Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Jean de Joinville and the Seventh Crusade

Today's reading was the memoir by the Sire Jean de Joinville who accompanied Louis IX (Saint Louis) on the Seventh Crusade in 1241. I'm not especially familiar with the Crusades, which come a few hundred years before most of my studies. The idea of crossing the Mediterranean to retake the Holy Lands from the Infidels is so far outside of my frame of reference as to be ridiculous. I could imagine fighting in a war, but not for the sake of a theological interpretation of a historical site. In some senses, it's very depressing to have no core beliefs that structure my behavior. But, reading about these French soldiers being flayed alive with "Greek fire", eaten by various diseases, and burning up in the deserts, there seems to be a certain benefit to living without belief.

The memoirs are considerably less religious than I had expected. Mostly, Joinville remembers vivid battle scenes and the wise acts of the king. It is more concerned with what we would today call political or military matters than with doctrine. As the king led the troops, there really isn't much distinction between the military and the political power.

Nor is there much distinction between the sacred order and the social order: when Joinville writes glowingly of the king, it's not propaganda as much as hagiography. Louis embodies piety so his acts serve a pedagogical goal: we should ask ourselves "What would Saint Louis do?" The great chain of authority that is the French state in the Middle Ages mirrors the great chain of being that constitutes the sacred order. The king's authority is little more than a conduit for religious authority- every one of his actions is proscribed.

The Christians lost the Seventh Crusade. Alas it's always difficult to fight a native populace on their own turf. It's clear from the memoir that they didn't lose for turning the other cheek- the Knights Templar were as fierce as the Sarasin. One of the witnesses to a French massacre of a Sarasin camp, mostly of sleeping men, women, and children, is quoted as saying that it was “a very piteous thing it was to see such a quantity of dead bodies and such an outpouring of blood- that is, if they had not been enemies of the Christian faith.”

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