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Wednesday, July 4, 2012
History ...

My latest area of historical interest is the Crusades. I wanted to get up to speed on the Crusades quickly, which rules out reading a book. I’m not aware of any adult education mini-courses in my area on the Crusades (which is a shame; I wish there was a bigger assortment of serious adult education options out there, not limited to adult school night classes regarding spreadsheets, pottery making and starting a business). So, I had to find a DVD series. The Teaching Company is famous for its recorded courses on serious college and grad level topics, and indeed it offers a course on “The Era of the Crusades”. Unfortunately, it lasts 18 hours and doesn’t even get to the first crusade until after 6 hours of background lectures.

So, that narrowed my choices down to the History Channel DVD series. They offer two Crusades shows; one is fairly brief and focuses mainly on the first two crusades, ending after the loss of Jerusalem. The second show is narrated by British comedian Terry Jones and gets thru the fourth crusade and the rise of the Egyptian Mamluks, who overwhelmed the last Crusader strongholds in the 13th Century (ending with the fall of Acre in 1291). OK, it seemed pretty good on the cover, so I bought it and watched it. And yes, I learned a lot about the Crusades from Mr. Jones. But I was also disappointed with his presentation.

Mr. Jones is definitely interested in medieval history and has studied it quite a bit. But he is still a comedian, so his Crusades show mixes in a lot of his Monty Python-flavored British wit. It’s more than a bit of sprinkling to spice things up; Mr. Jones is constantly trying to make you laugh. If you appreciate his humor, I suppose you would find this entertaining. But I don’t, and it amounts to a waste of my time as a student wanting to understand what the Crusades were and were all about. Unfortunately, Mr. Jones also blends a third ingredient into the mixture behind this film, as if the comic diversions weren’t enough to make the public swallow an otherwise serious history presentation. No, Mr. Jones also has to teach us a lesson. He has a moral to his story. Telling history and preaching morals generally don’t mix well; one has to suffer, and it’s usually the quality of the history presentation.

In a nutshell, when he’s not trying to make us laugh at some ironic twist or sardonic insight, Terry Jones wants us to know that we people of the Euro-Christian heritage need to hang our heads in shame for the Crusades, and confess that our medieval forefathers were horribly and irrationally wrong in attacking the Muslims in the Levant (along with their many other sins against Jews and Orthodox Christians). According to Mr. Jones’ picture of the Crusades, the European kings and nobles and the popes and bishops of the Catholic Church were greedy, power-hungry, blood-thirsty barbarians, a race and culture that was mostly backward, violent, unwashed and uncivilized in every way imaginable. They cited their religious faith in God and an afterlife as their inspiration, which is obviously (according to this DVD) some mixture of irrationality, delusion, stupidity and hypocritical insincerity. Their initial impetus was the takeover of Jerusalem by the Turks, and the sometimes fatal hostility experienced by throngs of Christian pilgrims who were once welcomed by the Muslim Arabs. Mr. Jones tries to paint this impression as untrue or beside the point by the time the first crusade was organized. You can get a more detailed accounting of Mr. Jones’ ‘political correctness’ by reading some of the Amazon reviews for this series.

One reviewer said that you would do better by reading a good overview book, and recommended “A Concise History of the Crusades” by Thomas Madden. I didn’t intend to sink into a book on this topic, but at 200 pages, Mr. Madden’s college-level textbook didn’t seem too daunting. So I’m now going through it. My goodness, what a wonderful change. Madden is a history professor, and seems to stick to the telling of history. He doesn’t deny that the Crusaders did the horrible things that Mr. Jones plays up, such as eating the burnt flesh of Jewish or Moslem children that they killed. But he fits the Crusades within the broader sweep of medieval history and what society was like at the time, both in Christian Europe and the Islamic East. He does not deny that the Arab Islamic break-out of the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries subjected many formerly Christian lands and peoples to conquest and suffering. Islamic forces clearly had their sights on the whole of Europe and had beachheads in Spain and Austria by the time of the first crusade.

Yes, one can argue that the western Christian Europeans were quite backward and violence-prone, when compared to the remnants of Byzantium and to the Persian / Arabic civilizations that ruled Iran, Iraq, Syria and Egypt at the time. But the followers of Mohammed could also be cruel warriors, and once the Turks and Mongols entered the mix, the standards of civilization in the East arguably declined. And as to Mr. Jones’ contention that Islam only became intolerant after centuries of aggressive attack by the western crusaders . . . dude, read the Quran and also remember that Mohammed himself put a Jewish tribe to death. You can’t help but conclude that the past is a different place, that history is very complex, and that attempting to judge any part of it according to today’s standards is not very useful.

The Amazon reviews give plenty of examples of the pitfalls of Mr. Jones’ political approach (although most of the writers seem to appreciate the humor component). I will add one note here as an example of how Mr. Jones’ western-shame theme impinges upon the accurate telling of history. Mr. Jones describes (with great relish) Saladin’s crushing victory over the Frankish forces at Hattin in 1187 and how the Crusader lands and cities soon surrendered to him, most importantly Jerusalem. Jones paints the warrior-king Saladin as a civilized man of mercy and compassion, fighting and killing only as necessary to defend Islamic interests against the imperialist Euro invaders. Jones points out that Saladin chose to only kill the military Christians, i.e. the Templar and Hospitaller Knights. This was quite reasonable, you are prompted to think. Otherwise, Saladin allowed the eastern Christian citizens to stay and made Crusader descendants (there were by now many sons and daughters of the original Crusaders, born in the East) buy their exile or be cast into slavery. And he even allowed hardship exemptions for some without money; Mr. Jones said that Saladin “was no match for mothers who wept over their children”. Quite decent of him considering the slaughter of Muslims by the Crusaders when they marched into Jerusalem back in 1099, which Mr. Jones plays to the hilt.

