At the end of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, Batman and Commissioner Gordon make a devil’s bargain: they decide to suppress the truth, that (spoilers) DA Harvey Dent had turned into a sadistic killer, and instead, in order to prevent Dent’s ongoing case against organized crime from falling apart, they decide that Batman will take the blame for Dent’s crimes, and for killing Dent himself. Of course, in The Dark Knight Rises this lie is exposed by Bane, to the near-destruction of Gotham City. This is an instructive metaphor for the temptation facing historians when writing for the general public in The Age of Trump.
The tragic relevance of medieval historians to public discourse, as Andrew B. R. Elliott has shown, has arguably never been greater, and the medieval crusades are often at the center of this relevance (I omit the current Leeds debate and actual white supremacist ick from this calculus for now, since much of what has been said about Leeds is misled, misleading, and based in a neo-Marxist, Kafka-esque philosophy I do not subscribe to—more on that in the coming week or two). Back in May, on May 27 to be precise, a white supremacist murdered two people in Portland, Oregon, and on the evening of June 3 jihadists murdered eight people and wounded forty-eight at the London Bridge terror attack. In Portland, the attacker reportedly shouted “Hail Vinland!” right before he struck—invoking a false white supremacist claim that the Vikings had conquered North America and that North America therefore belongs to the “white race.” After London, where the attackers reportedly shouted “In the name of Allah!”, a flurry of far-right conservatives on Twitter began shouting for a revival of the medieval Crusades to destroy the religion of Islam.
In the aftermath of these atrocities, Professor Matthew Gabriele took to The Washington Post on June 6 to instruct the public in “proper” Crusades history, with an essay titled “Islamophobes want to recreate the Crusades. But they don’t understand them at all.” Matt, a well-respected professor of history at Virginia Tech and someone I’ve known for a few years now, explains why, contrary to what many conservatives think, the Crusades were not an all-out war to, as commentator James Woods put it, “obliterate these savages from the face of the earth.” This would have been an excellent point to make, had Matt stuck to history and what historians have actually written. Unfortunately, I was disappointed to see that most of the essay misrepresents what many historians actually think about the Crusades and creates a narrative that winds up rewriting the past, more sophisticatedly if somewhat less egregiously than the alt-right medieval narratives we’ve been combatting of late. Ironically, rather than having a positive impact, the essay actually serves as a recruiting tool for the white supremacists we all oppose, and feeds Republicans’ distrust of academia.
Now, I had written this up soon after the publication of the column, but had thought to let it lie, until seeing that Matt’s plans for a historians’ and journalists’ crusades symposium this coming October 13 are maturing. Since the focus seems to be on the crusades and the alt-right, and since it looks like he’s bent on presenting a…particular…picture of where most scholars stand on the crusades, I figure any journalists attending should be aware of the, shall we say, “honest mistakes” involved. Also, after he sneered at me for daring to “chastise” him (he meant “disagree”—we were having one of those emotional Twitter exchanges) for language and rhetorical tactics that sound more like Cartman from South Park than the serious historian he is, I figure I should oblige. So, here we go…
First, there are some good points. There was a fairly common, but far from universal, apocalyptic rationale among those who set out (Jay Rubenstein’s outstanding new article, though not without significant problems of its own, delves into this issue quite well). The Crusades were not wars whose intent was to wipe Islam from the face of the earth, whatever post-crusade apocalyptic hopes some people might entertain; they were mostly quite limited in their objectives. Once that point is (easily) proved, you kind of pull the plug on much Crusades “nostalgia”—except for the Knights Templar, who just refuse to die. All crusades played out against a complex political backdrop (I’ve written on the German crusade experience from this perspective), forcing both Christian and Muslim powers to look to each other for alliances on occasion—not reassuring if you’re a white supremacist searching for a historical example of “total war” against Islam! However, none of this is new, and was actually said, at greater length and with more nuance, by Nicholas Morton in March of 2017.
But second, the bad points, which is most of the essay. Matt’s description of “a simplified, misleading story of the Crusades” is actually how most Crusades historians do describe the Crusades: “primarily a Western, Christian, defensive response to Middle Eastern incursion [sic] on Christian lands.” That is literally what the First Crusade (1095-1099) was, and is how the vast majority of Crusade historians describe it because, well, that’s what the sources tell us quite plainly, especially those sources that speak directly to planning and execution. Contrary to his assertions, “scholars of the Crusades have” not “shown for several generations now” that Arab conquests had been “long forgotten” or that Latin Europe felt “very little (if any) pressure” from the Seljuk Turks, who were busy consolidating their recent conquests from the Byzantine Empire and Fatamid Caliphate. This is not a case of “the conservatives” versus “the historians,” unfortunately, but a case of not looking honestly at the historical record.
