The Medieval Fetish: Online Christians and the European Middle Ages

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If you spend much time with their communities online, you’ll soon discover that Orthodox and Catholic Christians—particularly the traditionalists and the converts from other traditions—have a set of common obsessions. They love C.S. Lewis, the pan-Christian apologist and scholar of medievalism. They love J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings, and they really love plumbing the trilogy’s Christian resonances. They love baiting Protestants (who doesn’t?). They love Jordan Peterson and Jonathan Pageau’s analysis of myth, enchantment, and their role in creating meaning in people’s lives.

What unites these preoccupations is a fascination with premodern Europe. Ortho-Catholic Christians who gather online seem preternaturally drawn to eras in Western history that offer alternative social organizations to modernity, eras that precede the Reformation, and eras in which the Church was politically powerful and Christianity was the dominant religion.

I share this obsession with the European Middle Ages. In my recent discussions of Man of God and The Green Knight, I wrote extensively about “the medieval mind.” I don’t want to repeat everything I wrote in those posts, but I’ll go ahead and repeat some of it. From my Green Knight post:

The Middle Ages were not simply a different time—they were a completely different way of being human. Consider the most basic assumptions we make about about ourselves, the things we take for granted about our identity and our world. Most of these are inventions of the modern world, which we associate with the European Renaissance(s), the Reformation(s), and the Enlightenment(s), and everything thereafter.

[…]

Before modernity, Europeans did not live, think, or feel like we do. They did not share our assumptions about much of anything. Even after the Enlightenment, only a sliver of the population operated within a recognizably “modern” framework. As late as the Napoleonic era, many Europeans were still living quasi-medieval lives (to say nothing of the rest of the planet’s inhabitants and their relationship to all this).

[…]

Medieval Europeans did not inhabit a “world.” The word “secular” in medieval Latin meant “world,” and described a very small, vague concept in the medieval imagination. The rise of secularism in culture and government is something we associate with modernity. No, medieval Europeans inhabited a “cosmos,” a multidimensional plurality of possible realities. This is what we lost with modernity, what C.S. Lewis called “the discarded image.”

In short, I appreciate the positive lessons and virtues of the European Middle Ages. I believe the Middle Ages offer a set of fascinating and sometimes viable alternatives to the social, ethical, and economic structures of modernity. These modern structures have their own virtues—who can deny the power of the modern concept of “rights”?—but some of these structures have been devastating to the human soul. Western modernity, which emphasizes the concepts of an autonomous “self” and a universal humanity, has severed healthy social relations between people and has produced millions of broken minds and isolated, alienated individuals. Meanwhile, over the last 150 years, new ideologies of modernism, which posit a fractured self and a disintegrated social sphere, have frequently exacerbated these modern problems.

Many medieval aficionados, including online Ortho-Catholic Christians, defend the Middle Ages because people in the West use the term “medieval” derisively, as a synonym for “primitive” or “backward.” Such usage betrays ignorance of the remarkable cultures of the Middle Ages and of the extraordinary discoveries and innovations during that period, both in Western Europe and throughout the world. “Medieval times” is just another concept that people in general get wrong. They imagine a dark, folksy, superstitious world of knights, castles, plagues, festivals, gruel, lame music, and Flat Earthers who believe in dragons.

So if you, like me, spend a lot of time worrying about what people in general think, these misconceptions will bother you…especially if you’re a Christian, because the European Middle Ages was (were?) an overwhelmingly Christian time and place. Even the term “Middle Ages” (or, worse, the subcategory of “the Dark Ages”) subordinates this one-thousand-year period to the position of placeholder between the supposedly more “enlightened” eras of pagan antiquity and Western modernity. The way we talk about the European Middle Ages often implies that Christianity was just one big, millennium-long mistake.

In short, I understand why these trads are defensive of the whole period. But many traditionalist Christians today take this analysis a step further and idealize the European Middle Ages. They do so, in part, because the European Middle Ages are a ready-at-hand, Christian alternative to modernity. And, in some cases, their idealization of the medieval period evolves into fetishization.

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Let’s talk about the Crusades.

