The Crusades: A Very Short Introduction

Despite its many uses – and abuses – in the political and religious realms, the Crusades are still very little understood, and are commonly portrayed through the lens of propaganda. Christopher Tyerman’s contribution to the Oxford book series of short introductory texts on various topics, The Crusades: A Very Short Introduction, illuminates the complexity of what we know as the Crusades, separating the history from the anachronistic interpretations, and shows how they have become both origin and product of political and religious propaganda.

For one, what would count as a Crusade has changed throughout history. The idea of a just war is derived by Christians from the Bible, and has been in development since the Late Antiquity. The Crusades popularized the idea of a just war in defense of Christianity – holy war. The notion of Jerusalem being in captivity by the enemies of Christ, and the need to free the city and place it under Christian rule, is most reflected in the First Crusade; after that, the Crusades have evolved into wars to serve various other purposes, thus ushering in the use of crusading for advancing its leaders’ agenda.

Even the motivations for launching and joining Crusades are never uniform. Ordinary people certainly saw crusading as a pious act, a route to salvation and guarantee of their soul’s ascension to heaven. Some may have joined out of obligation from their feudal masters. Some may have been motivated by worldly profits, though in the end the Crusades never really made its participants any more prosperous than they were prior.

One common misconception about the Crusades is that they were all against Muslims. Certainly, the original Crusade called for by Pope Urban II to recapture Jerusalem was framed as a holy war against the enemies of Christianity. But the later crusades were primarily political in nature. For instance, the Fourth Crusade ended up besieging and sacking Constantinople, still very much a Christian city at the time. The infamous Albigensian Crusades were directed against the Cathars in southern France, and ended up with Christians massacring their fellow brethren in faith.

And of course, there will always be debates on what exactly would classify as a Crusade. Purported holy wars were called against Muslims in the Middle East, against the Moors in Spain, against heretics all over Europe, and even against Jews in the Balkans. Even for the only truly successful venture, the First Crusade, political and economic expediencies have always been present in the leaders’ agenda. So if Crusades are strictly just holy wars, then what counts as one? As the book shows, this and other aspects of the Crusades are still up for debate.

Which brings us to the author’s main contention: the uses of the idea of crusading long after the Middle Ages. They have always served as potent symbols of noble struggles against “the others”. Christians used the memory of the Crusades to conjure an image of just war against Muslims – and Jews too. The Catholic Church in France invoked the Crusades as an inspiration in the battle against the secularism of the French Revolution. Even in modern wars, “crusading” became synonymous with fighting a good cause, as in the image of the Allies fighting against the evils of Nazi Germany, or America’s War on Terror.

The Crusades is a short but very insightful introduction to the history of the Crusades, both as a series of events, and as an idea. The many ways that the idea of the Crusades is being used to push for agenda are products of the many ways that its history was portrayed, and its memory still serves as catalyst for political ventures. The dangers of using (and abusing) history are illuminated in the way the Crusades have been portrayed through the ages, and this book, as an overview of the discipline, serves as a reminder of the need to understand and separate history from the myths that transform them into instruments of propaganda.

The March of Folly

From Troy to Vietnam

In the book The March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman examines four major cases where leaders acted against their own interests, to bring about their downfall: the Horse of Troy; the Renaissance Papacy; the American Revolution; and the Vietnam War.

Tuchman defined “folly” as having met these three criteria: it is counter-productive, even as viewed by contemporaries; an alternative course of action is present, but not taken; and finally, it is perpetrated not by a single leader, but by a group. These criteria merely narrow down the number of case studies to be considered, and not in themselves explanations for the failures. The main argument in all of these, instead, is something else: it’s about acting “against self-interest”.

Maybe the present-day concept of “self-interest” is different from how the author used it in this book. But it sure isn’t just about dereliction or corruption – although the Renaissance popes are indeed shining examples of such. Instead, the concept of “self-interest” here is more about hubris. And so taking it into consideration, the four cases can be understood better when seen in this light.

In the short discussion of the Trojan Horse, hubris is when the kingdom of Troy accepted the offering of a gigantic wooden horse as a sign of peace. And despite persistent demands for the horse’ internals to be inspected, the Trojan leaders refused. At night, while the people of Troy are asleep, the Greeks hiding inside the horse came out, opened the city gate, and let their forces in, thus culminating in the defeat and destruction of Troy.

