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Original Essays | July 22, 2014

Nick Harkaway: IMG The Florist-Assassins



The three men lit up in my mind's eye, with footnotes. They were converging on me — and on the object I was carrying — in a way that had... Continue »
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The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam (Bampton Lectures in America) by Jonatha Riley Smith
The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam (Bampton Lectures in America)

John Lowe, November 24, 2012


This surprisingly brief work, numbering just eighty pages in length by one the most well known authors of Crusader History, is likewise one of the clearest and most eloquent analysis of the past and present view of the crusade movement. Taken from series of lectures that he presented at Columbia University in 2007, Dr. Riley-Smith attempts to contextualize each of his title's three subjects in a way that transcend the medieval events up to the present.

While this work covers some well known ground, addressing the connection of Christian violence justified by medieval minds in conjunction with St. Augustine's Contra Faustum Manichaeum, Riley-Smith reminds his readers of the world in which people lived, much more violent than modern day critics would like to imagine. The focus is not on Christian Europe alone, for which an argument can be made that by far it was a Christianity not as recognizable today in modern Protestant and even Catholic circles, but that even the east and the worlds of Syria and Egypt were not so much more advanced in their ideas about war or a chivalrous outlook.

The major contribution of this work to thinking on conflicts between western and eastern people and ideas, lie in the special point Riley-Smith makes that crusading and the notion that justified violence for religious or ethical reason is dead, is simply not true. Chapter three of the book entitled Crusading and Imperialism, address 19th century evidence that the concept of war for the right reasons, in other words a crusading endeavor focused on revitalized military orders, was not altogether dead. Turning to the fourth chapter entitled Crusading and Islam, Riley-Smith illustrates a resurgence of perceived past crusader oppression as justification in the modern world for Islamic resistance, even acts of terrorism, based on a concept of a great civilization destroyed and humiliated by a western consortium of rival powers.

Riley-Smith is as I have said, eloquent and conveys his point easily, and this work is definitely a short and accessible read for anyone intrigued by a question demanding explanation; how doe the crusades impact today's modern world. More than an attempt to illuminate, Dr. Riley-Smith ends with a note of warning that reminds the reader that war and atrocities of violence which seem so foreign in the modern and advanced society, are indeed not so far away as we think. Ethical war has "manifested itself recently in wars waged in the names of imperialism, nationalism, Marxism, fascism, anticolonialism, humanitarianism, and even liberal democracy." This work is a call for peace and rational thinking, only understood when a modern world can see the suffering caused otherwise.
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The First Crusaders, 1095-1131 by Jonathan Riley-smith
The First Crusaders, 1095-1131

John Lowe, November 24, 2012

Perhaps one of the most commonly cited secondary works on crusader history for nearly two decades, this ground breaking work was an attempt by Dr. Riley-Smith to understand the men and women who led the first of what would become the 'crusades' idea, namely an armed pilgrimage to the Holy Land, specifically Jerusalem. Instead of focusing on the events of the First Crusade itself, this work attempts to define the development of holy war up to the preaching of the crusade at Clermont in 1095, analyzing the true cost of crusading, and discussing the importance of family connections that either aided or inhibited success for the crusaders.

Riley-Smith argues that the notion of a penitential pilgrimage to the holy land was not in itself a new thing, but the rationalization of a form of warfare to work for spiritual cleanliness was. Riley-Smith illuminates a world in which all of society is plagued by a fear of a state of sinfulness, and more so the class that engaged in war; the nobility. However, even though the argument is still maintained that many went to atone for sin and to utilize a means for repaying grave sins through this severe penance, the fact that most of Europe remained at home still begs for greater study on the feelings of those that remained behind. Was all of Europe truly in a state of fear before the gates of hell? Clearly not.

Without a doubt, Riley-Smith is very through in examining the question of cost versus material gain for those going on crusade. The fact that a person returned at all was in itself cause for praise, and even Dr. Riley-Smith's findings in chapter six of the book, demonstrates that almost 99% of the crusaders suffered severe losses instead of gains. The arguments made in the book also take into account the notion that Europe was getting rid of unwanted males that were making too much of a drain on the financial resources of their families. Riley-Smith aptly points out through many examples that in fact, many a family was forced to do damage control and protect as much of the family patrimony as possible when members of the family made the financially disastrous decision to go on crusade.

Finally, this work is a study of prosopography, the study of a relationships between various members through affiliation, friendship, and most importantly through family. Tracing every crusader named in the primary chronicles and charters, Riley-Smith has built a base for his analysis through a frequency of common behaviors or actions, and through familial connections that suggest sometimes favoritism and self promotion and on the other hand unity amongst leaders.

Though by the nature of the materials available, the work focuses primarily on the nobility while the commoners are obscured, the information challenges historians to ask questions of medieval society that demand answers regarding general opinion of the people of medieval Europe. While Riley-Smith's work suggests that much of Europe was involved in an active way in the period his book covers, questions remain as to whether or not the general populous remained either skeptical or incredulous at the sight of armed men leaving wives, children, and lands for perhaps ever, to fight an enemy that was not even on their own kingdom lands. If one thing Riley-Smith does not cover here, is the effect of faith and reason in the medieval period that rationalizes the choice to move forward when all rational reasons fail.
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The Debate on the Crusades, 1099-20 (Issues in Historiography) by Christopher Tyerman
The Debate on the Crusades, 1099-20 (Issues in Historiography)

John Lowe, November 24, 2012

This recent work by Christopher Tyerman is unassuming in its purpose, that of writing a short crusade historiography that is accessible to both a scholarly and popular audience. The focus on writers and philosophers from 1099 onward to the present, outlines extensively the changing views towards the crusades from contemporaries of the First Crusade to the modern world in ways that demonstrate multiple shifting attitudes. This work is a real gem for the crusade historian who seeks an overview of all the important names in the field along with their perspectives, and is thus a must read. Making several stops from the medieval period into the Reformation and Enlightenment, Tyerman jumps through the final centuries to the present noting each major work that moves forward the debate on how the crusades are defined.

Tyerman's warning as it were throughout the book and neatly summed up in the epilogue, is the danger of attempting to contextualize the crusade past in modern perspective which correlates to current events. This was true for Voltaire and David Hume as much as it is true today in a post-9/11 society. Instead of constantly asking what lessons can be learned, we must allow the facts to remain just so; facts of events that occurred in an era somewhat alien from ours some nine hundred years ago. However, in taking this position Tyerman almost seems to exclude the possibility of using history as an instructional form at all. His real issue addressed in the work, is the perceived moral applications that heighten tense relations between Christians and Muslims today, if not between Protestants and Catholics, and Representative versus Totalitarian government.

The Debate on the Crusades is a history about history and opens up questions about other fields of historical inquiry, demonstrating that even if Napoleon was right and "history is a myth that men agree upon", that myth is always in danger of changing because of the very human tendency to want it to conform to perceived reality. As an intellectual history this work challenges the reader to come to grips with his own perceived notions and sometimes strongly held beliefs about the nature of history, this should be a work that is suggested reading in any class on historiography or the study of western civilization.
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Fighting for the Cross: Crusading to the Holy Land by Norman Housley
Fighting for the Cross: Crusading to the Holy Land

