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Kingdom of Heaven, the historical epic about the Crusades which opens Friday and stars Orlando Bloom, might be fine entertainment, but is it history?
Three scholars came to the film's junket to speak on the movie's historical veracity or lack thereof. Nancy Caciola is a historian with the University of California, San Diego, and author of Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages; Hamid Dabashi is a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University in New York and author of Close Up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, Future; and Donald Spoto is a full-time writer and former professor of theology whose books include Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi.
What follows is an edited transcript of their panel discussion.
Who's going on these Crusades?Nancy Caciola: Just about anyone who can afford it, and in fact many people who can't and who are just struggling to get overseas. When Pope Urban II calls the First Crusade in 1096, he's urging anyone who can possibly go to participate in this particular enterprise. It's understood as being both a military expedition but also something that is sort of good for your soul. It's a way of doing penance for your sins, as we see at the beginning of the movie. So I think there is a mingling of motivations here. People are sincerely pious and religious, people are at the same time seeking their own material best self-interests, and people are quite frankly concerned about the situation in Jerusalem—they want to regain this city, and they want to defend it after they do regain it in 1099. So it's a very mixed motivation, and it's an enterprise that attracts people who are highly committed.Were the European leaders using the Crusades to distract people from their poverty?Caciola: Europe is actually relatively prosperous in this time period. There are very good crop yields; we know that the weather was very good at this particular period of time, so there isn't huge famine; there aren't huge plagues. The 12th century in particular is considered a sort of early Renaissance moment in European history. One of the things that it does do, is it draws off an element of history that is destabilizing, and that is these younger sons who are brought up with certain expectations of a certain lifestyle, and then don't really have the ability to maintain it as they achieve adulthood. If you don't have an estate, if you don't have a means of material self-support, you cannot marry and have a family and children, so you're kind of condemned to eternal bachelorhood and being on the fringes of the society you grew up in. Many of these people become robbers and outlaws, and one of the things that the Crusades do accomplish is they give these people a purpose that is sanctioned by the Pope and the leadership of society and that is seen as productive, although we from our perspective might quibble about how productive a major war is.What is the significance of Jerusalem to the Muslim world?Hamid Dabashi: First and foremost, I am here as a fan of Ridley Scott's cinema. I think it is extremely important, when you talk about historical issues such as the Crusades, to make a distinction between events that were happening at the time of the Crusades, between 1095 when the First Crusade is launched, and 1202 when the Fourth Crusade is launched. It has happened, it is an historically relevant matter, but it is only tangentially relevant to Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven. As a work of art, it is located between historical events and contemporary issues. One should make these three distinctions quite significant. We must locate Kingdom of Heaven in his other works and not just look at it in isolation. So whatever discussion about history we have, one should not reduce this or assimilate it backwards into history. This is not a documentary; this is a work of art by a major filmmaker.The significance of Jerusalem for Jews and Christians is obvious. So far as the Muslims are concerned, according to their religious belief, the prophet ascended to the heavens from the site of where we now have the Dome of the Rock, and in the 7th century, a monument was built on that site, which is called the "noble sanctuary." As a result, if you were to visit Jerusalem today, it's very difficult in fact to separate the Jewish sacred sites, the Muslim sacred sites and the Christian sacred sites. The religious significance is one thing, but it has also historically been at the main conjunction of a trade route, and has always been significant economically as well as religiously. And in fact, after the First Crusade and the Christian conquest of Jerusalem in 1099, initially of course there is a bloodbath that follows, but soon after that, Jerusalem emerges as a cosmopolitan centre in which Christians and Muslims and eventually Jewish communities live side by side.Why would someone go on a Crusade?Donald Spoto: I think it's very important to keep in mind that one of the characteristics of medieval piety was a kind of spiritual capitalism. In order to situate ourselves within the kind of spirit that I think was so wonderfully set forth, especially in the first third of the picture, I think we have to recall that the overwhelmingly great difference between Christianity and its neighbors until the 4th century was its pacifism. In order to be a Christian, you had to give up arms, you could not enter an army; if you were a Roman soldier you had to give up your sword. It was simply not permitted to engage in any kind of warfare and be a Christian.In fact, the great blessing of life, until Constantine legitimized Christianity, was to be a martyr. Now once the Edict of Milan in 315 makes Christianity the official religion of the empire, what happens is, alas, that Christians now begin to get theirs. If you can't get the laurel crown of martyrdom as the singular great blessing of imitation of the great martyr on the cross, what then happens is two things: first of all, like Jews and like Muslims, the goal of your lifetime is to go at least once to Jerusalem, where it was believed the cross of Christ or at least parts of it was located. The second effect is you have the rise of the primacy of the monastic life. Consecrated chastity was seen as a kind of death, a kind of martyrdom, and so you have the rise of the monastic life as the standard by which Christian life can be measured. All this happens between the 4th century and the High Middle Ages.Why go on a crusade? For several reasons. First of all, all the guilt and punishment due to the sins of one's life were cancelled by making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. This is very clearly set forth, and rightly so, in the beginning of the film. So the overwhelming reason was, indeed, religious. Atheism was unknown. People may have been rotten to the core and may not have practiced religion, but I think it is indefensible to say that anyone would really claim not to believe in God. That was bred in the bone.This is obviously Balian's story. Could a similar story have been told of a Muslim pilgrim? Were their motivations similar?Dabashi: No. First of all, we are on the site, we are right where things are happening, there is no march; whereas for Balian, particularly in Sir Ridley's construction of the character, this is a journey of faith. This is a man who has lost his faith, has lost his hope, and this is a running theme in Ridley Scott's cinema. You have it in Gladiator, you have it in Black Rain, this is a sort of leitmotif of Ridley Scott's cinema; whereas in the context of Islamic history at the time, in fact the entire Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, it's really a border skirmish. It's not of much significance in Islamic history, because by then, the centre of Islamic civilization had shifted eastwards, towards Central Asia. Salah-ad-Din himself of course is exceedingly important in the region. By 1174 he has established his authority over Egypt; by three years later he has complete control over Syria; soon after that he is controlling also Jazeera, the Arabian Peninsula; and by 1187 he has control over Jerusalem. Jerusalem is religiously significant for Muslims, but that zeal that we have, in terms of somebody from southern France going in order to conquer Jerusalem, is not there. And of course, the most significant places for Muslims are Mecca and Medina. Those are the central sacred sites for Muslims, but nevertheless, Jerusalem is significant as well.Is our understanding of the medieval knights overly romanticized?Spoto: Actually, in many ways our cultural popular understanding is not inaccurate. The medieval ideal of courtly love, of constancy toward one fair lady, the ideal of courtesy, and of defending the poor and the defenseless, which is the primary reason why they were given a sword. To me one of the most moving scenes in the picture is the scene in which Godfrey dies and, before doing so, hands on the sword, and in fact that is the last part of the ancient ritual of dubbing a knight. He prescribes a cult of justice, of doing good, of showing mercy—this is all included in profoundly religious language—he then strikes him a blow, which is not only meant, as Godfrey says, as a reminder, but it's also an injunction that doubtless this code and this effort will involve suffering. The evening before the knightly ceremony, the knight spent on his knees in prayer, in a chapel or a church or a basilica, depending on his public status, with his armor on the altar. He spent the entire night in prayer, and then the next morning this ceremony occurred, to which the film was remarkably faithful.Is this film simplistic in nailing the Knights Templar as the chief villains?Caciola: There are certainly simplifications involved here, but this is not a documentary, and I think it does a good job of depicting a medieval setting. But many of the people in the movie have, I think, a more modern sensibility. In fact, my take on it is that the type of mentality represented in the film by the Knights Templar was probably closer to the mainstream in the Middle Ages than someone like Balian, who is presented as this sort of very ecumenical person who respects all the great faiths. I think that that idea, while not unknown in the Middle Ages, is a relatively rare idea, and what's presented as the far end of the spectrum of fanaticism in the film is probably what we should be, historically speaking at least, seeing as closer to the center. In point of fact, these are people who are responding to religions that make exclusive truth claims, and these are people who take very seriously the notion that they must defend the truth claims of their particular system and die for it, and that the truth claims of the other systems are invalid.What do you make of the title of the film?Spoto: I think it's wonderfully ambiguous. The phrase "kingdom of heaven" is as ambiguous as a movie title as it is in the Scriptures, because in the Gospels, "kingdom of heaven" very rarely means a future life. That, it is presumed, God will see to. The kingdom of heaven, as spoken of by Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, is very clear. It means the activity of God at work in human affairs. So for example, in the Lord's Prayer, the phrase "thy kingdom come" is then explained, "thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." "Heaven" does not mean "up" or "later," it means "the sphere of the divine." "May the sphere of the divine be activated in human affairs." That is the meaning of "may the divine will be done."
For more on the film, here's the official website.