Fighting the Myths of the Crusades - Episode 3 of the Medieval Warfare Podcast

The crusades are a very popular topic. It is also can be one of the most controversial, with books and websites offering misinformation, exaggerations and falsehoods. We take a look at how historians are dealing with the challenges of writing about the crusades with our guest Professor Andrew Holt of Florida State College. He recently co-edited the book Seven Myths of the Crusades and joins us to talk about it.

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Transcript of this episode:

Peter Konieczny: Hello and welcome to the Medieval Warfare podcast. In 1995, when I was still just an undergraduate learning about the Middle Ages I watched the documentary series Crusades presented by Terry Jones. Over four hours you got to see the story of how the First Crusade took place, and what the war was like for the Holy Land which got progressively worse for the Christians of Western Europe. It had a little comedy, a few fascinating scenes, and for me a powerful introduction into the world of the crusades. Only years later did I learn how controversial the documentary was, and if you are a historian of the crusades you can find there are a lot of opinions and ideas about the crusades. And there are a lot of people peddling myths about the crusades. It can be a full-time job just sorting them out!

My guest today is Andrew Holt, Professor of History at Florida State College at Jacksonville. He is the co-editor of two books on the crusades, including Seven Myths of the Crusades (with Alfred J. Andrea), as well as a three-volume encyclopedia on pivotal events in religious history. He is also the editor of the crusades section for Oxford University Press' "Oxford Bibliographies Online" and a series editor for Hackett Publishing's Myths of History Series. Thanks for joining us today, Andrew.

Andrew Holt: Absolutely. Thanks for having me, Peter.

Peter: I remember getting your book, Seven Myths of the Crusades last year. I really quite enjoyed it. But I want to know, first of all, why did you and Al want to create that book? Was there something more in recent times that kind of pushed you to say, “We have to do this?”

Andrew: Peter, if you don’t mind, I’m going to give you a little bit of backstory on how all this came together just briefly. I won’t take up too much time here. The idea for Seven Myths of the Crusades, it originated with me when I was a humble master’s degree student at the University of North Florida. I was then in a graduate course taught by Professor Michael Francis, and I read a book by Matthew Restall, a 2003 book titled Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. I thought it was a fascinating little book. I thought it was interesting. It dispelled all these popular myths that even I had assumed up to that time about the Spanish Conquest. So it was during this same period that I was only really beginning to study the historiography of the crusades in a serious way, and I saw the applicability of the framework Restall had used for the Spanish Conquest that it could apply to the crusades as well, or really any historical topic where scholars might fret about the disconnect between scholarly understandings of a historical topic and popular understandings of the same.

But of course, again, I was just a humble graduate student, an MA student, who hadn’t yet been accepted even into a doctoral program at the time, so no academic press would consider such a work by someone as an inexperienced and underqualified. So it was obvious that if such a project were to get off the ground it would need a serious senior scholar, one with the oomph to put other scholars who might consider contributing to such a volume at ease. So with that in mind, a couple of years later, and during my first year as a PhD student at the University of Florida, while at attendance at a crusades conference at St. Louis back in 2007, I think, I noticed Alfred J. Andrea, Professor Emeritus, the University of Vermont, just sitting down to eat his breakfast one morning, and so I pounced on poor Al. Here he was, the senior historian with around ten books or encyclopedias to his credit, just trying to enjoy his breakfast. And here I come, this giddy, graduate student anxious to sell him on what might have seemed like a nutty idea in the way I presented it to him at the time. But I learned at that point just how wonderful and gracious Al is to people, especially junior scholars. But it would be a while from that point before we got serious about working on the book. Al, who was president of the World History Association at the time was in the middle of editing a massive, twenty-one volume encyclopedia of world history for ABC Clio, and I after all had a doctorate to complete. I was just a grad student myself. But from that point on we at least communicated from time to time over the years about the idea from the book. We would discuss it with other historians when we had the chance. We also became friends and he provided me with a lot of valuable guidance in these early stages of my career. I suppose it didn’t hurt that it turned out that we were both former U.S. Marines. So we had this sort of Marine Corps thing going on between us, which is a little odd for academia in general, but medievalism in particular… It’s not easy to find a former Marine in medieval history so far as I can tell, as I’ve never found another one. Just to give you sort of an amusing little story, or at least I think it’s amusing, I recall once attending a conference with Al, who’s currently closing in on age 75, which I hope he won’t mind me mentioning. Al’s the type for whom age is just a number. As he travels all other the world hiking and exploring, or doing charity work. He goes to the gym daily. At that conference, we agreed to meet in a hotel bar that night and I arrived early, a sea of other academics hanging out in the bar. We’re all dressed like academics in suits or coat and tie. And then I saw Al enter the bar wearing a gray T-shirt with the oversized letters “USMC” blazed across his chest. For a moment I think I had flashbacks to hanging out at a bar at Camp Pendleton or Camp Lejeune when I saw him walk to my table adorned this way.

