Crusade Historians and Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong is a former nun who writes broadly on political and religious issues including the crusades and Islam. As a well known critic of modern western attitudes towards Islam, Armstrong has often sought to draw attention to what she sees as historical injustices carried out by westerners in the East. She lists the crusades among these injustices. For example, in her work, Islam: A Short History, she writes:

It was, for example, during the Crusades, when it was Christians who had instigated a series of brutal holy wars against the Muslim world, that Islam was described by the learned scholar-monks of Europe as an inherently violent and intolerant faith, which had only been able to establish itself by the sword. The myth of the supposed fanatical intolerance of Islam has become one of the received ideas of the West. [pp. 179-180]

Of all of those currently writing on the crusades, her work is probably among the most popular and well known to the general public. In my case, I have had history students who have read her books in other settings come to me confused about apparent contradictions between what they were learning in my class and what they read in her book. I also once had a member of the general public, after reading a guest column I once wrote for the Florida Times Union, email me for the same reason, seeking clarification. The reason for these contradictions is because I have been trained as a medieval historian and work within the current dominant historiography of the crusades, much of which is decidedly at odds with some of the claims Armstrong makes in her works.

The most influential living historian of the crusades is unquestionably retired Cambridge University scholar Jonathan Riley-Smith. His work over the last forty years, including more than a dozen books, has, in many ways, revolutionized our understandings of the crusades. in contrast to Armstrong’s suggestion noted above (to use only one example) that the crusaders “instigated” conflict through the calling of the crusades, Riley-Smith points out that “the original justification for crusading was Muslim aggression.”

What explains this difference in views between Jonathan Riley-Smith, perhaps the world’s leading scholar of the crusades, and Karen Armstrong, one of the world’s most popular authors of the crusades?

Let’s unpack it a bit.

From my point of view, the idea that the crusades represented a case of medieval Christians “instigating” wars against Muslims seems to falsely suggest that serious conflict between Muslims and Christians only began with the crusades. This ignores an entirely different framework that crusade historians often work within when considering the origins of the crusading movement. Crusade historian Paul F. Crawford has, in at least two essays, outlined the history of conflict between Christians and Muslims from shortly after Muhammad’s death all the way to the crucial years just prior to calling of the First Crusade. During the period of the Arab Conquest, from the seventh to eighth centuries, Muslim armies conquered more land (from the coast of modern Portugal to the Hindu Kush) than the Roman Army held at its height and perhaps two-thirds of the Christian world, including much of the Byzantine Empire, the Levant, North Africa, Spain, and even pushed into France during the eighth century. Continued conflict took place between Christians and Muslims from the eighth through the late eleventh centuries that saw the establishment of the Emirate of Sicily, attacks on Italy (and twice on the city of Rome itself), and significant overall shrinkage of Byzantine Christian territories.

Yet the events of the late eleventh-century are the most immediately relevant, beginning with the defeat of the Byzantines at Manzikert in 1071. As a result of the events of Manzikert, Muslim armies conquered much of Christian Asia-Minor and the surrounding areas in the years to follow. The ancient Christian cities of Nicaea and Antioch, among others, fell to Muslim armies in 1081 and 1084, with many Christians enslaved or subjected to dhimmi status as a result.

As early as 1074, in response to Byzantine requests for aid in the wake of Manzikert, Pope Gregory VII proposed personally leading a force of 50,000 western knights to the aid of eastern Christians, but his conflicts with the Holy Roman Emperor prevented its realization. The Investiture Controversy and other issues in the west delayed any meaningful response, but certainly western Christians were well aware of the deteriorating situation for Christians in the east as popes and members of the western nobility received not only correspondence from the Byzantines, detailing atrocities at times, but also similarly disturbing reports from pilgrims and other western travelers.

It was not until the Council of Piacenza in 1095 that Byzantine ambassadors were finally able to successfully reach an agreement with the recently stabilized papacy of Urban II to bring aid to the Byzantine Empire, resulting in the calling of the First Crusade later that year at the Council of Clermont. The First Crusade would prove effective in restoring much recently lost territory to Christian control, including the city of Nicaea and much of Asia-Minor to Byzantine control, with Antioch and other regions falling under the control of the newly established crusader states.

Returning to the work of Jonathan Riley-Smith, his work on crusading charters demonstrated that many of the participants of the First Crusade cited concerns about the suffering of eastern Christians and the desecration of Christian holy places in explaining their reasons for participating. In his highly regarded book The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading, Riley-Smith highlights (see pages 23-24) the charter of two brothers, for example, written shortly before they embarked on the First Crusade. They noted that they were going on the crusade, in part, “…to wipe out the defilement of the pagans and the immoderate madness through which innumerable Christians have already been oppressed, made captive and killed with barbaric fury.”

Indeed, according to Robert the Monk’s version of Pope Urban II’s calling of the First Crusade, which claims to provide an eyewitness account of the Council of Clermont, Urban described the desecration of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and, in graphic detail, the rape and torture of Christians at the hands of their Muslim persecutors. Peter Frankopan, convincingly argues that such accounts originated with the Byzantine Emperor Alexios’ correspondence and were not an invention of Pope Urban II. Moreover, these reports of Christian suffering at the hand of the Seljuqs are often confirmed in Muslim sources. Thus, the first crusaders saw the First Crusade, during which around 1/3 of the knights who participated would give their lives, as a defensive war. For them, it was not fought only in defense of Christ’s patrimony or Christian holy places, but for suffering and humiliated eastern Christians as well. This is an important component in explaining the birth, at least, of the crusading movement.

In light of these issues, the suggestion that the First Crusade represented an “instigation” of hostilities against the Muslim world can be frustrating for a detail obsessed historian.