In fact, scholars have shown precisely the opposite of Matt’s claims is true. To cite four examples: Andrew Jotischky showed in 2008 that Western stories of Seljuk Turkish atrocities in Antioch, Jerusalem, and elsewhere were not tropes cynically invoked to create an enemy, but actual reports. Peter Frankopan showed conclusively in 2012 that it was the Byzantine emperor Alexios’s calls for aid against Seljuk Turkish conquests that provided the diplomatic and political basis for the First Crusade. In 2016, the most recent survey of the origins of crusading, by Paul Chevedden, sets out in exhaustive detail Pope Urban II’s vision of a sweeping counter-offensive against Muslim conquests, through missionary activity combined with military campaigns in Spain, Italy, and, eventually, to Jerusalem. Now, Chevedden’s conclusions are not themselves widely accepted by crusades scholars, and Nicholas Morton’s 2016 book Encountering Islam on the First Crusade portrays the crusade armies as pilgrims solely concerned with “clearing a path to Jerusalem,” and whose campaign has offensive and defensive features. But as Morton shows in footnoted detail in chapter 2, the impact of the Turks on the Christian, Muslim, and Hindu worlds was perceived from Kashmir to Cairo to Constantinople to Rome as very serious. Not only the (copious) surviving sources, but also the broader context, refute any supposition that the First Crusade was simply cooked up by cynical oppressive power structures determined to weaponize the religion of the simple masses against an imaginary enemy. Such cynical weaponizing of religion is an underlying theme of Matt’s piece and much of his work in general. It has considerable present merit (especially if you’re a progressive), but it is not how most historians write about the First Crusade because the sources don’t really bear that out (and I disagree with Jay Rubenstein that Jerusalem being the objective can’t be easily squared with a defensive relief effort). If anything, when looked at from the papacy’s perspective the situation bears a certain resemblance to the “Responsibility to Protect.”
Other odd errors creep into Matt’s account. In February, 2015, a very public debate took place among scholars and pundits over how to define the Crusades, especially whether they were defensive campaigns or wars of aggression, after former President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. Matt misleadingly (and deliberately, there’s no other explanation for it) portrays this as conservatives-vs-historians; it was, rather, historians-versus-historians, and the progressive ones often didn’t have the better of the argument. He seems unaware of the most recent survey on 19th-century European crusades historians and how they impacted the Muslim world. Modern Crusades historians are well aware of the limitations, but also the significance, of someone like Joseph François Michaud (and, pursuant to a discussion we recently had on Twitter, they are aware of the difficulties of charters as well). The Latin word for “crusade” did in fact emerge 100 years after the First Crusade, but Matt’s claim that it is “more an artifact of our own politics than those of the medievals” is misleading. That argument was made in the 1990s and has not been widely accepted by scholars, because, whatever one calls them, there was a “there” there in the twelfth century. German Emperor Frederick II’s “friendliness” to Muslims has been somewhat exaggerated, and his friendship with Sultan al-Kamil of Egypt long predated his crusade, and was not a product of the crusade itself. The “Crying Templar Meme” comes from 2014, not 2016.
Finally, Matt’s closing line about conservatives’ “quasi-apocalyptic” views suggests other subtle distortions, especially given that millennialism, I’d suggest, isn’t solely the preserve of conservatives. Christian “Apocalyptic” (interpretation of divine messages about the End Times revealed through prophecy) certainly influenced the motives and behavior of some crusaders, though Richard Landes has warned us about the tricky business of interpreting evidence of apocalyptic thought or its popularity. But although these people could inflict a lot of damage (for example, the pogroms against the Jews in 1096), for many (if not most) people “Apocalyptic” never became the purpose of “crusading.” Only a handful of historians have ever believed that it has—notably Matt himself and Jay Rubenstein—though that may be changing. (Now, Jay’s new book is due out this autumn, and it promises to be a heavy-hitter. I’m really looking forward to it, but suspect that he’s going to have an uphill battle, both with the evidence and, unfortunately, with his fellow historians).
I hope it’s fairly clear by now that penning op-eds in national publications might be great for the ego, but not so good for one’s reputation among one’s peers—whether from one’s own personal biases or one’s editors demanding sharper prose (several historians from the 2015 crusades debate discovered this downside of public writing). Nevertheless, putting aside my desire to say “Come on, my friend, you can do better!”, what can we learn from this? There are, it seems to me, two major lessons.
