Europe, in the grip of feudalism, was weaker internally than on her borders. The nations were already taking shadowy shape, but as yet there was no real national spirit. In France there was neither Charlemagne nor Martel – only starving, plague-harried peasantry, warring fiefs, and a land torn by strife between Capet and Norman duke, overlord and rebellious vassal. And France was typical of Europe …
Already long shadows were falling from the east across the Golden Horn. Byzantium was still Christendom’s mightiest bulwark; but westward from Bokhara were moving the horsemen of the steppes destined swiftly to wrest from the Eastern Empire her last Asiatic possession. The Seljuks, blocked on the south by the glittering Indo-Iranian empire of Mahmud of Ghazni, were riding toward the setting sun, not to be halted until their horses’ hoofs splashed the waters of the Mediterranean.
— Robert E. Howard, “Hawks Over Egypt”
Sometimes I think there must have been advantages to writing for the pulps in the nineteen-twenties and thirties. Political correctness was unheard-of, and you could use stereotypes as a kind of characterization shorthand, never mind who might find them offensive. Cruel Arab despots, cunning, fiendish Chinese criminals, brutish stupid (or childlike and dumbly loyal) blacks, tough but funny Irish (never represented as bright, at least not by English authors) avaricious Jews (stock types for dope peddlers and white slavers as well as grasping pawnbrokers) devil-worshipping Yezidees or Mongols – all of it was fine, and if you described a Kurd as “slant-eyed” the readers wouldn’t know or care that Kurds are not.
The stereotypes weren’t limited to contemporary stories, either. They abounded in adventure yarns set in the Middle Ages and Crusades. The crusaders (especially when they were English) were brave and noble. Saracens were wicked (except Saladin), Mongols were beasts, the French were arrogant and impractical, while Jews – were the usual Jews, going back to Isaac of York in Ivanhoe, and before him to Shylock.
Which brings us to the Byzantines and Venetians who usually appear in these yarns. The standard types were double-dealers who showed a smiling face to the crusaders from Western Europe, gave them ship transport or safe-conduct through their territories, and then betrayed them. This is evident in Robert E. Howard’s stories, very much so, although he was scarcely starry-eyed about the crusaders either. His heroes were hard, disillusioned men like Godric de Villehard, Cormac Fitzgeoffrey and Cahal Ruadh O’Donnel. The occasional pure-hearted idealist who takes the cross and rides east does not usually live long. (Godric refers to the Marquis of Montferrat as “that devious-minded assassin”, to Simon de Montfort as “that black-faced cutthroat”, and tells the eastern princess, Yulita, that the crusade’s leaders “plotted against each other all the way to Venice”.)
This picture was not only given in pulp stories. It prevailed in history textbooks – British Commonwealth ones, anyway, and doubtless in the U.S.A. also. Robert E. Howard lived from 1906 to 1936. This blogger can attest that a quarter-century later, when he was in high school, Australian history classes taught nothing about the Byzantine Empire. Plenty about Henry VIII and the Stuarts, and something about the Roman Empire, but our teachers gave us the impression that it fell in the fifth century, and after that, nothing worth mentioning happened until the Middle Ages began. Anything I heard about the East Roman Empire (not much, as I’ve said) implied a steady, corrupt decline of a thousand years, a dreary procession of gutless emperors, depraved empresses, courtesans, and eunuchs, until the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople in 1453. The only real men in the place where the foreigners of the Varangian Guard – tall blonde lads of Nordic stock. (The original “Varangians” were the Vikings who sailed down the rivers of Russia to found Novgorod and Kiev.)
Other writers besides REH give their readers a scornful view of the Byzantines. In Frans Bengtsson’s superb The Long Ships, the Viking Olof Summer-bird (so called for his bright magnificent clothing) says of the Byzantines, “They hold it less evil to blind or mutilate a man than to kill him, by which you may see the sort of people they are.” The main character’s brother falls victim to a devious, greedy Byzantine official, and loses his eyes, tongue and right hand. Cecelia Holland’s The Belt of Gold deals with the intrigues and power plays of the Empress Irene, a crafty unprincipled bitch who had her own son blinded – and the hero is a stalwart Frankish barbarian, Hagen. His love interest is a Greek girl of high intelligence, caught up in the intrigues of the Empress and her rival, John Cerulis. Hagen and his brother rescue her from “the wretched Karros, John Cerulis’s bully boy” as the novel opens. The general picture given of Byzantines and their culture is not endearing.
The actual truth is that Charlemagne, Irene’s contemporary, was no charmer either. Ask the pagan Saxons – the ones he left alive. The Franks had a long record as a fierce, treacherous lot who would murder without a qualm. Frankish kings frequently slew their brothers. Queen Fredegund (sixth century CE) was so fiendishly cruel she made Irene look like Minnie Mouse. As for the Vikings and their Christian successors the Normans – it was William the Conqueror, touted to the sky as a hero by many, who while he was Duke of Normandy reacted badly to taunts about his bastard birth from the garrison of a castle he was besieging. When he took it, he had the survivors’ hands and feet cut off. Irish kings were quite in the habit of blinding their rivals, even their own kindred, or anybody else they thought might start trouble for them. Blinding and mutilation were no exclusive practice of the Byzantines.