Crusader Castles and Modern Histories

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For the last 150 years the historiography of the Crusades has been dominated by nationalist and colonialist discourses in Europe and the Levant. These modern histories have interpreted the Crusades in terms of dichotomous camps, Frankish and Muslim. In this revisionist study, Ronnie Ellenblum presents an interpretation of Crusader historiography that instead defines military and architectural relations between the Franks, local Christians, Muslims and Turks in terms of continuous dialogue and mutual influence. Through close analysis of siege tactics, defensive strategies and the structure and distribution of Crusader castles, Ellenblum relates patterns of crusader settlement to their environment and demonstrates the influence of opposing cultures on tactics and fortifications. He argues that fortifications were often built according to economic and geographic considerations rather than for strategic reasons or to protect illusory 'frontiers', and that Crusader castles are the most evident expression of a cultural dialogue between east and west.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This is a highly important study...I earnestly recommend this book for its splendid survey of the historiography, its provocative questioning of accepted 'truths' about Frankish fortresses and its incisive and convincing re-interpretation of the history of the crusader castle in the twelve century."
Jonathan Phillips, The Journal of Military History

"While his archaeological arguments could stand alone, Ellenblum's presentation of them together with the historiography was a risk worth taking. His academic prose is difficult, but readers will be rewarded, and in the process, simplisitic views of the Crusades will be banished."
-Alexander H. Joffe, Middle East Quarterly

"In this thought-provoking study, Ronnie Ellenblum sets out to challenge current approaches to the study of Crusader castles, which he sees as hamstrung by out-dated nationalist and colonialist ways of thinking. He argues that their architectural development should be understood more in terms of a continuing military dialogue between East and West than of architectural borrowings, and that their geographical distribution may be better explained in terms of Frankish settlement than of a desire to defend frontiers."
-Denys Pringle, H-France

"A short review like this cannot do justice to the depth of this book, which picks up in masterly fashion where his last book left off. Ellenblum's arguments put forward in the "crusader castles" portion of the book will have to be engaged by all historians of the Latin East. He has given us a new way to approach not just the building of crusader fortifications but the complex dynamics that cause them to be built in the first place."
Thomas F. Madden, Speculum- A Journal of Medieval Studies

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521860833
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 8/31/2006
  • Pages: 374
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 1.02 (d)

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Cambridge University Press
978-0-521-860833 - Crusader Castles and Modern Histories - by Ronnie Ellenblum


National discourse and the study of
the Crusades


From moral failure to a source of pride

On 11 April 1806, the Classe d'Histoire et de Littérature Ancienne of the Académie Française announced the subject for its annual historical competition. The participants were asked to ‘Examine the effects which the Crusades had on the civil liberties of the peoples of Europe, on their civilisation, and on their progress towards enlightenment, commerce, and industry’. In other words, in 1806 the French Academy called for a reassessment of the Crusades in the light of the ideas of the French Revolution. The two prize-winners, announced on 1 July 1808, were Maxime de Choiseul-Daillecourt, a 26-year-old Frenchman, and Arnold Hermann Ludwig Heeren, a professor of history at the University of Göttingen. The manuscript submitted by the third candidate, Jan Hendrik Regenbogen, who would later become a professor of theology in Leiden, was lost in the mail.1

All three essays were true to the dictated guidelines and all of them portrayed the positive influence of the Crusades on Western civilisation as being all-inclusive and discernible in almost every cultural and material aspect of human life. They succeeded in tracing the positiveinfluence of the Crusades even in such unexpected areas as the status of the peasantry, land ownership, development of the feudal system, court life, abolition of the duel as an instrument of justice, ascendancy of papal power, fine arts, geography, history, mathematics, astronomy, languages, poetry, and music. All these were mentioned in addition to aspects of medieval life in which the influence of the Crusades could be considered ‘natural’, such as the creation of the military orders, chivalry, heraldry, weaponry, commerce with Asia, the growth of Italian cities, maritime navigation, architecture, naval law, hospitals, and many more. All three authors, however, perceived the Crusades as a pan-European phenomenon which could not be ascribed to any particular nation or specific national movement: they were not defined as ‘French’, ‘German’, or ‘English’. Even Gothic architecture, one of the ‘positive aspects of the Crusades’, was not yet interpreted as being more French or German than Syriac, Saracen, or Lombard.2

This functional and positive approach, which ignores any ethical or theological considerations, was indeed a novel perception of the Crusades. Early modern writers were more occupied with the negative morality implied by their failure. Many of them depicted the Crusades as a quasi-mythological epic that had begun heroically and ended in ignominy. The only way to resolve the apparent contradiction between the praiseworthy origin and the disastrous end was to provide readers with moral and theological justifications fitting for such an epic.3