This is increasingly becoming a blog where I do little more than crap on Brian Holdsworth and other trad/conservative YouTubers. But the following videos are representative of the ways that prominent online Christians talk about the European Middle Ages and their central event, the Crusades. Watch one or two or all of them:

Sifting through Brian Holdsworth and Matt Fradd’s “defense of the crusades” point-by-point isn’t worth my time. Their historical premises range from ill-informed to flat-out wrong; they don’t seem capable of discussing distant historical events with anything like objectivity, intellectual sobriety, or scholarly disinterestedness. Their political investments are screamingly obvious even when these videos are ostensibly just about “correcting the historical record.” They are too preoccupied with modern Catholic theological debates, modern Catholic politics, and modern Catholic crises of identity to reliably discuss medieval Christianity.

All these videos portray the Crusades as a united “defense” against the many incursions of Islam, as if eleventh-century Christendom was anything like a unified entity, one in which France could reasonably imagine itself bordering the Holy Land. Holdsworth and Fradd speak of the centuries-long expansion of Islamic people across Asia, Africa, and Europe as if it were a single event. In reality, this expansion, which involved conquests, reconquests, and migration, occurred between the years 634 and 1291: literally a period of well over six centuries. Holdsworth specifically compares Islamic expansion between those years to (yep) Hitler’s expansion of Germany during World War II, a relatively contained, six-year event. The advantage of this comparison is obvious: Hitler is the gold standard for any historical evil that must be confronted. If you frame complex historical events in terms of Hitlerian aggression and murderousness, who can possibly object to your analysis? What are you, an appeaser? An apologist for murder and theft?

But the first eight Crusades—the campaigns to conquer the Holy Land between 1095 and 1291, what most of us mean when we refer to “the Crusades”—were not merely defensive campaigns against Islamic incursion. First of all, the lands and cities that gradually succumbed to Islamization or that fell to Islamic conquerers were overwhelmingly Eastern Orthodox; Eastern Christian empires and kingdoms had been fighting (and cooperating with) different forms of Islamic expansion since 634. Historically, politically, and even religiously, these lands mattered very little to Western so-called “Latin” Christians.

Second, the Orthodox peoples and nations who inhabited these lands didn’t view their Arab/Turkish neighbors to the east as more (or less) threatening than their pagan neighbors to the north or their Catholic neighbors to the west. You’ll often hear online Catholics assert that the Crusades were some kind of pan-Christian defensive campaign against Islam. They’ll refer to the fact that “the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos requested Western intervention in the Holy Land,” or something like that. But Alexios’s request for aid was more opportunistic than religious, more about politics than defending “Christian territory.” The emperor wanted to maintain his political dominance in a region threatened by rival empires, and why fight that battle all alone when you can enlist the support of those hayseed Latins from northwestern Europe?

To be clear: I’m not an angry SJW critic who hates the Crusades because they constituted some kind of atrocity against the Islamic world. I don’t view the Crusades as some world-historical crime on the level of the Holocaust, nor do I believe that the Crusades remotely excuse modern-day Islamic terrorism; those Islamists who cite the Crusades as justification for their actions have a view of history as warped as anything you’ll find in the above videos.

No, the Crusades were not some horrible black spot on Western Christendom’s otherwise Lily-white record. They were simply a series of military campaigns by Western Christian armies whose motives ranged from spiritual profit to financial profit and whose atrocities differed little from atrocities committed by similar armies during the same period. Sure, the crusader armies were inspired by the pope’s call to claim (or reclaim, if you prefer) the Holy Land for Christianity. But just because you believe you have ownership of a parcel of land doesn’t make your stance “defensive,” especially when the land’s current owners have been there for over half a millennium. No, the crusaders waged offensive campaigns intended to seize territory from other empires, who had used similar tactics to conquer those territories in the first place. Putting aside the weird religious dimension of the campaigns—Pope Urban II’s holy commission, his pro-crusading sermons in the French countryside, and the Church’s promise of remission of sins for those who fought—the Crusades were a fairly straightforward conflict between rival powers. There was little “defensive” about them.

The mascots of a New Zealand rugby team named “the Crusaders.” Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

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The Eastern perspective is essential for understanding the Crusades, which were Western in origin but obviously altered the map of the East. This Eastern perspective tempers some of the heated emotions we modern Westerners feel when talking about the Crusades. When we view the Crusades from an Eastern perspective, we learn that the medieval Mediterranean world was rife with invasions, military conflicts, and mass migrations that perpetually upset the region and redrew the map. The one unusual thing about the Crusades was that so many Western soldiers traveled from so far just to seize Jerusalem. Their motives were partially but not entirely religious and they didn’t represent a unified “Christendom.” But their presence in the East is just one chapter in a larger story of shuffling kingdoms. In broad political and historical terms, the Crusades just weren’t super exceptional or extraordinary.