In the story of the Renaissance papacy, hubris is something that stretched back to earlier times, outside of the book’s scope, when the popes settled in Avignon, and thus were closely intertwined with the secular leadership of France. Even upon returning to Rome, the Church leadership brought with it the secularism and lavishness it adopted in Avignon. The six popes of the Renaissance period – Sixtus IV, Innocent VIII, Alexander VI, Julius II, Leo X, Clement VII – lived in utter prodigality and vulgarity. They appointed relatives and friends to the College of Cardinals – especially nephews, which is how the word “nepotism” came to be. They lived less like the apostles of Jesus, but more like the kings of their times, except more extravagant. Some even had illegitimate children, whom they also appointed as Cardinals.

To keep funding the otherworldly levels of materialistic lifestyle they lived, these popes used their office for all sorts of money making schemes – notably, the sale of indulgences. When this scheme was introduced in Germany, a certain clergy named Martin Luther stood up to the Church, and thus paved the way for the greatest schism in the history of Christianity later on. Once the Reformation movement set in, and both clergy and secular rulers started breaking off from the influence of Rome, the Catholic Church started its rapid decline in power and prestige. All because a group of successive popes prioritized their hubris over their pastoral duties.

In the third case, the British Parliament, keen on raising funds to recuperate from the successive wars of the early 18th century, looked to the faraway New World to raise taxes. Multiple proposals were put forward, each time receving huge backlash from the American colonists. The Americans hated the idea of being taxed by a faraway Parliament across the Atlantic, without so much as a proper representation to the body. The hubris comes in the form of stubbornness, as the Parliament insisted on levying taxes despite the growing possibility of open revolt. Which, in the end, is what happened. And thus, the American Revolution came to be, and the British Empire lost its colony. All because of hubris.

The implacability of the British, that led to their loss of America, is ironically repeated by the Americans themselves, two centuries later. Five presidents – Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon – wrestled over the issue of the Southeast Asian nation known as Vietnam. When the French, after the tragic siege of Dien Bien Phu and the Geneva Conference, finally exited from Indochina, the Americans came in, and soon found themselves stuck in the same quagmire that the French extricated themselves from at a terrible price.

Taking the author’s definition of folly, the Vietnam War is its greatest example. So much has been said about the glaringly contradictory policy of suppressing communism in Vietnam without escalating the conflict, but the book’s examination of the folly lies in the creation of a sense of “self-hypnosis”. The presidents sought to defend and perpetuate their policies on Vietnam by convincing themselves that the Communist threat over Southeast Asia – the so-called “dominoes theory” – is more than real. By the time of Kennedy, the growing gap between Soviet Union and China already offered a view contrary to that of falling dominoes, yet the self-hypnosis continued.

As Johnson started to gradually escalate the American efforts in Vietnam, they adopted a policy of counting bodies, and manipulating the count, if needed. They bannered the numbers that show lower American casualties than Vietnamese, indication, according to them, of getting closer to victory. This, too, is self-hypnosis: soon, both the American government and the military leadership were too convinced they were winning, that when the 1968 Tet offensive came, they found it almost impossible to realistically assess their situation. Even after the offensive, even amidst the widespread and violent opposition to the war, America went on and kept fighting.

Nixon won by promising to end the war. Which he did, but not immediately. Instead, he still vainly looked for a way to win the war, even as he nonetheless ordered massive withdrawal of ground troops. America pursued a policy of “Vietnamization” – training and equipping the ARVN to fight their war on their own, with little to no American help. Meanwhile, aerial bombing was intensified further, which did little to ease the anti-war sentiments. Ultimately, the bombings and the Vietnamization failed to work, and in 1975, with North Vietnamese forces rapidly overwhelming the South, America exited from Vietnam in shame.

