Saturday, December 20, 2008

Revisiting the Crusades (with or without a degree)

So, bear with me here. This is going to be a long post, but I think it's going somewhere...

On 12/10/08, in The Roanoke Times, a local resident (in response to Gov. Tim Kaine's tacit support of the Virginia State Police superindendant's decision to remove [as much as possible] specifically Christian references in prayer at their events -- inevitably, it's turned political) wrote a letter to the editor commenting that the Crusades were justified because the Muslims were the aggressors and the Christians were just defending themselves. That letter-writer then went on to say that the Crusades are the reason we have religious freedom today.

So, in response, I wrote a long-ish letter to the editor, trying to clarify a few of my neighbor's rather bold claims and offering a better -- meaning "backed by evidence" -- interpretation of those events. I didn't want my letter to become a precis for my forthcoming book, so I tried to keep it as short as possible, noting that the First Crusade (which should, I think, be kept separate from later crusading) certainly called itself a defensive struggle against pagan hordes but that doesn't necessarily make it so. Moreover, the understanding that Christianity was fundamentally "tolerant" and NOT anti-Jewish in its early years, is just wrong. Just wrong on so many levels... That being said, I still stand by what I said at the end:
None of this means that Christianity continues to be essentially violent and intolerant, but it certainly was so and continues to be so in certain places. Let's together confront this realization and know our history, so we can think about how to move forward.
Christianity was violent, and it certainly can be so today, but that doesn't necessarily mean it remains so in all of its incarnations.

Now, yesterday (12/19), another letter to the editor appeared in response to my letter. Allow me to quote the whole thing:

In regards to the Crusades and Christianity, I will not dispute that atrocities and intolerance did occur; however, educators rarely mention that in 1095, Pope Urban II responded to a distress call from Emperor Alexius I Comenus beseeching Europe to come to Byzantium's aid.

Islam had already spread across the Mediterranean and the Middle East, displacing Christian kingdoms. In 711 A.D., the Moors conquered Spain; an Islamic incursion was halted in 732 at Poitiers, France. In 1077, the Seljuk Turks controlled Jerusalem. They initially closed the city to Christian pilgrims and continued incursions into the crumbling Byzantine Empire.

To say that the Crusades were bent only upon European imperialism, avarice and unprovoked aggression is a mendacious statement. They were initially a response to the threat of Islamic expansionism that continued after the Crusades had ended.

Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, thus opening the door for Islamic expansionism into Eastern Europe. The Ottoman advance was stopped at Vienna in 1529 and 1683. Supercilious educators should teach the full history of the Crusades and their aftermath instead of omitting facts to paint a truculent picture of Christian history and insulting those who have done their own historical research.

Man, this just works on so many levels. Let me just deal with 2 levels though. First, briefly on his facts:
  • It's possible that Pope Urban II was responding to Alexius' call for help, when Alexius' emissaries reached Urban at the Council of Piacenza. That, however, has been disputed, mostly because (I think) it was a tried-and-true knee-jerk reaction of the Byzantines to ask for mercenaries every few years or so. There's also some suggestion that Alexius was simply trying to cozy up to Urban at that council, worried as he was about Norman expansion in S. Italy.
  • There was indeed a battle in 732 at Poitiers between Arabs expanding out of Spain and Franks. No one on either side would portray that brief, relatively insignificant encounter as a "religious" struggle for several centuries (despite what the historian of WEB Dubois might have said).
  • The Seljuks did take Jerusalem in 1077 but from the Fatimids of Egypt -- not Byzantines or any other Christians. The Muslims, in control of the city from 638, did sometimes close Jerusalem to Christian pilgrims but often reopened it quickly thereafter. Persecution of Christians was NEVER severe or sustained for the 80+ years preceding the First Crusade in 1095.
  • Yes, the writer's right that "to say that the Crusades were bent only upon European imperialism, avarice and unprovoked aggression is a mendacious statement."
  • But to say that the Crusades "were initially a response to the threat of Islamic expansionism that continued after the Crusades had ended" and then to prove this by noting the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and the Ottoman sieges of Vienna (Austria) in 1529 and 1683, is simply ridiculous. The space between 638 and 1683 is well over 1,000 years. Think about how ridiculous this statement would be if it were applied to the modern age. I'm (obliquely) of German descent. Does that mean my visiting Hungary would be part of the same Germanic expansionism begun by Otto I when he defeated the Magyars at Lechfeld in 955?
But, actually, I'm not so interested in factual corrections or a poor grasp on historical causation or chronology. What I'm more interested in are these statements:
  • "I will not dispute that atrocities and intolerance did occur; however, educators rarely mention that..."
  • "Supercilious educators should teach the full history of the Crusades and their aftermath instead of omitting facts to paint a truculent picture of Christian history and insulting those who have done their own historical research."
This, I think, is the point of the letter. It's not about debating/ engaging with the historical event. It's about discrediting me. Just look at the letter writer's disdain for "educators." We keep information secret from our students (or the rest of the world). Worse, we distort the truth and lie to march forward are (liberal, I'd assume) ideological agenda. We're elitists who disdain those who are (or purport themselves to be) "self-educated."

