Seven Myths of the Crusades: An Interview with Alfred J. Andrea and Andrew Holt

Seven Myths of the CrusadesSeven Myths of the Crusades examines the many misconceptions that are associated with one of the most fascinating episodes of the Middle Ages. Edited by Alfred J. Andrea and Andrew Holt, this book offers seven articles that look at topics including Islamic-Christian relations before the First Crusade, how the crusades effected Europe’s Jewish population, the so-called Children’s Crusade, and the strange legends that emerged about the Templars.

This book has just been published by the Hackett Publishing Company as part of their Myths of History series. We had the chance to interview Alfred and Andrew about it:

I will begin by saying that I was a young undergraduate student when I first watched Terry Jones’ four-part series The Crusades – it was my introduction to the history of the crusades and I have a certain fondness for that series. Even twenty years later that series has retained a level of popularity, along with countless books, movies, articles and websites that deal with the crusades. Why did you want to create another book about this topic?

Andrew Holt: Thanks for your comments about Terry Jones, Peter. I suspect Al will have a lot more to say about this than I will, but obviously a book seeking to dispel myths about the crusades will have to take into account Jones’ popular and well known series. As your question suggests, even though the series is now twenty years old, it has had a significant impact on how many (primarily those of us who have reached middle-age) have come to understand at least some aspects of the medieval crusading movement. Historical scholarship often moves quickly, so the video’s twenty-year shelf life means it is now dated, but even when it was released in 1995 it was problematic in light of the scholarship available to Jones even then. Again, I am sure Al will have more to say on this topic, which I will leave to him.

I do want to address your question, however, as to why we wanted to create another book on the crusades, specifically taking the approach of countering modern popular crusade myths. We and the contributors all agreed that the prevalence of the myths that we address in this book are repeated so regularly in all media, especially popular films and literature, as well as in political speeches and commentary, that it was worthwhile to pull together a book, written and edited by scholars, that targets general readers and undergraduates. The goal is to explain to the reader why scholars tend to see the issues covered in the chapters quite differently than popular accounts often suggest. We wanted to give readers a sense of the complexity of each of the historical issues dealt within the chapters and why historians often disagree with common popular, often unnuanced interpretations of historical events. It is a topic that crusade historians discuss among themselves quite often, occasionally publishing articles in popular publications and on the web to make such a point to just such an audience. So the essays we have collected here do not represent new or cutting-edge scholarship. Rather, our goal is to communicate current scholarship to undergraduates and a general reading public. Moreover, we want to make that scholarship accessible, affordable, and engaging in a way that many academic books are not.

I should mention that Rick Todhunter at Hackett Publishing has done a wonderful job working with us to make this happen.

Alfred Andrea: As Andrew has noted, Jones’ four-part video was, even at the moment of its creation, based on outdated scholarship. In essence, he presented a rehashing of Steven Runciman’s three-volume history of the crusades that appeared between 1951 and 1954, and which was itself behind the curve of mid-twentieth-century crusade scholarship at its inception. Put bluntly, Runciman’s A History of the Crusades is a morality play masquerading as serious history. It is brilliantly written, and as is true of Edward Gibbons’ The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, it will live on as great literature. But it is hardly solid history based upon a careful analysis of the evidence. Runciman viewed the crusaders as intolerant barbarians who foolishly destroyed the foundations of the Byzantine Empire, which he deeply admired. Jones accepted this interpretation and added to it the notion that the crusaders were brutes and zealots who attacked a highly sophisticated and largely pacific Islamic world. In his words, their leaders were “barbarous warlords [who] emerged from the German forests,” whereas so far as rank-and-file crusaders were concerned, “if safety pins had been invented [then]…[they] would have worn them through their noses.” And the so-called People’s Crusade of 1096 was composed of “fanatical peasants armed with only bad breath.” Indeed, Jones claims, with no supporting evidence, that the ruthless form of warfare waged by the “Franks” was previously unknown in the lands the West knew as Outremer, and it took two hundred years of such intolerant brutality for the Muslims to learn how to respond in kind. Had he consulted the records, Jones would have seen how this statement is ludicrous on so many levels. But dispassionate history was not his objective.

The quotations presented above are characteristic of a commentator who never passes up the opportunity for presenting the crusades as low comedy. As we note in the book, Jones’ numerous jokes and comic scenes combine to make “the crusaders look like the bloodthirsty progenitors of the Keystone Cops of American silent films.” Comedy militates against complexity and nuance. Striving for a comic effect can also lead one to accept numerous fables and erroneous tales simply because they fit comfortably into one’s grand comedic scenario. Jones easily and numerously fell prey to such a trap.