While it is common to find references to the crusades in her many interviews and writings, her most extensive commentary comes from her well known book, Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World. The work has become a common holding in university libraries across the United States and Europe, yet I am unaware of any historian, whose research focuses primarily on the crusades (e.g. crusade historians), that assigns it in their courses. Perhaps some do somewhere, but if so, it is not typical.

Lest the reader think I am alone in expressing concerns, many other crusade historians have commented publicly on Armstrong’s work. One scholar, Dr. Thomas Madden, Professor and former chair of the History Department at St. Louis University and one of the leading U.S. scholars of the crusades, has charitably referred to Armstrong’s Holy War as “highly readable but not well acquainted with either current research or medieval sources.” On another occasion Dr. Madden described Armstrong’s work in stronger terms when he noted,

Originally written in 1988, this book was rereleased in 1991 in the wake of the Gulf War and has now made another appearance since the September 11 attacks. Poorly researched and written, this book is largely an exercise in modern left-wing rhetoric about sensitivity, tolerance, and the evils of Western civilization. Her “triple vision” is blurred by a misguided approach to Islam and Judaism and outright hostility to Catholicism.

The highly respected and late crusades scholar Dr. James Powell (Professor Emeritus of the University of Syracuse) made similar comments about the quality of Karen Armstrong’s scholarship on multiple occasions. In 1995 he wrote:

Recently the popular writer Karen Armstrong has turned to the crusade in Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World (New York, 1991). Although she stresses that her own background and interests are in the field of religion, most of the book is devoted to journalistic comparisons of the situation of the modern Near and Middle East and that at the time of the crusades. Like many such works, she argues for a type of historical continuity that bears little resemblance to the actual state of affairs in those regions. What is of particular interest for this essay, however, is the degree to which she retains the view that religious fanaticism underlay the crusades. Her view is merely the late-twentieth-century version, post-modern and a bit Gnostic, of many earlier critiques of the Westerners as fanatics and the Muslims as tolerant… All of this is interwoven with her reading of some of the best recent literature on the topic that hardly supports her views.

To add to Powell’s analysis here, I would note that many modern Islamic terrorist groups, including the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, have long referenced the medieval crusades in their propaganda to argue that modern western efforts in the Middle East represent a continuation of such historic aggression. For Armstrong to argue that there is continuity between the medieval crusades and events in the modern Middle East, as Powell and other crusade historians rightly deride, or to suggest that the history of hostilities between Christians and Muslims was instigated by Christians during the crusades, is to irresponsibly and inaccurately feed modern extremist propaganda that only serves to further inflame modern tensions.

Then, in 1999, Powell further commented…(see f.n. 4)

Some of you have read the article in a recent New York Times Magazine entitled “The Crusades Even Now.” The author is a well-known popular writer on religious topics, Karen Armstrong. That article sums up the tensions, prejudices, and emotional baggage that surround the idea of crusade. As history, it is, unfortunately, less successful. Intent on drumming in “lessons” from the past, its message is more in the tradition of a moral sermon than an effort to understand the past.

Leading crusades scholar Dr. Alfred J. Andrea (Professor Emeritus of the University of Vermont and former President of the World History Association) has also commented on Armstrong’s scholarship.

Karen Armstrong, Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World (New York, Doubleday, 1991) argues that ‘the Crusades were one of the direct causes of the conflict in the Middle East today’ (p. xiii). Be careful. The book is highly partisan and present-minded and contains numerous, often egregious, factual errors.

I also inquired with some other crusades historians about their views of Armstrong’s work on the crusades. They included Dr. Dan Franke of Richard Bland College, Dr. Paul F. Crawford of California University of Pennsylvania, and Dr. Vincent Ryan of Aquinas College. Here are their views expressed in private correspondence and quoted with their permission.

I asked Dan if he assigns Armstrong in any of his classes. He responded:

No, because I have better books to suit my purposes. Christopher Tyerman’s Very Short Introduction, Thomas Madden’s New Concise History, or Helen J. Nicholson’s short history provide an equally accessible entry point to the crusades, and are much more reliable.

When I asked Paul for his thoughts on Armstrong’s work, he noted:

Karen Armstrong is a pop-historian whose works, though readable and appealing, are as short on factual grounding in actual historical sources as they are long on anti-Catholic prejudice.  When she deals with the crusades, her disdain and contempt for her subject are evident, and it is very difficult to treat a historical subject with adequate objectivity and nuance when one brings that sort of attitude to the inquiry.  That the result is infelicitous and deeply unhelpful is perhaps unsurprising.

And Vincent, addressing particular arguments made by Armstrong, noted:

For someone who weighs in frequently on the topic, Karen Armstrong’s ignorance about the Crusades is impressive. Nothing can top, though, the argument she makes in Holy War crediting the Crusades with shaping conflict in the modern Middle East. At the core of this thesis is the U.S. support for the state of Israel, which she manages to link back to the Crusades because the crusaders were pilgrims and the people who played a key role in early English settlement of North America called themselves ‘pilgrims’ (!). According to Armstrong, this demonstrates “that a crusading enthusiasm is not only embedded deeply in the American identity and crucially formative in American history, but also that there is a natural American affinity with Zionism” (p. 472). Such pseudo-historical analysis seems more useful for a potential Dan Brown novel than for offering any legitimate insight on the Crusades and their actual impact.

Although many crusades historians find problems with Armstrong’s commentary on the crusades, the former nun’s voice appears to have a greater impact on popular understandings. I’m sure readers and fans of her work may find this blog post and argue that her work on religion in general, or Islam in particular, is useful in many other ways. I don’t have the time or energy to get into those topics here, but in light of the inquiries I sometimes receive about her various crusades related commentary, readers should know that crusade historians, at least, generally have many concerns about her work.