Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Too Insignificant to Mention: The Argument of Silence in History

Whenever I'm immersed in studying a particular piece of history, it always seems to be of monumental importance and world-shattering impact. It's a little bit of a shock to hear someone discount it as boring, irrelevant, or not worth their time.

No, I'm not talking about reviewers. I'm talking about historians, and dead historians, at that. I've heard second-hand that most medieval Muslim historians didn't even mention the First Crusade since it was too insignificant to be worth their time.

My most recent research reading is The History of the Seljuq Turks: The Saljuq-nama of Zahir al-Din Nishpuri a translation of a twelfth-century Muslim history which I obtained through interlibrary loan. I sped through the founding of the Seljuk empire and was on the edge of my seat to get to the reign of Sultan Barkyaruq, the man who reigned during the Western invasion of the Holy Land. When I got there, I discovered that the reports I'd heard were correct: the Crusaders were not even mentioned.

The closest thing that could be a reference to the Crusade was the introduction to Barkyaruq's reign:
"In his time there occurred many difficult events, unpleasant happenings, upheavals and much agitation." Of course, this sentence could also be referring to the internecine struggles which plagued his reign as he fought a war of succession with the sons of his father's other wives.

When historians are silent about a subject, it's easy to put your own interpretation on the reason. In this case, the standard interpretation is "the Crusade wasn't important enough to be mentioned." In an empire that stretched from Asia Minor, through Iraq, through Persia, and all the way to India, it is plausible that happenings on the coast of the Mediterranean might be of minor importance compared to battles between brothers in Baghdad or Khorosan.

And yet, in other places of the work, the historian shows that he is not ignorant or indifferent to the Mediterranean area of the world. The chapters discussing the reigns of previous sultans jubilantly recount the Turkish conquest of Christian Asia Minor--a large part of which the Westerners recaptured in the First Crusade. The historian is very interested in the Turks' interactions with Byzantium, especially the part where Alp Arslan crushed the Eastern Roman Emperor at the Battle of Manzikert. Why then is he not interested in the Byzantine counter-offensive (as the Crusaders were often considered, since they had been called to the East by Emperor Alexios)?

Perhaps one reason that the medieval Muslim historians do not like to mention the First Crusade is because it is primarily a story of Muslim failure. It is a story of a ragtag band of Western knights who overcame tremendous odds to free the Holy Sepulcher and carve out five kingdoms in the Middle East. Perhaps it's not so much that the Crusade held too little significance, but that its significance was too tremendous and too terrible to be mentioned. Perhaps my argument from silence is as plausible as the current interpretation.


  1. Yes, seems likely to me that the omission may have been due to the fact that writers did not like to mention having been beaten by Crusaders.

    One real annoyance I have with history I have right now is Hisorians condemning Henry V for having 3 nobles (well actually 2 nobles an 1 knight) exxecuted for plotting against him in 1415. One historian uses the word 'savage' twice in the context of Henry's repsonse and claims that it shows how cruel he was.
    Really though Im not convinced, as most Medieval Kings would have acted the same way as Henry did, and execution by beheading was the normal punishment for treason (or attempted treason) in the 14th century so I fail to see what was especially 'savage' about this case.

    Really, I wonder what such historians expect Henry to have done, just stand by and let the plotters depose him and take over his kingdom?

  2. Yes, don't you wish historians would compare actions with what was normal for the time period?

    Similar situation: almost every history I've read about the fall of Jerusalem to the Crusaders records their heinous brutality for putting most of the population (Muslims and Jews) to the sword. But in situations where a city held out after a protracted siege without surrendering, this kind of reprisal after the city was finally taken seems to be a common response (whether the besiegers were Christian or Muslim). Add to that the fact that during the siege the Muslims erected effigies of the cross on the walls to mock, spit upon, and break into pieces, and you can understand why the Crusaders were a little worked up.

    I'm not saying that their actions were moral or Biblical, I'm just saying that given the time period and the provocation, they were understandable.

    1. The worst of it all was that this Historian is supposed to be the foremost expert on the Agincourt campaign in the country, and is a Doctorate, so should know her stuff in that regard.

      Have you ever read about the sack of Acre in the late 13th century by Muslim soldiers? Or what 'peaceful' Saladin wanted to do to the Crusaders in the city before he took it? I think this shows both sides were equally inclined to atrocities.

      Its rather like the common misconception that the crusades were an unprovoked act of aggression and that the Christians 'started it'. Yet as you mention with battles like Manzikert Islamic armies had been attacking an invading Europe for centuries. I dont know much about that Battle or campaign though myself.

  3. The silence on the Crusades reminds of a much earlier silence, this one about the Basque's 778 massacre of Charlemagne's rear guard and baggage train at Roncevaux. The first written mention is decades later, after the emperor died. The purpose of the annals was to make the boss look good, even if it meant omitting inconvenient facts.


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