The videos I’ve listed above tend to view the Crusades as a conflict between two entities: a Christian West and an Islamic East, two diametrically opposed foes, one defender and the other aggressor, good guys vs. bad guys. These videos view the Arab world largely through the eyes of the Western crusaders. But the historical reality is much, much more complicated.

For one thing, those historians who portray medieval Western Europe as relatively backward and the medieval Islamic world as relatively enlightened actually have a point. Most of us moderns, if transported back to 1095 and if given the choice, would rather live in the bustling Byzantine-Arab-Turkish East than in the Catholic West. Such a “choice” is admittedly unfair and impossible to make; we can’t really imagine what it would be like to live anywhere in another era, and most of us would be pretty miserable living in any earlier time period. But even with that caveat, the East was very much the cultural and technological center of the portion of the world that extended from Spain and Morocco to Persia and Afghanistan. At the time of the First Crusade, metro Constantinople was home to half a million people. So was Merv (in present-day Turkmenistan). Nearly one million people lived in Baghdad. Damascus, Cairo, Alexandria, Fez, Marrakesh, and Isfahan were among the largest cities on the planet. And the largest cities in Western Europe (e.g., Córdoba) were mostly located in the Islamic kingdom of al-Andalus in modern-day Spain.

Meanwhile, the population of Paris at the time of the First Crusade was roughly 20,000. The population of Rome was only 30,000; the lousy Normans had sacked Rome eleven years before the First Crusade. These were not political, cultural, or technological centers; these were certainly not civilizational centers. Western Christendom, where the Crusades originated, comprised little more than the sparsely-populated outskirts of “Western” civilization.

This perspective from the East is important because it reveals what is simultaneously strange and ordinary about the Crusades. It’s strange that a ragtag group of military leaders from the furthest edges of the West amassed a large army and conquered the Holy Land. But it’s also perfectly ordinary because a foreign army seizing the Holy Land is the sort of thing that happened all the time. Christians and Muslims were constantly fighting with both themselves and each other over small, densely-populated territories in the Mediterranean world (“the Mediterranean world” was a much more viable concept in this period than anything like “Europe” or even “Christendom”).

So the Crusades were not a United Christian front against Islamic expansion. They were just one part of an entire complex of important events that shaped the map of this dynamic, ever-changing region over the course of seven centuries. They were a huge deal for Western Europeans but not really a huge change or major setback for the rest of the Mediterranean world. For instance: the Islamic empires of this time were so enormous and populous that the Crusades barely made a blip on their radar. According to historian Carole Hillenbrand, Muslim writers barely mention the first couple Crusades until the second half of the twelfth century. They just weren’t that into us!

Although Alexios I Komnenos did request Western intervention in the Holy Land, you won’t find many Orthodox Christians defending the Crusades, because of the whole sack of Constantinople, rape of nuns thing. It’s something Matt Fradd addresses in the above video with Fr. Michael O’Laughlin. Fradd seems okay with crusader atrocities against Muslims, less okay with crusader atrocities toward fellow Christians (even if Western European crusaders didn’t exactly view those Byzantine Christians as their “fellows”).

The entire crusading project was a Western idea. But the Eastern perspective on the Crusades is essential because the Crusades were fought in the East against Eastern people, both Christians and Muslims. The more we can stop superimposing the terms “Christian” and “Islamic” over the terms “West” and “East,” the closer we get to really understanding what the Crusades were, why they happened, what they meant to the people who participated in them, and what they might mean for us today.

Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

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Ultimately, our ideas about the Crusades—and our ideas about the Middle Ages in general—come from movies, fiction, legend, and our own cultural mythologies. All these conversations about whether the Crusades were justified have more to do with how we talk about the Crusades in popular culture and in modern media than with actual history.

Popular misconceptions about the European Middle Ages are especially frustrating when they come from public intellectuals and prominent academics, who (we think) should know better. Religious scholar and Orthodox Christian David Bentley Hart is particularly good at dismantling arguments from New Atheist-types and other fetishists of modernity, who almost always speak of the Middle Ages as a time of rampant superstition, backwardness, and incuriosity. For a book-length example of Hart’s devastating takedown of such popular misconceptions, check out Atheist Delusions: the Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. In that book, Hart described “modernity’s first great attempt to define itself” as an “age of reason emerging from and overthrowing an ‘age of faith'”:

Behind this definition lay a simple but thoroughly enchanting tale. Once upon a time, it went, Western humanity was the cosseted and incurious ward of Mother Church; during this, the age of faith, culture stagnated, science languished, wars of religion were routinely waged, witches were burned by inquisitors, and Western humanity labored in brutish subjugation to dogma. All was darkness.

