A crusade for better scholarship

The Crusades
April 14, 2000

Although in modern crusade historiography the classic field of study - the crusades to the East until the end of the 13th century and the settlements established by the crusaders in the Levant - plays less of a part than it once did, it remains central to the subject and certainly fires the imaginations of the general public more than does any other theatre of war or later campaign in the eastern Mediterranean region.

Until now most good scholarly work has been published by historians in the European tradition, but an odd, and to outsiders somewhat disreputable, feature of their publications is that, confronted by research that should require a range of non-European languages, very few have taken the trouble to acquire a reading knowledge of any of them. It is astonishing, on the face of it, that most historians have relied on what are often inaccurate, or at least partial, translations. The most important of these languages is Arabic, but of those who have tried to learn it, including myself, few have actually made much use of it. There are, of course, topics in which the contribution of Islamic written evidence is marginal, but for many its use would make a major difference. It is impossible, for example, to engage in research on the course of crusading in the Levant in the first half of the 13th century without making use of accounts such as that of Ibn Wasil. His work has never been available in a European language, and it is indicative that there does not ever seem to have been a demand for a full and accurate translation of it.

It is true that, with some distinguished exceptions, Islamists have not in general found crusading and Muslim resistance to it particularly exciting. Their indifference has encouraged the conviction among crusade historians that serious research into the Islamic side of the subject is impossible. The source material is thought to be limited to a few well-known narratives, and it is supposed that nearly all the documents have been lost or destroyed, in spite of Malcolm Lyons's use of the qadi al-Fadl's letters in Saladin and Peter Holt's treatment of 13th-century Mamluk treaties in Early Mamluk Diplomacy . And there are other neglected sources. Attention has recently been drawn, by Carole Hillenbrand herself among others, to the special importance of poetry, while the effect of a knowledge of languages in the related field of the later crusades was recently demonstrated in Nicolas Vatin's L'Ordre de Saint-Jean-de-Jérusalem, l'empire Ottoman et la Mediterranée Orientale , in which the author's knowledge of Turkish and use of archives in Istanbul provided his subject with a new dimension.

In no other field of scholarship would such a state of affairs be tolerated. It always amazes me that there is not more open criticism, because a consequence of ignorance and neglect is that much of the history written on the course of crusades or on the relations of the settlers with their Muslim neighbours is seriously deficient, being at the very least one-sided. But what is even stranger is that the response to this in the Arab world has not on the whole been to draw attention to the material that is available, but to write histories of the crusades from "the Arabic point of view" that tend to be pastiches of western ones - often resumes of Steven Runciman's History - with some pro-Islamic passages introduced. Everyone, therefore, in the East as well as in the West, has conspired to downplay the importance of the Arabic sources.

This is where the importance of Hillenbrand's book lies. It is a major contribution because, although limited to the period before 1291, it draws attention to the wealth of material that there is. Hillenbrand deals with the reactions of the Muslims to the first crusade and its successors, their promotion and changing understanding of the jihad , their views of westerners in general, including literary stereotypes, and their opinions about the settlers and the way of life in the settlements. She discusses warfare against the crusaders and settlers, and the military equipment employed, as presented in Arabic military manuals, narratives and debates about the conduct of war. She ends with an account of the way modern attitudes towards the crusades in the Arab world developed. Particularly interesting is her description of how stereotypes of westerners, which already existed in Arabic literature, were repeated when Muslims were confronted by crusaders in the flesh, and her treatment of modern Arab opinion. The book is profusely illustrated and the illustrations are on the whole well chosen.

Hillenbrand has set out to describe the impression the crusades, and particularly the Latin settlements in the east, made on Arabic writers. She succeeds in this, even if she does not provide enough examples of the way close attention to what the enemy was saying can enlarge our understanding of the course of individual crusades other than the first. I have two criticisms. First, Hillenbrand is not very knowledgeable about the history of the crusades in general and the western material on them. She might well reply that the point of her work was to concentrate on eastern sources. This would be fair were it not for the fact that she sometimes speculates in a way that would be unthinkable had she known more. For example, she draws attention to the recapture of Jerusalem by the Egyptians on August 26 1098 while the crusaders were in northern Syria, and then asks a series of questions about the part the Byzantine emperor might have played in forcing this decision on the Fatimid government and the thinking of the Egyptians with respect to the Franks, without appearing to know that the crusaders had been involved in detailed diplomacy with Egypt from at least the previous February, that a message from Constantinople to Cairo was intercepted by them and that envoys of the crusading army were held in Cairo for a year until the spring of 1099. Second, with one or two exceptions, the Arabic sources are not subjected to critical examination, partly, I think, because Islamists have always been more interested in a textual than a historical analysis of sources. Hillenbrand, moreover, does not often draw attention to contradictions in the evidence provided by her narratives. No one could gather from her description of the fall of the Hospitaller castle of Crac des Chevaliers to Baybars in 11 that the Arabic accounts conflict on dates and even events and are therefore very hard to reconcile.

I would not want anyone reading this review, however, to underestimate Hillenbrand's achievement. The book is not definitive, as she admits, but it provides a starting point. It is an argument for crusade historians to change direction, and it provides some of the signposts to follow. If in future there are serious attempts by historians of the crusades to make more use of the eastern material and to approach it more critically, this will have come about because Hillenbrand has made them realise how valuable it is. But they will have to stop relying on translations and to start reading the originals.

Jonathan Riley-Smith is professor of ecclesiastical history, University of Cambridge.

The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives

Author - Carole Hillenbrand
ISBN - 0 7486 0905 9 and 0630 0
Publisher - Edinburgh University Press
Price - £80.00 and £29.95
Pages - 648

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