Writing the Crusades: An Interview with Dr. Laurence W. Marvin

I first read Prof. Laurence W. Marvin’s The Occitan War: A Military and Political History of the Albigenian Crusade, 1209-1218 soon after it came out in 2008. I was still in graduate school at the University of Florida at the time and remember how formative it was on my understanding of the Albigensian Crusade, a topic I have otherwise not really studied in great depth as most of my research has since revolved around the First Crusade. I recall enjoying the book quite a bit, as did many reviewers at the time. Prof. David S. Bachrach, for example, referred to The Occitan War as a “benchmark for the writing of military and political history…” and noted that “all future discussions of the Albigensian Crusade will have to begin with this study.”


Fast forward roughly nine years later and I found myself composing a blog post on medieval historians and their military service. A mutual friend mentioned that Prof. Marvin had an interesting career in the military and that I should consider reaching out to him, which I did by email. Fortunately, Larry, as he now lets me call him, was interested enough to allow me to include his fascinating account of his four years of service as an enlisted man in the U.S. Navy working on a fast attack submarine! The account of his service, and that of other great medieval historians included in the piece, is well worth reading. Pushing my luck, I then bothered Larry once again about contributing to a blog post in which 34 medieval historians provided annotated lists of the “Most Important Books on the Crusades,” which Larry once again kindly contributed to. Lest Larry think he could then escape, Prof. John D. Hosler invited both of us to participate on a panel together at the annual meeting for the Society of Military History in Louisville Kentucky on April 6, 2018. This took place at a time when I served as an external member of a M.A. thesis committee at the University of North Florida for a student considering the Albigensian Crusade. Guess whose book on The Occitan War was an important element of that thesis? 


Above Image: Larry notes: ” Me, age 18, Spring 1980 on the starboard side of the boat under the fairwater planes, another submarine to outboard.  The place was La Maddalena, an island of the coast of Sardinia.  At the time it was the refit base for fast attack submarines in the Mediterranean.”


I have really enjoyed these recent opportunities to get to know Larry as well as reacquainting myself with his fine scholarship. He is obviously very generous with his time to junior scholars and his humility is surprising in light of his excellent scholarship, which includes a variety of important and interesting articles on aspects of military history and the Albigensian Crusade. His most recent effort is a co-edited volume on Louis VII and his World published this year with Brill, considering an important monarch and a crucial era for the development of crusading, and he is also working on an impressive and sorely needed article on the Battle of Fariskur during the Fifth Crusade. Knowing of Larry’s experience as a modern submariner makes reading his works on military history all the more interesting as his background is sometimes reflected in his scholarship. I think anyone familiar with modern military lingo, for example, would chuckle upon reading the title of his 2002 article “Thirty-Nine Days and a Wake-Up: The Impact of the Indulgence and Forty Days Service on the Albigensian Crusade, 1209-1218.

Aside from Larry’s military service, he completed his Ph.D. in Medieval History at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 1997. He then spent two years as a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at St. Louis University. He then moved on to a tenure track position at Barry College, where he served as Assistant Professor of History from 1998 to 2004, Associate Professor of History from 2004 to 2010, serving as Chair of the History Department from 2006 to 2009, and finally reaching the rank of full professor in 2010. Thus, Larry has had a very successful career spanning more than twenty years and he is both respected for his scholarship by his colleagues and well liked personally (and the two do not always go together).

I asked Larry, once again, if he would be willing to answer some questions for my blog. He kindly agreed.


Question 1: How did you end up as a medieval historian? What drew you to the field? What led you to pursue your Ph.D. in Medieval History at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign?

