Human beings once were assumed to be fungible. [My apologies for the use of a fashionably pretentious word, but I’m sort of stuck with this one (fungible – being of such nature or kind as to be freely exchangeable or replaceable, in whole or in part, for another of like nature or kind)].
That is, one kind of human being was assumed to be easily changed into another kind. It was simply a matter of training.
For instance, the Greeks called foreigners “barbarians,” because they thought that anyone who didn’t speak Greek sounded like a sheep going baar baar (βαρ, βαρ). But take someone from anywhere, teach him some decent Greek, have him learn to recite Homer and the poets — in short, have him study Greek culture — and Voila!, he becomes Greek. To the Greeks, it didn’t matter how you looked or where you were born. If you learned Greek culture, you would automatically share all the characteristics that made for being Greek.
Of course, underlying this belief was not merely the idea that people were fungible. Even more important was the idea that Greek culture was at once so beautiful, so powerful, and so logical, that to learn it was inevitably to be drawn in and absorbed by it. The only excuse for that not being true was if you were as stupid as a sheep. In that case, you could be dismissed and left baaing on the hillside.
Later on, the Romans had a rather more Draconian version of the same idea: take any barbarian, enroll him in the legions, train him, discipline him, teach him a little decent Latin, let him serve in some far-from-home province, and in twenty years he will make a perfectly good Roman citizen.
That Mediterranean world considered humanity to be a pretty flexible entity. Things like origin and appearance they considered to be mere accidents. Items like red hair, green eyes, or dark skin they treated as descriptive terms. Useful in identifying somebody, but not really more important than that. Of course, everyone knew that the Greeks tended to be dark, fast-talking, and quick-witted, just as everyone knew the Goths were big and stupid. But, given enough time, even a Goth could be trained.
When the Christian Church came around, the first Christians, being of Jewish origin, naturally assumed that all they had to do was teach the other Jews about their beliefs and, Voila!, they would naturally become believers. After all, Christianity was so beautiful, so powerful, and so logical, that to learn it was inevitably to be drawn in and absorbed by it.
Somehow that perfectly good Mediterranean logic failed in the case of the Jews, who politely (and not so politely) said they would remain Jews, thank-you-very-much. One can argue that the early Christians should have known better, as the Roman Empire had already found the Jews to be a stubborn and highly indigestible people. Still these new Christians found it a surprise. So they gave up and went on to the rest of the nations of the Mediterranean, with considerably more success.
A little after 600 CE, Islam exploded out of Arabia. Once again, a new world vision looked about and saw nothing but potential converts. And, in fact, they were surprisingly successful in their ability to convert all kinds of different people into good Muslims. After all, Islam was so beautiful, so powerful, and so logical, that to learn it was inevitably to be drawn in and absorbed by it.
Once again, this logic failed when it ran up against the Jews. Some of Mohammed’s earliest friends and supporters, they nevertheless politely said they would remain Jews, thank-you-very-much. Rather more to Islam’s surprise, when they ran up against Christian Europe, they also ran into the same unreasonable attitude. The Christians declared (not politely at all) that they would remain Christians and to-hell-with-you. Once Islam conquered Africa and the old Vandal part of Spain (they called it Al Andaluz, the land of the Vandals), their westward progress was more or less stopped. But to the South and East they rolled on and on, so that even today Islam is the most diverse religion in the world.
From a historical point of view, the Mediterranean then took a bit of a pause. Locked in mutual incomprehension and a profound mutual ignorance, Islam, Christendom, and their Jewish leavenings became absorbed with their internal affairs. Each tried to live in a world isolated from the others, cosseted by a comfortable internal unanimity. Contemplating the world by looking in a parochial mirror, each saw a world where all sensible people agreed with them.
Then came the Crusades. There is no room here to trace the whys and wherefores of the Crusades. Suffice it to say that everyone found the veils that separated their worlds brutally torn apart. Forced to look at each other face to face, they had a uniform reaction: each was appalled at the ignorance, corruption, and barbarism of the others.
Of the participants, the Jews were, of course, mostly victims. The Crusaders, unwilling to leave “Christ-killers” living safely behind while they went off to conquer Jerusalem, indulged in a pre-departure orgy of slaughter in every Crusading center in Europe. Psychologically unequipped to deal with anything less than unanimity, they next saw the Christians of Byzantium as very nearly as alien and untrustworthy as they had the Jews and as they would the “Saracens.” On a number of occasions they showed how they were equally willing to slaughter these strange looking Christians as they were Jews or, eventually, the Muslims.
Something like an apotheosis of Crusader zealotry came when they finally captured Jerusalem. For centuries a holy place for Christians, Jews, and Muslims, its streets and houses were naturally filled with Christians, Jews, and Muslims. The Crusaders slaughtered them all in a single spasm of butchery. Medieval numbers are rarely to be trusted, but we can get the idea from the Crusaders who bragged that the blood in the streets was so deep in places that their horses waded in it to their knees.
From the Western or “Frankish” Christian point of view, slaughtering everyone who couldn’t pay ransom was something like the normal rules of war. But the Muslims were appalled. According to their conventions, war was for soldiers. Women, children, old people and civilians in general were to be protected by soldiers, not murdered. The Jews, having far too many reports of the brutality of the Franks, had tried to warn the Muslims, but to no avail. It was simply outside Islamic imagination that men who called themselves warriors could act like that.
In time, both sides learned about and from each other. The Crusaders set up little kingdoms in the Holy Land. As residents, they came to meet both the Muslims and the Jews on something like common ground. They came to understand that the Muslims were not really pagans and that the Jews were often deeply religious settlers, doctors, or traders, all of whom could be respected.
The Muslims, on the other hand, learned that the Franks had many qualities like courage and loyalty that could be admired and that they could, in time, be trained to bathe regularly.
Unfortunately, every time a measure of understanding and peace built up, some idiot in Europe would preach another Crusade and suddenly boatloads of unreconstructed Franks would roll in and start slaughtering with their splendid lack of discrimination. The Saracens learned from them, too, hardened, and added a few massacres to their own side of the ledger.
After a few centuries of this, something strange happened. All sides gradually stopped seeing humanity as fungible. They stopped even trying to understand each other as people. Instead, each began to see the others as malign stereotypes, permanent and unconvertible enemies, obsessed with the desire to destroy all they held most dear. Reading the diaries and journals of the time, one can see the desire to understand die and the blind bigotry harden.
The Mediterranean has given us many things. Civilization, as we understand the term, was born there. Our ideal of progress, ideas of democracy, and much of our technology was also born there.
The Crusades gave us a great deal, too. Algebra, a vastly expanded knowledge of navigation and trade, and a treasure trove of ancient writers, not to mention some improved ideals of personal hygiene.
Yet the most pervasive gift from the Crusades may be its last invention, this new way of looking at our fellow man. To be able to see him only in narrow, rigid, unchangeable categories. Today, we call this gift racism.