Why Dr. Thomas Asbridge’s ‘The Crusades’ (BBC Four) is well worth watching

A 14th-century depiction of one of the Crusades. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
A 14th-century depiction of one of the Crusades. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Last night I watched the first instalment of Dr. Thomas Asbridge’s three-part series ‘The Crusades,’ which is currently airing on BBC Four. Based on the first instalment, it is a series I would highly recommend to anyone wishing to understand the mentality behind the Crusades. Here’s why.

The first instalment is entitled ‘Holy War,’ and is available here for the next 17 days. (Episode 2 is also available here, for the next 24 days.)[1]

“Very often historical documentaries — particularly those on religious subjects — either sit in pontificating judgement on the deeds of the past, or else present the viewer with some wild and absurd conspiracy theory. Thankfully, in Episode 1 of The Crusades, Dr. Asbridge did neither of these.”

As someone who watches a lot of historical documentaries, I have found that they very often — particularly those on religious subjects — commit one of two failures:

  1. Of sitting in pontificating judgement on the deeds of the past.
  2. Of presenting the unsuspecting viewer with some wild and absurd conspiracy theory.

Thankfully, in Episode 1 of The Crusades, Dr. Asbridge did neither of these.

I have to confess I initially had some worries that this programme was going to be one of those of the latter type. When this kind of documentary starts with words like,

“But now fresh research, eyewitness testimony, and contemporary evidence — from both the Christian and Islamic worlds — sheds new light on how it was that these two great religions waged war in the name of God,”
(from 1’53”)

it’s usually an indicator that some sort of absurd conspiracy theory (which, of course, nobody has ever thought of before) is about to be presented.

On the contrary, however, Dr. Asbridge’s presentation of the First Crusade (1095—1099) was very orthodox. When it did present ‘new information’ (or information previously overlooked), such as, apparently, the contemporary account of the Armenian historian Matthew of Edessa (from 43’00”), this information is used to modify and update our existing understanding, rather than to construct some whole new theory flying in the face of all existing evidence.

“Matthew of Edessa’s account of the actions of the Crusaders attempting to hold the city of Antioch in June 1098 against an oncoming Muslim force, shows us a much more pragmatic, human set of motivations held by the Crusaders at this point, than perhaps previously understood. This is history done properly.”

Thus, Matthew’s account (held in a library in Venice) of the actions of the Crusaders attempting to hold the city of Antioch in June 1098 against an oncoming Muslim force, shows us a much more pragmatic, human set of motivations held by the Crusaders at this point, than perhaps previously understood. This is history done properly.

The programme was also refreshing in that Dr. Asbridge refused to pronounce judgement on the age, based on our modern conceptions of morality.

To be certain, the Crusades were a bloody series of episodes in Christian history — episodes which, from the point of view of the Christian gospel, I dearly wish had never happened.

However, what I liked about Dr. Asbridge’s presentation is that he tries to get into the mindset — and get you, the viewer, into the mindset — of the medieval Crusader.

Thus, from 12’08” to 12’59” he explains how, through a brilliant piece of theological novelty, Pope Urban II took medieval Christianity from a fundamentally peaceful religion —

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
Matthew 5:38-39[2]

— into one which found a way to sanctify violence (something which was part and parcel of Western medieval society) into something which could be done as an act of piety, something done for God:

“I really appreciate this endeavour by Dr. Asbridge to help the viewer genuinely understand the mindset that created the Crusades, rather than simply condemning them. In a world in which our views are all too easily (and shallowly) shaped by influences such as Twitter, it is all the more important that when we look back over our history, we try to do so with understanding and honesty.”

“These warlords would become the Crusades’ leaders — Christian knights for whom the Pope’s call to arms solved a very particular dilemma. The Pope knew only too well the anxiety of Christian warriors, trapped in a worldly profession imbued with violence, yet taught by the Church that bloodshed was sinful. The real genius of Urban’s crusading ideal was that it solved this dilemma, reconciling faith and violence.”

I really appreciate this endeavour by Dr. Asbridge to help the viewer genuinely understand the mindset that created the Crusades, rather than simply condemning them.

He clearly has a good grasp both of primitive Christian theology (that of the New Testament and of early centuries), and medieval Christian theology, and how the latter emerged out of the former.

In a world in which our views are all too easily (and shallowly) shaped by influences such as Twitter, it is all the more important that when we look back over our history, we try to do so with understanding and honesty.

I therefore commend the BBC, and Dr. Asbridge, for making such a healthy and refreshing documentary on this most contentious of subjects. I look forward to watching Episodes 2 and 3.

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] Note, these programmes originally aired in 2012.

[2] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+5%3A38-39&version=ESVUK

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