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Saturday, May 14, 2016

Book Review: Steven Runciman - A History of the Crusades: Volume II The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Frankish East, 1100-1187




For many decades Steven Runciman's overview of the Crusades was considered the definitive popular work on the subject, while Runciman himself was the go-to man for Crusades history. However, all that changed in the last forty to thirty years with the rise of better, more thorough scholarly methods (such as computer management of huge amounts of charter information through the use of random-access databases). A new generation of scholars, such as Jonathan Riley-Smith, Christopher Tyerman, Bernard Hamilton, Thomas Madden, Helen Nicholson, Jonathan Philips, etc, have revealed the Crusades to us on a far more in-depth and objective level than was ever attained by Runciman.

Runciman's work has not aged well. His sweeping generalizations and obvious biases have become painfully dated next to the groundbreaking scholarship that has come after him. Runciman was unashamedly petty in allowing his personal likes and dislikes to color his analysis. Within a few pages it's clear that Runciman deeply disliked the Crusaders and favored the Byzantines and Muslims. He attacks figures like Reynald of Chatillon as morally repugnant, meanwhile he lionizes Saladin, saying that his conquest of Jerusalem was "civilized". Runciman fails to sympathize with the thousands of Christian women and children sold into slavery by Saladin at Jerusalem; perhaps they might have disagreed that Saladin was civil. At any rate, it's not for the historian to make morally sharp judgments of character anyway, rather he should attempt to present all sides as objectively as possible, and in this respect Runciman's work is an absolute failure.

What's good about this volume is that it provides a basic, linear outline of the history of the Crusader States from 1100 to 1187. In my writing and research I have used this book as an outline for the period, though I am always deeply suspicious of Runciman's assessments that go beyond mere names and dates. I always check his work against the more current scholarship of professors like Riley-Smith, Tyerman, Philips, and others. I strongly urge all readers of this book to do the same.

Monday, May 2, 2016

"How the Crusades Saved Western Civilization" by Peter Seferian


Editor's Note:  The following is a speech written and presented by high school senior and RCH member, Peter Seferian, for his 3rd Period Communications Class.  This is a great example of the sort of work we here at RCH hope to provide scholarly support and feedback for those interested in becoming Crusades scholars.  Individuals like Peter will be the next generation of historians who will hopefully turn back the tide of modern misunderstanding about the Crusades and the medieval period in general.



How The Crusades Saved Western Civilization

 

It is evening of November 13th, 2015. 130 people have been killed by Islamic State militants in Paris, 89 of which were gunned down at the Bataclan Theatre, while attending a performance by The Eagles of Death Metal. President Francois Hollande orders a national state of emergency and declares war on the Islamic State. Fast forward three weeks later. Fourteen people are killed at a Christmas party in San Bernadino, California. The perpetrators, a Muslim couple wielding assault rifles, who had just previously left their six-month old daughter at home, to slaughter their coworkers. Shortly after both of these atrocities, President Obama rushed to remind us not to be persuaded into thinking that events such as these “be defined as [part of] a war between America and Islam.” Adding that groups like ISIS are not Islamic and that they are merely just “thugs and killers-part of a cult of death. And account for a tiny fraction of more than a billion Muslims around the world”. Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks of last year, he even told us “not to get on our high horse and think that this is unique to some other place” and “to remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” Obama is not alone in this line of thinking. After every deplorable act of violence committed in the name of Islam, apologists in the West always claim that Islam is incompatible with this kind of behavior and that other religions, specifically Christianity, have done far worse in the past. What is their proof of this? Why, the Crusades of course. After all, the Crusades were nothing more than a series of unprovoked attacks against peaceful Muslims by angry, European bigots, right? Isn’t the reason why the Islamic world is so cross with us because of what our ancestors did hundreds of years ago? Or, is the answer to why the Crusades happened not as simple as that? We need to re-evaluate our understanding of the Crusades. To do this, we need to go back to a particular series of events in history that would eventually lead to what we know today as the Crusades.