Until then, the moral discourse had been based on the general understanding that the Crusades were a failure and that such failure deserves an appropriate, i.e., moral, explanation. Since there was punishment, obviously there had also been sin. The nature of the sins, however, and the exact identity of the sinners were disputed. Early modern Protestant authors tended to put the blame for the immoral nature of the Crusades on the papacy and the Catholic Church, whereas contemporary Catholic writers tended to rehabilitate the religious leaders and accuse the bearers of the Cross themselves (mainly for being too naïve and disobedient). But both Catholic and Protestant scholars applied an ethical yardstick when considering the impact of the Crusades on history.

The early nineteenth-century French royalist scholar Joseph-François Michaud (1767–1839) suggested, in the fourth volume of his monumental history of the Crusades (published in 1822), a threefold division of Crusader historiography: a period of favourable perception, which characterised the seventeenth century ‘when scholars tended to admire the bearers of the Cross and to esteem their motives’; a second period (mainly during the eighteenth century) when ‘scholars who were inspired by Protestant manner of thinking’ condemned the Crusades; and a third period, which had already begun in the 1760s, when the tide changed again ‘in the right direction’.4 Michaud attributed the last phase to Scottish philosopher William Robertson, ‘who was greatly influenced by the analytical spirit of research’ and was therefore able to point to ‘the great contribution of the Crusades to progress, freedom, and the advent of the human spirit’. But in accusing Protestant scholars and ‘their followers’ of condemning the Crusades, and in claiming that seventeenth-century scholars were less hostile towards the Crusades, Michaud ignored the moral discourse that had been going on unceasingly since the sixteenth (and in many ways since the thirteenth) century. Michaud was right in pointing out the great contribution of Protestant thinkers to the renewal of this discourse.5

Thomas Fuller, a sixteenth-century Cambridge-educated doctor of divinity, summarised the Protestant moral attack on Crusader history.6 Directing poisonous arrows at the leadership, Fuller accused the papacy of spilling blood unnecessarily, arrogance,7 disregarding treaties, and even placing itself in a position superior to God himself.8 The popes did not hesitate, he maintained, ‘to exploit every simpleton’; the kingdom of England, especially, was ‘the pope's pack-horse . . . which seldom rested in the stable when there was any work to be done.’9 The greedy Catholic Church, which always knew how to ‘buy earth cheap and sell heaven dear,’10 made a profit even from the Crusades. ‘Some say’, he wrote, that ‘purgatory fire heateth the pope's kitchen; they may add, the holy war filled his pot, if not paid for all of his second course.’11

But Fuller also does not spare the rank-and-file Crusaders from the lash of his tongue. ‘Many a whore was sent thither to find her virginity; many a murderer was enjoined to fight in the Holy War, to wash off the guilt of Christian blood by shedding blood of Turks.’ The established Catholic royal houses which degenerated into disobedience, greed, and actual treason, were, however, even worse. ‘One may wonder’, he concluded, ‘that the world should see most visions when it was most blind; and that age, most barren in learning, should be most fruitful in revelations.’12 Fuller, like Martin Luther, Matthew Dresser, John Foxe, and other Protestant writers, deals with the Crusades from the moral point of view. In his opinion all the Crusades were a momentous moral failure; since they were born in sin, they failed because of their moral weaknesses.

Michaud was correct in claiming that Protestant authors were the vanguard of the Crusades' critics, but he also ignored the fact that such criticism had begun long before them, coming from the plumes of writers who were not Protestants yet levelled no less harsh ethical accusations against the Crusades. As already noted, many Catholic writers participated in the moral debate, although they usually succeeded in finding points of merit in the failed expeditions. There were Catholic scholars who glorified the Crusades for their heroic deeds and ‘honoured the French court and nobility’ of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but they were in the minority.13 An equivocal attitude towards the Crusades is exemplified by Joseph de Guignes, who describes the Crusades both as a demonstration of heroic zeal and as a devastating experience for the entire continent.14

Another Catholic author, Charles Lebeau, secretary of the French Academy in the third quarter of the eighteenth century,15 depicts the Crusades as ‘the culmination of human evil’, as ‘devoid of any theological or moral justification’, and as an episode that emanated from the ‘lust for power and senseless chivalry’. But at the same time he tends to forgive the bearers of the Cross ‘because of their pure intentions’. ‘It is true’, he says, ‘that a man cannot be a martyr because of an act of war and the gates of Heaven could not be opened by the threat of a sword, but we still owe some respect to these simple and pure souls who sacrificed their own lives in these wars.’16 Lebeau, a Catholic, condemned the Crusades because of their immorality but refrained from condemning the popes who led them,17 or the ‘heroes’ and ‘pure souls’ who participated in them.18

