The Crusades (1095-1291)
Like most other key historical events covered this semester, we will only glance at the Crusades and do them little justice. Again, our attention will focus on how this historical movement worked to shape literature, but we are also interested in how these events, and the literature they shaped, in turn shaped our own "Western Civilization" view of history and our current relationship to, in this case, "The Other", the "Infidel": Muslims and the Turkish, Arabic and Islamic world.
Also, like most other history covered this semester, the Crusades are a hotly debated and politically and theologically-laden topic, and we may wade into that debate a bit.
When, What And Why
The Crusades began on November 25, 1095, with the Papal edict of Pope Urban II calling for a "holy war" against the Turks (the dominant Muslim empire), which he referred to as "an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God," which he aimed to "exterminate this vile race from our lands." By "our lands" the Italian Urban was referring to the Byzantine Empire (essentially modern Turkey, Syria etc.) and most specifically to the Biblical Holy Lands and, most specifically to Jerusalem, which had been passed from the Roman Empire to the Roman Christian Empire and then fallen to Arab-Muslim control in 638.
Religion aside, the war was fought between Europeans vs. Turks and Arabs, as the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I, had requested that Urban II help him return the region to Roman-Byzantine control.
In early 1096 ten armies composed of roughly 160,000 soldiers, accompanied by thousands of other pilgrims, retinue and families, ventured toward Jerusalem. Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders in 1099 and would remain in Christian/European control until 1187, when it fell again to Muslim power. It was recaptured by Crusaders in 1228, then by Muslims in 1243, a pattern of siege and exchange that would last until 1517, when it was finally captured by Ottaman Turks, who remained in control of the region until the 20th century.
This movement would become known as The First Crusade. There would be Nine Crusades in all as Europeans fought to gain and maintain ground throughout the Middle East, ending in 1291.
It's also important to realize that at this time the "Moors" or "Muslim Arabs" (and Berbers, from North Africa) also had conquered and controlled much what is now Spain and Portugal (beginning in 711; they ruled the Iberian peninsula for nearly 800 years), Southern France and Italy and, until taken by the Normans at roughly this same time, Sicily. The Crusades, then, can be seen as an extension of the long-running wars between Christians and Muslims already taking place in Western (and later Eastern) Europe.
Urban II offered full indulgence to any Christian participating in the Crusade. This meant quite simply that any and all sins would be forgiven and the Crusader would enter heaven. As you can imagine, this only encouraged Crusaders to engage in the worst types of sin -- rape, robbery, murder -- during the Crusades. By the time of the Crusades, indulgences were already granted by the Church to Christians for various reasons -- a pilgrimage to Jerusalem could already buy one partial or full remission of sins, and those who died during the pilgrimage were believed to go directly to heaven, regardless of previous sins.
Consider how these Indulgences are represented symbolically in the Medieval Romances we read (Sir Gawain And The Green Knight), especially as they relate to the quest motif, as the knight journeys toward some mystical goal that will, ultimately, lead him toward spiritual wisdom.
Catholic indulgences will, of course, play a major role in the Protestant Reformation, beginning in 1517.
The Turkish, Arab and Islamic Perspective
Mohammed recited the Koran or Qur’an from 610-632 and sparked both a religious and political movement whose geopolitical and religious impact easily matches that of Christianity and the Bible. Obviously, each of us still feels that impact today, as the battle lines in the so called "war on terror" are actually drawn exactly along these same lines. Unfortunately, that story occurs outside of the purview of this course. We should, however, consider how, from an Arab and Islamic perspective, our recent and current American and European influence in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia etc. represents a continuation of the European Crusade mentality, if not, in fact, an actual continuation of the Crusades themselves: European Christians invading Arab and Persian countries to establish political, military and religious dominance and control.
Relevant to other literature in this class, these wars connect as much to a Greco-Roman-European sense of domination as to the emerging European Christian identity, for the Byzantine Empire was, actually, the last vestige of the Roman Empire and Alexander's Greek Empire that preceded the Romans: the Byzantines wrote and spoke Greek, and the Greek Orthodox Church traces its origin here; Constantinople had of course been founded by the Roman Constantine (274-337), now best remembered as the first Roman Emperor to convert from Paganism to Christianity. Notably, he converted in battle.
The Jewish Perspective
Before the Crusades, Jews lived in relative harmony in Christianized Europe and were explicitly protected by Papal edict. The Crusades ended that peace and began a reign of terror, discrimination and frequent pogroms against European Jews that would last the next thousand years, culminating in the Holocaust. During the Crusades, throughout Europe, thousands of Jews were given the choice between conversion/baptism and death, and tens of thousands died as a result. Upwards of 10,000 Jews are believed to have been murdered throughout Europe during the First Crusade. Tens of thousands of Jews were executed by the Crusaders when they overtook Jerusalem.
The Church itself opposed these acts and Bishops often intervened to save Jews. The Papacy did not support the forced conversion of Jews until the 16th century. This, I believe, brings into relief one of the central themes we find throughout Medieval Romantic literature: an inherent tension between the Christian theology (of love, forgiveness, humility etc) and the violent legacy left in the wake up both Roman and Dark Ages Europe. (see below)
See: Jewish Persp. on Crusades
Holy Relics And Pilgrimage: The Quest
Medieval European Christians had inherited the ancient Pagan belief that certain objects and places contained unique spiritual and magical/supernatural powers. Recall that both Pagans and Jews (and perhaps all other ancient religions) locate their gods in specific places: Apollo's Oracle at Delphi, Mount Olympus, the Temple in Jerusalem etc. In a Medieval European Christian cosmology, visiting these places could grant the visitor unique power to heal disease and absolve one of sin.
The holiest Christian sites throughout Europe -- including Saint Peter's, the Vatican, Rome -- were and are still places believed to house the remains of these holy men. Saint Mark's, in Venice, for example, is believed to house the body of Mark the Evangelist, stolen from Alexandria Egypt in 828. Chartres (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres) was believed to house the Sancta Camisa, the tunic worn by Mary when she carried the Christ child.
Powerful religious figures -- Christ, the Apostles, Saints -- could also imbue objects or relics with these powers, allowing churches and communities to obtain relics (objects and bones) that would bestow special powers and authority.
Through this mythology Medieval Europeans developed a culture of pilgrimage to holy sites simply to come in contact with the bones of holy men or the relics that they had touched.
Of course the holiest of these holy were located in Jerusalem: the body of Christ Himself, the ground where He had walked, was crucified etc, as well as those objects associated with his passion: the spear used to pierce his side, upon the cross, relics of the cross itself, and the "holy grail": the cup from which he had drank during his last Passover meal: the "last supper.
This pilgrimage culture explains both the Crusades themselves (as the mother of all pilgrimages) as well as much of the obsession with "magical" totems found throughout Medieval legends, the most obvious being the quest for the Holy Grail. But, more broadly: the quest itself as an emblem of the Crusades themselves.
History Channel, The Crescent And The Cross,
episode one: watch c. first 00:35 minutes, then skip to ch. on "Bartholemew's
Vision" at 01:03. Skip last siege but show last 10 minutes or so.