May 05, 2005
This evening, I'll be at an advance screening of Ridley Scott's latest epic, Kingdom of Heaven, about the fall of Jerusalem in 1187 to Saladin. Review to follow.
While doing a little background reading this morning, I found a few interesting tidbits to chew on. First, from Barbara Tuchman's Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour. In a turn of events disturbing to all conservatives, the fall of Jerusalem catalyzed Europe into launching the Third Crusade, and led to Henry II imposing England's first income tax.
The Saladin Tithe, as it was called, despite its high purpose was regarded, says Roger of Wendover, as "a violent extortion which veiled the vice of rapacity under the name of charity and alarmed the priesthood as well as the people."
The other comes from Norman Cantor's magisterial Medieval History. The Franks of First Crusade took advantage of Muslim disunity (cough) to establish a series of coastal Crusader Kingdoms. (The French have always done better at interleague play.) This brought them into close diplomatic contact with the still-dying Byzantines. While the disembarking Franks didn't exactly say, "Justinian, we have returned," the following should give one pause:
In the face of Byzantine grandeur and culture, the Franks had a strong sense of inferiority, and they compensated for their rusticity and crudeness by condemning the Greeks and effeminate and corrupt. Actually the mannered Greek courtiers rightly found the Frankish prices boors by comparison with themselves. There was merit in each party's criticism of the other, but the Franks were representatives of a still youthful and extremely vital civilization, while Byzantium was sterile and decadents and have to rely on its western enemies for salvation from the more pressing Arab foe.
I guess the Franks have been overcompensating ever since, but the echoes are unmistakable.
March 29, 2005
1939 New York World's Fair
I've written before about the 1939 New York World's Fair, and the place it holds - and represents - in American memory. It's often been compared to the 1851 Great Exposition in London's Crystal Palace, except that I'm not sure that people were still writing about that one on the eve of World War I.
The Fair was a mix of high-brow education, middle-brow futurism, and low-brow entertainment. It was Optimism about Progress in a way that our current culture can barely grasp, much less share. It was so optimistic it included a Palestine pavilion from a country that didn't even exist - yet.
It wasn't even conciously stubborn optimism; that's just the way the country was. Look, it was a Fair, not a newscast. A couple of the countries had to vacate for the 1940 season because they either started a war in the meantime or got plowed under by it. The Poles probably didn't do themselves any favors by holding a drawing to "Win a Trip to Poland" on the eve of being drawn and quartered by Stalin and Hitler.
I haven't been able to find documentation of this, but I suspect that the Fair had some influence on Disney's vision for Epcot. Only some dial got set wrong during the design process. When my parents lived in Orlando, we went to Epcot a couple of times, and I always came away feeling a little disappointed, like the designers were spending more time looking in the rearview mirror than out the windshield. I wanted the World of Tomorrow, but they gave me "Millennia of Progress."
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