None of it, of course, true but it still strikes a particularly political chord with certain parts of the American public. And this, I think, brings me back to some stuff that was said during the Charlotte Allen kerfuffle.

I'm tempted to ask if this have something to do with the Humanities and Social Sciences? Can anyone imagine the same claim being leveled at a biologist or an engineer? "I've read Stephen Hawking, so let me man SETI. Heck, I'll even take a crack at that supercollider!" The (perhaps) odd thing is that I've never met a biologist or engineer who think they can do my job. It's portions of the general public, launching an assault on the academy, on public education, on education more generally, and all rooted in a particularly American anti-intellectualism. It means that my 12 years of higher education, 8 of which at one of the premier universities in the world, mean nothing. My degrees are a joke. Joe Six-Pack can, simply by visiting his local Books-a-Million and reading a book or 2, can know as much as me about anything. But I call bullshit.

I do know more than most people, especially about the stuff that I've studied. Reading is not understanding. Information is not knowledge (which, incidentally, is part of the reason academics don't like Wikipedia). Part of my job is to make those distinctions abundantly clear and to help people create the latter (in both cases) from the former. The other part is to make sure that people understand that that is indeed what I do. I will set before you the various versions of the sack of Jerusalem in 1099 and help you understand not just what they say, but what they mean, and why that meaning matters today. I will help you understand the problems you create when you use the word "medieval," why the "modern" is really "medieval" and the "medieval" really "modern."

This is why I went to school. This is what I learned from my educators. This is why I am a teacher. This is why I am a researcher. This is why I write to The Roanoke Times. This is why I created this blog. This is why all of those things are related and why I won't ever stop, even when it sometimes feels like I'm ramming my head against a brick wall.

Friday, December 19, 2008


Announcing the first annual Praemium Ephemeridis Aetheriae Auctoribus awards (Award for Authors of Ethereal Diaries). Ok, I'm not that caffeined (rhymes with fiend) yet, so if you have a better name or acronym, write in. Anyway, here's the deal. Nominate the best medieval blog *entry* of the year that is not one written by you. So: medieval, an entry, written by someone other than the person nominating. Here are some categories I've thought of:

Award for Best Blog Entry of the Year

Award for Blog Entry that Fueled Research

Award for Blog That Best Serves the Medieval Community

Recognition for Best Electronic Article on a Medieval Topic

Award for Best Entry Making Fun of Ourselves

Write suggestions and nominations to larsprec AT gmail dot com

I'll collate and between the 25th and the 1st announce things that are gaining votes and announce those whom we wish to recognize after the first of the year.

The prize contains nothing other than the approbation of fellow medievalists.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Dante's Inferno, the Game...

Oh, dude. Electronic Arts (EA) is apparently now producing a game based on Dante's Inferno. Apparently, Dante will travel through Hell's 9 levels in pursuit of his "beloved Beatrice." Oh, but wait, there's more! It'll be an action-adventure game!

Double dude! I just found the website. (Trailer from YouTube) This is not the Dante I remember...

Yikes! If only he could've been that bad-ass against the Guelphs!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Review: Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam

Recently, the lovely people at Columbia University Press sent me a copy of Jonathan Riley-Smith's The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam for review.

Buy it here or here.


It's probably not too much to say that Jonathan Riley-Smith (recently retired from Emmanuel College, Cambridge) revolutionized the study of the crusades. For example, his The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading (Philadelphia, 1986) is foundational and certainly was the spark that set my interests towards things medieval. His numerous articles and books -- much too many to list -- are required reading for anyone interested in the topic and the core of many students' education on the crusades, the Latin East, the military orders, etc.

Now, building off the 2007 Bampton Lectures he delivered at Columbia University, Prof. Riley-Smith has aimed to summarize much of his work on the topic and bring forth its relevance to today's world -- to rebut those who believe "that the crusading movement was an aberration, a departure from the norm in Christian history" (4). Only then, can we understand the world we live in after 9/11. Studying the Crusades will allow us (meaning the West?) to comprehend and confront "those who hate us so much...; and this involves opening our eyes to the actuality -- not the imagined reality -- of our own past" (4). A tall task.

The first 2 chapters are on the medieval crusade itself. They're masterfully written -- as concise and precise a summary of a complex web of ideas as you're likely to find anywhere. Chapter 1 is on "Crusades as Christian Holy Wars." Although Riley-Smith begins by conceding that crusading is notoriously hard to define (Norman Housley recently described this as similar to trying to catch an eel with your hands), Riley-Smith proceeds to do just this. He first traces the early Christian ambivalence towards violence through Augustine, who's ideas about "just war" are preeminent here. Violence itself was conceived as ethically neutral; intention was what really mattered. In this sense, because the crusaders were thought to have right intention (killing non-Christians in the name of liberating Christian lands [often, but not always, Jerusalem), the crusades fit nicely into an established tradition. Chapter 2, "Crusades as Christian Penitential Wars," shows how the connection of holy war with penitential pilgrimage was, in fact, something quite different/ new though. Killing/ fighting saved your soul because it expiated your sins. This is the meat of Prof. Riley-Smith's life's work, succinctly summarized in ~ 15 pages.

