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The new crusaders of the West

10 February 2015

In the last few days lots of people seem to have been posting links to articles about the Crusades on Facebook. The first one I saw was The Real History of the Crusades | Christianity Today:

within days of the September 11 attacks, the Middle Ages suddenly became relevant.

As a Crusade historian, I found the tranquil solitude of the ivory tower shattered by journalists, editors, and talk-show hosts on tight deadlines eager to get the real scoop. What were the Crusades?, they asked. When were they? Just how insensitive was President George W. Bush for using the word crusade in his remarks?

That was actually quite an old article, published in 2005, and referred to US President George Bush calling his “war on terror” a “crusade”.

Then came a link to this book review Inventing the Crusades by Thomas F. Madden | Articles | First Things:

It is generally thought that Christians attacked Muslims without provocation to seize their lands and forcibly convert them. The Crusaders were Europe’s lacklands and ne’er-do-wells, who marched against the infidels out of blind zealotry and a desire for booty and land. As such, the Crusades betrayed Christianity itself. They transformed “turn the other cheek” into “kill them all; God will know his own.”

Every word of this is wrong. Historians of the Crusades have long known that it is wrong, but they find it extraordinarily difficult to be heard across a chasm of entrenched preconceptions.

I’m not sure about “every word” being wrong, but certainly the first four words are: “It is generally thought…”

With even a rusty undergraduate knowledge of the crusades, that looks like a straw man to me. “Generally thought” by whom?

crusaders2Everything I learned about the crusades, from primary school to university, made it clear that there was Muslim provocation that sparked off the crusades.

Such statements look more like polemics than history.

The book being reviewed there was The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam by Jonathan Riley-Smith. I haven’t read it, so I can’t say whether the author takes the same line as the reviewer; my comments here pertain to the review, rather than to the book itself.

One of the things one learns about historiography is that most historians, even the most academically respectable ones, carry “the burden of the present”, that is, the need to interpret the past in such a way as to justify or advocate4 some present course of action. It is only to be expected that we interpret the past in the light of the present — after all, we3 know what happened next, which people at the time did not. Few people read stories about the past that have no bearing on the present.[1]

But when the article goes on to say,

One of the most profound misconceptions about the Crusades is that they represented a perversion of a religion whose founder preached meekness, love of enemies, and nonresistance. Riley-Smith reminds his reader that on the matter of violence Christ was not as clear as pacifists like to think. He praised the faith of the Roman centurion but did not condemn his profession. At the Last Supper he told his disciples, “Let him who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me, And he was reckoned with transgressors.”

St. Paul said of secular authorities, “He does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.” Several centuries later, St. Augustine articulated a Christian approach to just war, one in which legitimate authorities could use violence to halt or avert a greater evil. It must be a defensive war, in reaction to an act of aggression. For Christians, therefore, violence was ethically neutral, since it could be employed either for evil or against it. As Riley-Smith notes, the concept that violence is intrinsically evil belongs solely to the modern world. It is not Christian.”

… then what we are seeing is not a historian’s study of past events, but a theological framework, and the theological filters through which those events are seen by someone writing in the present in order to justify a present agenda.

It seems to me that the “burden of the present” carried by this article, and other similar ones being circulated on the Internet, is the need to justify the increasing belligerence and warmongering by the West that we have seen in the last 25 years.

crusader_1600Western imperialism has been around a lot longer than the last 25 years, of course, but it “went underground” to some extent during the Cold War. There was no Nato bombing of Allende’s Chile, for example. One could say that naked imperialism became less fashionable after 1914, when many colonised countries struggled for independence, and the rise of Nazism and Fascism (and to some extent Bolshevism) made the ugly face of imperialism plain for all to see.

That lasted until 1989, the annus mirabilis, when there was a brief flowering of freedom around the world, symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall. It lasted about 6-8 months, until it was overtaken by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession. And since then Western imperialism has been growing again, and growing more visibly, so now there is a need to justify it, inter alia by rewriting the history of the crusades.

The review seems to be aimed at discrediting Christian pacifism and promoting Christian militarism.

I can’t argue about what happened during the crusades with specialist scholars like Jonathan Riley-Smith, whose bibliography on the subject is pretty impressive. What I do take issue with is some of the assertions about what is “generally thought”. This is akin to the clickbait you see on Facebook “Eight things you didn’t know about….” and when you click on the link you find that you did know all eight and a few more besides.

I learnt about the crusades in history in primary school, and I was called upon to write undergraduate (and a couple of postgraduate) essays on the crusades about every year from 1961 to 1968, and often answer exam questions about them too. That obviously can’t compare with the erudition of specialist scholars, but one thing I clearly recall from all those efforts is that the first crusade was  sparked off because the Muslim rulers of Jerusalem had barred access to Western pilgrims, and that at a time when pilgrimage was a Very Big Thing among Western Christians. That was clearly provocation, and the idea that the crusades were “unprovoked” was the last one that anyone could get.

And that is why I think the “generally thought” bit is a straw man.

If you want to go into more detail, it was the Seljuk Turks who conquered the Fatimid (Muslim) and Roman (Byzantine) rulers of Anatolia, Syria, and Palestine, and massacred Christian pilgrims after they had taken over. The change of policy towards Christian pilgrims was occasioned by a change of rulers. It wasn’t so much that they were Muslims as that they were Turks. The Fatimids had generally had a policy of religious tolerance towards Christians, Jews, and other Muslim sects; the Seljuk Turks did not. So it wasn’t so much Muslim provocation as Turkish provocation that led to the first crusade. But it was provocation, as even history books written for 10-year-olds made clear

The Crusades also made a big impact on Western culture, in a way that I did not fully appreciate when I was in primary school, and only discovered much later. For example, as a child I read stories about King Arthur, and all the illustrations showed them dressed like crusaders. Of course the Arthurian stories were gathered, edited and published at the time the crusades were at their height, and so they too carry the “burden of the present”.

The impact of the crusades in Eastern Christian culture has been somewhat different. The Roman Empire, under attack from the Seljuks, asked for help from Western Christian rulers, but the so-called “filioque” split of 1054 was still a living memory at the time of the First Crusade, and the crusaders appointed their own Latin bishops to the lands they conquered, and regarded and treated the native Christians as heretics.

So Orthodox Christians might well look askance at this new enthusiasm for the crusades in the West.

[1] see Wright, Harrison M. 1977. The burden of the present: liberal-radical controversy over southern African history. Cape Town: D. Philip.
Dewey: 968.0072 WRIG
An examination of historical revisionism in Southern Africa.

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