history,  politics

Reflections on reading a book about Richard the Lionheart

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Whenever I read a book, I try to spend a bit of time reflecting on it. I try to choose the most important details of it to retell to myself, so I remember them. I try to think of what I’ve learned from it.

Today I’m reflecting on the book Richard I by John Gillingham. I’m thinking about the huge role political relationships and personal negotiations played at the time of Richard. When he went on the crusades, Richard the Lionheart left his different castles and estates in the hands of individuals who had to have the strength to defend them. If he chose the wrong people he would have lost more than he did. Political power was more like a board game, where if you held the castle and could defend it against attack it was yours, and if someone else could grab it, then it was theirs.

Knights, like pirates, did their best to avoid pitched battles. They laid siege and tried to negotiate a surrender. They destroyed the land around a castle. There was devastating consequences for the peasants whose land was being trampled over. I remember reading in a different book, long ago, about the Peace and Truce of God, instituted by the church to try to minimize the damage the warfare had.

The thing I find myself reflecting on most is that there weren’t countries in the way we have countries. Democracy wouldn’t have worked then. If the people could have elected the ruler of their land, would they have chosen someone capable of defending their territory from attack? Would the ruler have been able to make negotiations with other rules and have the political standing necessary to do so, if the other rulers know that person could be replaced by his own people? Or perhaps, people would learn to elect and support a leader who could command the respect of foreign leaders, because they would know that keeping their land from being pillaged was vital to their own survival. Perhaps the most important domestic voting issue would be a leader with good foreign connections.

The lack of democracy didn’t mean a lack of accountability to others. Richard I relied upon others. His crusade depended upon others cooperation. People could and did desert if he didn’t take their desires into consideration and the men he had left behind could turn his castles over to his enemies, if they wanted. (A few did.) There was no accountability to the common man, but there was to the knights and other rulers.

I don’t want to idealize or romanticize the time. It was bloody. It was brutal. It is not a time period I’d really want to live in, though I wonder how I would have managed. Would I have had the courage to deal honourably with whatever circumstances I was put in? Would I have been brave and determined? In some ways it is easy to romanticize that time period because the places for bravery were obvious. Yet it is worth spending some time thinking about where bravery can play a role today. Somehow, though we rarely risk death today, we seem more cowardly, more likely to see financial costs and embarrassment as too big a risk for standing up for things.


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