Tag Archives: First Crusade

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

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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

Professor Thomas Madden on the First Crusade, Jerusalem, and the “Rivers of Blood”

In his entertaining 2012 essay for Revista Chilena de Estudios Medievales, St. Louis University Professor Thomas Madden, perhaps the leading U.S. historian of the crusades, considers the widely repeated claim that the crusaders waded in blood up to their ankles or knees during their violent conquest of Jerusalem in 1099.

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Madden first considers how widespread this claim is, even citing its use in a speech by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, before subjecting it to careful analysis. He describes his reasons for pursuing the issue carefully, noting, to his his surprise, that even other crusade historians have embraced the claim. He writes:

“”In November 2008, Jay Rubenstein of the University of Tennessee gave a lecture for the Crusades Studies Forum at Saint Louis University. The title of the lecture was “The First Crusade and the End of the World”. In the questions that followed Rubenstein spoke of the crusaders in 1099 wading through the blood of their victims. I quickly pointed out that those reports were, of course, not meant to be taken literally. To my surprise, Rubenstein responded that he believed that they should be. He related his own experience witnessing a murder victim on a street in New York City and expressed his astonishment at the amount of blood that just one human body really contains. Since I have not witnessed a murder victim, I yielded the point. But the exchange has led me to take up the question of the massacre of 1099 and look more closely at common assumptions both in the general public and among crusade specialists…

Then Madden made an interesting point.

“Surprisingly, with all of this discussion of rivers, streams, or pools of blood, no one has ever attempted to discern whether such things are within the realm of physical possibility. Although we are dealing with an episode of bloody horror, we are also dealing with basic measurements that can be evaluated…” Continue reading

Historians on Susan Jacoby’s New York Times Essay on the First Crusade

In defense of President Obama, who had recently been criticized for his comparison of the medieval crusaders to modern Islamic terrorists (see my response here), the New York Times published an essay on Friday (“The First Victims of the First Crusade”) by Susan Jacoby. Her essay highlighted the brutal attack on Jews during the First Crusade and, once again, equated the crusaders with modern Islamic terrorists. She wrote, “Anyone who considers it religiously and politically transgressive to compare the behavior of medieval Christian soldiers to modern Islamic terrorism might find it enlightening to read this bloody story.” She then described the horrors of the slaughter and compared it with the killing of religious minorities recently carried out by ISIS in the Middle East.

Jacoby then ended her piece with an odd celebration of the virtues of the post-Enlightenment West. In it, she contrasted the medieval Christian past with the modern post-Enlightenment western world, arguing that groups like ISIS “offer a ghastly and ghostly reminder of what the Western world might look like had there never been religious reformations, the Enlightenment and, above all, the separation of church and state.”

Jacoby’s comments, particularly those contrasting the medieval and modern west, caused a stir among medieval historians, much of it negative.

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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).

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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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