23 February 2009

Origins of the Crusades

I got a bit carried away the other day when sending a couple of links to a friend of mine. She's been studying Arabic, and I thought she'd be interested in some books that have recently come out exploring the contribution of the Muslim world to science in the medieval period. I felt, though, that while the books I'd alerted her to certainly looked interesting, they nonetheless went too far.
Islamic thought and learning transformed medieval Christendom beyond recognition, Lyons writes. A key import was natural philosophy, the precursor to modern science, and the idea that came with it: the notion of a university as an intellectual, cultural and social institution. Roger Bacon, the 13th-century English scientist and philosopher, travelled through Muslim Spain dressed as an Arab and was among the first to teach natural philosophy in Paris. Without these imports, Lyons says, the Renaissance would not have been possible and European “progress” as we know it would have been inconceivable. The Arabs gave Europeans their ideological and intellectual identity - indeed, Lyons suggests, “the West” itself is a Muslim invention.

But the West's gratitude to Islam was expressed in its wilful forgetting of the Arab legacy. This process began with the successors of Adelard and Scot and had four core themes: Islam distorts the word of God; it is spread solely by the sword; it perverts human sexuality; and its prophet, Muhammad, was a charlatan, an anti-Christ. It was thus necessary to write the Arab learning out of history and to claim direct descent from Greece. As Petrarch, one of the most prominent 14th-century anti-Arab intellectuals, declared: “I shall scarcely be persuaded that anything good can come from Arabia.”

So summarises the Times reviewer, but the Wall Street Journal one is far more alert to the shortcomings of The House of Wisdom:

Mr. Lyons's narrative is vivid and elegant, though marred at times by tendentiousness. Medieval Muslims, as he says, did find Europeans uncouth as well as brutal. (Though Mr. Lyons doesn't mention it, medieval Muslims were shocked to realize that "the Franks" were ignorant even of such refinements as underarm deodorants.) Mr. Lyons is right to remind us of the spectacular savagery of the Crusaders who waded knee-deep in blood through the Holy Sepulchre and of the embarrassing inability of Europeans to tell time once the sun had set.

But he hammers the point too insistently, as if to elevate Islam by diminishing European civilization to crude farce, and at the very time when it, too, was beginning to launch its own projects of philosophical speculation and scientific inquiry.
Me being me, though, I found it difficult to just send the links and leave it at that. I felt a need to add what struck me as an important caveat, as it strikes me that the books appear to fall into the trap of portraying the medieval Muslims as sophisticated and peace-loving, and the Europeans as mere barbarians, with their barbarism culminating in the savagery of the Crusades. This approach is really just an example of propaganda - much of it anti-Catholic, in fact - which has settled into the popular mind since the Eighteenth Century.

It tends to depend on three things: an ignorance of modern scholarship of medieval Europe which has reached a point where the term 'Dark Ages' is almost taboo, now that we recognise the steady spread of learning and the sequence of renaissances following the fall of Rome; a willful blindness towards the halfway house that was the Byzantine Empire, which certainly doesn't fit the 'crude European' stereotype; and a docile accession to the myth that the Crusades were an act of unprovoked Christian aggression.

Contrary to what pretty much everyone believes, they were nothing of the sort. They were, put simply, a belated response to more than four centuries of Muslim aggression against the Christian lands.

In the century following Mohammed's death the Muslims had overran the Christian lands of Palestine and Syria, Cyprus and Rhodes, all of North Africa and most of Spain, their relentless expansion only being halted by the French under Charles Martel at Poitiers in 732. Even when I'd studied the Crusades as an undergraduate I used to think that things settled down after that. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Avignon soon fell, and Lyons was sacked a few years later. Saracen raids on Southern Europe from 800 on were a match for Viking ones in the North and Magyars in the East - that was a rough century to be European! Crete fell in 826, a 10,000-strong Saracen army took Rome in 846, sacking St Peter's, St Paul's, and the Lateran Basilica, and in 859 Sicily was lost to the Saracens, not to be regained for two hundred years. A permanent base was set up at a fortress between Rome and Naples enabling forty years of raids throughout the area, and a similar raiding centre was established towards the end of the ninth century near Toulon, enabling raids through Province and Liguria, and threatening the Alpine passes. Genoa fell in 935, and Sardinia was briefly taken in 1015, just a few years after the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem had been destroyed, with the tomb of Our Lord being desecrated.

By 1050, when things were looking far more hopeful for Christendom, with the Magyars and Vikings having been converted, with the Normans campaigning in Sicily, and the Spanish Reconquista well underway, things started getting much more ominous off in the east.

The Seljuk Turks had been converted to Islam and had given Islam an intense new dynamism. Christian Armenia and Georgia fell to them in 1064 and in 1068 the Byzantine Empire was invaded, being decisively defeated at Manzikert in 1071, paving the way for the collapse of Empire in the east and the Turkish settlement of what is now Turkey; within a decade most of Anatolia was in Turkish hands. It was this resurgence of Muslim aggression, raising the spectre of a repeat of the century after Mohammed's death, that basically caused the Crusades. The tipping point may have come with the Seljuk capture of Jerusalem in 1076.

The Pope's first appeal for western knights to help their Byzantine brethren went unheeded, but in 1095, by which point the Muslims were threatening Constantinople itself, having taken Nicea, site of the Church's first ecumenical council, the Byzantine Emperor beseeched the west for help, stressing the dangers the Seljuks posed to Christendom as a whole. This time the Pope's call at Clermont had a far greater effect, and the First Crusade was launched with the key aims of helping the Byzantines, securing the pilgrimage routes to the Holy Land, and retaking Jerusalem itself.

In short, then, the Crusades weren't an example of unprovoked barbaric Christian aggression against Islam - they were, in effect, a counterattack, the first centrally coordinated retaliation after more than four centuries of Muslim aggression against the Christian world and a response to what was perceived as the greatest Islamic threat in more than three hundred years.

There's no denying that they tapped too into a desire to end the constant petty wars that were the small change of medieval European life by sending the troublemakers abroad, and also fed off the aggression and triumphalism that went with the Spanish spirit of Reconquista, or indeed that they they weren't another example of the Norman expansionism that had led to their conquests in southern Italy, Sicily, and England, but in the main this analysis is pretty solid. These elements gave fuel to the fire, but that fire was lit in the first place for reasons that were wholly defensive and utterly defensible.

Of course, it all went wrong, I concluded. The Latins expected help from the Byzantines in recapturing their lands and reclaiming the Holy Land, but Byzantine shenanigans and doubledealing eventually led the Latins to go on effectively alone without help. Cue infighting, petty fiefdoms, bloodbaths in Jerusalem, Crusader kingdoms in the Levant, and several more increasingly ineffective Crusades, none of which - it has to be said - did Christianity much credit.

Yes, I got a bit carried away in that e-mail, I'm afraid. We all have our hobbyhorses, though.

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