Leland Grigoli

Homo Homini Lupus


ISSUE 33 | NO NUMBER IN NATURE | OCT 2013

In an obscure treatise on the faculty of the will as it functioned in Jesus Christ, the monastic theologian Hugh of St. Victor (d.1143), probably one of the greatest minds you’ve never heard of, defined the Latin word humanitas—humanity, human nature, kindness, civilization, as the dictionary runs—as the uniquely human capacity for compassion. “To be compassionate and to be moved to goodness by the suffering of another is a uniquely human characteristic,” he says, “since a beast may be able to suffer, but only a human can suffer with.”1 This definition of ‘humanity’ is an amazingly optimistic one, one which I believe most would agree on today, both in the positive sense given by Hugh and in its antithesis, since we often describe people who violate this principle as ‘inhuman.’ Indeed, such inhuman humans are not only lacking the capacity for compassion, but have willfully rejected it. After all, we don’t usually describe objects by properties we don’t expect them to have intrinsically. We call penguins flightless birds, since we expect creatures of the general penguin type (i.e. birds) to be able to fly, but we would never refer to a lion as a flightless cat.

This definition of humanity is both pleasing and comforting, and is one particularly conducive to upholding the social order, upon closer consideration we have to admit that it is one which is not strictly true. In fact, if the abundance of sociological and psychological experiments performed on human behavior since the Second World War have taught us anything, it is that just the opposite is true. It turns out that the ability to remain compassionate in a time of trial is much more unusual than the ability to put compassion aside. What’s worse, the idea that the horrors which are perpetrated daily are done so by beings which are human in outward form only seems to me to be a pleasant little lie we tell ourselves, a convenient and comfortable blinder to the truth. It is a way for us to deny the true horror of ‘inhuman’ actions: every single one of us is just as capable of perpetrating them as any other. Compassion may be an inherently human thing, but we must acknowledge that antipathy—hatred—is, too.

Consider the etymology of the word ‘exterminate’, which comes from the Latin ex termino, “beyond the boundary.” Originally, the phrase meant to expel, to remove from the political boundaries of the polis (or whatever administrative unit was in vogue at the time), and it eventually evolved to mean expulsion beyond the ultimate border, that is, life. This simple shift reveals that the boundary between “being in (or of) the City,” belonging to the group of ‘Us’, and “being alive” were (and are) sufficiently porous in our minds for this slip to occur. To expel a person or a group ex termino, to exclude them from Us and make them Them, was in a very real sense an act of violence, of forceful dehumanization, of murder. People beyond the boundary were not really people, a classification which in the ancient world as in the modern one made a whole array of terrible actions against them, made antipathy and hatred, licit.

Grounded in the distinction of those who are people, inside, from those who are not, outside, our popular historical narrative quite rightly revolves around interpretations of otherness, examining how and why certain groups subject other groups to hatred and violence. This narrative is in form one which resembles the pattern of a piece of classical music: repeating themes, lulls, gradual building, crescendos, and a massive finale. Consider the example par excellence of man’s inhumanity to man, the Holocaust. It’s well-worn ground, I know. In conventional modern historiography (although not the current thinking among specialists), the Holocaust is placed at the end of a long chain of periodic and increasingly violent persecution of Jews. In other words, the narrative of Jewish persecution stems from a level of cultural hatred in the Christian psyche, originally low but steadily growing, whipped up to ever-increasing extremes by a series of individuals. It concentrates on the large historical events: the pogroms in the Rhineland in 1096; the first accusations of ‘blood libel’ in 1144; 2 the expulsion (poorly enforced) from England in 1290; the anti-Jewish preaching of the Franciscan and Dominican orders in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; 3 the Spanish Inquisition in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; the expulsion (well enforced) from Spain in 1492; the vitriolic anti-Semitism of Martin Luther; a series of pogroms, small and large, in Germany and the Pale in Russia; and finally the Holocaust. The progression we see from this chain is one of incremental worsening, from small scale riots, then forcible ejection ex termino, then extermination.

