An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

January 11, 2017

Eastwood (dir.), American Sniper



American Sniper. Written by Jason Hall, Chris Kyle; directed by Clint Eastwood.  Distributed by Warner Brothers, 2 January 2015.

Reviewed by Leila K. Norako (lknorako@uw.edu)

Set in the early 2000s and inspired by Chris Kyle’s eponymous autobiography, the film American Sniper hardly appears inflected with medievalism at first glance. It seeks – according to screen writer Jason Hall – to focus on a single, historic warrior’s consecutive tours of duty in the Iraq war, and is strictly contemporary in that regard. The film, moreover, polarized audiences upon its release. While many praised Bradley Cooper’s convincing performance and the film’s portrayal of a serviceperson’s struggles to reintegrate into civilian life after combat, others critiqued it for its inaccurate portrayal of the Iraq war and for its two-dimensional portrayal of the Iraqi people encountered by Kyle and his fellow sailors and soldiers.

The film’s controversial narrative harnesses affective power by way of a subtle but powerful medievalism: it evokes contemporary perceptions of the crusades at several junctures, and it reaffirms contemporary Islamophobia by stressing the “medieval” brutality of AQI insurgents. Finally, and perhaps most pressingly, it discourages — by way of a comparison of the war in Iraq to the historical crusades — the audience’s impulse to engage in critical thinking about the war or the complex identities of the enemies Kyle and his fellow servicepersons encounter. These moments work in concert in the film and create, however unintentionally on the part of Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall, a film that projects an unequivocally triumphalist Christian narrative even as it tries to focus on the disastrous effects of war on those who see combat.

In order to trace American Sniper’s medievalism, it’s crucial to consider the autobiography on which it is based. Also entitled American Sniper, the book enjoyed 37 weeks on the New York Times’ Best Seller’s list, and it recounts Kyle’s childhood and his ten-year career as a Navy Seal, which involved four consecutive tours of duty in Iraq. While the autobiography repeatedly affirms that the world is split between those who do good and those who do evil, it simultaneously reveals a tension between the author’s lived reality and the narrative about his experiences that he tries to construct and interpret. It’s regularly unclear, for instance, whether Kyle believes the insurgents’ actions or the insurgents themselves to be evil. Kyle also simultaneously describes his crusader cross tattoo as a marker of his Christian identity but stresses that he’s not fighting a religious war. These moments in the book reveal the instabilities of Kyle’s worldview, and part of what is striking about his autobiography is its authenticity in that regard; the reader can see him trying to make sense of himself and his ideals and not always succeeding in that endeavor. Thus while his worldview— especially his insistence on xenophobic binaries—might be disturbing to many, the autobiography’s contradictions reveal Kyle’s struggle to come to terms with a series of brutalizing tours of duty, and the book reveals at least one way in which veterans attempt to come to terms with their actions and experiences in war.  As more than oneserviceperson has expressed, and not without some ruefulness, the belief that your enemy is wholly evil is a tempting one to adopt. As I have written elsewhere, “how else can you pull the trigger if you don’t at some level dehumanize the person in your crosshairs? How else can you live with yourself afterwards?”

But whereas the autobiography retains these authentic interpretive contradictions, the film attempts to scrub them from Kyle’s story, thus amplifying his conservative Christian and American heroism. It is worth considering, in this context, that both Taya Kyle (Chris Kyle’s wife) and Wayne Kyle (Kyle’s father) admonished Eastwood, Cooper, and Hall, to get the film “right.” Kyle’s father told them in no uncertain terms that he would “unleash hell” if his son’s memory was dishonored, and Taya Kyle pleaded with them to leave out her husband’s death. As Jason Hall recounts
“Thankfully Taya embraced us a few days after at the funeral and said, ‘If you guys are going to do this, you’re going to need to get it right,’ ” he says. She told him, “This is going to play a part, for better or worse, in how my kids remember their dad.”
While it’s impossible to say how direct an effect these admonishments had, it is clear that the film creators took special care to sanitize certain aspects of Kyle’s character and worldview in order to make him a more sympathetic figure to a wider audience. Kyle regularly refers to the Iraqi people as “savages” in his autobiography, for instance, yet he never once uses that term in the film. Others around him do, and he does not critique them, but the script carefully prevents him from being overtly complicit in that kind of overt xenophobic and Islamophobic branding. The same goes for the impulse to label AQI insurgents as evil. Whereas the autobiography vacillates between labeling the people or just their actions as evil, the film does not allow Kyle to muse along those lines. While a fellow seal (Goat-Winston) calls an AQI insurgent a “fucking evil bitch” after Kyle kills her (an act that, tellingly, seems to upset Kyle tremendously), Kyle only has the following to say in a subsequent scene: “that’s evil like I’ve never seen before.” As he is depicted in the film, then, Kyle takes absolutely no joy in killing people. This is a significant departure from his autobiography, wherein he insists on a clean conscience and says that he had “fun” doing what he did in Iraq.

