Storytelling and the Crusades: an examination of the importance of storytelling in our understanding of the crusades from the earliest written accounts to a present-day novel, 'Kyrie Eleison'

Author: Adrian Thurnwald

Thurnwald, Adrian, 2014 Storytelling and the Crusades: an examination of the importance of storytelling in our understanding of the crusades from the earliest written accounts to a present-day novel, 'Kyrie Eleison', Flinders University, School of Humanities and Creative Arts

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While it is generally accepted that the crusades significantly shaped the evolution of chivalric romance, courtly love and the knightly stereotype, the First Crusade (1096-1099) in particular has a resonating significance that even continues to shape contemporary ideas, representations and beliefs. The participants of the First Crusade were shaped by fictional narratives of various kinds. The Bible, itself reinterpreted to suit changing circumstances in history, was a key text, even shaping military strategy. Similarly, when recording and making sense of the historical facts about the capture of Jerusalem, ecclesiastical historians drew on phrases and tropes from epic literature, suggesting that such texts influenced individual and cultural understanding of identity and the world. After the military successes of the First Crusade, knights were seen to have gained the approval of God in a holy enterprise, which gave lay knights a special prestige and a new sense of self-worth. Crusading ideals, coupled with troubadour conventions, gave rise to the heroes of chivalric romance, who, though a step removed from the crusaders of medieval history books, represented the crusader ideal par excellence - men with the strength, morality and spirit of the crusaders, but stripped of all suggestions of ecclesiastical control. These narratives, in which morality was enforced through a code of violence by knights who were a law unto themselves, quickly influenced the self-identity of European aristocratic and knightly classes, where powerbrokers play-acted as narrative heroes in the everyday world. Miguel de Cervantes in Don Quixote satirised those who would idealise storybook knights, and his layered work called into question storytelling itself and fiction's influence on society. Don Quixote was a challenge to the fictionalised crusader-cum-chivalric knight, but despite Cervantes the ideal would survive. Historian Jonathan Riley-Smith has demonstrated that Walter Scott's historical novel, The Talisman, play-acted in costume by more recent Western powerbrokers such as the German Emperor, may have forever changed modern Middle East/West relations, standardising perceptions of crusading and Saladin in the modern Middle East. The crusaders understood themselves through fictional narratives and storytelling, and, as fictionalised characters themselves, they have influenced Western culture and identity ever since. Some suggest that the current age is one of a clash of cultures and that cultural values and exports - be they explicit or subtle - can exacerbate cultural tensions. However, although crusading ideas still reappear occasionally in political rhetoric, the West is wary of crusaders and their anachronistic ideals and quick to spot them in their native form. But, perhaps because of such wariness, crusaders have taken on new guises in the modern age with the result that the values of the chivalric knights, those idealised crusaders, have been sustained. In popular culture in general and in American comic books in particular, superheroes are lone champions who yearn for an unreachable ideal, answer only to themselves, and enforce morality through violence; such figures can be seen as carrying medieval values into the modern world. In such popular guises, crusader narrative fiction and its ideals may still be influencing the self-understanding of those in the West and dictating how the West represents itself across cultural divides. The presence of such disguised versions of the crusades and crusaders in our collective consciousness hinders our proper understanding of what the crusades meant, not just to the crusaders themselves but for us. These ideas and more are synthesised in the creative work, 'Kyrie Eleison', which uses storytelling to suggest how crusader identities were formed and then re-interpreted through fiction. At the same time, the creative piece attempts to present the crusaders in recognisable human terms so as to try and overcome the difficulties modern readers might have in understanding crusader motivations, both because the crusader mindset is so different to our own and because we are likely to be influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by simplistic conceptions of the crusades which still permeate popular culture.

Keywords: First Crusade,crusades,creative writing,superhero,Batman

Subject: English thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2014
School: School of Humanities and Creative Arts
Supervisor: Associate Professor Rick Hosking