Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Living in the 11th Century, Still: Charlemagne, Crusade, and Doing Research

This past weekend, I had the privilege of addressing the University of Delaware's Undergraduate Research Symposium. (UPDATE: Article here.) It's an outstanding program. I'm a product of it myself and I can't praise it enough. Anyway, there are some thoughts that I wanted to share, some of which I'll probably develop into an article (or 2) at some point later. It also has a lot to do with some things -- here and here -- that this blog has been focused on lately.

I invite your feedback...
Although it was some 11 years ago that I was sitting out there in the audience, just where you all are right now, I still remember the day quite vividly. I remember the excitement, the nerves of talking about my research in front of people. I don’t, I must admit, remember anything about the keynote speaker though (me). So, I’m under no illusions as to my place here. This day, today, is about you, and all the work you’ve done over the past year. Strutting your stuff, showing off – and rightfully so – your research to family, friends, faculty mentors, and each other.

So, please allow me to be brief and complete the relatively easy job I’ve been asked to do. To talk about my intellectual development and the place, I think, UD and undergraduate research played in all that.

Hi. My name’s Matt Gabriele. I grew up in Poughkeepsie, NY, came to Delaware as an Alison Scholar (the inaugural class, I believe), lived in Dickinson, the Towers, Harter, and Ray Street (in that order), and graduated with an Honors BA in History in 1997. After that, and despite the many protestations of my undergraduate mentor, Prof. Daniel Callahan, I went straight to graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley (Go Bears!). I finished my PhD in Medieval History in 2005, then got a job as a medievalist – someone who researches and teaches about the European Middle Ages. Since 2006, I’ve been an Assistant Professor of Humanities and Coordinator of Medieval & Early Modern Studies in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (the formal name for a school you might know as “Virginia Tech” – Go Hokies!).

I love my job. I love being a teacher. I love the fact that I get to spend the rest of my life “in college” (but, best of all, without paying tuition and being able to afford decent beer). Most relevant for this talk though, I love doing my research.

Through its many incarnations, my research has remained focused on the Crusades, even more fundamentally on the point of intersection between religion (Christianity, specifically) and violence. I’m currently finishing a book project entitled The Legend of Charlemagne and the Origins of the First Crusade, based on research I did for my PhD dissertation. But the origins of this project go back further – to my Senior Thesis at Delaware and, ultimately, all the way back to a seminar paper I wrote for Prof. Callahan in my junior year. So, let me 1st discuss my project.

Charlemagne (Karolus Magnus in Latin = Carles li magnes in Old French = “Charles the Great” in English) was king of the Franks, one of the Germanic peoples who settled in Western Europe as centralized power in the Roman Empire began to fall away. In 800, on Christmas Day in Rome, he was crowned Roman Emperor – the heir of Caesar, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, et al. – and, by the time of Charlemagne’s death in 814, he controlled most of Europe, a swath of territory not held together since antiquity.

But that empire fell apart after his death, in the age of Charlemagne’s grandsons, as they fought one another for the inheritance they thought to be theirs. Throughout the late 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries, power decentralized and the memory of Charlemagne and his empire seems to have decentralized with it. Charlemagne himself became a towering, legendary figure, who presided over a Golden Age – defender of an idealized, unified (if fictional) Christendom. Like a fish tale, his exploits grew with each generation. The boundaries of his empire expanded to include places that he and his successors never conquered, nor likely ever dreamed of going to – Spain, England, Ireland, Sicily, the Byzantine Empire (modern Greece and Turkey), and the Holy Land (Jerusalem).

But as this legend developed, and the time in which he lived became more idealized, Charlemagne himself seems to have paradoxically become less important. What I mean is that the focus of the legend shifted from the man himself to the people he led – the Franks. And almost anyone could be a Frank. In places as diverse as Saint-Denis (just outside Paris), Aquitaine (in what’s now SW France), Saxony (in NE Germany), Lombardy (in what’s now N Italy), Catalonia (in what’s now NE Spain), and Bavaria (in SE Germany), authors remembered a shared past, emanating from Charlemagne’s reign. In the 11th century, people could – and did – still have local identities. They were still Normans, Bavarians, or Lombards, for instance. Yet, when they spoke of themselves in a larger, European, or Christian context, they were “Franks.”

In the context of the First Crusade – an event with long, deep roots into Christian spirituality stretching back more than 1,000 years, but immediately sparked in 1095 by a speech given by Pope Urban II in Clermont (in what’s now S France). In the context of the First Crusade, the Charlemagne legend and the population’s self-identification as Franks were critically important to why people went – why they decided, based on the power of an idea, to walk the approximately 4,000 miles separating Paris and Jerusalem, suffering hunger and thirst, killing people they had probably barely heard of, and certainly never seen.

