Sunday, February 8, 2015

Crusades and Religion - Who Decides What is "True" Crusading

In an earlier post, I talked about crusades and memory, linking to my Guardian piece and talking about the meaning of the violence linked to Crusading. I suggested that historians might debate whether a given battle or moment of violence happened, or whether it happened because of religious hatred for "the other," versus some other kind of motivation (as if there can be only one motivation for a given act), we would generally agree that the Crusades were Christian acts of violence.

I stand by that. One piece getting a lot of play is by my friend, medieval historian and some-time conservative commentator Tom Madden, written here at the National Review. Let's take a look:
According to the president, Christians should avoid mounting their “high horse” when it comes to “faith being twisted and distorted,” since “during the Crusades and Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”
Well, yes. That’s true. But people commit terrible deeds in the name of everything. The question isn’t whether humans can be evil, but whether those acts are consistent with their religious beliefs.
See, we agree it's true. People committed terrible deeds in the name of religion during the Crusades. So one strand of crusade-apologists can now be silent.

Let's work through the rest of the piece, though, as Madden and I seriously disagree with a number of other points. Before that, though, here are my biases as regards Madden, because I think you, dear reader, ought to know (feel free to skip the next few paragraphs if you don't care, and just want to hear my criticism of the piece).

Me and Tom Madden, my mentor.

I know Tom's work probably as well as anyone alive other than him, since Tom and I are just about the only two anglophone medieval historians (there are of course plenty of art historians) who focus on pre-1250 medieval Venice. It's no exaggeration to say that my book wouldn't exist if not for his scholarship and his support of mine - letters of rec for grants, help with the archives, publishing my first article, citing me in Speculum (the highest prestige medieval journal), and now blurbing my book. His scholarship on medieval Venice is impeccable - rooted in intensely careful readings of sources that have either been overlooked or misread, written in a style I find enormously appealing. I've read every article, usually multiple times, combed his footnotes, and have had many a very happy chat about Venice and the Middle Ages. We see Venice very similarly, in large part because his work shaped my entry into the field. My Venice is his Venice. He is one of my mentors.

On the other hand, his politics are conservative where mine are liberal. The great thing is that we have, I hope, a friendship and some similar scholarly agendas, though our public work diverges radically. If there's bias here, I am biased towards Tom.

Me and the Crusades

Moreover, my own scholarship and scholarship I admire has worked hard to resist the simplistic rhetoric of atrocity as applied to the crusades. Critical re-reading of sources is one of the things historians do, and it turns out that there's been a lot of hyperbole applied to the Crusades. So we have to be careful. For example, Jeremy Cohen, in Sanctifying the Name of God, re-examines the core Hebrew texts about the 1096 massacres, looking at the ways in which the authors worked with what surely were horrible events in order to serve contemporary purposes. Horrible massacres definitely took place, but the accounts themselves are written to intensify various agendas.

My work on the Fourth Crusade (buy my book!) in fact more so than Madden's work to date, similarly argues that our main sources about the terrible sack of Constantinople have functions OTHER than to relate what happened. So when Steven Runciman, a great historian who lived through World War II, writes, "There was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade," as historians we simply have to reject such an assessment. The sack of Constantinople was not, based on my reading of the evidence, in fact more terrible than other sacks (which is still terrible, involving murder, rape, and destruction). The rhetoric making it sound like such a great sack is not an objective recounting of truth but rather a crafted narrative to serve various tasks. And now I've summarized the first half of chapter 1 of my book.

That's uncomfortable. It makes it sound like I'm excusing conquest, plunder, murder, and rape. I'm not. I'm reading the sources. I'm assessing them. I'm doing what historians are supposed to do. And I learned a lot of that, as regards the Fourth Crusade, from Tom Madden.

The National Review

Madden's piece troubles me for a number of reasons:

First - historical. Madden writes, "At some point Christianity as a faith and as a culture had to defend itself or else be subsumed by Islam."

That's the core statement that Madden and many other right-wing folks are arguing: That given Muslim aggression, the Crusades were a fully justifiable defensive action.

I don't believe this is correct. In the 1090s, Islam was fractured. In Spain, the Islamic forces were fractured and being pushed back by various Catholic forces. The western Italian city states were now raiding Islamic ports, rather than being pressured by Islamic pirates. The Normans had conquered southern Italy and were, in fact, threatening Byzantium at least as much as the Turks were (due to Norman naval superiority). The Seljuk Turks in Asia Minor were a threat, yes, but they hardly represented "Islam." They were a new regional power looking to expand, one of many in the fractured Islamic polities from Baghdad to Egypt to Anatolia. The notion of Islam around 1100 as an implacable force just doesn't hold up.

 Is it possible that the Turks could have conquered Constantinople in the 1100s rather than the 15th century? I suppose it is possible, because all counter-factuals are possible. But the Seljuks had issues of their own, such as battles with other Turks, and in fact were busy dealing with them as the Crusaders arrived. If you assess the relevant military, political, and economic assets at play in the Mediterranean world around 1090, it's not one in which Islam is going to roll over Christendom - if indeed either of those concepts exist - without Crusader intervention.

Here's my much more serious issue.

After agreeing that people did indeed do bad things in the name of religion, Madden asks whether the acts are consistent with their religious beliefs. He says they are. And then he says:
The work of the Crusader, who put his life at risk and underwent enormous expense, was to save Christian people and restore Christian lands. This was no perversion of Christianity. Christ had commanded his followers to be like the Good Samaritan, hurrying to bind up the wounds of their brother who had been robbed and beaten. This was the same Christ who said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” That is how Crusaders honestly saw themselves following their Christian faith.
I believe this is true, as far as it goes. Many crusaders did honestly see themselves as Good Samaritans following their Christian faith. Others saw themselves as purifying the land, like Joshua. Still others saw themselves as actors in the final stages of an apocalyptic drama. And others, no doubt, just wanted to fight and loot, or carve out a kingdom. Scholars spend endless amounts of time debating crusader motivation, but let's put that side for now, and just focus on those who "honestly saw themselves following their Christian faith."

For Madden (and Riley-Smith to some extent, before him), the idea that crusading reflects good, Christian, love for one's fellow Christian, seems to be an exculpatory fact.

For me, it's a terrible indictment. 

If we accept this as true, then the violence that ensued during the Crusades is one inherent outcome of the faith. I do, in fact, believe that ideologies defined by a Manichean worldview - us/them, same/other, good/damned - is among the most dangerous forces in world history. I know so many believers working hard to build a more pluralistic future, because they recognize this danger as well. Once you create an other. Once your ideology depends on defending the self from the other. Horrible things can follow.

Because I'm not excusing the atrocities of Muslims made in the name of Islam, whether historically or today, but simply not exempting Christianity from this criticism on the grounds that the crusaders believed themselves to be good people. The belief that one's violent acts are necessary to be good is what we should all fear.

I also note (as others do) that Madden's piece never mentions the anti-Jewish massacres linked to the Crusades. Perhaps he feels they do not reflect this true crusading sentiment he isolates here. I don't think that's sustainable - these acts emerge together, they are part of the fabric of medieval Christian life, as are the people who spoke out against the massacres, who spoke out against the martial aspects of crusading. Extend forward: Christianity served as a sanctifying ideology for those who would enslave the indigenous peoples of the Americas and the Africans they transported there. It also provided sacred justification for those who spoke against mass enslavement.

So I'll say it again: The truth that many crusaders thought themselves to be doing good, serving their brother Christians in acts of love, is precisely what we need to fear from powerful ideologies.