Historical Debate

I quite liked Andrew Holt’s response to Matt Gabriele’s editorial in the Washington Post: “Islamphobes want to recreate the Crusades. But they don’t understand them at all.” Choice excerpt (emphasis added):

Professor Gabriele may well disagree with these historians [Riley-Smith, Madden, Frankopan, and Crawford, whom Holt quotes], and likely could make a compelling case in some instances. The crusades are complex, after all, and some issues can be approached in different ways. But one of the things I found most objectionable in his piece was the way he claimed to speak for “scholars of the crusades” when I think many of them, including some of the most influential and prominent, do not share his views. To the contrary, I think Gabriele’s seeming rejection of any defensive impetus to the birth of the crusading movement is, by far, the minority position. Although other issues are important to the birth of the crusading movement and sources must always be read critically, the primary emphasis of sources from the era, whether ecclesiastical or lay, highlight the defense of fellow Christians and Christian interests in the Holy Land as the main justification for the calling of the crusade.

I can understand Professor Gabriele not wanting to give ammunition to those on the political right with whom he disagrees, particularly when they make crass calls for medieval solutions to modern problems, but misrepresenting what scholars of the crusades think is not the way to do it, and will backfire in the end. Those he criticizes, after all, can read the same books and articles I provide above.

Read the whole thing.

Personality Type

Scholars in the humanities and social sciences seem absolutely obsessed with the categories of race, gender, and sexual orientation (and to a lesser extent social class, although old-school Marxism isn’t as cool as it once was). But I wonder if we don’t need to open new avenues of inquiry. As far as I’m aware, no one has analyzed any historical situation according to the enneagram or the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, even though personality type is far more useful in explaining human behavior than it’s given credit for.


The word “historiography” has two meanings of which I am aware: 1. the literal meaning, “the writing of history,” as in the Historiographer Royal that the Tudors employed and 2. “the history of history,” that is, a book or article that uses secondary sources as primary sources and charts the changing views of successive generations of historians toward a particular occurrence in the past. I favor the latter meaning for the word, because I also favor the restriction of the meaning of the word “history” itself to its academic sense of “the study of the human past as elucidated through documents” and not simply “whatever has happened in the past.” This is not academic snobbery, but humility – we can never know for certain what really happened in the past, but think we have a pretty good idea because we have documents that were composed by eyewitnesses to the events in question. That’s all that “history” ever is. And besides, to say that Prof. X’s new book on the Civil War is “a great work of historiography” is the sort of verbal inflation that saw “methodology” replace “method” and “discipline” replace “field” (See Paul Fussell, BAD, pp. 103, 102).


From R. Allen Brown, The Normans and the Norman Conquest (1968). Alas, this heresy is now orthodoxy:

It is a heresy, spreading among publishers and symptomatic of our ‘instant’ age, that footnotes put off even intelligent readers. Such readers should protest at the insult thus offered them behind their backs. Footnotes have an honourable place in history. They cite the authority for statement made, and they also lead all those who wish to follow into the deep woods, green pastures, and rewarding byways which lie on either side of the motorway of the text.


The Middle Ages Vindicated!

Tim O’Neill shows how the notion that “science made little progress in the Middle Ages” is false, a product of Renaissance and Enlightenment prejudice:

The standard view of the Middle Ages as a scientific wasteland has persisted for so long and is so entrenched in the popular mind largely because it has deep cultural and sectarian roots, but not because it has any real basis in fact.  It is partly based on anti-Catholic prejudices in the Protestant tradition, that saw the Middle Ages purely as a benighted period of Church oppression.  It was also promulgated by Enlightenment scholars like Voltaire and Condorcet who had an axe to grind with Christianity in their own time and projected this onto the past in their polemical anti-clerical writings. By the later Nineteenth Century the “fact” that the Church suppressed science in the Middle Ages was generally unquestioned even though it had never been properly and objectively examined.

It was the early historian of science, the French physicist and mathematician Pierre Duhem, who first began to debunk this polemically-driven view of history.  While researching the history of statics and classical mechanics in physics, Duhem looked at the work of the scientists of the Scientific Revolution, such as Newton, Bernoulli and Galileo.  But in reading their work he was surprised to find some references to earlier scholars, ones working in the supposedly science-free zone of the Middle Ages.  When he did what no historian before him had done before and actually read the work of Medieval physicists like Roger Bacon (1214-1294), Jean Buridan (c. 1300- c. 1358), and Nicholas Oresme (c. 1320-1382) he was amazed at their sophistication and he began a systematic study of the until then ignored Medieval scientific flowering of the Twelfth to Fifteenth Centuries.

What he and later modern historians of early science found is that the Enlightenment myths of the Middle Ages as a scientific dark age suppressed by the dead hand of an oppressive Church were nonsense.  Duhem was a meticulous historical researcher and fluent in Latin, meaning he could read Medieval scientific works that had been ignored for centuries.  And as one of the most renowned physicists of his day, he was also in a unique position to assess the sophistication of the works he was rediscovering and of recognising that these Medieval scholars had actually discovered elements in physics and mechanics that had long been attributed to much later scientists like Galileo and Newton.  This did not sit well with anti-clerical elements in the intellectual elite of his time and his publishers were pressured not to publish the later volumes of his Systeme de MondeHistoire des Doctrines cosmologiques de Platon à Copernic – the establishment of the time was not comfortable with the idea of the Middle Ages as a scientific dark age being overturned.  Duhem died with his painstaking work largely unpublished in 1916 and it was only the efforts of his daughter Helene’s 30 year struggle for her father’s opus to see the light of day that saw the whole 10 volume work finally released in 1959.

Read the whole thing. One of the Renaissance books I recently read (can’t remember which one) suggested that scientific enquiry (like the status of women) actually abated in the Renaissance, which was obsessed with art and literature, to the impoverishment of natural philosophy.