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.


Steve Muhlberger said...

Well said.

Steve Muhlberger said...

Of course, Thomas Madden also promulgates the centuries-long religious war interpretation. One disadvantage of using his Concise History as a textbook.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Thanks, Steve. And I think this is generally a pitfall with doing "lateral" readings of themes -- they collapse chronology in unfortunate ways.

Anonymous said...

Better to use forums where you do have professorial or expert authority. I advise that one not only has to pick one's battles, but also to pick a battlefield where there is some advantage to fighting.

Arguing history against people's religious beliefs is like spitting into the wind. Be proud of being supercilious!

Anonymous said...

Matt, I've just been fighting a similar corner albeit in a less obvious forum, and the line I had to finish with was roughly, "there are reasons academics think the things we do which are related to what we do know, not to what you may think we don't". By the same token, this is why you can stick one of us in front of a bunch of undergraduates on a subject we've never taught before and maybe was only able to read up that week, and they'll still learn something because we have learnt over the years the contexts into which our stuff fits and why it's important, what stuck and what didn't, where the relevance to the modern is and so on.

On the one hand, in some ways people reading stuff and then responding like your guy in a relatively well-read, articulate and sharply-argued piece of diatribe is a kind of proof of our success, or that of our writers, in making the medieval period accessible to the public, which is something we all want. On the other hand, that such people don't realise there is more to it than just reading some books suggest that what we actually have to see, the knowledge and skills, is not clear enough, and that may in fact be another result of our outreach if done badly. The old approach would of course have been ivory-tower mystery cultism, but our preference for telling people stuff has its own dangers that we have to circumnavigate to protect our own rôle in the process, no?

Matthew Gabriele said...

Anonymous, thanks for the note. And yes, it's hard/ near impossible to argue against religious belief -- so much so that I too wonder if it's even worth doing. I disagree, however, about "fighting" only on familiar ground. How many normal people (non-academics) read academic journals? Now, how many of those same people read newspapers or surf the web? I'm not going to reach that guy who wrote in to contradict me but I very well may reach the other guy who's skimming the paper that day, who knows very little about the Crusades but might like to know more...

Jon, sorry about your own struggle. I often get students who are more than happy to reify Christianity. It's gotten to the point where I must say "things change over time" 100x/ semester. And true, that a bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing, but still I think that this person's diatribe (your words, but perhaps appropriate) is more revealing of a disdain of our profession -- of our schooling, of our knowledge, and of our ability to comment on that knowledge. Surely, there can be a middle ground -- where we can provide information, help others produce knowledge from that information, and still make them understand why WE are especially able to help them through this process? I mean Jonathan Riley-Smith is better than Barbara Tuchman, right?

Anonymous said...

Basically yes, of course! but for what purpose? For in-depth, clever and covincing work on motives and personalities, JRS every time, but for readable all-round orientation? Well, it's still JRS but you'd have to pick the right book. The problem is people who think they've read the field's equivalent of JRS when they've only read Tuchmann... Maybe?

Matthew Gabriele said...

Bingo, Jon.

I'm not trying to say that people without advanced degrees shouldn't do history (or whatever). Just that having an advanced degree actually does mean something. Perhaps we do know what we're talking about?

Anonymous said...

Not familiar ground, advantageous ground.

Journals? Nobody cares except the 20 other people who work on your topic. (If there are that many!) When we write to a newspaper our credentials may be good enough to get the letter printed and may even please our institution's president. All you can expect is a few friendly responses and some angry ones. Best outcome is to get a succinct and carefully crafted message out. Hopefully, you've anticipated objections and stultitia. Op-eds are better because you have more space to get your point across.

When you give a talk at a church, synagogue, or mosque and challenge the preconceptions of your audience, you're on mission. When you sit on a panel for the local interfaith project or world affairs club, you can introduce complexity into the discussion. In settings like that you have expert authority. By being invited, you come through the front door as an expert.

David Nirenberg reminds us that history is omnipresent. As such, it is part and parcel of contemporary discourse. This is especially true when the claims of militant religion challenge the status quo all over the world. As historians we have an obligation to enter the public conversation. As medievalists we note on a regular basis how "our" bailiwick is being used in support of political and religious agendas everywhere. Looks like an opening for us.

