What’s New in the Crusades? - Episode 5 of the Medieval Warfare Podcast

We are joined by two guests – Niall Christie and Michael Fulton – to talk about the papers they gave at the recent Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America. They reveal some of the new and interesting ways historians and archaeologists are studying the crusades and the medieval Middle East.

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Transcript of this episode:

Peter Konieczny: Welcome, Mike, Neil. First, how are you enjoying the conference?

Niall Christie: It’s great. I’m really enjoying it. I always enjoy coming out to things like this and getting to connect with people throughout the academic community.

Michael Fulton: Fantastic so far. Really great papers.

Peter: Both of you gave papers today. The interesting thing I noticed about them was they both kind of challenged pre-conceived ideas we’ve having towards the crusades in the Middle East. Could you just tell us a little bit about the papers you gave?

Mike: Well I’m right now fighting against the popular current in scholarship dealing with fortifications and challenging the notion that there was a revolution in terms of the design, that they were getting much larger in order to counter a revolution in artillery technology. All of my work to date really suggests that this suggestion that there was a fortification revolution happened, but for different reasons. It wasn’t some augmented notion of artillery that’s causing this. It was different motivations.

Peter: You were talking about how there’s been an idea that a trebuchet were put on top of castle towers. I thought what was interesting is that you took a look at the architectural designs and said that’s really not possible.

Mike: Yeah, so historians have looked and tried to explain why these very large towers suddenly appear, and then they don’t really continue onwards. So you have to look at the other motivations and implications that are there. Clearly when you look at it from an architectural point of view they’re not designed to withstand the stresses and strains of something extremely heavy and creating dynamic forces at the roof level. Instead they’re quite opulent shows of power and authority, I think.

Peter: I think there’s some ideas before that it was technological determinism argument before that you kind of rang up against.

Mike: It’s tough because we don’t have a lot of evidence relating to artillery technology at this point, so I think it became something of a convenient reasoning. Part of my work is really trying to determine how advanced these engines were at certain times, and this in turn letting that dictate my conclusions rather than trying to use this as some type of convenient reasoning, let’s say.

Peter: I’m going to be interested to see how this kind of argument continues on and things like that. I wonder, are you getting a lot of challenge?

Mike: There’s a lot of pushback, and it’s frustrating because most of the ideas and conclusions that I’m coming to are actually quite traditional. So the notions of power that I’m suggesting are more or less in line with a lot of what people were say 80-100 years ago. However this has fallen from the popular perception, and it’s just become entrenched in the current scholarship. Any time you’re fighting against the current it’s a little tricky.

Peter: You’re also fighting against movies.

Mike: Yes, and popular culture weighs into a lot of things in a lot of different ways.

Niall: But I like the trebuchets on the top of Minis Tirith.

Mike: Let me tell you – I took that picture out of my presentation today. It has been in in the past.

Peter: Niall, your kind of work is kind of dealing with Islam and the kind of perceptions. I was really fascinated just how they kind of perceived women warriors. Can you tell us a little more about where you came to start with this kind of work?

Niall: Well, I’ve recently been getting quite interested in looking at the history of Muslim women during the crusades, which is something that hasn’t really been explored very much. Part of the reason for that is that there isn’t a lot of source material, because historians for the most part were men who wrote about men’s stuff, so it’s politics, it’s war, it’s law, it’s this kind of thing, but thinking principally from the male point of view. The standard legal teaching in Islam is that women don’t fight [INAUDIBLE 4:13]. But when you actually look at the historical sources it’s pretty clear A. that you have women who are fighting, very often in cases of emergencies. The castle is attacked. Everybody picks up a sword and goes out to deal with the attackers. But I also found when I branched off and started looking at the folk literature, the Arabian Knights, other kinds of epic tales, there’s a lot of women warriors there, and a lot of them are celebrated for their activities. It suggests that maybe in the more popular view, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow as a Muslim version is not such an outlandish concept after all.

Peter: I think you’re also running up against a lot of stereotypes as well that you have to kind of challenge with this kind of research, right?

Neil: Absolutely, yes.

Peter: You encounter these stereotypes?

Niall: Oh, goodness, yes. I was mentioning one particular case in the modern day at the end of my talk which was a couple of years ago Mariam al-Mansouri, a pilot in the United Arab Emirates air force, was involved in air strikes on the so-called Islamic state. Twitter went mad, the way that Twitter tends to. There were people who were celebrating her. She was hashtag Lady Liberty. But at the same time, there were others among Muslim extremists who objected to what she was doing. And there was also something of a conflict actually on Fox News when Kim Guilfoyle was celebrating this. “Hey, Isis, you were bombed by a woman,” she declared. Then two of her co-hosts started making tasteless jokes about women. One of them made the comment, the issue was that after she’d done the bombing she couldn’t park the plane, and the other asked whether or not this was a case of boobs on the ground, which is offensive, basically. But it does show that even in the modern day in both the West and the Muslim world, the idea of the woman warrior is something that makes some people feel decidedly uncomfortable.

Peter: It’s an issue that you kind of show as being talked about 700, 800 years ago as well as today.

