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Rethinking the Crusades | Jonathan Riley-Smith | The Preface to the fourth edition of What Were
the Crusades? (Ignatius Press, 2009)
It is 30 years since the first edition of this short book
appeared. The earlier prefaces give an account of the subject's progress from
my point of view, but they also expose how slow one can be when it comes to
recognizing new developments. Writing the preface to the third edition six
years ago, I was conscious that the nineteenth century had come into view, but
I was still sure that crusading was moribund after 1800. Now I am not so
During the last 30 years a historical vision, which prevailed for nearly two
centuries and still informs popular understanding, has been challenged. The
vision originated in the writings of two early nineteenth-century authors, the
Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott and the French historian Joseph-Francois
Michaud. Between 1819 and 1831 Scott published four novels in which crusaders
played significant parts. For him, a child of the Enlightenment who had been
influenced by the philosopher-historian William Robertson, the crusades were
the incursions of glamorous but uneducated westerners, childish and
destructive, into a civilization superior to their own.
For Michaud, whose Histoire des croisades
appeared between 1812 and 1822, and for those writers who followed him, the
crusades were glorious instruments of nationalism and proto-imperialism. These
views of the past must have seemed irreconcilable—indeed the only thing
on which they were in agreement was that a crusade was to be defined by its
opposition to Islam—but they began to merge with one another in the
1920s, when crusading, stripped of its ethic, was being interpreted in social
and economic terms by Liberal economic historians, who had inherited from
imperialism, and took for granted, the assumption that crusading was an early
example of colonialism. Scott's Enlightenment image of representatives of an
inferior culture barging their way into a more sophisticated one coalesced with
the Michaudist Romantic conviction that their motivation had been
proto-colonialist and the amalgam gave birth to a neo-imperialistic and
materialistic orthodoxy which is still a feature of popular perceptions.
No one had even half-proved this interpretation by research, but by the 1950s
it had gained general currency. The consensus prevailing at that time can be
summarized as follows.
1. Crusading was defined in terms of the goal of Jerusalem and warfare against
the Muslims and the only crusades worth considering were, therefore, those
directed to the East.
2. In their expeditions to the Levant the crusaders were taking on opponents
who were culturally their superiors.
3. The crusades were generated as much by economic as by ideological forces;
and the best explanation for the recruitment of crusaders was that they had
been motivated by profit.
4. The military orders were most usefully to be considered nor as religious
orders, but as political and economic corporations.
5. The settlements in the Levant were proto-colonialist
experiments, aspects of the first expansion of Europe, although there was no
agreement about the colonial model that it was best to adopt.
These propositions could not survive a renewed concern with theories of
violence in a post-war, cold-war society, the interest of which in the justice
or otherwise of force was fuelled by debates about nuclear deterrence and
proportionality, and a revival of the conviction that human beings can indeed
be inspired by ideas, even ones that might seem alien to us. Without digressing
into complex historiography, publications have appeared in the last 40 years
which have expressed, or implied, some or all of the following
counter-propositions, although they are not, of course, acceptable to everyone.
1. As the first and subsequent editions of this book have maintained, authentic
crusades were fought in many different theatres and against many different
opponents. Crusading can no longer be defined, therefore, solely as warfare
against Muslims, but should be viewed in broader terms. It is true to say,
however, that this—the most discussed aspect of the new approach—is
itself being further modified, particularly by those who have been most
influenced by it.
2. It is not helpful to treat the crusaders as the cultural inferiors of the
Muslims. Nor is it provable. The evidence provided in the past never supported
a case which was always selective—indeed often anachronistic—and it
is striking how it has been tacitly abandoned.
3. The crusades were primarily religious wars and, in so far as one can
generalize about them, the best explanation for the recruitment of crusaders
was that they were moved by ideas.
4. The military orders can only be understood as orders of the church and their
history should be treated in the context of that of other religious orders.
5. The settlements in the Levant may well have been 'colonies' of a
sort—provided the word 'colony' is loosely defined—but the issue of
colonialism seems to be no longer one that is considered to be worth serious
discussion. It has lost its significance in the wake of the abandonment of the
Marxist experiment and a disenchantment with historical 'models', and because
of changes in historical perception, particularly in Israel, where the kingdom
of Jerusalem has taken its place in the background history of the land. Most
historians of the Latin East are more interested in the settlements for what
they were and in their relationship to other co-existing societies.
The third of these propositions is now attracting a lot of attention and each
edition of this book has involved spending more time on it. Although everyone
agrees that crusading responded to changes in fashion, that the responses of
recruits were never uniform and that the intentions of individuals were often
mixed, a group, to which I have rather clumsily given the name of Sentient
Empathists, has emerged from among those
scholars interested in motivation. These historians try to reveal the
sensations and emotions as well as ideas of the men and women who took the
cross. They search for entry-ports into the crusaders' thought-world, sometimes
through the collective consciousness of closely-knit groups, such as families,
seeking to identify the triggers that galvanized men and women into action. These
are to be found, they believe, in 'the mental spaces that people ... themselves
inhabited', in the words of Marcus Bull. They include memory and
memorialization, and what Bull has called 'the underlying assumptions and
instincts which up to then may not have found any dedicated outlet but could
now assume a central importance'. Out of the work of several young crusade
historians is beginning to emerge a new, more credible, picture of the
crusaders and of the influences on them.
The revival of the interest of the general public in the subject is being
fuelled by the spectacular appearance on the scene of aggressive pan-Islamism,
inspired by Sayyid Qutb's concept of Crusaderism (sulubiyya). In the final section of the book I touch on this extraordinary and
deadly twist to crusade historiography, which also raises questions about the
survival of old ideas and images into modern times.
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Jonathan Riley-Smith is one of the foremost crusading scholars and author of several works on the
Crusades, is Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University of
Cambridge and a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.
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