Then, in the wake of the ‘wars of religion’ that had torn Christendom apart, came the full flowing of the Enlightenment and with it the reign of reason and progress. The secular nation-state arose, reduced religion to an establishment of the state and thereby rescued Western humanity from the blood-steeped intolerance of religion.

This is…a simple and enchanting tale, easily followed and utterly captivating in its explanatory tidiness; its sole defect is that it happens to be false in every identifiable detail. This tale of the birth of the modern world has largely disappeared from respectable academic literature and survives now principally at the level of folklore, “intellectual journalism,’” and vulgar legend.

This “vulgar legend” is the target of so many Ortho-Catholic commentaries on the Crusades. In an interview, Hart observed that “it was popular from the 1970s onward to claim…that in the High Middle Ages…there were witch hunts and nine million women had been burned. Well, this, of course, is not the case. So when those sorts of stories are repeated, the effect is comical but also deeply damaging to historical intelligence.” In an article on Stephen Pinker, Hart wrote:

[Pinker] is definitely not an adept historian; his view of the past—particularly of the Middle Ages, which he tends to treat as a single historical, geographical, and cultural moment—is often not merely crude, but almost cartoonish…. It is perfectly fair for Pinker to call attention to the many brutal features of much of medieval life, but one would have more confidence in his evenhandedness if he acknowledged at least a few of the moral goods that medieval society achieved despite its material privations. He says nothing of almshouses, free hospitals, municipal physicians, hospices, the decline of chattel slavery, the Pax Dei and Treuga Dei, and so on. Of the more admirable cultural, intellectual, legal, spiritual, scientific, and social movements of the High Middle Ages, he appears to know nothing.

Hart is ruthless in his criticism of Pinker and other thinkers who subscribe to the “vulgar legend” of the incurious, superstitious Middle Ages. But we ought not replace one vulgar legend with another. Even Hart does not go so far as to defend the Crusades. In Atheist Delusions, he argued that the Crusades were something of an anomaly in Western European Christendom, a holdover from the days of the grand “barbarian” days when roving armies would travel around the Europe sacking cities. Whether you accept that historical analysis or not, the online Catholic tendency to replace the vulgar legend of the “evil Crusades” with an equally vulgar defense of the “good Crusades” is totally misguided.

And even the vulgar legend has an element of truth. Holdsworth complains that films like Ridley Scott’s largely forgotten crusader epic, Kingdom of Heaven, portrays (Western) Europe as a dreary backwater when compared to the glittering, cosmopolitan, sunny Islamic Middle East. But, as I’ve argued, Western Europe was kind of a dreary backwater when compared to the glittering, cosmopolitan, sunny Islamic Middle East. And again, both Holdsworth and films like Kingdom of Heaven ignore the complicated role of the glittering, cosmopolitan, sunny Christian Byzantine empire during this time. Why? Because most contemporary debates about the Crusades aren’t actually about history; they’re about the War on Terror, the Syrian Civil War, Israel, the “clash of civilizations,” globalization, immigration, and the persistent rise of Islam against the relative decline of Christianity in the West. This whole conversation is really about twenty-first-century culture and politics. Commentators like Holdsworth don’t seem interested in history except as a grindstone for their ideological axes.

Unlike The Green Knight, Kingdom of Heaven makes no attempt to portray the medieval mind that its characters possessed or the multifaceted cosmos that they inhabited. The film’s protagonist, Balian, is very much a modern character, an atheist who resists religious imposition on his life and his community. Balian and the film’s other characters are (poorly) developed by the social and psychological forces that we associate with Western modernity: individualism, inner and interpersonal conflict, suspicion of conformity, skepticism of authority, commitment to ethical sincerity, etc., etc. The filmmakers make no attempt to portray the dimensions that medieval peoples inhabited or the frameworks through which they understood the cosmos.

