- The Debate on the Crusades by Christopher Tyerman
This interesting and learned review of crusade historiography is one of a number of such surveys, by the same author and others, to have appeared in recent years. They cumulatively speak to the manner in which the academic study of crusading has reached an impressive critical mass over the last few decades, while they also acknowledge a concomitant and emergent sense of uncertainty about the future directions that research should take, especially given, as Christopher Tyerman aptly notes, the manner in which the crusades have been anachronistically mobilized in recent and uninformed, even historically illiterate, rhetoric about the “clash of civilizations.” In fact, Tyerman’s concluding remarks about the crude appropriation of the crusades as a model or parallel for modern conflicts, in both Western and Muslim discourses, are pertinent and well made.
The book’s survey starts with the chroniclers of the First Crusade and their medieval successors. The central argument is that, from its beginning, crusade historiography has been engaged in various didactic and more or less polemical projects [End Page 150] of world-creation, not world-reflection. This approach permits some thoughtful remarks on, for example, William of Tyre and on the “recovery literature” of the later Middle Ages. The first centuries of crusade historiography are reviewed quite summarily, however, setting up early examples of what will become a recurrent motif of the book’s argument: that over the course of nine centuries historical writing about the crusades has been characterized by a tendency to loop back over familiar tropes—for example, the role of religion as motivating force, materialist explanations, and the crusades as a site of cultural collision—at least as much as by the sort of linear narrative of conceptual sharpening and methodological refinement that modern crusade scholars might imagine in their loftier moments.
Given this thematic emphasis, it is unsurprising that the strongest portions of the book are the central chapters that cover the period between the Reformation and the early-twentieth century, for here Tyerman summarizes the positions of key writers in turn and draws out their influences upon one another as well as their points of disagreement. A particular merit is that Tyerman does not limit himself to the obvious star names, although they naturally feature prominently, but also explores the work of what now seem lesser lights as revealing evidence of broader frames of cultural reference. The book’s organizing principle and methodological orientation are that species of intellectual history that foregrounds an author’s biographical and institutional circumstances as the essential analytical keys to the ideas found on the page. This biographist framework works perfectly well within its own terms of reference, especially in the discussion of early modern, Enlightenment, romantic, and Victorian scholarship. The downside, however, emerges in the necessarily more selective handling of the crowded historiographical scene of the last six or seven decades. For, in the treatment of some contemporary scholars, this same biographism can shade toward caricature in the service of the academic self-positioning that will be familiar to readers of other of Tyerman’s works.
This is one of the better history-of-the-history surveys of crusade scholarship. There are omissions and imbalances: there is very little on Spain and Italy, for example, and too little on North American scholarship other than the Munro school, for which Tyerman has scant regard. Overall, however, this is a stimulating and thought-provoking discussion, in its density of contextualizing reference and allusion better suited to a scholarly readership, perhaps, than to undergraduates and general readers.