Christian-Muslim Understanding in the Later Middle Ages: Richard Fletcher Asks to What Extent Medieval Christians and Muslims Sought to Move beyond Mutual Hostility. (Cross Current)

By Fletcher, Richard | History Today, April 2003 | Go to article overview
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Christian-Muslim Understanding in the Later Middle Ages: Richard Fletcher Asks to What Extent Medieval Christians and Muslims Sought to Move beyond Mutual Hostility. (Cross Current)


Fletcher, Richard, History Today


IN 1396 A CRUSADING ARMY, possibly the largest ever assembled, set off under the command of King Sigismund of Hungary to halt the advance into Europe of the Ottoman Turks. The crusaders' route lay down the valley of the Danube into the Balkans. In what is today northern Bulgaria they settled down to besiege the strategically important town of Nicopolis. There they were surprised by a Turkish relieving force and comprehensively defeated. The most ambitious crusading expedition of the later Middle Ages had ended in humiliating failure.

Among those who set themselves to ponder this reverse was a Provencal diplomat named Honorat Bouvet who was moved to embody his reflections in a poem. In it he identified the moral shortcomings of Christendom as conduct displeasing to God: divine displeasure had been responsible for the catastrophe. There was nothing new here: clerical moralists had been accounting for crusading failures in this manner since the time of St Bernard nearly three centuries earlier. What was new, however, was that in Bouvet's poem the diagnostician was not a Christian but a Muslim, and that some of his diagnosis took the form of a comparison between Christian and Muslim societies in favour of the latter. For example, wrote Bouvet, Christians had gone soft through self-indulgence, while Muslims had been made tough by austerity. Now, the literary device of using the outsider as critic involves thinking neutrally or benevolently about that outsider and his views. If Bouvet was better disposed towards the Muslim enemy than we might expect in crusading circles, then we need to ask what other circles there were, what other approaches to Islam were available to late medieval Europeans? What is striking is their diversity and modernity.

For the first five centuries or so since the earliest, and most traumatic, encounter between Christendom and Islam in the second quarter of the seventh century, Christian attitudes to Islam had been compounded of ignorance, misperception, hostility and fear. It was from this cocktail--as also from other impulses internal to western Christendom-that the way of military confrontation which we call the Crusades had emerged. A fluke success, the capture of Jerusalem by the armies of the First Crusade in 1099, had been followed by a steady record of failure. Although hopes remained high and the crusading impulse still had vigorous life, it must have been apparent to clear-sighted observers long before the Nicopolis campaign that the Holy Places never would be repossessed for Christendom.

An alternative approach was a missionary one: the attempt peacefully to convert Muslims to Christianity. Growing out of the twelfth-century reform of the Western Church with its stress on preaching to the dissident who had erred, this approach was particularly cultivated in Spain, where the territorial Reconquista, or `Reconquest' of those large parts of the Iberian Peninsula under Islamic rule, was advancing by leaps and bounds. The process brought enormous numbers of Muslims under Christian rule, thus raising in an acute form the bewildering challenges of managing a multicultural society. Many people rose to these challenges. Take, for example, the Majorcan polymath Ramon Lull (1232-1315), knight, poet, novelist, mystic, traveller, self-publicist, lobbyist and the tireless author of over 200 works. Lull learned Arabic, set up a school in Majorca for the training of missionaries, and at the ecumenical council of Vienne in 1311 persuaded the assembled churchmen to found schools at the universities of Pads, Oxford, Bologna and Salamanca in which not only the Arabic language but also the history, theology and philosophy of Islam were to be studied. Lull met his death practising what he preached, stoned to death at an advanced old age while attempting to preach the Gospel in Tunisia.

At first sight these thirteenth-century initiatives were not wholly unprecedented. Back in the 1140s Abbot Peter the Venerable of Cluny had commissioned the earliest translation of the Koran into Latin.

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