Tuchman concludes that the “rejection of reason is the prime characteristic of folly.” As I see it, such rejection has to be caused by something. And as I see it, hubris is what really made these follies possible. Whatever the case, The March of Folly is a good casebook on how and why policies fail. In the end, the author asserts that a “test of character” is probably what is needed in choosing leaders. Maybe we – citizens and leaders – can all learn from the mistakes of the past. But I guess one takeaway here is that these lessons aren’t just more relevant now – instead, they’ve always been relevant. And as these follies show, it seems every once in a while, we’ll realize we never learned our lessons after all.

A Capital City at the Margins

Quezon City and Urbanization in the Twentieth-Century Philippines

From 1948 to 1976, the national capital of the Philippines was not Manila – it was, instead, the largely planned Quezon City. Founded by President Manuel Quezon in 1939 as a new capital for the young nation, similar to Washington, DC in the United States, Quezon City nonetheless did not become the showcase capital that Quezon envisioned it to be. What was meant to be a capital city devoid of the ills of Manila, ended up absorbing the very problems that made the government move away from Manila.

The book A Capital City at the Margins: Quezon City and Urbanization in the Twentieth-Century Philippines, by Michael Pante, examines not only Quezon City and Manila, but also the entire urban region around them, much of which became the present-day Metropolitan Manila region. The book shows a history of urbanization and city planning, from the walled city of Intramuros as the nerve center of Spanish colonial rule, to the American efforts to rehabilitate Manila in the likeness of US cities, and to the eventual founding of a new city far from the dense urban center of the centuries-old capital.

The book lays out the premise that Quezon City, instead of being a capital in its own right, was greatly shaped by its being a periphery to Manila. The widespread poverty, criminality, and prostitution in Manila during the American period prevented the implementation of proper city planning, notably Daniel Burnham’s City Beautiful plan. Americans and the local elite moved away from the center in Manila, and lived in the suburbs, including areas that will later become parts of Quezon City.

Quezon City was intended to be a planned capital, away from the perceived dirtiness of Manila. What happened, however, was that Quezon City became a sort of extension of Manila’s rapid urbanization. During and after the Second World War, Manila residents moved to Quezon City’s vast empty spaces. The University of the Philippines was also moved to the large government-bought estate in Diliman, meant to be as far from the ills – and politics – of Manila as possible. Succeeding governments developed vast estates purportedly as settlements – the so-called jeprox, or “projects” – for the working class, but poor management made them too pricey for the ordinary folks, and ended up being reserved for the middle- and upper-class residents.

Plans for a new government center in the northeast heights of Quezon City also fell due to lack of funds and poor management. Quezon City, being located between Manila and the provinces of Rizla and Bulacan, also became a buffer zone amidst the Huk insurgency. It became a halfway point where the insurgents could launch operations to Manila, and though such operations never happened, Quezon City still became a hotbed of criminality and insurgency.

The elite of the society happily bought properties and lived in privately developed enclaves in and around Quezon City. The boundaries of Manila and Quezon City also became top residence choices for the elite, while the city’s center, meant to be the focal point of the new capital, teemed with informal settlements. The vast estate of the Araneta family in Cubao, meanwhile, became the new city’s commercial center. Cockfighting, long considered a social ill, became widespread and tolerated in Quezon City. The Araneta Coliseum, which became the world’s largest indoor arena at the time, was built initially as a cockfighting venue, and its surroundings later became a commercial center.

During Ferdinand Marcos’ presidency, Quezon City became a second-rate city, behind the more favored Manila. By this time, informal settlement – squatters – teemed all over the city. This created a negative perception for First Lady Imelda Marcos, who is also Metro Manila Governor. Much of her projects for the beautification of Metro Manila region focused outside Quezon City, which was stripped of its status as national capital in 1976. Nonetheless, the specialist hospitals put up by the government found their ideal spots in Quezon City.

The University of the Philippines was originally relocated from Manila to the empty lands of Diliman in order to keep its students far from politics, shielded in its own enclave. Instead, Quezon City became the perfect spot for a more politically active student life. The proximity to the provinces of Rizal and Bulacan, hotbeds of insurgency, and the proliferation of the urban poor in squatters around the campus, influenced the students to become more active in social works and political movements – and in taking up arms themselves. The Diliman Commune of 1971, when the students barricaded themselves inside the campus for a couple of days, would not have been possible if UP stayed in its cramped campus in Manila.

