On the inside of the dustcover of his mammoth 768-page biography of the famed British historian Sir Steven Runciman, author Minoo Dinshaw notes:
“In his enormously long life, Steven Runciman managed not just to be a great historian of the Crusades and Byzantium, but Grand Orator of the Orthodox Church, a member of the Order of the Whirling Dervishes, [and] Greek Astronomer Royal and Laird of Eigg. His friendships, curiosities and intrigues entangled him in a huge array of different artistic movements, civil wars, Cold War betrayals and, above all, the rediscovery of the history of the Eastern Mediterranean. He was as happy living in a remote part of the Inner Hebrides as in the heart of Istanbul. He was obsessed with historical truth, but also with tarot, second sight, ghosts, and the uncanny.”
Today, I read a curious essay in the Washington Post by Professor Matthew Gabriele, a fellow historian of the crusades, titledIslamophobes want to recreate the Crusades. But they don’t understand them at all. I’ve never met Professor Gabriele, but I am familiar with his otherwise solid scholarship and reputation for kindness. In his essay, he made some strong claims about what crusade historians believe, as well as the nature of the Islamic threat facing eastern Christians in the era of the First Crusade and how that threat was understood by western Christians at the time. I want to consider some points related to his comments on those issues here.
Professor Gabriele is most concerned with how modern people are comparing the situation in the era of the First Crusade with the troubling occurrences of modern Islamic terrorism in the West. He also objects to any notion that the crusades were, at least initially, a defensive response to Muslim aggression. He cites various modern westerners who are not specialists on the medieval crusading movement who have made statements romanticizing the crusades and arguing for their return.
I agree with Professor Gabriele that the past does not repeat itself and the situation of the eleventh century is certainly far different than the one we find ourselves in today in the twenty-first century. Crusading, in any form resembling the expeditions of the eleventh and twelfth century, is not the solution to the, as of yet, unsolvable problem of modern Islamic terrorism, which according to the Global Terrorism Index claims the lives of over 30,000 people worldwide per year, with most of them Muslims.
Where I disagree with Professor Gabriele, surprisingly, is in his understanding of crusading history and what crusade historians over the last thirty or forty years have written about the origins of the crusading movement. Continue reading →
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.
Medievalists.net provided some excellent questions that allowed Al and I to provide some in depth responses considering a number of important issues.
One of the questions asked why we chose to write the book. My partial response is below.
“I do want to address your question, however, as to why we wanted to create another book on the crusades, specifically taking the approach of countering modern popular crusade myths. We and the contributors all agreed that the prevalence of the myths that we address in this book are repeated so regularly in all media, especially popular films and literature, as well as in political speeches and commentary, that it was worthwhile to pull together a book, written and edited by scholars, that targets general readers and undergraduates. The goal is to explain to the reader why scholars tend to see the issues covered in the chapters quite differently than popular accounts often suggest. We wanted to give readers a sense of the complexity of each of the historical issues dealt within the chapters and why historians often disagree with common popular, often unnuanced interpretations of historical events. It is a topic that crusade historians discuss among themselves quite often, occasionally publishing articles in popular publications and on the web to make such a point to just such an audience. So the essays we have collected here do not represent new or cutting-edge scholarship. Rather, our goal is to communicate current scholarship to undergraduates and a general reading public. Moreover, we want to make that scholarship accessible, affordable, and engaging in a way that many academic books are not.”