What this early modernist learned from the Crusades
Just finished teaching the Crusades for the first time, like, ever. Never even taken a medieval history course for that matter. Sad, no?
Anywho, on my first go-through of a new history course I focus on getting the narrative down. (For those curious, I assigned Madden’s Concise History of the Crusades and Allen and Amt’s source reader.) In later iterations I add in more topical subjects – case studies, interesting primary sources… The first go-round isn’t always the most fun for the students, but if there’s one lesson of History I’ve learned, it’s that you really can’t make any intelligent generalizations about a period, can’t have a discussion of any depth, if you don’t first know what actually happened (or think happened, in the case of the Crusades). Especially if the prof doesn’t know.
So even though I spent extremely little time this semester talking about the period’s warfare (mostly about sacking cities and grand strategic-level stuff), my initial, off-the-cuff and undigested impressions of the military history of the Crusades are:
- Sometimes no organization and no central authority is better than lots of organization and attempted central authority (compare the First and Fourth crusades).
- Sometimes trying to avoid the mistakes made by your predecessors just leads to the same mistake, but by a different route (see just about all the Egyptian campaigns).
- Sometimes trying to avoid the mistakes made by your predecessors leads to massively-impractical schemes (see Maximilian I’s 1518 crusade plan).
- Fighting 2,000 miles from your home base is hard (see every Crusade).
- Fighting 2,000 miles from your home base while relying upon your enemy-from-back-home is even harder (see every Crusade, but especially the Third). Coalition warfare is difficult – William III & Co. did a pretty good job, all told.
- Relatedly, unity is a hard thing to come by (see most Muslim responses to most Crusades, and most Christian responses to most setbacks in the Latin East. And those Normans were a pain in the ass – I’m looking at you Bohemond).
- It is so much easier to teach a subject when you have 4 different historical atlases that illustrate just about every major operation.
- Given my reliance on all those maps, I developed an unoriginal list of generic questions to ask when trying to explain any big shift in foreign policy/war, or why a successful army turns back:
- Did a ruler or general die?
- Were they attacked on another front?
- Did segments of the army(ies) have a falling out?
- Did a coup or civil war break out back home?
- Was there a famine/economic crisis…?
- Some student will inevitably ask about those tiny little arrows on the map, and you’ll have no idea what they refer to. Count on it.
- I’m shocked how important the Byzantine fleet was in controlling early Frankish access to Anatolia via the Bosporus ferry. (But see #1.)
- Avoid naming your kids Baldwin, Raymond, or Alexios.
- I had no idea the Byzantines were so kinky, into maiming each other and all.
- Don’t expect a History Channel special on the Kingdom of Heaven movie to talk about Ridley Scott’s secular caricature of medieval religion. Do expect it to have Kelly DeVries taking us on a tour of a medieval castle.
Future posts on the explosion in French EMEMH research. My advice: learn to read French if you can’t already.