Teaching the Investiture Controversy

One of the most difficult things to teach in a medieval course is the Investiture Controversy. Students will grasp, more or less easily, the crusades, monasticism, “feudalism” if you simplify it enough, even saints’ lives and pilgrimage, but the Investiture Controversy usually puts them to sleep.

Which it shouldn’t because it was the most significant “event” in the Western Church between the death of Augustine in 430 and the Protestant Reformation in 1517. Perhaps the pontificate of Innocent III, 1198-1216, as well, in between these two. But the list is definitely limited.

Yet the Investiture Controversy is…boring. The facts that it centered on spiritual qualifications for office and the technicalities of who should preside over the ceremony of office are both lost on most students of today’s generation, because we simply don’t have context today. Students have to imagine a past where a) separation of church and state didn’t exist, and simultaneously b) where the Church, separate from the State (in this case, the complicated Holy Empire), wielded significant influence and authority in everyday life. And then students have to try to understand the monastic aspirations of the reformers, to bring back some measure of the spiritual vitality that made the Church an institution worth caring about. It’s all very complex, and by the time you get there either you’re out of time or they’re out of patience.

Gelasius 1 Jarrett
Jonathan Jarrett’s diagram of the issues; click image to read his excellent post and see the larger original diagram.

It’s not helped by the fact that, unless you’re giving a course specifically on the medieval church or even better the high medieval church, you can’t well assign a great sourcebook like Maureen C. Miller’s Power and the Holy in the Age of the Investiture Conflict (her introduction is superb), or the over-priced but excellent edition of Frutolf of Michelsberg’s chronicle. Generally, I’ve stuck with the famous  exchange of letters in 1076 between Henry IV and Gregory VII, and the Dictatus Papae (naturally), but again,the language is rough going for those who don’t know the period. Boiling events down to the Concordat of Worms in 1122 is another practical approach, since the statements of both sides are short and succinct–but again, one loses a sense of complexity and moment.

St. Bruno refusing the archbishopric

A different text that I’m thinking of assigning in the spring might might be beneficial for different reasons: Saint Bruno of Segni’s treatise on simony, composed sometime before 1107 and translated here by the redoubtable Professor William North (seriously, check out his collection of primary and secondary sources at Carleton College).

Saint Bruno’s treatise is useful for several reasons, especially when paired with Jean Leclercq’s essay on the “heresy of simony”: a) it is a longer selection, so when properly prepped students can sink their teeth into a longer argument; b) it contains a life of Pope Leo IX and functions as a foundation history of the reform movement; c) it illustrates how Scripture, the Patristics, papal government, and contemporary politics intersected; d) it lays out, as clearly as any source I’ve read, why exactly “simony” was so offensive and destructive to the church (chapter 10 and chapter 15); e) it was written by a man, Saint Bruno, who was a close adviser to four successive popes, and was widely regarded as one of the leading intellectuals in the reform movement (well-written, researched, and illustrated biography here). Granted, some of the legalistic parsing in chapters 11-14 might get a bit dry, but a lot comes down to how you frame the readings–put some faces to the names, and locations to the places, and things should liven up (Canossa, Normans, and Matilda of Tuscany, for example).

Hopefully this approach, together with some presentations that bring the historical figures to life, will breathe some vitality into the Investiture Controversy this spring. I plan to follow on our discussions with a focus on the first four Lateran councils, as a way of organizing the complex twelfth century, before arriving at papacy of Innocent III which is a unit on its own. But without understanding what was at stake in the Investiture Controversy, the rest of medieval history, all the way to Luther’s protests in 1517, will make rather less sense.

Leaving Iraq 2011: Or, Underrating the Utility of Force

One of the things that I’ve heard most frequently from the conservative side in the Iraq debates is that President Obama had the chance to keep American troops there, which is what most senior commanders and many diplomats wanted, but instead was in such a hurry to get out that no attempt was made to capitalize, or to use plans that were ready to go.  The President has repudiated these accusations more than once, perhaps most notably on August 9, 2014, after ordering that air strikes commence against Daesh. Specifically:

“Under the previous administration, we had turned over the country to a sovereign, democratically elected Iraqi government,” Obama said. “In order for us to maintain troops in Iraq, we needed the invitation of the Iraqi government and we needed assurances that our personnel would be immune from prosecution if, for example, they were protecting themselves and ended up getting in a firefight with Iraqis, that they wouldn’t be hauled before an Iraqi judicial system.

