The Crusades are over: stop trying to weaponize history.

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Last night, an ugly little ritual–which has happened many times before–played out once again on this blog. Someone was surfing the net and discovered this article I wrote three years ago, about the sack of Jerusalem during the First Crusade in 1099. Finding my presentation of this event insufficiently critical of Muslims and Islam in general, this person went on a wild screaming rant, posting comments filled with vitriol, distortion and outright racism. I didn’t approve the comments (and I will not approve the comments, arguing the same tired case, that this article will inevitably attract), but the incident, which has happened at least five times before with different commenters, stuck in my mind. I am very sensitive to the ways in which historical truth is often misrepresented, distorted or outright fabricated, almost always in an attempt to forge a historical narrative as an arrow in some ideological battle–essentially, to weaponize history. Unfortunately the topic of the Crusades is one of the most popular historical candidates for weaponization. What is written and asserted about the Crusades says much more about our own time than about the Middle Ages, and the picture is troubling.

The Crusades, a series of wars that occurred between the late 11th and the 13th centuries in Europe and the Middle East, is such a vector for the weaponization of history because of the modern tide of Islamophobia that is, especially with the election of right-wing governments in the United States and many parts of Western Europe, in ascendance right now. The narrative that weaponizers of Crusades history wish to present is the notion that Islam was in the Middle Ages–and more importantly, supposedly is now–a monolithic threat to Western civilization, and particularly Christianity. To be an effective rhetorical weapon against Islam today, Crusades revisionists desperately want three things to be true: (1) the Crusades to have been provoked by Islamic aggression against Europe; (2) the behavior of Islamic armies to have been more barbarous and brutal than Europeans; and (3) people to conclude that Muslims haven’t changed in 700 years. Any real historian who challenges these narratives is open to attack.

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This was not one of the attempted comments I received last night, but it is an example of the sort of background-radiation Islamophobia that appears frequently in my comment queue.

Of course, this has little to do with the real facts and genuine historical analysis of the Crusades, which to the weaponizers is conveniently malleable. This is a sure sign that real history is of little interest to people whose main preoccupation is the grinding of a modern ideological axe. This morning I went on Amazon to browse some books about the Crusades. There are plenty of excellent and lucid histories by respected historians, like Stephen Runciman and Norman Housley, but there is also a surprising number of shoddy books that are merely polemics designed to frame the Crusades in ideologically weaponized terms. Take, for example, a book (whose author I won’t name), which is only 60 pages long–hardly comprehensive enough to encompass nine wars over multiple centuries–and is, to hear serious reviewers tell it, rife with basic historical errors as well as formatting and proofreading problems. Yet this book manages to garner reviews like this one:

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This review presciently discloses the true preoccupation of the weaponizers of Crusades history. Note that Daesh (ISIS/ISIL) invariably comes up (as it does on the very first page of the actual book), and in an act of bizarre anachronistic legerdemain, the reviewer has Pope Urban II, in the year 1095, calling the First Crusade to put an end to the depredations of Daesh–a fringe terrorist group that did not exist until the 21st century. Any challenge to this view is denounced with the catch-all epithet, “P.C.” What comes out of thoughts like these is a thinly-veiled appeal, not merely to celebrate the Crusades as a shining moment of European Christian history, but actually to repeat them today–to call a holy war to destroy an entire faith that hundreds of millions of people in the world follow.

The sentiments expressed in this review aren’t rare. I’ve had comments to this effect posted, and attempted to be posted, to my blog on a regular basis. Last summer I was ridiculed and pilloried on a Facebook group (of which I was not a member) whose regulars, evidently Christian Dominionists, found it troubling that I didn’t share their weaponized distortion of the history of the Crusades. And mind you, medieval history in general, much less the topic of the Crusades, is not something I do a lot of on this blog; my podcast, for example, deals with the 19th century, not the Middle Ages. I’m hardly known for being an influential voice on medieval history, but weaponizers of Crusades history are targeted with laser-like precision on their ideology and see little else.

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The Fourth Crusade of 1204, in which Venetians and Franks sacked Constantinople, did not involve many Muslims at all but was a war between Christian nations. This crusade is often conveniently overlooked when the ideological dimensions of the Crusades are at issue.

