Stop Saying Crusade (Psst: He’s talking to us medievalists too)

Medieval history professor Matthew Gabriele, of Virginia Tech, has published a powerful new article about the word “crusade” in both its modern and medieval contexts. He’s arguing not just that modern people mis-use Crusade, which they do (he digs into the famous W. Bush quote about a ‘Crusade against Evil’), but that medievalists need to stop doing it as well. Gabriele is an expert on nostalgia, in particular, in medieval historical and apocalyptic writing (and of course apocalypse is just history that hasn’t happened yet) and has often written about the ways in which nostalgia for an imagined past inform contemporary political discourse. Here, though, he breaks new ground (to me) by looking at the religious discourse surrounding the Virginia Tech killer’s writing.

What’s interesting about Gabriele’s argument here is the way he focuses on the uselessness of “Crusade” in describing any actual medieval phenomenon, not just the more usual critique (which I’ve often made) about moderns appropriating the word in all kinds of ways. At the end, he concludes:

Is ‘crusade’ useful to us, the namers? I’m beginning to think that it isn’t. It has become a word that carries its baggage invisibly, a multivalent symbol that obscures rather than clarifies, that stands as a cipher for (almost) everything except an actual medieval phenomenon. Perhaps it is time to stop using ‘crusade’ altogether — or, better, ‘archive’ the word. Remember its origins, what it has come to mean, and only deploy it sparingly. Scholars can then focus on the complex, changing relationship between religion and violence across the centuries, free from the baggage the word carries with it, free from the circular logic of arguing the ‘real’ meaning of a symbol.

You can read the whole article here. I’m ready for him to blow up Crusade Studies, much the way as there is no society for Feudalism studies. Instead, medievalists talk about Lordship, or rule, or power, or any number of other things that don’t presume a coherent construct where there was none. Is it time to just talk about sanctified warfare and let the Crusades go?

I doubt that’s going to happen, but appreciate Gabriele’s inquiry.

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