The problem with this narrative is threefold. First, it has cherry-picked its examples, looking back through history with the Holocaust in mind, seeking events which explain it, culling a dozen or so events from over 900 years of history to make its case and ignoring the vast tracts of time which did not fit in with the desired narrative. Second, in searching through history for those events and putting them in sequence, the popular narrative has extracted them from their particular contexts, depicting them as relative to each other but not to the other events of their own unique time and place. Third and most importantly, the narrative not only conflates the scale of the outcome (i.e. the severity of the violence) with the degree of hatred, but also blends together the hatred and the means used to release it.

The first problem is not one which I wish to address here; this is an article, not a dissertation, and the continuous and low-level nature of anti-Jewish violence in Europe has been extensively studied elsewhere.4 The second and third have not. While a thorough contextualization of all the major events of Jewish persecution in Europe over the past millennium is also outside of the scope of this article (and a dissertation!), the general hypothesis can be illustrated with a case study. At the same time, this case study will serve to illustrate the problem with the conflation of the scale of the hatred with the outcome of that hatred, a mistake rooted in the disregard for the ways that hatred is actualized.

If Hugh of St. Victor is one of the greatest minds you’ve never heard of, Bernard (usually with a French pronunciation ‘BER-nerd’) of Clairvaux (1090-1153) is the most important historical person you’ve never heard of. He was, without reservation, the most powerful and influential person in Europe in the twelfth century. Born to one of the greatest noble families in Burgundy, Bernard joined the recently-formed Cistercian order in 1113. The Cistercians (today famous to beer nerds as the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, or Trappists), were a reforming monastic order which fled the rich trappings and fine meals of Cluniac monasticism,5 attempting to return to the old ideals of poverty, hard work, and prayer in the wilderness. St. Bernard (for so he later became, canonized in 1174 by Pope Alexander III) was highly intelligent, well connected, and burned with zealous faith. By 1115 he had been sent out to found his own monastery at Clairvaux from which, through aggressive recruitment and obvious personal piety, he oversaw his order’s growth from a handful of monasteries to over three hundred by his death. Nor was this Bernard’s only contribution to medieval society. He first entered the broader stage of European politics with his involvement in the creation of the Knights Templar in 1128; he wrote the outline of their Rule and promoted their cause with a short treatise De laude novae militiae (In Praise of the New Knighthood). In 1130, Bernard intervened in a papal schism, siding with Innocent II (r.1130-1143) and convincing most of the rulers of Europe to recognize his legitimacy. 6 Finally, in 1145, one of Bernard’s own monks, Bernardo de Pisa, was elected Pope Eugene III (r.1145-1153). The long treatise on the exercise of the papal office, De consideratione, which St. Bernard wrote for Eugene, has influenced the papacy to the present day, and from 1145 to his death in 1153, Bernard was semi-jokingly considered a second pope.

In 1145, the crusader state of Edessa was sacked and razed by the Turks. In consultation with Bernard, Eugene responded by issuing the Bull Quantum praedecessores,7 ordering what is now known as the Second Crusade. Bernard was a man of no small rhetorical skill—he was later canonized as the “Mellifluous (Honey-Tongued) Doctor of the Church,” and he is Dante’s last guide in the Paradiso—and it is he who, as a papal legate, arranged and executed the preaching and organization of the Crusade, travelling through what is today northern France, western Germany, and the Low Countries in service to this cause. The Second Crusade was Bernard’s Crusade, both in the view of modern historians and in the eyes of his contemporaries. Unfortunately, this close association was to have unhappy consequences. The crusader army was scattered and destroyed as it crossed Asia Minor. The small remnant that eventually reached the Holy Land laid a short and futile siege to Damascus, at the time an ally of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem,8 before returning home in disgrace.

