In the novel, the Northerners are constantly painted as uncouth -- “uncultivated savages”, and the Byzantines as sophisticated and “enlightened”. Again, Scott does not follow the Crusaders to the principal theatre of action, the Holy Land and Jerusalem, and the First Crusade is not described, though obviously the motives of the Franks are not comprehensible without an understanding of the Crusader movement. We are nonetheless able to gather Scott’s attitude to the Crusaders and the Crusades. Scott presents one view of the Crusades through the character Nicephorus, son-in-law of the Greek Emperor of Constantinople, Alexius I Comnenus -- though we should be wary of assuming that this is Scott’s own view. Nicephorus sings the praises of Godfrey of Bouillon [c.1060 -1100], considered one of the heroes of the First Crusade [1096-1099]:
This Godfrey is one of the wisest, noblest, and bravest of the leaders who have thus strangely put themselves in motion; and among a list of independent princes, as many in number as those who assembled for the siege of Troy, and followed, most of them, by subjects ten times more numerous, this Godfrey may be regarded as the Agamemnon. The princes and counts esteem him, because he is the foremost in the ranks of those whom they fantastically call knights, and also on account of the good faith and generosity which he practises in all his transactions. The clergy give him credit for the highest zeal for the doctrine of religion, and a corresponding respect for the church and its dignitaries. Justice, liberality, and frankness have equally attached to this Godfrey the lower class of the people. His general attention to moral obligations is a pledge to them that his religion is real; and, gifted with so much that is excellent, he is already, although inferior in rank, birth, and power to many chiefs of the crusade, justly regarded as one of its principal leaders.
To which the Emperor replies: “Pity that a character such as you describe this prince to be should be under the dominion of a fanaticism scarce worthy of Peter the Hermit, or the clownish multitude which he led, or of the very ass which he rode upon; which I am apt to think the wisest of the first multitude whom we beheld, seeing that it ran away towards Europe as soon as water and barley became scarce.”
As we shall see shortly, Scott had expressed his views on the ambiguous legacy of the Crusaders in his earlier novel Ivanhoe , but here we cannot take the Emperor’s views as Scott’s own. For later in Count Robert of Paris, Scott concedes that at least some Crusaders, including Godfrey, were motivated by higher principles: “A better principle determined the celebrated Godfrey, Raymond of Thoulouse [sic] , and some others, in whom devotion was something more than a mere burst of fanaticism”.
In the novel, Michael Agelastes, an old Greek sage, warns the Byzantine Emperor of the avaricious kind of Crusader: “…[T]hese European barbarians are like no others under the cope of the universe, either in the things on which they look with desire or in those which they consider as discouraging. The treasures of this noble empire [Byzantium], so far as they affected their wishes, would merely inspire them with the desire to go to war with a nation possessed of so much wealth, and who, in their self-conceited estimation, were less able to defend than they themselves are powerful to assail. Of such a description, for instance, is Bohemond of Tarentum [also known as Bohemund of Taranto], and such a one is many a crusader less able and sagacious than he; for I think I need not tell your Imperial Divinity that he holds his own self-interest to be the devoted guide of his whole conduct through this extraordinary war; and that, therefore, you can justly calculate his course when once you are aware from which point of the compass the wind of avarice and self-interest breathes with respect to him.”
However, there are nobler spirits among the Crusaders, continues the Greek Sage, “but there are spirits among the Franks of a very different nature. And who must be acted upon by very different motives, if we would make ourselves masters of their actions and the principles by which they are governed….This people -- I mean the more lofty-minded of these crusaders, who act up to the pretences of the doctrine which they call chivalry -- despise the thirst of gold, and gold itself, unless to hilt their swords, or to furnish forth some necessary expenses, as alike useless and contemptible”.
It remains an ambiguous compliment; what does the Greek Sage (Scott himself?) mean by “act up to the pretences of the doctrine which they call chivalry” -- that they are sincere but self-deluded, or even simply insincere? We need to go back to Scott’s earlier novel Ivanhoe to arrive at a sense of Scott’s attitudes to chivalry. Ivanhoe, set in late Twelfth Century England, displays Scott’s more general concerns, his commitment to religious and racial tolerance, and his Enlightenment abhorrence of superstition and fanaticism, whether the unreflective kind of the masses, or the more dogmatic variety of the religious bigot. Scott more generally is concerned with fanaticism; one could even take the motto, usually attributed to Scott himself, to Chapter XXXV as the motto to the entire novel:
Arouse the tiger of Hyrcanian deserts,
Strive with half-starved lion for his prey;
Lesser the risk, than rouse the slumbering fire
Of wild fanaticism.
To be continued.