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    PloughCast 51: Tom Holland on the Christian History of Pain

    Pain and Passion, Part 2

    By Tom Holland, Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    March 22, 2023

    About This Episode

    How did the crucifixion of Jesus change how humanity thinks about suffering? Peter Mommsen speaks with the well-known historian about the way that Christianity challenged and transformed classical ideas about suffering and the good life.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    They discuss the contrast between the story of Laocoön and of the crucifixion of Saint Peter, as portrayed in two contrasting artworks in the Vatican. Then they discuss the nature of crucifixion, how pain was seen by the Romans, and the utterly subversive way in which Christianity transformed the understanding of suffering in the West.

    They talk about why it took so long for it to become common to portray Jesus suffering on the cross in Christian art, and how late medieval understandings of the self and the body contributed to this, and explore the ways that contemporary political movements incorporate Christian ideas outside of the context of Christianity.

    Finally, they look at the lives of several exemplary Christians, whose lives of redemptive suffering in imitation of Christ make no sense except under the paradigm of the Christian transformation of the meaning of suffering.

    Recommended Reading


    Section I: Laocoön and Saint Peter

    Peter Mommsen: Welcome back to the PloughCast! This is the second episode in our new series, covering our Pain and Passion issue. I’m Peter Mommsen, editor-in-chief at Plough.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough. This episode is very special – it’s the extended play version of Peter’s interview with Tom Holland. We had to cut down the interview for the print version, but here, you’ll get the whole of it, except for the part where Tom’s mom called and he had to answer the phone and say he was on a Zoom and could he call her back, which even though it was really sweet, I figured I should cut.

    Peter Mommsen: Tom Holland lives in London and is an award-winning historian, biographer, and broadcaster. He is the author of many books, most recently Dominion. He cohosts The Rest Is History podcast and is a regular contributor to the Guardian, the Times of London, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times.

    Well, welcome, Tom. Today, we’re very eager to talk to you, Tom, about the history of how people look at pain and suffering, such uplifting topics, but really central to the human experience. And particularly, I’m interested in talking with you about how people have seen and understood the meaning of suffering over time and how that changed particularly as a result of the influence of Christianity. That’s obviously one of the big themes in your 2019 book, Dominion. And it’s also something that you touch on on many episodes of your wonderful podcast, The Rest Is History.

    So to begin with, I thought it would be interesting to contrast two artworks, one from before Christianity and one from afterwards, and see if talking about those might cast a little light on what happened when the Christian idea of suffering became part of the cultural landscape. So they’re both artworks that are currently in Rome and you can see them there. One is the sculpture “Laocoön and His Sons.” The story is told in the Aeneid of Laocoön and his sons who were swallowed up by serpents, and it’d be great, Tom, if you’d tell us the story.

    And the other is Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of Saint Peter. They’re both very compelling artworks, even without knowing the stories behind them, they’re the types of artworks that grasp at the tourist’s collar and make them stand still. You see these muscular, dramatic figures facing the ultimate moment of suffering and imminent death, and one’s from before Christianity, and the other is obviously a Christian artwork. So what happened between the two of these and what’s going on? What does it mean?

    Tom Holland: So the statue of Laocoön, as you said, it tells a story that appears in the Aeneid written by the great Roman poet Virgil a few decades before the birth of Christ. And the setting is the Trojan War, and lots of the episodes from the Trojan War that people are familiar with, most notably the sack of Troy and the Trojan horse and all that stuff actually comes from Virgil, not from Homer, and Laocoön is a part of that story. So the Trojans are gazing at this strange horse that has been seemingly left by the Greeks before the walls of their city. The Greek seemed to have sailed away and they’re thinking, Brilliant, let’s take it inside the walls of Troy, what could possibly go wrong? And Laocoön is a priest. He comes and says, “You’re mad, this is lunacy, why are you doing it?” And he reaches for a spear and he hurls it at the side of the horse. And there’s this kind of clanging sound, suggestive, perhaps, that there are men in armor hiding inside it.

    And at that moment, snakes appear from the sea, coiling, and they come up to Laocoön who is offering a sacrifice, and with his sons, and they crush Laocoön in their coils. And this seems to the Trojans an absolute marker that Laocoön by striking the horse has committed an offense against the gods and that this is why the snakes have been sent. But in fact, this isn’t the reason the snakes have been sent, this is because Laocoön has done something quite else. And so the snakes are crushing him for a quite different offense. And what you get there is the sense that mortals are the play things of the gods. And this is an idea that goes right the way back to Homer and to the Greek understanding of the gods that human beings are essentially, some may be the favorites of the gods, but there is a controlling destiny that they cannot buck.