“And the Iraqi government, based on its political considerations, in part because Iraqis were tired of a U.S. occupation, declined to provide us those assurances,” Obama said. “And on that basis, we left. We had offered to leave additional troops. So when you hear people say, do you regret, Mr. President, not leaving more troops, that presupposes that I would have overridden this sovereign government that we had turned the keys back over to and said, you know what, you’re democratic, you’re sovereign, except if I decide that it’s good for you to keep 10,000 or 15,000 or 25,000 Marines in your country, you don’t have a choice, which would have kind of run contrary to the entire argument we were making about turning over the country back to Iraqis, an argument not just made by me, but made by the previous administration.

“So let’s just be clear: The reason that we did not have a follow-on force in Iraq was because the Iraqis were–a majority of Iraqis did not want U.S. troops there, and politically they could not pass the kind of laws that would be required to protect our troops in Iraq,” said Obama.

Now, you can read about the notorious Status of Forces Agreement, in outdated form (but with links to the documents), without necessarily getting the deeper details of the situation. However, when you do, it seems readily apparent that, while it is true that the argument over legal immunity was decisive, the way it went down speaks to a much more complex–and less complimentary narrative–than I had been aware of. iraq war endsThe signals being sent by the Obama administration, and unhappy convergence of campaign promises, senior military advice, internal Iraqi politics, and Iranian influence, really did set the stage for the complete removal of an American presence that, while it might not have prevented the raise of Daesh, certainly would have improved those odds.

The key article that I’ve found (and I’ll add others if you send me links) is by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker on 28 April, 2014: “What We Left Behind.” It’s long, and detailed, and thought-provoking journalistic narrative of 2008 to 2014. How internal Iraqi alliances were brokered, particularly by the Iranians, how the Obama administration accepted that brokering, and how most people on the ground saw American presence as a steadying thing–is all laid out there.

My impression is, now that I’m a 2-hour expert on the subject (not counting the 3 years I listened to veterans discussing it), is that the President has learned one very important lesson about the utility of force–that it often doesn’t deliver what you want how you want–at the expense of another lesson–that it IS useful, at times. And a third lesson, that just because you disapprove of using sledgehammers to crack nuts, you swear off cracking nuts completely. In other words, there are other dimensions to military power than just the kinetic, smash-everything kind. I wouldn’t necessarily call military power “soft,” but “soft” military power leading up to 2011 seems to have had many benefits, simply by being there. I’ve long been a fan of the President’s refusal to get drawn into another long, drawn-out war with no clear end state, but in 2011 it is very hard to escape the conclusion that an opportunity got away.

Well, if it was an opportunity. Ultimately, it will come down to whether or not internal Iraqi politics, sandwiched between America’s apathy and Iran’s activism, could have been prevailed upon to approve a U.S. presence with legal immunity. There’s no consensus on the issue, but, and I hate to agree with Max Boot below, when Bush wanted the first agreement done, he put forth the requisite effort. The jury is out on whether the Obama administration did the same.

Daesh Dilenda Est.

Further Reading:

Continue reading Leaving Iraq 2011: Or, Underrating the Utility of Force

ISIS Delenda Est

Some random thoughts, subject to revision at any time:

  1. Apparently if your first thoughts are of anger and action instead of mourning and sympathy, you’re a dick. Enough with the false dichotomies. To everything there is a time and season. We all mourn with Paris and “stand with France” (whatever that means: it’s why I don’t like obligatory Facebook statuses; post, and move on with your day). Many of us also want to see more action against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
  2. Just as with the January attacks in Paris, this week there have been multiple terror attacks around the world. PLEASE remember that, even though President Obama kind of skipped Beirut last night.
    1. Paris, currently 128 dead.
    2. Beirut, at least 37 dead, 181 wounded. (people are mourning there too, not that it’s getting much press)
    3. Baghdad, 26 dead and 61 injured.
    4. North Sinai, 8 dead.
    5. And don’t forget the 224 dead from last week’s Russian aircraft bombing in the Sinai.
  3. This is why, ultimately, this isn’t a Europe-vs-Middle East problem, or a Christianity-vs-Islam problem (though the destruction of the ancient Christian communities in the Middle East is often overlooked). This is about power, and an exclusive, calculating leadership exploiting those who feel marginalized and oppressed (whether they are or not), to attack Muslims as well as Christians and atheists. This is why I applaud Pope Francis’ official statement of love and support. But notice the word “decisive.” What does that mean?  I think of the French President last night.
  4. President Hollande said “We will lead the fight, and it will be merciless.” Good for you, Mr.  President. At least someone is leading. And if his words sound a bit too much like Abbot Amalric in 1209–“Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius”–perhaps ISIS shouldn’t constantly refer to the French as “crusaders.” It sounds like they’re nearly ready to oblige.
  5. People, myself among them, have argued that the crusades, whatever you think of them, should be left out of the conversation. Perhaps. I have less conviction on that point as time goes on, and I wonder if it matters. Some people who fight against ISIS will do so as part of a crusade, personal or organized. As long as they don’t commit atrocities, or contravene the laws of war,  I’m not sure at this stage that it matters in the cause of peace and justice whether someone who fights ISIS feels they’re fighting a crusade.  [Besides, not to beat a dead horse, but much of what you think you know about the 900-year-crusade-victimization of the Muslim world is myth anyway.]
  6. Subpoint on that, ISIL constantly calls Western society “crusaders” and despises moderate Muslims who live in peace in that society. As a military historian, I wonder if they shouldn’t be careful what they wish for. A crusade tends to be bad news for all concerned, and “Western” “crusaders” do logistics a lot better than they did back in the day.
  7. There was a heartfelt piece, which for the life of me I can’t find now,  saying that now was the time for Europe to open its gates to refugees, not close its borders. Noble, but naive. The question is largely moot, and while compassion is the right way to go, the best we can hope for is that the predicted “tsunami of hatred” for Muslim communities in Paris doesn’t materialize. Before the attacks yesterday, Angela Merkel was sticking by her open-door refugee policy. Remains to be seen whether that changes.  And yes, we enlightened ones may despise Douglas Murray, but the fact is that unless writings like his are squarely addressed, conversations about compassion and tolerance are going to overshoot their wider audience.
  8. I’m honestly not sure how you “lead the fight” without putting your Muslim communities on the defensive, justifying themselves and constantly having to prove their allegiance. It’s the problem with Cameron’s counter-extremism strategy, and Tariq Ramadan is spot on to say that a French response that doesn’t actually reflect a unified nation will be dangerous and inadequate. But once you accept the necessity for some kind of action, how do you avoid it? It’s the perverse logic of war: “war is a force that gives us meaning.”
  9. ISIS’s own goal is  a “black and white” world, as Iyad El-Baghdadi has drawn attention to (follow him on Twitter, he’s great). Polar extremes is what they want. Do we give it to them? I’m not sure they’re leaving us much choice, since a military response in essence confirms their own advertising. Any response is going to simply drive up ISIS’ recruiting reach, not least within European society itself.
  10. Yes, of course. This is all the United States’ fault. Every bit of it. If Iraq 2003 hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t have ISIS today (possibly). If we’d intervened in Syria in 2012, we wouldn’t have ISIS today (doubtful). The world without Saddam is far worse than the world with Saddam (debatable).  If Obama had just insisted on leaving troops in Iraq, this “thing” would not have emerged (horse dung).  Anyway, I’ve started seeing comments like this. Mostly they’re nonsense. The U.S. has been engaged in the Middle East since before 1980, and “Islamic” extremist terrorism was around long before March 2003. Further, to me that sounds rather like arguing that ISIS (which plenty of witnesses testify isn’t “Islamic” at all, anyway), isn’t somehow responsible for its actions, which is nonsense. I suppose we’re responsible for all the other terrorist groups that have pledged their support of ISIS, from Nigeria to Afghanistan. And while we debate these finer points of the political blame game, the organization has shown it can hit Baghdad, Beirut, and Paris all within a 48-hour period.

Ultimately, it is time to destroy the so-called “caliphate” in the Middle East, plain and simple, even though the conduct and aftermath will be fraught with difficulties. Will a full-blown campaign leave a peaceful and stable Middle East? Almost certainly not. Will it end the Sunni-Shi’a conflict? No. Will it finally oust the Assad regime? Almost certainly no. Will it allow the millions of refugees to return to their homes, assuming they want to? Probably not, at least not right away. Will it likely cause a rift with Turkey, given our admiration for the Peshmerga’s fighting abilities? You bet.

What then will war achieve? It can destroy the physical reality of ISIS. And that would be start. No, it will not solve all the problems of the Middle East. But it will solve one problem, which up to now has grown at alarming rates: ISIS. War would give hope to those who have had little hope for a long time, and who have felt, rightly or wrongly, abandoned by the United States and Europe. It would be a step in the right direction. Because the world will not be fixed once we’re without ISIS. But it sure as hell can’t be fixed with it. ISIS is a political problem. As such, it can be dealt with by military means.

As William Tecumseh Sherman said, “War is the remedy that our enemies have chosen, and I say let us give them all they want.” The French sound like they are ready to take this approach. Now let’s see if America follows.

Mourn the dead. Then avenge them.

ISIS dilenda est.

Visualizations: Aid and Internet

As we are often reminded in digital humanities conferences, the visualization of data is often mistaken for the argument and methodology of the project. That doesn’t mean that visualizations can’t be any less compelling. In fact, they function first and foremost as an invitation to audiences to “step into” the argument, so to speak.

Two recent visualizations are worth studying, both on Vox. First, the distribution of U.S. foreign aid, which visually suggests what I think most people already know–humanitarian principles have little to do with it. The second is an article and maps of the way the internet actually relies on undersea cables, which if you’ve never thought about it before makes sense. It’s also something that has been going on since the 1850s. And the cleavages in distribution of internet cables corresponds closely to the developed, developing, and undeveloped world.

Militarized Universities

Yesterday this article from Vice was being circulated around, “The Most Militarized Universities in America.” Both this piece, and its companion study, which apparently sets out in more detail the methodology and some examples, is causing a great deal of head-scratching in many quarters.

I include myself in that category. While I don’t have time to take my preferred methodical approach to the topic, I have to say the rationale for creating a category, populating it, and then claiming it shows…something…isn’t very clear. Vice claims that

“The 100 schools named in these rankings produce the greatest number of students who are employed by the Intelligence Community (IC), have the closest relationships with the national security state, and profit the most from American war-waging.”

I’m still reading it, and will be poking at the categories and methodology from time to time, but this sounds like a non-event to me.

D_burr’s comment on the “investigation” article kind of sums up the situation:

“What does this even mean. What am i supposed to decipher from this? If i went to Stanford what do these statistics indicate? I’ve been to nearly half the campuses listed and they all just felt like schools. I don’t get it.”


Britain’s new counter extremism strategy: Kulturkampf or Arsenal of Democracy?

On Monday the British government unveiled its new “counter-extremism strategy,” which, while acknowledging the existence of other groups needing attention (neo-Nazis, et. al.), focuses mostly on Islamic extremism. Needless to say, it’s been drawing lots of criticism and analysis, from all areas of the political spectrum (the National Secular Society, for example, applauds the government’s investigation of Shari’a).

Continue reading Britain’s new counter extremism strategy: Kulturkampf or Arsenal of Democracy?

Medieval History and Policy Makers: Or, What Use *Is* a Medieval History Degree?

It’s been about two weeks since #MedievalFiorina was a thing, and I’ve been devoting some time every other day to figuring out how medieval historians can actually advise policy makers (a question to which I can actually bring some first-hand perspective, if not bonafide experience) . It’s a three-part effort, so I’m splitting it into different posts, and will put them up as I finish them. Here’s part 1.

Part 1 Islam, Dae’sh, and History

Three thoughts crossed my mind when I read that Carly Fiorina said she could handle ISIS because her bachelor’s degree was in medieval history. One, it’s good to hear that someone besides fellow historians believes that medieval history is actually worth something in this world. Two, oops, the wrong candidate from the wrong party just endorsed medieval history. This should be interesting. Third, yeah, she’s playing to the base, or at least to the audience that she thinks will respond to conceiving of our enemies as caricatures from a barbaric past (she was more satirical about medieval history’s public potential last year).

Predictably, there’s been a brief debate over Fiorina’s assertion since the story was run by ABC News. I say “brief” because there really isn’t much of a story here, and there are really only three columns worth reading—David Perry’s in The Guardian, Bruce Holsinger’s in The New York Times, and Andrew Holt’s on his blog. The rest, such as at wonkette.com or dailykos.com, aren’t worth your time (but since the links are there, I bet you click on them now…). Twitter naturally exploded for about five minutes, and provided the kind of brief entertainment at which it excels (honestly, the satire was clever, and made me chuckle).