It’s pointless to try to teach real history to these people; they don’t care and never will. History is useful, to the weaponizers of it, only to the extent it can advance an ideological objective. But real history resists attempts to be sharpened or hammered into a rhetorical tool. The truth of the past comes with a lot of inconvenient baggage that many people don’t want to hear or accept. I’ve dealt with some examples of these inconvenient truths before: the truth that Adolf Hitler was not a leftist, the truth that the Nanking Massacre really did happen (and was committed by the Japanese), the truth that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone when he assassinated President John F. Kennedy, and the truth that climate change exists and is caused principally by the activities of humans. At various times and situations I’ve been attacked for asserting these truths, and also for denouncing the whole phenomenon of “fake history” that’s become so popular and influential now. But I’ll continue to speak out when I see history misused, because truth still matters.

In reality the Crusades were an incredibly complicated series of events that defy pat moral conclusions and easy characterizations. They were about far more than supposedly righteous Christians battling supposedly wicked Muslims. (One of the Crusades, the Fourth, didn’t even involve Muslims at all–it was about a coalition of Christian countries attacking another Christian country, that being Byzantium). There were political, economic, social, technological and cultural threads that fed into the Crusades every bit as much–more, in fact–than matters of simple religious or ideological dogma. People who care about real history, whether they’re historians or lay readers, appreciate that. The weaponizers of history, not so much. All they care about is making an ideological point, which usually involves demonizing a particular group of people.

History isn’t built to do that. It never has been, and it never will be. History exists for understanding and reflection, not for division and vilification. Stop trying to weaponize it.

The images in this blog are public domain and/or Creative Commons 0.
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10 Comments

  1. But isn’t what you say of a skewed perspective of the Crusades true of all history? Commentators grab what they like from the gift basket that is primary material and then run their mouths off. Contemporaneous sources — the bedrock — come with baggage. I am doing some work in the 19th century about a British soldier. To read his biography he was the epitome of Tommy Atkins. He gained an honorable discharge after 25 years service in a top regiment and was promoted to Troop sergeant major… and yet. Digging deeper through local newspapers, it turns out he was almost certainly a violent misogynist, bigamist and probably raped his own 12 year old daughter. Grabbing what appears at first sight to be a good source of history (the biography) gives a view. The local press coverage, another. And that’s just the 19th century where record keeping was at its zenith. I do not envy anyone wanting to come close to the sensibilities and world view of the medieval Christian or Muslim. History is a box of grenades, waiting for someone to throw them somewhere.

    1. No, you’re talking about something completely different. I’m talking about deliberate ignorance or distortion of historical truth to reach a predetermined ideological conclusion. What I take from your example has nothing to do with that. History is not a “box of grenades.”

  2. I’m simply referring to the potential for the misuse of or absolute reliance upon primary evidence, which I venture to say was to the point which you were making. Whether the person taking the view is to be judged ignorant, deliberately or indeed accidentally and whether any view they discover from the evidence (and I am not referring to your particular case) is ideological or not, it still begs the question over what is “historical truth” — if indeed such a creature exists.

  3. There is such a thing as historical truth. Whereas it might be true that historians must, by necessity, make decisions about the data that they include and exclude, any resulting distortions can be mitigated methodically. First, the historian must be specific and clear on the focus and point of view of the study. I’m studying A so I will include those records and research relevant to A. Secondly, when making a claim, the historian asks, “is there information out there that contradicts this claim?” Academics in history and the social sciences must spend a lot of time testing their assumptions against the probability that they are wrong. The honest historian will address the antithesis and the weaknesses of his work and elaborate directions for further research.

    I’m not a Crusades expert, myself, but one of the most fascinating books I ever read on the subject focused on the interwar years rather than the wars. For instance, if I remember correctly, there was a span of about fifty years between the First and Second Crusades. That means, if I had been born in a European settlement in the occupied lands at the end of the First Crusade, I would yet to have fought in the second. Instead, I would be going about my business, studying and teaching if I followed the same calling as I have today. I would marry, maybe even marrying a Muslim woman. I would conduct business with Muslims on a daily basis. These European settlements weren’t besieged for two generations but became centers for cultural diffusion. That’s really pretty fascinating stuff.

  4. So when do we stop using Steven Runciman as a primary source for the crusades? His work is 50 years old now, and reflects the predominant anti-colonialism of the British paradigm at that time. Furthermore, his work was a primary source of OBL in his radical view of Islam and reflected in Bill Clinton’s Georgetown address citing “Knee Deep Rivers of blood”. There is substantially more balanced research by a number of newer scholars such as Thomas Madden, Thomas Asbridge and Jonathan Riley-Smith without the obvious biases.

  5. I know I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. I thought everyone understood that the Crusaders were … well .. awful? They killed more Christians than Muslims and they killed every Jew from England to Jerusalem. They were slaughterers.

    1. Indeed. But historical distortion, I’ve learned, is a powerful force. People will believe anything if they really want to believe it. Sad state of affairs!

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