    And that often the gods take pleasure in destroying humans. And that’s the sense that Shakespeare actually many, many centuries later articulates in King Lear, that “like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods / they kill us for their sport.” And you have that sense in the passage given by Virgil. However, I think it’s worth pointing out that Virgil, in his poem, he does have a sense that the fate that is ordained by the gods will ultimately work out for the good, not just of the Roman people, but for the entire world. So the Roman Empire that goes on to be forged by Aeneas, the hero of the Aeneid who has escaped from burning Troy. In the long run, it’s the god-given mission of the Roman people to overthrow the proud, to spare the weak and to bring order to the entire limits of the earth.

    And that perhaps is why, for Christians, Virgil comes to be seen as an almost Christian poet. So there’s another poem in which he seems to prophesy the birth of Christ. He foretells that a child will be born imminently and will bring peace to the entire world. And so that’s why Virgil ends up becoming Dante’s guide in The Divine Comedy. So Virgil is a kind of interestingly ambivalent poet and he was seen by Christians in the Middle Ages as a kind of guardian standing on the threshold of the new Christian era. So that statue, the statue of Laocoön, it’s interestingly ambivalent.

    The other artwork you mentioned, the Caravaggio showing the crucifixion of Peter. Peter is crucified upside down because he doesn’t want to seem that he is aping the example of his Lord and Master, Christ, who, like Christ, perished on the cross. What is, I think, absolutely expressive of a very radical change from the classical period is that the squalor, the shame, the humiliation that is implicit in a crucifixion has been transmuted by centuries of Christian history, so that it is Peter who is the hero of this painting. He is not being mocked by the gods, he is not a creature whose hopes have been dashed by fate, because of course we know that the heirs of Peter will succeed the Caesars as the effective masters of Rome and as the Popes will stand at the head of the Christian Church. And Caravaggio painting that in Rome is surrounded by the glory and the splendor of Papal Rome.

    And so there’s an inherent tension there between the suffering that was on display in the painting and the grandeur of the context in which Caravaggio is painting it. So in both cases, you have a sense of a context that is provided by what the viewer knows is going to follow. So we know what is going to follow the death of Laocoön, the destruction of Troy, but also the founding of Rome. And likewise with Peter, we know what is going to follow. Peter will indeed emerge as the Rock on which Christ’s church is built, and all the glories and the splendors of Papal Rome will follow. So in some ways they’re very different, but in other ways I think there are kind of analogies there, there are parallels.

    Section II: On Crucifixion and Roman Pain

    Peter Mommsen: Let’s get back to the crucifixion of Peter in a moment and stick with the Roman and Greek ideas of suffering a little bit first. Of course, pain is a huge theme in those aspects of ancient culture that have survived for us, if you think of the rather gruesome descriptions of bodily pain in the Iliad for instance. There’s no doubt that this was part of life, something that people thought about. But one thing you bring out in your book, Tom, and it’s something that probably many people have thought about over the years, is that pain is thought about from the point of view of the lucky, the happy, those on top. The pain, the suffering of those who are enslaved or are in the bottom half of society don’t really count. Is that kind of fair?

    Tom Holland: Well, I think pain has different moral resonances for the Greeks and the Romans. So the ability to withstand excruciating pain becomes a measure of a man. Achilles doesn’t burst into tears when he gets hurt. That’s the whole point. And likewise for the Romans, the ability to withstand pain, to withstand excruciating ordeals of agony and blood, again, are the measure, not just of an individual, but of the entire citizenship of Rome. So the pages of Livy where he’s writing about the early history of Rome are full of examples of this. So the classic one is Mucius Scaevola who infiltrates the enemy camp, is captured, is told to reveal what he knows. And as a marker of his contempt for that, he thrusts his hand into the fire until it’s consumed, and he doesn’t once let out a hint of pain or agony.

    And this is exactly the kind of story that the Romans adored. The ability to withstand pain is what it’s all about. Conversely, the pain that is suffered by those who are at the bottom of the pile, this also serves as an index of greatness of moral strength because their pain is contemptible. And so the pain that is suffered, say, by a slave who is nailed to a cross is humiliating, is pathetic, is contemptible. No one admires the pain that is suffered by a slave on a cross because there is elevated pain and there is servile pain, and the servile pain is to be mocked and despised, the pain that is endured by a hero becomes the measure of a hero.

    Peter Mommsen: Let’s talk a little bit more about crucifixion in the ancient world because this is obviously central to what we’re going to be talking about in this interview later. Why is it impossible to imagine from the Roman point of view, why is it impossible to imagine suffering on the cross to be a triumphal kind of pain?

    Tom Holland: Because the whole point of it is to humiliate and degrade. It is the punishment that is seen by the Romans as paradigmatically suited to a rebellious slave. And the reason for that is not only that it is excruciatingly painful, not only that it is protracted, so you could survive on the cross for two, three, four days, but also that it is public. You are up there like a piece of meat, either nailed or roped or suspended or impaled on a piece of wood, on a tree, and your sufferings are objects of public ridicule. There’s nothing you can do to brush away the birds who might peck out your eyes or attack your genitals. There’s nothing you can do to stop people from watching your gasps and your heaving breath as you struggle to lift yourself up so that you can gasp for air. And it’s this that makes you, as a slave who’s been put on a cross, serve as a billboard of Roman power.

    So the famous example of that is, which will be familiar to everyone who’s seeing Kirk Douglas as Spartacus, is when the Roman general Crassus, having defeated Spartacus’ slave rebellion, takes the captive, puts up crosses along the entire line of the Appian Way, the great road that leads south from Rome to the heel of Italy, and puts slaves along the entire length. And these are billboards advertising both Roman power and Crassus’ achievement in suppressing the slave rebellion.

    And likewise out in the provinces where there’s this kind of assumption that if a defeated enemy have submitted to Roman rule, then essentially they have taken on the character of slaves and therefore anyone who rebels against Roman rule is effectively a slave. This is also the penalty that is visited on rebels against Roman rule out in the provinces, and that is the fate that is suffered by Jesus. He’s crucified as a rebel against Roman power, as the titulus, the board on his head that is affixed on the orders of Pilate, says: that he is punished because he is the king of the Jews and there can be no king of the Jews in a Roman province.

    Peter Mommsen: It’s interesting as you point out that the Romans themselves were quite hesitant to speak too much about crucifixion.

    Tom Holland: Yeah, they found it sordid, unpleasant. And so even as they used crucified slaves as a way to rub the noses of slaves, provincials, whatever, in the penalties of what rebellion would be. So at the same time, they felt that it was kind of beneath them to represent it in art, to even to kind of write about it, which is why actually the only records that we have, the detailed accounts of the process that led to crucifixion are the four that we get in the gospels.

    I mean, we do have accounts. So there’s an account by Josephus, the Judean writer who describes the terrible Judean revolt against Rome, the destruction of Jerusalem. And he describes how Titus, the Roman general, before the walls of Jerusalem, to try and intimidate the rebels, had the soldiers crucify vast numbers of captives, and they do it in a whole range of different ways, but he doesn’t describe what it is like to be sentenced to that, what the process is, how long you might spend on the cross, what happens to the body once the person is dead. It’s only in the gospels that we get that, and they of course are not writing as Romans.

    Peter Mommsen: And Josephus even tried to rescue some of his friends, didn’t he?

    Tom Holland: Yeah. So he manages, he secures permission from Titus for one of his friends to be brought down, but it’s very telling, I think, that the friend dies anyway. I mean, that gives you some sense of the horrors that are suffered on the cross.

    Peter Mommsen: So this gives us some sense of why the first Christians were also hesitant in speaking about the cross, it seems. They spoke about the scandal of the cross. They were aware that it wasn’t intuitive that someone who had died this way –

    Tom Holland: Yeah, I mean the first person who describes it as a scandal is of course the author of the earliest Christian text that we have, namely Saint Paul. And he says absolutely that it’s a stumbling block to the Judeans, to the Jews, but to everyone else, to the Gentiles, to the Greeks, to the Romans, it’s a scandal. And he understands that.

    And I think there’s a sense in which his letters are … you are kind of hearing him thinking aloud as he wrestles with the implications of the fact that Christ suffered this. And everything that he’s writing is an attempt to say – how this could be? It’s upended his expectations of God’s plan so radically that he can never arrive at, I think, a stable sense of exactly what it means. And I think that although Paul absolutely recognizes that the fact that Jesus was crucified lies at the heart of everything that Jesus’ mission is and therefore how he relates to God’s plan, what is happening, the very character of the world, the very character of God, the very nature of God’s relationship to humanity – Everything has been upended by this.