Were I to enumerate all of the fallacies, distortions, dubious assertions, and half-truths contained in these four videos, this response would go on for pages. None of us wants that, so three examples must suffice. A good example of an egregious fallacy is the insertion into Jones’ narrative of the oft-discredited tale that Reynald of Châtilon attacked and pillaged a caravan carrying Saladin’s sister. Apparently dramatic effect and a ripping-good story trumped any attempt to research the origin of this myth. The best example of Jones’ reporting as established fact an incident whose historicity is, at best, highly doubtful, is the legend of the Assassin death leap. According to the story, followers of the Old Man of the Mountain demonstrated to visitors their loyalty and their contempt for death by willingly leaping to their deaths at his command. The legend is based on highly questionable testimony, but Jones insouciantly presents it as unalloyed truth, which then enables him to insert into the video a Monty Python skit of the Queen’s Own McKamikaze Highlanders, Britain’s first suicide regiment. Finally, I turn to a crusade on which I have expended a good deal of labor over the past half century, the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204). Simply put, Jones gets everything wrong here, including his repeating the long-ago-discredited fabrication that Doge Dandolo took over control of the crusade and diverted it from Alexandria to Constantinople because of a supposed treaty between Venice and the sultan of Egypt. There is no excuse for such an error and the numerous other false statements regarding this crusade. There were sufficient solid studies of the crusade available in the ‘90s –in English–had Jones cared to conduct some basic research. But, again, theatricality was more important than sober history. His misbegotten story line allows for one memorable cinematic moment when he intrudes himself into a Venetian carnivale party that is staged to illustrate how, supposedly, “the Venetians drew the crusaders into a fantasy world.” A fantasy world, indeed, is Jones’ depiction of this and the other crusades.
Anyway, I have gone on long enough, maybe too long, about the errors and fabrications in Jones’ crusade video. Some will think that we have unfairly singled Jones out and are even guilty of “piling on.” I argue, to the contrary, that his video program is a fitting exemplar of the numerous myths that continue to be disseminated in popular media. And why is it so suitable for calling out? In a phrase, its continued popularity, which is due to both the medium–cinematically it is engaging–and Jones’ inconsistent but often spot-on humor. Enough said.

The many, many myths about the crusades (it must have been hard for you to limit yourself to just seven!) have continued to endure even though I can go to any bookstore and find some really well-written and well-researched books on the topic. Why do you think they still persist?

Andrew Holt, Associate Professor of History, Florida State College at Jacksonville

Andrew Holt, Associate Professor of History, Florida State College at Jacksonville

Andrew Holt: In some cases popular myths are based on dated scholarship from several decades ago, so there would have been no reason for non-scholars to reject what we now know are myths. The widely known “younger sons” theory, for example, concerning the motivations of the early crusaders, was once promoted and embraced by scholars. The myth held that, due to the practice of primogeniture, younger sons went on crusades in search of fortune or land as they would not inherit the same from their parents (like their oldest brother). Thus they were motivated by financial gain or even greed. Yet in the last few decades scholars like Jonathan Riley-Smith have shown that evidence for such claims is extraordinarily weak and that crusade charters show that first sons went on crusade as often as younger sons and that they seem to have generally been motivated by spiritual concerns. In cases like this updated scholarly arguments have simply not filtered out into public discourse.

In other cases, some people or groups have a vested interest of some sort (whether political, religious, cultural, etc…) in the myths and do not want to let them go. I think this is well demonstrated in the various commissioned essays included in our book and you identify this as well in your next question for us.

Alfred J. Andrea: I agree with the points that Andrew has made. I would further add to his statement that “some people or groups have a vested interest of some sort” that ideology drives all too many of these myths. Jones, to return to him much to your readers’ annoyance, for example, displays a secular-mindedness that fails to grasp the spiritual motives that drove the majority of crusaders. Hence, they were either self-seeking, brutish warriors or ignorant peasants, and the pope who set the First Crusade into motion, Urban II, was an ambitious politician who used Emperor Alexius I’s request for military assistance as an excuse to conquer the East. And this from a person who had achieved upper second class honours in medieval literature at Oxford! At the opposite end of the spectrum, ultra-Catholic ideology has resulted in just as many, if not more, egregious apologetical misrepresentations of the crusades (and I say this as the product of eight years of Jesuit education). A recent example of this latter phenomenon is The Glory of the Crusades (2014) by Steve Weidenkopf. Without trying to list its numerous errors and misrepresentations, it suffices to note that the author claims: “The purpose of this work is to present a restored narrative of the Crusades, utilizing modern scholarship in order to give Catholics today the tools to answer the critics and defend the Church and its history” (p 27). Unfortunately, he has, at best, only cherry-picked from a number of selected secondary sources, some quite good and others of little or no value, to produce a work that is heavy on apology and less than light on merit.

