Thursday, January 12, 2012

Hector Avalos does violence to the Crusades.

Urban II preaching
the Crusade.
One of the most impressive qualities of Dr. Avalos' Fighting Words is the number and breadth of sources he cites.  One cannot accuse him of not doing his homework: at the end of some chapters, you find more than a hundred citations, and he has obviously been reading in a bunch of languages, as well. 

But this breadth of citation also means that most readers will not have read most of the sources.  Avalos touches on a vast sweep of history here, from ancient Israel to the modern world.  So if one gets the impression that Avalos is misrepresenting his sources, this will seriously undermine one's trust in the book as a whole.   

Some of Avalos' sources I have read.  I find some of his Scriptural citations dicy, and even more his representation of Scripture as a whole.  But let's save that discussion for a later post, and focus here on how Dr. Avalos abuses the Crusades. 

The Crusades are covered on pages 181-186, then again on 261.  Avalos' argument reaches its climactic conclusion in the following formula on 186 (Avalos is fond of such formulas):

Belief that Jerusalem is sacred space

+ Belief that this sacred space belongs to Christians, not non-Christians

+ Promise of transcendent rewards

= Violence in order to regain Jerusalem.

The pages that precede this formula neatly support each of these points.  Avalos depicts Pope Urban II's original call for a Crusade as being based firmly on these four points. 

Here is how Avalos begins his discussion of Urban's famous sermon. The following quotation is also useful because it names the sources on which Avalos (and the rest of us) rely for that sermon:

Some of the clearest examples of the relationship between violence and sacred space may be found in the First Crusade and the propaganda meant to incite Christians to join it.  The speech delivered by Urban II at Clermont has not been directly preserved, but we do have various accounts of it from supposed witnesses or recorders.  These include the versions of Fulcher of Chartres (1101), Robert the Monk (1107), the anonymously written Gesta Francorum (deeds of the Franks), Balderic of Dol (1108-10), and Guibert of Nogent (ca 1109) . . .

According to Mayer's chronology, Fulcher of Chartres is closer to the actual event of the speech.  Urban's motivation for this Crusade is clear in the following: 'Therefore, on this matter deserving prayer, not I, but the Lord, beseech you as Christ's heralds to publish this edict everywhere and to persuade people of whatever rank, knights and foot-soldiers, rich and poor, to aid promptly to those Christians and to destroy this vile race from our lands. 

After this last line, Avalos says nothing more of "aiding Christians."  The rest of his discussion focuses on seizing "sacred space" from the Turks, with no hint of any appeal to justice or compassion.  In Avalos' telling, the war is all about getting back Jerusalem, "consecrated because of the birth, preaching, and death of Jesus Christ." 

After putting recovery of "sacred space" front and center in explaining the First Crusade, Avalos spends some time discussing the "promise of transcendant rewards," the heavenly pay-back the Pope and other leaders promised those who went on crusades. 

But in all this, Avalos grossly misrepresents the historical records he cites. 

Here is how Fulcher actually describes the beginning of Urban's appeal to carry out the first crusade:

Hastening to the way, you must help your brothers living in the Orient, who need your aid for which they have already cried out many times.

For, as most of you have been told, the Turks, a race of Persians, who have penetrated within the boundaries of Romania even to the Mediterranean to that point which they call the Arm of Saint George, in occupying more and more of the lands of the Christians, have overcome them, already victims of seven battles, and have killed and captured them, have overthrown churches, and have laid waste God's kingdom . . .

Concerning this affair, I, with suppliant prayer -- not I, but the Lord -- exhort you . . . persuade all of whatever class . . . to strive to help expel that wicked race from our Christian lands before it is too late.

This puts Urban's speech in a different light!  In this account, the pope did NOT concentrate exclusively on Jerusalem at all, but referred to widespread imperialist jihad against Christians in Eastern Europe.

The other accounts of Urban's speech, aside from the Gesta version which is short and mentions neither geopolitics, nor the crimes of the Turks, nor Jerusalem, agree in stressing the following points, usually in this order: 

(1) The Turks had invaded and conquered "Christian lands."  This was plain historical fact: indeed, Christendom had shrunk by about half over the past 400 years, due to jihadist expansion.  (And much of the Middle East was, indeed, "occupied territory:" Christians were probably still a majority in many areas; a large, oppressed minority in others.)  Turkish attacks on Byzantine presented a renewal of what must have seemed, and indeed was, an existential threat to Europe. 

