Every time I teach the Crusade and Jihad course, I have a few new insights. Here are my insights for this year’s iteration.
The main one is the realization of a pretty obvious point. Christians and Muslims alike could go for centuries not worrying about who controlled the holy city of Jerusalem. Then they would go through phases where for some people at least that was the A#1 priority for a whole community. Thinking about this, I conclude that the crusading fervor or the jihadist fervor requires a whole new understanding of the present the past and the future. Someone wakes up one day and realizes that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, that things are uniquely bad right now, and that extreme measures are necessary to correct that bad trend. Or to put it another way, there is a unique opportunity to clean up the mess that this world currently finds itself in. There is no crusade or no jihad without that realization that normal time has come to an end and that the moment we are living in is somehow special.
Of course, not everybody in a given community goes along with the fervor when it catches hold. Some very good and influential scholarship has focused on the fact that unauthorized preaching of Crusades was seen as a danger to the social order – and of course if it was going to amount to anything, it would be a danger to the social order. It is easy to find oneself taking sides in this ancient debate. We have sources that praise jihadist leaders as being good Muslims, and we are sometimes too quick to grant them that status, and see the people who oppose them, other Muslim rulers who worried more about jihadists than Christians, as being selfish. Well, yes, but they were selfish because they were looking out for their own interests in normal times, and were quite skeptical of those who claimed that normal times and normal politics had come to an end. And I think most of us in the same situation would probably be equally selfish. Similarly Shepherd’s Crusades and Children’s Crusades and Peter the Hermit’s crusade were looked at with a great deal of skepticism. The claims made in connection with these movements were so sweeping that even people who in principle were in favor of reforming the Christian community and achieving great things as a result (who could be against that?) felt threatened.
Understanding the idea that some time, now, is a special time when different standards apply, is a key factor in understanding the Crusades or for that matter jihad.
On a related matter, I noticed when students commented on Ralph of Caen’s account of the discovery of the Holy Lance at Antioch, they tended to take Ralph’s side, in other words they believed that Peter who found the Lance was a phony, just like Ralph did. But Ralph was no neutral observer, and there is no reason to think that he didn’t believe in miraculous interventions that made the crusade possible. His argument is that Peter falsely claimed powers and heavenly connections that he didn’t have. He is not arguing for skepticism in general, he’s just – many years later – rubbishing Peter’s reputation to build up to Bohemond’s claim to be the great hero of the first crusade. In case anyone had forgotten. Yes indeed, God did make possible the taking of Jerusalem. But the special moment was not that moment where Peter found the Lance. It was some other moment, and the characteristic prudence and calculation of a good leader in normal times probably had a lot to do with it. Or so I guess, not having read all of Ralph’s work.
So I conclude with the thought that in some circumstances, there is the argument going on between various interested parties as to what kind of standards apply to the questions of the present. Are we in normal time, or are we in an exceptional moment with exceptional dangers and exceptional opportunities?