Tag Archives: Dan Franke

Crusade Historians and Karen Armstrong

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.

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President Obama, ISIS, and the Crusades

Since President Obama’s controversial speech at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb 5th, during which he compared the medieval crusades (as a form of religious extremism) with the religious extremism of modern terrorist groups like the ISIS, crusades historians have been busy writing a number of pieces that address the issue. Medieval historian Dan Franke has given a comprehensive overview (with links) of the various debates that have taken place. I’d suggest that those unfamiliar with these arguments and discussions start by reading his overview provided here.

Although a bit late to the party, I have also offered my two-cents on the issue in an guest column published by the Florida Times-Union. See Guest Column: Crusades were a Reaction to Islamic Militarism– Florida Times-Union.

A selection from that column is provided below.

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“Significantly, it was in large part because of a period of heightened threat to Christians in the East during the late 11th Century that the First Crusade was called, as Muslim armies had recently conquered much of once Christian Anatolia.

For more than 20 years, Byzantine emperors had been requesting (and sometimes pleading for) military aid from Western Christians until they finally received it in the form of the First Crusade as called by Pope Urban II in 1095.

As retired Cambridge University historian Jonathan Riley-Smith once noted, “The denigrators of the crusades stress their brutality and savagery, which cannot be denied; but they offer no explanation other than the stupidity, barbarism and intolerance of the crusaders, on whom it has become conventional to lay most blame. Yet the original justification for crusading was Muslim aggression…”

This brings us back to Obama’s comments. I found them problematic for reasons cited by Riley-Smith.

The president told critics of modern Islamic violence to get off their “high horse” by citing the crusades as an example of similar Christian violence. Paradoxically the crusades were largely the product of medieval Islamic violence.”

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Edit: Dan Franke continues to keep us updated on the current debate taking place online and in print. Here he links to the most recent articles, including my own, and even an online discussion I had the other night with two medieval historians, David Perry and Paul Halsall, about some of these issues. See Dan’s addendum here and my exchange (on David Perry’s website) with David and Paul here.