(2) It was the duty of Europeans to come to the aid of their fellow Christians, as the Byzantine emperor had requested. 

(3) Pilgrims headed to the Holy Land were being systematically despoiled, robbed, tortured, raped, and killed, one source says by the thousands, by Muslim occupiers. 

(4) According to Robert, Baldric, and Guibert, Urban emphasized the horror which the Turks visited on non-combatants:

We have heard, most beloved brethren, and you have heard what we cannot recount without deep sorrow -- how, with great hurt and dire sufferings our Christian brothers, members in Christ, are scourged, oppressed, and injured in Jerusalem, in Antioch, and the other cities of the East . . .

Robert describes various sadistic tortures inflicted by the Turks in vivid, bloody detail, which I will spare readers of this blog, adding:

What shall I say of the abominable rape of the women? . . . The kingdom of the Greeks is now dismembered by them and deprived of territory so vast in extent that it cannot be traversed in a march of two months . . .

(5) It is only AFTER detailing these horrors, that Urban begins to speak of the sanctity of Jerusalem, which in some accounts he does in some detail.  (The one exception is Guibert's version, in which Urban begins with Jerusalem, then goes on to the atrocities of the Turks.)

(6) Urban does, indeed, also talk about spiritual rewards for the crusades, also (in at least one account) some end-times scenarios. 

So the actual formula should be as follows:

Fact that Islam had conquered half of Christendom, including much of Europe, by this time.

+ F act that the Turks had recently conquered much of the Middle East, including much of the remaining Byzantine Empire. 

+  Fact that the Turks seemed an existential threat to surviving Christendom. 

+  Fact that the conquest and occupation had been and remained both bloody and cruel.

+  Fact that unarmed pilgrims to the Holy Land were being abused by the occupiers.

+  Fact that most occupants of the area were still Christians and Jews. 

+ Fact that these territories were of special importance to Christians. 

+ Promises of earthly trial, and

+ Heavenly rewards and Apocalypse Now. 

=  Call to the Crusades. 

Now why didn't Dr. Avalos say all that? 

Obviously, because telling the full story would carry the advantage of being historical truth, but the disadvantage of ruining his story.  The full story makes the Crusaders too reasonable for the argument which Avalos seeks to superimpose upon that story. 

Is this what Avalos means by creating a "canon within a canon?"  Has he made historical truth a "scarce resource" by forgetting these snippets of information -- "Oh, yes, the young man I described being beaten up by the old lady in the park did, actually, rob and beat her first . . . I didn't think those earlier details were germane to discussion of the violence her umbrella subsequently visited on him!"

Avalos "forgets" to tell us that much of the Middle East was, in fact, still occupied largely by Christians.  He says nothing about 400 years of Muslim "crusading" that had conquered half of Christendom, including large segments of Europe.  (Muslim raiders had even sacked Rome a few decades before.)  He neglects to mention the stress Urban laid, according to some reports, on supporting an ally that had lost much of its lands already to Turkish invaders.  He says nothing about the robbing of pilgrims.  Nor does he mention the tortures and murders that apparently weighed so heavily on Urban's mind. 

Avalos gives the impression that Urban woke up one morning, turned over in bed, and said to himself:

"By Gum!  We haven't murdered enough innocent civillians lately!  How about if we launch a Crusade to get back Jerusalem?  Always wanted to go there and walk in Jesus' footsteps.  I know: I'll promise a slice of heaven for every infidel our chaps kill!  This will be a great warm-up exercise for the coming Armageddon!" 

So the question arises: in the face of such gross misrepresentation of important historical facts, can we trust anything Avalos quotes from sources we haven't read?

I'm afraid the answer must be "no."  We cannot, apparently, trust any citations in this book without checking the originals for ourselves.  Where the original is not available, we must suspend judgement.  It is not, apparently, safe to cite Hector Avalos on the content of an historical text.   

Avalos does, it is true, later slip the fact that:

To be sure, many of the Crusades also involved political and economic motives, especially among the elite leaders.

But he does not mention moral motives, nor does he let his readers know that "sacred space" appears in most accounts of Urban only after a long discussion of actual invasions, threats, and attrocities that sound even today a lot like grounding for a "just cause." 

