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My brief historical commentary two-part series was originally published on  All Around the Western Front. In light of the recent trend of posts on Islam, I thought these two posts would fit well into the discussion.  As a student of history–and one whose Master’s thesis proposal has been accepted–I feel that it is prudent when discussing our relations of with Islam to wash away the historical bias of the 19th century (largely Protestant led for the purpose of denigrating Catholics) from the Crusades to give us a better light of our modern relations.

During a Prayer Breakfast in 2015, Barack Obama, the President of the United States made the following comment, “During the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”[1] The source I chose to use to cite this comment is the “New Yorker,” a politically left leaning publication. The author of the piece, Adam Gopnik, goes on to comment, “You can immunize any ideology, no matter how vile, if you insist that no one is responsible for what it actually creates…The job of the good historian is to balance understanding with indictment; it’s the polemicist who tries to use history only to plead innocent. The acts of the Crusades, like the facts of slavery, happened.”[2] After studying Gopnik’s biography for a bit to see how he could articulate such rhetoric of understanding on what historians do, I don’t necessarily disagree with his assertion, but if you read the link to the source that I provided I believe it would be difficult for one to assert that his piece is anything more than a polemic.

Gopnik challenging the historian to be balanced in their analysis of the Crusade is as about futile as asking him and the New Yorker to be balanced in their writings. When a historian first begins their academic venture, in most programs he or she will have to take a variation of a class called Historiography 101—mine was called Historian’s Craft. The class basically teaches that every person carries their own bias, or baggage, into everything that they write; therefore, it is a metaphysical interpretation of the facts. Of course, I would certainly assert as I tell students in history classes that I teach this doesn’t mean, in the words of Henry Ford, that “history is bunk.” The second most important part of the historiography class is that the prospective historian is taught how to analyze every document he or she reads to be able to pull out what are the biases of the writer, who is their intended audience, thesis, what is cause and effect for their analysis, and data of evidence.

Another lesson taught in Historiography 101, which would certainly help a balanced writing, is understanding the context of the actors of any particular age within their own era—historicism. Modern historians too often create revisionist pieces attempting to create a Neo-Marxian dialectic of elites manipulating the masses for economic purposes rather than inspired for religion purposes. The trouble with this formula has been the manipulation of the modern historian being too influenced by historical schools and methods of the 19th century. It’s important to understand that those in the Middle Ages would have no concept of these terms or school; not the lower classes and not the elites. In this manner, the common theory of second sons being motived to rape and pillage Muslim lands–quasi-imperialism– is a modern invention, not one that is based on facts. Historian Thomas F. Madden noted the researched conducted by historian Johnathan Riley-Smith, who used computer databases “to analyze large number of documents relating to the men and women who participated in the Crusades…150,000 people across Europe responded to Urban II’s summons…During the course of the First Crusade, approximately 40,000 men marched to the East…Only a minority of that total were Knights…What is clearest in the documentary record is that the great majority of these Knightly crusaders were not spare sons but instead the lords of their estates.”[3]

Another key to gaining the proper historicism of the time is understanding how we read scripture and how those during the Crusades read scripture is completely different. Christopher Tyerman, Lecturer in Medieval History at Hertford College and New College at the University of Oxford, writes, “What may appear today to many Christians and perhaps most non-Christians as an irreconcilable paradox between holy war and the doctrines of peace and forgiveness proclaimed in the Lord’s Prayer, the Sermon on the Mount and many other Gospel passages has not always been so obvious or recognized…by the beginning of its second millennium in western Christendom, Christianity was only indirectly a scriptural faith. The foundation texts…were mediated even to the educated through the prism of commentaries by the so-called Church Fathers.”[4] Furthermore, there is a perception that the Crusades have generated this long resentment against the West by Muslims in the Middle East. Thomas F. Madden, Professor of History and director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at St. Louis University, who is also Catholic (let’s admit the bias), declares, “This is false. The simple fact is that the crusades were virtually unknown in the Muslim world even a century ago. The term for the crusades, harb al-salib, was only introduced into the Arab language in the mid-nineteenth century. The first Arabic history of the crusades was not written until 1899.”[5]

By this particular formula by paragraph three of Gopnik’s piece, I have already determined that he’s more or less an Obama apologist writing nothing more than a apologist piece, take a look at the quote: “Well, half crazy is not so hard to find in America, and Obama’s statement became a source of outrage among the predictable parties, with a lot of frantic Googling to find evidence that our record, though it may look bad, is nowhere near as bad as theirs.” 

 Of course, there must be some reason that I take issue with President Obama and Adam Gopnik’s assessment of the history of the Crusades; partly it’s because of my own bias being a Roman Catholic—let’s at least admit our biases.  The other part I object to is those who have a platform to mold the perception of the general public are doing so without the latest research. However, It’s not the President’s fault he’s been indoctrinated into this perception of the Crusades. Madden indicates that this perception was forged in 19th-century propaganda for rallying nationalistic fervor.[6] He writes, “the use of crusade imagery in propaganda for modern wars began to extract religion from crusading in the popular mind. The word ‘crusade’ increasingly came to denote a grand and glorious campaign for a morally just goal, yet one that was secular rather than religious.”[7] Madden further articulates that with the rise of Bolsheviks and the school of Marxist dialectic historians were persuaded into the belief of a quasi-imperialism being the cause for the Crusades.[8]

The fact that there are reputable scholars who study the Crusades and the Middle Ages, even if some of them Catholic, who take a proper historicism position, which Gopnik mocks as half crazy to hide his apology under the guise of the events are “too complicated” is absurd. Let’s not misconstrue my meaning; the Crusades are complex, however, It’s absurd because Adam Gopnik after asserting the need to be a balanced writer attempts to articulate to his left-leaning readers that opinions contrary to the President’s are difficult to find when they can be found in readily available books.

[1] http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/obama-crusaders

[2] Ibid.

[3] Thomas F. Madden, The Concise History of the Crusades (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), 11.

[4] Christopher Tyerman, God’s War: A New History of the Crusades (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 29.

[5] Madden, 201.

[6] Ibid, 199.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.