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The Past Week’s Reading, Feb 22

In no particular order, here are some stories and articles that caught my eye this past week.


Robin Fleming on post-Roman Britain, “The best thing the Romans did for Britain was leave, historian claims.”

Michel Baran, “The Mongol Empire in World History: The State of Research.”


More “crusades controversy” fall out, Ross Douthat, “In Defense of Islam.”

Another, “Obama Crusade remarks spark firestorm of debate.” 

David Perry, “The Jews and the Crusades (New York Times): We are not perfect.”

The much-discussed article by Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants.”

A counterpoint to the above, “America’s Most Prominent Muslim Says the Atlantic is Doing PR for ISIS.”

And another counterpoint, “Why ISIS Isn’t Medieval.”


Instability in the Iraqi government. “Sunnis may exit Iraq parliament after sheik’s slaying.”

French ultra-nationalist party gaining ground, “The National Front’s Post-Charlie Hebdo Moment.”

Veterans and civilians, Matt Richtel, “Please Don’t Thank Me For My Service.”

Long article on General Khalifa Haftar, “Liyba’s New Strongman. The Unravelling.”

Paul Staniland, “Every Insurgency is Different.”


Minsk 2 and its problems, “The woeful strategic and military aftermath of the Minsk 2 agreement between Ukraine and Russia.”


Joel Achenbach, “Why Do So Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?”

The Crusades: A Few Addendums

Don’t worry folks, this will be much shorter.

A. Some feedback I’ve seen on the article.

  • The “Inquisition.” I left it in caps because that’s what everyone was doing, but I definitely should have put it in quotes! Someone will have to write a column about the fact and fiction there, but hopefully not me…
  • I read a comment somewhere that said the President’s remarks shouldn’t even be a part of this debate. Not sure I agree with that, but it’s a point of view.
  • The article did seem to come off a bit more “military history” than I’d intended, but I’m OK with that.  I’m fascinated by the intersection of belief and lived experience, and how and why people resort to violence (“war” especially). And what they hope to accomplish through violence. So I’m always asking what shaped people’s responses to war. And regarding the crusades, I agree with Kurt Villads Jensen’s article in Al-Masaq (2003), “Peregrinatio sive expeditio: Why the First Crusade was not a Pilgrimage.” So, I’m bound to bring a political/military perspective to bear, I suppose, in addition to a cultural one.
  • The Eastern Churches. I had meant to make that clearer, that Urban II was in contact with churches in the Eastern Mediterranean, but couldn’t find my notes on the most recent research. But that was another factor in 1095.
  • The concept of “ownership” of the Holy Land. This is a full topic in and of itself, but I think the manner in which the French, Normans, and eventually the Germans asserted a proprietary interest in the Holy Land didn’t make much sense to anyone but themselves. It nonplussed the Byzantines, to be sure, who had a much longer and immediate interest in the Levant. This deserves a closer analysis.
  • Albigensian Crusade. Someone said I’d forgotten them. Nope, they’re there, for a sentence. But very important for what some other folks have mentioned, that…
  • Not all crusades were defensive. Absolutely: I was focusing on the First Crusade in particular because that is where the argument usually concentrates. The Wendish Crusade of 1147, on the Germanic-Slavic frontier, was hardly “defensive,” and was fought in the same manner as in the previous 200 years. Which was with, to us, shocking brutality (my students were a bit shocked when we discussed this yesterday).
  • Regarding “staggering brutality,” David Perry and I had some good, collegial exchanges yesterday, and we both agree that we’re not that far apart, in the end. Leif Petersen, author of Siege warfare and military organization in the successor states (400-800 AD) also had some interesting examples about atrocities in pre-crusades warfare, worth following up. My perspective has been shaped by a couple decades of studying warfare in general, and some years researching the Wehrmacht and the Shoah. To be honest, I think most people don’t grasp how violent medieval and early modern society was in general, and the reaction I get when I manage to convey that to my students often is a kind of shock–and this from the video game generation, no less (I’m not knocking video games per se, I love playing them myself…when I have the time).

B. Some articles that I’ve read since Monday. Kate’s and Andrew’s articles I recommend:

Leila K. Norako, “On Obama’s Crusades ‘Controversy'” , and Andrew Holt, “Crusades were a reaction to Islamic militarism” (see also his website).  Also the exchange between Andrew and David on David’s blog, here.

Other articles that crossed my path:

Jay Michaelson, “The Crusades Were Great, Actually!”

Max Fisher, “Let’s be clear: The Obama Crusades controversy is over whether it’s okay to hate Muslims.”

Murtaza Hussain, “Obama’s Christian Right Critics Agree with Islamic State.”

Virginia Postrel, “Why the Crusades Still Matter.”

Mark Bauerlein, “Un-Presidential Remarks.”

C. I’m still building resource pages for medieval history on this site (as you can tell from some of the still-empty pages), but I there are a couple things I would recommend.

Sites (not always up-to-date, but still useful): Paul Halsall’s Internet Medieval Sourcebook, and The ORB (On-line Reference Book for Medieval Studies).

Also, there is an excellent new collection of documents (unfortunately an expensive one) from the University of Pennsylvania, Crusade and Christendom: Annotated Documents in Translation from Innocent III to the Fall of Acre, 1187-1291.

