In This Corner, Bohemund “The Giant”!
June 3, 2012 § Leave a comment
A little note for you guys: this week’s book was a history book so my remarks this week are mostly historical in nature. If you’re not interested in the historicism of the Crusades (and why wouldn’t you be, may I ask?), skip down to the picture of the knights beating the crap out of each other.
One of the reasons that I love history (good history, that is) is that it prevents a wonderful and almost intractable problem: how do you, as a person so far removed from the cares and worries of generations past, actually come to understand those concerns? Even, but especially, when they seem so strange and foolish compared to those of our modern age?
I call it the “VHS dilemma”.
Most of you who are reading this are, I will venture a guess, at least in their 20s. You should, then, remember what it was like to watch a movie on VHS as opposed to DVD or digital. If you don’t, then let me help illuminate it for you.
First, you had to turn on your TV. In certain cases, this could involve physically moving a switch from off to on. One of my first TVs actually had a knob that you turned to change the channel. Oh, and it was about two feet thick, because flat screens were not the norm. Second, you had to turn on the VCR (and, if you had children, remove any errant pieces of bread that might have been inserted by “accident”) and actually insert the tape. Third, you had to make sure it was rewound to the beginning, and if it was, you could start watching The Lion King or whatever. But once you’ve done that, you had to deal with tracking, warped sound and picture from corrupted tape, and, best of all, an overall reduced quality of image compared to what we have now. Compared to watching, say, something on Netflix, it was a completely different experience with completely different expectations.
Here’s the dilemma as applied to history: we can begin to understand what it was like to share in the experiences of those people who are far removed from us in terms of time, location, and society, but we can never fully understand, or appreciate, how and why they did the things that they did. We know what it’s like to be hungry and cold, but that doesn’t mean we know what it’s like to survive a Canadian winter eating pemmican (which is surprisingly tasty, by the way) while wearing buckskin and buffalo hide. We can almost never know, and that means we’re, at best, fiddling with the tracking on our VCRs as we try to convince ourselves that we know what it was like back then. This is something that’s not new to historians. One of my favourite people to tackle this problem is Dan Carlin who, although an amateur historian who…uh, sometimes goes very much against historical practice, becomes the perfect person to consider all the things that historians sometimes forget. Listen to his latest podcast if you have some time to burn. It’s called “Logical Insanity” and it tries to figure out what it meant to drop the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is terrifying and illuminating in equal measure.
But that’s only part of what we’re here to talk about today.
Week 22: Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse, Jay Rubenstein
Rubenstein, and I’ll say it right out, does an excellent job of trying to solve this dilemma. His book is a history of the First Crusade from Urban IV’s sermon at Clermont to the Battle of Ascalon and he runs into this problem straight away. How on earth do you reconcile what happened almost a thousand years ago, as performed by people who had a fundamentally different understanding of the world, of war, and of human purpose, with a modern mindset (all historians are inherently biased) and a modern audience?
Rubenstein, in an excellent move, takes the historical actors, such as the prophet Peter the Hermit, and shapes them into characters. Peter becomes (or perhaps, always was) a mystic, a coward, an administrator, and, most importantly, a person. While this is an act of historical legerdemain (oh god I’ve wanted to use that word for years) on the part of the author, it’s a necessary action. How the hell else are we going to relate to a long-dead Christian mystic that looks like this?
I highly recommend this book to all historians but especially to authors, because Rubenstein shows how important charactersare. I’ve read books before where the historian is snooty and completely by-the-book (not to suggest Rubenstein isn’t a good historian; he is, but his methods do poke at orthodox historicism) and it is friggin’ boring. I don’t give a damn about the difference between the feudal practices of Raymond IV of Toulouse and Bohemund of Antioch, but when it’s about the fight between that sneaky bastard Raymond and Bohemund “the Giant” of Antioch, I’m suddenly more interested.
And that’s what Rubenstein does very, very well. This book takes off and just keeps going. While I’m not fully on board with all his arguments regarding the Christian understanding of the Apocalypse (it’s a good theory that…doesn’t really do much except say “well, we should think about it like this”), the way in which he tells this story is itself worth the ride.
But that said, there’s the question of violence, holy war, and apocalypse. It’s kind of funny because I don’t want to talk about the violence. It was horrid and unyielding, but I am getting tired of violence. I guess there’s a point where the human mind becomes inured to the idea of mass violence, and it all becomes so much noise. I feel like the Crusaders themselves, as Rubenstein quotes the historian Guibert of Nogent:
The frequency of the sight and smell began to wear away the horror usually felt in all the senses, so that custom built courage and no one feared to step in the midst of those bodies scattered through the streets. (Rubenstein, 203)
In any case, the book is excellent, and does an excellent job of making the First Crusade comprehensible (as much as they can be understood) by us.
That all said, and for the benefit of those who don’t care as much about history,
WHAT JOHN FEELS ABOUT FORCING HIMSELF TO READ:
I won’t lie; it’s been a little more difficult to read these books than I’m letting on, and 99% of the problem is time. I have a friend at work who reads (no lie, I’ve seen her receipts) several books a day. Now, she also has a Ph.D. in English so she’s had a little practice and they’re all fiction (which does make a difference; history isn’t always the easiest thing to read on a fundamental level), but I’m nothing compared to that.
Well, I am. I just don’t make the time for it. Sunday mornings have become important to me because they are a few hours that I can burn through the last of the book and then write whatever I want to blog about. But I have begun to rely on these mornings, to a painful degree.
How bad? Well, The Heroes Guide To Saving Your Kingdom was read, start to finish, on the Sunday, about a 100-150 pages of Armies of Heaven and Waiting for Sunrise respectively, and a good portion of Alloy of Law. Between work, writing, and having a social life (that, perversely, might be too full), I actually don’t have the time to do as much reading as I want to, much less writing, much less anything.
Ah, the common complaint of the twenty-something. There simply isn’t enough time in the week/day/year to do everything.
Hell, I’m not even level 40 in D3 yet.
But that said, I do enjoy this, and recommend it to everyone. I’m learning and enjoying myself, and all the while advancing the art that I want to make a lot of money from later in life. At the very least, I get to read a lot of books that then go on my shelf.
Yes, I occasionally browse Bookshelf Porn. I have no regrets.
– John has learned that there was a Crusader knight named “William Badboy”. On an unrelated note, he has decided what his first son’s middle name is going to be.