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Zoe Oldenbourg’s Crusades

crusaderZoé B. Oldenbourg (1916 – 2002) was both a highly esteemed specialist in mediæval French history and a critically acclaimed and prize winning historical novelist. She is best known for her novels The World Is Not Enough and The Cornerstone. The Crusades (Les Croisades) was first published in 1965, in a translation by Anne Carter in 1966.

Concentrating on the period of the first three Crusades, Oldenbourg’s book is a social, cultural, political and military history of the period 1096-1192, and covers the history of Turkey, Persia, Iran, Iraq, the Bosphorus, the Balkans, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Arabia, Egypt, Italy, Sicily, Spain and southern Europe of those times. She makes illuminating comparisons to other phenomenon – such as colonialism and pogroms, and is exceptional in that she is able to imaginatively suggest the attitudes, beliefs and limitations of the people she is writing about.

The subject is an immense one: the results of the Germanic invasions; the position of the Papacy; the ‘Holy War’ and its legacy; the economic effects of overpopulation on a poorly developed agriculture; feudalism; the differences between eastern and western Christianity; heresies and national differences in the east; the history of Constantinople; the rise of the Turks; the divisions and unity of Islam; relations between the Turks and the Arabs, Christians and Muslims; cultural effects of East on West and vice versa; literary influences in both directions; the legend of the Crusader; the subsequent history of ‘crusades’ such as the Albigensian, the Inquisition and the Conquistadores.

Oldenbourg’s comments on contemporary medieval attitudes are illuminating: it was a time before machines were widely used. ”Man was therefore infinitely closer to physical reality than we can be now. Tools and raw materials had a value and immediacy not easy for us to understand. This direct contact with matter whose laws he knew only empirically made man simultaneously more superstitious than we are today and more skillful and enterprising.”

She is as illuminating on the distinction between western and eastern religious feeling, in a way which explains much subsequent Catholic history. She says that “men thought of themselves first and foremost as religious beings…”

Oldenbourg has a plethora of suggestive ideas: that popular religion was (and is) largely pagan (and pagan is used in a non pejorative way); that miracles occupied the space in our lives of science; that war and religion were combined in the Latin west in a way they never could be in the Byzantine east.

“This exclusive, even excessive, exaltation of physical valour was something the Byzantines could never understand. The people of Western Europe believed implicitly that a man’s worth was, first and foremost, measured by his prowess in battle. To the Greeks, courage was certainly an estimable virtue… but they did not rate it any higher than many ‘civilised’ virtues.”

“The fundamental difference lay in the co-existence in the Western mind of two quite separate ideas, the warrior and the Christian. Byzantium never seems to have been affected by any such ambivalence: it was too blatantly paradoxical for the logical Greek mind to accept.”

On the tangle of military and political objectives pursued by both east and west Oldenbourg sheds a clear light.

She suggests a connection between the German tribes who destroyed the western Roman Empire in the 4th century and the Crusaders. The feudal nobility, she says, were of Germanic or Nordic extraction, unlike the Latin peasantry. They preserved their ideals of love of battle and glorious death despite their conversion to Christianity. The union of these two diverse traditions led to the idea of a holy war, and such wars were waged in Syria in the 12th century. The Germanic tribes, many of whom admired Rome as a great civilising power, conquered it. Later, as admirers of Christianity, they attempted to conquer the Holy Land. In 1204 they conquered Constantinople.

The defining ’cause’ of the Crusades was the rise of Turkey as a major power. This rise threatened both the Western, Greek and Arab states, although Turkey itself was Islamic. The Arabs, friendly to Christians, had been accepted politically in their position of power in Syria and the Middle East as well as elsewhere for 400 years. Now the Turks were conquering areas towards the Holy Land, and also areas in the Bosphorus – they posed a direct threat to Byzantium. The Crusades were initially launched to protect Byzantium from the Turks. But the Crusaders included Normans, who were more interested in conquering Byzantium than the Holy Land. And the Great Schism had recently separated the Churches of east and west: instead of reuniting them, the Crusades were to widen the gap between them and exploit their differences.

“Alexius (the Emperor of Byzantium) saw no reason to fight the Turks simply because they were infidels (he had suffered too much from Christians to share any prejudges of this kind)…”

“the Greeks were trying to use the Latins in order to reconquer their own lost provinces, while the Latins thought the Greeks had a duty to help them in the much more important task of recovering the Holy Places.”

Oldenbourg follows this concept of the holy war through subsequent history. The union of the military culture of the barons and the culture of love and romance of southern France led to the ideal of chivalry. Later this culture in turn was conquered during the crusade against the Albigensians. Relics of these ideas can be seen in the Inquisition – the Church Militant – and in the deeds of the Conquistadores. Most recent was the attempt of Hitler to conquer the Jews.

The more one explores a subject the more there is to explore. Oldenbourg’s book suggests this complexity. There are no easy answers, few generalisations. It is both honest and learned, and motivated by a clear and compassionate intelligence. It has had a far greater effect on me than the celebrated study by Stephen Runciman, still a standard work on the subject (strangely, another major study is Gibbon’s, 200 years out of date and still an acute analysis despite it). I still think of it as one of the best books on history I have read.  Oldenbourg explores one of the great conflicts between Christianity and Islam so as to show how misleading it is to regard it as a simple conflict between two ideologies and in this way her book can be helpful and relevant to those who wish to see present day conflicts in a broader, less bigoted context.

©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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One comment on “Zoe Oldenbourg’s Crusades

  1. gianna
    Wednesday, 14 July, 2010

    after reading what you wrote so exhaustively about this book I only regret not being able to find any of her books.

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This entry was posted on Saturday, 8 August, 2009 by in books and tagged , , .
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