    So the cross is absolutely at the heart of everything that Paul’s writing about. But at the same time, there is kind of an embarrassment about it because it is the most shocking thing imaginable, which is kind of the point. And I think that you see that throughout all the early Christian writings, going into the second century. You have Christian writers who seem embarrassed and reluctant to talk about it into the third century as well. This is an attack point for critics of Christianity to talk about Jesus as someone who suffered death, both pagan and Jewish. They return again and again to this. And even once Constantine has converted and the Roman Empire starts its process of becoming largely Christian, there is a reluctance to portray Jesus on the cross.

    So one of the earliest portrayals of it by a Christian is an ivory in the British museum that was done in the early fifth century, so that’s a century after Constantine’s conversion. And it shows him basically as an athlete. He’s nailed to the cross, but he’s looking unbelievably buff. He’s kind of honed and lean and muscular and he’s got the loin cloth of an Olympic athlete on. And his expression is absolutely kind of calm and dignified. And that’s a tradition that, certainly in the Orthodox world, is one that persists throughout the centuries, right the way up into the present. There’s a reluctance to dwell on the sufferings, the physical agonies. And this is the tradition that will culminate in the painting of Caravaggio that we began with, that’s one that’s much more specific to Latin Christendom for, I think, for very interesting reasons.

    Peter Mommsen: So let’s talk about the Caravaggio, the Crucifixion of Peter, because of course, this is one portrayal of many Christian portrayals of martyrdom where the instruments of death become a sign of triumph, right?

    Tom Holland: Right.

    Peter Mommsen: You only have to think of the Sistine Chapel and the portrayal of the saints in heaven at the last judgment, Bartholomew with his flayed skin, Lawrence with his gridiron, et cetera. What’s going on there?

    Tom Holland: Well, all these sufferings, the sufferings of the martyrs, they have value because it’s an imitatio Christi, because it’s an imitation of Christ. As Paul says, without the example of Christ, without the fact that he rose from the dead, it would all be madness, it would all be folly, it would have no significance. Suffering would simply be suffering. But because Christ has provided this model of suffering and triumph over suffering, therefore, those who follow him can share in it. And so at the back of the portrayal of the saints, including the martyrdom of Saint Peter, is always the image of Christ on the cross. So I think that to understand why Caravaggio is painting Saint Peter in the way that he is, as someone who is – it’s a very vivid, very realist portrayal; this is an old man, he’s clearly suffering. This is not a portrayal of him in the way that Christ was portrayed in that fifth century ivory. He’s not looking like a figure of dignity. He is properly suffering. And that stands in the line of the portrayal of Christ, the suffering. And that’s something that emerges in Latin Christendom around the year of the millennium. And it’s around the year 1000 that you start to get portrayals of Christ in his full suffering on the cross. So just before the year 1000, there is a crucifix is sculpted showing him dead on the cross. And over the centuries that follow throughout the course of the High Middle Ages, the emphasis on Christ’s sufferings become more and more intense. And the sense of identification that Christians feel with those sufferings, again, becomes more and more intense.

    And the cult of the martyrs is, in that sense, an expression of the identification that Christians in the Middle Ages are feeling with the sufferings of Christ himself. And that suffering is seen as enabling you to identify yourself with Christ in a way that perhaps otherwise might not be there. So I mean, very, very early on, even way back in the second century, there’s a record of martyrs who were thrown into the arena in Lyon. And the description, there are several people of noble birth there, including a woman of noble birth, but we’re not told her name. Instead, we’re told the name of one of her slaves, a female slave called Blandina. And Blandina is a Christian like her mistress, suffers terribly in the arena.

    And at the climax of her sufferings, the author describing this tells us that Blandina resembles Christ, that she dies resembling Christ on the cross. And that’s a kind of, right at the beginning of Christian history, that is an absolutely paradigmatic insight into the way that the Christian understanding of the crucifixion and its implications for those who follow Christ, how subversive it is, how totally it upends the social and gender norms that had prevailed in the Roman Empire. Because for Blandina, a female slave to be compared to Christ, when her mistress is not compared to Christ, the men in the arena are not compared to Christ, it’s this female slave!