As the Marcos regime kept suppressing dissent, with corruption and violence continuing unabated, Quezon City became the perfect place for political mobilizations. Numerous religious organizations, which have turned against the government, offered shelter for dissidents in the numerous churches, convents and seminaries in Quezon City. Manila, overwhelmingly working class, with its narrow streets, became synonymous with leftist movements. Quezon City, meanwhile, with its more cosmopolitan character, became the perfect halfway point for the poor and middle class who are opposed to the Marcos regime.

The revolution that toppled the dictatorship – the EDSA Revolution – occurred in the city’s southern area, the stretch of national highway in between the headquarters of police (Camp Crame) and military (Camp Aguinaldo). As the author argues, this became the moment when Quezon City became a more “classless” society, as the poor, middle class, and the rich, came together to destroy a common enemy – the dictator. It was also at that moment that Quezon City stopped being merely a periphery of Manila – it has become “a central part of an ever-growing metropolitan region.”

The author also notes, if not in detail, some comparisons in urban developments among other Southeast Asian cities: notably, how Quezon City is more like Putrajaya in Malaysia, a planned city built as embodiment of Mahathir Mohammad’s political aspirations, a model city fit for his vision of what the Malaysian nation should be. It was also situated relatively near Kuala Lumpur, as Quezon City is to Manila. This was contrasted to another planned city, Naypyidaw in Myanmar, which was built very far from the old capital of Yangon. It features a more “decolonized” type of urban space, and is too far from Yangon so as to make political mobilizations impractical, if not impossible.

A Capital City at the Margins is the story of how Quezon City came to be, and how the urban dynamics of the Greater Manila region came to shape its development. It started out as a periphery, an extension, to the centuries-old capital, and decades later, rose to become a city in its own right. It didn’t become the capital city that Manuel Quezon envisioned it to be. The problems that hounded Quezon City throughout its history are still the same issues faced by Filipinos today. The poor management and uncontrolled urban growth that prevented the implementation of city plans for both Manila and Quezon City are still problems today, though as the book shows, it isn’t just the lack of political will that caused these plans to fail. Yet, in the end, Quezon City remains a major city today, and unlike before, it’s no longer just a city at the margins.

Medieval Christianity

A New History

Medieval Christianity: A New History, by Kevin Madigan, is a general overview of the history and development of the Christian religion in the Middle Ages, AD 600 – 1500.

The Late Antiquity period ended with Christianity becoming the dominant religion in Europe, while Islam dominated North Africa and the Middle East. As the Catholic Church became the most dominant force in the realm of Christendom, it became a more political entity, with secularization intertwining with its supposedly religious nature. Politics in France became a major cause of the papacy’s transfer from Rome to Avignon, and even after the end of this so-called Babylonian captivity, the succeeding popes have acquired a taste for politics that will later culminate in the Reformation scandal.

Meanwhile, the laity became more drawn into the religious life. Monastic orders sprang up, and men and women alike took religious vows and devoted their lives to serving God through renouncement of worldly living. The Crusades called for with the purpose, initially, of taking the Holy Land back from Muslim rule also became a way of religious and penitential life for many, who came to view a holy war as a way of offering their lives to God. 

The practice of Christian faith developed further, and took on forms not too far from our present day Catholicism. The Mass became more elaborate, the cult of saints became widespread and more intense for some, relics and images became central to the prayer life, and devotion to the Virgin Mary developed into a major devotion among Christians. Monastic education gave way to development of theology and philosophy; however, disagreements in the finer points of theology and doctrine lead to the creation and spread of schismatic movements. These were condemned by the Catholic Church, and the need to stop their spread brought forth the institution of the Inquisition, which hunted down and tried the leaders and recalcitrant followers of these movements.

Overall, Medieval Christianity is an excellent resource for understanding Christianity during the Middle Ages. The bibliography is divided by chapter, and provides various other references for deeper study of medieval Christianity, which can be very useful for the more curious readers. I recommend this for everyone wanting to learn more about the Middle Ages but don’t know where to start.


