Schloss Schallaburg Crusaders Revisited

An Journey to Melk Returns to 12th Century Europe and the Origins of Modern History

From 31st March until 4th November, an exhibition on Crusaders is taking place in a castle Schallaburg near Melk, a small town in Lower Austria. Easily reachable by train from Vienna, the town is a good choice for spending your weekend, especially since it is far enough from Vienna’s bustle.

The journey to Melk lasts around one hour and once there you need to take a bus or rent a cab that will drive you straight to Schallaburg, a castle not too far away from the town. It is a beautiful baroque castle famous by its terracotta archways encircling the castle’s courtyard, with around 1,600 different decorations on the gateways themselves.

However, the goal of my journey was the exhibition on the Crusaders. On arriving at the castle, I contacted Markus Altrichter, curator for the exhibition who agreed to  give us some background on the history of the castle itself prior a tour of the exhibition.

Unlike what seems to be the popular opinion today, the Crusades were not fought only in the Holy Land but also on the territories of Spain, southern France, the Czech Republic and Eastern Prussia as well. Wars that this exhibition emphasizes, have been fought with the aim of recapturing Jerusalem, but it has to be taken into consideration that the capture of conquered places had different connotations back then. In contrast to today, when we tend to think only about physically governing conquered cities in the Middle Ages, the idea then was to establish the kingdom of heaven on Earth.

As for the catalyst for the start of the crusades, the battle at Manzikert in 1071 is certainly one factor, when the Seljuks defeated the Eastern Roman Emperor, who in turn went to Pope Urban II in Rome for help. The Pope held a Council at Clermont during which he issued a call for the Crusades, i.e. a holy war.  The response was huge, and great numbers of common people  and nobles alike answered it.

One of the reasons was the problem of over-population in Europe, especially in areas around rivers where arable land was already divided between nobility and their older sons. That caused younger members of the class to go to conquer foreign lands because they could not hope to earn anything on the continent. Younger members of nobility were also famous for causing trouble and fights which caused bloodshed, so Rome wanted to improve the situation in Europe. What Rome wanted to implement was the rule of God´s peace with the purpose to stop the fighting or at least to limit it. This rule allowed combat only from Monday morning until Wednesday evening. Why? Because Thursday is the day of last supper, on Friday Jesus Christ was crucified, Sunday is the day of Lord, Saturday is between Friday and Sunday so no major operations could be undertaken. However, no one obeyed this rule but the Crusades managed to ease the situation because all those young people went to war in hopes of gaining land, and thus a future,  for themselves.

The first crusade had begun with a peasant campaign but the peasants were all slaughtered by Seljuks. Only the knights managed to reach Jerusalem and do something concrete. Not every person could become a knight; it usually demanded noble ancestry, training, and the proper equipment.

The exhibition is very rich in artifacts displayed with pieces from all over the Old World, England, Spain, Germany, Austria, Malta, Middle Eastern countries, etc. The pieces themselves are very impressive, ranging from medical receipts to various kinds of Christian and Muslim weapons and armor, to the lids of the sarcophaguses of Richard the Lionhearted and Saladin themselves. There are pieces from the crusades led in Europe as well. Especially prominent are early types of cannons used in crusades in Czech Republic against Hussites. There were also pieces of medical instruments and receipts, models of towns such as Jerusalem and Damascus, jewelry, models of different siege engines like catapults and ballistas, books with descriptions of crusades, paintings from that time, etc.

A peculiar exhibit are the chess figures dating from the 10th century. They were built from mountain crystal and they still look brand new. Chess games were played between the battles and were even played between Christian and Muslim noblemen. That was an opportunity to show themselves in a more civilized way. There was a code of honor that stipulated that between battles, they were not enemies.

Today, over seven centuries later, the Crusades are still a factor in shaping people’s attitudes, and Christians and Muslims still have problems getting along with each other. The use of the word “Crusade” to describe the U.S. fight against terror thought to spring from Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” set off a powderkeg of religion-based antagonism between East and West.

Some analysts even suggest that there is an identification of all westerners in the Middle East today with Crusaders, bent on dominance anddestruction.

But there was also much good that came out of them, mainly perhaps for the Western Europe which profited from being exposed to more advanced and tolerant cultures of the Middle East and adjacent areas.

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