Tag Archives: Andrew Holt

Medieval Warfare, The First Crusade, and Rape: Lessons for the Present?

Above Image: Francis Rita Ryan’s translation of Fulcher (Fulk) of Chartres A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem- 1095-1127 (University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1969).


On January 3, 2015, I had the chance to present a paper for the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in New York City. I am presenting the basic text of my talk below. Anyone familiar with the dynamics of presenting papers at academic conferences will realize this is a very condensed overview of my broader consideration of the topic.

My paper was titled “Rape and the First Crusade.” It considers the oddity of the First Crusade as it related to the issue. While the wartime rape of captured women (and sometimes men) was common by all medieval armies, Christian or Islamic, the participants of the First Crusade generally seem to have avoided the practice. Indeed, the sources, whether friendly or hostile to the crusaders, seem to agree on the issue. This presentation pulls together some disconnected themes already considered by other historians into a broader and more comprehensive narrative to argue that the theoretical framework of the First Crusade contributed to a new mentality among warriors by which they sought to avoid sexual immorality, including rape, if they were to be successful on the battlefield.

This seems worthwhile to post here because the wartime rape of captive women continues to be a major problem today. One need only consider events in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s, or more recent events with Boko Haram in Nigeria or ISIS in Iraq over the past few months. See my recent blog post on the issue here. What is most interesting about the First Crusade (as it relates to this topic) is that this potentially represents a case in which a theological framework for warfare seems to have, at the least, diminished instances of rape by otherwise violent warriors who had become accustomed to such practices prior to the First Crusade. If medieval Christian clerics could find a way to curtail, if not eliminate, such a brutal practice by Christian warriors in their day, then perhaps there is some small kernel of value in studying this for dealing with similar problems in the present.

yaz Boko

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An Interview with Dr. Florin Curta on Communism, Faith, and Academia

Dr. Florin Curta, Professor of History and Archaeology at the University of Florida, is one of the leading medieval historians in the world. His language capabilities, which include a reading knowledge of no less than eleven languages (including some he does not bother to list on his C.V.), are rarely matched even among academics. Moreover, his ten books, many on very complex historical issues, have consistently received positive reviews from his fellow historians with one winning the American Historical Associations’ Herbert Baxter Adams Prize in 2003. See links to his C.V. and publications here.


Yet while his academic background is exceptional, his personal background is (at least) equally fascinating. Dr. Curta grew up in Romania while it was under communist rule. As a young man he was drafted into the Romanian army where he served as a paratrooper. Once he was done jumping out of perfectly good airplanes with a rifle strapped to his back, he pursued his education in Romania as both a historian and archaeologist. One could suggest, only half jokingly, that he was the original Indiana Jones. Continue reading

The Unrelenting and Exhausting Pace of Islamist Violence

Yesterday, more than 130 school children were executed in Pakistan by the Taliban. Now, more than 150 women (some pregnant) were killed in Iraq for refusing to submit to ISIS’ new policy of sexual jihad, which is in some ways reminiscent of Boko Haram’s recent sexual enslavement of 200 Christian school girls in Nigeria. Prior to all of this, we watched “lone wolf” dramas play out regularly on our television screens, including the recent deadly hostage situation in Sydney, and before that the killings of the two Canadian soldiers, and prior to that various attacks in the U.S. (including a beheading of a woman and a hatchet attack on NYPD cops), as well as many other recent examples of Islamist violence or attempted violence against both Muslims and non-Muslims throughout the world (China, Russia, Netherlands, France, etc…). Indeed, there are currently more than 20 nations (over a broad geographical spectrum) where Islamists are planning or actively committing violence (on various scales). These include several nations in the Middle East, but also in Africa, Europe, Asia, etc…

It is unrelenting and exhausting if you try to keep up with this sort of thing (as I try to do because of my occasional opportunities to provide analysis for local news organizations). It also seems that Continue reading

The Medieval Origins of a Modern Phrase- “Kill’em all. Let God sort’em out.”