The Year that Rocked the World

The year 1968 was one of the most momentous in modern history, if not in the entire history of mankind. For much of the year, many countries, especially the US and in Europe, were gripped by protests. Depending on the government response, these protests, mostly lead by students, devolved into violent riots and brawls. Arrests are made, and sometimes lives are lost. But the people keep going back to the streets. The students keep on marching, sometimes occupying campus buildings.

The ongoing Vietnam War is the primary issue in the United States, and is central to the presidential election of 1968. Antiwar movements sprang up and mobilized all over the country, and despite occasional suppression by the authorities, they just kept on growing and kept on coming back to the streets. The assassinations of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy further fueled anger among the people, with civil rights now also a major motivation for protests.

In Czechoslovakia, a more reform-minded leader, Alexander Dubcek, came into power early in the year, and immediately set on to loosen restrictions on freedom of expression. The media, now more free to report on subjects that used to be taboo, started showing the uglier side of the government. Meanwhile, people took to the streets to demand more reforms. The now-uncensored news of widespread protests in the US have also inspired similar antiwar demonstrations in Prague.

All of these caused consternation in Kremlin. With memories of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 still fresh in Soviet leaders’ minds, they at first vacillated in how to deal with the situation in Prague, even as Dubcek himself is starting to lose control of the popular movements. In the end, the Kremlin settled for an invasion. In August tanks rolled through the streets of Czechoslovakia and soldiers used force against the civilian protesters. Forced negotiations between the Soviet and the Czechoslovakian leaders ended up with gradual rollback of the reforms already put in place.

Paris was also swept by unrest, as students opposed the very conservative norms imposed on universities. The demonstrations grew quickly, and soon workers were also organizing strikes – though the workers were doing so for their own interests, and didn’t have much sympathy for the students. Nonetheless, all these proved beyond comprehension for France’s mythical leader, Charles de Gaulle, who tried to ignore the unrest at first. Yet when it seemed the clamor for change can no longer be dealt with by his old tactics, de Gaulle instead announced new elections. Soon the protests died down, but de Gaulle’s appeal no longer held the same sway as before.

Meanwhile, in the wake of Robert Kennedy’s death, the Democratic Party was suddenly left without a strong contender for the elections. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago, meant to be the highlight of the primaries, was marred by widespread protests all over the city. The fierce mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, advocated the use of force against the protesters, which the police willingly did. For many nights, riots broke out in Chicago, and of course, the media was there to cover all these. At the same time, the Democratic Party settled with Vice President Hubert Humphrey as their standard bearer.

The Republican Party ended up selecting former Vice President Richard Nixon as the presidential candidate. Nixon pandered to the Southern voters, under the promise of promoting law and order, and states’ rights. Even with all the massive antiwar demonstrations, and the police violence towards protesters shown on TV, many Americans in 1968 still supported the war, and felt the “rioters” deserved their harsh treatment. Nixon’s eventual victory only highlighted this sentiment, and from that point on, the gap between the two political parties only kept on growing bigger. Civil rights and antiwar advocates leaned more towards the Democrats, while the white South became more closely identified with the Republicans.

Many more events happened all over the world: Mexican civil unrest ended in the grisly Tlatelolco massacre, and months later Mexico was able to host the Olympics with little unrest; Cuba under Fidel Castro further restricted “capitalist” activities, while also starting to lean more towards China, and away from the Soviet Union; the West continued massive relief aid towards the breakaway Biafran regime in Nigeria; among many others.

The story of 1968 ends with NASA’s successful Apollo 8 mission, where a spacecraft carrying three astronauts orbited in close proximity around the moon. The mission was, as with the protests of 1968, heavily broadcasted on TV. It was a precursor to the historic Apollo 11 mission the following year. And with it, the turbulent year that was 1968 came to a close, as mankind faced the new year with some sense of optimism and hope for the future.

The book 1968: The Year that Rocked the World, by Mark Kurlansky, was able to vividly narrate the history of 1968, with great focus on the US antiwar protests and election season, and on the Prague Spring and the eventual Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. There’s a lot to learn from the numerous events of that fateful year, and even today much of the issues of the 60’s continue to hound our world. And it is for these reasons that it’s all the more important to look back to those times, as foreign as it may seem to this generation, for upon closer inspection, one sees that the world, as it was, is in many ways still the same today.