How Did Medieval Europeans Encounter the Antiquity of the Ancient Near East?
Some of the defining conflicts between Christendom and Islam took place far from the Middle East. In the eighth century CE, the wars in which the Catholic Carolingian Franks opposed the advance of Islamic Umayyad forces into Europe took place in western France, setting the stage for the creation of the Holy Roman Empire. In the sixteenth century, conflicts in which the Catholic Hapsburg emperors stopped the advance of the Ottoman sultans culminated in the siege of Vienna and the naval battle of Lepanto, off western Greece, bringing the Ottoman Empire in the west to the zenith of its size and fortunes.
During and after the centuries of the Crusades few European travelers visited and described the standing monuments of the West Asian interior. The rabbi Benjamin of Tudela saw Babylon while traveling among Jewish communities of Mesopotamia in about 1170 CE and the Franciscan friar Odoric of Pordenone saw Persepolis on his travels across the Mongol lands in 1321. The traveler Piero della Valle even sent some inscribed bricks from Babylon back to Italy in 1620, and published descriptions of both Babylon and Persepolis. Even so, the portable relics of ancient Near Eastern societies—pharaonic scarabs or reliefs or stelae, Mesopotamian cylinder seals, inscribed bricks or cuneiform tablets or vessels—were very rare in the treasuries of European churches and monasteries and the wonder-cabinets of European nobles before the eighteenth century.
Greco-Roman and Muslim attempts to decipher the hieroglyphs of Egypt had no impact on Europeans. The relics that Crusaders brought back were memorials of the Christian scriptures or the early saints and church fathers, not carvings or metalwork or ornaments from pre-Christian cultures.
Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “How the Muslims Made Europe.” New York Review of Books. Link to resource (accessed June 24, 2010).
“Battle of Vienna.” Wikipedia. Link to resource (accessed June 24, 2010).
Dominik, Mark. “Holy War in The Song of Roland: The “Mythification” of History.” SURJ: Stanford Undergraduate Research Journal. Link to resource (accessed June 24, 2010).
“Odoric of Pordenone.” Wikipedia. Link to resource (accessed June 24, 2010).
Matthew W. Stolper
Professor of Assyriology and the John A. Wilson Professor of Oriental Studies
1. It is reasonable to conclude that medieval Europeans had very limited exposure to the antiquity of the Near East—if at all. It is also reasonable to conclude that ordinary people would have had none. Using your knowledge of feudalism and medieval European history, provide several explanations for their inward view.
2. The author states that “portable relics of Near Eastern societies” were rare in medieval Europe and instead European Christians tended to focus on memorials expressing the presence of Christianity. What conclusions can one infer about medieval society from these statements? What evidence from this passage supports this inference?