Post-classical history


Crusading Our Contemporary

LONG BEFORE THE LAST ROMAN Catholic took the cross, perhaps in the early eighteenth century for the Habsburgs against the Ottomans in central Europe or the kings of Spain against Muslim pirates in the Mediterranean, the history and legends of the Crusades had entered the mythic memory of Christian Europe.

From the First Crusade, the wars of the cross had been sustained, developed, and refined by concurrent description and interpretation, popular and academic. By the fifteenth century, appreciation of what passed for crusade history underpinned all serious discussion of future projects. Provoked by immediate political concerns, such studies tended to polemic and self-interest, blind to the distinction between legend and evidence. From humanist scholarship and theological hostility in the sixteenth century emerged a more independent historiography. The academic study of crusading—or holy war as it was generally called—was encouraged and distorted by the two great crises that threatened to tear Christendom apart: the advance of the Ottomans and the Protestant reformations.

The sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries secured the continued cultural prominence of the Crusades. Much of the responsibility for this lay with Protestant scholars in Germany and France. Despite Roman Catholics seeking crusading privileges when fighting Protestants, admiration for the faith and heroism of the crusaders crossed confessional divides, as did fear of the Ottoman Turks. The refusal of certain Protestant scholars to dismiss crusading simply as a papal corruption provided a bridge between the Roman Catholic past and what they imagined as the Protestant future. The Crusades were rendered as national achievements, ecumenical even, at a time when religious passions still burned violently. Elevating the Crusades away from partisan religious ownership allowed the past to be reconciled with the present through inherited national identities, a process that contributed to the creation of a secular concept of Europe.

As long as the Catholic Church attached crusading apparatus to wars against the Turks and confessional enemies, and political and social radicalism were articulated in religious terms, some still found it controversial. For others, crusading slipped into the quiet reaches of history, settling into channels of moral and religious disapproval or admiration for distant heroism, often tinged with nationalism. With the evaporation of the Ottoman threat in the eighteenth century, past wars against Islam could be viewed with detached rather than engaged prejudice. Observers of the apparently defeated culture could indulge their tastes for the exotic and the alien with the frisson of danger replaced by a thrill of superiority lent intellectual respectability by emerging concepts of change and progress. Fear of the Turks gave way to contempt, fascination, and a sort of cultural and historical tourism. Muslims in the Near East, increasingly accessible as the sea-lanes became passable, were transformed from demons to curiosities. Such concerns produced an inevitable narrowing of focus onto crusades to the Holy Land and Christian Outremer. They also made the emotions behind crusading seem even more remote.

The prevalent eighteenth-century intellectual attitude, lit by anti-clericalism, was set in a disdainful grimace at what was caricatured as the ignorance, fanaticism, and violence of earlier times. Yet Gibbon’s “World’s Debate” appeared to have been won by the west, with European successes in Mogul India supplying further consolation and confirmation of superiority. External stimulus to shifting perceptions came from the elite fashion for Oriental and Near Eastern artifacts and the direct contact with the Levant following Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt and Syria in 1798-99 and the opening up of the region to upper-class tourists, from Chateaubriand to Benjamin Disraeli, whose romantic instincts were stirred by what they saw or imagined. The past required re-arrangement to suit these new enthusiasms and assumptions. Thus discussion of the Crusades to the east had to dwell more on the motives and behavior of the crusaders rather than the dismal outcome of their exertions, on cultural values and potential rather than undoubted failure. The Crusades were refashioned into a symbol of western valor and cultural endeavor, a process encouraged by the growing popularity of another form of “otherness” to contrast with the self-perceived modernity of Enlightenment Europe—medievalism. The early nineteenth century saw the combination of Orientalism and medievalism revive crusading as a set of literary references. As an example of passion over pragmatism, the Crusade became an analogy for romantic or escapist policies of those troubled by creeping capitalism and industrialization. The political exploitation of the history of the Crusades possessed a sharper edge in continental Europe, where it became a tool of reaction against the ideals and practices both of the French Revolution and liberalism. The new cult of neo-chivalry supplied moral, religious, and cultural as well as actual architectural buttresses for an aristocratic ancien régime losing much of its exclusivity if not power.

From the late eighteenth century, the word “crusade” was applied metaphorically or analogously to any vigorous good cause. More precisely, in the absence of devastating general conflicts after 1815, nineteenth-century Europe spawned a cult of war which could be projected back onto the Crusades. The association of just causes and sanctified violence, sealed with the confused sentimentality of Romantic neo-chivalry, found stark concrete form in war memorials across western Europe after the First World War, a conflict regularly described by clergy as well as by politicians as “a great crusade”; bishops might have been expected to know better. More scrupulous observers caviled at such meretricious rhetoric, yet the imagery persisted even when the idealism had drowned in Flanders mud; General Eisenhower’s Order for the Day of June 6, 1944, described the D-Day offensive as “a great crusade.” The connection with spiritually redemptive holy warfare had become drained of much meaning. Any conflict promoted as transcending territorial or other material aims could attract the crusade epithet, increasingly a lazy synonym for ideological conflict or, worse, a sloppy but highly charged metaphor for political conflicts between protagonists from contrasting cultures and faiths. In ways unimaginable when Runciman denounced the morality of crusading in the mid-twentieth century, the Crusades no longer just haunt the memory but stalk the streets of twenty-first-century international politics, in particular in the Near East. In an irony often lost on protagonists, these public perceptions of the Crusades that underpin confrontational rhetoric derive from a common source. The Near Eastern radical or terrorist who rails against “western” neo-crusaders is operating in exactly the same conceptual and academic tradition as those in the west who continue to insinuate the language of the crusade into their approach to the problems of the region. This is by no means a universal set of mentalities, as demonstrated from the literary and academic cliché of a civilized medieval Islamic world brutalized by western barbarians, to the almost studiously anti-crusading rhetoric and policies of NATO and others in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, to opposition to the crude caricaturing of Islam after September 2001. The re-entry of the Crusades into the politics of the Near East is baleful and intellectually bogus.

