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Religion and the 100 Worst Atrocities in History

I recently had the chance to review Matthew White’s The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Atrocities (New York & London: W.W. Norton, 2012). Including an introduction by Harvard’s Steven Pinker, it offers an impressive 669-page analysis of, according to the author, the “one hundred events with the largest man-made death tolls, regardless of who was involved or why they did it.” (p. XIV)

I found White’s book both engaging and interesting because I am considering the historic impact of religion on warfare for an essay I am currently working on. As a result, I am in process of surveying multiple works like this in an attempt to systematically count how many past wars have been inspired primarily by religious motivations, which will be one component of the essay. Indeed, religion has often been criticized as a primary source of conflict, with among the most notable recent examples coming from the neuroscientist Sam Harris, a prominent critic of the historic impact of religion on ancient and modern societies. Indeed, in his 2004 book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York & London: W.W. Norton, 2004), Harris referred to religious faith as “the most prolific source of violence in our history.” (p. 27) Harris is certainly not alone in making such claims, as they have been repeated by many others, both historically and today.

Regardless of the prevalence of criticisms of religion and its role in historical human violence, White’s study of the one hundred worst atrocities in history would seem to provide a counter to such claims by Harris and others. This is because of the one hundred events White lists in his detailed study, he only lists eleven of them under the category of “Religious Conflict” (p. 544) and two more under the category of “Human Sacrifice,” (p. 548) for thirteen atrocities equaling only 13% of the total. I have included the “Human Sacrifice” category in this case with religious conflicts because, as White notes, “ritualized killing was performed in hopes of earning the favor of supernatural forces.”

His lists include the following: Continue reading

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Books by FSCJ Historians

My institution, Florida State College at Jacksonville, is a former community college that now offers four year degrees. The transition from a community college to a “state college” has been slow and incomplete as we remain, at heart, a community college. As a result, there is no publishing requirement for its historians although academic publications do count toward “professional development” in the awarding of tenure or “continuing contract.” Moreover, while we have heavy teaching loads, the college supports its historians through the option of taking one year sabbaticals during which a professor can work on a book.

Even with such a benefit, however, writing can be a challenge as we teach what are known as 5/5 loads, meaning our professors teach five courses in the fall and five in the spring, unlike research universities or liberal arts colleges that have teaching loads typically in the 2/2 or 3/3 range. Even a 4/4 load would be a significant reduction from the requirements of our professors. Yet even with these challenges our historians have, it seems to me, been exceptionally productive (solely for the love of writing about history) when it comes to academic publishing.

Below is a chronologically arranged list of books by FSCJ historians published (or forthcoming) by various academic presses. It will be updated over time.  Continue reading

Kingdom of Heaven

*This following post is adapted from an older 2005 blog post on my now defunct crusades-encyclopedia website and needs, eventually, further updating.

Few films have caused as much of a stir among crusades historians and students as Kingdom of Heaven. The film was directed by Ridley Scott and although it was not released until 2005, various commentaries and criticisms by those who had been given access to the film’s script began appearing in the press several months in advance.

The film focused on the crusading movement in the Levant in the years shortly before the calling of the Third Crusade [c. 1187]. The highlight of the film is Saladin’s siege of Jerusalem and the events leading up to the capture of the city from the crusaders. Viewers are guided through both historical and fictional events from the perspective of the film’s main character, the historical Balian of Ibelin.

While some Muslim groups ultimately expressed praise for the film, many crusades historians did not. The traditional battle between scholarly and popular views of the crusades flared as a result, with some prominent scholars denouncing the director’s claim to historical reliability. Consequently, judging by the nature of most news stories released during and after the production of the movie, the debate over the film’s depiction of historical events became, perhaps, a bigger story than the release of the film. Continue reading

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.”

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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? Go ahead…guess. Continue reading

The Situation for Eastern Christians in the 1090s Prior to the First Crusade

*Main Image: Later map of western Asia-Minor. Please note Nicomedia’s proximity to Constantinople. Taken from Wikimedia Commons.

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As readers of this blog will know, some crusade historians have recently debated if the First Crusade can be considered in the context of a “defense” of Eastern Christians, or a “defensive war.” Such debates can be centered around multiple issues, to include the intentions of the participants, whether or not Eastern Christians genuinely needed or wanted defending, and the technical nature of armies of the First Crusade as an expeditionary army. When historians discuss this issue, they are often careful to offer considerable nuance and various qualifications when giving an opinion on this matter. Those who have written or commented on the issue, often for popular publications rather than scholarly ones, mostly (although certainly not always) seem to find it acceptable to view the First Crusade in the context of a “defensive war,” for a variety of reasons that can be reviewed here.

