The Crusades were penitential war-pilgrimages fought in the Levant and the eastern Mediterranean, as well as in North Africa, Spain, Portugal, Poland, the Baltic region, Hungary, the Balkans, and Western Europe. Beginning in the eleventh century and ending as late as the eighteenth, these holy wars were waged against Muslims and other enemies of the Church, enlisting generations of laymen and laywomen to fight for the sake of Christendom.
Crusading features prominently in today’s religio-political hostilities, yet the perceptions of these wars held by Arab nationalists, pan-Islamists, and many in the West have been deeply distorted by the language and imagery of nineteenth-century European imperialism. With this book, Jonathan Riley-Smith returns to the actual story of the Crusades, explaining why and where they were fought and how deeply their narratives and symbolism became embedded in popular Catholic thought and devotional life.
From this history, Riley-Smith traces the legacy of the Crusades into modern times, specifically within the attitudes of European imperialists and colonialists and within the beliefs of twentieth-century Muslims. Europeans fashioned an interpretation of the Crusades from the writings of Walter Scott and a French contemporary, Joseph-FranÃ§ois Michaud. Scott portrayed Islamic societies as forward-thinking, while casting Christian crusaders as culturally backward and often morally corrupt. Michaud, in contrast, glorified crusading, and his followers used its imagery to illuminate imperial adventures.
These depictions have had a profound influence on contemporary Western opinion, as well as on Muslim attitudes toward their past and present. Whether regarded as a valid expression of Christianity’s divine enterprise or condemned as a weapon of empire, crusading has been a powerful rhetorical tool for centuries. In order to understand the preoccupations of Islamist jihadis and the character of Western discourse on the Middle East, Riley-Smith argues, we must understand how images of crusading were formed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
3 thoughts on “The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam”
“The Crusaders …” , in my estimation, is clearly written with an even-handed approach. A bit painful; yet, as the saying goes: At times, the truth hurts.
Rating: 3 / 5
Keeping in mind that this is the text from a lecture, I found it both rational and well thought out. Considering that JR-S has written five other books about the Crusades, and others about specific crusades, I’m not surprise that he has a good handle on the subject. But, he does something many academics can’t do, explain his subject in a way that is pleasant to read while giving a factual account
JR-S is best when he is interpreting what has been written with what actually (to the best of his knowledge) happened. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, since many of the materials that come down to us from medieval times, were altered as they were copied and translated (sometimes deliberately) or in some cases were total fabrications. It was not unusual for the nobility to have their family history ‘adjusted’ to give their ancestors a larger place in history then they deserved. Knowing what is true and what is ‘myth’ is what makes this a strong lecture.
The part that discusses the modern relationship between the Crusades and the radical Islamists, is especially pertinent to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The way that westerners (sometimes still referred to as ‘Franks’ by some extremists) are perceived in parts of the Middle East and in Dar al-Islam is in many ways the result of how the Ottoman Empire was divided by France and Britain at the end of World War One.
This is one lecture I’m sorry I missed.
Rating: 4 / 5
Over the last five decades, Jonathan Riley-Smith has revolutionized–or, more appropriately, counter-revolutionized–the historical study of The Crusades by demonstrating that they were not driven by avarice, greed, and imperialism but instead by piety, religious enthusiasm, a sense of duty, and a genuinely fervent desire to liberate the Holy Lands and return them to Christian hands. Moreover, he showed that, far from enriching themselves, the Crusaders suffered real personal expense and hardship in order to pursue what they saw as the will of God in what he refers to as “penitential warfare.” From what I’ve been able to find on-line, it appears that even most who are most reluctant to let the Crusaders and Christianity off the hook have come to accept the validity of his view.
In these lectures, Mr. Riley-Smith provides a nice short rehearsal of his basic arguments in this regard. He then moves on to a discussion of how Enlightenment opponents of Christianity, Romantic authors klike Sir Walter Scott, and anti-Imperialists of the late 19th century produced the historically warped version of the Crusades that came to be all too widely accepted in the West and that, tragically, was then adopted by Islamic jihadis to fuel hatred of Chistendom. In effect, many of the resentments of al Qaeda owe nothing to the actual history of the interaction of Christianity and Islam in the Holy Lands and everything to the misrepresentations of, if not outright lies about, that history that have been propounded in the West.
This slender book is a splendid corrective to the malignant view of the Crusades that remains a part of popular culture–like Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven–and a compelling rebuttal to those who claim that “they hate us” because of our own past actions. It’s a must read.
Rating: 5 / 5