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  • Holy War, Martyrdom, and Terror: Christianity, Violence, and the West, ca. 70 C. E. to the Iraq War by Philippe Buc
  • Glenn W. Olsen
Holy War, Martyrdom, and Terror: Christianity, Violence, and the West, ca. 70 C. E. to the Iraq War. By Philippe Buc. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2015. Pp. viii, 445. $49.95. ISBN 978-0-8122-4685-8.)

After teaching for two decades at Stanford University, Philippe Buc has taken up a professorship of medieval history at the University of Vienna. He has always [End Page 892] been his own man, often dissenting from the commonplaces of others. In this, his most recent volume, he ranges from the Jewish-Roman war of antiquity to the Iraq war, showing to the American present the role that Christian theology has played in the history of violence. A central goal is explaining how religious ideas of sacrifice and purification have been used to make violence meaningful.

A brief preface describes how Buc came to write the book and his debt to Norman Housely, Jean Flori, and Denis Crouzet. This is followed by a long introduction that explains Buc’s object. Buc is quite opposed to some current notions of secularization. It is not that he disagrees that religion has lost its place at the center of culture in many ways, but that he wants to stress that patterns originating in religion continue to shape life. To the extent that Christianity has a linear concept of time, this is only one among several Christian notions, and Buc tries to appropriate these not just from Hans Blumenberg but also from Karl Löwith and Carl Schmitt. Although one can generally find the state of scholarship by following the lead of Buc’s footnotes, it would have been ideal if certain points had been made more sharply. Thus, although Buc refers to the scholarship that places the origins of the Crusades among other contemporary reform movements, detail of the discussion flowing from Jonathan Riley-Smith’s article “Crusading as an Act of Love”1 (which Buc knows) would have been welcome.

Chapter I is devoted to “The American Way of War Through the Premodern Looking-Glass” and seeks to show how American wars, aimed especially at “freedom,” are peculiarly Western and deeply indebted to Christian notions. Again, although the bibliography cited could lead one to a good understanding, the discussion of the Gregorian libertas ecclesiae seems inadequately contextualized within, say, Cardinal Humbert’s eleventh-century ideas of right order. Chapter 2, “Christian Exegesis and Violence,” builds on Buc’s earlier publications on the history of biblical commentary and exegesis. It is good to see his continued turning to the thought of Gerard Caspary. Chapter 3 explores the links, real or alleged, among “Madness, Martyrdom, and Terror”—that is, such cultural images as “the mad terrorist” (p. 112). Chapter 4 treats “Martyrdom in the West: Vengeance, Purge, Salvation, and History.” Martyrdom moves history forward.

The argument of chapter 5 is that “National Holy War” and “Sectarian Terror” are twins; that “the violence of the polity (be it inward or outward directed) and the violence of terrorist groups mirror one another” (p. 178). In spite of the density of Buc’s bibliography, at several points the reader may wonder why some specific item relevant to the analysis had not been used. One such example is Henry Ansgar Kelly, “The Pardoner’s Voice, Disjunctive Narrative, and Modes of Effemination”2 or Kelly’s publications on St. Joan of Arc. [End Page 893]

Chapter 6 treats “the paradoxical relationship between freedom and constraint” (p. 212). The final chapter considers the bridge in international ethics between premodern and modern. Again, the argument is that the distinction between modern and premodern violence cannot be sustained. A brief “Postface: No Future to That Past?” follows. Here, because holy war, martyrdom, and terror will continue to occur, Buc speculates on the forms they may take. There is a select bibliography and an index.

Glenn W. Olsen
University of Utah


1. Jonathan Riley-Smith, “Crusading as an Act of Love,” History, 65 (1980), 177–92.

2. Henry Ansgar Kelly, “The Pardoner’s Voice, Disjunctive Narrative, and Modes of...


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