An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

January 18, 2016

Buc: Holy War, Martyrdom and Terror

Philippe Buc, Holy War, Martyrdom and Terror: Christianity, Violence and the West. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

Reviewed by: Helen J. Nicholson (

This wide-ranging study sets out to establish Christianity’s role in creating violence, covering the whole history of the Christian Church from the first century to the twenty-first. Described by its author as ‘a typical laboratory experiment’ (p. 288), the book examines the writings of Christians and those living in cultures derived from Christianity to establish how they have justified and condemned violence and those who exercise it. It argues that ‘a certain way of war is peculiar to the West’ (p. 45) and that this derives from Christian ideals. Unlike many studies that claim to trace the development of a concept from the ancient world to the present day, it gives due weight to the medieval period.

As a medieval historian and a scholar of the crusades, Philippe Buc is well equipped to carry out this investigation. He discusses the ideology of the First Crusade, Joan of Arc and the Hussites. He shows how descriptions, condemnations and justifications of violence written by Christians during the French Wars of Religion and in early modern America, and by activists during the French Revolution, by the Baader-Meinhof Gang in modern Germany and by modern US presidents reflect and continue the views recorded in earlier centuries. He points out, however, that these ‘cultural forms’ were not necessarily transmitted directly from one writer to another; they were repeatedly reinvented, and continue to be reinvented in the post-Christian west. He shows that despite its claims of non-violence, violence is inherent in Christianity and the culture derived from it in the western world.
Buc does not claim that Christianity has been the sole cause of violence in the West or that it is the only religion which can be linked to violence; but he states that he lacks the expertise to come to definite conclusions regarding Muslim violence. He emphasises that ‘Christianity has engendered mature human rights and just-war doctrines’ and ‘intense commitment to humanitarian action’ (p. 6). Yet: ‘the form that human rights and just war have taken is genealogically unthinkable without Christianity, just as the form that sanctified warfare and terrorism have taken is genealogically unthinkable without Christianity’ (p. 7). While this may be true for the West, it would be interesting to have similarly detailed studies of the depiction and roles of violence and martyrdom in Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism or Buddhism.
Buc’s ‘laboratory experiment’ proceeds through a series of hypotheses, each supported with evidence and argument. The first chapter argues that American wars are based on ‘deep-seated Christian notions of freedom, purity, universalism, martyrdom and History’ (p. 45), and discusses these notions. Chapter two explores how violence is inherent in Christianity, as Christian writers have described the struggle against evil as warfare and the ‘End Times’ as a great war when God’s forces will overcome the forces of evil. These concepts have continued into the modern world: the language of the Terror in the French Revolution was derived from Catholic discourses of purification and holy war. Chapter three discusses how religious fundamentalists have depicted their opponents, and have been depicted by them, as mad or mentally imbalanced. Buc argues that taking an historical approach reveals that modern terrorists’ beliefs are coherent, and quotes social science research showing that jihadists are mentally normal and ‘have in their immense majority enjoyed a happy life’ (p. 144) – although enjoyment of a happy life does not mean that a person is sane. The fourth chapter discusses martyrdom within Christianity. As a medievalist, Buc argues that Christianity is a religion of vengeance that believes martyrdom carries history forward. He discusses the nineteenth-century American martyr John Brown, and argues that the concept was also taken up by the secular religion of communism. In chapter five, Buc considers the similarities between national holy war and sectarian terrorism: one waged for the state and the other for an elite group, but both aiming at purification of societies from within and without. In chapter six, he discusses liberty and the use of violence to force liberty on individuals or populations: hence, using violence to enforce human rights. Chapter seven draws his arguments together, arguing that it is not possible to understand present violence unless we understand that the concepts used to justify it originated in the distant past.
Inevitably in such a wide-ranging study, there are some errors and omissions. For example: on p. 116, the satirist Lucian of Samosata’s amusing description of the ‘cultural epidemic’ does not mention supernatural action. On p. 117, Buc states that Cicero described ‘seers’ divining the future ‘through fury’ – in fact Cicero was quoting Plato’s interpretation. Buc then attributes to Cicero a definition of divination which Cicero put into the mouth of his brother Quintus and then refuted: this may have been the view of Cicero’s contemporaries, but it was not Cicero’s own belief. Although Buc discusses the Hussites in detail he has little to say about the Cathars, despite the similarity between medieval depictions of Cathar heretics and modern depictions of terrorists. In the modern West, the Northern Irish ‘troubles’ have their origins in and are expressed through religious difference, and images of holy war have been used by both sides: but that particular area of modern religious conflict is never mentioned.
Buc’s study is based on very extensive knowledge and thorough analysis, and its findings are important: martyrdom, holy war and terror are inherent to Christianity and are likely to continue within post-Christian cultures; those holding extremist ideological views are not insane and cannot be simply educated out of these views, and there is an historical basis for their position. Buc hopes that by comprehending that historical basis it is possible to understand religious extremism and that ‘sociological approaches … will be key’ to inhibiting ‘fights to the death and deaths for the cause’ (p. 295). But his conclusion does not explain what these sociological approaches will be.
Yet although this is an important study whose conclusions could be very valuable in guiding public policy, it is not an easy book to read. Buc writes as an expert for experts rather than to communicate to the wider educated public. As an expert, he uses specialised terms which should convey a precise meaning, but they are not always used in a way that readers will readily understand. Although ‘writing is an instrument for conveying ideas from one mind to another’ (to quote Ernest Gowers' Plain Words), it appears that Buc’s primary concern is to impress his erudition on his readers even if his ideas are misunderstood in the process. For example, hapax, short for hapax logomenon, means something said only once, and is usually used to mean a word that appears only once in a corpus. Here (pp. 93, 243) it is used to mean an opinion recorded by a single writer or only two writers: Buc has sacrificed clarity in favour of impressing the reader with his superior knowledge. His prolixity all but engulfs his key points: for example, ‘to Christianity alone should not be attributed the causation of violence’ (p. 5) would be expressed more clearly as: ‘Christianity was not the only cause of violence’. The reader encounters impossible images such as: ‘In 1420 and 1421 the moderate Prague university men literally danced around the question of the commons’ right of resistance’ (p. 200) – one cannot literally dance around an abstract concept; this was a metaphorical dance. Sub clauses and authorial asides distract from the core argument. Buc’s use of language serves to obfuscate even as it informs: the reader may fail to notice that he has overlooked or dismissed some arguments but accepted others without explanation (as on p. 91: ‘Haussherr opined … Maier demonstrated the contrary’).
This is an erudite and exasperating book. It is a work of significant scholarship, with the potential to have a significant impact on how western societies combat the growth of religious extremism. It demonstrates that it is necessary to understand past societies and their concerns if we are to understand modern western society. Regrettably, by choosing to present his findings in complex language, Buc demonstrates his scholarship but renders his message inaccessible to those who most need to read it.

Helen Nicholson
Cardiff University