There’s a new piece in the New York Times, by Susan Jacoby, on the Jewish victims of the Crusades. It notes that a lot of the debate in public spaces has focused on Christians versus Muslims, but not the slaughter of Jews in the Rhineland in the 1090s and, more broadly, Crusade-related persecutions elsewhere. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but the ending offers a kind of dangerous a-historicity and smug presentism that we have to work against.
Asbridge, director of the Center for the Study of Islam and the West at
the University of London, commented in this newspaper that “we have to
be very careful about judging behavior in medieval times by current
issue is better judged from the other side of the looking glass. What
we actually see today is a standard of medieval behavior upheld by
modern fanatics who, like the crusaders, seek both religious and
political power through violent means. They offer a ghastly and ghostly
reminder of what the Western world might look like had there never been
religious reformations, the Enlightenment and, above all, the separation
of church and state.
I think we do have to be careful about judging medieval people by modern standards, but perhaps not for the reasons Asbridge says. Implicit in both Asbridge and Jacoby is the notion that we are advanced, ethically. That the Reformation and Enlightenment were both progress, leading us towards becoming more, well, enlightened humans.
Against such an argument I offer the evidence of the 20th century and its horrific violence. I offer the world of 18th century slavery (post-Reformation, contemporary with Enlightenment). I offer the global cultural destruction of Colonization.
Moreover, ISIS is not medieval, as argued well here and here. Some ISIS fighters buy “Islam for Dummies” on Amazon before buying a plane ticket (presumably online). Yes, they may articulate an epistemology that explicitly draws on medieval language and their interpretation of medieval history, but they are not medieval. Obama once said that ISIS has no place in the 21st century, but they were made by it.
And so this is the problem with Jacoby’s closer. She says that ISIS shows us what the world might look like had there never been the great leaps forward by white folks in the West, ignorant of the catastrophic violence those leaps brought to the west itself, the world, and indeed the very Jews she mourns in her essay.
The 21st century is a different world. A more connected world. A world with weapons and technologies unfathomable to our ancestors. But the belief that we are more advanced, and thus relegate people who are nasty to other eras, is something we say only to comfort ourselves. It’s a lie.