Monday, April 30, 2007

14: The Crusades

By the Middle Ages the former Roman Empire was still clinging to life in Constantinople, but new powers were on the rise in that part of the world in the form of Islam... and it's at this point in my narrative that I suddenly have to be careful what I say, since some adherents of that faith are famously sensitive about their culture and like to take, shall we say, strong action against anyone who speaks out in way they feel is disrespectful. This type of reaction, combined with a popular perception of Islam as a culture that exercises a far stronger dogmatic influence over its people than some of us are used to, has helped to give it a rather menacing aspect to some of us in the Western world, but it's worth remembering that Islamic culture was the torch-bearer for the art of learning and discovery for several centuries which were still the 'dark ages' to the rest of us, which to me suggests that it's not so much the scripture itself that dictates how nobly or otherwise its followers conduct themselves, it's the mindset of those who lead the way, and what they decide to take from the those scriptures. But that's just my personal opinion, and I'm prepared to revise it, preferably by force of argument, though, please.    
But I digress. Around 1100, Islamic forces were encroaching on Christendom (Which side you were on has often been defined in history as what name you give to your God), and the for the next few hundred years, Christian kings and princes in the Eastern end of the Mediterranean would send out a call for help every now and again to the safer kingdoms in the West, to say that Jerusalem was falling into the hands of the Heathens (ie - 'those who don't believe in God'. Their word for the rest of us was 'Infidels', ie 'those who don't believe in Allah'. Allah being God.).
Now, life in the middle ages was probably, on the whole, pretty dull. For the average peasant, a standard day probably went something like this:
1. Get up.
2. Traipse out to field.
3. Pick turnips.
4. Eat lunch. Turnips.
5. Pick more turnips.
6. Go home to chilly damp hovel shared with donkey.
7. Watch fire.
8. Change channel. Still fire.
9. Service wife in full view of donkey.
10. Sleep.

If, from time to time, a king's messenger passed through the village promising fun and adventure in far-off lands, with food other than turnips, you would probably be tempted to take him up on the offer. Sure, you might get slaughtered by a greasy Saracen, but what the hell? If you stayed at home you'd be just as likely to die of pneumonia before you were thirty - and besides - if YOU slaughtered the greasy saracen instead of vice versa, or even several, the kudos would be worth a few beers for years to come when you got home. And anyway, this was the nearest thing they had to backpacking in those days.

So when, after 300 years of this sort of thing, Constantinople finally fell to the Ottoman Empire (thus, incidentally, finally ending all pretence that the Roman Empire was still a force in the world), it must have seemed, on the one hand, a lot of trouble for nothing... but on the other hand, a lot of fun while it lasted... or else King Richard wouldn't have spent all but six months of his reign out there himself.

No comments: