+ Real Crusades History +

+ Real Crusades History +

Monday, March 28, 2016

RE: What’s the Consensus on Real Crusades History? Reddit Thread DEBUNKED!

A while back a thread appeared on Reddit concerning Real Crusades History. The title of the thread is “What’s the Consensus on Real Crusades History?” and in this thread, a user called “Water_nut” asked some users on Reddit for their opinion on my videos about the Crusades. One user, thejukeboxhero, answered the question, and his answer is incorrect and misrepresents my positions on the Crusades. This article will respond to and debunk the claims of thejukeboxhero concerning Real Crusades History.

Thejukeboxhero wrote some commentary on my video “How the Crusades Saved Europe”. This is what he wrote:

“His understanding of Islam as a monolithic hive mind bent on devouring Christian Europe is ludicrous and reflects his own ignorance of the diversity and complexity of one thousand years of Islamic civilization.”

Thejukeboxhero is setting up a strawman here and misrepresenting my position. Of course I understand that Islam was incredibly diverse and encompassed a wide variety of dynasties and peoples. I have discussed many of these divisions in my videos. For example, I have discussed the conflict between the Umayyads and the Abasids, the struggles between the Zengids and Ayubids, and the rivalries between the Seljuks and the Danishmends, just to name a few. However, this individual didn’t bother to look at any more than a single of my videos before he dismissed my entire channel, which shows that he in fact is guilty of making broad, ignorant judgments that do not reflect reality.

One thing that thejukeboxhero never does at any point within his commentary is quote me directly. He never addresses a single point I actually make, rather, he sets up straw men of what he believes to be my position, and thereby addresses nothing. Another thing he never does is quote any historical sources. However, I am going to do both those in this post – I am going to deconstruct his actual commentary, and I am going to demolish his inaccurate perception of history with scholarly material.

Thejukeboxhero next says: 

“There is no evidence that if unchecked, Islam (whatever that means, the Ottomans aren't the Almoravids, or the Safavids, or the Fatimids) would have conquered all of Europe.”

Notice how thejukeboxhero keeps referring to the diversity of groups and dynasties within Islam as if that means Islam as a whole has no overarching identity. Earlier he said, incorrectly, that I viewed Islam as a “monolithic hive mind bent on devouring Christian Europe” and he also says “Islam (whatever that means)”. In other words, he is proposing that the term Islam itself isn’t even useful in describing any sort of group identity. This is absolutely absurd. Of course there were dynastic and sectarian divisions within the larger Islamic civilization, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that when we say “Islamic civilization”, we are referring to something unified enough to be given a name. Both medieval Muslims and medieval Christians understood this to be the case, and despite divisions within their own groups, looked at the world this way.

Let’s take an example:

Ibn al-Athir was a Mesopotamian Muslim chronicler who wrote during the late twelfth century and early thirteenth century. He wrote an enormous book entitled, The Perfect History, which covers the whole of the Islamic world. His family was partial to the Zengid dynasty, but nevertheless he did not view his identity as ending with the Zengids. He considered himself part of an overarching Muslim world that stretched across the Mediterranean.

Look at how Ibn al-Athir writes about Muslim societies far away from his own in Spain and Sicily:

‘The power of the Franks first became apparent when in the year 478 (1085-86) they invaded the territories of Islam and took Toledo and parts of Andalusia… Then in 484/1091 they attacked and conquered the island of Sicily and turned their attention to the African coast. Certain of their conquests there were won back again but they had other successes, as you will see.’ Ibn al-Athir in Arab Historians of the Crusades, p. 3.

This passage alone reveals the inaccuracy of thejukeboxhero’s comments. Here Ibn al-Athir, a Mesopotamian Muslim chronicler associated with the Zengid dynasty, is referring to the Latin Christian Kingdom of Leon’s conquest of Toledo, formerly held by the Iberian Umayyad Arabs. He also writes about the Norman conquest of Sicily from the Kalbid Arabs. But he doesn’t describe any of it that way. Instead, he lumps the Iberian Christians and the Normans into one group – the Franks, which, incidentally, was the term used by Arab authors at this time to refer to all Western Christians. He also doesn’t differentiate between the various Muslim dynasties, but simply says “the territories of Islam”.

Ibn al-Athir’s language is far from uncommon. Muslim authors discuss the wider conflict between Christian and Islamic forces like this throughout the Middle Ages. Now this doesn’t mean that individual dynastic and sectarian identities weren’t important, they most certainly were on both sides for Muslims and Christians. But Muslims and Christians also tended to view themselves as part of larger identities as well, and they understood there to be a more overarching conflict at work of roughly Christendom vs. Islam. To deny this aspect of medieval consciousness is to deny history.

