I’m a sucker for the Black Plague, which I’ll admit sounds kind of twisted, and has led to some, um, let’s just say unfortunate movie and book choices, the most recent one being, “The Season of the Witch.” Wow. What a disappointment. You’re probably wondering why I was disappointed, when the previews probably looked awful. I was blinded, I tell you! Blinded by the seductiveness of the Black Plague! That time period seems like such rich fodder, and movie-makers squander it again and again. (Also, don’t bother with the enticingly titled “Black Death” with Sean Bean. Oy. I have a vague recollection that “The Advocate” was pretty good, and I did enjoy “Kingdom of Heaven,” but in all fairness, those are just set in the same time period, not Black Plague-centric. I rest my case.) One positive in all of this is Connie Willis’s “Doomsday Book.” Check it out if you haven’t read it!
I can also get pretty excited about the Crusades, which sounds almost as wrong. At this point you may be thinking that I’m in the SCA, into re-enactments, and those Medieval feast places. Let me just say that I am not. What I do love is the history and art of this time, and while trying to figure out where this post is going, I keep being drawn back to Vezelay, a major pilgrimage center (exciting in an acceptable way, right?) and where the Second Crusade began, preached by Bernard of Clairvaux. So let’s start at Vezelay Abbey, also called Sainte-Madeleine, in France. This place fascinates me because I love to imagine the Crusaders about to take off for parts unknown, having seen images like this from a Crusaders Handbook (don’t you love the eyes in the chest and no head?):
Monstrous Races, Crusader Handbook, 12th century
and the Heathen of the World in the lintel (just above the doors, under the tympanum) at Vezelay. My favorite heathen are the Panotii, who supposedly had ears so big that they could wrap them around their bodies. (I remember when I first saw a picture of this and thought those were wings. Nope. Ears.) The people with dog heads are a close second. (click here for more images)
Panotii, Lintel, Sainte-Madeliene, Vezelay, 1120-32
Imagine what they thought they were getting into when they left on a crusade with images like this around! And imagine their surprise when they got to parts unknown and found people more or less like them! Yes, people of different skin color with different customs and ways of life, with different plants, animals, and food, but not people with ears as big as their heads.
Then check out this image of Jesus and the Apostles in the tympanum (above the lintel).
Tympanum, Mission of the Apostles, Sainte-Madeleine, Vezelay, 1120-32
Look at how much movement there is. What, you say? Just looks like a bunch of people standing around to me! Well, compare it to this:
St Trophime, Arles, France, 12th century
The sculpture in the Vezelay tympanum looks agitated in comparison, doesn’t it? Don’t those people make you itch to move? No one is standing still at Vezelay, as if to say, quit your yapping, Bernard of Clairvaux! Let’s get on with it! Those apostles want to jump out of that tympanum and take on the Heathen of the World with you!
Don’t get me wrong — I know that the Crusades were brutal, awful, misguided. But they happened. And some amazing cross-cultural exchange went on despite all of the violence and misunderstanding, which may be a topic for another time. And of course I don’t know what it was actually like to be leaving on a Crusade, or to have my husband, son, friend, leaving. Or to live at that time. Or to experience the Black Death, for that matter. But I firmly believe that people are people, and that in some ways, there’s nothing new under the sun. That people in the 12th century had a lot of the same feelings and emotions that we have today. Even some of the same experiences. That this is what keeps history interesting. It’s the history of people. Of us, really. How cool is that?