But anyway, from that point on over the next several years we were both busy with the projects I mentioned earlier and didn’t focus on the Seven Myths book, but we did keep the idea alive and talked with other historians about the idea. A lot of historians expressed genuine interest when we did, whether senior, mid-level or junior scholars. I know it helped enormously being able to tell them Al Andrea had signed on to the project. Inevitably the first question they would ask was, “What myths?” Everybody was curious to know – what are you guys considering as myths? Because crusade historians are sensitive about that sort of thing, as we’ve found. The generally positive and interested responses from other historians further motivated us, as it suggested they had the same frustrations about popular understandings of crusade history that we did. We talked to a number of crusade historians about joining us and writing an essay for the volume. Many did, but then we took so long to get to the project, as we had other long-term projects to complete. Al had that twenty-one volume encyclopedia. I finished my doctorate and I was also co-editing a book with James Muldoon at the time. So this took a while. Some would drop out, new ones would come aboard, because this is lasting over a period of years. This is what finally resulted in the current list of contributors. The goal was to make it accessible to non-scholars, to communicate modern crusades scholarship, a snapshot at least of current crusade scholarship, to the general public. Really three target groups: undergraduates, and graduate students, hence the extensive footnotes, and finally a popular audience. So that was our goal.

Peter: Do you think the book has done well in achieving that goal?

Andrew: I think so. It’s been well-received. When we had finished the manuscript and the press, Hackett Publishing, sent it out to various readers, we got a number of wonderful blurbs back from crusade historians. I think the press lists seven or eight of them on their webpage for the book. They were coming from people that I admire and respect. So I was very happy to see that. Since then we’ve had a number of reviews, and most of the reviews have been very positive. In addition to that, the sales of the book have been decent for an academic book. I know that several months ago Hackett told me that they had initiated a second print run, so that was fairly soon after the first print run, which was relatively large. So it seems to be selling fairly well. That we’re happy about. I think some of that has to do with Hackett’s pricing. Normally $19.00 for a paperback copy. We wanted to make it accessible for the classroom, so the professors wouldn’t feel guilty about assigning an overly-expensive supplementary text. So all this seemed to have come together fairly well, I think.

Peter: I’ve heard people are using it, people talking about it. I think it’s getting a nice impact. My second question is what’s the idea, the difference between the myths about the crusades and the issues that historians of crusades can kind of disagree on? Where do we draw the line between a good, academic work where people are presenting kind of unique ideas, and what’s rubbish?

Andrew: It’s a great question, and an important one for a book like this. For us, for Al and myself and the contributors I would assume, but especially Al and myself, myths, what we mean by myths are modern exaggerations, misconceptions, or outdated notions of various aspects of the crusades. The key to these things seems to be a lack of nuance. Scholars consider issues related to the crusades with arguments based on critical analysis of the sources. Modern popular commentators on the crusades in contrast rarely seem to have nuance in their approach to the medieval crusades, and base their positions on something other than critical analysis of the sources. Quite often non-scholarly commentary on the crusades has an ideological goal, or at least it works within an ideological frame which can predetermine the results of how they interpret the crusades.

