What is a crusade?

What is a crusade? How would you define it? What sort of cultural registers does the word possess outside of the historical definition?  What happens when scholars adopt one or other of these registers as part of their self-presentation both inside and outside the academy, even though the scholarship has exposed these registers as false? Back in 2005, Thomas Madden wrote that “We now know much more than ever before about the Crusades,” but yet “[u]nfortunately, little of this has reached a general audience.” Does this un-knowing extend to other historians, and other medieval scholars who are not crusades historians?

I’ve been chewing on these questions (among many others) ever since April, when I got into a rather acrimonious exchange with a colleague at another institution about the supposed termite-like infestation of medieval studies by “fascists” and serial harassers. As words flew back and forth, I said at one point that we’re not arguing over the existence of such people (which we as a discipline can’t actually control, short of an ideological entrance exam and our various institutions actually taking Title IX seriously), “we’re arguing over how to address it, and whether calling a crusade with the strategy you seem to be outlining is the most logical, just, or effective one.”

Now, anyone who knows how to read even semi-carefully could break that sentence down in a number of ways–“we can call a crusade, but not with that strategy,” “what you’re suggesting is sociologically tantamount to a crusade, and may not be the best strategy,” “calling a crusade against academic ‘fascists’ may be satisfying but not the most logical way to achieve the ends you have in mind,” and so on. In the long and rambling response that followed, however, this is the very troubling objection to my use of the word “crusade” that emerged: “did you just decide to describe [me] as not ‘logical’ someone on a ‘crusade’ etc. You have just described me as an extreme and emotional (thus not logical) body. This is a classic microagression…”

Since anyone who read the thread (and there were a few people) could see that this was simply a falsehood, I dismissed it in my own long response with the remark that “as a crusades historian I’ll also leave aside your interesting interpretation of crusade as ‘extreme, emotional, and not logical.'”  But this is a point to which I’ve wanted to return, because to me it displayed either a shocking level of ignorance on a subject that all medievalists should have at least some competency in addressing or a disturbing disciplinary fault line in how we discuss “crusade”–and in any case it seemed a deliberately dishonest, intellectually vacuous claim of authority over that subject based on its meaning as internalized to that reader (reception alone, current orthodoxy notwithstanding, doesn’t make reality). The brief exchange left me thinking that, if that is how you define “crusade,” I dread to think what students are taking away from your courses on the Middle Ages–it certainly can’t be anything approximating a solidly grounded consciousness, historical, social, or otherwise. And if that is absent, good luck obtaining any other socially constructive utility from them. So, I’ve been meaning to unpack this curious statement a bit.

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CFP, Medieval Academy 2018: Beyond East and West: Global Encounters and Transformations in the Long 14th Century

I was going to submit a paper proposal to the Medieval Academy for the 2018 conference in Atlanta, Georgia (CFP here), but since they extended the deadline to Friday, May 19, I figured I’d see if I could get a panel together under the “Long 14th Century” theme. See below, and email me if interested.


Beyond East and West: Global Encounters and Transformations in the Long 14th Century

Medieval Academy Session Proposal, 2018  Call for Papers

Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, March 1 – 3, 2018

From the later decades of the 13th century to the middle decades of the 15th century profound changes occurred across the entire land mass of Africa, Asia, and Europe. Although the story in the United States is still mostly told from the perspective of western Europe (and often from northwest Europe in particular), this situation is gradually changing, and the theme of the “Long 14th Century” is ideally suited to bring together topics with diverse geographic orientations to consider large issues of global encounter and exchange.

Following the Medieval Academy of America’s extension of  its CFP deadline till Friday, May 19, for proposals to the 93rd Annual Meeting, I am seeking presentations of up to 25 minutes in length on encounters among Afro-Eurasian peoples. These encounters could be cultural, political, religious, economic in nature, and can span from Portugal and the Maghreb in the west to Mongolia and China in the east. I am particularly interested in paper topics that explore encounters around a) the transformation of the global system around 1350, b) the Ottoman and Timurid empires, c)  later European crusades, d) the Yuan/Ming dynasty transition, and e) the Maghreb states and Mali Empire.

The full Medieval Academy call for papers can be found here.

If interested, please send the following information  to Daniel Franke at dfranke@rbc.edu by 5 p.m. Friday, May 19:

Participant’s name, statement of Medieval Academy membership (or statement that the individual’s specialty would not normally involve membership in the Academy), professional status, email address, postal address, home or cell and office telephone numbers, fax number (if available), 500-word abstract, and audio-visual equipment requirements;

Inquiries should be sent to Daniel Franke, Assistant Professor of History, Richard Bland College of William and Mary, at dfranke@rbc.edu.

Rome: a “white colonial occupation”?

[Updated April 27]

On  April 15, Holy Saturday, the Twitter hashtag of the day was “WhatWouldMillenialJesusDo.” The results were interesting; much of it forgettable, much of it clever (cleverness and forgettable-ness go together on Twitter), some of it worth thinking about. Among the tweets was this one, which caught my attention:

I don’t know who Anthony Oliveira is, aside from what his Twitter bio tells me, though the name is vaguely familiar; but he has thousands of followers and seems to be one of those academic celebrity Twitter types. The subsequent thread, which you can read if you wish to lose time you’ll never get back, is a mixture of people saying “The Jews did it!” and Oliveira going on about Pilate (not all incorrectly, though Kevin Williamson’s Easter column is better), at one point telling one of his trolls “I invite you to read a book.”

I retweeted him, since the core point is a good one. Had Jesus of Nazareth appeared today, He most likely would have appeared in one of the countries of the (de)colonized second or third world and would have fallen afoul of the power structures there in ways that most Americans wouldn’t recognize as deserving reverence, let alone worship. It’s a thought experiment that helps remind us of the geographic origins of the Christian religion, and also reminds us why, as St. Paul says, it was “to the Greeks foolishness”–it was not “of” Europa. Or, as Peter Frankopan has more recently pointed out, Rome looked east for everything from silk to religion. [1] Put simply, Jesus wasn’t “white.”

But, and this is a crucial point, neither were the Romans. At least not in any way that makes sense if you are trying to use the past as a sound platform for drawing conclusions about the present (unless you’re saying the old racist articles from the AHR in 1916 or Hereditas in 1921) are, well, based on sound historical observation). And yet Oliveira, by using this one word, transformed his tweet into a perniciously wrong historical argument in front of a large audience. The Roman Empire absolutely functioned as a colonial occupation, and they absolutely had ideas about race and ethnicity that put themselves on the top of the heap, but–notwithstanding the generations of white British actors who’ve portrayed them on screen, and notwithstanding the white sculptures that greet us in museums, as Sarah Bond writes–they were not “white.” [2] They did not “racialize” themselves in the way we do today, they did not write of themselves or others that way, nor did others write so of them, and, perhaps most importantly, they did not behave toward other peoples in ways that constituted “performative whiteness.” Were they (somewhat) pale-skinned? Sure–but so were many of the peoples whom they colonized, exploited, oppressed, and exterminated, far worse, I may add, than what happened to the Jews until Bar Kochba’s revolt in 132 AD. [3]

Dacian heads on pikes while Romans build camp, on Trajan’s Column, 113 AD.

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