It's hard to be a public scholar. We are trained in ivory towers to be careful researchers and writers, hardly educated as teachers, much less as pundits.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Anonymous, yes. Thanks again for your thoughts.

Thomas said...

Hm, I definitely like your argument about the different reactions to, for example, the Liberal Arts and Biology. As an English major, I have this lingering feeling - sort of a stereotype, I guess - that it's a practically worthless major. Your point is as applicable to this specific argument as it is to all Liberal Arts, and it's nice to see someone else arguing for it (especially at an engineering college).

Another Damned Medievalist said...

seeing as how one of my students read the Pact of Umar, and a couple of other such documents, and still decided to link Islam and Al Qaeda in an essay that was supposed to compare the spread of the Dar al Islam to Christendom before 1300 ...

I sometimes wonder if it matters.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Matthew (or his readers or fellow bloggers), do you know where and when the next medieval carnivalesque is taking place (I think it'd be about #48 by now?). Because I'm ready to nominate this here post.

I've always thought that being a public intellectual would be a good thing. But people are very comfortable in their romanticized image of the Middle Ages, so a more nuanced picture is a damned hard sell outside the classroom. You are to be congratulated for even making the attempt.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Thanks, Thomas, ADM, and Notorious. And yes, ADM, it IS like banging your head against a wall sometimes, isn't it?

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Um ... Notorious, do you want to hold it? I don't think I've got a host!

And yeah, Matt, it is -- although sometimes I wish they gave us pillows with the sheepskins!

Anonymous said...

I think it's important to engage in the discussion, despite the spattering of obstinate and dogmatic beliefs that lie in public perceptions. As a non-historian, I want to be invited into the conversation too, despite my lack of qualifications to fully comprehend the intricate historicity of each specific topic. And to an outsider, claiming 12 years of education can mean nothing to a person who maintains a relativistic relationship to knowledge ("your facts" vs "my facts").

The problem to me seems to be a series of double standards in Americans' relationship to history. We want history to fall in line with what we've learned because we learned it. History, to many, can be both solid (because that's just the way it happened) and malleable (because you educators are distorting things). Even as those who argue against it acknowledge the important factor of perspective in historicity, they often yield to popularity as preeminence, which is in itself a dogma as dangerous to the thinking mind as a fundamentalist religious belief. I mean, when I learned history in grade school, my review process consisted of a series of multiple choice tests. It'd be interesting to go back now and see how many of the answers I gave as scantron dogma are debatable at best.

It's an uphill battle for educators, not just against the unwavering religious folk, but against an American public that never transitioned maturely between the modern age and the era in which history meant nothing more than the perspective of the victors. As such, we're never really taught to engage with history (unless of course, we continue our studies at the university level). Instead, we consume history as cement knowledge, along with all the ideology behind all the pop-history lit we read after our schooling.

The final double standard kick-in-the-arse is an universal overarching distrust of authority by the public, one which maintains no sensible criteria for which institutions are in need of disdain ("educators", "liberals") apart from an emotional reflex. That the source of these reflexes is itself commonly an unchallenged authority (tradition, television, etc) is no small irony to those who'd rather engage in honest cooperative intellectual discourse.

Anonymous said...

Random internet passerby here, stumbled upon this while exploring. Shall firstly say, has been interesting reading much of what you've written here, the sharing is appreciated.

This discussion made me want to add my own perspective, however.

In my experience, it is not so much a matter of academia versus the general public, but a matter of the overall culture in North America.

To put that in context, I am an outsider here. I was raised until near 16 in South Africa and attended various schools public and private. I have since also attended more than one university and found that my (equivalent to) grade 10 education equaled in most subjects the first year courses of university here in North America. Which was... interesting.

I mention it, in part to point out how distorted perceptions of education are in general, since it was readily assumed by the public and educators I encountered here that the third world must necessarily be inferior to themselves.

That distortion of status actually grew far worse in the university environment. To the extent that I was dismissed out of hand, because I was a "lowly student", even when the discussions turned to events in Africa I had been a firsthand witness to.

The point of this being, that both "sides" are at fault. That there is a division at all is what causes conflict, since it immediately creates an "us" versus "them" environment. One side attacks the other, so the other side attacks in return, and the first does so again... and so forth.