As Al and I were recently discussing, there seemed to be three main groups. I’ll sort of break them down for you, if that’s okay. The first would be Christians. These might include modern, peaceful, well-meaning Christians who find the association of religion and violence to be abhorrent, and so they look back to the crusades as those terrible Middle Ages type thing, regardless of the reasons or causes or motivations of the individual crusader or the individual cruse. But such a view of course is A. historical. The idea that violence in contrary to religion in some way, or true religion in some way. But two, there also seem to be militant Catholics or Protestants that present their own narratives of the crusades. In the case of militant Protestants they often have a very negative view of Catholicism and so seem to look for opportunities to paint Catholic history to include the crusades in the worst possible way. The history of this sort of thing began with the Reformation and continues to the present. In response perhaps are Catholics who then romanticize the crusades in such a way that it can present a sometimes distorted view of the realities of crusading. No historian would deny from a modern, and even sometimes medieval perspective that horrible things sometimes took place during the crusades, or that the crusaders sometimes acted terribly, like with the slaughter of the Rhineland Jews during the first crusade. So that’s one group – Christians, and I gave you some sub-categories there.

Another group would be modern Muslims. There are really two types of ideological issues with modern Muslims. First the most obvious are the extremist types that many in the West have become more aware of since 9/11. These extremist groups include for example Al Qaida and Isis. In the case of Al Qaida and Isis, both constantly reference the medieval crusades in an effort to stir up anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world, and greater sympathy for their causes. One need only peruse the glossy English language publications Inspire and INAUDIBLE which are put out by these organizations for propaganda purposes, and one will find themselves drowning in crusading rhetoric and terminology. But they represent a minority of Muslims. There is also a similarly negative view among, number two, a broader swath of the world’s Muslims who are not extremists but nevertheless see the crusades through a similar lens based on a modern Muslim memory of the crusades that really only seems to have emerged in the 19th century. This modern Muslim memory of the crusades emerged in response to the pressures of European colonialism in the Muslim world during that time. The modern memory is in a sense an invented memory that depicts the crusaders as attacking an otherwise peaceful Muslim world, representing the first instance of European colonization of Muslim lands. Thus it presents Muslims as historic victims of Western aggression. It ignores the far more sweeping conquest of Christian lands that took place under the Arabs before and leading up to the crusades, and under the Turks after the crusades. So it’s a very selective view of crusading and victimization. Nevertheless it’s a dangerous view. As eminent crusade historians like Carole Hillenbrand and the late Jonathan Riley-Smith have written, such lopsided narratives are used to stir hatred between East and West. It’s not small thing in light of current events.

Then the third and final group of sort of ideologues I would mention come from a sort of humanist perspective. These might include Gibbon, even Steven Runciman, and as you suggested earlier, Terry Jones. Not that you suggested that, but you were saying Terry Jones. On some level they perpetuated myths about the crusades perhaps because of their inability to, at least at times, understand and value ways in which religious expression is manifested itself, especially in the form of crusading. They see little or no value in religious violence. In this they’re not unlike the well-meaning Christians I mentioned earlier, even if they’re coming at the issue from very different ideological perspectives. One thing all these groups have in common is that they lack nuance in their perspective of events during the crusades, or even larger motivations of those who participated in the crusades. Indeed as my friend Al once described them, they were Manichean, saying things only in black or white.

Peter: I think you get that very much black and white kind of look. My kind of research is mostly focused on the Mongol invasions in the Middle East. I can see how you look back in the 13th century there are some opinions that are, “This is such a terrible thing.” By the 14th century once the Mongols have kind of been around and for the most part converted to Islam itself, the opinion of them is quite nicer. They’re not seen as this horrible enemy. You have this kind of differing view, and now that kind of view is now changing, where the Mongols are again being presented as this horrible invader, which in some cases they were quite welcomed into the Middle East. It always seems to be kind of a changing narrative of I guess crusaders, of how they get portrayed. Myths about them and kind of these views, these views have been going on for hundreds of years. I just see kind of that extension happening today. This is not a short-term problem.

Andrew: History is a constant negotiation between the present and the past. The present is very much important to how we understand the past, obviously. That’s simply what you’re highlighting, Peter. You’re absolutely right. Whether we’re talking about the Mongols, whether we’re talking about the Reformation, whether we’re talking about Ancient Greece and Rome, or of course in this case the crusades, current events always influence how we interpret the past, and the lens through which we see the past, absolutely.

Peter: My third question is, despite your best efforts, I think it’s going to be a long time before people are going to get rid of these myths of the crusades and there’s reason of nationalism, religion… People just like the myths, are sometimes sexier than the reality. How is a historian like yourself going to challenge these forces? How do we go approaching the wider world?

