“Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099” Emile Signol (1847)
The 12th century AD was a murderously good time for anyone who was bored and looking for something to go kill in a far away land. Noble youths with unsatiated blood lust who had run out of best friends to kidnap and ransom finally found their calling. When Pope Urban II called for aid to the Byzantine Empire in the form of military ass-whuppery, many of these belligerent teenagers set off to reclaim the territory in Anatolia lost to those rando Seljuq Turks that had seemingly popped up out of nowhere on the world stage. While doing so, they thought–hey man, since we’re already down here and winning, why not shift our fratboy douchebaggery party hoppin’ on over to Jerusalem and just, like, wrestle it out of the hands of those rival Islamic bros and totally blow up their spot? Thus kicking off centuries of The Crusades lobbing that territory back and forth between blood baths and redrawn political landscapes that cause even the most healthy, history of the Middle Ages student a migraine as they attempt to make sense of the disjointed kingdoms and legacies that cropped up as a result.
Eleanor of Aquitaine with dat sass, yo
This was the era of key historical players who are famed for their role in these events. There was the showdown between Richard I the Lionheart and Saladin during the Third Crusade, Frederick Barbarossa was busy harassing the Italian states and making himself Holy Roman Emperor, Eleanor of Aquitaine was retaliating with a decent show of her own “game of thrones”. Genghis Khan was occupied uniting the Mongol tribes and gearing up for a casual, no big deal ride through Asia just to, you know, take in the scenery. The 12th century was rife with so many popes and kings and wars, it’s no wonder people’s imaginations light up when they think of the high middle ages–things were going down.
And so was Henry II of Champagne, incidentally, but he doesn’t know that quite yet.
Depiction of King Valdemar IV of Denmark in 1361. Painting by Carl Gustaf Hellqvist 1851-1890.
There are two ways people generally look upon the past, either with fondness and nostalgia or with scrutiny and disdain. That’s why we can never all quite agree on whether or not high school is the worst or best years of your life or if the 90’s really were all that and a bag of chips. Historically, it’s no different–was the Classical era a time of heightened scholarship and monuments or was it a barbaric time lacking of spiritual sense and with an inclination towards bloodshed? Many scholars during the Renaissance would certainly argue that point. So it was then, during The Enlightenment era of the 18th century in particular, that it seemed only fitting to look upon the time between history bookended by the fall of the Western Roman Empire to Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the Americas as a period of considerable dimness. Both metaphorically and intellectually. A time in between two eras commonly thought of as periods of prosperity and culture. We know it as The Dark Ages and I’m calling bullshit on that conception.
What do you think of when your brain mulls over The Dark Ages? I’m sure squalor and peasantry comes immediately to mind, probably with a healthy dose of Bubonic plague coupled with high infant mortality rates for the helluva it. Not to mention self-flagellation, the burning of suspected practitioners of devil worship and witchcraft, and The Crusades. You’re probably picturing monks with tube-ring hairdos, Norsemen with burly beards and a fondness for pillaging monasteries, and a whole lot of chainmail. It’s easy to imagine this time being one of darkness since all of that does sound pretty bleak, I know, but is it a fair assessment to have? Is it not incorrect to view history through the lens of progress? After all, what will future civilizations think of us when they look back at our historical era?