17.02.16, Morton, Encountering Islam on the First Crusade

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Niall Christie

The Medieval Review 17.02.16

Morton, Nicholas. Encountering Islam on the First Crusade. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. pp. xi, 319. ISBN: 978-1-107-15689-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Niall Christie
Langara College

The question of the motives and attitudes of the participants in the First Crusade has increasingly engaged scholars in recent decades, and has been addressed in a number of important studies, of which the best known are probably the late lamented Jonathan Riley-Smith's The First Crusaders (1997) and The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading (1986). One might be tempted, then, to ask why we need another book on this topic. Nicholas Morton's Encountering Islam on the First Crusade is an outstanding response to this question, demonstrating that there is still much to be discussed and that the evidence of the sources can still be understood in new and fascinating ways. As a result, his book is essential reading for those interested in what the first crusaders thought of their enemies.

In the introduction to the book, Morton lays out the aim of his work: to explore how the first crusaders understood the peoples of the Levant, and how they drew on their own experiences and the resources that were available to them in order to do so. As the discussion proceeds it becomes clear that his primary focus will be on the Franks' relations with the Turks, who had recently established themselves as the ruling powers in much of the Levantine region, and who feature most prominently in the western crusading sources. Morton then goes on to survey previous scholarship on the topic, before laying out his terminology and methodologies. One particularly noteworthy part of the latter is his consideration of how far western European sources' depictions of the east can be trusted; while remaining suitably cautious, Morton suggests that we need to avoid the easy temptation to be over-skeptical of accounts that seem on the surface to be fanciful, when in fact deeper exploration of other sources from the time can reveal kernels of unexpected truths hidden in these accounts.

Five chapters follow. The first, "Predicates," surveys European experiences of Muslims before the crusading period, noting, in particular, that unlike other threats such as the Vikings or Magyars, which eventually receded, the Muslims continued to pose a danger, becoming the "normative' enemy" (41) for Europeans. This state of affairs conditioned Europeans' views of Muslims, as can be seen in both theological works of clerics and the epic and chanson literature that circulated among the knightly class. One particularly interesting point that Morton notes is that European writers of the time drew a distinction between Islam and Muslims, i.e. the religion and its adherents; Muslims were seen as mistakenly following a false religion rather than inherently evil themselves, which meant that they were capable of redemption if only they turned to the true faith. This opened up the possibility for tolerance and co-operation between Franks and Muslims even before the onset of the crusades.

Chapter 2, "The Launch of the First Crusade," begins with the valuable observation that when Urban II launched the First Crusade, he "did the same thing that rulers across the Near East and Southern Asia (whether Islamic, Hindu, or Christian) had been doing for over a century: he launched a campaign against the Turks" (67). Morton then goes on to place the threat that the Turks posed to the Byzantine Empire within the wider context of the various regions into which they ventured, noting that the First Crusade was simply the latest (and possibly most successful) response that was made to their activities. This then leads Morton into an analysis of the motives of both Pope Urban and the crusaders, as it is presented in the various accounts of Pope Urban's sermon at Clermont and other sources. He concludes that the primary motivator for the crusaders seems to have been the desire to reach Jerusalem, with fighting the Turks, about whom the participants' knowledge was clearly sparse, having been a secondary incentive and an objective that was probably more important to the pope than it was to his listeners.