This 1915 German World War I poster by Fritz Boehle (after an Albrecht Dürer woodcut) is titled In Deo Gratia (Thanks Be to God). The poster, promoting the German war effort, reads: “Giv’st thou a mite. Be it e’er so small. Thou shalt be blessed by God.”

President Bush II and Usama bin Laden are co-heirs to the legacy of a nineteenth-century European construct. Here, one of the most influential historians of the Crusades was Joseph François Michaud (1767-1839). A publishing entrepreneur, Michaud combined uncritical antiquarianism with a keen sense of the market and prevailing popular sentiment. A monarchist, nationalist, and anti-Revolutionary Christian, Michaud allied admiration for the Crusades’ ideals with a supremacist triumphalism over Islam. He helped provide apparent historical legitimacy for colonialism and cultural imperialism, increasingly the litmus test of European hegemony and national status. Thus crusading could be transmuted into a precursor of Christian European superiority and ascendancy, taking its place in what was proclaimed as the march of western progress. Michaud’s convenient and seductive vision left an indelible stain.

Yet Arab, Arabist, and Islamic outrage ignored the uncomfortable fact that Michaud’s construct played its part in setting their own agenda too. In rallying opinion against European intrusion, the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II (1876-1909) labeled their imperialism as a crusade, his remark that “Europe is now carrying out a Crusade against us in the form of a political campaign.” Much subsequent Islamic discourse on western attitudes to the Crusades and the Near East has been colored by a negative acceptance of the Michaud version of history as if this were the immutable western response or historically accurate. No continuity exists in Arabic responses to western aggression between medieval crusading and modern political hostility, any more than there is between medieval and modern jihad, except in rhetoric and an ahistorical appeal to the past. Assumptions of an inherent conflict of power and victimization that elevates a wholly unhistorical link between modern colonialism and medieval crusading. It is Michaud in a mirror. Occidentalism and Orientalism share the same western frame. The idea that the modern political conflicts in the Near East or elsewhere derive from the legacy of the Crusades or are being conducted as neo-crusades in anything except extremist diatribe is deceitful.

All sides seem reluctant to accept that the images of crusade and jihad introduced into late twentieth- and twenty-first-century conflicts are not time-venerated traditions of action or abuse, but modern imports.

Battle between Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land is depicted in this illumination from the fourteenth-century French manuscript, History of Godfrey of Bouillon. Modern politicians still sometimes invoke the Crusades, whether in reference to the Western-led “War on Terror” against Islamic extremists, or to a struggle against Western aggressors by aggrieved Muslim nations.

It has been observed that no Islamic state has formally launched a jihad against a non-Muslim opponent since the demise of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. Even that Islamic holy war had been sponsored and encouraged by the Turks’ German allies. Most African and Near Eastern jihads proclaimed in the nineteenth century and since were not against infidel imperialists but Islamic rivals, oppressors, and heretics or for religious reform. This is not to deny the presence of jihad language and theory, as in the propaganda of states at war with the State of Israel in 1948, 1967, or 1973. However, there is nothing old-fashioned, still less “medieval,” about the techniques, recruitment, or ideology of al-Qaeda. The devious polemical association between “crusaders” and “Jews” is historical nonsense. Al-Qaeda’s international reach is a creation of modernity and globalization as surely as the World Wide Web. Many states most disliked by those who claim to be fearful of Islam are explicitly secular. Yet fanciful analogies with crusading have accompanied most major conflicts in the eastern Mediterranean from the First World War onwards, including unlikely associations such as the siege of Beirut in 1982 with the siege of Acre in 1189-91. The Arabic propaganda transmuting Israelis into crusaders is a direct consequence of this. While on their side some Israeli extremists hark back to an older tradition of almost Maccabean revivalism, others are content to re-fashion their landscape to exclude, in place names or archaeological designation, Arabic traces, seeing the State of Israel as a liberation not an occupation. There are obvious historic parallels with Christian Outremer, but also with Umayyad Palestine or Roman Syria—conquerors imposing their own space. However, Israelis are not the new crusaders, any more than the Americans. Saddam Hussein was not the new Saladin, even though they shared a birthplace.

To imagine otherwise goes beyond fraudulence. It plays on a cheap historicism that at once inflames, debases, and confuses current conflicts, draining them of rational meaning or legitimate solution. The Crusades reflected central human concerns of belief and identity that can only be understood on their own terms, in their own time; so, too, their adoption and adaptation by later generations. While it is tempting to draw conclusions derived from geographical congruity or superficial political similarities, the land in which Jakelin de Mailly fell over eight hundred years ago and the cause for which he died held truths for his time, not ours.

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