John Lowe, November 24, 2012

Dr. Housley’s attempt to capture the spirit of what it was like to engage in crusading in the holy land during the period of 1095-1291 from the preaching of Urban II and Clermont to the fall of Acre, is fully realized in this fairly recent study. Though written as a text book, the prose is easily read and informative, and is highly accessible to the wider public audience without much background in medieval studies.
The approach of the work is thematic in style, addressing largely the main issues such as the preaching of the cross, public awareness of the symbiotic relationship of pilgrimage and crusading, the expense and negative material gain, the opposition in the form of Turks, Arabs, and Byzantines, and remembrance in written records. Housley strikes a balanced position when addressing the main players of the drama, from lord to peasant, declining to take an overtly moral stance that is so tempting for many historians. Instead the focus is on the over shadowing impact of crusading, particularly the First Crusade, that affected the medieval mind set towards many things, both spiritually as well as culturally. Of the more profound arguments, Housley stresses the fact that though the written documents, principally clerical chronicles demonstrating a demonization of the enemy, in fact many Europeans had a very good idea about the actual culture and achievements of the Turks as well as the Fatimid culture of Egypt. He approaches this point by sifting through the hyperbole of the writers, looking closely at what facts they use to color their accounts, and on occasion, the unexpected admiration. As a side note, this fits together very well with the actions of Emperor Alexius Comnenus I who is known to have given the First Crusaders some advice about the enemy during their brief stay on the outskirts of Constantinople.
It is particularly difficult to find much wanting in Housley’s work. Utilizing historical evidence from the First through the Seventh Crusade, he sites many of the examples a student of the crusades is bound to expect, while at the same time trying to pronounce a definitive stance towards nagging topics such as the perceived personas of Saladin and Richard I, giving each his due as a positive and negative personality, though perhaps a little more so in the case of Richard. There is also the tendency in the chapter Brave New World to introduce teaser information on such subjects as Prester John and the Mongols, both important and interesting topics that don’t get covered as fully as the reader might like considering their importance in both their relevancy towards God’s aid from foreign quarters and how this was rationalized by the medieval west.
On the whole an excellent book that I plan to utilize in my future teaching career, comprehensive and thought provoking, I would even suggest it as the starting place for anyone embarking on a study of the events and period of the crusades through the high middle ages.
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Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary
Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes

John Lowe, November 24, 2012

It can be very difficult to find a lot of good points in a book which presents one’s personal biases and views of history into question; even more so when the work has the ring of truth about it. Destiny Disrupted is just such a book, arguing for more than just a sympathetic or revisionist view of Islam, the religion, societal order, or cultural history. Instead, Ansary has presented a dual history, one which finds its narrative from the east as the center of world history. This presentation moves the scene of action from the normal Eurocentric point of view (Rome), to the seat of religious and secular leaders of Islam in the Middle World, or the Middle East.
The arguments proposed by Ansary about exceptional men and some women of the narrative of Islam, make sense of the preceding fourteen centuries since Mohammed first began his spiritual community of disciples. Whereas the civilizations emerging from Islamic based cultures such as the Ottomans are painted in broad and colorful strokes, it would be wise for the reader to pursue more concrete studies on Middle Eastern cultures. This work accomplishes what Ansary is attempting; namely a broad historical story that incorporates his idea of a different way of looking at world history from the perspective of the Islamic community through the centuries.
That being said, Ansary is quite frustrating at times in his use of western historical figures, empires, and cultural movements as the foil for his comparisons to the east. Utilizing just one example, the Roman Empire is often picked over for examples to help explain the importance of the Islamic figures or civilizations he is trying to praise, but often cast as the lesser comparable. Roman prowess also finds itself emasculated in this work, another example being the failure of the Romans to defeat the Parthians, but Ansary fails to mention that this conflict was maintained for nearly two centuries. Compiled with a near absence of notations or references to his sources, the scholar is frustrated by the clear suppression of information at times that make Ansary’s points look better than they are. These inaccurate representations of Classical and Medieval Europe at times are jarring, but one gets the sense that they are purposeful examples of western writers and their tendency to gloss over historical facts of cultures outside of the Eurocentric fold. The near complete absence of knowledge regarding current scholarship on the Crusades is just one more major example.
On the whole, Ansary has delivered a much need work to open western eyes again to the historical realities of the east, and has done it in a simplified but exciting narrative form that is easily accessible to most readers. His call for a little more understanding and reflection on the current problems in the Middle East based upon the historical dramas unfolding in that area over the last millennium and a half is fully justified and timely.
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