Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Sectarian Violence, 16th-century style

Old historical novels, especially those written by credible authors of the age, contain a wealth of historical context that we rarely glean from the history books, and that we rarely get from modern accounts of current events. When we think of sectarian violence these days, we think of Shia-Sunni or any of the seemingly innumerable sectarian rifts going on these days in places far removed from Western culture. It is surprising then, when we read an historical account of Christian sectarian violence that sounds like, with a few changes in the names and events, it could be written by a modern-day commentator.

One of these gems was recorded for our collective memories by the then young and obscure A. Conan Doyle, in his first novel "Micah Clarke". Read and savor the amount of information and colorful description of the early years of Catholic-Protestant "disagreement", and note how similar the conditions seem to modern day mingling of state and religious affairs...

It may seem strange to you in these days of tolerance [Micah is speaking of Catholics near the end of his life, in 1734] that the adherents of this venerable creed should have met with such universal ill-will from successive generations of Englishmen. We recognize now that there are no more useful or loyal citizens in the state than our Catholic brethren, and Mr. Alexander Pope or any other leading Papist is no more looked down upon for his religion than was Mr. William Penn for his Quakerism in the reign of King James. We can scarce credit how noblemen like Lord Stafford, ecclesiastics like Archbishop Plunkett, and commoners like Langhorne and Pickering, were dragged to death on the testimony of the vilest of the vile, without a voice being raised in their behalf, or how it could be considered a patriotic act on the part of an English Protestant to carry a flail loaded with lead beneath his cloak as a menace against his harmless neighbors who differed from him on points of doctrine. It was a long madness which has now happily passed off, or at least shows itself in its milder and rarer form.
Foolish at it appears to us, there were some solid reasons to account for it. You have read doubtless how, a century before I was born, the great kingdom of Spain waxed and prospered. Her ships covered every sea. Her troops were victorious wherever they appeared. In letters, in learning, in all the arts of war and peace, they were the foremost nation in Europe. You have heard also of the ill-blood which existed between this great nation and ourselves; how our adventurers harried their possessions across the Atlantic, while they retorted by burning such of our seamen as they could catch by their devilish Inquisition, and by threatening our coasts both from Cadiz and from their provinces in the Netherlands. At last so hot became the quarrel that the other nations stood off, as I have seen the folk clear a space for the sword-players at Hockley-in-the-Hole, so that the Spanish giant and tough little England were left face to face to fight the matter out. Throughout all that business it was as the emissary of the Pope, and as the avenger of the dishonored Roman Church, that King Philip professed to come. It is true that Lord Howard and many other gentlemen of the old religion fought stoutly against the Dons, but the people could never forget that the reformed faith had been the faith under which they had conquered, and that the blessings of the Pontiff had rested with their opponents. Then came the cruel and foolish attempt of Mary to force upon them a creed for which they had no sympathy, and at the heels of it another great Roman Catholic power menaced our liberty from the Continent. The growing strength of France promoted a growing distrust of Papistry in England which reached a head when, by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, he showed his intolerant spirit toward the faith which we held dear. The narrow Protestantism of England was less a religious sentiment than a patriotic reply to the aggressive bigotry of her enemies. Our Catholic countrymen were unpopular, not so much because they believed in Transubstantiation as because they were unjustly suspected of sympathizing with the emperor or with the King of France. Now that our military successes have secured us against all fear of attack, we have happily lost that bitter religious hatred but for which Oates and Dangerfield would have lied in vain.
The reader gets this great history lesson in the very first chapter of Micah Clarke, and it sets the stage for a great historical story of the travails of those individuals who had to fight against their own government for the right to practice their faith. It is a joy to read and a gem that most Sherlock Holmes devotees will find fascinating as a comparison to Sir Arthur's later works. And it reminds us again, as that wise old Solomon once advised us, that "there is nothing new under the sun..."


  1. Europeans learned not to have religious feuds at that time because they were starting to learn that they really did have the power to destroy themselves. Remember that Star Trek where there was a planet where they had a digital war in which each faction executed the casualties? Capt Kirk stopped that by shutting the system down giving them the choice between having a real war and making peace. The Thirty Years War in Germany was like that to Europe. The Shia and Sunni havn't had a Thirty Years War yet.
    On the other hand in the centuries following Doyle, Atheist "Ideocrats" managed to revive secterian strive in Europe, in a peculiarly modernist form.

    Which brings us to the conclusion: people are stupid.

    Sir Jason

  2. The Shia and Sunni havn't had a Thirty Years War yet.

    Sir Jason, it seems to me that they were in the middle of it, when we subjugated one side and created a new common enemy for them - The U S of A.

    Unfortunately (or fortunately?) the proliferation of nuclear weapons means that countries can wipe themselves out much faster in the 21st century than in the 16th and 17th. The pragmatism in acquiring nukes by the Iranians (Shia) may be due to the reality that they are only "safe" to use on enemies that do not have nuclear retaliatory capability, which the Sunni do not (at least, without an alliance with the West). If in fact the Shia beat the Sunni to the punch and get the nuke in the next few years, the likelihood increases that we will witness the 21st century equivalent of the Thirty Years War.

    ...people are stupid.

    I would say, people are people.

    Sir Chuck of the people

  3. Sir Jason, it seems to me that they were in the middle of it, when we subjugated one side and created a new common enemy for them - The U S of A.
    I mean it was still going on in the grubby way it had gone on for 1500 years and no one had the power to rachet it up to the level where it shocked anyone enough to repulse Islamistan the way the Thirty Years War did Christiandom.
    So either they are less sqeemish or we are more sensible, at least in that regard.

    Sir Jason