    And as a martyr, the early Christians believed she would be escorted, she wouldn’t have to wait for the Day of Judgment to enter the palace of heaven. As a martyr, Blandina would be escorted straight to the inner sanctum of the palace of God, which in the Roman eyes, this is a place that only the most elite can penetrate. If you think of Caesar’s palace on the Palatine, nobody, unless you’re very, very elite, can get to the inner sanctum to meet Caesar himself. So likewise, that is how they envisage the palace of God. And yet Blandina, this female slave, will go straight there and be seated by God’s side ahead of everybody else.

    And that’s the radical potential that Christians see in what suffering can open up for those who are prepared to consecrate their suffering to faith in Christ. And the aftershocks of that, the reverberations of that, even as the understanding of what happens to the dead evolves over the course of Christian history, that endures and remains and explains what is strange, what is, I guess, weird about Caravaggio’s painting. This is the index of a really radical reconfiguring of the meaning of suffering and the implications that it has for humanity and humanity’s relationship to both the afterlife and to the divine.

    Peter Mommsen: Again, some housekeeping before we continue with the rest of our discussion. Heads up - we have a new format! As opposed to each episode containing two segments, we’re switching to just one segment per episode. But you’re not getting any less content – rather than having six weeks on and six weeks off, we’re just going to be giving you an episode every single week. There’ll also continue to be PloughReads, audio versions of our articles, however, which you’ll be able to access through a different channel.

    And don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes! I’ll be back with the rest of my conversation with Tom Holland after the break.

    Section III: How Christianity Formed Our Souls

    Peter Mommsen: And to at least, in its better moments, Christianity’s also reconfigured how people think about people who are lower down the scale.

    Tom Holland: Of course, because the last shall be first.

    Peter Mommsen: You’ve remarked, I believe you spent years studying, for instance, ancient Sparta, Julius Caesar. There’s one remark I read from you where you said at one point, you realized that you couldn’t fully sympathize with these figures’ approach to other human beings.

    Tom Holland: Well, there’s a kind of innocent quality to the callousness, say, of the Spartans or the Romans by our lights. I cited Caesar in Gaul who has said to have slaughtered a million Gauls and enslaved another million. And for Caesar, not only is he kind of unperturbed by that, he positively glories in it. And likewise, I wrote about Leonidas, the king who dies at Thermopylae. So the hero of the film 300, it’s the absolute archetype of doomed heroism. But he was king in a city that depended for its functioning on being served by a vast population of slaves, of helots, as they called them. And again, he had no qualms about this. He thought it was the order of the world. Now, the way that the Spartans ran their state, they had annexed this neighboring city, turned the population into these helots, into these slaves, kind of bred them to be as placid and servile as possible, would kill any of them who seemed too uppity. This was the inspiration for Hitler’s plans for Poland and the lands of the Slavs in the East.

    And of course, the Third Reich to us is the absolute embodiment of evil, perhaps in a way that Sparta isn’t. And I think the reason for that is that the Third Reich stands in the context of a Christian civilization for whom the absolute contempt for the suffering of others is seen as unforgivable. It’s seen as an offense against the shared humanity that we all have. Whereas for the Spartans, they didn’t have that context. And so I think that that may be why we judge the Spartans less harshly than we judge the Nazis.

    Peter Mommsen: Of course, not everyone’s been a fan of this radical change you’ve described. Friedrich Nietzsche famously referred to Christian approach to morality in general, but specifically to the question of the suffering of the non-powerful, as you mentioned, as slave morality, the assumption that we should take the side of history’s underdogs struck him as …

    Tom Holland: As contemptible.

    Peter Mommsen: Contemptible.

    Tom Holland: As weak.

    Peter Mommsen: Mm-hmm.

    Tom Holland: Yeah. So he refers to “the blond beast” being gelded and neutered by Christianity. He gets taken from the forest and made into a monk or whatever. And that of course was that idea, the idea that Christianity was a kind of sapping of the pre-Christian world, of a neutering of the pagan virtues of heroism and strength and power, and indeed, cruelty was hugely influential on the Nazis. And fascism in a way was, as its name suggests – it derives from the birch rods and the axes borne by the bodyguards of Roman magistrates – it was a conscious attempt to roll back the centuries of Christian history and return to that kind of primal ferocity and an emphasis on glory and power that the fascists saw the Greeks and the Romans embodying, while simultaneously embodying everything that was modern and new and gleaming. So planes, tanks, jets, whatever. And it’s that fusion of the pre-Christian and the post-Christian that was the absolute essence of fascism. And I’m sure, of course, was fundamental to the ability of those who signed up to fascist ideals to commit the atrocities that they did.

