Islam and European knighthood, part 2

The Inner Saracen

There is a quite popular plot in some scholastic treatises and different chivalric proses of XIV-XV centuries. Saladin, in that plot, becomes seriously curious about Christianity, even considering to convert to it (or initially with a different purpose), he travels to the West in a company of his former captive, Hugh de Tabarie, but after seeing all the depressing decay, uncharitable behavior of Christians and their sins, he loses his enthusiasm and in a deep disappointment leaves the West.

Of course, there can be no parallels with the real historical figure of Saladin. Like in the “l’Ordene de Chevalrie”, a poem by an unknown French author of the XIII century, we rather see an interesting artistic technique, and in Saladin’s person a remarkable archetypal image of a noble Saracen. Despite the dichotomy of “the Song of Roland”, this image caused a major impact on Christian authors, and became existentially important for the European nobleman of the era, which came after Christian failures and defeats in the Crusades.

The medieval mentality saw Islam not as an independent phenomenon, but as an extreme heresy of Christianity, therefore European authors sought to explain the high virtues of Saladin by either his dedication to knighthood or his Crypto-Christian identity, or even his Frankish origin, while being unable or unwilling to see the source of high virtue in Islam itself. Thus, The Noble Saracen becomes some sort of reflection and apparent reproach to the Cristian chivalry. After the defeat at the Battle of Hattin, Church, in its rhetoric, started criticizing chivalry for its decadence, the earthly nature of war, pride, greed, addiction to luxury, comfort, refined food and many other sins. Precisely, it was Christians’ sins that were seen as the main reason of the defeat, whereas the defeat itself was seen as God’s punishment, which within the general context of the apocalyptic plot of Gospels, a call for the antichrist kingdom to come.

At the end of XIV century Benedictine Prior Honoré Bovet in his poem “L’Apparicion maistre Jehan de Meun” goes even further and depicts his Saracen character directly with his “Jungian” mastery. His work is written in the form of scholastic dialogues between Prior (the alter ego of the author) and the spirit of Jean de Meun, while the rest of characters are completely marginal for the medieval society – a quack, a Jewish moneylender, a heretic monk and Saracen.

All, except Saracen, personify different faults of the society and are engaged in justifying themselves by hypocrisy of Christians. All except Saracen. He, on the contrary, is by no mean related to any of them and is full of virtues. The author highlights his highbirth and brilliant education — knowledge of languages, theology and law; his opinion is highly appreciated by Jehan de Meun himself (the author’s superego). In all this, of course, there is some kind of admiration towards more developed Islamic civilization.

Saracen does not start his speech with criticism of the degraded society. Unlike the previous orators, he begins by praising the French knights, calling them “most courageous of all Christians, the most noble and the mightiest, the most formidable and valiant in arms”1. Unlike Saladin from “L’Ordene de Chevalrie”, who feels enthusiasm and delight towards knighthood, Bovet’s Saracen is generally restrained and critical. Here, the author shows a remarkable foresight, by not speaking about divine wrath and does not at want to add to the stuffed old mantras of Church rhetoric. Through his Saracen character, he gives his fellow adherents a couple of pieces of valuable advice, like following the order to achieve military discipline, and seeing role models in Saracen soldiers and the ancient Romans, whose code is described as a complete contrast to the manner of Christians. Michael Henley, commenting on the Bovet’s poem, notes, that “Saracens live simply, without the need of luxury food and wines or comfortable beds; they become fors et fiers (strong and proud)”. Saracen character advises Christian knights to educate themselves proper qualities by reading Roman authors.

There, we witness certain development of Christian medieval thought that anticipates the early Renaissance man, still a zealous Christian who does not doubt divine providence a bit, as well as the fact that every victory is from God, at the same time no longer hoping only for that. He is able to learn from a stronger enemy; to whom he is respectful. He looks to his own past with hope, still feeling Roman within himself. And this is his “inner Saracen” that drives him into this. Because there is a great intuition in the fact that a medieval man could not think of Muslims as heathens in the full sense of that word, he deeply suspects the true matter of thing, that way, perceiving Islam as some sort of mirror of Christianity in which he most probably sees himself, in its true light.

Back to Jungianism, which has been mentioned above, at first glance, inopportunely. Carl Jung and his followers, exploring the archetypes of the unconscious, described so-called “shadow archetype”. The shadow is a rejected “dark self,” which conceals in itself, among many other things, missed opportunities, which potentially becomes a source for immense creativity.

First of all one has to accept and to take seriously into account the existence of the shadow. Secondly, it is necessary to be informed about its qualities and intentions. Thirdly, long and difficult negotiations will be unavoidable. Nobody know what the final outcome of such negotiations will be. One only knows that through careful collaboration the problem itself becomes changed. Very often certain apparently impossible intentions of the shadow are mere threats due to an unwillingness on the part of the ego to enter upon a serious consideration of the shadow. Such threats diminish usually when one meets them seriously”2.

Only when we reflect, we understand it, and the shadow appears in another shape. Establishing contact with the shadow is a lifelong process of scrutinizing and truthfully reflecting what we see. We just need to stay in our core, authentic core, our innermost self. 3

Many interesting parallels and many questions arise in reflection to this topic, the first of which: whose image is the “shadow” of the modern European Muslim? Most importantly: how should it be treated and what must be done about it?

By Daria Rusanova

1 Hanly, Medieval Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Dialogue: The Apparicion Maistre Jehan de Meun of Honorat Bovet, 2005

2 Letters of C. G. Jung: Volume 1, 1973.

3 Marie-Louise von Franz, 1995.


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