Crusades and Holy Wars: Then and Now

Are crusades and jihad really still going on? What drives the conflicts especially between the Middle East and the West? These are the lead questions that will guide us when we look at almost a millennium of warfare between the great monotheistic religions Islam and Christianity. But we will look behind and beyond the rationales of the centuries of conflicts, be they religious or political or economic. What is it that perpetuates such conflicts and allows catchwords and catchphrases to be reborn and reused over and over again? Is there an inherent force in the way a story is told and retold? Does it create its myths or do the myths create the stories and even the locations? This community will explore the relationship between peoples, beliefs, and locations from the Middle East to the United States.

Inside the Classroom

This course has three primary objectives: (1) to develop and hone skills of critical analysis and self-evaluation, (2) to provide an introduction to the historiographical and artistic sources dealing with the representation of the crusades and other major conflicts of more recent history, and (3) to learn about different types of reading practices and evaluate the validity and value of academic and non-academic ways of interpreting texts of all sorts.

These goals will be reached through scholarly discussion in the classroom and exposure to works from diverse areas: historiography, philosophy, political statements will be examined to the same extent as works of literary, artistic, and filmic production. The authors of those works come from the early Middle Ages until today and from the Middle East as well as the West, their works will be in English or translations from Arabic, Latin, French, as well as German.

Looking at the history of warfare is complex enough. If we add the element of religion, the matter gets even more complicated because the motives of the people who participate in those wars are so diverse and extend beyond the realms of what can be resolved with material settlements. In the crusades, for instance, classically dated between 1097 and 1292, a huge mix of motivations played a role: There were the propagated religious reasons that had to do with the sanctity of the Holy Land and its occupation by “heathens,” the geopolitical situation with the power shifts between the Byzantine Empire and its Arab, Turkic, and Mongol adversaries, the strife between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches, and, not least, the struggle for predominance between the pope and the worldly princes in Europe, to name just a few. Economic motives on all sides complete the picture as well as social shifts that happened in all regions that were affected, whether where the crusaders originated from, where they traveled, or where they headed.

Neither during the time of the crusades nor in the centuries since, this complex web typically was analyzed, but people took refuge in more simple and simplistic explanations for what was going on and how, consequently, they were supposed to act. We will look at the complexities as well as how those simplifications happened—and were bound to happen. Beyond that, we will see that such reactions are not limited to the crusades, but try to determine how much this might be a general human reaction with which people up to our time react to events that seem too complex for them to cope. And we will look into the mechanisms and strategies that evolve over time—and how they may potentially not only be the result of making complex realities manageable, but become the nucleus of future conflict.

Outside the Classroom

One of the key terms we will look into is the sanctity of locations those (almost) mythological places may play in our perception of history and the identity we derive from it. To do so, we will look into locations that have their own myth in the narrative of our own American history such as The Alamo near San Antonio in Texas or the Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. Both locations clearly have two sides to their narrative, depending on which side tells the story. But for the topic of this course, there is one location that is second to none if we think in terms of sanctity of location: Jerusalem. The myth of the city long precedes the crusades and thus was in part a piece of the crusading history. But the city, through the crusades, gained new facets to the collection of its myths and narratives—elements that remain alive or are reawakened in the history of the 20th century and up to the modern political discourse in entirely new contexts.

Research and Capstone Experience

Holy Wars as well as the “sanctity” of locations will be the topic for the capstone project that the students will pursue in the course of their spring semester capstone experience. They will work in groups and determine themselves whether they will explore their subject in an artistic or in a research project. For this, they need not necessarily return to the great wars and locations they have studied and visited, but they might transfer their newly gained knowledge to what they find in front of their university doors, such as Richmond’s African Burial Ground, some of the Virginia battlefields or Civil War memorials, or, more currently, topics on Islamophobia or the protests about the erection of new mosques, etc.