    However, I mean, it’s important to acknowledge that Christians, over the course of the past 2000 years themselves have been more than capable of inflicting appalling atrocities. So even though Christians may worship a God who suffered horribly on an instrument of torture, that has not prevented them, of course, from inflicting atrocities and tortures and sufferings on people as well. And that, of course, is the great paradox of Christian history.

    Peter Mommsen: Whether or not it’s justifiable as history, there’s an interesting essay by the anarchist priest, Ivan Illich, where he makes a connection between the late medieval interest in the sufferings of Christ and the refinements of torture by the Inquisition at the same time.

    Tom Holland: Well, so I’ve actually just been recording a series of podcasts on the so-called Cathars, who were not actually called Cathars, but the people who were defined as heretics by the Roman church in the beginning of the thirteenth century. And a crusade was proclaimed against them, and for twenty years, the lands of Southern France were terrible. Sufferings were inflicted on them. I mean, holocausts – they were described as holocausts by those who took part in them, and exultantly so. The burning of entire cities, the burning of 300, 400 people at a time, this was seen as something to be celebrated. And in the wake of that, Inquisitors were introduced, the friars, Dominicans in particular, but also in due course the Franciscans, to wean people off their heresy.

    And this to us seems something terrible because the idea that you shouldn’t have freedom of conscience strikes modern humans as something monstrous and appalling. But again, I think the story is slightly more complicated than perhaps either Protestant or Enlightenment or New Atheist perspectives on it sometimes were tempted to think, because actually, the inquisitors are taking inordinate efforts to persuade the people that they are investigating – so that’s what an inquisition is, it’s an investigation – to see the error of their ways. The inquisitors do not want to condemn the people that they are investigating to the flames. A heretic condemned to the flames, that is a mark of failure.

    And again, I think that there is a kind of an interesting contrast there to, say, the atrocities that were committed in very much the same region several centuries later in the wake of the French Revolution, when the revolutionary armies moved into the outer reaches of France, inflicted monstrous atrocities. The notorious statement that is associated with the war against the Albigensians, the crusade against the Albigensians came from the papal legate, who after the incineration of an entire town, is said to have been asked by one of the crusaders, “How do we recognize the heretics, and how do we distinguish them from those who are good Catholics?” And the papal legate is said to have proclaimed, “Kill them all. God will recognize his own.” But actually, although he may well have said that, it’s attributed to him ten years after the actual event.

    Actually, the inquisitors are not quite so brutal. They are concerned. In contrast, you get a very similar statement by the commander of the revolutionary armies who are moving against the counter-revolutionaries in the wake of the French Revolution, who’s asked a very similar question. And he says, “Yeah, kill them all. It’s all for the good of the Revolution.” And because the French Revolution is consciously anti-clerical, is consciously setting itself against what it sees as the feudal reactions of Christianity, therefore, that sense that every human being is created in the image of God and therefore has to be treated potentially as an image of Christ has gone, as of course, in due course, it will be gone as well when the communists both in Russia and say in China, or wherever, similarly will launch their campaigns of persecution.

    So there is, I think, a kind of an intriguing tension within Christianity between the desire to burn out, to root out, to extirpate those elements within the Christian people that seem to threaten it, which is absolutely how inquisitors and papal councils in the Middle Ages did come to frame heresy, but simultaneously a kind of anxiety about that and nervousness about that.

    And that’s why I think that even today, the Inquisition is, oh, and indeed Crusades, are always held up as examples of the savagery and the brutality of which religion is capable, and Christianity specifically. But of course, the standards by which we condemn them are themselves Christian.

    The Revolutionary Wars in the wake of the French Revolution, and still more, the mass killings of the Communists in the twentieth century were wholly without such inhibitions. They wholly lacked the framing that Christianity had provided. Even as they are driven by deeply Christian kind of motives, the desire to see that the last will be first, and the first will be last, to bring it to bring a secular equivalent of the New Jerusalem to birth on Earth. So all the tension between the desire to bring about what is ... to uplift the poor, the suffering, the weak, and to downcast the strong, which is such a kind of important part of revolutionary motives since the French Revolution, that’s clearly driven from a kind of Christian impetus. But at the same time, the fact that the revolutionaries themselves discard doctrinal Christianity enables them to force it through with a degree of brutality that even the Inquisition at its very worst was reluctant to invoke.

