Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A-Crusading We Will Go

Crusader walls of Caesarea
Today was the first day of "The Crusades: Fact, Fiction, and Film," and all was good: enthusiastic students, some work with the five versions of Urban II's speech, the first part of Terry Jones's wonderful documentary, and great expectations for the discovery of the Holy Lance of Antioch tomorrow.  Today was also the release of Student Opinion Surveys from last semester, and since one student dubbed me as having "exceptional clarity of thought," (!) I though that I would treat myself to a little helpless fascination with the Crusaders in the Holy Land. Helpless, because I'll never fully understand the volatility of piety and pragmatism that hurtled those thousands of people to Jerusalem, seized thousands more to stay and set up principalities and counties and kingdom, and compelled untold thousands to replay the animosities and loves of the Crusades over and over again for coming on one thousand years now.  Fascination, because though so much (the zeal, the violence, the colonialism, the insanity) of the Crusades repels, the sheer will of everything involved continues to hold me.  I started class off with Fulcher of Chartres's "We who were Occidentals are now Orientals" quote, and another by Bill Clinton about how the massacre of the First Crusade is a story "that is still being told today in the Middle East and we are still paying for it" (the quote is from a speech he gave at Georgetown, the citation is from Competing Voices from the Crusades by Andrew Holt and James Muldoon, Greenwood World Publishing, 2008). That set a nicely ambiguous tone from which I could present the image above, which has become emblematic for me of this helpless fascination.

When Crusaders came to Caesarea, necessity deemed that they build their defensive walls rapidly, and so they used whatever materials were at hand - here, columns of Herod's beloved Caesarea that still strew the rocks before the beach today.  The walls of the Crusaders were built from the ruins of the Roman Empire.  That never ceases to move me. I know that many things were built up from the ruins of the Roman empire (countless cities, roads, laws, habits), but there's something about the immediacy and raw energy of using ancient marble columns to shore up the wall of a burgeoning Christian empire that captivates.  Herod's grand vision, the fervent striving appeal to Roman grandeur and triumphalism that he built up all over the Holy Land (think Massada, think his expansion of the Temple Mount, think the Herodion) shaped Caesarea, itself a kind of crazy idea (he built a harbor out into the sea by sinking enormous pylons, he had a hippodrome, an amphitheater, everything a good Roman city should have).  And then, a thousand years later, another crazy idea: a Christian empire in the Holy Land. In both instances, a grandeur wrested.  And so I shall oscillate wildly for the next three weeks as we tread not so carefully through the texts and images of the Crusades.  One always has high hopes for Winter Term: that the three hours of daily teaching somehow won't stop us from writing that book review or revising that class or starting on that article due March 1.  I would like to not be deterred, but for now, I'll just revel in this clarity of thought idea.


  1. Sounds great! I've been thinking about a Crusades course as well - might you be willing to share your syllabus sometime?

  2. Oh yes, absolutely - I need to figure out how to post a PDF on here! Winter Term is a bit "relaxed" so I'm not assigning much secondary scholarship, but I like the original sources I have, and I'm amazed thus far at the films we've seen! The Crusades are part of the "Monsters and Marvels" class - and that syllabus is ready to hand. Thinking of you LOTS these days! :-)