On Life Just Going On
Updated: Sep 22
In his poem Musée des Beaux Arts, W.H. Auden observed what viewers of a famous painting by Bruegel the Elder can hardly fail to notice (although they sometimes do). This work, like most of Bruegel's paintings is full of activity, and yet it remains remarkably unfocused on what would appear to be its principal subject - the fall of Icarus. In fact, as Auden noted, the painting is about something else altogether, and that is that while drama and suffering take place, for most people life simply goes on, and for them the "big" events are incidental:
...how everything turns away/Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may/Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,/But for him it was not an important failure...
It is indeed so in life. The history of the kingdom of Jerusalem is a history full of violence, of bloodshed, but for much of what we refer to as the crusader period, and for many of the people who lived under crusader rule, between victories and disasters, and often for very long spans of time, life simply went on. When we look back to the past, our tendency is to telescope together the battles, famines, sieges, victories, slaughters, and to see the past as a long trail of dramas. The reality is that for much of the time and for most of the people life was lived in a fairly routine manner, just as ours is today, and consisted mainly of personal interactions, work, eating, leisure, and humdrum.
Archaeology is largely about the study of mundane things: the vessels people ate from, the clothes they wore, the contents of a latrine. This leads not a few archaeologists to become so obsessed with the objects they study that they lose sight of the larger picture. For historians it has often been the other way around. It was the French historians of the last century who led the way towards a more balanced approach, to examine the past in all its aspects. They realised that in order to understand why significant events took place and how significant figures evolved it is important to appreciate the context. Major events, careers, conquests and defeats need to be regarded in the light of daily events and intimate environs. To appreciate the past it is not enough to consider only the drama of a boy who flew too close to the sun. One needs as well to be aware of the ship that: Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.