To be blunt, your words continue that pattern and exhibit the arrogance and insults that "Joe Six-Pack" (that comment is not elitist?) feels he must defend himself against. Perhaps it is a matter of emotional outburst, a defensiveness on your part due to having been aggressively disdained. But if it is deeper perspective all it means is that you create what you say you wish to fight against through teaching.

The culture I have observed, as an outsider, is not one of anti-intellectualism, but one of dominance. That there is a need to be superior to others. That there is not a community, or mutual respect. Trust.

Academia is not trusted, because it does not trust the public, or even it's own young ones (students). Academia does not trust that someone who has not passed their arbitrary standards in full can understand what they speak on, or put forward a valid viewpoint.

There are exceptions to these generalisations certainly, I have known some great Professors who treated me as an equal, who worked with me towards knowledge as a partner on the same path. Most did not.

Wise educators know that they too, are still students. Open minds understand that knowledge can be found anywhere and from anyone. People do have the capability to understand complex subjects without anything but the raw data. There are many examples of precisely that occurring, which led to the institutes and advances we have today, are there not?

It is commendable, your intent, that you strive to share and teach. But aye... the method and perceptions one has, affect much.

Be well.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Anonymous, thanks for stopping by. Let me share a few responses though.

I don't think my responses to the (original) questioner reveal any "arrogance." I just do know more about medieval history/ the crusades than the vast majority of the rest of the world. That's not to say that I know more than everyone, that I can't be wrong, etc. Yet, as I said in my original post, attacking the very fact that I have an advanced education is problematic on so many levels that I hardly know where to start critiquing it. Moreover, you're probably right that I should be a bit more careful about how I choose my terms (re: "Joe Six-Pack") but I intended it to be read in the way it seems to have entered current parlance in the US -- as the same kind of willfully ignorant, yet entitled to his opinion "average" American I deplored above. But aren't I an "average" American too? Joe Wurzelbacher ("Joe the Plumber"), who spawned this whole term, is a case in point. Remember when he was campaining for McCain-Palin and was agreed that Obama-Biden would mean death for Israel? Then, he was questioned on why he thought this, when everything either of the 2 Democrats said was solely in support of Israel? He said, "That's a good question, you all should go out and find out why I believe that." Does this mean he's an "average" American? As much as he'd like you to think so, I don't agree.

I do agree that educators are students too, but I disagree that everyone has an equal ability to produce knowledge at the outset of a class. Yes, some people do have the raw ability to produce knowledge from information without any help, but we call those people geniuses. I am certainly not one of them, and neither is the vast majority of the rest of the world. In my classroom, I will know more than you about medieval history but I don't know everything. You will know much less than me about medieval history but you will, undoubtedly, know something.

Learning is indeed a collaborative effort, beginning with the interaction and interchange that occurs between teacher and student in the classroom. But that interaction only occurs -- for both sides -- when each realizes that they don't know everything.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Um ... one of my negative eval comments this semester said something along the lines of, "to her, the right answers always have to come from facts or books by scholars."

Another was that I always knew more than the students.

It actually depressed me, since one of the things I was trying to demonstrate is that historians argue about things, and that we are constantly revising our knowledge. And, of course, that we tend to agree much more on what is a wrong interpretation than which one is right.

Matthew Gabriele said...

"to her, the right answers always have to come from facts or books by scholars."

I'd wear that as a badge of honor.

Anonymous said...

The latter anonymous is onto something important by directing us to think about the language of dominance. Thank you.

The former anonymous.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

In response to the comment from Anonymous (Jan. 08): Why, oh why, would anyone sign up to take a class from a professor who didn't have a claim to more knowledge and skill (in their given field) than the student? What could one possibly learn from such a professor?

Anonymous said...

Notorius Ph.D - your comment displays an interesting, and I feel perhaps it is a narrow, definition of "knowledge" and "learning". I sign up for classes, read articles and engage in conversations all to "learn" new perspectives as much as new "knowledge and skill". Teachers can and do learn something (thank you Matthew) from their students and this is an important aspect of the dynamics of sholarship. When it is missing, you have anon 5 Jan's sense of being devalued or alienated and less learning all around. As an educator, I am offered new insights through dialogue with my students every time I take a class, no matter how wide the apparent gap in "expertise" between my students and I. Genius can appear in collaborative moments, not just out of the mouths of "geniuses".
Thank you for this important discussion. May we all keep debating, teaching and learning.