Ethical discourse also dominated the writings of Voltaire (1694–1778) on the Crusades. Combining absolutist ideology with admiration for Louis XIV, in his Histoire des Croisades (first published in 1751)19 Voltaire traced the progress of Western civilisation,20 which he believed attained its apogee during the reign of Louis XIV.21 For him, the fall of the Latin kingdom was a natural result of the weakness of its leadership, which he labelled ‘a band of corrupt and ignorant criminals’.22

Following his own absolutist ideas, Voltaire blamed the leadership for establishing a morally corrupt and unjust central government, whereas Diderot's rationalist Encyclopédie, which shared a negative attitude towards the Crusades, eschewed any religious standpoint.23 ‘It was hard to believe’, said the compiler of the Encyclopédie, ‘that . . . rulers and ordinary people could eventually not understand their own real interests . . . and drag a part of the world [into conquering] a small and unfortunate country in order to shed the blood of its populations and get control of a rock.’ ‘The Crusaders’, he wrote, ‘combined the political interests of the Pope together with the hatred of the Muslims, the ignorance and suppressive authority of the greedy clergy, and the bloodthirstiness of their rulers . . .’ The popes and the rank-and-file Crusaders were to blame for the failure of this endeavour:

The dizziness passed from the crazed head of a pilgrim to the ambition-filled head of the pope and thence to the heads of all the rest . . . The Crusades served as a pretext for indebted peoples not to pay their debts; for evil-doers to avoid punishments for their crimes; for undisciplined clergymen to free themselves from the burden of their ecclesiastical state; for restless monks to leave their monasteries; for lost females to continue freely in their behaviour . . . Those whose duty it was to prevent all these . . . did not do so either because of their stupidity or because of their political interests . . . Peter the Hermit . . . led an army of eighty thousand robbers . . . how could we label them differently remembering the horrors they committed on their way – robbery, slaughter . . .

Eighteenth-century German scholars also shared this critical attitude, accusing the Crusaders of being barbarians who acted according to the standards of their time: ‘Urban and Peter!’ exclaims Wilhelm Friedrich Heller in 1780, ‘the corpses of two millions of men lie heavy on your graves and will fearfully summon you on the day of judgement.’24

It should be noted, however, that not all scholars of the time held such negative views of the Crusades. There were some, in both the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries, who considered them to be a positive and important episode, but these were generally a small minority of scholars who were loyal to the royal courts of their day and to their own social class – the nobility. Louis Maimbourg, for example, a Jesuit priest and an enemy of the Jansenists who was a courtier of Louis XIV, refrains from dealing with the Crusaders' moral behaviour; his positive attitude stemmed from what he considers to have been their incomparable heroic greatness and deep Christian faith and sacrifice, and his own conviction that their heroic deeds had brought honour upon the French court and nobility. He wrote a history of the Crusades, dedicating it humbly to Louis XIV. From the introduction one learns that his work is intended for members of the nobility. He addresses his fellow nobles directly, assuring them that his book contains the names of all nobles mentioned in the sources at his disposal. However, should anyone ‘of quality’ claim that one of his forefathers who participated in the holy wars is not mentioned in the text, he is requested to send the author the historical documentation in his possession.25

Maimbourg was not alone. Other authors dealt in similar fashion with what they believed to be the positive role of the Crusades and their importance for French nobility. Such writings formed part of a genre which resulted from conservative political thinking and a desire to link present-day nobility to that of ancient France. Thus Jean Baptiste Mailly (1744–94) placed the Crusades on the same level as the Ligue and the Fronde, counting them among ‘the principal events in the history of France’.26 It was not by chance that the Crusades were compared to those two great pro-monarchist episodes; this fitted in well with the political outlook of such authors.

Obviously, therefore, the controversy over the Crusades between the two schools – as suggested by Michaud – was not limited to the opposing views of the positive outlook on the Crusades, ‘which was prevalent in the seventeenth century’, and the negative one, ‘prevalent in the eighteenth century’. The controversy centred primarily around the degree to which the Crusades were morally justified and arose because it was universally admitted that they were indeed a failure.

