Crossed Swords

18 Jun

I have just returned from running an English language immersion weekend for teachers in our region – 30 intense hours, all in English, to help them improve their working knowledge of the language. Most of it was spent in the nearby “city” of Llerena, whose fascinating historical heritage provided the backdrop for some of our activities. (I call it a city because it received the official title of city from king Philip IV in 1641; once the second largest urban centre in the region, with a population of 8,000, now with around 6,000 inhabitants, it is hardly a huge metropolis…)

Although previous Moorish, Visigoth, Roman, and even Chalcolithic settlements existed there, Llerena reached its heyday after its reconquest by the military order of the Knights of Saint James in the middle of the 13th century. Created to protect pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Westerm Europe’s most important pilgrimage site, the Knights of Saint James (“the Moorslayer”…) played their part alongside the other military orders in the steady reconquest of Spain from the Moors. They were richly rewarded for their efforts by the reigning monarchs, gaining large tracts of land and key towns such as Llerena which were then fortified and the surrounding area repopulated.

One detail that caught my eye was the cross of Saint James, visible in many of the coats of arms and other stonework dotted around the city. It seems these zealous knights found a true fusion of faith and force in their calling, uniting cross and sword into one inseparable unit that was duly represented in their emblem. Having spent the day removing the heads of Muslim infidels, in the evening the blade could be plunged into freshly “Christianized” soil and become the object of devotion and focus for prayer.

Combining religious devotion with feudal power – “the best of both worlds”, as Hannah Montana might say – these military orders seem to sum up the “ideal” Christian of the day: men of noble birth, with their vows of obedience, poverty and (marital) chastity, fighting for God, king and country. A country still in the making, admittedly, and until the unification of the Spanish crown they often found themselves fighting for or against rival Christian monarchs rather than pesky Muslim bandits, but all that just added to the excitement of the epoch.

In the end, though, they were too successful for their own good. With ongoing military victories the “border” gradually moved southwards with the result that heavy fortifications and resident knights were no longer in huge demand. After the fall of the kingdom of Boabdil and the surrender of Granada in 1492, knights could not even volunteer to fight elsewhere. More to the point, reconquest meant that the focus switched to the establishment of orthodoxy. Someone had to make sure that the unfortunate Muslims who had decided to “convert” and stay on rather than join the exodus towards Morocco, not to mention the Jews who were later given the same choice, really had converted and were not just pretending. The new territory to be conquered was that of the head and the heart. Understanding the faith was not high on the list of entrance requirements for the Order of Saint James and they were in danger of having the wool pulled over their eyes. Or visors.

Enter the Inquisition. Under the influence of Luis Zapata, son of the Master of the Order of Saint James at the time, Llerena became the seat of the Inquisition for the surrounding area. For all their vows of poverty, however, neither the Inquisition’s monks nor the Order’s knights were free from the temptation of worldly wealth and it was not long before the latter’s abundant properties became an object of desire for the Inquisition. In the name of hunting down the heretics it was all too easy to report someone as a suspect of heterodoxy, an accusation that was often confirmed under torture. Llerena’s main square has been witness to countless autos de fé after which the wretched accused’s property was, naturally, confiscated. The young master Zapata probably regretted his enthusiasm in bringing the “Holy Office” to Llerena; after his own fall from grace, reputedly for marital unfaithfulness, his own palace was to become the most sumptuous of the Inquisition’s three headquarters in the city. The physical strength and warcraft of the knights had given way to the political manoeuvring and rule of fear of the monks, and the latter was no less effective than the former.

(As an aside, the Order of Santiago has survived until today; there are currently around thirty knights and the same number of novices. The Comendador Mayor is the prince of Asturias, heir to the Spanish throne, though it seems he prefers not to draw attention to this nor wear his official Saint James’ cross lapel badge in state visits the other side of the Mediterranean.)

Yes, times were different. I must beware the anachronistic imposition of thought patterns of today on yesterday’s world, à la Orlando Bloom in the 2005 Ridley Scott production Kingdom of Heaven. (Classic. More subtle, perhaps, than the tractor trails through the cornfields in his Gladiator, yet no less out of place.) But still, all of this seems worlds apart from faith as I know it, more in line with jihad than Christianity. I do not intend here to enter the debate over passive resistance, a righteous war, legitimate self-defence or when violence may be justified, nor issue some rapid my-opinion-is-true pronouncement; life is too complex for simplistic reductionisms. But the welding of sword and cross into one, the cross providing the secure “handle” for the violent repression of the faithless, and the sword’s blade opening the way for faith to follow – this I cannot square with the Christ in whose name such acts are committed. “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting” (John 18:36).

Where the sword wielded is earthly, it seems that “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God”, becomes blunt and the proclamation of the cross becomes ritual and outer form, not a life-transforming message. A well trained hand gripping a tempered sword may bring conquest, but such victories are Pyrrhic, and what is lost is incalculable.

So sword, or cross? No doubt both have their place. But please, do just keep them separate.

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