Avalos later also gives the false impression that the Crusaders killed everyone in Jerusalem.  In fact, many appear to have been spared.  He gullibly (or disengenuously) takes the report that the blood of the slaughtered went up to the bridles of horses at face value -- which is not physically possible -- and ascribes this great slaughter, not to the rules of war at the time (as Stark argues), but implying, for no valid historical reasons, that the Crusaders were following the model of Saul's slaughter of the Amalekites. 

The Crusades were, no doubt, violent, and some of those who went on them might be war criminals, by our standards. (As, no doubt, Dresden or Nagasaki might seem evil to the inquisitors, let alone to a Medieval like St. Francis of Assissi.) Both Crusaders and their enemies conducted war in a pretty normal manner for the time, as Rodney Stark shows in God's Battalions.  And Avalos grossly misrepresents the motives for which the Crusaders fought.
"Remember the coral reefs of Pearl Harbor!"
credit: Jon Loach
It may be that some Americans were especially angry at the Japanese for bombing so lovely a lagoon as Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941.  But it would be absurd to ascribe Dresden or Nagasaki purely to affrontery by crazed environmentalists over damage to the coral reefs of Oahu, and ignore little details like Japanese and German attacks on people.  Avalos' attempt to explain the Crusades as a stupid tither over sacred places, is no more plausible.

Next: Does Jesus command hatred?


Dr H said...

I'd be most interested in seeing how Avalos would respond to this particular line of critique because from my reading of the history of this era you both make some valid points.

To me, though, the key point is this, which both you and Avalos quote:

" not I, but the Lord -- exhort you "

Urban is in effect telling the people that God is commanding them to go to war. Whatever the other political and/or moral considerations, I find the notion of undertaking two centuries (at least) of war at God's behest, problematic.

Anonymous said...

Talk about a distortion of sources! In actuality there are mixed reports about any occurrences of violence done against Christians. For example Ibn al-'Arabi a Muslim visitor went to the holy land in 1092 explained how Jerusalem was thriving with religious devotion for Muslims, Christians and even Jews. He explained that Christians were allowed to keep their churches in good condition and there was no hint that any pilgrims were suffering from any abuse.

Secondly, Muslims took control of Christian lands hundreds of years prior so it's odd that Urban would “wake up one morning” and think, “Hey, those bastard Muslims. They took our land all those years ago. Let's go kill them.” No sorry your history doesn't add up.

It's also ironic how you downplay the religious motivations when even the section of Urban's speech you cite mentions religious motivations! My God man! The myopia! *shakes head, walks away *

“We cannot, apparently, trust any citations in this book without checking the originals for ourselves.”

LOL LOL LOL LOL LOL Woweee! Look who's talking?!?! LOL LOL LOL

David B Marshall said...

Tim: The issue here is how Urban justified the Crusades, not what "facts on the ground" some Muslim visitor claimed to find. Avalos misrepresented the sources. Got it? This isn't rocket science.

Also, while "Muslims" had conquered the Holy Land centuries before, what more specifically precipitated the Crusades was the more recent conquests of the Seljuk Turks.

I know it's too late to ask you to grow up -- apparently your appetite for making a fool of yourself is boundless -- so how about just, "Go away?"

David B Marshall said...

Dr. H: After I've completed the series -- some even more serious issues are coming up -- he probably does deserve the chance to defend himself.

David B Marshall said...

Dr. Avalos has read my critiques, and told me he doesn't have time to respond right now. I find this a plausible excuse, though of course hope he will recognize the weight of these criticms, and eventually deal with them.

Dr H said...

I await that moment with more anticipation that I awaited the Superbowl. ;)

XAtheistX said...

It is true what you write about aid but there are obvious religious purposes for the fighting. Like Dr. H said it was a call from God. The men fighting believed they were fighting for Christ. Here is a letter by a Christian from 1249 AD: "Because we know that you are uneasy about the state of the Holy Land and our lord, the king of France, and that you are interested in the general welfare of the church as well as the fate of many relatives and friends who are fighting for Christ under the king's orders, therefore, we think we ought to give you exact information as to the events of which a report has doubtless already reached you."

This primary source points to a religious motive.

domics said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
domics said...

"They know that victory for us means victory for religion. And they could not tolerate that. The world is too small to provide adequate "living room" for both Hitler and God... We on our side are striving to be true to that divine heritage. We are fighting, as our fathers have fought, to uphold the doctrine that all men are equal in the sight of God."
(Roosevelt, January 6, 1942).

It seems that primary source points to a religious motive for American intervention in the WWII!

David B Marshall said...