Andrew: The only thing we can do as historians is write books or articles, produce our scholarship, give talks. But there’s a new approach here, one that does help scholars reach popular audiences, for better or worse. You’re at the forefront of that effort, Peter, all your efforts. This is through all these new forms of communication, the internet, blogs, websites, electronic communications. It’s amazing. Today I know a number of historians who think that all junior scholars need to prepare themselves to have a blog at some point to have a public voice, believe it or not. I remember in graduate school thinking, I’ve got enough on my plate, much less learning how to set up a blog and make it effective and worthwhile and so on. But there are dissenting voices on this, of course.

But this new information, you see a lot of high profile scholars that have blogs. I ventured into blogging, as you know, a few years ago. I don’t blog often. I blog about twice, maybe three times a month. That’s all I have the energy or the time for, but I’m stunned at the high level of readership that one can get. In some part that’s because maybe my blog post will be shared on or something that has 250,000 likes or subscribers. This is an enormous audience that academics who write typically for each other and academic journals, or publish academic books that might sell 500 copies. They’re suddenly reaching a much larger audience than they ever did before.

So perhaps that’s a tool through which historians can reach a broader public beyond just writing books and giving talks and writing papers. The books and papers are essential. They’re the heart of a scholar’s credibility that researches first and foremost, but in terms of the means by which that research is conveyed to the broader public, these electronics means are essential to that in the modern age and you can reach a popular audience. So historians need to go beyond just writing books and articles for each other and write for a broader audience. One way to do that is through the means I’ve been suggesting. Our book, Seven Myths of the Crusades, it’s an academic book, published by an academic press, but we did focus on a popular audience, on undergraduates, early grad students perhaps, and educated readership, you might say. That was the focus, to try to reach through and communicate to these people, try to avoid the scholarly lingo and terms as much as possible and make it accessible. That was our goal. Getting back to your point, one point you brought up sparked my memory. There is a debate among historians to what degree do historians have a responsibility to be active in public affairs? In many scholarly disciplines, sociology for example, you can see there’s real, genuine public activism. They want to change society and they see that as a fitting role for them as sociologists, for example. I’m no expert on sociology, so hopefully my interpretation is a correct one. But what about historians? Are historians supposed to be activists? Well, I think not. I lean against that. We’re not activists, but we’re scholars who produce scholarship. But perhaps we do have a responsibility once we’ve produced scholarship to have some say in how it’s interpreted to a broader public, particularly if that’s towards a destructive end as is sometimes the case. That’s why access to the public through electronic media, Twitter accounts, Face Book accounts, blog posts and so on, seems to be a new tool that historians of the past just never had.

Peter: I’ve always had this challenge of how much do I push my history into the present day, push into politics? I’ve always kind of come up with the opinion, well, if I worried about history, that should stand on its own. There may be messages there. Those messages stayed within the Middle Ages, but perhaps there’s universal truths. If people want to apply that to present-day situations and things like that, that’s for them to kind of see. Hopefully when I write people see the story the way it goes now.

Andrew: That’s an important view. It’s one that I’ve seen expressed forcefully by some senior scholars. Bernard Bachrach, I once watched a sort of email debate happening on a listserv, I think it was MEDIEV-L. Perhaps you’re familiar with it, or even a member. I remember there was a discussion taking place. I remember he wrote something to the effect – this was years ago, so it’s a little bit vague, a little bit hazy. But I remember he wrote something to the effect that all we as historians can do is produce our scholarship and then we’re done in the process. It’s up to the public how they interpret that scholarship. That’s not our responsibility. It’s not our fault if they misinterpret it. We just need to produce solid scholarship based on the sources, using critical analysis that has the kind of nuance that I was talking about earlier. But there are some other historians who, for example my friend Al Andrea and my co-editor, who would not agree with that. He would agree that we’re not activists either. Not in the way that maybe a modern sociologist with a popular Twitter account, or a modern anthropologist… But at the same time, as sort of guardians of the historical profession – not that we own the past, but we do have an important voice, an important say. Maybe with that comes some degree of responsibility. We’re still negotiating where that falls.

As a historian, if I put out a book and somebody horribly misinterprets it, from my perspective, then I certainly have the right to say, “I think this person’s misinterpreting it.” I can put up a blog post and say that. So I don’t think that that’s going beyond the pale of what’s reasonable in discussing scholarship and so on. It’s just these debates used to happen in academic journals only among academics. Now they’re playing out in public. Now they’re playing out in public spheres where you have a Twitter feed with 100,000 followers of an academic or a Facebook page or something like that.

