Tag Archives: Peter Frankopan

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

Crusade Historians and Steven Runciman

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.”

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Historians Rank the “Most Important” Books on the Crusades

 

“As I write these words, it is nearly time to light the lamps; my pen moves slowly over the paper and I feel myself almost too drowsy to write as the words escape me. I have to use foreign names and I am compelled to describe in detail a mass of events which occurred in rapid succession; the result is that the main body of the history and the continuous narrative are bound to become disjointed because of interruptions. Ah well, “’tis no cause for anger” to those at least who read my work with good will. Let us go on.”

Anna Comnena, Alexiad 13.6, trans. by E.R.A. Sewter

Provided here are the responses of 34 medieval historians who were asked to provide a list of the top ten “most important” books on the crusades. Many of them are leading scholars in the field. Hopefully, it will be a useful resource for both students and interested readers. For more information, please see the Crusade Book List Project and to see each historian’s list click on their name below (or you can scroll and browse through them below). Please hit the back button to return to the contributor’s list. Also, check back in the future for additional contributions that will be added over time. This will be an ongoing project.

See also: 15 “Most Important” Books on the Crusades

See also: The Most Influential Crusade Historians

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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

Byzantine Recruitment of Western Warriors before the First Crusade: Peter Frankopan’s Call from the East

I have long thought that Oxford historian Peter Frankopan’s The First Crusade: The Call from the East (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012) is one of the more interesting and important recent books for understanding the circumstances leading up to the calling of the First Crusade in 1095. His emphasis on Byzantine efforts to win western Christian military support in their conflict with Muslim forces in the East provides an up to date and robust consideration of the issue that is lacking in many other works that consider the era of the First Crusade.

The late Jonathan Riley-Smith and others have documented how many Latin-Christian participants of the First Crusade cited (in their charters) their desire to aid suffering fellow Christians in the east as a rationale for joining the First Crusade. This is also a prominent theme in the surviving accounts of Pope Urban II’s calling of the First Crusade in his speech at Clermont. So sources show that western Christians were (at least in part) inspired to join the crusade to go to the aid of eastern Christians who portrayed themselves as under siege by Muslim forces.

Frankopan’s work, particularly chapter six, gives a good sense of why western Christians believed this based on his analysis of extensive Byzantine efforts to cultivate and win such military support. Here are some interesting observations from that chapter that reflect the situation prior to the calling of the First Crusade and extensive Byzantine efforts to recruit western fighters. Continue reading