I also would add that another factor contributing to the proliferation of crusade myths is the desire of many for tales of romance and stories of conspiracy. Thus, we have faux-documentaries on TV and, even more numerous, floods of books that pretend to be sober history but are simply the products of the fertile imaginations of writers of fiction. Within this latter genre, the Templars are an especially favored topic, as Jace Stuckey points out in Chapter 6 of our book, “Templars and Masons: An Origin Myth.”

I think that Seven Myths of the Crusades has an extra sense of urgency to it. It is not just historians or history-lovers that are debating the finer points of the crusades – we have groups and individuals who are brandishing these events as part of their justification for spreading violence and warfare. Were you thinking about how this when you developed the book?

Andrew Holt: You’re right that this extends beyond the normal community of scholars and students that have always been interested in the crusades. In particular, there has been a renewed interest in the medieval crusades since 9/11. Typically, medievalists have little popular attention paid to their particular area of study. Crusade historians, in our presumably “clash of civilizations” world, have not had that problem.

In the wake of the attacks of 9/11, President George Bush used the term “crusade” to refer to refer to the war on terrorism that was to follow. It caught everyone’s attention as such language obviously did not go over well with Muslims. On the other side, all militant Islamist groups, from Al Qaeda to the Islamic State, have also used (even before Bush’s use of the term) crusading imagery and rhetoric when referring to efforts by any western government in Islamic lands. Militant Islamists, in particular, use such imagery to recruit for their causes and stir animosity toward westerners in general, framing current events as simply an extension of events that began in 1095 with the calling of the First Crusade. In their narrative, the First Crusade represents an unprovoked attack on an otherwise peaceful Islamic world and modern Western efforts in the Middle East represent a continuation of such oppression. Yet such rhetoric, particularly as detailed in chapters by Paul Crawford and Mona Hammad and Edward Peters, is both dangerous and false.

Alfred J. Andrea: As is usually the case, Andrew, who envisioned this book and gathered the coterie of scholars who wrote portions of it, is absolutely correct. I will be uncharacteristically frugal with my words here and simply underscore the fact our concluding chapter, “Islam and the Crusades: A Nine-Hundred-Year-Long Grievance?” by Mona Hammad and Edward Peters, shows the error of those who maintain that a multi-centuries-long Muslim memory of the crusades fuels today’s hostility toward the West by various radical Islamic groups

If a Hollywood director came to you and said he wanted to a film about the crusades – what advice might you give them?

Andrew’s response: I would give him a list of at least a dozen names of prominent crusade historians from which he could hire a few as consultants. Then, most importantly, once he has hired and consulted them, I would ask him to listen very carefully to their advice. As we point out in the introduction, and as some of our contributors point out in their chapters, television and film producers do not always listen to scholars as they have a particular vision and do not want to change it. Indeed, a number of crusade historians who have appeared in television specials and documentaries about the crusades have complained about the way their interviews were edited, even made to appear to be saying something they did not say. The filmmaker or television producer often has a particular narrative they want to drive home, even if it is at odds with current scholarly interpretations of historical events. That’s fine with me if they want to produce a unique narrative, as historians do not exclusively own the past, but they should not then present their narrative as based on scholarly interpretations of the events they are considering.

Alfred J. Andrea: My advice would be something that all historians know but is often lost on screen writers and directors: History is far more interesting and compelling than fiction because it is so complex and its twists and turns are so unpredictable for the people living through those events. Just try to tell a story that illustrates the richness of the historical past, its inherent drama, and the complexity of its people.

To be sure, there is no single, definitive-for-all-time grand narrative of the crusades, and ambiguity, uncertainty, and just-plain ignorance on our part are integral elements of our recovered past. For this reason, debate and revision are the lifeblood of historical scholarship. So no movie will ever depict the past “as it actually was,” and no crusade movie will ever satisfy all crusade historians. That noted, there is good history and there is bad history, and no movie should descend to the level of outrageously wrong-headed history. No movie needs to depict stock characters in stark Manichean ways (knights wearing white helmets versus black-helmeted knights?), and it certainly does not have to hit the viewer between the eyes with a simplistic moral message, especially a moral message based on anachronistic principles. Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, a film that crusade historians have almost universally deplored, is a prime example of a piece of cinematic art that is filled with such flaws.

