When Jesus met Mohammed in the Holy Land: Attitudes toward the “Other” in the Crusader Kingdom

When Jesus met Mohammed in the Holy Land: Attitudes toward the “Other” in the Crusader Kingdom

By Sophia Menache

Medieval Encounters, Vol. 15: 1 (2009 )

Abstract:  This paper investigates changing attitudes toward the “other” in the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem from two main perspectives; namely, the crusaders’ approach to the former inhabitants of the Holy Land and the degree to which those former Occidentals became Orientals and created a new identity. Taking into account the first encounter with Islam, this paper investigates the emotional aspects of the meeting between Latins and Muslims from the perspective of those Christians who came to the Holy Land, whether as crusaders, settlers of a more permanent nature, or pilgrims. Historical contextualization allows a more suitable analytical and theoretical perspective of the intricate emotional spectrum that was inherent in the history of the Crusader Kingdom. The Latins use of the Augustinian emotional index transformed negative attitudes toward the Muslims into an act of illusionary inclusion in order to exclude. This inverted inclusion meant that within its inner discourse, Christian society had defeated the Muslims symbolically, regardless of the outcome on the battlefield—a denial of reality that served to exclude the Easterners altogether. The inverted inclusion of the Muslims became the last step on the long march of both acknowledging and, at the same time, erasing the infidel, for it was Christianity that defined the cultural boundaries of the West.

Introduction: About 20 years after the emergence of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, Fulcher of Chartres, one of the participants in the First Crusade in his capacity as chaplain of Stephen of Blois, called the attention of his contemporaries to the many miracles that they were witnessing in the Crusader Kingdom:

Consider, I pray, and reflect how in our time God has transformed the Occident into the Orient. For we who were Occidentals have now become Orientals. He who was a Roman or a Frank has in this land been made into a Galilean, or a Palestinean. . . . We have already forgotten the places of our birth. . . . Words of different languages have become common property known to each nationality, and mutual faith unites those who are ignorant of their descent. . . . He who was born a stranger is now as one born here; he who was born an alien has become as a native. Our relatives and parents join us from time to time, sacrificing, even though reluctantly, all that they formerly possessed. . . . You see, therefore, that this is a great miracle, and one which the whole world ought to admire . . .

The emotional essence of Fulcher’s appeal hints at the euphoria that characterized many participants in the first Christian enterprise overseas, a feeling that was undoubtedly strengthened by the early victories on the battlefield. The remarkable territorial achievements of the first crusaders, indeed, could have been regarded as substantiating the blessing of Providence to the Christian armies. At a first glance, moreover, Fulcher’s words surprisingly lack any indication of seeking vengeance, feelings of abhorrence or extreme dislike of the “other”, against whom the crusaders were actually fighting a most merciless war. Fulcher further hints at his desire—shared, according to his own testimony, by his contemporaries—to become an integral inhabitant of the Eastern regions, thus replacing his former Occidental identity.

The lack of a negative approach toward the native population—more particularly, the Muslims—becomes more surprising in light of the prevailing mood among other chroniclers of the First Crusade, who opted for the pejorative term of barbarae nationes to encapsulate the enemies of Jesus and His knights, namely the crusaders. This apparent contradiction between Fulcher and other chroniclers of the First Crusade could, however, rather easily be dismissed by a more comprehensive examination of Fulcher’s writing. Fulcher, indeed, remained completely indifferent to the great suffering inflicted by his fellow crusaders on innocent women, children, and elderly Muslims whom they encountered on their way. A few examples can illustrate this point: when some Muslim women were captured in Kerbogha’s tents before Antioch in 1098, Fulcher mentioned the fact that the Franks “did them no evil but drove lances into their bellies” without expressing any criticism. Moreover, when speaking of the Muslims slain at Caesarea (1101), he notes—again, without any sense of pity—that their bodies were piled up and burned in order to recover the money that they supposedly had swallowed; nor was any sign of compassion expressed for the slaughtering of Muslims following the conquest of Jerusalem. Furthermore, Fulcher did not refrain from expressing his scorn for Islam, and he referred to Mohammed as an idol. Whether this assertion should be considered a reflection of Fulcher’s ignorance of the Muslim creed—a phenomenon rather common among his contemporaries—or of his xenophobia, is still a question open to further research.

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