    Peter Mommsen: As someone growing up in an Anabaptist community, one of the things you’re kind of raised with is the story of the early Anabaptist martyrs from the 1500s. And of course, the persecution of the Anabaptists at that time by Catholic and Protestant authorities was quite brutal. But what always struck me was two things, number one, as you were just saying, the fact that right up until the moment of execution, those being executed were being urged to recant, and in most cases, would’ve gotten off pretty close to free had they done so. The other is the fact that there were some cases of women who were pregnant, condemned to execution. In those cases, the executioners would wait til the baby was born. There’s a kind of solicitude in the midst of the ferocity that always kind of struck me.

    Tom Holland: Yeah, but I think it’s an inherent tension within Christianity. It’s kind of the idea that you have to be cruel to be kind, is kind of there from the beginning. Paul says that there are no Jew or Greek in Christ, but the Jews notoriously don’t want to have their distinctiveness dissolved into a kind of universal brotherhood. And so right from the beginning, Christians are uncertain how they should respond to that repudiation, and the Jews for 2000 tragic years have been the objects of incredible displays of Christian cruelty, so likewise have pagans, have Muslims, and over the course of the High Middle Ages, heretics as well.

    And what you do with people who reject the Christian message is an excruciating dilemma that has worried and perturbed Christians over the course of history, and to which there have been many different answers. And some have argued the cause of a complete tolerance, others have said no, if we allow Christianity itself to be corrupted and destroyed, then how does that serve God’s message? And so in turn, perhaps that justifies persecution, but it’s been an enduring problem. And I think that it’s an enduring problem for the liberal society as well that has emerged from Christendom. What do you do with the liberal people? What do you do in a democracy with people who reject democracy? It’s an enduring, enduring problem.

    Section IV: How to Suffer: The Imitation of Christ

    Peter Mommsen: Let’s return to looking at how these Christian ideas of suffering have influenced people through history. And I thought it’d be fun, as we conclude this interview, to look at a few specific figures through this lens. I don’t know if you have any favorites you want to go for, Tom, otherwise I could just throw a few names at you.

    Tom Holland: Well, I mentioned Blandina, the slave girl who died in the arena in Lyon. And she always strikes me as such a fascinating figure right at the start of the Christian story, and the nobility that Christians saw her suffering as bringing that it redeems her from her slavery and elevates her to the highest possible rank. And I think that that is an idea that has been so fundamental to Christian history, and it’s amazing to see it there, right at the beginning.

    Peter Mommsen: And you have others who take that idea, who don’t suffer martyrdom, but apply that same kind of lesson in other ways. One person who has always struck me as especially impressive from the Middle Ages is Elizabeth of Hungary …

    Tom Holland: Right. Yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: … who – I lived in the area where she lived – near the Wartburg, for about seven years. And so she always really impressed me. There’s a kind of gruesome relic of her, I believe, in the church there, but it’s a type of story that really doesn’t make a lot of sense …

    Tom Holland: No, not at all.

    Peter Mommsen: … without that Christian frame.

    Tom Holland: Yeah. So she is of royal birth. We are talking early thirteenth century, so pretty much the same time as the Albigensian Crusade. And what’s interesting is that she’s motivated by the desire for a kind of identification with Christ that in some ways is motivating the heretics who are destroyed by the Albigensians, and is also, at around the same time, motivating Saint Francis. And what’s so interesting about this period of history is that the yearning to identify with and emulate the sufferings of Christ, on occasion is branded by the church as heresy, and on other occasions is saluted by them as the behavior of saints.

    So Francis of Assisi becomes a saint and so does Elizabeth of Hungary. And she does so as a person of high birth, royal birth, who nevertheless is anxious, I think. She bears in mind that the first shall be last. And so she kind of casts herself down. She humiliates herself, she humbles herself. She has a very brutal instructor who flogs her and who tells her to go and work in a hospital, basically as a kind of the lowest kind of orderly. I mean, not even as a nurse, as a working in the kitchen, hugging lepers with their sores to her breast, mopping their brow. And you’re right, that that kind of behavior would’ve made no sense at all to anyone before the Christian period at all.