In keeping with this trend to sanitize, while American Sniper shows Kyle sporting his “crusader cross” tattoo, and shows it prominently featured on a (fictional) bounty poster, the film simultaneously tries to draw as little attention to it as possible. The tattoo is fully visible for grand total of three seconds in the entire film, and it is otherwise hidden or half-covered by a shirtsleeve (thus making it impossible to see the red cross). And unlike the autobiography, Kyle never explains his reason for getting the tattoo.

The only real description of the “crusader cross” tattoo comes mid-way through the film, Lt. Col. Jones and fellow SEAL Lt. Martin debrief Kyle. Jones explains to Kyle that “this war is won or lost in the minds of our enemies,” hands Kyle a bounty poster, points to the cross, and asks: “that you?” Kyle looks at the poster, nods, and says “that’s a crusader cross, yes sir.” After being told that he’s “the most wanted man in Iraq” and has a bounty of $180,000 on his head (a massive exaggeration of the actual $20,000 bounty placed on all American snipers in Iraq at the time), Jones agrees to let Kyle lead a “direct action squad to hunt the Butcher” (an especially vicious – and fictional—AQI insurgent) and instructs him to “put the fear of God in those savages,” which Kyle agrees to do. This scene is compelling for a number of reasons. It metonymically links the crusader cross and Kyle, but it pointedly avoids framing the impending mission to take out the Butcher as religiously motivated. Instead, Jones stresses the tactical value of Kyle’s status as a perceived “crusader.” If, as Jones he sees it, the war will be won or lost “in the mind” of the “savages” they are fighting, then allowing Kyle — identified as a crusader by AQI — to take point on the mission to kill The Butcher stands to have a tremendous psychological impact, given how terrified AQI already is of Kyle (as evidenced by that exaggerated bounty).  This scene, then, simultaneously acknowledges and distances Kyle from the crusader iconography in question. While Kyle acknowledges the tattoo as his own, Jones does the implied interpretive work here, and the insurgents are the ones who use the crusader cross tattoo as the primary symbol with which to identify Kyle. This scene, then, operates much like the split-second glimpses of the cross-tattoo: simultaneously acknowledging the presence of the crusader cross while retreating from its problematic implications shortly thereafter.

While the film should not be critiqued for its refusal to interpret itself on screen, per se, the implications of this interpretive discomfort are worth probing, since the film’s creators inject forceful moments of internal interpretive work elsewhere. Early in the film, Kyle’s father gives a speech to his two sons after Kyle’s brother comes home with a black eye after being bullied at school:

There are three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Now some people prefer to believe that evil doesn’t exist in the world, and if it ever darkened their doorstep they wouldn’t know how to protect themselves. Those are the sheep. And then you’ve got predators, who use violence to prey on the weak. They’re the wolves. And then there are those who’ve been blessed with aggression and the overpowering need to protect the flock. These men are a rare breed, who live to confront the wolf. They are the sheepdog. [starts to remove his belt] Now we’re not raising any sheep in this family, and I will whoop your ass if you turn into a wolf [slams belt down on table]. But we protect our own. And if someone tries to fight you, or tries to bully your little brother, you have my permission to finish it.

