June 18, 2009


EXCERPT: Rethinking the Crusades | Jonathan Riley-Smith | The Preface to the fourth edition of What Were the Crusades? (Ignatius Press, 2009)

During the last 30 years a historical vision, which prevailed for nearly two centuries and still informs popular understanding, has been challenged. The vision originated in the writings of two early nineteenth-century authors, the Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott and the French historian Joseph-Francois Michaud. Between 1819 and 1831 Scott published four novels in which crusaders played significant parts. For him, a child of the Enlightenment who had been influenced by the philosopher-historian William Robertson, the crusades were the incursions of glamorous but uneducated westerners, childish and destructive, into a civilization superior to their own.

For Michaud, whose Histoire des croisades appeared between 1812 and 1822, and for those writers who followed him, the crusades were glorious instruments of nationalism and proto-imperialism. These views of the past must have seemed irreconcilable—indeed the only thing on which they were in agreement was that a crusade was to be defined by its opposition to Islam—but they began to merge with one another in the 1920s, when crusading, stripped of its ethic, was being interpreted in social and economic terms by Liberal economic historians, who had inherited from imperialism, and took for granted, the assumption that crusading was an early example of colonialism. Scott's Enlightenment image of representatives of an inferior culture barging their way into a more sophisticated one coalesced with the Michaudist Romantic conviction that their motivation had been proto-colonialist and the amalgam gave birth to a neo-imperialistic and materialistic orthodoxy which is still a feature of popular perceptions.

No one had even half-proved this interpretation by research, but by the 1950s it had gained general currency. The consensus prevailing at that time can be summarized as follows.

1. Crusading was defined in terms of the goal of Jerusalem and warfare against the Muslims and the only crusades worth considering were, therefore, those directed to the East.

2. In their expeditions to the Levant the crusaders were taking on opponents who were culturally their superiors.

3. The crusades were generated as much by economic as by ideological forces; and the best explanation for the recruitment of crusaders was that they had been motivated by profit.

4. The military orders were most usefully to be considered nor as religious orders, but as political and economic corporations.

5. The settlements in the Levant were proto-colonialist experiments, aspects of the first expansion of Europe, although there was no agreement about the colonial model that it was best to adopt.

These propositions could not survive a renewed concern with theories of violence in a post-war, cold-war society, the interest of which in the justice or otherwise of force was fuelled by debates about nuclear deterrence and proportionality, and a revival of the conviction that human beings can indeed be inspired by ideas, even ones that might seem alien to us. Without digressing into complex historiography, publications have appeared in the last 40 years which have expressed, or implied, some or all of the following counter-propositions, although they are not, of course, acceptable to everyone.

1. As the first and subsequent editions of this book have maintained, authentic crusades were fought in many different theatres and against many different opponents. Crusading can no longer be defined, therefore, solely as warfare against Muslims, but should be viewed in broader terms. It is true to say, however, that this—the most discussed aspect of the new approach—is itself being further modified, particularly by those who have been most influenced by it.

2. It is not helpful to treat the crusaders as the cultural inferiors of the Muslims. Nor is it provable. The evidence provided in the past never supported a case which was always selective—indeed often anachronistic—and it is striking how it has been tacitly abandoned.

3. The crusades were primarily religious wars and, in so far as one can generalize about them, the best explanation for the recruitment of crusaders was that they were moved by ideas.

4. The military orders can only be understood as orders of the church and their history should be treated in the context of that of other religious orders.

5. The settlements in the Levant may well have been 'colonies' of a sort—provided the word 'colony' is loosely defined—but the issue of colonialism seems to be no longer one that is considered to be worth serious discussion. It has lost its significance in the wake of the abandonment of the Marxist experiment and a disenchantment with historical 'models', and because of changes in historical perception, particularly in Israel, where the kingdom of Jerusalem has taken its place in the background history of the land. Most historians of the Latin East are more interested in the settlements for what they were and in their relationship to other co-existing societies.

Late in the 20th century, conservatives staged an extremely effective academic counter-revolution and retook the history narrative in particular. No one may have been a more successful counterevolutionary than Mr. Riley-Smith

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 18, 2009 9:00 AM
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