Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Crusades: the Struggle for the Holy Land

Regine Pernoud’s The Crusades: the Struggle for the Holy Land was originally published in 1959, so does not represent the latest scholarship. It is also clearly mainly written for a lay audience.

Pernoud happily sees Islam as retrograde compared to Christianity, but still manages to provide more details about the Muslims than, say Riley-Smith’s more recent book. There is considerable overlap between the two books—right down to which passages from which chronicles are quoted—though Pernoud limits herself to crusades to the Holy Land, Egypt and Constantinople from the First Crusade to the fall of Acre in 1291, while Riley-Smith is much more comprehensive. Pernoud is only interested in crusades to outre-mer (literally over-sea). Riley-Smith also covers Spain, the Baltic states and crusades against fellow Christians.

Pernoud is centrally interested in how the crusades were experienced and understood by folk at the time. She gives a strong sense of how the crusades were lived.
Pernoud starts off with a brief summary of the history then an examination of the appeal and perils of pilgrimage. Having set the scene, she moves on to the Pope who preached the First Crusade, Urban II. (Various contemporary versions of his famous speech are available here.) She then looks at the poor, the barons, the churchmen and the women: each with their own chapter. Followed by one (The Grain and the Chaff) which considers villains (Reynald de Chatillon gets quite a go) and villainies (such as the slaughter of Jews in European cities) and contemporary reactions thereto.

Pernoud then continues on to three chapters on technical methods: of organising conquest, of engineering and building, and of financing. Then two chapters on The Spirit of Conquest, covering kings and merchants and the Fourth Crusade as well as the attempts against Egypt (which make more sense when one realises that Muslims probably only became a majority of the population around about this time). Then onto Mysticism and Politics covering a chapter on St Francis in Egypt (The Monk and the Sultan), one on Frederick II Stupor Mundi (The Crusader without Faith) and one on St Louis (The Perfect Crusader).

The final part, The End of the World, deals with the final fall of the Crusader kingdoms and and concludes with a chapter on the last sputters of the crusader impulse to outre-mer, The Planner and the Saint. The former was French lawyer Peter Dubois, who provided an elaborate plan for elevation of the power and status of the French monarchy to support the re-establishment of outre-mer as its colonies. Shorn of its crusading and Council of Europe (chaired by the French King) aspects, its main interest is that it sets out much of the program Philip the Fair was to actually follow. The saint is Raymond Llull, who advocated crusade via preaching. She reports, as does the Catholic Encyclopedia, that he died being stoned by a mob at Tunis and holds him to be the precursor of the missionary impulse that was to later become (and still is) so important in the history of Christianity. But, then, what was St Paul if not the first missionary?

Pernoud is a very lively writer, with an eye for the striking: very interested in conveying a feel for the complexities of the period. Of making the medievals full beings in complex societies, rather than cardboard cut-outs available for us clever and wise moderns to sneer at. She does not care much for Eleanor of Aquitaine (fair enough). Apart from that, her presentation of the more prominent personalities is fairly conventional. Thus Guy of Lusignan is ineffectual to the point of incompetence, Reynald de Chatillon is a charismatic brute, Gerard of Richefort destructively selfish, Cardinal Pelagius incredibly arrogant, Frederick II untrustworthy and generally impossible to deal with. Judgements which, to be fair, are straightforwardly based on the chroniclers of the period.

Pernoud draws a sharp contrast Frederick II with Saint Louis. Again, one based firmly on period sources.

I like good populist history: works that bring history to as wide a readership as practicable. For intellectual life generally, if one looks at the articles, essays and books that have been seriously influential, it is those written for the intelligent lay audience which have tended to have the greatest impact. Scholarship should not be an insular little game, played for the oh-so-clever cognescenti, while the ignorant peons slave away to support the interests of their betters. It should be the research and testing ground from which knowledge gets distributed to the wider culture. Regine Pernoud obviously believes in accessible history and she practises it well. Good for her.

No comments:

Post a Comment