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Saturday, January 8, 2011

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Review: 'The Crusades' by Johnathan Riley-Smith 2nd edition.

A real appraisal for those interested in facts not Marxist fantasy.

by Ferdinand III





Riley-Smith is one of the most prolific and respected of medieval historians and writers. This is a dense book, over 300 pages in small font. It is a rewarding but difficult read even for someone schooled in the various epochs of Crusading, which spanned some 600 years in Spain, Israel, and the Baltics. In fact it is recommended that you read the book twice, in order to assimilate the large volume of detail and the well sourced arguments Riley-Smith provides.


The uniqueness of the book lies along two axes. First, the author surveys the Crusades from the perspective of different periods, including the medieval Christian, the Romantic, the so-called 'Enlightened thinkers' of the Rational era, the Islamic and the modern-secular. Second, Riley-Smith rejects post-modern attempts at trying to portray the Crusades as a series of enterprises, stretching over vast time and distance, which were immoral, bloody, unnecessary, or some form of colonialism. He also rejects the modern cult that Islamic history is somehow a story of benign preaching, tolerance, and respect for others. Islam was and is, a warring political theology.


So this book will surely disappoint the Politically-Correct cultural Marxist cult. But that is why it should be read and used as a source and handbook. The modern view of the Crusades is one of a Catholic inspired atrocity against peaceful, moderate Muslims. This view emanates from the Enlightenment-Romantic period of 17th and 18th century Europe. It is hard to make a good argument that much in the Enlightenment was either new or rational. But it was successful in demonzing medieval Christian Europe, creating the myth of a 'Dark Age' after the colossal despotism of Rome and the 'classical' world, so venerated in the 17th century as 'perfect' fell, and was only 'rescued' by the supposed explosion in rational thought in the 16th to 18th centuries. All of this is bunk of course. But the Romantic-secular explanation of the Crusades is still with us and informs pop-culture. As Riley-Smith states:


Scott may have been a romantic, but he was also an heir of eighteenth-century intellectual opinion and he represented a school of thought which treated the subject at the same time both romantically and critically. Its disapproval was reinforced by a Protestant conviction that crusading was yet another expression of Catholic bigotry and cruelty. It was not hard for Scott and others to portray crusaders as brave and glamorous but backward and unenlightened, crudely assaulting more sophisticated and civilized Muslims....Under his faux-oriental clothing Scott's Saladin was not so much an eastern figure as a liberal European gentleman, beside whom medieval westerners would always have made a poor showing.”


How accurate. Riley-Smith's critical observation that Scott and his Romantic-Enlightenment friends, who did no primary research, and whose opinions were not based on facts or history but upon a fantasy of viewing the world in which Catholics were monsters and Muslims or non-Catholics virtuous defenders of light and reason, is extremely apposite. Scott's writings and those of his like-minded friends were not only misinformed expressions of a peculiar and quite irrational mind-set, they were also counter-factual emotives of arrogance, disdain and contempt for their own civilization. This psychological impairment would of course mutate into post-modern cultural Marxist thought which is a social and intellectual disease. Sadly however, it is the view of Scott, Voltaire, Gibbon, et al., which dominates our own assessments of the Crusades – at least as they are taught in most of academia, the media and in pop culture.


In the untutored and rather demented world-view of Walter Scott et al., the 400 years of Muslim barbarism against European, Christian and Jewish lands which began in the 636 AD attack on Byzantium, are forgotten and dismissed. A massive swathe of territory stretching from Chaldean-Christian Iraq and Armenia, through the Levant, North Africa and into Spain and southern Italy and southern France were conquered, at the cost of millions of dead, and millions enslaved, by Muslim armies. This historical fact is rarely mentioned in academia, Hollywood or by experts in the lame-stream media. Europe by 1095 was in a death battle with Islam. This was even more true of Byzantium and eastern Christendom who were surrounded by Turkish territory and Jihad.


The potency of the critically romantic approach was demonstrated by the way that it continues to suffuse writing on the crusades, scholarly as well as popular. Indeed the most widely read and prestigious history in English, that published in the 1950s by Sir Steven Runciman, another Lowland Calvinist, was almost what Walter Scott would have written had he been more knowledgeable. In it the crusaders were characterized as courageous and colorful, but at the same time boorish and not very bright, and Scott could himself have written the peroration with which it famously ended.


'There was so much courage and so little honour, so much devotion so little understanding. High ideals were besmirched by cruelty and greed, enterprise and endurance by a blind and narrow self-righteousness; and the Holy War itself was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is a sin against the Holy Ghost.'”


Runciman is a great historian, but the above passage is of course an embarrassment of stupidity. It seems that the Calvinist inclination to hate all aspects of Catholicism informed Runciman's opinion. The facts, the real history, and the necessity of the Crusades to save Europe from Islam, certainly find no place in such a world view. To be fair to Runciman, he did amend his view of the crusades subsequent to the publication of his historical opus. But the damage was already done.


The Crusading era which lasted into the 17th century, concerned more than just the Holy Land of course. Spain, Italy, and the Baltics were also places where the crusading ideal, or the taking of a cross to prosecute a war against unbelievers including pagans and Muslims, were long areas of Holy War. Riley-Smith covers all epochs of the Crusading area in compressed detail. His fluency in the topic is astounding. It is not an easy read but a most worthwhile education for people interested in an overview of one of Western Europe's most important enterprises.


 


 


 


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