A true story. On the 24th of November, 1326, four horses entered the marketplace at Hereford, England, dragging behind them Hugh Despenser the Younger, recently convicted of treason, while the Queen, Isabella, and the assembled crowd of courtiers and commoners hooted and jeered. Already wearing a crown of nettles and disfigured by crude tattoos of verses concerning matters of retribution from the Old Testament, Despenser was stripped naked and “half-hanged” — that is, hoisted by a noose until semi-conscious — at which point they cut his genitals off. This was considered very fitting by all assembled since Despenser was known to have been the lover of the King, Edward II (himself to die the following year by means of a red-hot “trumpet” thrust into his anus, according to at least some accounts.)
The writer Alison Weir recounts that Despenser then emitted a “ghastly, inhuman howl”, but his punishment was very far from over. Weir then picks up the account of a contemporary chronicler who wrote, “Then his belly was split open” – this while he remained conscious — “and his heart and entrials cut out...when the other parts of his body had been disposed of, Sir Hugh’s head was cut off and sent to London. His body was then hewn into quarters, which were sent to the four next largest cities in England.” You can see the event depicted, above. I bet nobody accused Isabella of being soft on crime.
Despenser was no saint. Weir speculates he may have raped the Queen. Certainly he had tried to bribe the French into killing her, as she was herself plotting against the King. All this is part of the point I'm trying to make, so bear with me.
Grisly though it was, Despenser's execution was kid’s stuff by Medieval standards. Consider, if you will, the words of the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas who recounted that Spanish conquistadors in the New World would “hang 13 natives at a time in honor of Christ Our Saviour and the 12 Apostles. Straw was wrapped around their torn bodies and they were burned alive. They took babies from their mothers’ breasts, grabbing them by their feet and smashing them against rocks. They would cut an Indian’s hands and leave them dangling by a shred of skin and threw others to the dogs and thus were torn to pieces.”
Well, that’s (late) Medieval justice for you, a fact that Shakespeare was very much aware of when he had his hero Henry lay the following threat onto the governor of the French town of Harfleur in his great play Henry V.
Therefore, you men of Harfleur,
Take pity of your town and of your people,
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command;
Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace
O'erblows the filthy and contagious clouds
Of heady murder, spoil and villany.
If not, why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash'd to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds
It’s Shakespeare, yes, but historically accurate: Henry really did make a threat like this and the actual execution of such threats was commonplace throughout the Middle Ages. Indeed, the people of innumerable towns and cities have suffered similar fates from ancient times through to Nagasaki and beyond. But this particular passage was excised in the 1944 Olivier film version: it wouldn’t do in 1944 to have a Shakespearean hero employing Gestapo methods against England's enemies even though at that very moment, the planes of Bomber Command were burning German cities and the people in them to the ground, night after night.
And what do all these people have in common? These crowds who cheered for the drawing and quartering of a homosexual? The medieval kings who ordered their men remorselessly to rape and murder their way through towns and villages? The conquistadors who actually did spit naked infants upon pikes? Well, for one thing, they were all Christians, devout believers of utterly unshakable convictions. And, why not, really? In the Old Testament, Mr. Tough-on-Crime himself orders all manner of massacres and whatnot. Yahweh is not merely vengeful and jealous but is also fiendishly diabolical in the manner of a James Bond villain. In 2 Kings 2, verses 23-24, He sends a couple of “she bears” to rip apart forty-two children for making fun of Elijah’s baldness. Do not mess with this cat. Seriously.
Am I saying that religion is the problem, that it “poisons everything” as a recent book put it? Certainly not. The claim that “religion poisons everything” is an empirical one, and until such time as we have studied religion in relation to, well, everything, we can’t possibly reach that conclusion. And there is, moreover, the undeniable fact that, in absolute terms, the secular (and in some cases aggressively irreligious) dictatorships of the 20th century: Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and Mao’s China, killed perhaps 100 million people between them. Indeed, Stalin, the foremost mass murderer in history, studied for the priesthood for only about four or five years so.
Here’s the catch, though. In absolute terms, the 20th century was undeniably the most violent in history. But there were also a lot more people to kill, and I am very far from convinced that, in relative terms, the 20th century was necessarily more violent than any of a number of centuries that preceded it. For Americans, the death rate from their Civil War, fought amongst themselves in the 1860s, was about six times greater than World War Two; a Frenchman was more likely to die in the wars of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars than during the World Wars; the average person living in early 16th century “Germany” during the Thirty Years War, was almost certainly more likely to die from violence than the average German living in the first half of the 20th century, and all these wars were fought amongst Christians. We could go on and on. Need I even begin to enumerate the catastrophic death toll of the Atlantic Slave trade?
Anyone who studies military history long enough eventually reaches the conclusion that there is basically nothing that people won’t do to one another. There is no act of betrayal or violence or cruelty so profane that people will not do it to their fellows in order to impose their will, and every human religion, doctrine, or philosophy can be and has been utilized to sanctify acts of unfathomable cruelty. But history also shows that people are often selfless, will sacrifice themselves for one another, and will die to defend the lives of otherwise defenseless people who they have never met and from whom they can earn no reward. As historians, we need to devote greater efforts to understanding what motivates actions such as these, in addition to understanding the everyday kindnesses, of which there are a multitude, that go unrecorded and unnoticed in the annals of history.