Alexander Murray

Alexander Murray is finishing a book to be called The Poetry of Despair: The Birth of a Poetic Genre, the ‘Disperata’ in Early Renaissance Italy. It is a by-product of his continuing work on the third volume of Suicide in the Middle Ages. He is an emeritus fellow of University College, Oxford.

Into Your Enemy’s Stomach: Louis IX

Alexander Murray, 8 April 2010

Can a political leader be a saint? Private morality can’t be the sole criterion. Politicians have to make decisions in a cruel and perplexing world, and some consequences of even the best decisions will be morally repugnant. The question is inveterate. Our medieval forebears answered it by simply declaring some people to be ‘saints’. An early medieval king remembered as a...

Young men who join gangs are participating in an alternative system of social cohesion. Each gang upholds its collective will through a range of penalties which include death, torture and mutilation, and keeps poverty at bay by theft and the sale of contraband, or, in more mature organisations, by kidnap and racketeering. In time, leadership concentrates in the man whose mastery of the idiom...

The Sword is Our Pope: religion in Europe

Alexander Murray, 15 October 1998

To the modern eye the European Middle Ages were palpably Christian, with all those cathedrals and crusades. But in the minds of the Renaissance scholars who invented the term, the adjective ‘middle’ meant that the Middle Ages began with the fall of the Roman Empire c.400, and for a substantial fraction of that time ‘medieval Christendom’ was largely not Christian at all. Of the area ruled by the late medieval Popes, more than half was unconverted before AD 1000. Even the peoples most self-consciously Christian by that date, like the Franks and Anglo-Saxons, had not been Christian when they migrated from Germany, or for several generations afterwards. The Christianisation of rural Francia, for instance, probably ended around 750: that is, two and a half centuries after the migration – as long as the period that separates us from Madame de Pompadour.’‘

‘Positively medieval,’ we say, implying a scheme of historical periods which underlies most of what we think and do. The Middle Ages, to 1485, were barbarous and, luckily for them, also an ‘age of faith’; then came the Renaissance with its humane values and realism, a recognisable ancestor to the modern world. The job of testing the assumptions behind this distinction is never-ending, and we must be grateful to scholars who have done it well. Two names spring at once to mind: those of Jacob Burckhardt, whose Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, written in 1860, is still required reading on its subject; and Johan Huizinga, who wrote in Burckhardt’s shadow about the same centuries (though not the same area), and in 1919 achieved the same with The Autumn of the Middle Ages.‘

In 1846 Karl Marx published a version of a chapter about suicide which had recently appeared in a book by one Jacques Peuchet entitled Mémoires tirées des archives de la police....

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