Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Things I learned teaching "Crusade and Jihad" this fall


Since September I have been teaching a special topics course on Crusade and Jihad. In my very first teaching jobs, courses on the Early and High Middle Ages at the University of Toronto, the Crusades certainly came up (in the early medieval course they were one of the very last topics); but that was a quarter-century ago. I did not rely on my past understandings of the Crusades this time around, but read a lot of new material, most of which has appeared since 1990 or even 2000. I am particularly grateful to Thomas Madden for putting together a collection called The Crusades: Essential Readings and Christopher Tyerman for his huge new narrative history, God's War.

Here are the new thoughts and perspectives that I gained concerning crusading as a result:

1. Back in the day, I had a very French and English view of the Crusades. Now I take the Germans a lot more seriously. Next, the Italians.

2. I was fascinated by the number of northern European fleets that took part in early Crusades, fleets that were organized across what we think of as national boundaries. It is particularly interesting because we know very little about the people who had the clout and connections to put together such fleets. The maritime world was apparently a different political sphere entirely.

3. The connection between crusading and Imperial ideology fascinates me. This perspective I owe to Christopher Tyerman, who carefully analyzed and described the involvement of King Conrad, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, Emperor Henry VI, and Emperor Frederick II. Not to mention the would-be Emperor Charles of Anjou.

4. Having not read a lot of German accounts the Crusades, Tyerman's book was the first to make me aware how odd it is that we (or at least I) take almost without thinking the side of Frederick II’s enemies when evaluating the significance of his crusade to Jerusalem.

5. Perhaps most valuable to me is that reading lots of primary and secondary accounts of wandering crusading armies renewed my awareness of warriors as constituting for some purposes a separate society, battening on the settled communities through which they traveled. This awareness will come in useful when I write my next book, Men at Arms.

As far as what I learned about jihad this fall: I learned, thanks to Carole Hillenbrand, David Cook, Patricia Crone and Capt. John "Garick” Chamberlin, among others, that there's a lot to learn and that systematic historical discussion is just getting underway.

Image: a French king and a German emperor fight a sultan.


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Monday, July 14, 2008

A thought-provoking characterization of the First Crusade

From Christopher Tyerman's huge history of the Crusades, God's War (p. 89):

Part revivalism, part politics, part a search for release in personal renewal, both a manipulation of popular beliefs and prejudices common to all social groups and an attempt to channel these towards a narrowly laudable yet essentially familiar and explicable end, the summons to Jerusalem succeeded because it caught the imagination of a society not necessarily ready but psychologically, culturally and materially equipped to answer the call. In the level of official enthusiasm, in the rapidity of popular acceptance, in the extremes of response, in the widespread uncertainty, indifference and regional variation shadowing extravagant and well-publicized bellicosity, 1096 was the 1914 of the Middle Ages.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Summer books for students

I have very limited expectations that students for my fall courses are checking in on a daily basis to see what I think they should be reading this summer. But on the off chance and remembering that is not just students who drop in here, I am going to mention a couple of books that are worth knowing about.

For those who are interested in chivalry perhaps the best book on the subject, one that has been credited with reviving scholarly interest in the subject is Maurice Keen's 1984 work, Chivalry. It is one of those books that make scholarship look really good: well-organized, well-written, and full of ideas.

So you say, if this book is so darned good, why is it not on the reading list for the chivalry seminar? I'm not sure how this will sound, but when a book is this good, basing a seminar on it might be counterproductive. I'm hoping to spend most of the time in class discussing primary sources in all their variety and contradictions, rather than admiring Keen's elegant formulations based on his extremely wide reading. I am keenly (!?) aware that my students don't have unlimited funds. Our course pack and other books will cost quite enough thank you, and I'm not going to have you buy this book just because I think it would be good for you.

On the other hand, this book will be good for you, maybe, there's a good chance, so if you have it available to you, or feel like buying it, don't let me hold you back.

I have another recommendation for students think they are not going to have enough material on the Crusades in the three books required for the course on Crusade and Jihad: it's the most recent survey of all the evidence about the Crusades to the Holy Land before 1300, God's War by Christopher Tyerman. The one review I saw criticized this book for not being a suitable replacement for a 50-year-old three-volume work by Steven Runciman, whose prose and analytical skills were astonishing. That reviewer predicted that the Runciman book would continue to be assigned to students despite the virtues of Tyreman's up-to-date review of the evidence.

Me, I don't think I would recommend either Runciman or Tyerman as the primary text for an undergraduate course. Both works are just too long (Tyerman's book has nearly 1100 pages) if we really expect students to be reading a variety of materials. Nonetheless, Tyerman's work, like Runciman's, is interesting, detailed, and full of ideas. I think the real weakness of Tyerman's book, if you're thinking about a general market, is that it seems to assume a fair amount of knowledge about the general course of the Crusades to the Holy Land. This would work better as a second or third book about the Crusades than it would as an introduction.

One nice thing about Tyerman's book is that it is very cheap for a hardback of its size. If you would like to just completely immerse yourself in the Crusades, look it up at a bookseller's site and be pleasantly surprised.

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