Thursday, February 24, 2011

holy warriors

the crusades is one of those historical events that seems to come up a lot. while through my readings and travels i had picked up bits and pieces about the crusading era, i had never read an overall history the crusades. i tried to rectify that with "holy warriors: a modern history of the crusades" by jonathan phillips.

the thing that attracted me to that particular book was a review i read that mentioned it drew from both european and middle eastern sources. that is true and phillips makes some real attempts to tell the story from both perspectives. it's also clear that the author draws a lot more from european sources than middle eastern ones. phillips is primarily a european historian. despite his best efforts the book ends up painting a more vivid picture of the europeans than the arabs and turks.

still, it does do a remarkable job at making coherent the long series of events that took place over hundreds of years and which are broadly referred to as "the crusades". running in the background of the book is a lingering question of how exactly you would define a crusade. elements of the first crusade--a call by the pope to catholics across different nationalities to fight a religiously sanctioned holy war to recover the lands of the bible from the muslims--broke down over time. after the first crusade, subsequent efforts weren't always in the holy land, weren't always against muslims, and sometimes were even directed against fellow christians. "crusades" were called against heretical factions of catholicism, pagans in the baltics and prussia and against eastern orthodox christians. on several occasions crusaders ended up attacking jews in western europe. the catholic reconquista of muslim spain was subsumed into the concept of crusading, even though it has been going on almost three hundred years prior to the first crusade. the book does a good job at keeping the focus on the evolving phenomenon of a crusade even as the subject matter itself fights against its own definition and constraints.

the best part of the book wasn't the chapters about each crusade and the (often disastrous) fallout, it was the last chapter when phillips outlines the legacy of the crusades on modern western culture. crusader imagery and comparisons have remained powerful. in the west, the comparisons are often positive, implying a noble cause fought against all odds. the rhetoric of crusading was taken up by the british during its imperialist expansion and again during world war one. never mind that crusading was historically a specifically catholic endeavor and britain is an officially protestant country. the idea of the crusade has long been embraced by other christian groups even though the historic crusaders would have probably slaughtered those protestants as heretics. crusade-fever has even infected the imaginations of americans. the temperance movement in the u.s. called its campaign against alcohol a "crusade", and batman is still called "the caped crusader". george w. bush famously referred to the american response after 9/11 as a "crusade" only to take it back after he was told that the word has a very different connotation in other parts of the world.

the resilience and popularity of positive crusader imagery is particularly strange considering that most of the crusades were failures. after the stunning victory in the first crusade, when the west managed to capture jerusalem and establish a latin kingdom in what is now parts of israel, lebanon and syria, the remaining crusades in the middle east were mostly a series of retreats, setbacks and massacres. crusaders sometimes had victories, but whatever gains they made were always eventually lost. the franks held jerusalem for one hundred years, but then lost it to saladin, and only briefly recovered the city despite numerous attempts to repeat the conquest (and that brief reoccupation was due to a land swap deal with the muslim, not a straight conquest). in other words, aside from the first crusade, every other middle eastern crusade failed to achieve its ultimate goal. western europe poured an enormous amount of money and human lives into the crusades and had little to show for it when the phenomenon finally petered out in the 15th century. it's remarkable that the concept of a "crusade" has retained any positive connotations after such a dismal history.

and speaking of positive connotations, it was entertaining to read rick santorum's defense of the crusades after reading phillips' book. i realize he was just kissing up to his own islamophobic branch of american christian fundamentalism, but ricky really should stick with his area of expertise: man-on-dog sex.