The last 2 chapters move out of the Middle Ages, a trend Prof. Riley-Smith has taken in a number of more popular publishing venues (examples here and here). Chapters 3 and 4, relying (as he freely admits) heavily on Elizabeth Siberry's work, looks at the resurrection of (or, perhaps better, continued proof of existence of) crusading under European imperialism of the 19th and early 20th centuries and how those ideas moved into the Islamic world of the Middle East. The examples here verge between the really rather frightening (Archbishop Lavigerie of Algiers' attempt in the 1880s to re-form a military religious order in the Sahara, which had some support from Pope Leo XIII) and the really weird (Kaiser Wilhelm II's 1898 tour, organized by Thomas Cook, of Syria and Palestine, complete with costume).

This latter incident is Riley-Smith's bridge to a discussion of the memory of the Crusades in the Islamic world (Chapter 4), "because the newly emerging Arab nationalists took 19th-century imperialist rhetoric literally. They came to belive that the West, having lost the 1st round of the Crusades, had embarked on another" (61). Wilhelm II's tour praised his Germanic forebearers as kings of Jerusalem as well as Islamic cultural superiority to medieval Christianity, embodied by the "chivalric" Saladin, who had been more-or-less forgotten in the Middle East by this time (though maybe not -- see Diana Abouali's recent work on the memory of Saladin in Ottoman Jerusalem). European imperialists "reintroduced" the Crusades to the Arabs.

Before the late 19th century, Riley-Smith points out (following Carole Hillenbrand's work) that jihad came relatively late to the Crusades, only becoming really prevalent during the reign of Nur al-Din (d. 1174) and his successor Saladin (d. 1193). Then, again, it faltered until ca. 1250, where it was revived under the reigns of the Mamluks as a motivating force against the Latin settlements. After that, the Islamic world more-or-less forgot about the crusades. They had, after all, won.

Arab nationalism, Riley-Smith continues, began to see this new European intervention into their affairs and the eventual formation of the state of Israel as "revenge" for medieval history. For the successors of Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966), Egyptian nationalist who became a fervent Islamist, "Zionists and Marxists, and now Hindus [are] surrogates of crusaderism, employed to subvert Islam and destroy believers" (74). A purified Islam will eventually lead to world domination. Ultimately, this peculiar ("warped" in Riley-Smith's view?) understanding of crusade history allows many people "to place the exploitation they believe they have suffered in a historical context and to satisfy their feelings of both superiority and humiliation" (76). This, I think, is meant to help us understand al-Qaeda.

The West, however, has moved on -- perhaps, he suggests, because of the shock of World War I and the overt crusading rhetoric sometimes attached to how it was justified. But we shouldn't be so complacent, Riley-Smith warns at the end of the book. This kind of religious violence, both medieval and modern, might seem utterly alien to us but "secular ideological violence... has manifested itself recently in wars waged in the names of imperialism, nationalism, Marxism, fascism, anticolonialism, humanitarianism, and even liberal democracy" (80, my emphasis). (Let us then return to religion?)

Overall, this is a tremendous book and I'd highly encourage any non-specialist (academic or general reader) to pick it up. This kind of clear, crisp academic writing can't be found often enough. I hope it's made available in paperback soon, perhaps even with some publicity to go with it. Then, I hope that the reader goes out and finds more academic work on the crusades to fill out their picture of the phenomenon.

Here, for example, (and very understandably, given its original format and how short each chapter remains) there's too much of a tendency to lump, rather than separate. "Crusading," in reality, isn't a phenomenon, it's phenomena -- it seems important to me, for example, that medieval Christians didn't have a word for the activity until the 13th century, well after the "First Crusade" in 1095. They used many words and phrases to describe what was going on, suggesting (I think) a recognition that there was great variety in the experience and conceptualization of armed violence in the name of Jesus Christ against His enemies. The First Crusade was different from the Albigenisan Crusade, which was different from the Crusade vs. the Wends, etc. Why do they have to be linked in our minds, when it seems rather clear that there were only tenuous and sporadic links between them in the minds of our medieval ancestors?

Finally, and this is more of a general thought than a criticism per se, I wonder about Prof. Riley-Smith's suggestion that the "newly emerging Arab nationalists took 19th-century imperialist rhetoric literally" (61). What does that really mean? I ask because it has implications for both the medieval period (crusade historiography, following Riley-Smith, suggests that the reform papacy "conned" the lay aristocracy into fighting on their behalf in 1095, much like the Arab nationalists were "conned" by the neo-crusade rhetoric) but also for today. Doesn't Prof. Riley-Smith's claim, to a degree, minimize the legitimacy of Arab resentment against the colonial powers -- they didn't understand why the Europeans were really there? Do these Arab nationalists have any agency in this situation? Couldn't these tropes -- of jihad, Saladin, etc. -- have already been there, perhaps manifested primarily in different guises up until that time, but still retaining their older, more explosive connotations, simply waiting for a spark to ignite them? Can Saladin, for example, ever not mean 1187 and the recapture of Jerusalem?