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.

The contention centers, as it always does, on the word “thus”: “an extreme and emotional (thus not logical) body.” If someone or something is extreme and emotional, it cannot ipso facto be logical, and vice versa. That is what this sentence claims, there’s really no two ways about it. And that is self-evidently false, if one stops to think about it for a second, at the very basic level of personal praxis (forget about it as a rational proposition). The same person who said this to me is simultaneously a die-hard member of “the resistance” to Trump and his cronies, and approvingly promotes many causes and actions that are “extreme” and “emotional,” but by their own contention are extremely logical. In that sense, my interlocutor is actually closer to the first crusaders than they would ever care to admit. Indeed, in many situations, especially ones of immediate danger to one’s person, one can argue that an extreme and emotional response is the only logical one. So on face the assertion makes no sense, and is revealed for what it is: an idiosyncratic, unconvincing postulation. Besides, as Riley-Smith showed in 1980, the prevailing cultural paradigm of the First Crusade generation was that faith, hope, and charity in performing imitatio Christi and aiding suffering co-religionists was supremely logical, emotional though it may have been and extreme in that they waged what to most Christian contemporaries satisfied the conditions of a just war (see A. P. Holt’s post on Riley-Smith).

From the perspective of professionalism and professional competence, however, far more disturbing is the extent to which the “extreme, emotional thus not logical” crusade trope relies on specious and discredited (but still widely believed) myths that a medieval scholar, whether a specialist or not in the crusades proper, should have some knowledge of–at least I would have thought so. The “crusaders were crazy” charge goes back a long way–to Charles Mackay’s 1841 work Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions,  actually, which James Muldoon recently exposed as the basis of much crusades myth-making.

And of course the formulation “extreme, emotional thus not logical” also goes back, in a big way, to the grandfather of all crusades historians, Sir Steven Runciman, whose conclusion to his classic three-volume work on the crusades has the rather unique distinction of being wrong in nearly every sentence. “Savage intolerance” is Runciman’s view of the crusades in general–“a long act of intolerance in the name of God,” as the last sentence of his magnum opus goes. “[T]heir faith by its very simplicity made them intolerant.” “But faith without wisdom is a dangerous thing.” And so on.

But not only does Runciman of course fail utterly as a historian in understanding past humans on their on terms and within their own culture, his conclusions and strong claims have been utterly debunked, as Al Andrea and Andrew Holt have discussed in Seven Myths of the Crusades.  What is troubling, then, is that the “extreme, emotional thus not logical” view of “crusade” seems to be rooted in discredited and debunked ideas, of which debunking fellow medievalists seem to be ignorant. And it’s not like the crusades are a minor part of medieval studies, either–there’s a general consensus that they were a defining aspect of medieval European civilization. That a fellow medieval scholar could in all seriousness propound Runicman’s interpretation in 2017 indicates that either someone’s graduate training was deficient, or medieval studies needs to work on intra-field communication.

Of course, the other possibility, quite a likely one I think, is that there is a small group of medieval scholars who have sort-of deliberately revived Runciman’s tenets and have adopted arguments such as the “religious madness” thesis of Rubenstein’s Armies of Heaven, largely by accepting the book’s rather…interesting…reading of sources (I’ve enjoyed other pieces written by him, but I’m not alone in critiquing that tome). This thesis was given a bit of a lift last year in an article that attempted to synthesize recent scholarship but largely ended up creating the impression that only recently have younger [enlightened, progressive] historians seen crusades for the problematic manifestation of religious violence that they were (are). That is disturbing in its own way, as it indicates what I’ve come to see as a growing rift within medieval studies between those who are determined to make the Middle Ages “speak” to “our present moment,” regardless of what the sources can reasonably bear, and those who choose to remain more grounded in historical methods that may sacrifice some measure of “transformative power” but at least avoid creating false idols and false narratives.

Now, a predictable response to all this would be to say “Whatever, I’m less concerned with the motivations of perpetrators and more concerned with the violence inflicted on the non-conforming bodies as a result of this movement.” Which is fair, for half a second, until you dissect the statement and realize that it’s ridiculous (this is not really a straw man argument, by the way). To use the word “perpetrators” erases the actual juridical and diplomatic location of these events as war, and fails at a basic level of historical method. The motivations of perpetrators matter a heck of a lot, as anyone who studies Nazi Germany can tell you–even though in the past year many people seem to think that “understanding” doesn’t matter, or somehow leads to “normalization” (whatever that means). The only actual “victims” outside the war zone were the Shum communities in the Rhineland, and I have published a well-received article on why the “pogroms” of 1096 do not define the crusades. Within the war zone itself, which went from Nicaea to Edessa to Jerusalem to Askalon, the “bodies” at stake were either not uniquely targeted by the Franj, or else included those who had suffered from  the Seljuk or Fatamid militaries prior to the Latins’ arrival.  The Jewish massacres (and possibly also the massacre at Jerusalem) aside, the only way to support a heuristic that claims to speak for the victims would be to embrace the also-discredited notion that Muslim society was peaceful, not aggressive, and stable before the Europeans arrived. It’s the sort of notion that would probably lead you ultimately to argue that Al-Sulami was directly responding to Urban II’s ideas-except that, as Gerish and Christie have shown, that wasn’t the case.

Perhaps in the end it comes down to disciplinary divides, or a certain confusion over how and where to employ scholarly definitions and historiography and where to instead use popular parlance (often grounded in myth) as our register when talking about the crusades. We know that far-right extremists love to use “crusade” in ways whose life support are those myths I and many colleagues before me have debunked–take a look at the main “tweeter” in the network I captured a couple nights ago. But as a medievalist, I am disappointed that my colleague did not do their homework before employing this kind of mistaken definition of “crusade,” a definition that buys directly into the horrid myths that we have spent so much time breaking down. Graduate students in medieval studies should, I think, take note and do their due diligence in reading up on the crusades, because your definition of “crusade” should reflect a historically-grounded reality. Otherwise, it just becomes another way of saying “The Middle Ages were…medieval.” And when white supremacists are claiming ownership of “crusade,” we don’t need more Terry Joneses teaching medieval history to students.