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24.04.05 Shachar, A Pious Belligerence

24.04.05 Shachar, A Pious Belligerence


“Multiplicity” over “triumphalist narratives” (200)--this is the plea Shachar argues for in the epilogue to his rich and riveting book that offers a fresh perspective on the intercultural space shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the medieval Mediterranean East. The Near East as a space of encounter is frequently deployed for historiographical purposes and entrenched master-narratives about the Crusades. Shachar takes a critical distance to grand narratives. Language takes center stage in his argument, serving as a means to transcend the narrow depictions of the Crusades often confined by national and professional boundaries. Medieval textuality, in which multilingualism is nothing exceptional but rather to be expected, invites transgressive readings that defy traditional boundaries and that showcase a dynamic intercultural exchange. Shachar takes this invitation seriously, elevating sources often dismissed as mere fiction to the forefront of historical inquiry.

At its core, this study is about the idea of holy war, or pious warfare, in literature that circulated in the Near East in the period of the Crusades and about how the rhetoric of the time was not only shaped by authors and scribes, but also how narratives, in turn, influenced the communities that consumed them. Yet, on a broader scale, the book seeks to move beyond perceived conflicts and contradictions, revealing common threads in the ways language served to define and establish communities and their values. Rather than looking at what set different players in the period of the Crusades apart, Shachar investigates what they had in common. As it turns out, stories, treatises, and chronicles provided a fertile ground for contact and exchange.

Chapter 1 provides an introduction into the political landscape of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Ayyubid Sultanate, especially after the death of Sultan Saladin in 1193, highlighting the ensuing fragmentation in the course of the long thirteenth century. The historical outline not only helps to disentangle the complexity of cultural encounter between the different players but also functions like a foil onto which the discourse analyses of the later chapters can be mapped. This first chapter lays the ground for understanding how Jews, Christians, and Muslims communicated with each other. Next to war, diplomacy and negotiation strategies fueled the “language of militant piety,” which was introduced by Frankish, Ayyubid, and Jewish authors alike (35).

The subsequent chapter delves into historiographical and didactic texts, chronicles, and sermons. Jacques de Vitry, who was bishop of Acre and participated in the Fifth Crusade, emerges as a central figure. During his time in the Levant (over a decade) he came to compose a number of texts in which he shaped ideas about militant piety and about knighthood. In Vitry’s early writings he “laments the fact that oriental Christians were dangerously similar to Muslims” (41), a criticism that hints at a closer relationship than commonly assumed. Similarly, narratives from the Muslim perspective portray a nuanced image of a shared cultural space among Mamluk and Frankish warriors.

Chapter 3 explores legendary traditions in Romance, more specifically in Old French narratives as well as middle Arabic epics. The chapter’s focus lies on the narrative Estoires d’Outremer which takes a pivotal role in Shachar’s argument. It is here that the new model of a pious knight, taking its incarnation in Saladin, evolved. The authors of the Oxford Guide to Middle High German, Howard Jones and Martin H. Jones, write adequately that “chivalry is a concept that is difficult to define satisfactorily in the medieval context, not least because it referred to ideas and practices that were changing over the period.” [1] Shachar, aware of this difficulty, has set himself the task to deal with this problem in the most original and convincing way. By examining the literary exchange that existed between the different factions involved in the period commonly referred to as the Crusades, he demonstrates how stories about Sultan Saladin became the projection foil against which notions of the ideal knight were negotiated--on all sides.

Where historians have dismissed literary sources as fictional and therefore of no value in the history of the Crusades, Shachar can show how the development of the Estoires d’Outremer, which had several precursors, is indicative for the shift towards common tropes in Near Eastern cultures. This concerns ideas about pious warfare, but also about some kind of “intercultural women” (83) who, in the stories in which they appear, move between different worlds in order to secure power and family lines. The “fabulous encounters between Muslim and Christian warriors provided a new opportunity for thinking about the kinds of cultural interactions and exchanges possible in the Holy Land” (96). With this conclusion to his chapter, Shachar leaves no doubt as to the importance of integrating legendary accounts into the overall picture of the medieval Near East.

Chapter 4 opens with a vivid scene, which is a red thread through the book: “In the spring of 1211, a large group of Jewish immigrants from France reached Acre” (97). Engaging in a language of pious war, Jewish narratives emphasized that the Holy Land had to be reclaimed from Muslim and Christian hands (108). Jewish belligerent literature was integrated into theological frameworks, but shared patterns that Christian and Muslim authors also employed. In Judah al-Harizi’s Book of Tahkemoni and in messianic texts such the Homily of the King Messiah and Magog m’Gog, a language of holy war is detectable that suggests that literary exchange existed with contemporaneous Christian and Muslims. Moreover, the Jewish community was diverse in itself. Iberian Jews, for example, functioned as interlocuters between Jews and Muslims.

Chapter 5 goes deeper into the question of an “interreligious literary space” (131) by looking at Near-Eastern Jewish apocalyptic treatises alongside Muslim eschatological narratives and Christian prophecies. The sources cover a range of Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, Arabic, Old French, and Latin texts and “although having little to do with actual wars, these texts articulated complex views on belligerent spirituality” (165).

Chapter 6 follows a thematic approach on the basis of a variety of sources. Here various threads of the book come together through being tied to one theme, that of pollution in contrast to purity. Identity borders between the “self” and the “other” were established in literary images that touched upon the idea of impurity. In this context, the conquest of Jerusalem, for example, turned into the story of a purification. Whether Muslim, Jewish, or Christian polemics, all employed metaphors that evoked the need for some sort of cleansing; the “language of spatial sacrality...predicated on categories of impurity” (185). While engaging in rhetorical warfare, the texts themselves give witness to the intercultural proximities of the parties involved.

Shachar’s book underscores the importance of discursive analysis in understanding medieval cultures. Language serves as both the medium through which meaning is created and the lens through which historical encounters are revealed. The premise of the book is therefore that the discourse reveals possibly real circumstances of encounter; in other words, that traces of contact--no matter how literary--are left in the language. To gain insight into historical cultures and their interconnectedness, one must begin by understanding their use of language. This is both the method and the result of the study. It is an extraordinary contribution to the ongoing debate on how to approach literary sources in historical analysis. Studying the literary cross-fertilization in the period of the Crusades Shachar comes to remarkable conclusions about the “cultural coproduction” (the term is first found on page 5) of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Near East.

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Note:

1. Howard Jones and Martin H. Jones, The Oxford Guide to Middle High German (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 280.