Those who do not learn history

…are doomed to parrot falsehood, to the detriment of all.

Considering the modern propensity to re-evaluate historical figures and periods by modern standards, you’d think we would spend more time actually studying history than we do. Unfortunately most of us continue on, regurgitating the ideas and memes we hear tossed around in popular culture and comment-thread debates without question.

That’s one conclusion I’ve reached from my experience with David Abulafia’s “The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean“. It seems as though any time a discussion of religion comes up these days someone eventually points at The Crusades as proof, PROOF, that religion is a terrible thing, and the sole cause of all misery throughout history. While there is no denying the Crusades were induced by religion, books like Abulafia’s make it clear that such things never happen in a vacuum.

Taken as a whole, Mediterranean history demonstrates clearly that religion is only one of many driving factors of change in the world. Only a fraction of the conquests of the Old World were directly religious in nature. Resources and the lack thereof account for far more conflict than religion ever did. Conducting war is an expensive business, and war on anything beyond a small scale was something few rulers undertook lightly. While there are those notable nations and individuals who sought conquest for its own sake, most peoples preferred trade as a means of keeping themselves going. More often wars arose when one party or another tried to control or stop trade, while religion mainly served to help define the “other” when convince people to go fight.

As for religion, Mediterranean history is rife with it. Most religions of antiquity aren’t around any more, and I doubt there are many who miss “the good old days of Moloch, when they sacrificed children through immolation. With the exception of Judaism, none of the main religions we think about when we cast back through history for examples even existed prior to the meridian of time. Christianity and Islam, on a historical scale, are practically contemporaries. Initially all three got along fairly well, as they share common scripture. Muslims considered jews and christians “children of the book”, and initially worthy of respect and tolerance. It was only later–and intermittently–they were considered infidels and deemed worthy of death.

It could be argued that the christian idea of the Crusade was borrowed from the muslim notion of Jihad; all three religions borrowed ideas from one another quite freely early on. There is certainly no New Testiment basis for such an endeavor. Nothing even remotely like them occured in the previous centuries where both religions co-existed. All three religions (though the jews were so reduced under the Romans and other nations they were hardly a factor at this point) respected one another’s holy sites as a rule, and were more than happy to benefit economically by fleecing one anothers pilgrims (another idea freely borrowed from one another).

It was the muslims that broke that balance first when the Seljuks seized the Holy Land, killed pilgrims and descrated holy sites. Christians, who cared little when the muslims conquered North Africa, the Middle East, and part of Asia, were rightfully incensed at this change in relations. The resulting back-and-forth warfare over the next century or so was unfortunate, certainly, but there were also periods of stability between flare-ups in which both sides got along, resumed trade, and left each other alone. We simply remember the Crusades because they were given easily-remembered names, and because when we weren’t fighting muslims there was little reason for them to even figure into our history books. They’re history books about our culture, after all. (Quick! Name the various Jihads in order!)

But when you study history under someone like Abulafia you gain a different perspective on events. The Crusades and the Jihads both were merely conflicts in a long history full of conflict. When the christians weren’t fighting the muslims they were fighting the various christian sub-sects. When they weren’t fighting sub-sects they were fighting different countries and cities. Muslim history is likely similar on their side. Wars between trade capitals were as common as any other type of war.

In short, conflict was the norm, and religion by and large was little more than a means of recruiting a bigger team for your cause–much like politics today. If you were at odds with the duke in the next country over you could waste a lot of your own wealthy fighting him, but that was risky. If you could find some other who also didn’t like him, even better. But if you can get him declared a heretic you could get a lot of people together to fight him, at very little cost to yourself! So why not? Such blatant power struggles were common, and had little to do with the religions behind them, really. They were convenient levers of power to pull, and little more than jersey colors to help determine the sides.

The question, then, is not if religion was the cause of the plentitudinous conflicts through history, but rather whether or not there would have been significantly less conflict had there been no religion at all. Based on Abulafia’s assessment, it does not appear so. When mankind wants to fight, they will fight. Take the Mongols, for example. Religion was irrelevant to them. The conquered were not forced to convert or die–most saw little difference in their daily lives under the Mongols, really. Yet the Mongols felt compelled to conquer the known world all the same.

Indeed during the late middle ages the Ottoman Turks were so open minded that they were able to conduct their ongoing war to advance Islam throughout Europe while freely utilizing christian and jewish officers, crews, merchants and inventors. All were welcomed, no conversion necessary. Jews evicted from Spain during the Inquisition were welcomed with open arms by the Ottoman Sultan, who sought their expertise in a variety of trades and crafts. The Ottomans wanted to make all of Europe into Muslim lands, but the people were free to remain whatever religon they pleased.

Like I said, I won’t try to claim that the Crusades were not religiously motivated, nor that they would have happened under some other name or banner had christianity not been a factor. But to use them as some sort of proof that religion is the chief cause of death and destruction in the world is highly inaccurate. More people likely died in the petty squabbles between neighboring lands than died on either side of the Crusades. The slave trade that ensured crews for the numerous merchant and naval galleys that criss-crossed the Mediterranean likely caused more pain, suffering, and death.

History, when you look deeper than one-line pronouncements of “Fact!”, shows a much more murky morality at work. For all the death and conflict over religion in the history of the Mediterranean, the fact is that the large majority of the time the different religions got along and were not really any more a significant factor in how people treated one another than race, nationality, social status, or wealth. Except perhaps the jews. Without their own land for support, they generally got a bum deal.

Unfortunately, it’s much easier to say, “Hey, what about the Crusades” when trying to quash someone’s argument than to say, “Well, what about the negative impact of the Inquisition on Spain’s economic growth contrasted with the economic gains of the Ottomans through their inclusive policies?”

‘Cause we all know the latter would be met with, “Huh?” And then you’d have to type up a lengthy explanation, you’d probably have to look up some details, and then you might make a mistake that someone would seize on, and then…

Far, far better to just parrot over-simplified, inaccurate history and be done with it.

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5 Responses to Those who do not learn history

  1. This is the whole point of your essay, and well spoken at that, “In short, conflict was the norm, and religion by and large was little more than a means of recruiting a bigger team for your cause–much like politics today.”

    Or to put it another way, “Those who dislike history are compelled to re-write it”.

    • Thom says:

      One obvious answer to anyone whose argument is “The Crusades” is “Holodomor”. Considering that socialist Russia was supposed to be godless, it’s awefully hard to blame that one on religion. The purges by Stalin and company made the bloodshed of the middle ages look quite tame by comparison.

      If you “have to break a few eggs to make an omlet”, then those guys burned down the hen house and every Denny’s for fifty miles.

  2. Not to mention “The Killing Fields”, or the purges in China.

  3. Not sure if you didn’t remember or tried to keep a theme to the book you were reading, but there were also crusades to Eastern Europe by the Teutonic Order (Germans). Pretty much a huge land grab.
    And by the Swedes to Finland *grumbling’n’mumbling* which were a land grab and a part of their war against Novgorod (Russia basically).

    So yeah, I’d say religion was a convenient excuse rather than the reason.

    • Thom says:

      Well, the book specifically talks about Mediterranean history, and the average American is not even aware of all the other “side crusades”. I can’t claim to be aware of all of them, but I am aware of the Teutonic Knights and their pillaging. I’ve both watched the movie and performed the choral work of “Alexander Nevsky”, as a side-note. Given time and means, I would like to dig more into the history of north-eastern Europe at some point. There’s a lot there that doesn’t typically make it into Western history books.

      (By the way, good to see you’re still alive. How are things going?)

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