President Obama, with an assist from some hyperventilating critics, managed to awake the sleeping giant that is the medievalist blogosphere last week, when he invoked the Crusades and the Inquisition in some remarks about ISIS and the Middle East at the National Prayer Breakfast. Conservative leaders and pundits reacted angrily, and professional medieval historians found themselves asked to comment; fortunately, some of those those who weren’t asked prepared thoughtful blog posts and offered their ideas through other social media. I really have nothing to add to the excellent observations by Jay Rubenstein, Matt Garbriele, and David Perry, but, mostly for the benefit of my Crusades seminar students, I thought I would provide a synopsis and synthesis of the frenzy on the long-neglected bandwith that is my blog. After I drafted this, incidentally, I noticed that Perry had already helpfully summarized the whole kerfuffle here.
The President’s remarks and initial response
At last Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast (a quaint Cold War relic that now seems to serve as a ritual of territorial marking by religious conservatives), President Obama listed the atrocities committed by ISIS in the name of religion, and rhetorically asked how one could reconcile the good things inspired by faith with the murder, rape and general intolerance we now witness in the Middle East. He then tried to map out a broader historical topography of religious violence:
“Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ…. So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.”
These fundamentally benign and straightforward sentences are actually quite characteristic of Obama’s rhetoric in general, insofar as he tends to place himself within larger trends and between difficult choices. Although historians do disagree on how to interpret the Crusades as expressions of piety (they have been variously described as: an act of love; an act of vengeance; a degradation of medieval spirituality; that spirituality’s most characteristic manifestation; the realization of an apocalyptic fantasy; or, in Al Crosby’s phrase, a “sort of banzai charge by hordes of the pious”), there is nothing all that controversial here. Judging from the reaction, however, one might have thought the President was making a one-to-one comparison of mainstream, twenty-first-century Christianity to ISIS. Former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore fumed that Obama “has offended every believing Christian in the United States.” Conservative columnist Star Parker, eager to elevate our national discourse, accused the President of “verbal rape.”
The criticism centered around three points: First, that Obama was somehow exculpating ISIS or justifying terrorism committed in the name of Islam; second, that he was equating Christians with Muslim fundamentalists; and third, that he was somehow misrepresenting the Crusades when he associated them with “terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” It is this third claim that is of interest to historians in their capacity as historians, and immediately historians were enlisted to assess the fallout.
What the historians said
From a professional medievalist’s point of view, the most intriguing headline to appear after the Breakfast was probably from ABC News: “Historians Weigh in on Obama’s Comparison of ISIS Militants to Medieval Christian Crusaders.” I was pleasantly surprised to find that the historians in questions, were, in fact, historians: Tom Asbridge of Queen Mary, University of London, and Tom Madden of Saint Louis University (a past winner of the Medieval Academy of America’s top honor, the Haskins Medal). These are pretty big guns in Crusades studies, and both have written for general audiences.
First came Madden:
I don’t think the president knows very much about the crusades,” Thomas Madden, a historian at the University of St. Louis, told ABC News.
“He seems to be casting them as an example of a distortion of Christianity and trying to compare that to what he sees as a distortion of Islam in the actions of ISIS,” Madden said. “The initial goal of the Crusades was to give back lands to Christians that had been conquered, due to Muslim conquests.
Asbridge was a bit more nuanced:
Asbridge said he doesn’t have a problem with the president reminding the world that the Christian Church “advocated violence, and at times even encouraged its adherents to engage in warfare” but to suggest a causal link between ISIS and the distant medieval phenomenon of the Crusades is “grounded in the manipulation and misrepresentation of historical evidence.”
It is not clear to me that the President was in fact suggesting a “causal link” between the Crusades and ISIS, but Asbridge here reflects a common anxiety among historians: that the meaning of apparent historical parallels is seldom as transparent as politicians and journalists would like it to be. What’s more, we are probably a bit more comfortable when medieval phenomena are “safely distant” from current political entanglements. Unspoken but perhaps implicit in Asbridge’s comment is that ISIS’s ideology and brutality operate in a fundamentally modern setting, to the point that it is impossible to import medieval violence as an explanatory device. So while some historians (including myself) might be more sympathetic to the President than Asbridge was, most would agree with his warning against assuming that medieval wars can help to clarify modern violence.
But who speaks for the historians?
