Post-classical history


‘The Lord is a man of war.’ (Exodus 15:3)

Violence, approved by society and supported by religion, has proved a commonplace of civilized communities. What are now known as the crusades represent one manifestation of this phenomenon, distinctive to western European culture over 500 years from the late eleventh century of the Christian Era. The crusades were wars justified by faith conducted against real or imagined enemies defined by religious and political elites as perceived threats to the Christian faithful. The religious beliefs crucial to such warfare placed enormous significance on imagined awesome but reassuring supernatural forces of overwhelming power and proximity that were nevertheless expressed in hard concrete physical acts: prayer, penance, giving alms, attending church, pilgrimage, violence. Crusading reflected a social mentality grounded in war as a central force of protection, arbitration, social discipline, political expression and material gain. The crusades confirmed a communal identity comprising aggression, paranoia, nostalgia, wishful thinking and invented history. Understood by participants at once as a statement of Christian charity, religious devotion and godly savagery, the ‘wars of the cross’ helped fashion for adherents a shared sense of belonging to a Christian society, societas christiana, Christendom, and contributed to setting its human and geographic frontiers. In these ways, the crusades helped define the nature of Europe.

By forcing an otherwise improbably intimate contact with western Asia through centuries of contest over the Christian Holy Places in Palestine, the crusades encouraged European inquiry and experience beyond traditional horizons. One path to the thought-world of Christopher Columbus stretched back to Pope Urban II’s first call to arms for the Christian reconquest of Jerusalem in 1095. The moral certainties fostered by crusading left physical or cultural monuments and scars from the Arctic Circle to the Nile, from the synagogues of the Rhineland to the mosques of Andalusia, from the vocabulary of value to the awkward hinterland of historic Christian pride, guilt and responsibility. Whether admired, with a contemporary of the First Crusade in the 1090s, as ‘the greatest event since the Resurrection’, or mocked, with Francis Bacon in the early seventeenth century, as a ‘rendezvous of cracked brains that wore their feather in their head instead of their hat’, or condemned, with the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume, as ‘the most signal and most durable monument of human folly that has yet appeared in any age or nation’, the crusades remain one of the great subjects of European history.

A familiar but baneful response to history is to configure the past as comfortingly different from the present day. Previous societies are caricatured as less sophisticated, more primitive, cruder, alien. Such attitudes reveal nothing so much as a collective desire to reassure the modern observer by demeaning the experience of the past. Within the cultural traditions of Europe and western Asia, since the sixteenth century the crusades have regularly attracted precisely such condescension from hostile religious, cultural or ideological partisans. The crusades have been dismissed as a symptom of a credulous, superstitious and backward civilization in order openly or covertly to elevate a supposedly more advanced and enlightened modern society. Yet this hardly helps understanding of past events. Another contrary vision, no less distorted, regards the past as a mirror to the present. Thus the battles of the cross are held to presage the conflicts of European imperialism, colonialism and western cultural supremacism. Yet many of the supposed links between past events and current problems are modern, not historical, constructs, invented to lend spurious legitimacy to wholly unconnected current political, social, economic and religious problems. So the crusades have been presented as symbols both of the past’s inferiority and relevance. It is, by contrast, perhaps worthwhile to attempt to explore the phenomenon as far as possible on its own terms. That is the purpose of what follows.

More than half a century ago, Steven Runciman, with typical style and false modesty, imperishably pitted his pen against the ‘massed typewriters of the United States’. He won. His History of the Crusades, published in three volumes between 1951 and 1954, became the classic twentieth-century account of the subject and remains a remarkable work of literature as much as history. It would be folly and hubris to pretend to compete, to match, as it were, my clunking computer keyboard with his pen, at once a rapier and a paintbrush; to pit one volume, however substantial, with the breadth, scope and elegance of his three. Yet scholarship and the world have moved since 1954: the former in part directly due to Runciman’s inspiration; the latter in contradiction to the civilized and humane principles of faith and reason that shine from his great work. The crusades are no longer understood in quite the way they were in the 1950s either by scholars, informed by the new insights of research, or a wider public who imagine a largely spurious relevance to the twenty-first century. On these grounds, an attempt to describe again what is now perhaps the most familiar, if misunderstood, of all medieval phenomena may be justified.

The exercise is hardly straightforward. The judgemental confidence of a Macaulay – or a Runciman – is warranted neither by modern fashion nor by the discipline of the subject. All historical investigations remain contingent on surviving evidence. One of the regular temptations seducing historians and their audience is to imagine knowledge of the past. Most has been lost, by nature, accident or design. The muddle of existence is simplified both by the historians’ craft, which is at root that of selection, and by the gaps in evidence. To illustrate the tenuous links that inform our knowledge, two of the most vivid, full and important contemporary narratives of the Second Crusade (1146–8) survive in a single manuscript each. Without them, our view of that remarkable event would be entirely different. Most of the evidence that once existed for the history of the crusades has been lost. Conversely, what does survive inevitably favours certain perspectives over others for which less evidence has survived. The story of the most familiar episode of all, the First Crusade and the conquest of Jerusalem (1095–9), is based on a remarkably narrow twelfth-century historiographical tradition which may, but equally may not, reveal what was of greater or lesser importance at the time. Thus any modern historical account can only be to some degree tentative. If the requirements of the narrative obscure the delicacy of the interpretive choices reached here, this in no way suggests they were easy, simple, straightforward, necessarily incontrovertible or even conclusive. They merely represent what the author, to the best of his understanding, now thinks.

The crusades were and are controversial and contentious far beyond the academic community. More than any other incident of medieval European history they have entered the sphere of public history, where the past is captured in abiding cultural myths of inheritance, self-image and identity. Many groups and nations find their memory awkward, even distressing. The massacres of Palestinian Muslims and Jews at Jerusalem in 1099 or of Greeks at Constantinople in 1204; the butchery of Rhineland Jews in 1096 or 1146, or English Jews in 1190; the defeats of Latin Christians by great Islamic leaders, Saladin and Baibars; the expulsion of western conquerors from the mainland of western Asia in 1291; the long triumphs of the Christians in Iberia, of the Germans in the eastern Baltic or the Turks in Asia Minor, the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean; all these aspects of crusading history have left a residue of resentment, pain, anger, guilt and pride, depending on which legacy, if any, modern observers wish to claim for themselves. Therefore, for any historian the perspective taken is of importance. Yet to look at a subject from a particular vantage point is to adopt a position in order to more clearly inspect the view. It does not mean taking sides.

My perspective is western European. This accords best with my own research experience. More importantly, it matches the origins, development, continuance and nature of the phenomenon. Although having an impact far beyond western Europe, the crusade as an ideal and human activity began and remained rooted in western European culture. By adopting this stance in no way implies approval of crusading. It does not ignore the sources generated by the opponents and victims of crusading. Nor does it privilege the value or importance of the experience of western Europeans over others involved, as will be apparent in what follows. However, it is a necessary device to see the subject clearly through the fog of ignorance, obscurity, the passage of time and the complexity of surviving sources. A history of the crusades could be very different in structure if composed from the viewpoint of medieval Syrian, Egyptian or Andalusian Muslims, or European or Near Eastern Jews, or Balts, Livs or Prussians. However, the essential contours of the subject would, if observed dispassionately, look much the same, because this study is intended as a history, not a polemic, an account not a judgement, an exploration of an important episode of world history of enormous imaginative as well as intellectual fascination, not a confessional apologia or witness statement in some cosmic law suit. Readers will decide whether the view is worth the journey.

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