Finally, I am reminded of a ditty from my youth: “Cecil B. DeMille , much against his will, was persuaded to keep Moses out of the War of the Roses.” Well, the Kingdom of Heaven just about sinks to the level of DeMille’s 1935 extravagangza, The Crusades, in which Saladin tries to woo a captured Berengaria of Navarre. Enough Sir Ridley! Give us films devoid of anachronism and invented romance.

There are still a lot of topics and issues within the Crusades that deserve to be studied. What are the areas do you think need more research?

Andrew Holt: You’re right, Peter. There are many additional topics that we considered for inclusion in the book. I have often joked with Al that eventually we will need to produce a Seven Myths of the Crusades- Volume II. We do very briefly address some of these additional myths in the introduction, acknowledging they exist, but we did not have the space to address them as we deliberately wanted to keep the volume manageable, not too lengthy, and affordably priced (the paperback version is $19) so that instructors of crusade courses would not shy away from assigning it to their undergraduates over cost. All of these additional myths are covered in scholarly works elsewhere. Perhaps in reading our book, even though we only cover seven myths, the reader will realize that other popular myths about the crusades exist and with a little bit of effort tracking down the right scholarly books and articles they can learn more about them.

Alfred J. Andrea is Emeritus Professor of Medieval History, the University of Vermont

Alfred J. Andrea is Emeritus Professor of Medieval History, the University of Vermont

Alfred J. Andrea: Yes, most of these myths that we briefly enumerate in the Introduction are adequately covered, here and there, in other works on the crusades, but not all.

I just returned from a symposium on “Genocide in World History,” sponsored by the New England Regional World History Association. For the past twenty-five years or so, I have been increasingly moving into the area of world history and have come to view the crusades through the prism of world history. That aside, I spoke briefly at that symposium on the need to test the validity of an oft-repeated charge that the crusades were genocidal. In their article “Genocides during the Middle Ages” (Encyclopedia of Genocide, 1:275-77), Kurt Jonassohn and Kari Björnson claim, “[t]he period of the Crusades represents the beginning of the transition from utilitarian to ideological genocide “(276). Unfortunately for them, the examples they provide to bolster this sweeping judgment are filled with errors and betray a profound ignorance of crusade history.

Two and one half pages of our book’s Introduction deal with the issue of genocide, in which we put forth the argument that no crusade was ever launched with the intention of eradicating through murder an entire population or even a subset of a population. However, even though such a notion would have been incomprehensible to any medieval Christian or Muslim, several crusades, notably those to the Baltic and Languedoc (and more recently I have provisionally added Spain to that list), were intended as wars of cultural genocide, in other words they were aimed at eradicating a culture. That small amount of space and effort devoted to the issue of putative crusade genocide was insufficient, and I intend to pursue this further as a research topic. Here I hope to build on the work by an eminent crusade historian (and fellow member of the World History Association), Benjamin Z. Kedar, emeritus professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Our thanks to Alfred and Andrew for answering our questions. Their book Seven Myths of the Crusade, includes the following articles:

Introduction: Once More into the Breach: The Continuing War against Crusade Myths

The First Crusade: Unprovoked Offense or Overdue Defence?, by Paul F. Crawford

Mad Men on Crusade: Religious Madness and the Origins of the First Crusade, by James M. Muldoon

The Crusades and Medieval Anti-Judaism: Cause or Consequence? , by Daniel P. Franke

The Quest for Gain: Were the First Crusaders Proto-Colonists?, by Corliss Slack

Myths of Innocence: The Making of the Children’s Crusade, by David L. Sheffler

Templars and Masons: An Origin Mythm, by Jace Stuckey

Islam and the Crusades: A Nine Hundred-Year-Long Grievance?, by Mona Hammad and Edward Peters

“There has long been a great need for a book like this one, and it deserves a wide dissemination among the interested reading public and journalists as well as students and professional historians. It draws on much of the best and most recent scholarship on diverse aspects of crusading, but is still written in an accessible style. It should certainly be included in any reading list for an undergraduate course on the crusades, and anyone intending to make judgmental pronouncements on the aims and character of crusading would do well to read it and reflect carefully before rushing into print.” — Alan V. Murray, University of Leeds

You can learn more about the book on the Myths of History series Facebook page

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See also The Future of Medieval History: An Interview with Dr. Alfred J. Andrea

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