Crusading

• Philip Jenkins reviews Jay Rubenstein’s Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream: The Crusades, Apocalyptic Prophecy, and the End of History (OUP, 2019)

By their own lights, the Crusades were remarkably successful. In a series of military struggles that had the church’s blessing, armed expeditions extended and reinforced the influence of Latin Catholic Christianity and of the Catholic Church. They conquered Mus­lim kingdoms in Spain and Sicily, subjugated pagan realms in the Baltic lands, and smashed heretical movements in southern France. For each outburst of militant zeal, warriors expected to receive all the spiritual benefits they would have received had they traveled to Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, however, was the Cru­sades’ one region of conspicuous failure. Christian forces could hold neither that holy city nor the territorial footholds they had secured throughout the Levant. In a brilliant and thoughtful book, Jay Rubenstein shows how that exception proved important to Latin Christian Europe and traces the legacy of that searing disappointment.

See Steve Donoghue’s review also.

• According to French forensic pathologist Philippe Charlier, King Louis IX died on crusade in 1270, not on account of dysentery, but on account of scurvy:

Caused by a lack of vitamin C, the painful and potentially fatal disease was the scourge of sailors until the turn of the 19th century.

While the local food in Tunisia where the Eighth Crusade landed in 1270 contained lots of vitamin-C rich salads and citrus fruit, the crusaders’ meat-heavy diet and Saint Louis’ extreme piety appears to have been his undoing.

“His diet wasn’t very balanced,” said Charlier… “He put himself through all manner of penances, and fasting. Nor was the crusade as well prepared as it should have been,” he told AFP.

“They did not take water with them or fruit and vegetables.”

More at the link.

Medieval Details

Currently reading Frederick Forsyth’s The Negotiator (1989). I was pleased to note that the late great Maurice Keen has a cameo role in it:

When Simon and Jenny came back he nodded benignly and told them: “You’re with Dr. Keen, I believe. Corner of the quadrangle, up the stairs to the top.”

When they reached the cluttered room at the top of the stairs their tutor in medieval history and introduced themselves, Jenny called him “Professor” and Simon called him “Sir.” Dr. Keen beamed at them over his glasses.

“Now,” he said merrily, “there are two things and only two that I do not allow. One is wasting your time and mine; the other is calling me ‘sir.’ ‘Dr. Keen’ will do nicely. Then we’ll graduate to ‘Maurice.’ By the way, Jenny, I’m not a professor either. Professors have chairs, and as you see I do not; at least not on in good repair.”

He gestured happily at the collection of semi-collapsed upholstery and bade his students be comfortable. Simon sank his frame into a legless Queen Anne chair that left him three inches off the floor, and together they began to consider Jan Hus and the Hussite revolution in medieval Bohemia. Simon grinned. He knew he was going to enjoy Oxford.

Alas, the author should have consulted with Keen about the contents of his book. On page 187 we read:

He had a light lunch in a small sandwich bar off the street, called Crutched Friars, where monks once hobbled with one leg bound behind them to cause pain for the greater glory of God, and he made up his mind what he would do.

Needless to say, the “Crutched Friars” didn’t use that type of crutch, at least not habitually. Their name derives from the Latin Fratres Cruciferi, meaning “cross-bearing brethren,” and refers to the staves that they carried with them, which were surmounted by crucifixes.

It’s somewhat like how Edmund Crouchback, younger brother of King Edward I, was not actually deformed, but simply a crusader, “crouchback” being a corruption of “cross-back,” referring to the crosses that crusaders would stitch onto their clothing.

Tony Horwitz, 1958-2019

From The Vineyard Gazette (hat tip: David Parker):

Author, Historian Tony Horwitz Dies

The West Tisbury author and historian Tony Horwitz died suddenly in Washington, D.C., on Monday, his wife Geraldine Brooks confirmed.

Mr. Horwitz was 60. He had been on tour for his new book, Spying on the South.

He was a longtime journalist and Pultizer Prize winner who wrote acclaimed historical nonfiction, including the best-selling Confederates in the Attic and Midnight Rising.

He lived year-round in West Tisbury, and was scheduled to appear at the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival this summer, among other things.

Claudius Meets Pollio and Livy

Currently rereading Robert Graves’s I, Claudius (1934), in the wake of teaching HIS 302 this past semester. I was taken with this section from Chapter 9, in which a young Claudius meets the historians Livy and Pollio and discusses competing theories of history writing.