First, 2017 continues to expose a truth long known, that scholars are as bound by their biases, ideologies, and preferences as anyone else, and, especially with a controversial subject, cannot be taken at face value. I wish that were not the case, but it seems to be so. Before trusting a historian’s perspective, try to gain some sense of their work and their ideology, and then evaluate what they have to say. From the rise of Trump in 2016 to the present historians have felt much pressure, when writing publicly, not to say anything that could either validate the current administration or be used by white supremacists emboldened by the President’s rhetoric. This moral urgency was perfectly captured in Rachel Barney’s proposed Anti-Authoritarian Academic Code of Conduct: “As a teacher and researcher, I will not be bought or intimidated. I will present the state of research in my field accurately, whether or not it is what the government wants to hear. I will challenge others when they lie.”
Assuming for a moment that you start your research with a mind open to the possibility that your assumptions could turn out to be wrong, the unspoken dilemma, of course, is what you are supposed to do when your research leads you to conclusions that could be what governments, or anti-democratic forces, want to hear. Speaking truthfully about the past sometimes means that people will take your words and use them for bad purposes. After all, with some conservative pundits now openly calling for “Muslim Internment Camps,” wouldn’t a historian play directly into their hands by stating, accurately, that the Crusades began as a response to a (semi-) Muslim power’s aggressive conquests (Turkish conversion to Islam was an ongoing project in 1095)? Which then puts the historian in a bind: do you falsify or suppress your research, or misrepresent the state of current research (thus violating Barney’s principle) to further “the cause” and stop injustice, or do you speak honestly and address any fallout afterwards (also violating Barney’s principle)? Much as I understand the sense of urgency that propelled him, Matt seems to have opted more for the former, producing an essay that’s received a positive reception in his circles, but has placed itself out of touch with the historical record and historians’ conversations. This is actually important, because…
Second, whether you’re a conservative or a progressive, history doesn’t always give you what you want, and suppressing the truth, even in the name of a greater cause, often carries greater risks than in speaking it. The great irony is that, by suppressing scholarship that incontrovertibly shows the First Crusade (and most subsequent medieval crusades) as reactive, defensive, limited-objective wars, Matt’s version of history is inadvertently closer to the so-called Islamic State’s recruiting literature than to that of his fellow scholars, since Daesh portrays the Crusades as offensive wars—albeit total wars to eradicate Islam (the new recruit’s victims will most likely be Muslim, of course).
More importantly, this approach is counter-productive, and will also serve as a recruiting tool for white supremacist movements. Once casual readers, students, or potential “white nationalist” recruits pick up just about any book on the medieval Crusades and see that most medieval historians, and the sources themselves, discuss the First Crusade as a reaction to Turkish aggression, and many subsequent crusades as reactions to counter-offensives or further invasions, not only will Matt’s essay be perceived as “hiding” or “distorting” the truth, but the rest of our jobs will become that much harder. Holla26’s comment on his column proves the point perfectly. After quoting Pope Urban II’s crusade sermon at length, the author writes, “Sounds like a holy war in defense of territory to me. ‘They weren’t a clash of civilizations, or a war of Christianity against Islam.’ Of course they were.” And with that, we scholars have lost another member of our audience. One wonders whether it would have been better had Matt simply contributed to the on-going series “Race, Racism and the Middle Ages” from The Public Medievalist, which has occasional problems of its own, but is an engaging, scholarly, richly-illustrated survey of why we, the American public, think of the Middle Ages as we do, and how that provides a wedge for “white nationalists” to do their foul work.
So, why not simply state the truth, that “the crusades” were, by medieval Christian standards, just, limited, largely defensive wars, but not by the standards we hold today—nor is it desirable to promote them as such, for a whole host of reasons—peace, stability, justice, human rights, negative second- and third-order impacts, and so on? What is actually lost by honoring one’s contract, engaging the public as a professor and scholar—especially when you’ve written well-received studies of serious topics? Even if you think that most “crusades historians” are wrong, deluded, or dupes of a compromised and unexamined historiography (Matt actually does think this), why not at least be truthful about what they think, while using the numerous tools afforded you in academia to try to forge a new consensus?
Well, this brings us full circle to Batman and Gordon’s bargain in The Dark Knight to suppress the truth for a greater cause. “But the Joker,” says Batman, “can’t win.” For a historian in 2017, the temptation to make Batman’s bargain is great. Yet although “historical objectivity” has never been obtainable, historians must choose to avoid the temptation to make the past “speak” to “our present moment” regardless of what the sources actually say (I’ll be writing later on why, postmodernism notwithstanding, positivism just won’t die). Instead, the old way is still the best way: we must state our ideological biases and accept that our research may not always lead us to conclusions that support those biases. This is, to be sure, a less satisfying option than insisting on ideological points, but it is the better path. It is a surer foundation, and less liable to exposure, loss of legitimacy, and hence loss of influence. True, it may surrender some measure of history’s “transformative meaning” for the general public, but better a reduced impact than the Golden Calf of yet another false political narrative. Societies have collapsed over such things.