A real conceptual change in the general attitude towards the Crusades can be discerned in a treatise written by Scottish pastor and philosopher William Robertson in 1769, but the roots of the change were already evident in the writing of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz a century earlier. Robertson, who was, together with Gibbon and Hume, one of the most important philosophes of the enlightenment in the British Isles, was not interested in the Crusades per se but in the development of society from the Roman period until the sixteenth century.27 He certainly shared his predecessors' moral negative outlook on the Middle Ages, which he conceived as a dark and ignorant epoch filled with ‘deeds of cruelty, perfidy and revenge so wild and enormous as almost to exceed belief’. But although he claimed that the Crusades were ‘a singular monument of human folly’, he did succeed in discerning indirect positive aspects in the very departure to the East.28

Robertson believed that while crossing more civilised countries on their way to the Holy Land, the Crusaders were deeply impressed and later influenced by the advanced cultures. This was ‘the first event that rouzed Europe from the lethargy in which it had been long sunk, and that tended to introduce any change in government, or in manners’. Is it possible, he asked himself, for people to pass through civilised countries or a city like Constantinople without being influenced?

Their views enlarged, their prejudices wore off; new ideas crowded into their minds; and they must have been sensible on many occasions of the rusticity of their own manners when compared with those of a more polished people . . . And to these wild expeditions, the effect of superstition or folly, we owe the first gleams of light which tended to dispel barbarity and ignorance.29

Passing through more developed countries explains, in Robertson's view, the appearance of splendid princely courts and ceremonies, more refined manners, the romantic spirit, etc. In other words, although he severely criticises the Crusades per se, Robertson does not ignore their positive side effects, which emanated from the very awareness of the existence of more developed cultures. Like Voltaire, Robertson tries to fathom the transition from a barbarian to a civilised society (he was one of the first to use the word ‘civilisation’), but unlike Voltaire he developed a theory of the unconscious influence of cultured (Eastern and Italian) peoples upon the barbarians (the Crusaders) who crossed their lands. Robertson, therefore, does not praise the Crusades, but acknowledges them to be a critical stage in the development of Western civilisation and recognises the usefulness of journeys to the East. It seems that this point of view was influenced more by the popularity of the ‘Grand Tour’ than by the ‘analytical spirit of research’ which Michaud ascribed to him.

Robertson's views on the essence of civilisations and the manner in which they were imparted to others are worthy of wider discussion and more serious thought. However, what is important and relevant to our analysis of the Crusades, is that Robertson did not treat the expeditions merely as an episode which should be condemned on ethical grounds. He considered them to be an important, perhaps even critical, phase in the development of Western civilisation, recognising the advantages they offered the European nations. This utilitarian attitude, which evaluates the Crusades on the basis of their indirect influence, was the assumption which lay at the basis of the competition held by the Académie Française in 1808.

The influence of this way of interpretation can be better understood against the background of the Napoleonic wars, in the course of which, for the first time since the thirteenth century, the East was reconquered by a European power. Napoleon's conquest of Egypt had an appreciable effect on the creation, once again, of a positive view of the Crusades and on the replacement of the moral attitude characteristic of most scholars who dealt with them until the late eighteenth century by a more utilitarian viewpoint. In the late 1790s, while Napoleon and France were gaining in strength, a document was discovered anew in Hanover which had been written over a century earlier, in 1672, by the philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (1646–1716) and which even then hinted, according to some of its readers, at long‐term French plans to gain control of Egypt.

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

Part I. National Discourse and the Study of the Crusades: 1. From moral failure to a source of pride; 2. The narrative of the Crusades and the nationalist discourse; 3. Nationalist discourse and Crusader archaeology; Part II. Crusader Studies Between Colonialist and Post-Colonialist Discourse: 4. Colonial and anti-colonial interpretations; 5. Who invented the concentric castles?; 6. 'Crusader cities,' 'Muslim cities,' and the post-Colonial debate; 7. Crusader castle and Crusader city: is it possible to differentiate between the two?; Part III. Geography of Fear and the Spatial Distribution of Frankish Castles: 8. Borders and their defence; 9. Borders, frontiers, and centres; 10. The geography of fear and the creation of the Frankish Frontier; 11. The distribution of Frankish Castles during the twelfth century; Part IV. The Castle as Dialogue between Siege Tactics and Defence Strategy: 12. Siege and defence of castles during the First Crusade; 13. Frankish siege tactics; 14. Development of Muslim siege tactics; 15. Sieges of the 1160s and 1170s and the appearance of the concentric castles; 16. The construction of a frontier castle: the case of Vadum Iacob; 17. The last years of the Latin kingdom: a new balance of power; Conclusion.
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