***

Livy said: “The trouble with Pollio is that when he writes history he feels obliged to suppress all his finer, more poetical feelings, and make his characters behave with conscientious dullness, and when he puts a speech into their mouths he denies them the least oratorical ability.”

Pollio said: “Yes, Poetry is Poetry, and Oratory is Oratory, and History is History, and you can’t mix them.”

“Can’t I? Indeed I can,” said Livy. “Do you mean to say that I mustn’t write a history with an epic theme because that’s a prerogative of poetry or put worthy eve-of-battle speeches in the mouths of my generals because to compose such speeches is the prerogative of oratory?”

“That is precisely what I do mean. History is a true record of what happened, how people lived and died, what they did and said ; an epic theme merely distorts the record. As for your general’s speeches they are admirable as oratory but damnably unhistorical: not only is there no particle of evidence for any one of them, but they are inappropriate. I have heard more eve-of-battle speeches than most men and though the generals that made them, Caesar and Antony especially, were remarkably fine platform orators, they were all too good soldiers to try any platform business on the troops. They spoke to them in a conversational way, they did not orate. What sort of speech did Caesar make before the Battle of Pharsalia? Did he beg us to remember our wives and children and the sacred temples of Rome and the glories of our past campaigns? By God, he didn’t!…”

Livy said: ‘Pollio, my dear fellow, we were not discussing Caesar’s morals, but the proper way to write history.”

Pollio said: “Yes, that’s right. Our intelligent young friend [Claudius] was criticizing your method, under the respectful disguise of praising your readability. Boy, have you any further charges to bring against the noble Livy?”

I said: “Please, sir, don’t make me blush. I admire Livy’s work greatly.”

“The truth, boy! Have you ever caught him out in any historical inaccuracies? You seem to be a fellow who reads a good deal.”

“I would rather not venture…”

“Out with it. There must be something.”

So I said: “There is one thing that puzzles me, I confess. That is the story of Lars Porsena. According to Livy, Porsena failed to capture Rome, being first prevented by the heroic behaviour of Horatius at the bridge and then dismayed by the astounding daring of Scaevola; Livy relates that Scaevola, captured after an attempt at assassinating Porsena, thrust his hand into the flame on the altar and swore that three hundred Romans like himself had bound themselves by an oath to take Porsena’s life. And so Lars Porsena made peace. But I have seen the labyrinth tomb of Lars Porsena at Clusium and there is a frieze on it of Romans emerging from the City gate and being led under a yoke. There’s an Etruscan priest with a pair of shears cutting off the beards of the Fathers. And even Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who was very favourably disposed towards us, states that the Senate voted Porsena an ivory throne, a sceptre, a golden crown and a triumphal robe; which can only mean that they paid him sovereign honours. So perhaps Lars Porsena did capture Rome, in spite of Horatius and Scaevola. And Aruns the priest at Capua (he’s supposed to be the last man who can read Etruscan inscriptions) told me last summer that according to Etruscan records the man who expelled the Tarquins from Rome was not Brutus but Porsena, and that Brutus and Collatinus, the first two Consuls at Rome, were merely the City Stewards appointed to collect his taxes.”

Livy grew quite angry. “I am surprised at you, Claudius. Have you no reverence for Roman tradition that you should believe the lies told by our ancient enemies to diminish our greatness.”

“I only asked,” I said humbly, “what really happened then.”

“Come on, Livy,” said Pollio. “Answer the young student. What really happened?”

Livy said: “Another time. Let’s keep to the matter in hand now, which is a general discussion of the proper way to write history. Claudius, my friend, you have ambitions that way. Which of us two old worthies will you choose as a model?”

I looked from one face to the other. At last I said, “I think I would choose Pollio. As I’m sure that I can never hope to attain Livy’s inspired literary elegance, I shall do my best to imitate Pollio’s accuracy and diligence.”

“A joke is a joke, Pollio, and I can take it in good part. But there’s also a serious matter in
question and that is, the proper writing of history. It may be that I have made mistakes. What historian is free from them? I have not, at least, told deliberate falsehoods: you’ll not accuse
me of that. Any legendary episode from early historical writings which bears on my theme of the ancient greatness of Rome I gladly incorporate in the story: though it may not be true in
factual detail, it is true in spirit. If I come across two versions of the same episode I choose the one nearest my theme, and you won’t find me grubbing around Etruscan cemeteries in
search of any third account which may flatly contradict both — what good would that do?”

“It would serve the cause of the truth,” said Pollio gently. “Wouldn’t that be something?”

“And if by serving the cause of truth we admit our revered ancestors to have been cowards, liars and traitors? What then?”