Finally, I would recommend getting a hold of anything that Norman Housley , University of Leicester, has written on the subject. He’s a very understated, even underestimated, presence in crusades studies, but when I want some perspective on crusades and religious warfare in general, I often find myself going back to his publications for a calm, multifaceted, incisive, thought-provoking analysis (this is honestly my opinion). His books include Fighting for the Cross: Crusading to the Holy Land, Crusading in the Fifteenth Century: Message and Impact, Crusading and the Ottoman Threat 1453-1505, The Later Crusades 1274-1580: from Lyons to Alcazar, Contesting the Crusades (a study of how historians have written about the Crusades), Documents on the Later Crusades 1274-1580, and Religious Warfare in Europe 1400-1536 (which is fairly dense, but the only book that really explains how “crusade” morphs into “religious warfare” in the late medieval/early modern era). And a collected series of essays in Crusading and Warfare in Medieval and Renaissance Europe.

The Crusades: Principles and Perspectives

In case you missed it, all the experts (and non-experts) have been speaking truth to power regarding President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast this past Thursday. The crusades are in the news again, which I suppose will be great for book sales and the news circuit. I’m not sure anyone is going to be the better for it—I’ve been seeing scholars I know and respect tearing each other down in print throughout the weekend, and the fallout is going to last for a long time.

Adding my two cents’ worth to this debate gives me no joy, as columnists and commentators tend to indulge in ego rather than argument, and often little good comes of these exchanges. However, I always tell my students that one of the values of studying medieval history is being able to discern accurate and inaccurate uses of the medieval era in modern discourse, and I can’t very well not practice what I preach. So, donning intellectual “hip boots,” so to speak, let’s wade into the quagmire of claim and counter-claim about the crusades (I’m leaving the Inquisition for another time).

I. The Remarks

The key passage that has sparked outrage and counter-outrage is highlighted below (fewer people are focusing on the subsequent remark about India). Since context is important, the compass of the argument is included as well:

So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?

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.  Michelle and I returned from India — an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity — but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs — acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.

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.  In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try.  And in this mission, I believe there are a few principles that can guide us, particularly those of us who profess to believe.

And, first, we should start with some basic humility.  I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt — not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.

My personal reaction was one of slight annoyance but relief that the example, such as it was, was used fairly adroitly to support a larger point with which I’m very much in sympathy: a little humility goes a long way. Broken down a bit more, here’s what I see:


Good, strength, tenacity, compassion, love from all faiths Those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends

Crusades – Inquisition – slavery – Jim Crow



Anti-Semitism in Europe

Inference 1: Religion, sui generis should promote peace, love and good will
Inference 2: Those religions that don’t do the above sacrifice their legitimacy
Inference 3: In the past, Christianity has justified, or been used to justify, things that we would find objectionable today.

II. Responses. These fall into two broad categories: sympathetic and unsympathetic. I’m not going to give them lots of space; you can read them if you’re so inclined.


Christopher Ingraham, WP“What Obama should have said about Islamist terrorism, the Crusades and religious violence.”

Jonah Goldberg, National Review“Horse Pucky from Obama.”

Max Boot, Commentary“What Obama Should Have Said at the Prayer Breakfast.”

Thomas F. Madden, National Review“Getting Medieval: Let’s Leave the Middle Ages out of discussions of modern Islam.”  And his 2009 article at First Things has been republished lately as well, “Inventing the Crusades.”

On the sympathetic side:

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, New Republic, “Conservatives Have Stooped to Defending the Horrific Crusades.”

David M. Perry, three columns, one at the Guardian “Conservatives want to rewrite the history of the Crusades for modern political ends”, and two on his blog, “Crusades and Memory,” and “Crusades and Religion–Who Decides What is ‘True’ Crusading.”  And he has a useful “resources” post as well.

Matt Gabriele, at Virginia Tech, storified tweets on the topic.

Michael D. Shear, NYT “Obama, Trying to Add Context to Speech, Faces Backlash Over ‘Crusades.'”

Jay Michaelson, “Was Obama right about the Crusades and Islamic extremism?”

III. Ten Questions

There are essentially two different debates going on. The first debate really isn’t one, or much of one—no one (except maybe Douthat?) is taking issue with the President’s basic point, which is that a little humility goes a long way, especially when you have immense power and are faced with the challenge of taking on a great evil. Mostly, folks seem to be talking past this, because humility is in short supply these days (though in all I’ve read, both sides have attempted to co-opt the word “humility”). To me, not believing that you know best all the time makes great sense: to do otherwise is to be on the verge of committing the first of the Seven Deadly Sins, pride. And it slowly kills or perverts one’s capacity for true compassion and kindness. I can’t fault the President’s advocacy here.

The second debate is the big one, and it’s on the crusades (the Inquisition and the President’s remarks on India are getting much less coverage {I’ll just say that I don’t understand Madden’s position on the Inquisition at all, even granting that it was a complex…thing}). There are two sides here. On the one hand you have those who essentially rally around Tom Madden’s article in the National Review, and those who rally around David Perry’s article in the Guardian and his several blog posts. I have major problems with both sides, which I suppose comes from my personal background in the field. Although a crusades scholar myself, I was mostly trained in the German school (probably the only crusades scholar in the U.S. who was) and therefore often find myself questioning things others gloss over, or accepting things that others say should be rejected for reasons I don’t agree with. To put the cards on the table, I think Madden has the better of the research end of things, and Perry of the context. Since this should be a constructive exercise, I’m not going to go through the different articles line by line—that’s destructive, and I’ve already seen too much of that in the last five days. So, let’s play a game of 10 questions instead.

Continue reading The Crusades: Principles and Perspectives