Related to this issue, I was recently reading a piece by Prof. Matthew Gabriele, now a columnist for Forbes, who addressed this topic in his July 14 (2018) essay titled “Why The History of Medieval Studies Haunts How We Study the Past.” In it, he briefly touched on the crusades, at one point noting “the idea that they [the Crusades] were “defensive” against an aggressively expansionistic Islam has been disproven.” Naturally, I was intrigued. If such a claim has been disproven, many of his fellow crusade historians seem unaware. Gabriele has made similar claims in the past, but this time he linked to a source as the basis for his argument. In this case Gabriele cited a 2011 article on the Huffington Post, written by respected crusade historian Jay Rubenstein. Whatever one thinks of the Huffington Post, Rubenstein is a serious crusade historian and so his comments are worth reading with care. In the Huffington Post piece, Rubenstein seems to agree that the 1070s and 1080s were dangerous times for Eastern Christians, noting the Turkish victory over the Byzantines at the Battle of Mantzikert in 1071 and the capture of the city of Antioch in 1084, among others. But Rubenstein then notes that by the 1090s the Greek [Byzantine] frontier had “largely stabilized,” further noting that “reports of Byzantium’s demise proved greatly exaggerated.” Thus, it is implied that the calling of the First Crusade for the protection of Byzantine Christians was unnecessary, as they were in no real danger by the time the crusade was called at the Council of Clermont in 1095.

I wish that Rubenstein’s article had been published in another forum that would have likely allowed him more length to develop his argument, as well as to cite references in footnotes. This was because his claims about the 1090s as a period of Byzantine stability, were quite different than what I had been reading and thinking about on these issues recently. It concerned me a little bit as Forbes and Huffington Post both have major followings online, and several thousand people will read these accounts whereas largely unknown blogs like my own only very rarely reach such high numbers. My concern was that, rather than Byzantine stability, there were instead many Turkish conquests of Eastern Christian towns, cities, or regions in the 1090s just prior to the calling of the First Crusade. Moreover, some of them were quite threatening to the Byzantine Empire, resulting in increased alarm and an intensification of Byzantine efforts to secure western military aid. Continue reading

The First Crusade as a Defensive War? Four Historians Respond

Above Image: From left to right, John D. Hosler, Daniel Franke, Janet G. Valentine, Andrew Holt, and Laurence Marvin.

On Friday, April 6, I participated in a panel discussion at the annual meeting (held in Louisville, Ky.) of the Society for Military history that considered the question, “Was the First Crusade an Offensive or Defensive War?” The panel had been organized by John D. Hosler, Associate Professor of Military History at the Army General Command and Staff College, who also participated in the discussion. Other historians who participated include Daniel Franke, Assistant Professor of History at Richard Bland College of William and Mary, and Laurence Marvin, Professor of History at Berry College. Janet G. Valentine, Assistant Professor of Military History at the Army General Command and Staff College, served as Chair and Moderator. John put together the panel in response to some controversy emerging over the issue of whether the First Crusade can be considered a defensive war back in the summer of 2017. One can read more about that controversy herehere, and here.

Many, who were unable to attend, have expressed an interest in finding out more about the panel and how the discussion went. After a lengthy and engaging discussion, both between the panelists and the many historians in the audience, a number of complex issues were discussed and debated as they relate to the question, including even the validity of the question itself. When pressed by the moderator at the end of the discussion for our positions on the question, asking if we saw it as an offensive or defensive war, the panel was three to one in favor of viewing it as a defensive war. Yet as academic historians we naturally have many qualifications and reasons for our positions. Consequently, and in light of the interest expressed by our colleagues, I asked the panelists if they might submit a brief summary of how each of them thought it went. All of them agreed and I provide their responses below, then followed by my own brief reflections. Continue reading

Guns and Self-Defense

Main Image: U.S. Constitution- taken from Wikimedia Commons

In a nod to Andy Warhol, I have experienced my “fifteen minutes of fame” on a couple of occasions. The most recent instance began in the summer of 2014 and lasted until 2017. It was during this period that I wrote and provided public commentary about both the rise of ISIS in the Middle East as well as the scourge of Islamic terrorism. As a historian of the crusades, and religion more broadly, I conducted dozens of television interviews with local news stations, even being contacted by CNN on occasion, and wrote quite a bit about these topics on my blog. One of my blog essays, considering how deaths by terrorism are calculated and the seemingly politicized manipulation of such figures, was shared widely in conservative media outlets, even resulting in a news story about it in the Wall Street Journal. This brought a lot of attention, and not all of it positive. Strangers more than happily voiced their criticisms, by email and even by phone on one occasion. This is to be expected and I did not mind so long as such criticisms were expressed with some small degree of civility or reason. Indeed, I engaged in lengthy dialogues by email or over social media with some. If a professor is going to add their voice to public discussions they should expect criticism, dialogue, and debate from the public. It should be understood that some degree of that attention will be impolite, rude, or obnoxious.

Fine.

What was unsettling, however, Continue reading