Some Penguin Classics achieve a new relevance for the worst of reasons, and surely the head of that list is this venerable volume from 1963, Chronicles of the Crusades, featuring M. R. B. Shaw’s piously serviceable translation of Geoffroy De Villehardouin’s The Conquest of Constantinople and Jean de Joinville’s Life of Saint Louis, two of our most vivid Western sources to emerge from the centuries-long pitched conflict between Christians and Moslems in the Middle Ages – a pitched combat that has never really stopped for any significant length of time since Joinville’s day and that has always tried to cloak itself in a rhetoric elevated enough to avoid mentioning how neatly the so-called Holy Land sits athwart almost all major land and sea trade routes between the West and the hinterlands of the Orient. Instead, the rhetoric employed by brutes like de Villehardouin (a powerful nobleman of Champagne who “took the cross” on the Fourth Crusade) is always about liberating the Holy Land from the ravening Turk – although even in his dutiful account, the truth has a way of slipping out, as in the moment when the French delegation puts the case to wily Venetian Doge and his deep-pocketed counsellors and gets a satisfyingly fervent reaction:
By wish and consent of his companions Geoffroy de Villehardouin explained their errand. ‘Sirs,’ he said, ‘the noblest and most powerful barons of France have sent us to you. They earnestly appeal to you to take pity on Jerusalem, now in bondage to the Turks, and implore you, in God’s name, to be so good as to join with them in avenging the insult offered to our Lord. They have chosen to come to you because they know that no other people have such great power on the sea as you yourselves. They have, moreover, commanded us to kneel at your feet and not to rise till you consent to take pity on the Holy Land oversea.’
Thereupon the six envoys, in floods of tears, knelt at the feet of the assembled people. The Doge and all the other Venetians present also burst out weeping, and holding up their hand towards heaven, cried out with one accord: ‘We consent! We consent!’ There was such an uproar and such a tumult that you might have thought the whole world was crumbling to pieces.
Joinville, also a powerful nobleman of Champagne, shares plenty of equally tell-tale moments in his The Life of Saint Louis, much of which is set during the Seventh Crusade. And much like his predecessor, Joinville is excellent at dramatic scene-setting take just one scene from the description of a battle just down-stream from Cairo:
The next to meet the enemy’s onset was Brother Guillaume de Sennac, Master of the Temple, with the few members of his Order left to him after the battle on Shrove Tuesday. He had had a barricade erected in front of his men made up of the machines we had taken from the Saracens. When the enemy came up to attack him they hurled Greek fire at the defences he had put up; these caught fire quickly, for the Templars had used a great quantity of deal planks in building them. The Turks, I must say, did not wait for the fire to burn itself out, but rushed in and attacked the Templars amid the flames. In his engagement the Master of the Temple lost an eye; he had lost the other on Shrove Tuesday. This accident resulted in his death – may God grant him mercy! Behind the Templars there was a tract of land, about as large as a labourer could till in a day, which was so thickly covered with Saracens’ darts that you could not see the ground beneath them.
All the Crusades-literature talking points are there, neatly lined up: the disfiguring heroism, the flying arrows, the Greek Fire, the Knights Templar, the homesick allusions to wool-clad day-laborers, and if a more jaundiced age sees a greater equivalence between that “may God grant him mercy” and “peace be upon him,” well, that’s not Joinville’s fault. Just as Margaret Shaw, doing her work in a time of fairly optimistic Church reform, can perhaps not be faulted too much for the mantle of tolerant moral equivocation she drapes over her church-burning baby-spiking authors – pious men like the Marshal:
A man of firm religious principles, Villehardouin’s duty to God, as he sees it, is to serve Him faithfully and devotedly as a good vassal serves his lord; and above and beyond all this to recognize all events, whether as indications of God’s pleasure or displeasure, are ordered by His will. Loyalty to God, moreover, entails complete integrity of conduct: all breaches of faith, all underhand dealings and acts of treachery, all covetousness and self-seeking, are not only contrary to the knightly code but violations of divine law. If the God Villehardouin serves is the ‘God of Battles’, if he accepts without question the legate’s sanction of war against Greek Christians as just and holy, though we may regret the little place that love and mercy have in his religion, we cannot doubt the sincerity of his faith.
But wherever we stand on the tired old subject, it’s possible, re-reading these gripping, bitterly contemporary accounts, to wonder if the entire region they discuss hasn’t had more sincerity of faith than is good for it.