Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Historical Thoughts for Today: The Crusades and Critical Thinking

As I'm currently reading through John Haldon's Warfare, State and Society in the Byzantine World, I couldn't help but stumble across this relatively new history of the Crusades by Lin Claster entitled Sacred Violence. Now, I've read and found quite revealing a few books on the Crusades. They are an especially embarrassing episode in the history of Western Christendom due to the savagery and barbarism of the European warriors in the Holy Land. The very title of Claster's book, Sacred Violence, is itself, extremely loaded and purposely chosen to get attention, especially from prominent left-wing academic strongholds. What is often forgotten is the truths of pre-modern warfare. We tend to view the world from a very different perspective from pre-modern cultures, and while it is quite the vogue for postmodern moral relativism to be the lens through which contemporary academics examine numerous non-Western, pre-industrial, and developing societies, that lens is all-too-often abandoned when those same academics critique their own past. The reality of the situation is that Crusaders behaved no differently than they would have behaved in battle against another Christian opponent. In a chapter on the chevauchée, John Lynn's Battle: A History of Combat and Culture describes the brutal realities of medieval warfare juxtaposed against the ideal forms of Christian combat (i.e. the tourney). He cites numerous examples of violence against civilians, something explicitly opposed by the clergy. These factors are often forgotten when writing from the standpoint of a political agenda, as so many vogue historians are wont to do. The History Channel is constantly airing programs about the Crusades which remind us that the Europeans massacred so many innocents when they captured Jerusalem that the "blood ran up to their knees" in the streets. The realities of ancient and medieval war are often gruesome, especially when a city or other fortified strategic site resists and must be besieged for an extended time. Social stratification and culture had just as much an impact on the Crusaders' violent temperaments as their religion (perhaps moreso), but the years of training to be a knight and the social and cultural rights, privileges, and responsibilities that go with it are often forgotten when a modern historian is excoriating how "Christians" were slaughtering civilians in the streets of Jerusalem. It is often forgotten that under the Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates, the Muslims had experienced over a century of constant expansion and religiously-motivated conquest. The conquered peoples were often given the choice of slavery or conversion if they were pagan. If they were Zoroastrian, Jewish, or Christian, they were usually encouraged to remain dhimmi, which, in effect, made them persecuted populations within their own lands. The dhimmi were often discouraged from conversion because they provided an important tax source, as well as served to foster social stratification and a sense of privilege for Muslim citizens. Author and blogger R. Scott Bakker, on his Three Pound Brain site, brings up an important topic in examining the humanities and the ability to think critically. According to Martha Nussbaum in her recent Globe and Mail interview, the humanities provide the tools of critical thinking. But the tools she enumerates–logic, systematic knowledge, imagination–are also the tools of rationalization, and make no mistake, our penchant for rationalization is the great foe. ...In fact, the place you’re most likely to find critical thinking is the sciences, not the humanities. The sciences train you to suspend your commitment to your conclusions pending evidence, whereas the humanities train you cook up evidence for conclusions you have already committed to–usually because they ‘feel right.’ Where the sciences train us to swim against our cognitive instincts, the humanities train us how to more effectively indulge and exploit them–how to win arguments rather than how to get things right. Bakker is absolutely correct here. Far too often we discover that the humanities is a place where almost all of the criticism is biased. The Crusades are a fantastic example--the idea of objective standpoints are all well and good, but the reality is that everyone's research and exposition results in lengthy opinions with well-researched (i.e. selected) back-up information and sophisticated rationalizations. For example, would a truly neutral and realistic viewpoint of the Crusades result in a very negative assessment of Islam or Christianity? Then, regardless of the assessment's results, the fact that people of faith would be offended results in the assessment's characterization as biased and bigoted. Science, as a discipline, is to be unbiased and absolutely neutral, but the scientists themselves are not always so. The result is the process of debate and argument within the scientific community. Views are challenged, and above-all, facts should be pursued. A fine example of this in the humanities, actually, would be the intense debates between philologists, historians, and linguists regarding the identification of a civilization known in Bronze Age Hittite documents as Ahhiyawa. A century ago, initial translators were elated, thinking they'd discovered evidence of Homeric Greeks in the historical record (i.e. Achaeans -- Ἀχαιοί). There was a sudden and powerful backlash attempting to disprove the connection. Skeptics saw the connection as far-fetched. The debate slept for decades, only to be revived in books and academic journals in the late 1970s, thriving in the 1980s, and resolving in the 1990s. Most historians are in favor of identifying Ahhiyawa with a Bronze Age Mycenaean Greek kingdom (or group of kingdoms). This is seen as the most likely reality, a conclusion reached by debate and critical examination of the arguments and texts. As the decades wore on, parties started out absolutely neutral and were swayed in one direction or the other by the arguments for and against the identification, and then brought their own assessments to the table. The problem with this sort of debate is that it doesn't always refine fact out of opinion. In fact, you can't really refine fact out of opinion at all. You can only make educated guesses. And that's the result. We have no factual evidence that the Mycenaean Greeks can be identified with the men of Ahhiyawa, just a darn good guess. And that guess is subject to human error in a way that science should not be. In other words, we have no precise measurements. No systems of experimentation or control. And all of our debates are regulated by the skill of our debaters. Adeptness of argument isn't necessarily determined by logic, but also by rhetoric, or worse, sophistry. Thus, can we ever approach a realistic assessments of the Crusades, or any other event in human history for that matter? One that is fully factual? Unfortunately, no. But, interestingly enough, I think that is one of the greatest strengths of both historical study and the humanities in general. Because, truth be told, perhaps Michel Foucault was correct when he said that all historians and philosophers write are fictions. In some ways that is a debilitating weakness. In others, it is a strength. Science seeks to minimize the human element. The humanities are named for their subject matter and enveloped wholly in them.


Center Club Centurions said...

Nice blog, Dave.

Reading suggestion for you: check out the epilogue to Tom Madden's, A New Concise History of the Crusades (Routledge). It specifically addresses many of the points you raise, particularly the modern condemnation of the Crusades as "barbaric."


Dave Cesarano said...

Thanks. I'll definitely have a look at it.

Taran said...

This was posted a while ago, but I have to give a "bravo" to your last point here. I've always thought that there's a strong relationship between history and literature--Hayden White did a lot of work on this, but I have a good deal of caveats with a lot of *other* things he said in regards to the whole thing. I think I might just be more accepting of this relationship because I also write fiction, and believe truth isn't necessarily tied to objective facts. Narratives are an important means for humanity to grapple with the world around them even if they don't wholly reflect an external reality (and can be misleading if treated in this fashion); best study those narratives, and keep on forming new ones.