In chapter 3, "The First Crusade and the Conquest of Jerusalem," we accompany the crusaders on their expedition, as Morton leads us through a detailed examination of the impressions that the crusaders had of their enemies now that they were encountering them face-to-face; these include not only military aspects, but also crusader impressions of the Turks' hierarchies, culture and religion. Nor does Morton neglect the Arab Muslims whom the crusaders encountered, and he also offers some interesting thoughts on the wars between the (Sunni) Saljuqs and the (Shi'ite) Fatimids, suggesting that the Frankish sources at least give the impression that the root of the Saljuq-Fatimid conflict may have been ethnic rather than religious; this is an intriguing suggestion that would bear further investigation, especially in the Arabic sources from the period. Morton then goes on to consider how far the Muslims were important to the crusaders, rejecting the binary model of "good" crusaders vs. "bad" Muslims, and instead noting that the Muslims are often presented as instruments of God intended to test the crusaders' faith and punish them for misdeeds. (Interestingly, the crusaders occupy a similar position in some of the Muslim sources from the period.) This allows Morton to establish a new binary, in that the "other" for the crusaders was actually God, as a positive ideal to which they aspired. In the meantime, in the sources we see again the distinction between Islam and Muslims, with the crusaders generally hating Islam but not the Muslims. Thus in the wake of the massacre at Jerusalem (which Morton also discusses), the Franks were able to establish peaceful relations with some of their foes, while we see the establishment of another binary in the sources, those who follow the will of God and those who do not, a definition that transcends the religious boundaries and represents the wider battle of God vs. the Devil.

Chapter 4, "Aftermath," examines the impressions that the writers of the Frankish sources formed of non-Christians in the wake of the conquest of Jerusalem, as part of their wider attempt to understand what had just happened. Since most of the authors were not direct participants in the crusade, or making wide use of accounts by crusaders, we do not witness a sudden improvement in their knowledge of Muslims. Instead, their descriptions of the non-Christian enemy are often filtered through a mixture of Biblical perspectives and Classical sources, leavened with some Byzantine sources and some occasional details that do seem to come from accounts of participants in the crusade, resulting in images that are highly variable and for the most part inaccurate. Meanwhile, their views of the East itself are multifaceted, presenting us with a place that they saw as simultaneously a frontier but also the centre of their faith, both foreign and yet also familiar.

With chapter 5, "The Impact of the Crusade," Morton considers the question of whether or not the First Crusade let to a worsening of relations between the Muslim world and Christian Europe. He examines a variety of sources, especially those written away from the immediate frontiers between Muslims and Christians; this includes taking a new approach drawn from historians of the modern period, quantifying references to Muslims (effectively "column inches") in (mostly ecclesiastical) letter collections. On the basis of his sources he concludes that while the First Crusade created a short period of interest among the western writers in Muslims and the events in the East, soon after they returned to their own, more locally-focused concerns, and interest was only taken again on those occasions when the Muslims posed an immediate threat to Christian control of Jerusalem. Probably the greatest impact the First Crusade had was on chanson literature, which saw a popularization of the theme of wars between Muslims and Christians. However, it did not lead to a wider escalation of tensions between Christian Europe and the Muslim states of the eastern Mediterranean.

In his conclusion, Morton sums up what his evidence reveals, noting that the main conflict in western Europe and the eastern Mediterranean was not seen as being between Muslims and Christians, but rather between God and the Devil, a struggle in which the Muslims were sometimes minor participants. Instead, the greatest enemy that Christians in general and the crusaders in particular faced was themselves, with the fate of their souls being the issue at stake. In the process, Morton refutes the Huntingtonian "clash of civilizations" paradigm, showing that the attitudes of the crusaders to their Muslim enemies were in fact extremely complex, leaving scope for not only conflict but also tolerance and even co-operation. Thus any view of the First Crusade as initiating a clash of civilizations reflects the views and agendas of those writing about the period, rather than the realities of the period itself.

In this book Morton's approach to his research is methodical and meticulous, making careful and comprehensive use of the sources, but without being unadventurous or plodding. At times his writing includes positively entertaining turns of phrase ("Thus, the chansons resemble works of theology in the same way that a sledge hammer resembles a surgical laser" [59]), and he employs new and innovative approaches to his source material. The result is a thorough, wide-ranging, incisive study that opens up new lines of research, poses thought-provoking challenges to conventional wisdom, and offers novel and convincing interpretations of the source material. I recommend it highly to students and scholars of the crusades, as well as interested laypersons.

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