Tuesday, January 26, 2010

AD 1200

At some point in the mid or late 1970's I read the novel Marathon Manby William Goldman. I don't know whether I read the novel before or after the movieof the same name was released in 1976, starring Dustin Hoffman, Lawrence Olivier, Roy Scheider and William Devane. In any case, I read the book before I saw the movie. I'm pretty sure I read it before 1978. Let's say I read it in 1977. What else happened in 1977? The Shah still ruled in Iran. Jimmy Carter was inaguarated as President and began the diplomatic efforts which would lead to the Camp David peace accords, and a Nobel Peace Peize shared by Prseident Sadat and Prime Minister Begin, the following year. Annie Hall was released. Jackson Browne's album Running on Emptywas released, and Paul Simon's Greatest Hits, Etc.,and the debut albums by The Clashand Elvis Costello.

I'm brainstorming here, trying to think of all the events from 1977 that I can, in order to flesh out the date, make it something with more depth and richness than a mere number. The title character of Marathon Man did this with some date. He was an avid amateur runner, he idolized great marathoners of the past and wished to emulate them, although he himself had not yet run a marathon. He was insecure about his running ability. He was much more confident in his ability as an historian. He was working on a doctorate at Columbia. It was hard to tell how accurate his opinion of his own strengths and weaknesses were, as the story was told strictly from his point of view. It's hard for a person to know what he or she does well or poorly. Grades and races and prizes and reviews and other measures of success sometimes help us out with our estimations of ourselves. Sometimes they don't.

I have no idea whether Goldman had any accurate idea of how an historian went about his or her work. Still, I picked up the habit of brainstorming for events for a specific date from his fictional historian protagonist, and have found it very useful.

I also picked up the sarcastic sentence "Give the genius a box of fucking Mars bars" from the same fictional doctoral candidate, his bitter reply to someone trying to console hom over the recent and violent death of a loved one. Some phrases, like that one, just stick in my mind and I love them and quote them over and over. Not always with attribution. But if I've ever insulted you by saying "Give the genius a box of fucking Mars bars!" when you were trying to help me out with some insight or piece of information, now you know where I got it. And: sorry about that.

What was going on in AD 1200?

The Crusaders had lost Jerusalem to the Turks a few years previously, after holding it from 1099 to 1187; it would be a few more years before the Fourth Crusade would wrest Constantinople from the Byzantines, sack it savagely, and set up an entity based there known as the "Latin Empire," which was quite small as empires go, and would not outlast the 13th century. Francis of Assisi was a teenager, a Francophile quite enthusiastic about troubadours, and not yet a monk. Dominic of Osma had been a monk for a few years and had given away his posessions, but had not yet founded the Dominican order. The Fransican Roger Baconand the Dominican Thomas Aquinaswould not be born for a few years yet. The great Moslem scholar Averroes,whose writings were to have such a huge impact upon the philosophy of Bacon, Aquinas and so many other 13th century philosophers, Western and otherwise, had died in 1198. Albertus Magnus,Aquinas' mentor, may have been as old as 7, or he may not have been born for another 6 years, we aren't sure.

The troubadours were very popular in France, Italy, Spain and Portugal, and the Minnesang, inspired by the troubadour phenomenon, was flourishing in Germany. Use of written French was already quite widespread; other vernacular languages were not not written very much, apart from troubadour songs, Minnesang and courtly romances. French was the only written vernacular which had began to challenge the dominance of Latin in Western Europe.

Marco Polo wouldn't be born for another half-century. Western European exploration of lands they considered exotic was still pretty much confined to the Mediterranean and the Holy Land.

Genghis Khan was 38 years old and had gone far in his efforts to unify the Mongol tribes in Central Asia, but had not yet begun upon his great wars of conquest of other nations. The Song dynasty ruled in China, the Sultanate of Khwarezm in Iran, the Ghurid Sultanate in northern India.

In the Americas the Mayans were centuries past their political and cultural height, the Incan empire and the forerunners of that of the Aztecs were just coming to be. Scholars debate whether there was already an Iroquois League. Most theorize that it would not come to be for over two centuries.

I don't really know squat about pre-Columbian societies. I know far less than squat about Africa.

I don't know a concise and convincing answer if someone were to read this essay and ask me why he or she should care about any of this. I think that about the best I could do would be to say that I had a lot of fun writing this, and that I hope it was of some interest to you. If not, I'm sorry, really I am. Ideally, you the reader are now stimulated to delve into research about all of these things brought together by their proximity to the date AD, 1200, as I am. That's the effect at which I aimed.

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