    And in case people listening or reading this today think, well, that sounds pathological, she sounds absolutely insane. She is very clearly, I think, a precursor of all kinds of movements that are current today. So one of the things that marks Elizabeth out is that she refuses to eat food that comes from her husband’s peasantry, that have kind of been extorted from them. She will only eat food that has been ethically sourced, if you want to put it like that. And so today, if you are vegetarian or you are worried about where the things that you’re buying in shops come from, you are the heir of Elizabeth.

    Peter Mommsen: She tried to actually extract herself from the exploitation of feudalism as much as possible.

    Tom Holland: Yes. Basically. Yeah. I suppose, rather in the way today that people reject capitalism, that they see it as so inherently exploitative that to participate in it is to be complicit. So similarly, Elizabeth saw feudalism in much the same way. I mean, that’s what she was trying to escape, and she was escaping towards the suffering Christ. She felt that she was beckoned by the suffering Christ. And you can see why, for the medieval authorities, this kind of approach would be troubling, would seem dangerous, and why though Elizabeth and Francis of Assisi become saints, others die for it, others perish for it. That kind of embrace of suffering, rejection of the privileges and the pleasures of the earthly world persistently has been a cause of anxiety and trouble to earthly authorities, as it is to this day.

    Peter Mommsen: Looking back at it, Francis of Assisi or Elizabeth of Hungary, who are both canonized, you can think of, was a safe, pious path. But as you say, there were others who were viewed as though threatening, that they were actually persecuted. So in all ways, there was no guarantees for somebody like Elizabeth that she would be honored after her death as-

    Tom Holland: Well, I think her royal status actually helped her. So she was privileged in her embrace of a lack of privilege, if you like, rather in the way that if you’re a graduate, the son of high-earning, high achieving parents, and you, I don’t know, do some environmental protest, you are likely to get off than if you’re from the streets.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, while we’re talking about royalty, let’s look at one final figure, also a woman, who died last year, Queen Elizabeth II, who of course did not give away all her wealth or serve in a hospital, but this struck me. There’s something about her life that is only explicable from a Christian lens, an embrace of many things that were actually quite unpleasant.

    Tom Holland: Yeah, I mean, it might sound ridiculous to say that the queen, who was one of the richest people in the world-

    Peter Mommsen: We’re deliberately being a bit ridiculous here.

    Tom Holland: Yeah, that her life was one of suffering. I mean, I think if boredom is suffering, and that was quite an existential theme, wasn’t it? In the twentieth century, the idea that the worst suffering is boredom. You could make the case that the queen actually suffered quite a lot because she led quite a boring life. I mean, she felt herself wedded to it, and she absolutely did so as a Christian. For her, her coronation oaths were a kind of sacrament. I mean, not a kind of, they were a sacrament. She’d been anointed by God and she had been wedded to her role.

    And she felt that very, very powerfully, very strongly. Every Christmas she would broadcast a message in Britain. And it was noticeable that over the course of her life, the older she got, the more overtly Christian that message became. And in many ways, I think she was one of the most impressive spokespeople for Christianity in contemporary Britain. And there was never any question that she would ever abdicate, that she would kind of wind down, that she would hand over to a younger man, because she felt that she’d taken the coronation oath and she had to hold to it. Now, I can imagine all kinds of people in America snorting at the idea that monarchy is a kind of suffering. But I think, perhaps to a degree, it is actually.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, at least it struck me that there’s an analogy to a vow of religious life, which comes ... Perhaps suffering’s a big word, but certainly self-abnegation.

    Tom Holland: Yeah. And I think when she died, the rituals and the ceremony that, for a fortnight in Britain, accompanied her, the obsequies, I think lots of people found themselves surprised by how moved they were. Britain is a very, very secular society, kind of in some ways an aggressively secular society. But those two weeks between her death and her funeral, I think enabled people in Britain and perhaps beyond Britain as well, to have a sense of the strangeness that the queen herself was wedded to. And of course, it was a Christian strangeness. And to find that at the very heart of the state, I think people, they were surprised by it. And I think, as I say, quite a lot of people were moved by it as well.

    Susannah Roberts: Thanks for listening, be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met, and share with your friends! For a lot more content like this, check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe: $36/year will get you the print magazine, or for $99/year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect of the broader Plough community, and we depend on them as a kind of extra advisory council. Go to to learn more.

    Peter Mommsen: On our next episode, we’ll be speaking with Plough’s own Joy Clarkson on the Oberammergau Passion Play.

    Contributed By TomHolland Tom Holland

    Tom Holland lives in London and is an award-winning historian, biographer, and broadcaster.

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    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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