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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