This division of people into neat categories is a convenient fiction presented as fact in the world-building of this story. The scene serves as a prime example of the film’s attempt at overt interpretive cueing. It provides the film’s central thesis, one that most subsequent scenes seeks to affirm and support. As a result, the fact that the film doesn’t seek to present easy interpretive cueing for Kyle’s crusader cross is conspicuous. It suggests rather markedly that the film, while striving for at least the veneer of accuracy, simultaneously seeks to erase from Kyle’s story aspects that might complicate his heroism. And more pressingly, the film attempts through this silence to solidify the categories that it establishes at the outset. The Iraqi civilians in this film are presented either as nameless collateral damage or as wolves in sheep’s clothing, and the AQI insurgents are always presented as predatory wolves defined by a brutality that audiences are consistently encouraged to code as backwards and “medieval.” The film cannot sustain that category fantasy, then, if it foregrounds Kyle’s adoption of crusader iconography too emphatically. The film thus alludes to the cross as briefly as possible in an attempt to smooth over the interpretive wrinkles the cross tattoo otherwise presents; and when it is forced to acknowledge the presence of Kyle’s tattoo, it does its best to insist that the cross can be used in service of Kyle’s role as a “sheepdog.” In this way, the film tries to avoid destabilizing the interpretive lens it insists upon from its inception. This is one way of explaining, perhaps, why the film foregrounds the image of the Punisher logo instead (a comic book antihero who ascribes to a near identical black and white view of the world), which Kyle and his men, according to the autobiography, adopted as a charged symbol of their role in the Iraq war. A viewer could be forgiven for forgetting that Kyle even has a cross tattoo, in other words, but she is hard pressed not to notice the Punisher logo and its evocation of a comic book “hero” who, like Kyle, insists on a black-and-white view of the world. The film, then, in insisting on its own interpretation at certain junctures and refusing to interpret itself at others ultimately champions Kyle’s inherited worldview rather than complicating it, and it does so at the expense of other, more nuanced perspectives on the Iraq war.

The film insists on the validity of this worldview by coding the AQI insurgents as “medieval,” and this impulse fully realized in the fictional portrayal of The Butcher. As Clare Monagle and Louise D’Arcens have stressed, there is a strong tendency in our post-9/11 world to describe Islamic terrorism in just this way. As they explain:

When commentators and politicians describe Islamic State as “medieval” they are placing the organisation opportunely outside of modernity, in a sphere of irrationality. The point being made is that they are people from a barbaric and superstitious past, and consequently have not matured into modern political actors. Medievalising IS supporters puts them a very long way away from the here and, even more pointedly, from the now.

While the word medieval isn’t used in the film, American Sniper nevertheless “medievalises” the AQI insurgents in this exact way. They are constantly referred by US servicepersons as “savages,” and the civilians are also subjected to a range of slurs as well. The Butcher, in particular, operates as the most vivid embodiment of this impulse to “medievalise.” He revels in torture, going so far as to display the stray limbs and heads of his victims in what appears to be a meat locker. And in what is doubtless the grisliest scene in the entire film, he takes a power-drill to a child’s leg and head. While The Butcher may be loosely based on Ismael Hafidh Al-Lami, a Shia terrorist,  this scene and character are a complete fiction. Kyle never encountered anyone like the Butcher during his four tours of duty, and he never witnessed the torture and death of a child as he does in the film. This scene is profoundly disturbing, then, not only because of its horrific content but because of its affective purpose. Like “The Prioress’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, it attempts, through its completely fictional content and its encouragement to sympathize with tortured child and with Kyle, to stoke (in this case) Islamophobia in its audience. The film does not simply acknowledge Kyle’s insistence on a simplistic binary. Through its representation of the Iraqi people as nameless collateral damage and/or two-dimensional “medievalised” villains, the film actively encourages audiences to insist upon it as well.

This false and deeply problematic insistence on AQI as implicitly medieval accords with the film’s rejection of critical thinking about the Iraq war. Right before leaving on his third tour, Kyle spies his brother on the tarmac. They embrace, and it becomes abundantly clear that the tour has shattered Jeff. Kyle tries to reassure Jeff that their father is proud of him, and Jeff all but brushes off that assurance, stepping back to say “fuck this place” (referring to Iraq) before turning to head for his transport. While his brother’s attitude clearly disturbs Kyle, he says nothing. A space opens, as a result, for audiences to critically examine the war and its tragic effects on those who fight in it. This space is sustained in an ensuing scene where Kyle talks to his friend and fellow SEAL Marc Lee. Lee has consistently been portrayed in the film as a more cerebral man than Kyle up to this point, and he expresses a newly developed and/or mounting concern about the ethics of the war in which he’s fighting:

Marc: You know growing up in Oregon we had this electric fence around our property. Us kids would grab on to it to see who could hold on the longest. War feels kinda like that. It puts lightning in your bones and makes it hard to hold on to anything else. 

