Lezlie Knox introduces some of the issues raised whenever a political leader confronts history–especially when that history is fraught with meaning to the present (of course, that could be said for most historical events!). In this case, the history is the Crusades and the issue is the use of religion to justify violence.
The Crusades are in the news again. Last Thursday President Obama spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast, with one passage from his remarks drawing particular attention:
We see sectarian war in Syria, the murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, religious war in the Central African Republic, a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Europe, so often perpetrated in the name of religion.
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.
Unsurprisingly, especially in this era of extreme political partisanship, the president’s critics were quick to criticize his remarks as anti-Christian and even anti-American, while other voices have defended the context and emphasized that acknowledging religious motivations or justifications is hardly the same as asserting causality. To some degree the dispute breaks down along liberal and conservative lines (with the exception of David Brooks, who spoke in defense of a gospel of humility).
Nonetheless, as a medievalist who sometimes hears that her field lacks relevance, this story and its expanding commentary represent clear evidence that events that happened over nine centuries ago on a separate continent still matter. Indeed, this heated response is especially pertinent for the twenty-one undergraduates and three Marquette alumni who are studying the Crusades with me this semester.
William of Tyre, Histoire d’Outremer, Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale MS 22495, f. 154v
The source of the illustration to the left indicates that the Crusades sparked complicated meanings and attitudes within European society almost as soon as they were over. This vernacular translation of an earlier text called History of the Deeds Done beyond the Sea, dates to about 1337 and shows how medieval authors and illustrators already were representing the Crusades as a racialized a clash between Christianity and Islam. Here the well-armed European knights attack a group of darker-skinned Muslim warriors who lack armor. Interestingly, the knights are not cruciferos–bearing a cross, a sign of having vowed to crusade, but are instead identified by their heraldry. This manuscript image may be “medieval” in the sense that it dates from the fourteenth century, but it has nothing to tell us directly about events that occurred during the First Crusade (1095-1099) much less life in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (1099-1291). Rather, it speaks to the memory of such events and their contemporary uses (a subject for another blog).
The discussion on the internet engages directly with the assumptions that this class seeks to complicate. Were the Crusades a clash of civilizations? Should they be understood as a defensive response to an Islamic threat to Europe? To what degree(s) did religious faith underscored the decision to crusade? I’m not going to weigh in here on these specific issues—not the least because my students have a midterm coming up in which they will have to assess such questions in light of the evidence drawn from the medieval sources they have been reading.
The following articles and blogs are particularly recommended for those who want to learn more about how historians of the Crusades understand these events as well as how they respond to appropriations of these events for modern political debates.
Lezlie Knox is Associate Professor of History and Director of Graduate Studies. She is the author of Creating Clare of Assisi: Female Franciscan Identities in Later Medieval Italy (Brill, 2008).