After leaving active duty I intended to become a lawyer.  I had to be practical, at least at first.  Paying for college was mostly on my dime because military benefits at the time were horrible (no GI bill) and I had no family support.  I wanted to major in history, though I was most interested in early modern/late modern British history.  My first semester I took the first half of western civ.  The course started with Diocletian and ended at the Black Death which for a beginning survey is a weird chronology as I look back on it.  The material was both confusing and unfamiliar and at the end of the semester I wondered how much I’d learned.  That same semester I went to the play Abelard & Heloise on campus.  The program notes outlined the 12th Century Renaissance in a Haskins kind of way.  Despite what happened to both Abelard and Heloise, I couldn’t believe that the Middle Ages were so enlightened and optimistic!  After my freshman year I picked up the novel The Name of the Rose, a bestseller at the time, as a test to see whether I’d retained anything from the academic blur of my first semester.  I had learned more from that course than I thought, and by the time I finished Name of the Rose I was hooked on the Middle Ages and wanted to know more.  The passion my history professors showed in the classroom (regardless of topic or era) impressed me, especially about things no one normal would care about.  They didn’t seem to teach that much (compared to high school) and I had a vague sense that they did research too.  It seemed like a great job, and, being naturally lazy, I thought I’d better pick a profession I enjoyed.  By my sophomore year I decided that I could become a history professor of the High Middle Ages.  It was naïve of course to believe I would successfully navigate the difficult path to a Ph.D and successful employment in the field afterwards.

I applied to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign for my Ph.D based on the recommendation of my undergraduate and MA advisor at the University of Wyoming, Kristine Utterback, herself a medievalist and a U of Toronto Ph.D.  In my senior year I did an independent study on the Templars under Kris.  Later, also under Kris’s direction, I did my MA thesis on the Templars, and I’d also read a fair bit on the crusades by the time I finished.  Kris suggested UIUC for a Ph.D because Don Queller was there.  Don was the leading specialist on the Fourth Crusade and had written a definitive monograph on it (superseded by the revised edition done by Tom Madden).  Don had an excellent reputation as a Ph.D supervisor as someone who looked out for his students and got jobs for them.  Though I applied to a number of other places, Don was the only one who wrote me a personal letter before I was admitted telling me he would be glad to work with me and then giving me a preliminary assessment of my abilities.  He was quite forthright about my relative talent and intelligence (hint: I wasn’t a genius but could work hard).  I still have the letter.  It was one of the nicest I’ve ever received.

Question 2: What historians have had the most influence or greatest impact on your career? Why and in what ways?

                There have been a lot of them of course, both those I’ve known personally and those I know only by their work.  At the University of Wyoming besides Kris there was Quentin Cook, John Gruenfelder and Roger L. Williams, the latter three all gone now.  They made me work hard, taught me how to write, took an interest in my future, and gave me examples of how to conduct one’s career.

Don Queller had a big impact though by the time I got to UIUC he was in ill-health, and had moved on from the crusades to family history and Venetian history.  He never gave me much direction, but then again he encouraged me to do what I wanted.  Although I wasn’t interested in either family or Venetian history he never held that against me.  He encouraged collegiality among his grad students and I learned a lot from them.

Unfortunately Don died when I had almost completed my dissertation, and that was the low point of my career.  Not only was his death a personal blow—because I had respected him greatly—but I was stuck without an advisor at a particularly vulnerable time.  The history department was unsure what to do, and suggested a particular scholar elsewhere to supervise what little I had left to write and then defend, but when I approached that person their advice was for me to start my dissertation over.  I was already four years behind because of my military service, UIUC was not going to fund me for several more years, my wife had supported me long enough, and we had a small child.  Three people then stepped in and saved my career.  One was John Lynn, the distinguished early modern military historian at UIUC.  John was already directing one of my other fields (military history) and he generously agreed to act as foster doktorvater.  Of course he could only help me so far, and UIUC wanted someone expert in the field to act as an outside reader.  John suggested Kelly DeVries, who I’d already met at conferences.  Kelly willingly agreed, read my dissertation thoroughly, gave me great feedback and was there by speaker phone when I defended.  He impressed me with his knowledge and I appreciated his great sense of humor.  The third was Tom Madden, now one of the leading crusade historians in the world.  We’d become friends as fellow Queller grad students, though Tom was some years ahead of me.  When Don died Tom had already been at St. Louis University for a couple of years.  Tom had always treated me like a younger brother in the best sense of the phrase, and he took the “family” aspect of the professor-grad student relationship literally, stepping in to help me when Don was no longer there.  Tom was unstinting with useful advice, dinners, beers, and, best of all, he got me a one year position at SLU just as I finished.  I ended up spending two years at SLU, which was just on the cusp of becoming a great university to study medieval history.  My time there was incredibly valuable in making the transition from grad student to professor.

