Historians on Susan Jacoby’s New York Times Essay on the First Crusade

In defense of President Obama, who had recently been criticized for his comparison of the medieval crusaders to modern Islamic terrorists (see my response here), the New York Times published an essay on Friday (“The First Victims of the First Crusade”) by Susan Jacoby. Her essay highlighted the brutal attack on Jews during the First Crusade and, once again, equated the crusaders with modern Islamic terrorists. She wrote, “Anyone who considers it religiously and politically transgressive to compare the behavior of medieval Christian soldiers to modern Islamic terrorism might find it enlightening to read this bloody story.” She then described the horrors of the slaughter and compared it with the killing of religious minorities recently carried out by ISIS in the Middle East.

Jacoby then ended her piece with an odd celebration of the virtues of the post-Enlightenment West. In it, she contrasted the medieval Christian past with the modern post-Enlightenment western world, arguing that groups like ISIS “offer a ghastly and ghostly reminder of what the Western world might look like had there never been religious reformations, the Enlightenment and, above all, the separation of church and state.”

Jacoby’s comments, particularly those contrasting the medieval and modern west, caused a stir among medieval historians, much of it negative.

In response, West Point historian Dr. Daniel Franke wrote “So, religious reformations, the Enlightenment [sic], and separation of church and state saved us from violence, intolerance, massacre, persecution, oppression, genocide, mass exile, and “ethnic cleansing”? That’s what Susan Jacoby is saying–which should come as no surprise, given that her work is dedicated to the secular society. That’s fine, I have no issue with that. But as a reading of history, it’s utter nonsense…”,

Dominican University historian Dr. David Perry referred to Jacoby’s celebration of the modern west as “a kind of dangerous a-historicity and smug presentism…,” citing the violence of the modern era as a rebuttal. Perry wrote, “Against such an argument I offer the evidence of the 20th century and its horrific violence. I offer the world of 18th century slavery (post-Reformation, contemporary with Enlightenment). I offer the global cultural destruction of Colonization.”

Indeed, one hardly needs reminding that the 20th century witnessed the destructive forces of colonialism, two world wars, the Holocaust, the use of atomic weapons, as well as the deaths of tens of millions of people at the hands of secular or atheist governments influenced by murderous modern ideologies.

University of Florida historian Dr. Florin Curta had a different sort of criticism as he emphasized Jacoby’s ignorance of medieval history, arguing she may have drawn more relevant parallels of violence between modern Sunni and Shi’ia Muslims on one hand, and medieval Catholic and Orthodox Christians on the other hand, noting “the largest number of victims of ISIS are Shi’ia Muslims, while there is no Shi’ia equivalent to ISIS or al-Qaeda. Similarly, Orthodox have been killed by Catholic Christians both during the Fourth and the Baltic Crusades, but no equivalent exists in Eastern Christianity to the concept of crusade. But, of course, Jacoby is simply not capable of such sophistication.”

Beyond this, I had some issues with how she framed things with regard to the attacks on Jews during the crusade. They were terrible, for sure, and certainly worthy of significant study when considering the dynamics of the First Crusade. Yet the purpose and goal of the First Crusade was not to attack Jews, which one might not realize by reading Jacoby’s article. Some crusaders, mostly German, representing a minority group among an otherwise French dominated expedition, set out early leaving behind the bulk of the crusading army, who then attacked the Jews of Germany for reasons that historians still debate. Moreover, the crusaders who killed Jews in the Rhineland never made it to the Holy Land. They were defeated in Hungary by fellow Christians (the army of the Hungarian king) who were appalled by their lawlessness.

To be clear, no pope ever called a crusade against Jews and most German bishops during the First Crusade made some effort to protect them (some more than others). In fact, this attack on Jews was seen by crusade leaders as a distraction from the true purpose of the crusade and condemned by the papacy and the German Emperor, who both agreed that Jews who had been forcibly converted during the attacks, a violation of canon law, would be allowed to return to their Jewish faith. Not only did Pope Urban II “not tell crusaders to murder Jews,” as Jacoby at least briefly notes (one might have missed it on the first reading), but he (like subsequent crusading popes) outright condemned it.

Jacoby’s comments on the crusaders are also in contrast to her clear efforts to disassociate the majority of modern Muslims from the actions of Islamic fundamentalist terrorist movements. That’s fine, of course, but (using her framework) why not (even briefly) acknowledge how attacks on Jews during the First Crusade were the actions of a minority of crusaders? Or that crusade leaders condemned their actions? Or that the papacy made significant (even if not always successful) efforts to prevent similar violence from occurring in future crusades? Doing so would have presented a fuller and more accurate picture of the complexities of this troubling historical event.