• Adrian J. Boas

On Curiosity and Exploration

Updated: Aug 19, 2019

Shells from the Red Sea

I grew up to admire the explorers who crossed the deserts of Australia, bravely faced its challenges and opened the continent through their sometimes fatally destined expeditions. My own expeditions into the edges of civilization were more limited in scope and happily never ended in tragedy. I braved the dirt track below humming high-voltage wires carried by pylons that strode across the fields below our house like giant Martians in a 1950's horror movie, always running with my head down, always afraid that if I were to raise my eyes I might see something fearful. I hastily passed the slimy, raucous, frog-infested "cows' pond", sinking in its noxious mist, forced my way through the wild, thorned tangle of the blackberry bushes, clambered down the cliffs of the "Golden Dam" a vast, cavernous depression (so it is preserved in my memory, perhaps only there?), and steeled myself to get by the stinking, maggot-filled body of a tiger snake tossed over a barbed wire fence so that I could play with my brother in an old car abandoned at the very frontier of our world. What enabled me to do all this was not bravery, a trait with which I have not been well-endowed, but curiosity, one that I have in abundance.

I have no doubt that curiosity was a major factor behind participation in the crusades, even if not the dominating one. It was not as lofty a motivation as religious belief, or as practical as achieving earthly gain or absolution through the penitential act. But I am certain it was there, quite high perhaps on the list of reasons why an overworked and half-starved peasant leading a tedious life, or a poverty-stricken burgess with a dull present and no future, might entertain the idea of joining an expedition to the Holy Land. Peasants and uneducated city dwellers left no records to indicate their motivations, but we know from priests and pilgrims, who did on occasion leave records, that along with their devotional aims, and nobles, along with their cravings for the possession of property, were remarkably curious about the world, about foreign places and people, about nature.

In 1116, Baldwin I accompanied by a large contingent of knights made an expedition into the south of the kingdom as far as the Red Sea. This was done in order "to see what he had not seen" as the chronicler, Fulcher of Chartres put it, which presumably means that he went, out of an understanding that a king ought to be acquainted with his kingdom.* Doing that in the medieval East was not a minor matter. The kingdom was less than two decades old in 1116 and it was still far from safe to leave the security of city walls and venture into the open countryside where Muslim incursions were frequent. That is why, as Fulcher writes, Baldwin travelled with 200 knights (according to another contemporary chronicler, Albert of Aix, there were also 400 footmen).** That was a substantial party, and it illustrates the insecurity which would at that time have been felt throughout the kingdom but particularly the south, which was and remained through the entire period a sparsely settled region occupied almost exclusively by a handful of fortified outposts.

If it was a sense of duty that chiefly lay behind Baldwin's expedition, a sense of wonderment followed close behind. When the king returned to Jerusalem Fulcher wrote:

"When they told us what they had seen we were delighted with their tales as well as by the sea shells and certain precious stones which they brought and showed us. I myself very eagerly questioned them to find out what the sea was like, for until then I had wondered whether it was saline or fresh, stagnant water or a lake, whether it had an inlet and outlet like the Sea of Galilee..."***

As can be seen from a subsequent passage in his chronicle, by the time Fulcher was writing he was better informed of the nature of the Red Sea and was aware that it extended from the Indian Ocean, though he certainly did not learn that from the king as the royal expedition probably did not extend beyond the vicinity of Ayla (medeval Aqaba). It might seem remarkable that Fulcher, a priest who was probably educated at the school of Chartres and who during the First Crusade was part of the entourage of Count Stephen of Blois and Robert of Normandy, and was later appointed chaplain to Baldwin of Boulogne, should have initially known so little about a stretch of water that was so important in medieval commerce. Much of the Indian and Far Eastern trade passed through the Red Sea. This ignorance illustrates the barrier that stood between the medieval Islamic world and the Christian West, one that growing commercial connections were only beginning to overcome. In the twelfth century, traveling beyond Christendom, or to its very edges as was the case here, was rather like an eighteenth century explorer sailing to the edges of the globe, and even perhaps more challenging than than the modern space explorers, who at least, thanks to the vast strides of scientific research, have a good idea of what lies ahead.

* Fulcher of Chartres, A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem, 1095-1127, trans. Francis R. Ryan, New York, 1969, 2.56, p. 215. **Ibid., n. 1. *** Ibid., p. 216.