            Chris: Hey man, you need to sit this one out?

            Marc: I just want to believe in what we’re doing here.

            Chris: Well there’s evil here, we’ve seen it.

            Marc: Yeah, there’s evil everywhere. 

Chris: You want these motherfuckers to come to San Diego or New York? We’re protecting more than just this dirt. 

Marc: [with a look that signals something short of agreement] Alright. Let’s go kill this fucker.

Marc is eventually shot and killed in the line of duty, and at his funeral his mother reads a portion of the letter that he wrote a few days before his death:

"Glory is something some men chase and others find themselves stumbling upon, not expecting to find it. Either way it is a noble gesture that one finds itself bestowed upon them. My question is, when does glory fade away and become a wrongful crusade . . .”

The script faithfully replicates the opening lines of the letter that the actual Marc Lee wrote shortly before his death. As these lines suggest, the unread portions of the letter reflect the thoughts of a man who wants to believe in the rightness of what he is doing in Iraq, but who is clearly torn about some of his experiences and about the virtues (or lack thereof) of the country that has sent him to war. While Kyle has nothing but positive things to say about Marc and this letter in his autobiography, the film inserts a (presumably fictional) dialogue between Kyle and Taya that works to inscribe Marc’s rather mild questioning of the war in the moralizing framework of the film:

Taya: Marc wrote that letter two weeks ago. Did he say any of that to you? [pause] Chris, I wanna know what you thought of his letter.

Chris: An AQI informant had called in a tip and, uh, Biggles had just been shot and we were operating out of emotion, and we just walked right into an ambush. But that’s not what killed him [Marc]. That letter did. That letter killed Marc. He let go and he paid the price for it. 

Rather than sustaining a space for criticism of the Iraq war (created by the scene with Kyle’s brother and the earlier scene with Marc), this scene unequivocally rejects the very impulses that lead to such criticism. Instead, it stresses the fact that criticism of the war, especially if you are a serviceperson, either weakens (in the case of Jeff) or kills (in the case of Marc) those who engage in it. The scene, then, reaffirms the governing ideology of the film. Kyle survives the war and Marc and Jeff do not, because Kyle is able to correctly categorize his enemies and those he, as a sheepdog, must protect.[1] In this way, the film sets up its audience to expect a degree of ambivalence about the war that it then patently rejects. And in having Kyle reject Marc’s impulse to think critically about the war in which he is fighting, the film tacitly chides its audience for being inclined to do so as well. Audiences are potentially manipulated as a result: invited into a space of critical inquiry only to find themselves condemned by the hero of the film for entering it.

Aside from the mention of Kyle’s “crusader cross” tattoo, Marc’s letter is the only other instance in the film where the word “crusade” is uttered. But in rejecting Marc’s impulse to critique the war, Kyle stresses the importance of not thinking of history as cyclical, especially if you are in combat. Several veterans have rightly critiqued the film for this particular message, stressing that it is possible to be a committed serviceperson and hold complex feelings about the wars in which they fight. It is nevertheless crucial to consider the implications of this scene for the viewing audience. If we accept Kyle as the narrative and interpretive authority that he is presented to be—then we are being encouraged to believe that critical thinking is inherently harmful to a serviceperson (and potentially to audience members as well), and that any consideration of our cultural past, any willingness to acknowledge the lineage that we have inherited from the Middle Ages, any attempt to resist the impulse to medievalize those we might Other, is inherently wrong-headed.