But before you go out and buy your kids a huggable Saladin plush toy, think about what Professor Madden says about the incident. “Saladin had planned to avenge the First Crusade’s massacre of Muslims in 1099 by killing the Christians of Jerusalem in 1187. He abandoned the idea, however, when the commander of the Jerusalem garrison, Balian of Ibelin, threatened to destroy the holy city and kill its Muslim inhabitants before Saladin could capture it.” Checkmate, Joey boy (Saladin is Yusef ibn Ayyub). Hmmm, I wonder why Mr. Jones chose not to mention Balian. As to Saladin’s “reasonable” execution of the Templars and Hospitallers, Madden quotes Imad ed-Din, Saladin’s secretary: “He [Saladin] ordered that they should be beheaded, choosing to have them dead rather than in prison. With him was a whole band of scholars and sufis and a certain number of devout men and ascetics; each begged to be allowed to kill one of them, and drew his sword and rolled back his sleeve. Saladin, his face joyful, was sitting on his dais; the unbelievers showed black despair”.

Again, I wonder why Terry Jones drums up the horrors imposed by the Europeans, and yet ignores what the seemingly civilized and sophisticated Islamic scholars and devout men were doing here with the allegedly brilliant but reluctant warrior, Saladin.

My bottom line is this: study the past, but don’t get overly involved with it. Don’t zoom back a millennium and try to garner a simple explanation of why the western world is having trouble with some of the eastern Islamic nations and cultures of today. And as an adjunct to that bottom line, I’d add: comedy and history don’t mix well. History is almost always too complex for humor. Getting a laugh usually involves simplifying and exaggerating things (ditto for moralizing and polemic). In history, simplification must be done very carefully, and exaggeration is a dangerous practice.

There are many good things about Crusades by Terry Jones; but they could have easily been fit into a 2 hour film. The other 2 hours could have been used much better, as to have presented a more detailed, more nuanced, and more comprehensive picture of the Crusades and the world and times in which they took place. So, for now, it’s back to the books, as to get a clearer view of this interesting chapter of history.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:43 pm      

  1. Jim, I think you have just solved something I’ve wondered about for quite a while. I tend to really enjoy history myself—almost any part of history. But I also tend to read it in a fictionalized form, and the fiction generally has to be better written than not. I tend to think that fictionalized history gives one a view of the motivations of individuals (those in power and those not in power), how various individuals were treated (true, you do mention some very explicit ways in which individuals treated others), and get a view of history from “inside” the way particular individuals saw situations at the time (if it’s possible to say that). But that’s my own prejudiced view, I admit.

    Reading your reviews of the various people you have read and watched (DVDs) on the Crusades, I realized that much of the problem of studying history is the writer’s prejudice that often comes through. For instance, I agree with you that it seems a little strange that the Crusades should be made into a kind of vehicle for a comedy bit of some kind. Unappealing, I agree. Does the gentleman really think history is *that* uninteresting that it has to be made into a comedy bit? (I ask myself).

    Another problem with reading history is that often it’s read with the view of what goes on today instead of the writer getting inside the life and times of the period he/she is studying and viewing the situation from that standpoint. After all, the people of that particular time did not have the benefit of 700 or 800 years that have followed. I often think that, for as much as I love learning about what happened in previous times, I would not want to be transported by a time machine into those times knowing what I know now. And right there is where the problem is in so many of these kinds of history—even the fictionalized kinds. Too often history writers do just that—view history from the standpoint of what they know now.

    But then I think of so many things today that happen. When one gets right down to it, have we really “advanced” that much? I think of some of the things politicians do, some of the things members of the church do, some of the things ordinary people do. Have we really advanced so much farther than others? I am not going into details here as this would become a tome in itself if I did.

    Basically, I wonder if the whole issue between the Middle East and the West doesn’t boil down to one of forgiveness. And the only place I have actually read (or “seen”—as in “seeing” with one’s understanding) is what some groups in Africa have done.

    There are places in Africa where young children were brainwashed, drugged into acting as foot soldiers for those who wanted power in various tribes, ethnic groups, countries. These children caused untold harm, damage, hurt, to their own families and other members of their tribes, cities, countries, etc., as a result of following those who brainwashed them. Yet, instead of punishing these children (who lost in these wars/battles) the tribes, ethnic groups, their communities took these children in, held healing ceremonies that were meaningful to all concerned, and re-integrated these children into their particular families, groups, etc.

    Somewhere along the line I tend to think just exactly *that* is what is missing in so much of the world today, to say nothing of what has been missing for the past 700 or 800 years—some kind of meaningful healing process that would reunite groups that basically are brothers.

    I think study about the crusades would be the first step in such a healing process because, after all, one has to know what went wrong on both sides of the issue. In any war it seems to me that everyone is wrong in some way, shape, or form; no one is all, 100% right in anything.

    Perhaps what the world needs is a prophet/healer who will conceive of a way to heal past and present wounds and bring people together. A dream one can hope will come one day. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — July 4, 2012 @ 6:45 pm

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