At that speech at Clermont, Pope Urban – himself a Frank, born the son of a petty nobleman from a town not far from Reims, in N. France – urged his audience to remember the example of their collective Carolingian ancestors, and take up the long-neglected historical duties they’d had under Charlemagne. Retake your place as the rightful defenders of Christendom, vanquish the pagans, and restore good order to Christendom. As one chronicler remembered Urban asking his audience at Clermont: “On whom therefore is the labor of avenging these wrongs and of recovering this territory incumbent, if not upon you?”

And the Franks responded. Over 100,000 people, from all over Europe joined the 1st Crusade. But look at how the response to Urban’s call matched up with sites important to the Charlemagne legend before 1100. In the eyes of one chronicler of, and participant in, the 1st Crusade (Fulcher of Chartres), people from Gaul, the German lands, Normandy, England, Scotland, Aquitaine, Italy, Spain, Brittany, and the Eastern Empire comprised the crusader army. Charlemagne had conquered Gaul, the German lands, Normandy, England, Scotland, Aquitaine, Italy, Spain, Brittany, and the eastern Empire, according to a contemporary epic poem, the Oxford Song of Roland.

In 1095, people knew that the community of all Christians, Urban evoked, didn’t exist. They did, however, believe that it once had – in Charlemagne’s empire. Social memory informs identity, but it can also tell a community how to act. Urban’s call to reclaim Jerusalem – land lost not only to Christendom, but lost specifically to the Franks who had held it under Charlemagne – was powerful because Urban tapped into something that was already simmering in the Frankish consciousness. 1095 seemed to be a moment when the past could be recreated; Jerusalem retaken, East and West reunited, the enemies of Christ defeated, and Christianity unified. Just as had been done under Charlemagne. Just as the Franks could now do again.

But, so what?

And that’s always, I think, a valid question – albeit one that scholars too rarely think to ask, let alone answer. It’s not that they (we) don’t have good answers, because we do. Rather, it’s often that these connections are self-evident – when you’re neck-deep in your research, you make those kinds of connections in your head without even thinking. (If you think I’m kidding, all you out there, think about how well you’d be able to succinctly explain the importance of your research – in just 1 sentence – to an aunt or uncle.)

So, back to the “so what?” I first got this question – and you never forget your first time – right here at UD, right here at this symposium. And I like to think that the research I did here, and the way that my advisors and fellow students pushed me to think about my work – that question they asked – has kept me honest. Why study the Middle Ages? Does an understanding of 11th-century “Frankish identity” matter? Why care about the crusades anymore?

I won’t presume to definitively answer these questions now. I won’t even pretend that I actually know the answers. But I do think that the questions are indeed important. Not “more” important than questions in other disciplines (the sciences, the social sciences, elsewhere in the humanities). But, luckily we’re not competing. It’s not – and this is something else we shouldn’t forget – a zero-sum game, where the importance of one person’s questions destroys the importance of another’s. Scholarship is essentially, necessarily, collaborative – not competitive. So, what I’d like to do, in the little time left to me, is to tackle this “so what?” by offering some preliminary thoughts on the idea of “crusade” today.

Shortly after 9/11, on September 16, 2001, President George W. Bush, speaking of how the United States would react to the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, said (and I’ll spare you the imitation) “This crusade, this war on terrorism is gonna take awhile. And the American people must be patient.” A couple of days later, Jonathan Phillips, a crusades scholar at the University of London, published an op-ed in the English newspaper The Independent chastising Bush for his ill-considered words, especially when dealing with the Islamic world. But others, such as Tom Madden of St. Louis University and Jonathan Riley-Smith, recently retired from Cambridge and the foremost historian of the crusades in the English-speaking world, have defended the institution, and by extension I think, Bush’s use of the term.

But even when the word “crusade” itself is missing, the complex cluster of ideas behind it are still there. In 2003, Lieutenant General “Jerry” Boykin went, in full uniform, on a preaching tour of American churches. On this tour, he spoke of Muslims worshipping an “idol” and “false god” and portraying America’s battle against militant Islam as a battle against “Satan.” The only way these enemies could be defeated, Boykin concluded, was to “come against them in the name of Jesus.” In 2007, after the death of Jerry Falwell, and the prospect of protests at his funeral by Fred Phelps and his virulently anti-homosexual Westboro Baptist Church, Liberty University student Mark David Uhl, a self-professed “soldier of Christ” on his MySpace page, was arrested after constructing several bombs he intended to use against Phelps. Earlier, in April 2007, at Virginia Tech, Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 of his teachers and classmates. He left behind a small corpus of writings (poems and a “manifesto,” most notably) that evoked Christian imagery in a peculiar way – a perception of righteous suffering, like Jesus, the working of the devil in the world, and the need to (violently) lash out against those seen to be his agents. Boykin’s, Uhl’s, and Cho’s language – Islam as idolaters, the work of the devil in the world, martyrdom, killing in Jesus’ name, etc. – could be lifted almost verbatim from any medieval Christian source.