This debacle was a great blow to Bernard both in terms of his personal reputation and his own morale. While the Second Crusade was a military failure, however, it nonetheless constituted an important moment in the western Christian construction of otherness, much of which can be attributed to Bernard. Bernard’s understanding of crusading was something of his own construction, the combination of influences and events, his own vast theological knowledge, and, according to his biographers, his supernatural level of energy and devotion.9 Problematically, the original goals of the First Crusade some 50 years earlier were (and are) unclear. Neither modern historians nor contemporary writers are unanimous as to whether the Crusade was intended to reinforce the ailing Byzantine Empire, capture Jerusalem, or to achieve something else entirely.10 There is no accurate record of Pope Urban II’s (r.1088-1099) call to crusade at Clermont in 1095, leaving historians to rely on a set of near-contemporary accounts, each of which blatantly pursues the particular goals of its author. From what we can determine, its scope was limited, aiming at a sort of “armed pilgrimage” to the East, envisioning neither conquest nor conversion. In contrast, Bernard’s vision is manifest in his letters and writings, and has been further clarified by some recent scholarship on the Second Crusade. This vision is unambiguous: the Crusade is to be a Holy War, waged on all borders against all who are not Christian.

Bernard’s vision did not emerge from a void, but was rather a synthesis of a number of preexisting ideas. The first was the growing sense of a universal christianitas—Christian-ness—and of the Catholic Church as its embodiment, a firming up of the mental terminus. In the sixth century Pope Gregory the Great (r.590-604) rejected the idea that any prelate of the church could be called ‘ecumenical’ or ‘universal.’11 In the eleventh century, however, Pope Gregory VII (r.1073-1085) felt bold enough to state “Quod solus Romanus pontifex iure dicatur universalis”—that by right the Roman Pontiff alone may be called ‘universal,’ a bold declaration both of the scope of papal authority and the of the reach of the Church.12 Second, the founding of the Knights Templar, partially due to Bernard’s influence, radically altered the idea of a crusader. No longer a simple pilgrim who made use of his sword when necessary, the crusader became a man who had been temporarily assigned a kind of holy order, existing somewhere between the lay and clerical, and represented the fist of a vengeful God. Finally, while the idea that a war could be just or righteous goes as far back as the eighth century, or possibly even to Emperor Constantine the Great (r.306-337), it is Bernard who universalized the idea of crusade.13 If the First Crusade was directed at anyone, it was the Muslims in the Levant. The Second, however, was to be waged on multiple fronts, not only sending the failed mission towards Jerusalem, but also into the pagan territories of the Baltic in 1147 and against the Muslim kingdoms of Spain.14

In his use of his legatine powers to grant crusading privileges to those fighting pagans near the Baltic in March of 1147, Bernard performed an unprecedented act.15 Moreover, the terms under which Bernard insisted this northern crusade be undertaken reveal just how far he believed the pursuit of such warfare should go. He stated that the goal is the destruction or conversion of all pagans,16 and that there should be neither truce nor cease fire in the region until that goal had been achieved.17 Similarly, in an event historians of the crusades have long assumed to be the result of a quirk of fate, the conquest of Lisbon by a crusader fleet from England and the Low Countries has recently been shown to have been an intentional plan, probably executed with Bernard’s approval (see n.14). Thus, for Bernard the idea of crusade was not confined to the struggle for the Holy Land; it extended to all the borders of Christendom, and was a necessary component of Christianity’s soteriological vision.

Given this context, it might be surprising to find out that in the popular periodic narrative of violence against Jews, Bernard is regarded as something of a beacon of tolerance. The first instance of violence in this narrative is usually the massacres and pogroms which accompanied the preaching of the First Crusade in the Rhineland in 1096. During the preaching of the Second Crusade in 1147, it appeared that the Jewish communities of the region were in for more of the same. Several large-scale pogroms took place, incited by the preaching of a monk named Raoul. Aware of history, Bernard acted swiftly. He denounced publicly Raoul in several letters and used his powers as legate to order Raoul to return to his monastery under threat of excommunication, bringing the riots to a screeching halt. This response has led proponents of the gradualist and periodic narrative of anti-Jewish hatred to attribute to Bernard “la tolérance à l’égard des Juifs.”18 He is considered, to use more modern terminology, one of the “righteous among nations.”

