The French Castle Aigues-Mortes
Allow me to share a more personal story
In high school, I became utterly possessed by stories about the crusades. This was not a well kept secret. I did practically nothing but read and talk about it. For some reason I simply had to understand what drove these mad armies of bucket-helmeted European zealots all the way to the far-away shores of the Holy land.
Those who knew me then would certainly note that this came during a tough time for me. The public school pecking order was its own loathsome obstacle, an unwanted exercise of evading critique and riding the rollercoaster of emotion that caused me to punch someone's mailbox over a girl that a friend and I both liked. In this light it made complete sense that I would become overly-preoccupied with a seemingly irrelevant story about a distant people, and one which fit conveniently into a bundle of pages which I could toss about as I pleased. All the better that it was an eccentric interest that few else had.
When I found that no two chroniclers agreed upon the same narrative of the crusades, reading of these works became my full time job. How could they not agree when Alexandria was sacked? How could the scribe Ibn Al-Qualinisi think there were only a few thousand people present at the battle? Try to picture, if you can imagine, me sitting at the kitchen table with my food uneaten, my hair frazzled, and a pencil behind my ear, pouring over notes and schematics and printed out maps, stressing about knowing what had really happened.
I spent thousands of hours leafing through these dense texts rummaging for morsels and clues. In this time I lived among the coarse-palmed peasants grabbing up their children and fleeing into the hills in advance of the Frankish invaders who were fabled to have eaten their victims at the battle of Aleppo. I pushed through a sea of panicked bodies garbed in chainmail and wheeling a wooden tower under a hail of arrows up against the walls of Jerusalem. And I pictured myself shivering upon the walls of a cold stone fort on the coast of the Aegean Sea, blasted by salty sea air under a sky of wheeling seagulls, brooding over the long journey ahead.
I lived these moments in life-like detail and came to be on a first name basis with the panoply of characters, from brigands like the Sicilian Norman prince Bohemond to kings like Louis VII who played out their lives across the tabletop chessboard of medieval southern Europe.
I reveled in their nakedly selfish motives. They were all so human and their loves, fears, and sorrows echoed so loudly down the quiet halls of time. These men and women who openly prayed for divine guidance and secretly doubted its existence, who waged wars of self interest and ambition under the banner of the Holy see. These people were another family finding their way as I found my own, and they impressed me deeply during this time.
My love of these stories lay dormant upon the dusty shelf of that particular time in my life. After high school my interests moved on to other patterns that took me to new places. I grew up and the memories grew cloudy. I forgot.
But there along the rocky coast of Southern France in Montpellier, Lauren hadn't forgotten, and planned a visit.
Standing there upon the walls of Aigues-Mortes overlooking the bright green grassy marshes and the stormy mediterranean, I shivered as all of those experiences came bubbling back up. I felt pangs of nostalgia for how much emotion transpired upon these hallowed grounds. How much sweat and blood was soaked into the stones of these towers, how many personalities marched in lines through these gates. Atop the crenelated embattlements we ran our hands over rough edges worn smooth from centuries of footsteps and felt an electric connection to this hoary castle from another age, in which I felt that I had lived, if only for a time.
Lauren and Robin, thank you for that.