Universities’ and colleges, and their allies all over the world (but especially in the US and India) are, it seems to me, on standby to create and amplify this focal antagonism. Whether in China, Venezuela, Britain or behind President Obama’s back, the same war that has raged throughout the entire Christian era still persists.

Isn’t it time to drag Christianity into the open, unmask its janus- like militant/mendicant face, and observe its messianic heart ?

The Christian Conquest, both in its religious zeal and its ancillary compulsion to conquer the world, has always been known to the world. That this struggle, constantly made universal by the


relentless missionary zeal of the churches, has hardly been touched, much less analyzed. Dare one suggest to the BBC that Professor Bartlett’s account of the Normans be re-conceived in this light; that a discussion panel be invited to carry the exploits of the Normans forward into the succeeding centuries that have truly marred the landscape of Europe and the World. Isn’t it time to let history and our sense of history inform our present consciousness of its intimate ties with religious imperialism? Isn’t it especially opportune, now that the Catholic Church is visibly driving the world into an “Islam/Christian” , “Religious/Secular”, “Christian/Atheism”, “Darwinian/Creationist” divide, to examine the role of Christianity and the Papacy in this world-wide agitation for world dominance?

It has been well said that ‘all history begins NOW’. Let us therefore use Professor Bartlett’s account of the ‘Normans’ as a starting point towards our understanding of NOW in all its mea-culpa dimensions!

Seamus Breathnach



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