Let’s take a look at another example, this time from a medieval Christian author. This is from the Latin Chronicle of the Kings of Castile, an important primary source for medieval Iberia. However, the author also concerns himself with the wider affairs of Christendom, and references the conflicts going on between Christians and Muslims in the Eastern Mediterranean in a manner similar to what we see in Ibn al-Athir. In discussing the Third Crusade, the chronicler says:

“At the same time, Philip, King of the French, and Richard, King of the English, after establishing mutual peace between themselves, crossed over the sea with dukes and counts and many other barons and knights, and landed at Acre, which the Saracens still held. The kings forcefully besieged it; vigorously attacking it, they took it by force. Now King Richard, before he came there, seized the island of Cyprus and subjugated it to himself.

“King Philip, however, suffering from a grave illness, so much so that his life was despaired of, crossed the sea again and returned to his kingdom. But King Richard, brave and high spirited, remained and stayed there for a long time in that region, defending what the Christians held and newly acquiring other places.” –Latin Chronicle of the Kings of Castile, p. 64.

Once again, notice how this author, who comes from the Kingdom of Castile in modern day Spain, is not describing Richard as an Angevin or Philip as a Capetian, but as leading the forces of “the Christians”. He also doesn’t say that they were fighting the Ayubids and their coalition of Turkish and Kurdish forces, but “the Saracens”, which is a very general medieval term used by Christians to describe followers of the religion of Mohammed. He says that Richard and Philip “landed at Acre, which the Saracens still held,” and he says that “King Richard, brave and high spirited, remained and stayed there fore a long time in that region, defending what the Christians held.” Thejukeboxhero appears not to grasp the complexities and multi-dimensional qualities of medieval civilizations. Of course this author from Castile had regional perspectives and dynastic perspectives, but he also had a wider, metapolitical worldview of himself and his identity, which included all of Christendom, and which cast Mohammedan regions and kingdoms as “the Saracens”, a generalized, cultural and religious identity that existed in opposition to “the Christians”.           

Let’s continue to explore this issue, this time with a selection from a primary source dealing with the life of the famous Mohammedan ruler Saladin. This is from Baha ad-Din, one of Saladin’s own close associates who wrote an account of this iconic ruler’s life. Here Baha ad-Din quotes his master Saladin discussing his conquest of the Crusader states:

“I think when God grants me victory over the rest of Palestine I shall divide my territories, make a will stating my wishes, then set sail on this sea for their far-off lands and pursue the Franks there, so as to free the earth from anyone who does not believe in Allah.” –Baha ad-Din in Arab Historians of the Crusades, p. 101.

Notice that Saladin doesn’t say, “When I have finished conquering the Latin states in Palestine, I’ll sail to the territories of the Capetians and Angevins and expand the holdings of the Ayubid dynasty there.” No, indeed, Saladin is lumping the Crusader states in with the various dynastic kingdoms and territories of all of Christian Europe. He’s simply referring to Christian Europe as “the lands of the Franks”, “Franks” being a term used by Mohammedans during this period as a general description for all Western European Christians regardless of their dynastic or regional associations. And on top of that, Saladin is casting his designs on “the lands of the Franks” in terms of this larger conflict between Christendom and Mohammedanism, saying he wants to “free the earth from anyone who does not believe in Allah”. You see, like all medieval Mohammedans, Baha ad-Din and Saladin had complex worldviews as well. Saladin himself was a Sunni, who belonged to the Aybud dynasty. He spent most of his career fighting other Sunnis, struggling against the Zengids, and he also fought the Shia Fatimids. So Saladin certainly had concerns for his own personal sub-group within Sunni Islam, and wanted to dominate other local Mohammedan dynasties, but he also participated in this more expansive idea of the Mohammedan world versus the Christian world. His wars against the Crusaders, for example, served multiple purposes, helping establish himself as a champion of Mohammedanism who could claim to be justified in dominating other Sunni groups, but also fulfilling his own personal religious zeal and satisfying his sense of outrage at the presence of Christian kingdoms on Syrian and Palestinian soil. Again, thejukeboxhero just isn’t grasping this complexity.

