ZenPundit
Friday, August 18, 2006
 
OLD BOOKS CONTRAVENING NEWER STEREOTYPES



I'm a huge fan of books and despite the excessive amount of time I spend online, the computer does not replace for me the experience of reading the printed word. Non-literate peoples or adults in literate societies who never become comfortable with reading are akin to those born deaf or blind. A formative experience is missing from their worldview.

This interest of mine includes old as well as new books, some of which I pick up and read if they represent worthwhile historiography. I read something the other day which I found interesting because it so strongly clashed with conventional wisdom regarding world history. The book in question was A History of Europe: From the Invasions to the XVI Century by Henre Pirenne. Here is the passage:

"Raised to the rank of kingdom for the benefit of Roger II by Pope Innocent II, in 1130, the Norman State of Sicily was incontestably the wealthiest, and, in the pint of economic development, the most advanced of all the Western States. Byzantine as to its continental portion, Musulman as regards the island, favored by the enormous extent of its coastline, and by the active navigation which it maintained with the Mohammedans of the coast of Africa, the island Greeks of the Agean Sea, the Greeks of the Bosphorous, and the Crusader settlements in Syria, it was remarkable for its absence of national characteristics as for the diversity of its civilization, in which the culture of Byzantium was mingled and confounded with that of Islam.

...Despite their devotion to the Papacy, these Norman princes, in their political lucidity of thought, allowed both their Musulman and their Orthodox subjects to practice their respective religions."

The popular view of the middle-ages in the media, influenced as it is by current events and P.C. attitudes, is one of simple civilizational-religious warfare and European-Christian intolerance vs. Muslim-Arab enlightenment. History in reality was far more complex and accuracy is forsaken when you resort to compressing a vast period of time and geographic space into a few jaunty assumptions .

Medieval warfare was always far more savage and frequent in terms of intra-religious conflict than in wars between Christian principalities and Muslim potentates ( and Christians and Muslims alike were dwarfed in ferocity by the pagan Mongols). The crusades, from the Muslim perspective of the time, were a small affair compared with their long march toward the conquest of Constantinople, a city that had already been brutally sacked by fellow Christians in 1204. The crusades themselves were, we must remember, partly an attempt by the Church to put a brake on European slaughter by directing aristocratic bloodthirst outward.

Tolerance also varied tremendously. As a rule, it is historically accurate to say that Muslim rulers practiced greater tolerance toward their subjects than did their Christian counterparts but we musn't get too carried away. Tolerance here is both relative and varying given the circumstances.

The Christian Levant and North Africa was converted to a Muslim majority by the sword and that this was considered normal for the day and that even the more enlightened rulers allowed their victorious troops the traditional three days pillage after a siege, if military circumstances permitted it ( Wise rulers of small kingdoms, like the Princes of Georgia, tried to avoid this fate by pro-actively offering fealty to would-be conquerers- be they Persian, Arab, Turk, Mongol or Russian. More often than not they succeeded in their policy of appeasement). That being said, we shouldn't forget that Maimonides wrote in Cairo, not in London, and that the Jews were expelled from Spain to the Ottoman Empire and not the reverse.

Complexity rules history and undermines all stereotypes.
 
Comments:
I am reminded of Howard Bloom's description of the Crusades, which runs something like

For hundreds of years, Christian gangs targeted each other in Europe and the Mediterreanean basin. A portion of this Christian-on-Christian violence, known as the "Crusades," took place in an region roughly as large as greater Los Angeles. Many Muslims and Jews were caught in the cross-fire.
 
Heh.

Not to many ppl even learn this stuff anymore. I once heard a fairly prominent historian tell a grad student who asked some question about Medieval England
" I don't do ' kings' "
 
mark, very interesting post.

I'd be interested to see what you consider to be core readings/books on certain subjects within history, say for example the most informative, and/or interesting, books in medieval history. Perhaps that could be thought for a future post?
 
Hi D.

that would have to be for a future post -it would require some thought on my part as my formal historiographical base in terms of academic training is late 19th and 20th century history except for certain countries like Russia where I could give you a short list. My readings in other time periods are decent but asystematic.

For Eastern Europe for general popular history in the early Medieval period I'd have to go with John Julius Norwich's series of books on Byzantium.
 
To add yet another layer of complexity, the Jews expelled from Spain went not only to the Ottoman Empire, but to Rome. The Jewish community in Rome lived under the protection of the Popes for centuries, until the Germans murdered them. Tolerance varied widely within Christendom.
 
Hi Lex,

You're correct. Antisemitism and tolerance oscillated, often within the same country/kingdom. It would be interesting to see at timeline type map vidclip on how Jewish demographics shifted across europe
 
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