So I get Holdsworth’s frustration with the cultural mythology that surrounds the Middle Ages. Such mythology needs to be corrected. But it also needs to be understood as not mere historical inaccuracy that must be replaced by a slightly-more-correct-but-equally-broad countermyth of crusader heroism. Dominant cultural myths exist for a reason: they teach us about ourselves. They create a kind of shorthand through which we moderns can talk to each other about ourselves. They reflect us to ourselves through narrative, and I strongly believe we are narrative creatures who need stories to create meaning in our lives. The “bad Crusades” is about the triumph of a modern ethical sensibility over the ravages of European colonialism. It isn’t a story about 1095 so much as 1895. It’s how we grapple with our recent history. It’s kind of like an allegory. The Catholic commentators whose videos I’ve posted all want to engage that narrative and replace it with another narrative, one that will represent their political, social, and religious values. And frankly, as a rule, I don’t have a problem with cultural mythology and counter-mythology. But I’m adamantly against constructing a counter-mythology under the guise of historical accuracy.

Holdsworth incorporates crusader mythology, imagery, and martial language into videos that are critical of modernity and modernism. Look at the knight’s helmet on his shelf in his older videos, or listen to how he calls his subscribers “reinforcements.” This martial veneer is troubling enough when he’s framing policy debates about lockdowns or reparations to indigenous people in existential, freedom-of-religion-is-at-stake” terms. But occasionally his crusaderliness pushes Holdsworth toward literal religious-military hawkishness. I basically agree with him about Vladimir Putin and the Russian-Ukrainian war, but in a strange-but-compelling new video he has literally framed the war in explicitly (and reductively) religious terms, portraying the Russian Orthodox Church as almost entirely villainous and portraying Ukrainians as fighting primarily for “the Cross” and for Catholic religious freedom. Holdsworth and his guest make much of Moscow’s self-anointed, self-aggrandizing status as the “Third Rome,” which they view as a potential source of the conflict. Such framing doesn’t really work on any level in any sober analysis of the conflict. At the end of the day, there are much more immediate and more relevant causes for this conflict than the East-West schism and the legacy of St. Vladimir the Great. And I say that as someone who cares a lot about these religious issues and about St. Vladimir the Great.

In the next section, I’ll address the radtrad stance against modernity, which seems to fuel their preference for (Western) medieval philosophy, theology, and aesthetics. I would argue that, with many of these commentators (as with most people), their self-interested political beliefs come first and their religious convictions and aesthetic sensibilities follow. Their crusade is against modernity, by which they seem to mean cultural, political, and theological liberalism…and that’s all fine if that’s your thing. But don’t confuse that crusade with the medieval Crusades.

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Traditionalist Christians idealize, even fetishize the European Middle Ages because they are discontent with modernity, understandably so. In the process, they reinterpret the Middle Ages for their own purposes. And even in their analysis of modernity and modernism, they get a lot wrong.

Western modernity is associated with the rise of modern capitalism (the material conditions); modern science, modern philosophy, and humanism (the ideational conditions); and the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation (the spiritual conditions). One of the reasons Eastern Orthodox countries followed a different course and aren’t typically considered “Western” is because they didn’t experience those same conditions at the same time. Much of that has to do with the Ottoman yoke in southeastern Europe and with the relative geographical and political remoteness of Russia vis a vis the rest of Europe. But Western Europe faced those three conditions and modernity followed, with all its virtues and all its vices.

The term “modernism” is associated with a number of different ideas and phenomena. Because I was a graduate student in English, I primarily associate modernism with High Modernism, which refers to the literature, art, architecture, philosophy, and music of the 1890s through the 1960s, give or take a few decades whether you’re describing literature, art, etc. Within the Catholic tradition, the term “modernism” refers to theology that arose from the New Critical tradition of Biblical interpretation (a tradition inaugurated by Baruch Spinoza in the seventeenth century) and from liberal interpretations of Catholic theology. Such theological modernism challenged the Biblical literalism that emerged from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and also challenged conservative or traditional interpretations of Catholic dogma. Pope Pius X’s famous encyclical on theological modernism called modernism “the heresy that contains all other heresies.”

Holdsworth fundamentally misunderstands modernism, conflating Pope Piux X’s definition of modernism, which refers to theological modernism of the nineteenth century, with later uses of the term “modernism” that we associate with literature, art, etc. He connects theological modernism to modernist art and modernist architecture or, more broadly, capital-M Modernism: the cultural, aesthetic, and political movements of the 1890s through the 1960s and beyond. He uses Pius X’s invective against theological modernism to justify his personal distaste for High Modernism and preference for Renaissance figural art and the Albertian tradition (think Michelangelo or Giotto). I’ve written about Holdsworth’s attitude toward modernist art in the past.

