Tag Archives: Jonathan RIley-Smith

Kingdom of Heaven

*This following post is adapted from an older 2005 blog post on my now defunct crusades-encyclopedia website and needs, eventually, further updating.

Few films have caused as much of a stir among crusades historians and students as Kingdom of Heaven. The film was directed by Ridley Scott and although it was not released until 2005, various commentaries and criticisms by those who had been given access to the film’s script began appearing in the press several months in advance.

The film focused on the crusading movement in the Levant in the years shortly before the calling of the Third Crusade [c. 1187]. The highlight of the film is Saladin’s siege of Jerusalem and the events leading up to the capture of the city from the crusaders. Viewers are guided through both historical and fictional events from the perspective of the film’s main character, the historical Balian of Ibelin.

While some Muslim groups ultimately expressed praise for the film, many crusades historians did not. The traditional battle between scholarly and popular views of the crusades flared as a result, with some prominent scholars denouncing the director’s claim to historical reliability. Consequently, judging by the nature of most news stories released during and after the production of the movie, the debate over the film’s depiction of historical events became, perhaps, a bigger story than the release of the film. 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

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

15 “Most Important” Books on the Crusades

The following list of books is based on a survey of 33 academic historians who were asked to provide an annotated list of what they saw as the ten “most important” books on the crusades. More information about the project can be seen here. Based on the same data, I also provide a ranking of the most influential historians based on how many mentions their books received from the historians, which can be viewed here. Continue reading

The Most Influential Crusade Historians

(Originally Published on 7/27/2017- Most recent update on 10/21/2017)

In a recent blog post, I requested the lists of several medieval historians ranking the ten “most important” books on the crusades. Currently, 33 historians have submitted their lists. Based on a count of the lists submitted so far, and not including books mentioned in the annotated commentary provided by each historian, I have pulled together the following ranking based solely on whose books have received the most mentions. Continue reading

The First Crusade as a “Defensive War”: A Response to Prof. Gabriele.

Today, I read a curious essay in the Washington Post by Professor Matthew Gabriele, a fellow historian of the crusades, titled Islamophobes 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

The Modern Muslim Memory of the Crusades

Above Image: Cover of issue 4 of the Islamic State’s glossy English language propaganda magazine. Many of its issues contain references to the crusades or explicit crusading rhetoric.

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In 2015 I had the pleasure of co-editing (w/Alfred J. Andrea) the book Seven Myths of the Crusades (Hackett, 2015). It includes seven essays by prominent crusade historians dealing with various popular modern “myths” related to the medieval crusading movement. While recently preparing for an upcoming talk at Georgia Southern University, titled “The Modern Politics of Medieval Crusading,” I was carefully rereading the various chapters of Seven Myths, and thought it worthwhile to briefly highlight one of them here.

One of the historians who agreed to contribute to our project was the distinguished American medievalist Edward Peters, the former Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania (now Professor Emeritus). Over the course of his career, his work on medieval inquisitions has been highly influential and his translations of crusade texts have been used in college or university classrooms for nearly two decades. Consequently, when Ed agreed to contribute a chapter to Seven Myths, co-authored with his talented former doctoral student Mona Hammad (Associate Professor of Medieval History at the University of Jordan), Al and I were elated. The combination of the two authors was ideal in light of the topic they considered in their essay, titled “Islam and the Crusades: A Nine Hundred-Year-Long Grievance?”

The subject of their essay is a potentially controversial one, particularly as it argues that much of the Islamic world’s modern memory of the medieval crusades, a memory which frames the crusades as a largely unprovoked Christian attack on the Muslim world, serving as a constant source of division and mistrust today, was only developed in the 19th and 20th centuries during an age of western imperialism that influenced its construction.  Moreover, Ed and Mona’s essay emphasizes that it was essentially the modern imperialist west that taught the modern Muslim world to hate the crusades, as there had been relatively little concern about them expressed in texts by Muslim authors in the centuries prior.

Having a well known and highly respected medievalist like Ed, as well as Mona, who is fluent in Arabic and lives and works in Jordan, seemed like (and proved to be) an ideal pairing for the chapter. Anyone seriously interested in the topic should, of course, consult their work, but here I want to highlight only a few key parts of their otherwise much lengthier and more engaging essay. Continue reading