But “crusade” has more than one meaning, and each is heavily laden with modern political meaning – and none of them entirely representative of current academic thought on the subject. For instance, one side condemns the crusades as a barbaric act of intolerance against Islam. Another side sees the crusades as primarily defensive, pushing back a muscular, expansionary Islam that would’ve soon engulfed all of Europe. Unsurprisingly, as with most simplistic explanations, both sides are wrong – sort-of. Moreover, just to make things more confusing, “crusade” has a third common meaning. Indeed, at least in English, the word can often have (what most would consider) positive, progressive connotations – a crusade against poverty, against homelessness, or (without irony) a crusade against violence.

Because of this complex interconnection of meanings, we must be wary, not just of the way we use words, but of the very words themselves. This is NOT relativism. It doesn’t mean that all interpretations of a word or other symbol – such as a flag – are equally valid. We have to critically examine those interpretations. To take an example, there’s recently been a big kerfuffle about the word “cling.” The truth is, in a Biblical context, it can indeed have both positive and negative connotations. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (12:9) says, “Hate what is evil; CLING to what is good” but the Book of Jonah (2:8) says, “Those who CLING to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.” But even these readings are problematic, since they depend on one particular translation of the Bible. That passage in Jonah, for example, ONLY uses the word “cling” in the New International Version, and not in the innumerable other English-language translations out there.

More than anything else, what all this means is that the use of a particular word or symbol will activate a reader’s ingrained mental chain of associations. Connections might be made that couldn’t initially have been foreseen, and we can’t summarily discard interpretations simply because we didn’t intend them. Meaning doesn’t inherently reside in text or reader but is often generated in the peculiar interplay between specific text and specific reader (or listener). In other words, context matters – and it’s all of our jobs to critically examine those contexts.

These same problems reside with the word “crusade.” “Crusade” even in its apparently most benign usage – I saw an article recently talking about a woman’s crusade to save feral cats – implies struggle against. It divides the world into good and evil, black and white. It implies that the outcome of that struggle has almost cosmic significance, in which good (the side deploying the word “crusade”) must prevail. It’s a zero-sum equation that tends to excuse the means in service of the ends, simply because there is no acceptable end besides utter and complete victory for “the good.”

So, maybe it’s time to ditch the word altogether. Or, perhaps better, “archive” the word – remember the way the word has been used and only deploy it sparingly. Scholars in Medieval Studies can then focus on the complex, changing relationship between religion and violence across the centuries, without worrying about modern semantic debates. And, more generally, without the crutch of “crusade,” today, we can all think about exactly what we mean when we’re struggling against someone or something. Maybe, just maybe, it’s not really productive to think in such stark, Manichean terms – that our opponents are evil and that, because we’re the “good” guys, we have all the answers and can do whatever we want to the “bad” guys.

A Germanic king, long-dead these 1200 years, and an undergraduate research experience at the University of Delaware have led me here.
• Read everything critically.
• Think for yourself.
• Remember the context.
• But always, always remember the “so what?”
Those kinds of skills will come in handy if any of you do decide to go to graduate school, become a professor, get invited back to your alma mater to give a talk, and want to have a conversation with some new friends on a crisp and cloudy Saturday morning.

Thank you.


Karen Schousboe said...

Yes, I do agree - words may indeed be dangerous. However, I do not agree that the way forward is to taboo the use. Rather the way forward must be to explicate the ramifications and connotations... if we taboo them, we end up not understanding what is happening around us, when people use them like e.g. Anders Behring Breivik in Norway to explain their horrendous crimes.

If we use words, we will discover that they are full of connotations. If we curtail their use, we find that their simple denotations get adopted. When Bush used the word - and others following him - it ignited a huge scholarly as well as intellectual debate in Europe following 9/11. Somehow I think it made it possible to make a more nuanced sense of what happened int he last 10 years. Karen Schousboe - www.medievalhistories.com

Matthew Gabriele said...

Karen, I take your point but I think I was trying to say that the word "crusade" has come to mean something so far removed from what it once connoted that it's beyond reclamation. It's, really, a 19th-century word and should be recognized as such.