I’ll leave this boy to answer the question. He’s just starting in life. Come on, boy, answer it!”

I said at random: “Livy begins his history by lamenting modern wickedness and promising to trace the gradual decline of ancient virtue as conquests made Rome wealthy. He says that he
will most enjoy writing the early chapters because he will be able, in doing so, to close his eyes to the wickedness of modern times. But in closing his eyes to modern wickedness hasn’t he sometimes closed his eyes to ancient wickedness as well?”

“Well?” asked Livy, narrowing his eyes.

“Well,” I fumbled. “Perhaps there isn’t so much difference really between their wickedness and ours. It may be just a matter of scope and opportunity.

“I hadn’t considered the matter before, that there are two different ways of writing history: one is to persuade men to virtue and the other is to compel men to truth. The first is Livy’s way and the other is yours: and perhaps they are not irreconcilable.”

***

This is always the issue, isn’t it? Of course, I stand with Claudius and Pollio here – call me a naive positivist, but I still believe there is such a thing as the truth, and we can get close to it if we really try. If you want to write a novel (say, like I, Claudius) then you should clearly label it as such. The trouble is that truth-seeking history really takes effort, as Livy notes, and if taken to extremes leads to tedious books like The Lion, the Lily, and the Leopard. There is nothing wrong with making a historical argument, or retelling a historical narrative, in a clear, compelling way. Just make sure that you don’t go too far in making things up, especially in the service of your fatuous politics (a shockingly common occurrence, I regret to admit).

John Lukacs, 1924-2019

From the New York Times (hat tip: Bruce Patterson):

John Lukacs, Iconoclastic Historian, Dead at 95

NEW YORK — John Lukacs, the Hungarian-born historian and iconoclast who brooded over the future of Western civilization, wrote a best-selling tribute to Winston Churchill, and produced a substantial and often despairing body of writings on the politics and culture of Europe and the United States, has died.

Lukacs died of heart failure early Monday at his home in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, according to his stepson, Charles Segal. He was 95 and had lived in Phoenixville since the 1950s.

A proud and old-fashioned man with an eminent forehead, cosmopolitan accent, and erudite but personal prose style, Lukacs was a maverick among historians. In a profession where liberals were a clear majority, he was sharply critical of the left and of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. But he was also unhappy with the modern conservative movement, opposing the Iraq war, mocking hydrogen bomb developer Edward Teller as the “Zsa Zsa Gabor of physics” and disliking the “puerile” tradition, apparently started by Ronald Reagan, of presidents returning military salutes from the armed forces.

“John Lukacs is well known not so much for speaking truth to power as speaking truth to audiences he senses have settled into safe and unexamined opinions,” John Willson wrote in The American Conservative in 2013. “This has earned him, among friends and critics alike, a somewhat curmudgeonly reputation.”

Lukacs completed more than 30 books, on everything from his native country to 20th century American history to the meaning of history itself. His books include “Five Days in London,” the memoir “Confessions of an Original Sinner,” and “Historical Consciousness,” in which he contended that the best way to study any subject, whether science or politics, was through its history.

More at the link.

A Professor Speaks Out

From Quillette, some confirmation of a theory of mine:

When first published, Zinn’s book was a disruptive and influential text, which would have made it a wonderful teaching tool then—but circumstances have changed. I know this because my classes were all Zinn, all the time (even though his textbook itself never made an actual appearance). In my head, this made my classes all about counter-narrative. But to my own students, my classes were just plain old… narrative.

Much more at the link.

Also:

There are two values in conflict here. One is the idea that engaging with an opposing idea makes the other idea stronger. The opposing position is that by engaging with other ideas, you make your own ideas stronger. Gay chose the latter approach, at some risk. Indeed, the prevailing logic among many is that by debating Sommers, Gay became just as “offensive” as Sommers herself.

It is hard to imagine anybody with more progressive bona fides than Gay, yet even she still feels somewhat apprehensive about engaging with ideological adversaries. This trend toward freezing out controversial ideas is a deadly threat to any trend in academia that even comes close to my own teaching approach. That career counselor was absolutely correct to recommend dropping any detailed discussion of my methods in my cover letter.

