09 March 2009

What if?

Thomas Asbridge opens his book The First Crusade (2004) with this quote from Pope Urban II:

"A race absolutely alien to God has invaded the land of Christians, has reduced the people with sword, rapine and flame. These men have destroyed the altars polluted by their foul practices. They have circumcised the Christians, either spreading the blood from the circumcisions on the altars or pouring it into the baptismal fonts."
Circumcising the Christians! Now, that’s an unforgivable deed indeed. The Pope delivered his speech in November 1095. His words were disseminated as quickly as possible in that age of illiteracy, undoubtedly by word of mouth, throughout the Christian Europe. And less than 2 years later, the Crusaders were on their way to Jerusalem to turn Christians and Moslems, in Asbridge’s words, "from being occasional combatants to avowed and entrenched opponents, and the chilling reverberations of this seismic shift still echo in the world today."

Asbridge goes on to add this clarification: "The image of Muslims as brutal oppressors conjured by Pope Urban was pure propaganda – if anything, Islam had proved over the preceding centuries to be more tolerant of other religions than Catholic Christendom." This brought to my mind the following question, which I am sure has been asked by many others, if not in this specific context, undoubtedly in the consideration of countless other historical scenarios. If Pope Urban II hadn’t been the lying zealot he was, would there still have been large scale Christian military campaigns into Moslem territories or would history have taken a vastly different path?

It’s hard to pinpoint the actions of one individual as the sole ultimate cause of a major historical event, but sometimes one can’t help but wonder. If Hitler hadn’t risen to power, would there still have been a world war? In some instances, there is a definite link between an individual and a historical event. For example, if Bush had never become the U.S. president, it is unlikely that there would have been a war in Iraq. On the other hand, I can’t think of any statesmen that were causatively associated with World War I.

There are, however, some major historical events associated with heads of state that, nevertheless, would have happened anyway. An example I can think of is the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 by the Ottomans. Although the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conquerer has traditionally been credited with the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the Empire had by then become so weak that if Mehmet hadn’t come along another Ottoman sultan would sooner or later have nailed the last nail in the Byzantine coffin.


Deniz Bevan said...

It's interesting that you mention Hitler - Stephen Fry's book Making History (fiction), posits one scenario: the protagonist affects the past by making sure Hitler is never born; however, without Hitler to rise to the head of the Nazi Party, another man is chosen who turns out to be smarter and even better organized than Hitler and actually succeeds in defeating the Allies - the world is a much more terrible place as a result, and the protagonist has to go back and undo what he did...
As for this "His words were disseminated as quickly as possible in that age of illiteracy, undoubtedly by word of mouth, throughout the Christian Europe." - given the amount of lies and embellishments that gossip leads to, I can just imagine what happened to the Pope's original message as it was transmitted from Bishop to Bishop and townsfolk to townsfolk. A similar case is in a Somerset Maugham - or was it Evelyn Waugh? - short story, where a Bishop in deepest Africa in the 1910s says something or other in response to a local incident and one thing leads to another - suddenly a major war is being reported in the British papers... Remind me to look it up in my library at home, I;ll tell you what story it is; maybe it's available on Gutenberg.

John said...

I am fairly sure that there would have been crusades with or without Urban II since the idea pre-existed his papacy and was at least partly spurred by calls for help from the Byzantine emperors. Urban's role was mainly as a facilitator.