 

            So what were the Crusades? Well, contrary to the popular belief that the Crusades were a series of religious conquests motivated by power hungry popes, whose hatred for Muslims was dwarfed only by their desire for wealth, the Crusades were actually defensive in nature. Since it’s inception, Islam was a faith founded on conquest. After the death of the prophet Muhammed, a series of caliphs (a type of warrior king in Islamic though) continued his tradition of jihad (the Islamic concept of holy war) against the unbelievers. Within a century, Muslims had conquered Persia, Egypt, and Syria, formerly ruled by Christians and Polytheists. In the following centuries, Arab Muslims would conquer Spain, invade parts of France, and sack the city of Rome. In 1095, Emperor Alexius I Comnenus, ruler of the Byzantine Empire wrote to Pope Urban II for help. The Byzantines were quickly losing their war against the Seljuk Empire and feared for their annihilation. Pope Urban called upon the lords of Europe to come together and help the Byzantines repel the Seljuks and reclaim the holy city of Jerusalem. According to leading Crusades historian Jonathan Riley-Smith of Oxford University, crusading was seen as “an act of love”. This was because thousands of men, many of whom were wealthy and owned vast swaths of land, risked their lives and possessions to come to the aid of their Christian brethren. This is not to say everyone that went on the Crusades was a saint or that Christians have never committed any atrocities of their own. Of course they have. In fact, on the way to the Holy Land during the First Crusade, a rogue continent of crusaders slaughtered a massive number of Jews living in the Rhineland. However, this was condemned by the Church and had nothing to do with the original intent of the Crusades. Regardless, you can see now that the Crusades were not a series of unprovoked attacks against peaceful Muslims, but rather a delayed response to four centuries of Islamic aggression against the West.

 

            So where does this idea of the Crusades come from? Why is it that when we think of the Crusades, we immediately think of Christian Europe and the Catholic Church calling upon their armies to conquer in the name of God? This narrative has been perpetuated ever since Sir Walter Scott published his novel, The Talisman, in 1825. In The Talisman, Scott portrays the Crusaders, such as Richard The Lionheart, as barbaric, backward, brutes, while the Muslims, specifically Saladin, as nineteenth century liberal gentlemen. Scott’s view of the Crusades was strongly influenced by his upbringing during the Enlightenment. A time in which Europeans looked back on the Crusades as an event manifested in unnecessary barbarism against a superior Eastern civilization. This sentiment was echoed by English writer, Sir Steven Runciman, in his three-volume work, A History of The Crusades, published in the 1950s. The Runciman narrative became the traditional narrative of the Crusades during the 20th century, as it was used as the principle reference for a 1995 BBC documentary series about the Crusades, hosted by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame, and for the 2005 Hollywood feature film, Kingdom of Heaven, starring Orlando Bloom and directed by Ridley Scott. Both of these films, though wildly inaccurate, reflect the West’s current attitude towards the Crusades. The West feels a sense of immeasurable guilt for the sins of it’s past, such as colonialism and the slave trade, and blames it’s actions for the current problems of the world. While self-criticism can be a healthy endeavor, going so far as to distort history and create a false sense of moral equivalency between the West and the Islamic world, does nothing to solve our current conflict.

 

            While the West certainly has plenty of things to be ashamed of, the Crusades are not one of them. In fact, the Crusades may have saved the West. Before the Crusades, Europe was impoverished and fraught with disunity. Internal squabbles between neighboring kingdoms over land and power were commonplace. It wasn’t until the Crusades began that the lords of Europe put aside their differences in order to combat this external, alien threat. Though the Crusaders were eventually forced out of the Holy Land, it was the idea of crusading that forced the European nations to band together when threatened by the Ottoman Turks during later centuries. Had the Europeans not come together to face this threat, the values that we hold so dear, such as individual rights, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech may have been lost forever.