Historians whose works have influenced me would be the aforementioned Don Queller and Tom Madden.  Their Fourth Crusade exemplified the kind of history I like to read, and have tried to write.  I’ve always admired John France for his common-sense, level-headed approach to scholarship.  Whenever I get interested in a topic, I see that John has been there before and written an article or a book.  His Victory in the East is one of the finest histories ever written on any military topic and influenced me as I wrote my own book.  I knew James Powell slightly from dinners at Kalamazoo, and am in awe of the things he ranged over, including his work on the Fifth Crusade.  I met John Baldwin, whose works I’d always admired, not long before he died a few years ago.  What a classy guy!  His book on the Government of Philip Augustus is a definitive piece of institutional history.   Jessalynn Bird is another historian who does first rate work in eras and topics I’m interested in.  John Hosler should be getting some of the credit due him as a historian with the publication of his newest book on the siege of Acre.  His book on John of Salisbury, however, is an unsung gem of intellectual and military history.  I’ve never met Christopher Tyerman, but he’s one of the Godfathers of crusading history, and has done some exceptional things in the field.  I especially love his acerbic The Debate on the Crusades.

Question 3: What areas of scholarship related to the Albigensian Crusade still need further study and exploration? What is lacking? Alternatively, what are the strong points of current scholarship on the Albigensian Crusade?

First the strong points: A vigorous debate began early this century over whether Catharism actually existed as an institutional religion.  Before that its existence was largely taken for granted, but R.I. Moore and Mark Pegg questioned this.  This has caused both sides to dig more deeply either in support or rebuttal but the net effect has been a strengthening of the field.  Claire Taylor’s works on Catharism in two regions of Southern France stand as a good example of the result.  For the crusade itself, I admire G.E.M. Lippiatt’s recent Simon V for saying something new and dispassionate about a polarizing figure.  Daniel Power’s EHR article on who went on the Albigensian Crusade shows how much there is still left to do on the crusade.  Martin Alvira Cabrer has done superb work on many aspects of the Albigensian Crusade and it’s a shame that his work doesn’t get enough notice in the Anglo-phone world.  His work on the battle of Muret (El Jueves de Muret) stands as the definitive treatment of that battle.  Damian Smith is another author who produces great scholarship and reminds us of the important connection between the Iberian world and the Occitan.  I’ve enjoyed everything Malcolm Barber has ever written about the Albigensian Crusade as well as many other topics.

That’s where further study needs to be done: prosopographical work and the Albigensian Crusade’s connections to other regions of Europe.  For example, I under-appreciated the Aragonese connection to the crusade when I wrote my book.  Daniel Brown’s recent biography of Hugh de Lacy, the Earl of Ulster, is an example of what I’m talking about.

Question 4: What do you see as the three most significant popular myths or misconceptions on the Albigensian Crusade?

1) One enduring myth is that the Albigensian Crusade was nastier or more brutal than other wars in Europe or during the crusade era.  I have argued against this in various venues.  If one compares accounts of other sieges, battles and treatment of non-combatants of the era it really wasn’t.  The fact that religion played a role didn’t help things of course.  The perception of the AC as a particularly violent conflict stems from this religious aspect and the fact that militarily it lasted for more than a decade, so there was a certain constancy compared to other wars or conflicts at the time.  Yet other sieges of the era, like Acre, or Damietta were pretty bad, and atrocities occurred in all theaters of war such as the frontier of Northern England and Scotland during the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries.