Online Catholics also make much of Pope Benedict XVI’s phrase “the dictatorship of relativism.” They interpret relativism as a defining characteristic of modernism. While many modernist artists and philosophers did espouse relativistic ideas, this was hardly a characteristic of modernism in general. Modernist aesthetic and political movements such as Futurism and fascism were downright absolutist. Ironically, Holdsworth associates such absolutist movements with relativism. Even Friedrich Nietzsche, who is generally considered one of the fathers of modernism, espoused many absolutist principles. In any event, the avant-garde of the early twentieth century was not inherently associated with subjectivism or relativism, even if many audiences view avant-garde as necessarily subjectivist because it is often difficult or confusing (again, the avant-garde was not inherently difficult or confusing—much of it embraced accessibility and simplicity).

When he referred to “the dictatorship of relativism,” Benedict XVI was making a moral statement about ethical tendencies in the West. Nobody can deny that, nowadays, “right and wrong” are often interpreted along subjective or relativist lines. This is the phenomenon Benedict XVI was referring to. In the video below, Holdsworth correctly identifies moral relativism as a modernist phenomenon associated with George Bernard Shaw (among many others). But modernist ethics, like modernist aesthetics, is not wholly associated with relativism. Although a kind of soft relativism may be dominant in modern culture, it’s incorrect to describe relativism as an aspect of either modernism or modernity.

And it’s especially short-sighted to suggest, as Holdsworth does, that today’s “cancel culture” is a reflection of relativist ethics. If anything, the SJW ethic is, at its most extreme, frighteningly absolutist. That’s why people get “cancelled”! SJWs view racism, for instance, as a transhistorical evil that infects the structure of society. But for Holdsworth and other Catholic commentators, SJW morality is bad, and relativism is bad, and modernism writ large is bad, so SJW morality, relativist ethics, and modernism must somehow all be linked. This is just not the case.

And Benedict XVI didn’t mean by “the dictatorship of relativism” any and all concessions to other cultures within a pluralist society. But of course that’s where commentators like Holdsworth inevitably wind up. Of course they press for cultural uniformity and against taxes, against regulations, against “big government,” and even against lowering our dependence on fossil fuels on religious grounds. Of course they decry any policies they oppose as a “dictatorship of relativism.” Because almost without exception, their religious views just coincidentally line up with each and every one of their political preferences. And it’s easier to paint yourself as religiously principled or philosophically objective than to paint yourself as nakedly self-interested. But for all the integralist posturing in these videos, their ideological backbone always seems more like rugged, old-fashioned North American libertarianism than traditional Catholicism.

The following videos provide examples of what I’m talking about:

“Moral reform” (a phrase Holdsworth uses to describe moral relativism) frequently asserts a moral absolutism. Just because ethicists posit new definitions of morality does not mean that they are inherently relativistic; for many, new definitions of ethics are discovered, not invented. This process is actually analogous to the Catholic idea of “the development of doctrine” as described by Cardinal John Henry Newman. Holdsworth admires Newman as an anti-modernist who posited that doctrine is more accurately articulated with time; new doctrines aren’t created, but simply articulated with greater accuracy. The truth doesn’t change, only the vocabulary with which we describe truth. That’s precisely how much moral reform works.

Radtrad Catholics admire Pius X and Benedict XVI with a fierce intensity, and there’s no denying that these popes were deeply conservative. But as critics of modernity and modernism, Pius X and Benedict XVI were far more subtle, thoughtful, and specific than these online Catholic commentators, who distort the words of these conservative popes to advance their own preferences and agendas. These distortions occur when commentators like Holdsworth (as well as the even more conservative, downright crazy, potentially schismatic Taylor Marshall) inflate the popes’ definitions to include all aesthetic, theological, and philosophical phenomena associated with modernism. These distortions ultimately encourage a wholesale rejection of both modernity and modernism, a rejection that is at odds with Catholic tradition and Biblical teaching.

Consider the fact that modern Catholicism itself arose from an embrace of modern science and modern philosophy. Holdsworth once boldly stated that Thomas Aquinas is Catholicism, and I agree with him. Modern Catholicism emerged in the Middle Ages, when Roman Catholicism began to adjust to new discoveries and trends in Western science and philosophy (e.g., the revival of Aristotelianism that presaged the Renaissance). In fact, the “denomination” we call “Catholicism” today is arguably a response to Protestantism. before the Reformation, there wasn’t really a Catholic identity; there was simply small-c catholic Christianity. Even after the eleventh-century schism between East and West, most Christians continued to practice catholic Christianity. This was especially true in regions where Latin and Eastern Christian populations overlapped. David Bentley Hart refers to this fact in his 2014 article “The Myth of Schism”; I’ve written about this subject before.