Peter: We talk about conferences now where people are Tweeting about conferences, whereas ten years ago if you gave a conference paper, it may have only gone out to those 20 people in the room. Now you have a much wider potential audience.

Andrew: Now you have that focuses on those papers and presents them, and you have tens of thousands of people reading them. It’s extraordinary. But Peter, frankly if I were to interview you, and I have interviewed you once before, but if I would have thought of this question, I might turn it around on you as someone who has that kind of oomph within the world of medieval academic studies. What’s your responsibility in all of this? Not that you need to answer that. I’m not trying to turn the interview around.

Peter: It’s a question I’ve been debating with for a long time, I’d say. The crusades is one of those issues, this is something I’m very interested in. I’ll see on YouTube or Reddit or in the wider media all these kind of weird things. I’ve been researching a book for many years about the conquest of Baghdad by the Mongols. That’s how I got interested. The reason I got into that is because during the Iraq war, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it was said, this is the first time that Baghdad has been conquered since the Mongols, and the Mongols killed everybody. Every news media was like, “And two million people were killed by the Mongols.” I kept on seeing that figure. I thought that was kind of quite odd. I thought it was odd that Baghdad somehow was completely destroyed, yet is still there. So it got me into kind of trying to research and learn about that topic. It’s probably just tens of thousands died when the Mongols came, but not certainly two million. Hopefully one day that book will come out, but these kind of questions to drive your knee in. That’s why I kind of bring them up in these kind of conversations and seeing what other historians have to say on it.

Andrew: Maybe a Seven Myths of the Mongol Conquest might be in order. I’d imagine if I were to ask you what would those seven myths be, it might get the wheels turning and you might think about these. That’s part of the fun of a series like the one I’m co-editing with Al. The crusades book, Seven Myths of the Crusades, proved popular enough with the publisher that they decided to implement a series. Currently we have six or seven additional manuscripts in the works at various stages of getting them ready for publication. We’re touching on topics like the U.S. Civil War. If you know anything about the U.S. south, this is very much a contested narrative, it has been historically over the Civil. So this will be an interesting book that should cause quite a stir. We have others on Native American history. We have others on Africa. We have one on Islam coming out. So we have a variety of very interesting books coming in the pipeline that will stir the same sort of pot that Seven Myths of the Crusades did. So anyway, I hope you’ll keep us in mind as you further develop your studies of the Mongols and think about that.

Peter: I will keep that in mind. Before I let you go, one last question which is what else are you working on right now? What other kind of books or articles?

Andrew: On Wednesday of this week, three days from now, I am traveling up to Georgia Southern University and I am giving a talk – a pretty big talk, apparently. I’ve been told two or three hundred people will be there. The title of that talk is "The Modern Politics of Medieval Crusading". So you can see what a touchy and sort of dicey topic this can be at times. I’m looking forward to expanding on this theme. In fact, right now I’m bogged down by the fact that I’d recently agreed to a two-volume encyclopedia of the crusades for Greenwood Press. I told them at the time, arrogantly perhaps, “Oh, I’ll just write all the entries myself.” And so now you can imagine how I’m up to my ears working on this and very, very busy.

But I think what I’m much more interested in and what I’m personally fascinated by is getting back to that topic of the modern politics of medieval crusading. I’m envisioning a relatively short book of 120-140 pages and considering some of these key issues that we’ve been discussing a little bit here, much more in depth of course, and putting that out. But of course tracking down just the right publisher for something like that is essential, and I need to give it more thought and time. But I’ve laid a lot of the groundwork for that already. If I had a month off I think I could write the whole thing in a month and then spend the next six months revising and talking to people and finding where I’d made my mistakes and go from there. But that’s the gist of where we’re at, at the moment.

Peter: And with that I just want to thank you, Andrew Holt, for being our guest. Plug out to your website at I also want to thank our show’s producer, Angus Wallace, and finally I want to thank you for listening to this episode. If you enjoy listening to the Medieval Warfare Podcast, please subscribe.

Our thanks for the transcription from Kabro Co.

The Medieval Warfare Podcast is hosted by the History Network

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