However, instead of doing what everyone else did (basically emulating Jon Stewart and failing miserably…there’s only one), I’d like to seriously take up the bigger question, which is what policy makers could actually learn from medieval history, and how historians could actually advise policy makers. After all, that’s the big question that continues to haunt the historical profession particularly—it is debatable whether history even “has a future,” though I think most commentators (including both Little’s and Zaretsky’s columns in that hyperlink) get it no more than half right.

It’s also a question that isn’t answered easily, and I agree with Andrew that David (and Bruce for that matter) doesn’t actually engage with it very well, in the end. That’s mostly, though, because it is a very difficult question to address, and often the most we can do is follow in Patrick Geary’s footsteps, his The Myth of Nations being the greatest example of how modern claims on the Middle Ages are often thinly-veiled masks for presentist political agendas.

Be that as it may, washing our hands of current claims on our subject won’t work, in good part because our value usually derives from society’s belief that we have something to tell them. If we have nothing to say publicly except “get away from my subject,” we doom ourselves to irrelevancy. To draw on my (otherwise great) West Point experience, this gets worse the closer to government one is, so that your teaching can easily become a “lesson book”, rather than humanistic inquiry (some civilian instructors actually were worse about this than some officers). West Point faculty actually do value the humanities, but in general the pressure remains high to justify your existence in terms of outcomes. Eventually I just gave up and told my cadets that the humanistic study of history would sharpen their minds and make them better people, and they’d be better officers automatically because of that. That was also the year I got my highest teaching evaluations ever.

I still believe adamantly in that approach in a liberal arts college setting, which is what West Point is, at least on what was my side of the house. But it ducks the issue, which still remains: what possible value can I add to the policy side of things? Both personally, at the annual convention of the Society for Military History, and anecdotally, e.g. from a historian friend who was the sore thumb in a Human Terrain Team in Afghanistan, I’ve observed that while historians and policy makers can be friends and are both fascinated by history, they have fundamentally different reasons for studying it. The basic historical lesson of warfare, we would often joke at West Point, was that war is hard. And the cadet who wrote that in his or her final exams should be promoted straight to general.

All well and good, because that helps condition your mind, which as Clausewitz says is crucial preparation for war (and government); but it is still at one remove from the act of will that translates mind into matter. It is of no immediate help to making policy decisions. As I told my cadets on many occasions, “I’m a historian, I can shrug and say ‘it’s complicated.’ You actually have to make decisions, and that’s a different kind of situation entirely.” And it requires a different kind of study, a different focus, and above all a different outcome from your study. And that’s simply for military history, that doesn’t even touch the Middle Ages.

But defense and policy studies reference the Middle Ages more than you would think, and if you read articles that discuss the medieval’s relationship to the modern, Fiorina’s remarks seem very mundane. To return to the Fiorina Case, then, the proposition therein is that because ISIS claims to be medieval they are medieval, because they act in medieval ways, and therefore if you know the Middle Ages you will have some insight into how to fight them. Really, it’s the relevance of history that’s on trial here, and that’s what I want to examine. In this post I want to give some thoughts on ISIS (Dae’sh) as medieval actor, while in subsequent posts I will look at some data of how pre-modern history in general is used in policy, before finally giving some thoughts as to how I as a medieval historian could give relevant advice to policy makers that goes beyond quoting The Princesss Bride.

To borrow a useful military phrase, here’s the BLUF (bottom line up front):

  1. ISIS is, in fact, considerably medieval, but a) so are the moderate voices, b) so what, Islam was just as contested in the classical period, and c) the Western historical method is in fact one of our greatest strengths in the current ideological war against ISIS.
  2. Fiorina’s remarks weren’t actually the theater of the absurd: she has a point. And removing ourselves from this debate simply makes historians as irrelevant as many claim we already are.
  3. Medieval history should, in fact, be required reading for policy makers in this age of multi-polar power structures, as well as the mélange of state, non-state, and hybrid actors. It also assists in understanding the interplay of economics, religion, and political identity outside of our 19th-century nationalist perspective in ways that no other discipline or field can quite replicate.

Continue reading Medieval History and Policy Makers: Or, What Use *Is* a Medieval History Degree?

Medieval and Military History with a Pinch of Attitude

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