I often jokingly refer to Roman Catholics as “Protestant Orthodox.” I use this term because I see modern Roman Catholicism as an attempt to deal with the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Much of the Catholic “development of doctrine” that occurred after Thomas Aquinas and especially after the Reformation is an attempt to grapple with emergent modernity. Prior to this, the so-called Catholic Church was essentially just Orthodoxy with Western characteristics. Once the Protestant Reformation occurred, Roman Catholics had for the first time something to define themselves against. The Protestants and the Catholic Counter-Reformers essentially created Catholic identity.

In short, if radtrads argue that everything bad and relativist in the world is a product of modernity, they would do well to consider the degree to which their own beliefs are also a product of modernity.

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Online Orthodox voices are more muted and less prominent than online Catholic voices for obvious reasons; there are simply many, many more Catholics on the Internet and throughout the world. Orthodox Christians also have very little reason to defend something like the Crusades, again for obvious reasons. But many of their preoccupations related to Christian history have led them to conclusions like Holdsworth’s, Fradd’s, et al. They view European civilization (a shaky concept in the Middle Ages) as having taken a wrong, even heretical turn with the emergence of modernity. Most “conservative Orthodox” commentators (I hate the terms “conservative Orthodox” and “traditionalist Orthodox” because all Orthodox Christians are, in some sense, conservative and traditionalist) regard the fall of Constantinople and the disappearance of an imperial Christian Church-State as the moment when Europe turned toward social and moral chaos. Traditionalist Catholics are more likely to point to the Reformation and its accompanying controversies. But in the broad strokes, there is much agreement between traditionalist Catholics and conservative Orthodox on the Internet.

Where online Orthodox Christians differ most from radtrad Catholics is in their emphasis on the concepts of “enchanted” Christian world, modern “disenchantment,” and a coming “reenchantment.” Radtrad Catholics have eagerly embraced these concepts, but they seem to be most associated with Orthodox commentators like Jonathan Pageau, Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, and others. The idea of “enchantment” is very similar to the idea of “the medieval mind” and “the medieval cosmos” that I’ve written about on this blog. It places special emphasis on what we moderns would call “supernatural” entities and phenomena, although the idea of “nature” and “supernature” are extremely modern and can’t quite capture what Pageau et al means by enchantment. If anything, the enchanted world of the Middle Ages is unrecoverable and basically impossible for moderns to comprehend beyond the bare outlines that Pageau and others trace. What we need, they argue, is not a return to medieval enchantment but a new post-modern (not postmodern) reenchantment.

Part of living in an enchanted cosmos entails submitting to the power of stories. As a student of languages and literature, I find these ideas deeply compelling. In an enchanted cosmos, stories have the ability to make and unmake reality; we are very much the stories we tell and pass on. In the modern world, stories are fictions, and big stories (i.e., cultural narratives) are illusions to be stripped away so that we can access material reality. This modern view simply does not accord with the vast majority of human experience.

The Orthodox commentators I’ve cited are less likely to defend the often grisly or brutal particulars of medieval life and more likely to defend the medieval way of being human. They are also much more informed about Eastern Christianity and, therefore, they possess a much broader, more accurate perspective on the Middle Ages. What’s more, Eastern Christianity did not undergo the scholasticism, nominalism, Reformation, and Counter-Reformation that Western Christianity experienced. Consequently, Orthodox Christians have more access to things like the veneration of icons, a practice deeply rooted in the enchanted cosmos of premodern Christianity. They are more likely than Catholics to completely embrace mystery and reject logic, rationalism, and empiricism in their approach to dogmatic and theological issues (e.g., the question of Mary’s immaculate conception or the process of transubstantiation). Orthodox Christianity deliberately and conscientiously preserves premodern ways of living, at least insofar as that’s possible after modernity.

If you can’t tell, I am deeply sympathetic with this whole discourse. I believe something truly valuable was lost with the emergence of modernity, and I believe we can learn much from the “enchanted” medieval mind as we transition into whatever post-modernity will be. I believe that we must embrace enchantment and that the enchanted mind may be a cure for the painful, fractured identities we inhabit in modernity.

