Thursday, April 19, 2007

Troubadours and Crystal Cups

Alison Weir's historical biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine is a wonderful read. It explains much about the early development of the English and French nations and of the relationship between church power and regal power in the 12th century. Eleanor took part in the 2nd crusade with her first husband, Louis VII of France, whom she was forced to marry at a young age when her father, William X Duke of Aquitaine died while on pilgrimage to St Jacques de Compostella. It is said that 100,000 people left Paris to take part in the crusade, which eventually, after two years of difficult journey, achieved practically nothing.

This is just one of nine crusades preached by the Catholic church between the years 1095-1291 that has left an indelible mark on relations between the Christian West and the Muslim East. The term 'crusade' has come to be seen as synonymous with 'a good fight' and in the West, Good King Richard is seen as being pitched against the evil Saladdin. The early French poets known as troubadours who flourished in the courts of Eleanor, made the crusader into a romantic ideal, singing of the chivalrous knight who must depart on crusade before his chosen maiden will accept a proposal of marriage. This image of a 'good fight' is now blighted by the view of modern historians such as Steven Runciman, the leading western historian of the crusades, who ended his history with a resounding condemnation: High ideals were besmirched by cruelty and greed.. the Holy War was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God"

The first troubadour is acknowledged by Alison Weir to be Eleanor's grandfather, William IX of Aquitaine, who was a renowned philanderer and bawdy poet. He had also taken part in an earlier crusade, fighting the North-African Almoravids in Spain. At this time, there existed an unusual alliance between the Muslim king of Saragossa, Imad al-dawla abd al-malik ibn Hud and the Christian Aragonese fighting under Alfonso I. It is thought that Imad al-dawla fought alongside William IX, and that, as a sign of good will or thanks, gave him a crystal vase.

The vase was handed down to Eleanor and later given as a wedding present to Louis VII, her first husband. Louis, being of a pious nature, gave the vase to the powerful Abbot Suger, his religious and political advisor, who in turn consigned it to the treasury of the abbey of Saint Denis. Today the vase is the only surviving personal item owned by Eleanor and resides in the Louvre museum.

It is one of a number of extremely rare crystal vases, cups or ewers which were obtained from the Muslim East during this period of crusades. There is a particularly lovely ewer in the collection of the V&A Museum in London. According to the associated article: these ewers were made for the Fatimid caliphs who ruled Egypt between 969 and 1171. Great skill was required to hollow out the transparent, crystalline stone without breaking it, and to carve the delicate decoration. In some places, the rock crystal is barely more than a millimetre thick. By the 1060s, many thousands of rock crystals had been accumulated in the Fatimid treasury in Cairo, but then there was a financial crisis, and the caliph's troops raided his treasury. The soldiers sold their loot on the market, and some was bought eagerly by merchants from Europe, where nothing like the rock crystals had been seen.

Exactly how do you hollow out a crystal? It can't be easy. This article about another ewer similar to that in the V&A suggests that the crystal was worked into shape using abrasion, the sculptor endlessly rubbing the crystal with sand or a paste containing diamond powder. A trepan may also have been used, in particular to produce the small holes that decorate the animal reliefs.

I don't know where the rock crystals would have originated from, but they were obviously quite large to allow a ewer to be cut from them, probably something like 15 cms across and 25 cms long judging by the current dimensions of the ewers. This article shows that rock crystal can grow to considerably larger dimensions and large crystals can be bought today on the internet for a few hundred dollars. Theses crystals originate from Brazil, but the caliphs crystals must have come from closer to home. The beauty of the objects, however, comes from the skill of the workmanship, something that has never been repeated.

The crusades were extremely important to the West in terms of opening up trade of materials with the East, and perhaps more importantly, of ideas. Not only were ideals of beauty trabsferred, as witnessed by these vases, but so were architectural notions and philosophical ideas. It was in Eleanor's time that the first universities were being created by academics who were rediscovering classical thought, preserved for centuries in Arabic libraries.

We may think of troubadors such as William IX with his bawdy verses as among the originators of a western tradition of poetry, but it maybe that William was inspired by his Muslim neighbours. Here is a verse from Abbas ibn al-ahnaf who lived from 750-809 from the book or Abbasid poetry entitled "Birds Through a Ceiling of Alabaster" (Penguin Classics):

You've never really suffered, or known
The anguish of insomnia.
It is I who can never sleep,
And while I live, I cannot stop
The tears welling out of my eyes.

You scorn me when I speak to you,
yet lovers who quote my verse succeed.
I've become a candle thread destined
To light a room for other men
While burning away into thin air.

These Abbasid poets take their name from the Abbasid dynasty centred in Baghdad, at that time, to quote the book, "the centre of Arab-Muslim culture where the assimilation of Persian, Indian and Greek writing and thought produced a rich a diverse literature."

Finally then, a thought for Baghdad and Iraq as a whole, where the headline Terror claimed another 500 civilians lives this week, at least 21 of them children is absolutely normal and and where four million Iraqis are displaced refugees half outside of Iraq and half within the country. Iraq, a country where a botched and self-interested 'crusade' has become a humanitarian disaster.


Anonymous said...

The crusades, Eleanor of Aquitaine, geology, and current affairs, all in one brief post! Well done.

Ms Baroque said...

Hi Jonathan. I linked to this - in passing - but because the post sparked a dream!

Very interesting post, anyway, I read it about four times, which may be something to do with how it got into my unconscious.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Thanks to both of you.