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Historical Comebacks: The Crusades

The Crusades seem to never have effaced from the Western conscience. Centuries later the conflict between the West and the East resumes.

The reports are coming in that Saddam Hussein was executed at a secured location in Baghdad. You see, it seems like we’re constantly being compelled to contemplate the global issues at the turn of the year. In 2004, it was a tsunami, and in 2006 it is the well-understood fear of the escalation of violence not just in Iraq, but anywhere in the world.

As the comments on the BBC’s Have Your Say plainly manifest, most people, even when they agree that Saddam should have been executed, still cast doubts on the fairness of his trial and on the future of relations between the West and the East. Most importantly, as some visitors remark, the West has shown a total indifference to the Eastern way of life:


Out of all the days, why did the U.S. pick the day of Hajj to hang Saddam?
This comes as almost a historical comeback. In 1099, having finally entered Jerusalem, the brave Western knights had begun to kill almost every living person in the city, including children and women. They killed ‘Sarazens’ (Muslims) in the mosque, and burnt Jews in the synagogue. One should obviously be careful with such parallels, but the indifference to ‘alien’ religion seems to be persistent, despite today’s devotion to political correctness.


Some other comments were very much in line with Le Goff’s observation about the Arab’s feeling about the Western anti-Islamism back in the Middle Ages. So, is this the longue durée, or not? One thing to look at may be the consolidation of the East against the West. The Ottoman Empire wasn’t as powerful or integrated at the beginning of the Crusades, but things changed dramatically by the time of the ‘counter-Crusades’ of the 14th c. However, today the East may become more consolidate against the West, especially because what used to be called the Crusades in the Middle Ages, may now be hailed by some as drang-nach-Osten.

Communication and information at that time appear almost prehistoric in comparison to our use of the wireless technology. And if we speak in terms of military challenge and response, it would take many months in the 12-13th cc. not only to furnish a campaign, but also to get your army to the enemy’s land. Needless to say, it takes less time now, and, thanks to the advance of the media, we can follow both challenge and response in real time.

If this is the longue durée, it certainly comes with massive technological, as well as ideological (in the broadest sense of the word), differences. But underneath those differences one can see the *good old* opposition between the West and the East, the almost inexplicable necessity to put two civilizations (again in the broadest sense of the word) on the two opposite ends of an ontological axis, to make them two poles, one good, another evil. If anything seriously bothers me, as both historian and individual, it is this determinism, the conviction that one can actually say with confidence that something is good and something is not. Some link this to Christian dichotomy of good and evil, light and darkness, but long before Christianity Herodotus had spoken about the barbarians, who by no means were as good as the Greeks.

It has become a commonplace in popular historical studies to tell about the European knights who, having lived in cold Europe, which scents were not at all wholesome, came to the East, discovered the silks, the baths, the aromas, and so decided to stay. Those who didn’t want to stay began to trade with the East, and so gradually the West started amassing all sorts of Eastern delights, forgetting, by and by, that they were thus “furnishing” the “enemy”. The Great Geographical Discoveries and colonization, not to mention the progress in arts, added to the Western sense of uniqueness. But it is exactly this sense that drives empires and states to parochialism and subsequently – to their fall.

This is not to say that no justice can or should be served to those who deserve it. But I unanimously agree with those who believe that, if we’re speaking of crimes against humanity, then Saddam should’ve been tried by the Hague Tribunal. Humanity comprises the entire world, and not just the parties concerned. It remains to see what resonance today’s event will have. One thing is certain: with the UN’s vote against Iran and the execution of Hussein during the Islamic religious holiday, the East has got every reason to feel under assault. The complete opposition of the West and the East may only exist in ether, after all. Yet in fact, the two poles are much closer today than during the Crusades.

Preaching the Crusade

More posts in History

Jacques Le Goff on History

This is the translation of an extract from the interview with the French historian, Jacques Le Goff, published in Le Figaro on December 7, 2006. The interview was done to mark the reprint of the book by Regine Pernoud, La Libération d’Orléans, 8 May 1429 (first edition – Paris, Gallimard, 1969), to which Le Goff wrote the preface, called The End of the English France. In it, he argued that the siege of Orleans in 1429 had not only been a turning point in the course of the Hundred Years’ War, but has also occupied a special place in the French national memory. Much of the interview examines this view, but towards the end Le Goff spoke on historical comebacks and the place of history in the context of today. The French text is by Jacques de Saint-Victoire and is printed in full here.

Don’t we also have this obscure interest in the Evil, in the most somber passions?
The comeback of the passions is one big trait of history. One could, for example, research into the history of the Crusades to explain the events in the Middle East. Bush is like one of the Western Crusaders, and the Arabs regarded the Crusaders as the first signs of the Western anti-Islamism. This is how I approached it. I was criticized a lot for being the first medievalist who has had a negative view of the Crusades. But we refer to them these days to measure the negative impact.