2) The myth of the “Lost Cause.”  While all times, places and cultures are unique, some authors and web sites continue to suggest that the Occitan region was a paradise destroyed by a hostile culture during the crusade.  Occitan society was pretty violent before the crusade, so it was no land of peace and justice.  The crusade itself did not displace most of the southern nobility.  It’s surprising how many southern nobles survived it.  Raymond VII helped end the crusade by having his daughter marry a son of the French king.  No one could have known that the part of the agreement that stipulated that if there was no issue from the marriage, the region would escheat to the French crown, would come to pass in 1271.  It’s hard to blame that directly on the crusade.  Thus there was no inevitability to the Albigensian Crusade making Occitania French.

3) Did Arnaud-Amaury say at Béziers, “Kill them All, God will know his own?”  I won’t waste anyone’s time dissecting this here.  To some degree it doesn’t matter.  Many scholars have answered this question but it’s such a good story that even I’m guilty of perpetuating it when the Albigensian Crusade comes up for 5 seconds in one of my undergraduate lectures.

Question 5: Your current scholarly writing seems to be trending away from the Albigensian Crusade. You recently published a co-edited volume on Louis VII and are now considering the Fifth Crusade as well. Why is that?”

I remain very interested in the Albigensian Crusade of course, but there’s a whole wide world of things to be interested in.  I answered the questions I was interested in by writing the book and articles I have on it.  There is still some work on it that I’d like to do, and I’ll do it as I have time.

I’m very consistent as a scholar (and I don’t claim that as a virtue or a vice, just a statement of fact) in the things I’m interested in.  Everything I’d like to do is in the same era I fell in love with over 30 years ago: The High Middle Ages, or, at this point, the “Long Twelfth Century.”  I am unabashedly a military historian, so that hasn’t, or will not change and I seem to have the most success writing what I’d call “analytical narratives.”  The things I’ve become more interested in are things like logistics, command and control/leadership, and the Fifth Crusade as a military event.  I don’t know that I’ll do much on logistics, but certainly have or will on the others.  I’ve become more exasperated about military historians’ neglect of the Middle Ages.  As a group military historians can be awfully presentist.  They cherry-pick from the ancient world because it seems modern, but the Middle Ages often gets left out of the picture.  I’d like to change that, as much as one person can, at least in the things I write.

Question 6: Having had a lengthy and successful career, what advice would you offer any young graduate students entering Ph.D. programs to study medieval history? What do you wish you had known or better understood when you began your career at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign?

My career has been lengthy but calling it “successful” is more debatable.   If one measures it versus the average professor at a small liberal arts college in the American South than yes, I’ve done ok.  It’s difficult to publish when one has a heavy teaching schedule and the library resources aren’t great.  While I’m grateful to the institution that employs me it increasingly seems not to value the humanities.  Over the years some of the impediments to scholarship have improved slightly (the teaching is somewhat less and the library resources are better) but the dismissiveness towards the humanities seems to get stronger.

My advice to those who would seek a Ph.D in medieval history is to nail their languages down during their undergraduate years, obviously the Latin foremost.  The better their Latin is, the wider and more varied their historical inquiries can be.  That’s difficult as classics programs disappear; for example we don’t offer Latin at my institution so it’s hard for me to send someone on to graduate school.  It’s not impossible, but remains a hurdle to get over.  Would-be medievalists ought to consider doing a non-western field in addition to medieval.  Students should know that obtaining any tenure-track job will be difficult, and they ought to prepare themselves for the market.  There will be few jobs at research universities but a lot more at smaller liberal arts colleges and more teaching-focused universities.  These places, like my own institution, will want someone willing to work more broadly than they’ve been trained, and to give the impression of flexibility.  A medievalist with any non-western field will be very attractive to a history department of four people.

Would-be grad students ought to consider whether the person they might work with on a Ph.D is someone who can carry them through a long process.  Choosing someone in the twilight years of their career is not a good move.  Make sure a potential adviser has tenure, but is in good health.  This may sound silly, or perhaps even mercenary, but incoming students have no idea how important that adviser will be to their future in the profession.  I was extraordinarily fortunate that some generous people helped me survive the death of mine.