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The Crusades in Recent Research

From: The Catholic Historical Review
Volume 95, Number 2, April 2009
pp. 313-319 | 10.1353/cat.0.0412

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In the tangled and controversial world of crusade studies, dominant themes have come and gone, without ever vanishing entirely. Thus, the concept of holy war, whether seen in positive or negative terms, was widely accepted. The link between crusade and nationalism fueled passions and colonial expansionism. The belief that the crusades were about economic hegemony was an important corollary. The Enlightenment stressed religion as a destructive force, demonstrated by the crusades as unjustified anti-Islamic attacks by the West. On the other hand, the view of the crusades as just wars against the aggressive and expanding power of Islam has remained influential. During the last half-century, a major effort has been made to put the history of the crusades in the context of its medieval roots and to anchor it with a concentrated emphasis on research in original sources. Leaders in this effort have been scholars such as Giles Constable and Jonathan Riley-Smith. Their efforts have borne rich fruit of specialized studies, reaching into fields only speculated about by earlier scholars. The volumes under review here provide a sample of the impact of this work and point to pathways still to be explored. What has become evident is the emergence of a view of the crusades that bridges long-cherished redoubts and undermines deeply held hypotheses, while offering opportunities for a revision of modern self-images on the part of Westerners, Byzantines, Eastern Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

All of this is happening in a world in crisis, caught up in a revival of all the various nationalist and religious attitudes that have provided fodder for earlier debates over the crusades, now mixed with twenty-first-century real politique. Recent interest in the crusades, however, is not a product of recent events. It belongs to a broadly based historiographical movement in reaction to nineteenth-century nationalist history that was strongly influenced by the Rankean ideal of history divorced from nationalist interpretations. It would be tempting, however, to divorce the study of the crusades from the currents in contemporary troubled waters, but that effort is not merely impossible but totally unrealistic. Like it or not, crusade historians are part of the picture. The question that emerges is this: How does the new history of the crusades fit into and contribute to a world that employs images of the past as diversionary shadows masking a present reality and a future clothed in mystery? Can an effort to untangle the past carry on a meaningful dialogue with the present? That such an effort is already underway is well exemplified in the works of Riley-Smith under review here.

The Crusades: A History is actually the second edition of Riley-Smith’s The Crusades: A Short History, which was published in England and the United States in 1987.1 Amid the numerous histories that have appeared in recent decades, this one stands out because it sums up the original contributions of the author. Riley-Smith began his career with important studies on the Knights Hospitaller and the Latin nobility in the East. After many years at the University of London he accepted the Dixie Professorship in Ecclesiastical History at Cambridge University. His history of the crusades differs from others in that many, if not most, of the other general histories have been the work of younger scholars. While some recent works limit their treatment to the crusades to the Holy Land, as is the case with Christopher Tyerman’s God’s War and Jean Richard’s Crusades, Thomas Madden follows the chronological lead of Riley-Smith, but does not accept his broad inclusion of internal crusading, whether in the Iberian peninsula or the Baltic, those launched against heretics or those opposed to the papacy.2 But these are not distinctive features of Riley-Smith’s volume alone. The multivolume History of the Crusades, planned by a group of American scholars in the 1940s and brought to completion by Kenneth Setton and his collaborators, had embraced a view of crusading that included these subjects.3 Riley-Smith puts a substantial emphasis on the crusades as papally sanctioned enterprises. While this is certainly true in the case of the twelfth and early thirteenth century, it...

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