Thursday, March 11, 2010

Why Amadis never heard of the Crusades

The book is rank fiction rather than a chronicle.

[Church of the True Cross in Segovia, said to have been founded by Templar Knights in the 13th century. Legend says that a Templar knight died at its doors and was devoured by crows and choughs before he could be buried, and ever since, these birds have been cursed and no longer perch there. Photo by Sue Burke, taken from the Alcazar.]


A reader asked if Amadis or any other characters in this book ever went on a Crusade. No, they didn't, and that's a good question. There are three reasons why they didn't:

1. The Crusades to conquer the Holy Land lasted from 1095 to 1272, and they were over by the time the first book of Amadis of Gaul was written, which was the early-to-mid 1300s. Amadis was also written in Spain, and the kingdoms of Spain hadn't participated in the Crusades. Crusaders came mostly from France, Germany, and Britain. It wasn't part of Spanish culture.

Instead, Iberia had its own crusade from 778 to 1492 to reconquer the peninsula from the Moors. We can hear distant echoes of this in Amadis: the Castilian landscape was (and still is) dotted with castles, and both Christian and Muslim knights obeyed strict codes of chivalry, which Crusaders in the Holy Lands sometimes ignored. Books like Amadis helped encourage proper behavior among Spanish knights.

On the way to the Holy Land, Crusaders did occasionally aid Iberian Christians. Sigurd I of Norway fought in Portugal and the Baleares Islands in 1109. The Second Crusade paused to help King Alfonso I of Portugal take Lisbon in 1147, and to help Count Raymond Bergenuer IV of Barcelona conquer the city of Tortosa in 1148.

After the Crusades, the Military Orders of the Knights Templars and the Knights Hospitaler established themselves in Spain to fight in the Reconquest.

2. However, the Reconquest doesn't figure in Amadis, either, because the book is set long ago and far away (from Spain): that is, in the universe of King Arthur, well before his reign. The first book of Amadis takes place mostly in Great Britain "shortly after the Passion of Our Redeemer and Savior Jesus Christ," that is, in the first or second century AD. (Of course, there were no knights and no king of Great Britain at the time, nor was Christianity the state religion. It never rains in that fictional Great Britain, either.)

3. Amadis has nothing do with reality and never did. Garcí Rodríguez de Montalvo, who compiled the only extant version of the novel, mentions the feats of Godfrey of Bouillon, a leader of the First Crusade, in the Prologue, but then goes on to explain that his own work ranks among the "false histories about amazing things found outside of the natural order, and they ought to be considered tall tales rather than chronicles … rank fiction."

The characters in this tale are much too busy with their own intrigues involving the courtly love, the treachery of villains, and the affairs of royal families to go running off to join the Crusades, if they had existed.

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