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.

Suggestsion for corrections/improvements appreciated

Suggestions for corrections/improvements appreciated

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:

  1. Sometimes no organization and no central authority is better than lots of organization and attempted central authority (compare the First and Fourth crusades).
  2. 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).
  3. Sometimes trying to avoid the mistakes made by your predecessors leads to massively-impractical schemes (see Maximilian I’s 1518 crusade plan).
  4. Fighting 2,000 miles from your home base is hard (see every Crusade).
  5. 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.
  6. 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).
  7. It is so much easier to teach a subject when you have 4 different historical atlases that illustrate just about every major operation.
  8. 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…?
  9. 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.
  10. I’m shocked how important the Byzantine fleet was in controlling early Frankish access to Anatolia via the Bosporus ferry. (But see #1.)
  11. Avoid naming your kids Baldwin, Raymond, or Alexios.
  12. I had no idea the Byzantines were so kinky, into maiming each other and all.
  13. 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.

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3 responses to “What this early modernist learned from the Crusades”

  1. learnearnandreturn says :

    Your list is hilarious – and also scarily relevant in the Middle East today (except perhaps for choice of children’s names).
    I think the Merovingians used political maiming too – I guess that’s where Shakespeare’s Lear comes from.

  2. Clive says :

    Timely that I came across this post. I’ve just finished reading two crusader memoirs: Villehardouin and De Joinville, in the Everyman edition. It is quite something to read such old documents and see the very different view of the world and affairs that was had then; it also indicates that most modern ‘pop’ commentary on the crusades is wildly anachronistic.

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