I have provided just a few primary source examples here, but I could quote passages like this endlessly. The Ottomans, for example, although they rose to prominence in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, saw themselves as continuing the legacy of the early Mohammedan conquerors, the Umayyads, seeing themselves as the heirs to the original caliphs in spreading the religion of Mohammad, and this despite the fact that the Ottomans were Turks and the original Mohammedan conquerors were Arabs. Again, multiple levels of identity existed here. As it is, the examples I’ve provided do the job of debunking the comments of thejukeboxhero on this matter.

Let’s continue to reveal the problems with his comments:

“The notion that crusading proved to be the crucial event that united Europe is silly as well. It is certainly symptomatic of the more universal identity pushed by the reforming popes of the eleventh century, and while the international scale of the conflict is certainly novel, to suggest that crusade (sic) saved Europe assumes that there was actually a concerted effort by the Islamic world to destroy it.”

Nonsense. Crusading extended far beyond the ambitions of the reform popes of the late eleventh century, and the crusades were not merely “international”. The Crusades represented an enormous movement in European Christendom, which would echo down the centuries. I’ve discussed this in many videos. To start with, the First Crusade created a universal shared experience by the bulk of European Christian societies, with each region having heroes they remembered from that conflict, and whose exploits in this Crusade would be commemorated for generations. After the First Crusade, for centuries to come, Europe’s kingdoms, constantly embroiled in regional and dynastic conflicts with one another, would nevertheless draw on this Crusading consciousness to unite in times of struggle against a threat which they believed transcended petty rivalries among Christian princes, and threatened Christendom itself: the civilization of Mohammed, or as the medievals referred to it, “The Saracens” or “The Moors” or “The Turks”. Wars as far removed from one another as the campaign at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 and the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 both drew on this shared legacy. Europeans viewed their own wars with each other very differently than they did the wars called Crusades – wars sanctioned by the popes as holy and for which the participants earned spiritual rewards. For example, when Fernando III of Castile and Leon achieved a stunning victory over the Moors of the Iberian peninsula, Louis IX, the King of France, sent him a thorn from the relic of Christ’s crown of thorns as a symbol of the sacredness of Fernando’s victory over the ancient enemy of Christendom. Louis would have never done that had Fernando won a war against the King of Portugal or the King of Aragon or one of his other Christian rivals. What I am talking about here is how European Christians themselves perceived of these things.

I would like to pay particular attention to this comment from thejukeboxhero:

“to suggest that crusade saved Europe assumes that there was actually a concerted effort by the Islamic world to destroy it.”

This is a strikingly inaccurate comment. How could one honestly look at the history of Christendom’s 
interaction with Mohammedan civilization and conclude that there was no long-running ambition in the Muslim world to take control of as much of Christian Europe as possible? Islam emerged in the 7th century, and within a few decades had taken control of some two-thirds of the Christian world: the bulk of Christian Asia and Africa. Two well-run military campaigns in the early 8th century, one led by Charles Martel in modern day France, and one led by Emperor Leo III at Constantinople, put an end to that expansion at that time. Now this is usually the point at which more left-leaning commentators might like to insist that a sort of equilibrium settled in between Christendom and Islam, without much effort from the Muslims to conquer any more Christian territory. But all throughout the ninth and tenth centuries the Byzantines were engaged in a desperate struggle with the Arabs for control of Asia Minor and Syria, as is clearly displayed in sources like the chronicle of John Skylitzes. During this period the Muslims also penetrated into Sicily and southern Italy, which they would rule for two centuries. They even tried to conquer Rome. The rise of the Seljuk Turks in the eleventh century would see renewed expansion by Islam into Byzantine territory, and the Almohad and Almoravid dynasties in North Africa would renew the expansive energy of Islam in the Iberian Peninsula. Finally the rise of the Ottoman Turks in the late Middle Ages would see the Muslims win some of their most extensive conquests yet, with enormous portions of Eastern Europe falling under their rule, and Italy itself being threatened with conquest on numerous occasions. It wasn’t really until the late seventeenth century, during the Great Turkish War, that Ottoman designs on Western Europe would be put to an end, and by then the long-running conflict between Christendom and Islam spanned a thousand years.

Now through all this long history of many wars, there were quite a few Muslim dynasties, kingdoms, ethnic groups, etc. This was by no means some single, monolithic Mohammedan super-state responsible for a thousands years of imperialism. But all of these various Muslim powers shared a conception of themselves as custodians of this thing called Islam, which was at the heart of their sense of identity. They all agreed that Islam was the truth, and that the world should submit to it. Whether you were an Umayyad or an Almoravid or a Seljuk or an Ottoman, your popular culture embraced the notion that the Christian kingdoms of Europe should rightly be ruled by Muslim princes, and that Islam should one day reign supreme where the cross is now dominant. What sort of blindness would make a student of history unable to grasp this basic historical fact?