The Treaty of Versailles

From Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld (hat tip: Vox Day):

The Treaty of Versailles, the hundredth anniversary of which will be remembered in June of this year, has attracted more than its share of historical debate. What has not been said and written about it? That it did not go far enough, given that Germany lost only a relatively small part of its territory and population and was allowed to continue to exist as a unified state under a single government (French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau). That it went much too far, thus helping lay the foundations of World War II. That it imposed a “Carthaginian Peace” (the British economist John Maynard Keynes in his 1919 best-seller, The Economic Consequences of the Peace). That it was “made in order to bring twenty million Germans to their deaths, and to ruin the German nation” (according to a speech delivered in Munich on 13 April 1923 by a thirty-four year old demagogue named Adolf Hitler). All these views, and quite some others, started being thrown about almost as soon as the ink on the Treaty had dried. In one way or another, all of them are still being discussed in the literature right down to the present day.

But what was there about the Treaty that was so special? Was it really as original, as unique, as has so often been maintained? Was the brouhaha it gave rise to justified?

Read the whole thing.

Herodotus Vindicated!

From the Guardian (hat tip: Ace of Spaces):

Nile shipwreck discovery proves Herodotus right – after 2,469 years

Greek historian’s description of ‘baris’ vessel vindicated by archaeologists at sunken city of Thonis-Heraclion

Dalya Alberge

In the fifth century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus visited Egypt and wrote of unusual river boats on the Nile. Twenty-three lines of his Historia, the ancient world’s first great narrative history, are devoted to the intricate description of the construction of a “baris”.

For centuries, scholars have argued over his account because there was no archaeological evidence that such ships ever existed. Now there is. A “fabulously preserved” wreck in the waters around the sunken port city of Thonis-Heracleion has revealed just how accurate the historian was.

“It wasn’t until we discovered this wreck that we realised Herodotus was right,” said Dr Damian Robinson, director of Oxford University’s centre for maritime archaeology, which is publishing the excavation’s findings. “What Herodotus described was what we were looking at.”

In 450 BC Herodotus witnessed the construction of a baris. He noted how the builders “cut planks two cubits long [around 100cm] and arrange them like bricks”. He added: “On the strong and long tenons [pieces of wood] they insert two-cubit planks. When they have built their ship in this way, they stretch beams over them… They obturate the seams from within with papyrus. There is one rudder, passing through a hole in the keel. The mast is of acacia and the sails of papyrus…”

Robinson said that previous scholars had “made some mistakes” in struggling to interpret the text without archaeological evidence. “It’s one of those enigmatic pieces. Scholars have argued exactly what it means for as long as we’ve been thinking of boats in this scholarly way,” he said.

More at the link, including images. The baris appears in book 2, chapter 96 of The Histories.

Hierarchies or Networks?

An interesting observation by Niall Ferguson, from The Square and the Tower (2018):

Professional historians have until recently tended to ignore, or at least to downplay, the role of networks. Even today, the majority of academic historians tend to study the kinds of institution that create and preserve archives, as if those that do not leave an orderly paper trail simply do not count. My research and my experience have taught me to beware the tyranny of the archives. Often the biggest changes in history are the achievements of thinly documented, informally organized groups of people.

By the way, it only just occurred to me that “hierarchy” literally means “rule by priests,” parallel to monarchy (rule by one) or anarchy (rule by none). The Greek hiero- may be seen in such English words as hieroglyphics, hieratic, or hierophant. Presumably our sense of “hierarchy” derives from the Roman Catholic Church, whose hieroi really are organized in a top-down command structure.

A Good Laff

From The Onion:

Self-Actualized Historians Urge Nation Not To Get Hung Up On The Past

CAMBRIDGE, MA—Warning that nothing was more dangerous than focusing on yesterday’s mistakes instead of being present right here and right now, self-actualized historians at Harvard University urged Americans not to get all hung up on the past. “Now more than ever, we must remember: A society that dwells on what it did 200 years ago is basically trapping itself inside its own head, when it could reach its full potential by simply saying, ‘Hey, whatever happened, happened,’ and making the decision to live for today,” said Dr. Andrew Gordon, cautioning society against relitigating the Crusades, fixating on the actions of Nazi Germany, or preoccupying themselves with the horrors of slavery, since life is going on all around us and won’t wait until you’re ready for it. “I used to harp on how Japan’s rapid late-19th-century industrialization affected attitudes towards underclass Meiji women, which still cause dark rifts in their culture all these decades later. But I can’t change any of that, so what’s the point? Global leaders and citizens alike need to realize you can’t keep your head in a bad place all day. Bad things happened, sure, but bad things happen to everyone. There are a million sides to every story, so come on—let’s begin writing our story.” Dr. Gordon’s new historical interpretation was challenged by traditional historians, who continue to urge Americans to obsess over every wrong thing they’ve ever done, each instance of which demonstrates our helplessness against a bleak future that we are and have always been incapable of changing.