When Talk Turns to Middle Ages, Americans Find History's Foreign

Article excerpt

Recently, I sat down at a table with a small group of Serbian-Americans to talk about their relations with Croatian-Americans here. I lost a bit of my balance when the conversation swerved into the 14th century.

Like most Americans, I find the 14th century alien land, outside the American experience. And, again like most Americans, I have trouble understanding the thinking of people to whom the 14th century remains important.

Our trip backward in time began as we chatted about the perception among today's Americans that blame for the mess in the Balkans must fall on the Serbs.

As you might expect, these St. Louis Serbs took exception to the notion that the Serbs are the bad guys of the Balkans. As the conversation progressed, I learned that the Balkans has had enough history to give everybody a turn at being the bad guy.

Finally, one of the Serbs stared at me and asked, "Don't you worry about the growing Muslim influence in Europe?"

Huh?

"Don't you worry about the Muslim influx into Europe? Doesn't that bother you?"

I know enough about the history of the Balkans to know that the people there have traditionally viewed themselves as a bulwark against Muslim onslaughts.

In fact, Serbia's holiest day is June 28 - the date in 1389 when a Serbian army sacrificed itself in an effort to stop a Turkish invasion.

But that was 1389, six centuries ago. I tried to picture a Muslim threat today - Pope John Paul II rallying Christendom to keep the Muslims from the gates of Vienna, or something like that - and nothing came to mind. …