Niall: Absolutely. I think the attitudes in the 700 or 800 years ago were as mixed as they are in the modern day. There were people there who listened to these epic tales of women warriors and thought that they were absolutely glorious. These were- okay, it’s fiction, so it’s safely in the realm of fantasy, but it’s something that at least on the entertainment level they could enjoy and celebrate.

Mike: There’s a grain of truth in everything, right?

Niall: Absolutely.

Peter: I love that they had a chance to actually bring both of you here together. It’s a nice coincidence. You both kind of work in areas that really haven’t been covered as much by traditional crusades historians. You work on topics that use sources and topics that I’d say 20 years ago weren’t talked about very much. I wanted to ask you about, where do you think the kind of future of studying about the crusades is going? We’re at kind of a time where there’s quite a lot of interest and research, conferences, tons and tons of books, tons of articles. But there’s lots of opportunities for people to go and do research in the crusades in the Middle East. Where do you think you would suggest people might go?

Mike: I think it’s very interesting comparing our work because it’s so radically different, and the different opportunities that it brings are incredibly diverse. The history of Crusader Castles is one of the oldest in medieval history, but in terms of looking at these things, this very traditional field in new ways, we’re really defining how we approach it in terms of examining the landscape, looking at the other people other than the lord that’s living there. How does this effect our concepts of space? So when I approached this from a military technology standpoint integrating those non-traditional sources and approaches is really fundamental. Looking at the archaeology and incorporating that in a much more meaningful way, besides just let’s more or less dig with a spade and see the wall runs this way kind of thing.

Niall: Certainly when I did my PhD back in the late ‘90s, the number of people who were looking at the crusades from the Islamic point of view was extremely small. One thing that I found very heartening, both at this conference and at other conferences I’ve been to recently, is that we are seeing a significant growth in people who are actually looking at the other side, looking at what the Muslims thought of the crusaders and how they reacted to them in various ways. Women’s history is also a growing field in crusader studies again. Something that’s been particularly growing over the last couple of decades after pioneering work by people like Sue Edgington, for example, Natasha Hodgson. So seeing that grow is great. The recent work I’ve been doing is kind of trying to bring those two relatively unexplored fields together to look at what Muslim women’s experience was during the crusading period. I think that’s a real direction that’s worth pursuing further. I think both those fields, the women’s history and also the history of the crusades from the Muslim point of view – those are both growing. I think that’s a really healthy development.

Peter: I think there’s a lot of fascinating new approaches that people are doing, and you two are among them. I studied in medieval military and I kind of find we’re using different kinds of resources. The archeology aspect has changed so much our understanding, but also again looking at different sources, looking at stuff that is non-traditional for military purposes. So I’m really impressed what’s kind of happening out here. Before we go, I just want to ask you about what other topics you guys are doing? What else is on the plate?

Niall: I’ve been looking at a number of things. I’ve been dabbling a little bit in representations of Islam in popular culture, actually religion in popular culture in general. I guess I can give a shout out here to a comic book that I read an article on a couple of years ago called Mouse Guard, which is basically a copy about anthropomorphic mice. They’re not really anthropomorphic – they’re just sort of good at standing on their hind legs. They have swords and they wear cloaks and they go out and they have adventures. I was reading… there’s been three or four volumes published now. I’m eagerly awaiting the next one. But one thing that really struck me when I was reading the second volume which involved three of the mice basically going through tunnels of their arch enemy, the weasels. They sort of turned a corner and came into these chambers and I thought, “Oh, look! It’s the great tomb of Saladin. Basically the artist, who is also the writer, had based the weasel architecture on medieval Islamic architecture. First thing I did was I got on the email and emailed the author and said, “Hey, I’ve notice this. This is really interesting. Tell me more.” He was quite emphatic about the fact that he wasn’t using the weasels as arch enemies to make a comment about Islam, but he wanted something sort of architectural that would seem very foreign to the mice that would fit in tunnels, and the Islamic architecture worked out. Originally he was going to use Viking architecture, but didn’t think it would really work in the same way. So they could have been Viking weasels instead of Islamicate weasels. So that then led me into a wider inquiry into the way he uses religious imagery in the comic book. So I’ve had one article come out on that topic. I’m still sort of playing a bit with that too. We’ll see where that one goes.

Peter: You must have a wonderful job.

Niall: It’s great. Absolutely. And then I get to inflict all this stuff on my students, which is even better.

Peter: You’ve got a couple of books, Mike?

Mike: Yes, but compared to that, everything I’m working on is quite bland I think. So now I think I’ve come to the end of where I can get to at the moment when it comes to mechanical artillery technology, so trebuchets and such. So I’m now branching into similar siege technologies. And again, trying to use these to help us understand the development and the mentality behind fortifications and castle-building, and looking beyond that. So how far can those technologies take us in terms of understanding these structures? In a lot of places especially people don’t want to appreciate, is they can’t take us very far. So we have other reasons and other motivations and other influences behind certain development in fortification styles and trends that have very little to do with military technology, to very much my frustration. I’d like them to be. But examining these things from different perspectives I think is really important. So I’m moving laterally rather than in a radically different direction, I think.

Peter: Thank you both for being my guests here today. I hope you enjoy the conference.

Our thanks for the transcription from Kabro Co.

The Medieval Warfare Podcast is hosted by the History Network

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