Last Night's Viewing: The Crusades, BBC2
Jonathan Meades on France, BBC4

 

When James of Vitry, new Bishop of Acre, arrived at his see in 1216, he apparently wasn't terribly impressed. The earlier Christian Crusades had left behind a string of Crusader statelets down the Mediterranean coast and Acre, close to Jerusalem, had become the most important port in the region, a gateway for pilgrims and a centre for trade. Piety it didn't do nearly as well. In fact, Bishop James thought it was all a bit Gomorrah-on-Sea, distressing proof that the ideals of the earlier Christian adventurers had been corrupted by economic power and pragmatic exchange. In the last of his interesting series The Crusades, Thomas Asbridge showed us a rather literal token of this accommodation between theological purpose and day-to-day profit – gold coins minted by the Crusader knights in imitation of Egyptian Islamic originals. When it came to cash they were open to multi-faith dialogue, however intransigent they might be when on their knees praying.

This episode was about the fizzling out of the Crusades, one of the more ignoble European enterprises of the last millenium. But if you'd assumed that it would be dull on account of that, you'd have been wrong. Louis IX might not be as well known as Richard the Lionheart or other Crusader kings, but he makes up for his obscurity in incompetence and fanaticism. Spooked by a near-fatal fever into making a big promise to God, Louis ignored the advice of his sensible mother, "mortgaged France" and set out with 25,000 knights and a fleet of some 1,800 ships to re-establish Christian rule in the Middle East. His plan was a bold one – to advance on Cairo itself. Initially, it looked as if God was in favour of the tactics. Louis' beach landing at Damietta was successful, but then God changed his mind. After various military disasters and reverses, Louis was captured alive, so ill with dysentery that a hole had been cut in his britches. His piety undiminished by this fiasco, he was eventually canonised by the church, which sometimes has a hard time distinguishing between sanctity and derangement.

 

Louis IX wasn't really the star here, though. That title went to Baibars, a Mamluk commander who'd helped to defeat Louis' Crusade in Egypt and then led the Mamluks into battle at Ain Jalut. Never heard of Ain Jalut? No, I hadn't either, which is a little shaming since it has some claim to being one of the hinge engagements in Western history, a famous defeat for the Mongol army (which was within 60 miles of Jerusalem) and the moment at which the Mamluks began to build the empire that would eject the Crusader forces. Baibars re-established a caliphate in Cairo and invested heavily in the infrastructure that would help maintain the Mamluk empire. Asbridge concluded by repudiating the received opinion that Islam and the West are doomed always to be at loggerheads, citing evidence for a more pragmatic engagement between two different cultures. The fact that Baibars' name has been taken by at least one Islamist terror group suggests that not everyone draws the same lessons from history that he does.

In Jonathan Meades on France, the presenter was in a pretty gnomic mood, even for him, in the last of his films about the country – a free-form meditation on France's unacknowledged infatuation with America. A programme less suited to a post-prandial sofa slump it is hard to imagine, unless your definition of vegging out allows for phrases such as "malodorous Canutism" (a description of the French anti-globalist José Bové, who sometimes makes his points with cowshit). But, like its predecessors, it really repays the effort. I had no idea that William Levitt, father of American suburban sprawl and little boxes all made of ticky-tacky, had also been commissioned to build in France, initiating a proud tradition of Gallic rural blight. Sometimes, my ignorance is the only thing that keeps me going.

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