Simon de Montfort, hero and anti-Semite

August 4 was a very bad day for Simon de Montfort. He died.

In some sense that was the end of his earthly troubles. But for what it’s worth, after he was killed by the forces of England’s future King Edward I in the Battle of Evesham in 1265 his body was dismembered and bits of it were carried off as trophies, his severed head apparently being sent by Roger Mortimer as a present to his wife. I do not think I would have wanted to be present at the Mortimer family Christmases and watch them open their gifts. Nor do I want to say what they did with other parts of him.

Now de Montfort is by no means the only person killed in a medieval battle and then dishonoured by being mutilated. But he’s an interesting case because he is a hero in the struggle for liberty. The bits of him they could find were interred at Evesham abbey, later demolished by Henry VIII’s thugs. And to his day a plaque there hails him, rightly, as a pioneer of representative government for having invited the commoners into his 1265 (pre-mutilation) Model Parliament, from which they were never again displaced.

He was also an anti-Semite.

I know, I know, pretty much everybody was in those days. As indeed it sometimes seems they are today. De Montfort is unusual and praiseworthy in many ways, and quite ordinary in this deplorable manner. Indeed, as King Edward I personally expelled the Jews from England. But do we excuse it because it was common?

It is an issue thoughtful people wrestle with constantly in pondering the past, while shallow ones haughtily proclaim themselves unimaginable superior to the grubby parade of humans who went before them. It’s remarkable to hear and read condescending remarks by 20th-century politicians and commentators about the Middle Ages as though Auschwitz and the Gulag had happened in the 14th century not in our own time. Moreover, as I’ve written before, we all think we’d have been vocal abolitionists if we’d lived in the early 19th century. But statistically we would not. We were not born with superior enlightenment because it was recently 2015. And we couldn’t take it backwards in time with us even if we had been.

So we cannot blithely relegate people to the rubbish heap of history because they shared the failings of their times. We may well do so ourselves. But for precisely that same reason we cannot entirely excuse them for sharing the failings of our times because we do not wish to do so ourselves. Montfort and Edward I would, I suspect, gape in horror at much that we do today including widespread casual abortion. As would many 18th or 19th century slaveowners. And just because there’s a beam in their eye doesn’t mean there isn’t one in ours as well.

We desperately need to learn from history because we have no other guide going forward. We want to identify mistakes, enormous and catastrophic as well as small and annoying, so that we don’t repeat them. And yet we must also absorb from history the lesson that people have a great deal of trouble avoiding the mistakes of their ancestors without plunging into new ones.

We cannot excuse Montfort’s anti-Semitism, which was part of his political appeal, any more than we can excuse resurgent anti-Semitism today. But we also cannot be smug about those past errors from which we ourselves are now free, lest we should condescendingly make a horrifying new set. The lesson here is that in addition to studying history carefully, we must be vigilant over our own hearts.

Montfort is a legitimate hero of the struggle for liberty. But he is also a reminder that we are all fallible. Which makes his memory doubly useful.