Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Crusades: a short history

Jonathon Riley-Smith’s The Crusades: A Short History is a comprehensive history of the Crusading movement from Pope Urban II (successful) preaching in 1095 to Napoleon’s capture of Malta from the Knights of St John in 1798. The prose is matter-of-fact, the information content very high. Riley-Smith argues that it was the notion of a political Christ, a Christ who commanded that certain political arrangements be achieved, which was central the Crusading ideal. The decline of that notion meant a decline in the crusader ideal.

I particularly appreciated the way Riley-Smith outlines the sheer spread, in time and space, of the crusader ideal. Especially the way he reads C16th attitudes in terms of where history was coming from, rather than the 20-20 hindsight of where it was headed. I was, however, glad I had recently read Amin Maalouf’s history of the Crusades from Arab chroniclers, as The Crusades suffers a definite lack of Muslim perspective—their only role in the narrative is as a foil for the Crusaders.

Riley-Smith goes for the one damn thing after another theory of political events (particularly for the Fourth Crusade’s sacking of Constantinople), which I certainly prefer to the deep-and-dark conspiracy or the really-clever-folk approaches.
Was struck that, in his discussion of the Albigensian Crusade, the infamous quote, allegedly uttered by the Papal Legate when Beziers was taken,
"Neca eos omnes. Deus suos agnoscet."
(Kill them all. God will know His own)
was not mentioned. The Catholic Encyclopedia denies that the words were uttered (but they would, wouldn’t they?). Voltaire fails to mention it in his essay on the Albigensian Crusade, which is striking, given it would have been very much grist to his mill. (His claim that the Inquisition was a completely new thing is false, as the Orthodox Church in the Eastern Roman Empire had persecuted heresy, if not to the same extent and without the specific institution.)

I particularly dislike the tendency in modern academic analysis to draw some big line between how Europeans treat non-Europeans compared to how they treat each other, so as to establish a racism! analytic. It is a nonsense distinction, as there is no barbarity that Europeans inflicted on non-Europeans that they did not also inflict on other Europeans. Riley-Smith integrates Crusades against other Christians into his history well. Yet again, the sheer fury of the Papacy against Frederick II and his descendants is startling in its persistence and bitterness. The more I read of it, the more there seems to be some dimension missing in the histories.

In terms of my longstanding interests, I was struck by how few knights were needed to support viable (small) states in Outremer and the Latin Empire. Even though historical evolution certainly never stopped, European society from about 900 to about 1500 is knightly society. That is its strikingly specific and pervasively important social form. Right up to the time of Bayard, the “last knight”. The only real analogue being the samurai of Japan and the earlier Iranian azadan nobility, also known as dehgans. The mamluks of Egypt may have had even more intense training and Ottoman sipahis of Turkey equivalent intensity of training. They like the jagadirs of India and the bannermen of Q’ing China, were allocated income from peasants to support themselves. But such jagir, iqta or timar allocations were various forms of revocable tax farming. They were not inheritable property rights in land, or in peasant labour, but temporary and revocable property rights in the tax extracted from the peasants on the land. Such warrior groups did not produce the sense of identity both socially and across time (e.g. lineage) of the knights and the samurai. A contemporary Arab commentator, Usamah ibn Munqidh noted the high status of the knights:
all pre-eminence belongs to the horseman. They are in truth the only men who count. Theirs it is to give counsel; theirs to render justice.
Hence the lack of genuine equivalent of chivalry and bushido among the other mounted warrior groups other than the pre-Islamic Iranians. Or of the heraldry of Latin Christendom and of Japan. There was some take up of the idea of heraldry by Muslim warriors as a result of their interaction with the Franj, but it died out because it lacked the required social matrix to support it.

Their social arrangements also did not encourage anywhere near the same attention to the productivity of the land, or provision of public goods to peasants (such as court services, including delineation of property rights: also a feature of samurai Japan). It is hardly surprising that the states of Outremer showed more structural persistence and treated their (largely Muslim) peasants better than neighbouring Muslim states. In the horrified words of Ibn Jubayr:
Upon leaving Tibin (near Tyre), we passed through an unbroken skein of farms and villages whose lands were efficiently cultivated. The inhabitants were all Muslims, but they live in comfort with the Franj—may God preserve us from temptation! Their dwellings belong to them and all their property is unmolested. All the regions controlled by the Franj in Syria are subject to this same system: the landed domains, villages, and farms have remained in the hands of the Muslims. Now, doubt invests the heart of a great number of these men when they compare their lots to that of their brothers living in Muslim territory. Indeed, the latter suffer from the injustice of their coreligionists, whereas the Franj act with equity.
(So, Ibn Jubayr concludes, they have to be smashed; the more things change …)

The way the states of Outremer and the Latin Empire were set up (come to that, the way William the Bastard set up his new kingdom) very much show that the model “in people’s heads” was some idea of vassalage and land-for-service. Naturally, the areas where the system “just growed” had rather more complex arrangements (not least because of Roman law survivals, such as allods). Similarly, which realm service was owed to for a particular fief was not up for grabs (except in the sense that territory always is). But, even given the normal messiness of reality, the underlying ideas are clear enough in what folk did.

But it is precisely because Riley-Smith has such a high factual comment, that one can be struck by such things. It is a very informative history.

ADDENDA Re-reading my review, I realise I did noy mention a particularly worthy aspect of Riley-Smith's book, his treatment of the persistence of the crusading impulse into the C16th. Henry the Navigator and Isabella of Castile were both crusaders and saw their exploration efforts as attempts to outflank Islam. Efforts which were, of course, stunningly successful. We should read the beginning of the "Age of Exploration" not backwards from its effects but forwards from its motivating impulses. (Always an issue in history. of course.)

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