 

            In conclusion, the legacy of the Crusades should not be looked at as another historical atrocity, but a source of pride in European history. Those of us of European descent owe our ancestors a debt of gratitude for fighting to ensure our future. Those men were no less heroic than the men who fought for the Allies during the World War II. The negative image of the Crusades in our culture prohibits us from recognizing the true nature of the threat we face today. Islamic totalitarian regimes such as Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to be the two greatest sponsors of global terrorism on the planet. Our ignorance of history causes us to fear correctly identifying the enemy, and leads us to think of ourselves as no better than they are. We need to reject this line of thinking and champion the spirit of those that came before if we are to prevail.
04/19/16
-Peter Seferain will be attending St. Edward's University in Austin, TX, this fall and has plans to continue writing on medieval history and the Crusades.


Sunday, May 1, 2016

Review for "Why Does the Heathen Rage" by J. Stephen Roberts


            If there was one word I could muster to sum up the stirring narrative contained in J. Stephen Roberts’ newest historical fiction novel Why Does the Heathen Rage, it would have to “intimate.”  Seldom have I read a story that incorporated such a high degree of intimacy within it – intimacy with regards to the characters and their relations with each other, intimacy in its portrayal of the historical setting, and the intimacy with which the author bears to the reader the “artistic soul” at the heart of it all.

            The setting is indeed a unique one.  Taking place during the reign of King Baldwin II (formerly Baldwin of Bourcq who, as a young man, had ridden alongside his elder cousins, Godfrey of Bouillon and Baldwin of Boulogne, during the First Crusade), it covers the pivotal period during the king’s reign as he faced the ever-increasing crisis of the Seljuk incursions under Balak Ghazi into the Principality of Antioch and the County of Edessa in the 1120s.  However, this is not a dry recounting of maneuvering armies or monolithic kings and commanders.  It is a story about the people, great and small – known and unknown, who lived through these trying and (at times) desperate years of the infant Crusader States in the Levant.  This is best seen in the two characters the story mostly centers around, Baldwin’s spirited daughter Melisande and her fictitious childhood friend, Robert Bures, now a newly minted knight of the Latin Kingdom.  The dance between these two characters alone makes this novel a must read – two children born and raised in Frankish Outremer, living under the imposing legacies of Crusading heroes whose deeds were still within living memory, and who now face the daunting prospect of having to risk and sacrifice all to ensure the dream of a Latin Jerusalem doesn’t die on their watch – all while struggling with the feelings and emotions natural to a young man and woman who may feel more for one another than mere friendship.

            In terms of historical authenticity, the intimate detail incorporated in this novel is superb.  While it is obvious that the author invested incredible amounts of scholarly research into the making of this work, he was able to infuse such details in such a manner that it avoids coming off heavy-handed or dry.  It also provides – perhaps one of the first such portrayals in medieval historical fiction – an incredibly honest look at the cultures and societies on all sides of the conflicts for the Levant – Latin Christian, Orthodox Armenian and Georgian, and the Muslim Seljuks.  While there are scenes of shocking brutality and violence, everything portrayed is supported by top-notch scholarly evidence and is refreshingly clear of anything remotely resembling modernist commentary or agenda.  Speaking as a military historian who specializes in the medieval period, the author’s depiction of the realities of combat in the Frankish kingdoms of the 12th Century is quite possibly one the best I’ve ever encountered in the historical fiction genera and his climax of the Battle of Azaz in 1125 rivals those from the likes of Bernard Cornwell or one of the Shaaras.

            Overall, Why Does the Heathen Rage is an intimate story of people, great and small, who lived in what is perhaps one of the most important (and, today, controversial) periods in the history of the West.  It will enthrall, shock, inform, and inspire any reader who encounters it.  Hopefully, if we are lucky, we will see more stories like this in the future of the genera.

-Rand L. Brown II is a founder and regular contributor for RCH.  He currently studies graduate-level medieval military history and serves as Editor-in-Chief for the RCH Society Blog.