Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Blame the Crusades

April Fleming* blames the Crusades for the long hibernation of science:
Even though some science is much older than the Bible (not the theory of evolution, granted). Thanks to Persia** we still have some ancient science texts that are remarkably accurate. Most of the rest were destroyed in the crusades...
When I pointed out that the Crusades did not take place in Persia and asked how we know a) what was destroyed, and b) how we know that it was accurate if it was destroyed, she replied with this:
I was thinking mostly of the great library in Alexandria that was destroyed - a lot of what was smuggled out of there ended up in Persia, as one of the only safe places at the time for scientific thought. There are some interesting accounts*** of the raid of the library itself, by the people who salvaged what they could. They also noted some of what was lost.
It's a good answer - though by no means a correct one, for as I pointed out there (and here) that particular library was destroyed several times, the first a full millennium before the Crusades, the last at least 400 years before (by, in order, pagan Romans, pagan Romans, Christian Romans, and Muslims).

It seems that among a lot of the educated left, the Crusades are to blame for pretty much everything bad that happened between Caesar and Galileo, but in fact, they lasted for less than 2 centuries (1095-1291) and probably did very little damage to knowledge, much less science as we understand it today. The biggest effects were the permanent schism of Christianity and (ironically) at least the beginnings of the re-introduction of Greek learning in Western Europe****. In short, the Crusades had a larger and longer-lasting effect on Christianity than on anything outside it.

But let's just make a quick rundown of the Crusades (don't worry, it won't take long and will illustrate something very interesting):

First Crusade (1095-1101): Took Jerusalem from the Muslims (Seljuq) and established a number of "Crusader States," basically European-style vassal states around the Med. It was the only Crusade that was an unmitigated success.

Second Crusade (1147-8): Its only real success was in recovering Lisbon from the Moors. Lisbon, Portugul? Oh, yeah, did I forget to mention that much of Spain***** and Portugul were held by the Muslims at this time? The Muslims generally defeat the Christians outside Europe.

Third Crusade: (1189-92): The Muslim Saladin had taken Jerusalem, and the Europeans marched massive armies from Germany, France, and England to re-take it. When it was over, they left Jerusalem in Muslim hands and extracted a promise that Christian pilgrims could visit. Woohoo!

Fourth Crusade (1201-4): This is the only crusade that could have conceivably destroyed the library at Alexandria. Unfortunately, it never made it to Egypt and ended with the sacking of the (Orthodox) Christian city of Constantinople, an outrage denounced by Pope Innocent at the time and which was still being apologized for by Pope John Paul II.

The next crusade (Albigensian) was limited to the boundaries of modern France. The one after that (Children's) may or not have actually occured. If it did, it simply resulted in a lot of European Children sold into slavery. The improperly-named Fifth Crusade resulted in a defeat for the Christians. In the sixth, the German king mucked around Acre, the capital of the remnants of the Jerusalem Crusader state, but not much else happened.

I could go on, but are we getting the idea here? The Crusades other than the first one were simply border skirmishes between Christians and Muslims, centered on Jerusalem. They almost never resulted in the sack of a great city (the kind that might have a science library, like Constantinople) and for the most part were nothing more than European nobles trying to regain parts of the eastern Mediterranean taken by Muslims and Muslims trying to take it back.

They were an episode, a parenthesis in historical development, with each one trying to match the glory of the first and becoming more and more petty and venal as time went on. Eventually, even the Popes realized the futility of continued Crusades and called them off. The episode was all but finished by 1300.

But there is a strange irony in the fact that it is modern unbelievers who condemn Christianity so much for both the Crusades and (to a greater extent) the Inquisition, and that irony arises from the fact that most of what "we know" about the episodes comes from the pens of Protestant historians whose purpose was not to try to illuminate historical truth but to illustrate how bad the Catholic church was. For example, much of the "Black Legend" of the Inqusition was simply political hay made by the English Protestants in order to besmirch the Spanish Catholics and whip up public sentiment against them.

In fact, the non-Christians who believe the least-true accounts of both of these episodes are themselves victims of Christian propaganda. The lies of the Christians have come back to bite their descendants. And if the historically ignorant blame us for things that never happened, I can only say that, at least in the case of the Crusades, it's more our fault than theirs.

* Actually, this is not to pick on April, because while she's historically ignorant, at least she's woman enough to admit it and is willing to learn. Unlike too many on either side of the aisle, she's not one that argues simply for the sake of winning once it's been shown that the facts are the other way.

** Persia would have been an especially bad place to hide documents during the Crusades. Not because the Crusaders ever got there, but because the Persian Empire had fallen to the Islamic Turkish Seljuq Empire and the entire area was dividied into warring little kingdoms that refused to cooperate with one another. Besides being the major reason for Christian success in the first Crusade, that political environment makes it very difficult to preserve documents, especially those written in Greek and Latin, the tongues of those the Moslems considered both infidel and enemy. Documents written on paper are best preserved in a place where there's not a lot of burning and looting going on.

*** No, there aren't. At least not ones written at the time. We have no documentation that the fourth occurred, we can only infer the third from Christian writings that do not mention the library specifically (they are concerned with the Temple of Serapis nearby), and Seneca mentions that 40,000 scrolls were burned on account of Caesar, but he gives no details as to what they contained. Ammianus Marcellinus, writing about 400, seems to say that the library is a thing of the past - he gives no further details.

**** Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, had been fairly untouched in the 700 years following the fall of Rome in the West. But after the body blow delivered in the Fourth Crusade (and in the face of expansive Islam) a lot of the cultural accrual started turning up in Italy and France, eventually leading to the Renaisance.

***** In fact, it would not be until Ferdinand and Isabella three centuries later (in the 1490s) that Spain finally kicked out the last of those Muslims. Those wars, of course, provided a whole lot of experienced conquistadors who would follow in the wake of Cristoforo Columbo.

No comments: