Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Conquest of Constantinople

by Geoffrey De Villehardouin, 160 pages

A primary history that’s not in or relating to the nineteenth century. While most of the above histories are in some way connected with my spring semester courses or my larger dissertation project, this one was a book that’s been on my shelf for years, as a sort of informal cross-eras reading. The experience was rather mixed. As a piece of writing it was reasaonbly engaging, weak prose with a tendency to over-elaboration but not too much to really inhibit the account, and there was enough happening with oodles of historical detail to make for an interesting and at times immersive experience. Seeing in detail the process by which Christian holy war was formed, contested and redirected into the power-politics of fighting the Byzantines is insightful. The book basically works as an historically rich assembly of details and in showing the underlying patterns of the crusade, and the way logistics, politics and piety linked together.

However it’s also a deeply alienating text, as it plays out the beliefs and justifications of the author. Specifically in relation to the spiritual sanction of the crusade, the assumption of a deeply militaristic code as sanctified by God and the downplaying of atrocities intrinsic to this whole scheme. The assumed righteousness and overall tone really grate as the account goes on. It’s not without historical value, and in analysis a lot of the bias can be factored out to explore the pertinent details from the narrative. Still, in the end this reading experience was not particularly pleasant. Normally I find a measure of separation from the judgement issue while reading it, and can find some basic enjoyment in a primary narrative even when it’s plodding, redundant, bigotted and fundamentaly xenophobic. Not in this case, for reasons that probably have a lot to do with it reflecting an era I’m less familiar with, as well as the source’s more direct relation to violence.

Worse than: Thirty Five Years in Russia by George Hume

Better than: Fox’s Mission to Russia by Joseph Loubat

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