This reminds us of the ‘longue durée’, of which Fernand Braudel was so fond. André Burguière has just published his Intellectual History of the Annales. In your opinion, whatever happened to this ‘new history’? Isn’t it in a rut?
I am not the best person to answer your question, since the meetings of the committee of the Annales often happen at my place. But I don’t see the decline of the Annales. Didn’t they exaggerate, or even invent, the crisis of history? Yet its vigour rests within its process. I don’t see it either going backwards or stagnating. Admittedly, it’s a bit banal to say so, but the new doesn’t last forever. For all that, history continues, as Georges Duby would say.

Does it still have the same place it has once occupied?
It’s true that it’s no longer in the newspapers’ editorials, as it once used to be. But do notice that its position in the media interest is different not because history has declined or that it has stopped being interesting for the readers. On the contrary, what for me manifests itself as a real regress in the position of history, is that it occupies a place more and more marginal in the making of male and female politicians and in their cultural level. How could one govern France without taking its past much into account? I take the opportunity to mention an excellent posthumously published book by Yves Renouard, on the character types of France. I also deplore the fact that this historical dimension is hardly present in the making of Europe. History is necessary to give a soul and a foundation to politics.
You can read more about Jacques Le Goff at Wikipedia.
Pernoud, Regine, La Libération d’Orléans (8 May 1429), preface by Jacques Le Goff, Paris, Gallimard, 2006 (Les journées qui ont fait la France).
Renouard, Yves, Leçons sur l’unité française et les caractères généraux de la civilisation française, édition François Renouard, Bordeaux, 2005.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut studies the 20th century children’s crusade in the context of World War Two and Dresden Raid

In 2000 I was going through a ‘love affair’ with the works of Kurt Vonnegut. When I went on a research trip to St. Petersburg I finally  bought his Slaughterhouse-Five, the novel that alluded to Vonnegut’s imprisonment and survival in the Dresden raid.
Speaking of the raid of Dresden: I know exactly that until the year 2000 I had huge inhibitions writing about war. Russian literary accounts of the Great Patriotic War were by and large realistic, based on the personal experience of their authors. I had no personal experience, except for reading those accounts, viewing wartime photos, watching films (very touching) and listening to the story of my grandma’s evacuation, so I felt kind of trapped.

Slaughterhouse-Five and the Fluidity of Time

So I bought Slaughterhouse-Five. The rest, as usual, is history: I was researching in the day, and as soon as I’d get to my spartan hotel room and had a cup of soup I’d be reading the book. I’m aware that the way I’m speaking of this book makes it sound like it was un-realistic, if compared to Russian literature about war. This is obviously not true. What is true, however, was that on my then memory Vonnegut was the first author who reached out to my experience. The subtitle of his novel – The Children’s Crusade – and the fact that his characters were more or less of the same age as me simply forced me to put myself in their place and to read the book, as if it was my story.

What I quite love about Slaughterhouse-Five is its Tralfamadorian dogma of everything taking place simultaneously, namely the past, the present and the future existing together at once. I don’t share it, but I do appreciate its connection to the subtitle, and how the subtitle can give a focus to the novel.

The Children’s Crusade

The chidren’s crusade per se is a disputed historical fact. If chronicles are to be trusted, in the 13th c. multitudes of children from Western Europe assembled for the journey to the Holy Land, but on their way either perished or were sold into slavery. This is an irrational act, and in addition to telling us how strange were the Middle Ages, it also brings into question the validity of war (Second World War in our case). Regardless of whether or not this children’s crusade had actually taken place, it belongs to the medieval period. And in medieval painting, as we know, one and same picture (~a depiction of a saint’s life) very often told the story of an event in the past, in the present and in the future. The view is obviously very similar to how Tralfamadorians saw life. So, this is the first, ‘historical’, interpretation of the subtitle that gives a focus to the novel, as well.

Homo Ludens

The second, ‘psychological’ interpretation connects the subtitle to the children’s attitude to death (basically as something that is not real) and to the possibility of living through all things at once. Consider the games where in the space of a small room children build a ship, a castle and a battlefield; and also the games where events are shuffled, skipped or repeated, depending on the game’s scenario and rules. If we speak of children playing war, everyone always remains alive (otherwise no players would be left).

The two themes in the ‘psychological’ interpretation are explored in Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (The Playing Man), published- incidentally – in 1938. In children’s games, everything that is happening is not happening ‘for real’, and whoever is killed will rise again. Billy Pilgrim’s journeys through time in Slaughterhouse-Five resemble this childish indiscrimination between the real and the imaginary. But when this inability (or unwillingness?) to underpin oneself in the boundaries of physical world reappears in an adult, the question rises: did these adults ever begin to see the difference between the real and the non-real?

The children’s crusade therefore becomes ever more emblematic, as it not only symbolises the selling of children to war and the irrationality of war, but also underlines this infant disbelief in the tragic nature of things as the form of fatalism that stems from a convinction in the unlimitedness of time, space and, ultimately, a human life. Children are therefore not simply those who are young, but those who take life for granted and play by the rules of fate, denying free will.

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