Even “secular” traditionalists like René Girard (a later-in-life convert to Catholicism), his acolyte Peter Theil, Jordan Peterson (who is openly sympathetic to Orthodoxy), and the so-called “Dark Enlightenment” movement all fret about the disenchantment of the world. Theil is on the record as saying that the Enlightenment itself was a mistake. Although they are not as explicit as Thiel, online Orthodox commentators seem to align themselves with his view. Unlike Holdsworth et al, they do not view Thomas Aquinas as the heart of Christian identity. They view his teachings and the Western development of theological nominalism as a fundamental error, presaging the Enlightenment and the fall of Christendom. For Pageau and others, this error led to the current ethical crises around “cancel culture” and SJW morality. Like the radtrad Catholics, online Orthodox have a wokeism obsession, but they broaden their definition of the nefarious wokeist ideology to include all of modernism and modernity. This maneuver is fundamentally absurd for reasons I discussed in the previous section.

As I suggest above, anti-modernity is an anti-Christian perspective. Every Christian is called to live humble and holy lives within the fallen world of their own time. Devout Christians of every period have looked at the world around them and said, “Woe to this generation.” If Christ taught that His contemporaries were worse than Sodom and Gomorrah, who are we to say that our generation is the epitome of evil? I believe modernity is bad, but I don’t believe that it is especially bad or that the European Middle Ages were especially good. Most medieval were hardly embodiments of Christian virtue. In every era, devout Christians—even in Christendom—have been the minority.

Finally, let me go ahead and accuse these radtrads of racism…or something that resembles racism. Much of their critique of modernity rests on the fact that Christianity is supposedly in decline. But, as Bishop Barron reminds us, Christianity is actually ascendant in the modern world…if your definition of the modern world includes the entire world, and not just the West. Whenever a radtrad complains about the decline of Christianity, they are essentially arguing that the overwhelming majority of Christians on the planet—those Christians who are black and brown—simply do not count.

Coda

What do I mean when I say that radtrads fetishize the Middle Ages? To fetishize something is to love the idea of that thing more than you love the thing itself. The idea of the Middle Ages—in culture, in media, in historical narratives—excites these commentators more than the confusing, contradictory, and mundane details of the actual Middle Ages. These commentators seem to worry about how their opponents think about the Middle Ages and the Crusades more than they themselves actually think (or read, or care) about the Middle Ages and the Crusades. That’s why the guests they invite onto their YouTube channels are not really experts but rather professional ideologues, people whose qualifications are more “religious press agent” than “trained historian,” people who seem to care above all about how the idea of the Middle Ages can be used as a political weapon.

I’m not saying that any historical analysis is totally disinterested and objective or that you can’t make a moral argument about history, that you can’t talk about history in terms of right and wrong, good and evil, defender and aggressor, good guys and bad guys. All historians make transhistorical moral assumptions. At the same time (and at the risk of sounding relativistic), all historians are captive to the ideas and values of their time and place. All historical analysis has an ideological bent. But, despite their claims to correct the historical record, these commentators are long on ideology and short on history. Their videos describe history in the broadest terms, overlooking almost every relevant detail, overemphasizing grand cultural and national mythologies, and compressing centuries of complexity and nuance into ninety or forty or twenty (or even fewer!!) minutes. And then they claim that they are bringing complexity and nuance to the discussion.

Further Reading

If you are interested in the history of the Crusades and the European Middle Ages, check out Christopher Tyerman’s book The World of the Crusades, which is scholarly but accessible. I can also recommend his influential earlier books, God’s War and The Invention of the Crusades. Tyerman is the source of much of the information in this post.

Other sources I trust have recommended the following books:

  • Barbara H. Rosenwein’s A Short History of the Middle Ages and Reading the Middle Ages
  • Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400 to 800
  • Susanna Throop’s The Crusades: an Epitome
  • Carole Hillenbrand’s The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives
  • Norman Cantor’s The Civilization of the Middle Ages
  • Robert Bartlett’s The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonisation and Cultural Change, 950 – 1350
  • Seven Myths of the Crusades, edited by Alfred J. Andrea and Andrew Holt
  • Katherine Allen Smith’s War and the Making of Medieval Monastic Culture

Finally, to any fan of C.S. Lewis, I recommend The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature.

If you must rely on YouTube, I’d favor lectures by professional historical researchers. As a very general rule, I avoid videos by journalists, aficionados, political scientists, or philosophers/theologians (armchair or otherwise) except to get the broadest overview of an historical topic. When possible, watch videos that feature panels, round table discussions, and debates between different scholars. There is no single “take” on the Middle Ages—don’t accept one.

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