A Letter to Patrick J. Geary,
The Institute for Advanced Study

Editorial Note:

The following letter was sent to Patrick Geary at the Institute for Advanced Study, in response to a review by him published in The Wall Street Journal on October 21, 2017. The review was about a book on the Crusades, How to Plan a Crusade by Christopher Tyerman.

This letter is a rebuke, and I have been warned that Dr. Geary might find it offensive and not respond. That seems to be about the size of it. The rebuke, however, was well earned, since the bias and neglect demonstrated in the article amount to a kind of historical malpractice. I find this sort of thing, which is not unusual, outrageous and infuriating. The ideology displayed is similar to what I have previously discussed in relation to the otherwise praiseworthy (and lamentably departed) art historian Robert Hughes, when he commented on the Crusades in his book, Rome, A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History. Geary has a lot less excuse than Hughes, since he is a professional Mediaevalist, as Hughes was not.

The ideology at issue is the view of the Crusades as a gratuitous and vicious exercise of aggression and imperialism against the blameless domains of peaceful Islam. This picture owes more to an anachronistic Marxism than to conscientious historiography. The Islamic Conquest, recent or distant, and the continuing Jihâd are ignored, as is the existence and situation of the Roman Empire, large parts of which had just been overrun by the Turks. Geary cannot really be ignorant of these things, which is why I ask, "So what are you thinking?"

The contemporary appeal of this ideology is equal parts moral grandstanding (now called "virtue signaling"), which is common in discussion of the Crusades, and an implicit anti-American commentary about recent history, such as the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, whose continued rule (and that of his rapist sons) some people seem to think would be preferable to the conflicts that have convulsed Iraq since then. Behind all that, at the same time, is a remnant of the hostility of the Mediaeval Latin West to the "Greeks," something that is explicit and overt in the 18th and 19th centuries, among historians like Edward Gibbon and others, but that survives, often insensibly, in modern historians, among people, perhaps like Dr. Geary, who may not even be aware of what they are doing. One might think that Manzikert would be something difficult to forget, no more so than Adrianople, but there is no hint of it in Geary's review.

I don't remark on it in this letter, but Geary himself refers to "the Baltics" in the first passage I have quoted. He does not discuss in this respect that the Lithuanian pagans have been capturing Christians for the slave trade, and even for human sacrifice, which is why the Kings of Poland asked for help from the Teutonic Knights. This doesn't fit the tendentious moral narrative (developed for Islam) either, although perhaps heretics in France do (although one's cause will never be helped by the murder of a Papal legate, as in 1208). I don't know what heretics he is thinking about in Italy. The appeal of the Poles for help, and their participation in the defense, i.e. "Crusade," against the Lithuanians, is now obscured by issues of Polish nationalism, which anachronistically construes the Teutonic Knights as foreign enemies.

I include the aside in Greek for a couple for reasons. Geary having neglected the "Greeks," I would wonder how good his Greek actually is. And then this particular quote -- Ἡ Ῥωμανία πῶς σοι φαίνεται; -- mentions "Romania," and I wonder, as I do with many scholars in the humanities, whether Geary even knows what "Romania" means in the Middle Ages. Finally, there is the question whether he recognizes this particular quote, "How does Romania look to you?" which is from the Doctrina Jacobi nuper Baptizati of 634 AD. This tests his familiarity with Late Antiquity, specifically the reign of the Emperor Heraclius.

I have added some links here that, of course, cannot have been in the original letter.


24 October 2017

Patrick J. Geary
Andrew W. Mellon Professor
Institute for Advanced Study
1 Einstein Drive
Princeton, New Jersey 08540

Re: “Clerics, Conquerors & Quartermasters,” Review: How to Plan a Crusade by Christopher Tyerman, Books, The Wall Street Journal, October 21-22, 2017

Dear Dr. Geary:

Reading your review in the recent Wall Street Journal, something seemed to have been overlooked. Thus, you say:

Today the belief that God willed the liberation of lands conquered centuries before by Muslims -- as well as the eradication of pagans in the Baltics and the slaughter of so-called heretics in southern France and Italy -- may seem perverse. But at the time highly trained clerics argued that crimes had been committed, not simply against Christians but Christ himself, crimes that required punishment by all Christians of good faith.

Nothing in this paragraph, or in your entire review, mentions that events were set in motion by the defeat of the Roman army at Manzikert in 1071 and the subsequent breakthrough of the Turks into Asia Minor, which was largely overrun. Believe me, Greeks, Armenians, and Georgians have not forgotten this. A result of this battle was that the Patriarch of the Armenian church fled to Cilicia. In the 20th century, for other memorable reasons, he fled to Lebanon -– and is still there. The Emperor Alexius Comnenus appealed for help to the West.

This means that the determination of Pope Urban II in 1095 to call for the “liberation” of Christians lands was neither in a vacuum nor the idiosyncratic result of “highly trained clerics” having some sort of brainstorm.

Once this premise was accepted by the papacy and church hierarchy, recruiters and fundraisers fanned out across Western Europe in elaborately planned and often extremely successful campaigns to sign up warriors and to raise funds to send them against the perceived enemy.

Of course, when an enemy has destroyed your army and occupied your lands, it is a little odd to call them a “perceived enemy.” So perhaps you write this while thinking that the Latin West had no complaint against Muslims, who have simply been minding their own business. They hadn’t. It is also a little odd to frown at the project of retrieving Jerusalem, without reflecting that the Arabs had of course taken the city in 638 without the slightest provocation or justification for doing so in the first place.

So what are you thinking? You do actually mention, once, the “Byzantine Empire,” as though it was no more essential to this business than other areas of transit, like Hungary. Instead, you dismiss that state with a statement about “the disappearance of the Roman military a half a millennium before,” when the Roman military had not disappeared, but in fact survived in Constantinople -– where the Tagmata formations, like the Varangian Guard, were the only paid, professional military in 11th century Europe.

You also say some things that are simply untrue. Thus,

No rulers went bankrupt, regardless of how disastrous the actual military expeditions turned out to be. In fact, crusading strengthened rather than diminished royal power and prerogative.

However, Robert II, Duke of Normandy, took out a loan from his brother, William II of England, secured by Normandy itself, so that he could go on the First Crusade. He returned with no money from the Crusade, so his other brother, Henry I, who meanwhile had succeeded to the Throne of England, repossessed Normandy in payment. I think that means that Robert II experienced bankruptcy.

I suspect that your review reflects the kind of Western neglect, hostility, and mischaracterization of Mediaeval Romania -- Ἡ Ῥωμανία πῶς σοι φαίνεται; -- that has been examined in detail by Professor Anthony Kaldellis in his Hellenism in Byzantium, The Transformations of Greek Identity and the Reception of the Classical Tradition [Cambridge, 2007, 2011], and The Byzantine Republic, People and Power in New Rome [Harvard University Press, 2015]. I recommend these books to your attention.

I also have materials on line concerning these issues, especially “Decadence, Rome and Romania, the Emperors Who Weren't, and Other Reflections on Roman History” at https://www.friesian.com/decdenc1.htm and “Rome and Romania, 27 BC-1453 AD” at https://www.friesian.com/romania.htm. “Rome and Romania” at Google may return that page as the first hit, although it varies.

Thank you for your consideration.

Yours truly,
Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D.

Robert Hughes on the Crusades, in Rome, A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History



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