Nat Taylor has a recent post in his Genealogist’s Sketchbook, talking about the historian’s right, or not, to make a moral judgement of the period we study. Are our standards applicable to the age so long gone, when religion and fear were so much more immediate (at least, now the Cold War is over and we’ve all learned to stop worrying and love the bomb…)? Or should we just withhold judgement on things like pogroms, Crusades, witch-hunting (not really medieval that one, of course, but you know what I mean) and so on that unfortunately still sing with contemporary relevance? Can we afford not to take a moral stand, when others are using those precedents to justify continuing, or at least excuse, such atrocities? Aren’t we supposed to be the voice of truth?
Well, I’ve argued elsewhere that it’s our business to confront the messiness of the past in whatever level of detail is necessary, and that because objectivity is impossible given how messy our own perspectives are, the best we can do is consciously try to separate what the evidence says from an acknowledgement of our own stance on the issue. That is to say, we must judge, because we are doing so already whether we like it or not. So we must make our perspective obvious, and say things like, “I personally find this distasteful but it clearly happened” rather than idealising or hiding the bad bits. Sorry, Bede, I realise you wouldn’t agree, but I think that’s what we need to do.
That said, I’m not sure Nat has lighted on the best example of necessary judgement. He is talking of teaching the Crusades, and reports setting the question, “Why did the First Crusade succeed, and why should it not have?” His point is the rarity of moralising answers to this question, but his comment on one that he did get causes my antennae to twitch. He reports:
One student wrote: ”It should not have succeeded because it was ill-conceived, disorganized, and motivated in large degree by chauvanism, xenophobia, and greed.” In fact, an army largely motivated by those things should succeed quite well, I think: no troublesome scruples or complex perspectives to slow them up.
Well, if you look to the top right of this browser window or tab, you’ll see a link called “Crusader Motives”, whereat lies a full-blown scholarly paper which addresses the question of where this, what I call the ‘we’re only it for the money’ argument about why people went on Crusade, belongs in the historiography. That in fact has been the question that’s brought the most hits to this blog ever since I put that page up. Because, you may not realise, the money motive has been more or less dumped from the scholarly picture in the last twenty years, largely under the influence of Jonathan Riley-Smith and his school, who have brought out all kinds of spiritual motives, love of oppressed brothers, the honest desire to save one’s soul by a supreme sacrifice in the name of the Lord, or a lord, or the two together in a powerful feudal-religious complex, devotion to Saint Peter, I mean you name it, anything more moral than simply getting rich quick. And as I discuss there, one of the planks of the Riley-Smith argument is that getting rich on Crusade was tricky because it was really very expensive to go and the evidence for returns is pretty discouraging. My stance is that actually, people still did hope they might get rich, and indeed preachers told them they might, but obviously the plethora of other reasons to go made things easier, and they certainly didn’t think in only that way. So I think Dr Taylor’s student may need to read, well, me…