Given Bernard’s militant attitude towards those he deemed ex termino, this tolerance is strange because those who attribute such tolerance to Bernard have failed to examine why. The explanation is clear: Bernard has read his St. Augustine (d.430). To the medieval Christian, there was no greater authority, and Augustine is explicit when it comes to the treatment of the Jews. In his letters silencing Raoul, Bernard quotes the Doctor of the Church’s exegesis of Psalm 58:11, “slay them not lest at any time My people forget; scatter them by thy power and bring them down.”19 This psalm, Augustine says (and Bernard repeats), is a divine command that the Jews not be harmed, that they be allowed to live in misery as wretched observers of Christian triumph.20 They are to be spared as “living words of scripture [who] remind us always of what our Lord suffered,” dispersed across the world as “living witnesses of our redemption.” 21 If this does not sound quite so tolerant, it’s because it isn’t, or, to put it another way, it is mere tolerance. Bernard’s idea of universal warfare against all outside of the terminus of Catholic Christendom exempts the Jews only because they are specifically excepted from it by the greatest of the Church Fathers.

The Second Crusade not a low point or lull in anti-Jewish hatred, and Bernard was not voice of moderation. The hatred is there, the fear and disgust at the Other is there, real enough to kill and destroy like it had fifty years earlier, not only in the mob, but also in the very person who restrains that hatred, fear, and disgust. Therefore, two things are clear from a close examination of the events of 1147 and their context. First, historical context always matters, which may seem obvious, but sadly is not. Second, the real difference between the events of 1096 and 1147 has nothing to do with established communal tendencies towards violence or a specific, sharp spike in concern over the Other, but rather how those things are legitimized and actualized. In the first instance, violence is made licit by common consensus or ‘mob mentality’; in the second, it is prevented and deemed illicit by an explicit prohibition from a figure of great authority. Of course, this pattern does not always hold—the mob can choose to make the actualization of violence illicit, just as an authority can make it licit—but the principle that the actualization, not the hatred itself, is the precipitating cause of what follows is one with broader implications.

Looking back on horrible and traumatic events, it is difficult to remember that very few people see themselves as the villain in any given narrative, and thus it is similarly difficult to think that those perpetrating such deeds thought themselves just. In short, it is almost impossible to think that you or I could perpetrate those same actions. This is delusion, and one which our historical narrative reinforces. The failure to differentiate between hatred and its actualizing forces allows for the incorrect assumption that where we do not see manifestations of violence, physical or otherwise, the hatred and fear of others does not exist. It allows us to classify those who perpetrate such acts as inhuman, that is to say, Other, not only denying that they are like us, but also the necessary corollary that we are like them. It allows us to think that it is only in human nature to be sympathetic and merciful, forgetting that it is also within human nature to be cruel and monstrous. Acts of hatred are not terrifying because they are performed by those who are not human, but because they are performed by those who are. In other words, we have cocooned ourselves in a comfortable historicized fairytale that has allowed us to believe that being a bad person and being bad at being a person are the same. Bad people and good people are equally people; truth always resists simple explanations. We just hate owning up to it.


1 Author’s translation. Proprium est enim humanitiatis compati et moveri pietate in miseria aliena. Bestia pati potest, compati autem humanitatis est proprium. J.P Migne, Patrologia cursus completus, series Latina v.176, Digital Edition (Alexandria: Chadwick-Healey, Inc., 1995), 842B. Hereafter abbreviated PL followed by volume and page numbers.

2 Although the idea has been around in some form from Antiquity, the first major instance is usually considered to be the murder of the young boy William of Norwich at Easter, 1144, in England, which his hagiographer, probably echoing community sentiment, attributed to the Jews.

3 Yitzhak Baer, A History of the Jews in Christian Spain (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1992), 166-167.

4 Most notably by David Nirenberg in Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996) and John V. Tolan, Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

5 This form, named after the powerful (and itself reform-driven) abbey of Cluny, founded in 910, was entirely structured around the Opus Dei, the work of God, i.e. prayer. By the twelfth century the Cluniac monasteries were very wealthy and enjoyed numerous exemptions from certain tenants of the Rule of Saint Benedict on which they were founded, such as the prohibitions on rich food and clothing. The Cistercians attempted a re-adoption of this Rule without any such exemptions.

6 An impressive feat. Before Bernard’s intervention, Innocent II had been the clear underdog.

7 Papal decrees, named for the large lead seal (bulla) which was affixed to them, are all known by their incipit, or opening words.

8 Speaking as an objective historical observer, this is one of the stupidest military decisions of the various crusades, topped only by the Fourth Crusade’s decision to attack and sack the largest and wealthiest Christian city in the known world, Constantinople (incidentally, where Venice got most of its bling, including the horses at St. Mark’s). The siege of Damascus had no chance of success or tactical or strategic reward, and only served to alienate the Muslim powers surrounding Jerusalem, leading directly to the Kingdom’s fall at the hands of Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb (Saladin) and a unified Muslim force some 40 years later.

9 Bernard of Clairvaux, The Letters of St Bernard of Clairvaux, ed. Bruno Scott James and Beverly Mayne Kienzle (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1998), xxii.

10 For some of the scholarly perspectives on Urban II’s vision for the First Crusade, see: H.E.J Cowdrey, “Pope Urban II’s Preaching of the First Crusade” in History 55:1970, 177-188 and Dana Munro, “The Speech of Pope Urban II at Clermont, 1095” in American Historical Review 11:1906, 231-242.

11 ‘Ecumenical’ and ‘universal’ are Greek and Latin words for the same concept, that is, the world as a whole.

12 Author’s translation. This quotation from a document called the Dictatus Papae, found in the papal register of Gregory VII. The purpose of the general document is unclear and the subject of a great deal of scholarly debate, but it contains 27 bullet points (of which this example is the second) which are unquestionable assertions of papal supremacy.

13 Crusade differs from just war in a multitude of aspects, but the standard for historians is whether or not the war was accompanied by an indulgence. In the beginning, this indulgence usually remitted penitence, but eventually this was changed to an indulgence for the remittance of sin. While Augustinian theory of Just War is currently a popular starting point for theorists of the ethics of war, he received little attention before Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, and Thomas himself did not have a substantial impact on western theology before the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century.

14 Bernard’s involvement with crusading efforts in Spain has been a relatively recent discovery. See: Jonathan Phillips, “St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the Low Countries, and the Lisbon Letter of the Second Crusade” in The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 48(3):1997, 475-497 as well as Susan Edgington, “Albert of Aachen, St. Bernard, and the Second Crusade” in The Second Crusade: Scope and Consequences, Jonathan Phillips and Martin Hoch, eds. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), 54-70.

15 James, 1998, 446.

16 James, 1998, 467.

17 James, 1998, 463. It is worth noting that this commandment is only documented in the context of the Baltic campaign, and that it was blatantly disregarded.

18 Gilbert Dahan, “Bernard de Clairvaux et les Juifs” in Archives Juives 23:1 (1987), 62.

19 This citation is to the Vulgate psalm according to the Septuagint. Modern translations may list it as Ps. 59:11.

20 James, 1998, 462; cfr Augustine of Hippo Ennarrationes in Psalmes, Psalmus LVIII, Sermones I et II (PL 36.067).

21 James, 1998, 462, 466.

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