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:
Man, this just works on so many levels. Let me just deal with 2 levels though. First, briefly on his facts:
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.
- 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?
- "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."
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.