Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Last Crusaders: The Hundred-Year Battle for the Center of the World

By Barnaby Rogerson, 482 pages, Overlookpress.

Swashbuckling Portuguese overran the African coast town by town, fortress by fortress, in the name of loot and trade, and Christ. Money and religion were rarely so bound together as during the period between 1450 and 1590, as European countries, especially Spain and Portugal, built the first wave of colonies in the Muslim world, the Americas, and towards the Indian Ocean.

The Portuguese and Spanish brought a new, moneyed and power-oriented sense into Christianity and the notion of being a part of Christendom.

Concerning the ruthlessness of Ferdinand of Aragon, Rogerson notes, "Ferdinand used 'the colour of religion' to bind the Spanish people in obedience to him."Thankfully, the author does not make the common mistake of blaming Christianity and religion in general for the violence. He skillfully separates religion from power and moneyed-interests.

Again, he judges King Ferdinand's motives objectively: "Ferdinand's diplomacy was ruthless, cunning and duplicitious... Beneath the front of a Europe-wide holy crusade he had plotted the annexation of two neighbouring Christian states and betrayed both his cousins and his allies."

This understanding of the King of Aragon can be extended to the period as a whole. Medieval Christendom's deep penitential piety was long-forgotten. All players, Muslim or Christian, traded on religious zeal like they did in gold dust and ivory. Not surprisingly, the French favored diplomacy with the Muslim Turks over an anti-Ottoman alliance with Christian Emperor Charles V.

Much of the book examines the growth in trade around the Mediterranean and the world. Portugal was the first to tap into the North and West African trade routes, transforming itself from Europe's forgotten backdoor into a thriving, wealthy leader. The purity of Portugal's gold crowns rivaled the coinage of Florence and Venice, and was sought by all of Europe. The kingdom also opened up direct trade between Indian and Europe.

Portugal excelled at Christian propaganda, and fronted its expansion with Christian crusading rhetoric, using medieval chivalric orders in the fighting. The kingdom became the inspiration of all of Christendom, and was along with Spain the only powers able to fight back against the Muslims.

Rogerson details the bureaucratic and military efficiency of the Ottomans, and their legendary rulers and highly-disciplined janissaries, the only professional standing army of the time. Its corps came from the "blood tax," the practice whereby the Ottomans took a fifth of all young men from its Christian lands. These men had to convert to Islam and remain single until their military service had finished.

Just as the Spanish and Portuguese seemed impossible to stop in their constant march against the Moroccans and West Africans, so the Ottomans kept taking over bits and pieces of the Balkans. Without the heroic Hungarian Janos Hunyadi, who knows how far the Turks would have gone. This Hungarian did revive something of the romantic Christian warrior:

"He first emerged, like some personification of their ancient god of war, and the Battle of Semendria in 1437, riding into the battle as an unknown knight, on his shield a black raven with a golden ring in its beak."

The Last Crusaders recounts the tales of Muslim and Christian men, most of whom were motivated by far less noble ideals than religion.

No comments:

Post a Comment