Throughout the centuries of warfare between Muslims and Christians, one thing alone prevented Mohammedans from expanding further: Christian military victories. Regardless of how we might think of the Crusades, for Europeans during this period, Crusading was the way they conceived of their resistance to Muslim expansion. The popes called Crusades in every region where there was a frontier with Islam, in Spain, Italy, Eastern Europe, Syria and Palestine. Christians from various regions would unite on these occasions, often after only recently and temporarily putting aside their own rivalries with each other, to recapture some city or prevent the advance of some Muslim army. It was broad, it transcended regions, and it was a tradition that went on for centuries. So when I stated in my video that the Crusades were a unifying force that facilitated the survival of European Christendom, I was entirely correct.

Now, let’s get back to thejukeboxhero’s comments:

“Again, check out my post on the justifications of crusade in the years following the conquest of Jerusalem. The author of the video seems to take such rhetoric for granted and is generally uncritical of the (two) primary sources he cites.”

No, wrong. I’m not using those two primary sources uncritically. I’m not “taking the rhetoric” of these sources for granted at all, I’m merely providing them as an example of a commonplace way of viewing the world among medieval Europeans during the age of the Crusades. My video “How the Crusades Saved Europe” is all about how medieval Europeans conceived of themselves and conceived of the Crusades. The two primary sources to which thejukeboxhero is referring are Fulcher of Chartres and Guibert of Nogent. There is absolutely no doubt that these two sources represent an attitude that was mainstream and widespread among Europeans in the aftermath of the First Crusade and for centuries to come as Europeans continued to engage in warfare with Mohammedan powers. So without question, I used those two primary sources effectively.  

“The video is concerned with proving that the Crusades were, in the long run, a 'good thing'. From an academic and educational point of view, this line of inquiry is problematic at best, intellectually dishonest at worst.”

No, again, wrong. Where in my video “How the Crusades Saved Europe” do I state that the Crusades were, in the long run, a “good thing”? I never said that. Thejukeboxhero made that up himself. In that video, I set out to explain one thing: how the Crusades as a new paradigm provided Europeans with a way of conceiving of themselves engaged in a sacred, united effort to defend their societies against Islam. That’s all I set out to say in that video, and that’s what that video demonstrates. At the end of the video I do state that if you like diversity you should probably like the Crusades, because the Crusades ensured that Christendom and Islam existed in a territory where only Islam might have existed as a dominant power otherwise, but that was a bit of a tongue in cheek remark poking fun at the concept of “diversity”, which is often championed by people who get very indignant about the Crusades.

“You're better off finding a solid introductory text to the period, such as The Crusades: A Short History by Jonathan Riley-Smith.”

I certainly agree with thejukexboxhero that this book by Jonathan Riley-Smith is excellent, as I have used it and many other books by Riley-Smith in my videos as sources. Unlike thejukeboxhero, I make liberal use of primary sources and Crusades scholarship from top-level Crusades historians in all of my videos. I am constantly encouraging viewers to explore the many fantastic works that deal with the Crusades, from authors such as Malcom Barber, Jonathan Philips, Jonathan Riley-Smith, Thomas Madden, Christopher Tyerman, Helen Nicholson, Joseph O’Callaghan, Roger Collins, Edward Peters, Susan Edgington, and on and on and on. If you’ve consistently watched my videos over the years, you have been exposed to the works of a tremendous amount of quality historians. My videos are meant only as an introduction to the Crusades, with my goal being to inspire viewers to get their hands on some books and start exploring this era for themselves.

So there you have it, the comments of Thejukeboxhero on reddit thoroughly debunked.   


-Arab Historians of the Crusades, trans. Francesco Gabrieli, (Barnes and Noble, 1993)
-The Latin Chronicle of the Kings of Castile, trans. Joseph O’Callaghan, (Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2002)
-Fulcher of Chartres, A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem, 1095-1127, trans. Frances Rita Ryan, (University of Tennessee Press, 1969)
-Baha ad-Din, The Rare and Excellent History of Saladin, trans. D.S. Richards, (Ashgate, 2002)
-Ibn al-Athir, The Chronicle for the Crusading Period, Part 1, trans. D.S. Richards, (Ashgate, 2010)
-The First Crusade: The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres and Other Source Materials, ed. Edward Peters, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998)