Madden, on the other hand, presents a straightforward question of historical interpretation: were the Crusades in fact wars of re-conquest, implicitly justified by the expansion of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries? He has made this point before, and it is fair to say that he often does so to support political positions that are decidedly right-of-center (Perry has a thoughtful reflection on Madden, his politics, and his scholarship here). Jay Rubenstein of the University of Tennessee actually weighed in on that issue three years ago during his stint writing columns for the Huffington Post. In a piece titled “Myths About Crusade Myths: Were They Defensive Wars?” Rubenstein, a card-carrying Genius already known to my seminar students for his article on “Cannibals and Crusaders” (institutional subscription needed), answered his own question with “a resounding no”:
The First Crusade, then, was not about turning back centuries of Muslim expansion. It was about seizing control of sacred landscapes. It was, in modern parlance, “a war of choice” or “an act of aggression.” On July 15, 1099, this willfully chosen campaign ended victoriously when the crusaders conquered Jerusalem.
This is an example of a point on which historians can disagree not about facts but about their meaning. Madden is correct that Muslims conquered Jerusalem in 634 and continued to conquer formerly Christian territories through the eighth century, and that Muslim Seljuk Turks were threatening the Byzantine Empire in the late eleventh century. The evidence from the First Crusade, however, does not suggest that crusaders saw it that way. Jerusalem, after all, was not essential to the Byzantine Empire’s immediate defensive strategy, but it was central to crusading rhetoric, and that is what Rubenstein is arguing. David M. Perry, who along with Rubenstein is one of the best medievalists out there at exploring the relationship between academic history and the popular imagination, took a different approach in response to Madden’s comments, focusing on how the fragmented state of eastern Mediterranean politics in the 1090s renders the “defensive war” idea untenable:
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.
This strikes me as spot on. I would go further and add that I reject the “defensive war” claim less because it is totally wrong than because it asks us to think of the medieval Mediterranean as a profoundly uninteresting place. Rubenstein calls our attention to the spectacular, unique, and often terrifying character of crusader piety, while Perry points out how dynamic contemporary geopolitics were. If the First Crusade is considered as just another skirmish in fifteen-hundred year rivalry between two monolithic religions, then what is the point in exploring the explosive apocalyptic spirituality that seems to have motivated large numbers of the crusaders? What about the complex political negotiations of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus, who periodically bargained with Muslim rulers in Anatolia to help shore up the eastern flank of his empire? How do the myriad different Christian sects in the Middle East who did not share the crusaders’ agendas fit into this mess? This all gets lost if we opt for the elementary “the Muslims had it coming” explanation.
To be sure, Madden’s statement got a great deal of attention. A headline for The American Thinker crowed “Historian: Obama doesn’t know much about the Crusades,” while Breitbart offered up “Historian: Obama ignorant on Crusades.” It may well be that Obama does not know much about the Crusades, and I imagine that his reference to the Inquisition was innocent of any knowledge of recent historiography on ecclesiastical courts during the medieval and early modern periods. None of that means that Madden speaks for historians as a group on this particular matter.
What usually troubles me about references to crusades and inquisitions in popular culture is that they are intended to end discussion. Any attempt at nuance by historians tends to provoke a backlash from non-experts (as when the New Yorker review of two general histories–including one by Asbridge–expressed bewilderment that the authors did note judge their subjects more harshly). Rather, the Crusades and the Inquisition serve as quintessential examples of medieval barbarity that require no further explanation because their meaning is taken to be transparent. But when Obama asked us to consider the history of Christian violence, however, he was starting a conversation, asking up to consider religion and its abuse in a broader continuum of human conflict, appealing to history to advocate for some present-day thoughtfulness and humility. Interpreting ISIS as the inevitable result of contemporary Islam does not explain anything, and neither does reading the Crusades as a simple clash of civilizations, whether we blame fanatical Christians or expansionist Muslims. Any history that expands the possibilities of interpretation, however, will be helpful in moving us forward.
For further reading
- An interview with Jay Rubenstein on why the Crusades still matter: http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015-02-10/what-obama-meant-about-the-crusades
- Matt Gabriele on Rick Santorum’s crusade revisionism: http://modernmedieval.blogspot.com/2011/02/rick-santorums-crusade-nostalgia.html
- David Perry’s blog (many excellent, relevant entries recently): http://www.thismess.net/
- Rubenstein’s 2011 piece on the “defensive war” argument: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jay-rubenstein/myths-about-crusade-myths_b_1031722.html