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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

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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

Racial Disparity in the Academy: An Observation

*Main image taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout my academic career, I have often listened to, or been a part of, discussions about how to build a more inclusive academic community. To this end, academics of all disciplines sometimes consider the issue of racial representation among college or university faculty with the main concern being a disproportionately high number of White professors. Indeed, I was recently following a discussion among academics online in which one participant referred to academia as “suffering” from this over-representation of Whites among full time faculty.

The concern is that a college or university faculty without proper racial representation will not reflect the views of either the broader general U.S. population or the college student population, of which in both cases minorities are carving out larger shares due to changing demographics. Professors and students of different backgrounds (racial, ethnic, class, gender, etc…), it is argued, bring value to college campuses in that they bring different experiences and, thus, different perspectives on issues. This viewpoint diversity is essential to the mission of a university to seek truth through consideration of issues from multiple perspectives. I believe this argument makes sense and is fundamentally sound, as I have seen it play out on smaller scales in classroom discussions of complex issues among students of varying demographic backgrounds. Moreover, I see higher education’s first mission as the disinterested pursuit of truth, regardless of who holds it, who is offended by it, or how we arrive at it (within ethical bounds). So I certainly see value in having diverse voices in academic debates, even if I doubt perfect representative parity is always possible or needed.

Returning to my colleagues’ concern that higher education is “suffering” from a disproportionate number of white full-time faculty members, the statement struck me (anecdotally) as not having quite the resonance that it might have had nearly two decades ago, when as a student I first began to turn my attention toward a career in academia.

Consequently, I decided to check some current statistics and the numbers surprised me. This is what I found. Continue reading

Crusading as a Form of Pilgrimage

Because some level of merit historically had been attached to Christian warfare under limited and less defined circumstances, it was not particularly hard for clerical promoters of the First Crusade to convince Christian knights that fighting in defense of fellow Christians on God’s behalf was a virtuous act. Indeed, as Riley-Smith has demonstrated, the charters of knights participating in the First Crusade sometimes explicitly referenced the desire to aid eastern Christians suffering under Islamic rule as one of their motivations for participating. A charter of two brothers, for example, written shortly before they embarked on the First Crusade, notes 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.”[1] In this case, Muslims were depicted as barbarians without reason and self control, dominated by rage, which of course was in contrast to what clerics were now asking knights to do, namely refrain from indiscriminate violence as they put their military skills to use in defense of fellow Christians. Continue reading

Seven Myths of Native American History: An Interview with Professor Paul Jentz

I first met Professor Paul Jentz at the World History Association annual conference in Savannah, Georgia in 2015. Alfred J. Andrea and I were serving as co-series editors of the newly formed Myths of History Series for Hackett Publishing, and Al wanted us to meet as he had been very impressed with Paul in his previous dealings through the WHA and elsewhere. Paul had a unique charm and cerebral wittiness that made him every bit as likable as Al had suggested. More significantly, he understood and appreciated the goals of the Myths of History Series well, which focuses on producing works that dispel popular historical myths and are geared toward use in the college or university classroom.

After meeting and speaking with Paul in Savannah, we came away very impressed and, after some follow up emails, Paul submitted a book proposal that resulted in a book contract. Later in the process, as Paul began to submit chapters, we were especially happy with the quality and clarity of Paul’s writing. Indeed, as I read through the rough drafts of various chapters, I was, at times, finding myself dispelled of myths about Native American history that I had previously embraced on some level. Our appreciation for Paul’s work was confirmed when Hackett sent the manuscript to important outside readers, including Colin G. Calloway at Dartmouth College and Andrae Marak at Governors State University, who noted the following: Continue reading