The Medieval Origins of a Modern Phrase- “Kill’em all. Let God sort’em out.”-

I recall, when I was around nine or ten years old, traveling with my mother to Parris Island South Carolina to watch my older brother graduate from Marine Corps boot camp. It was an imposing and impressive place to be for a young kid, as it is steeped in tradition and legendary for “making Marines.” While there, we had a chance to tour the P.X. (today the Marine Corps Exchange) on Parris Island and I recall coming across an intimidating and imposing t-shirt for sale. It showed a skeletal face wearing a Marine Corps cover with red burning eyes and its boney fingers gripping an M-16. Above the face it read “Kill’em all” and below it read “Let God sort’em out.” I would later encounter the phrase again in other contexts when I became a Marine myself. At the time, I had no idea that the phrase was medieval in origin. Continue reading

Modern Crusaders?

At least 15,000 foreign fighters, around 2000 of them from western nations, have left their home countries to go fight on behalf of ISIS in Syria or Iraq. Yet that estimate, widely repeated in the press, is months old, and so the number is probably somewhat higher in both cases. What hasn’t been reported on much until fairly recently, is the phenomenon of foreign fighters, particularly from the west, who have gone to Syria or Iraq to join the fight against ISIS. Indeed, there have been some westerners, driven by various motivations, who have traveled to the region to support and join Kurdish fighters on the ground. They are not mercenaries, so far as we know, doing this for financial gain. Rather, they claim far more altruistic motives and are doing this at their own expense. Continue reading

The Prophet Muhammad’s Eighty-Six Military Campaigns

I recently began rereading David Cook’s excellent work, Understanding Jihad, published by the University of California Press in 2005. Cook is Associate Professor in the Department of Religion at Rice University and author of five scholarly books on Islam. I first read it nearly a decade ago and had forgotten how engaging it is as he traces the historical development of jihad in the Islamic world. I was quickly reminded when, coming only to page six, I read the following: “It was in this context that jihad arose, and the campaigns to gain adherents and control territory constituted the focus of the community’s activity during the last nine years of the Prophet’s life. Muhammad is recorded as having participated in at least twenty-seven campaigns and deputized some fifty-nine others- an average of no fewer than nine campaigns annually.” The Prophet Muhammad participated in or sanctioned eighty-six military campaigns? The number is striking. Particularly when one considers that Professor Cook is referring to the founder of one of the world’s great religions (with 1.6 billion current followers). Continue reading

The Online War Between ISIS and the U.S. State Department

The Online War Between ISIS and the U.S. State Department

There are an estimated 2000 westerners who have gone to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq and an additional 13,000 non-western foreign fighters who have done the same. ISIS has showcased some of them, such as the British jihadist known as “Jihadi John,” through appearances in the gruesome beheading videos posted on Youtube. (See- Who is Jihadi John?- In 60 Seconds– U.K. Telegraph) Yet this number of 15,000 foreign fighters, as significant as it is, does not give the full picture of their level of popular support, either in the west or in other regions of the world.

The 15,000 figure represents only those who have successfully overcome the various hurdles necessary for their supporters to make it to Iraq or Syria, which are substantial (e.g. the threat of arrest in their home countries, coordinating with those who would receive them in Syria or Iraq, financing their trips, etc…). There are certainly many others who can’t overcome these hurdles, but otherwise seem very sympathetic to ISIS. Indeed, those thousands of foreign fighters who have joined ISIS were often recruited by a network of militants operating in their home countries with support from radical mosques and their members. These are people who can’t or won’t go to fight in Syria or Iraq themselves, but are willing to encourage and support others who will.

Perhaps of even greater significance, based on the efforts of the U.S. State Department, has been the role of social media in recruiting foreign fighters and winning support abroad, particularly in the West. While overall support for ISIS among Muslims in the West remains very low, the U.S. Government has shown considerable concern over the potential effect of social media in winning greater sympathy and support among western Muslims. In fact the State Department now has a growing social media division formed in 2010 to counter messaging from Al Qaeda, ISIS, and its affiliated groups. The unit engages in online forums in English, Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi and Somali. They post on Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube and Facebook, seeking to question claims made by extremist groups and highlight their brutality. Continue reading