Admittedly, the film does try to assess the costs of war in certain ways. We are forced to witness the death of innocent Iraqi civilians, for instance, with special attention being paid to the horrific and tragic impact of the war on Iraqi children, and we are shown throughout the film (but especially towards the end) the dramatic impact the war has on the bodies and psyches of those who fight in it. However, even these scenes work to amplify the audience’s sympathy for the Americans in question. The scene where the Butcher kills the Iraqi child, for instance, is ultimately made into a means of stressing Kyle’s post-traumatic stress: It explains both his distress over hearing his newborn daughter wailing in the hospital nursery and his agitation as he listens to the innocuous sound of a power tool at a car dealership. The scene where an Iraqi child picks up a rocket launcher, in turn, becomes a way of amplifying sympathy for Kyle; as he stares at the child through his scope, we hear him pleading with the child to drop the weapon so that he doesn’t have to kill him. The child eventually does drop the weapon and run, and Kyle nearly breaks down in response. We are encouraged, then, only to see the child as a threat both to the Americans on the ground and to Kyle. Perhaps the clearest example of this tendency, however, lies in the depiction of the Syrian sniper. In one brief scene, we see the Sniper in his home with his presumed wife and child. This might seem, at first, as an attempt to forge a positive comparison between Kyle and the Sniper, demonstrating that both are family men serving their respective sides), but this reading is ultimately difficult to sustain. Whereas Taya is shown consistently as Kyle’s equal in marriage, the woman with the Syrian sniper is granted only a few seconds of screen time and says nothing, presented only as a wildly problematic Western stereotype of a submissive Muslim wife. Whereas Taya is given a voice and agency, this woman is shown staring nervously and timidly at the floor as she tries to sooth her agitated infant. Whereas Kyle actively engages with both his wife and children, the Syrian sniper does not so much as glance at his wife or child in this scene. Instead, he sits on the couch, spinning a bullet on the table as he waits for his next call to action. And when that call comes, he mechanically gets up, readies his weapon, puts on his signature bandanna, and leaves without so much as a parting look at his family. This lack of engagement directly contrasts with a scene immediately prior, where Kyle and Taya have a tense conversation about his service in his infant daughter’s light-filled nursery – Taya openly expresses her anger about his inability to prioritize his family while Kyle holds his daughter and concedes (through facial expressions if not through words) that she is right. Rather than humanizing the Syrian sniper, then, the scene dehumanizes him by directly inviting comparison. Kyle—imperfect as he may be—is immediately positioned here as the superior warrior, husband, and father. And while Kyle does, in the last several minutes of the film, express a readiness to go home for good (symbolically leaving his sniper rifle and Bible in Iraq), American Sniper takes considerable care to frame Kyle’s service as heroic and worthy of praise, even as it acknowledges the terrible toll that the war took on him.

Jason Hall, Clint Eastwood, and Bradley Cooper have consistently claimed that the film was meant to “promote discussion” about the sacrifices veterans make, and the toll wars take on those who fight in them. And, in truth, the parts of the film focused on the costs of war (both physical and psychological) are consistently and impressively wrought. Hall was also emphatic that this was a film told from one Navy SEAL’s perspective, and that as a result the interpretive lens could not be widened to accommodate other takes on the Iraq war. The film could have accomplished this goal more effectively, however, without fictionalizing and white-washing Kyle’s story, and without insisting on a troubling impulse to “medievalise” the enemy while glossing over Kyle’s appropriation of crusader iconography. Instead, the film becomes a moralizing tall-tale that, in an attempt to present a resolutely positive and heroic portrait of Kyle, promotes an array of profoundly problematic ideas about the wars in which Kyle fought.

History, as so many have argued, is cyclic, and given our current socio-political moment, that truth is especially pressing. This is why a film like American Sniper, well-intentioned as it may well have been in many respects, warrants the very kinds of critical inquiry it seeks to discourage in its viewing audience. It is imperative, as a result, that we acknowledge the problematics of historical elision in a film like American Sniper, because, simply put, the stories we tell matter. The words we use to tell them matter. They have the capacity both to reflect our desires and to shape our aspirations and worldviews. The concerning thing about the story presented in this film is how much it represents cultural binaries not as fictions but as facts, and how much it promotes the notion that thinking carefully and critically will either break you or get you killed.

--Leila K. Norako, University of Washington


[1] The film ends with Kyle’s death (which took place well into the production of the film) at the hands of a veteran, and thus seems to complicate this representation of Kyle as someone who can always correctly categorize those around him. It suggests, then, that while Kyle can correctly read his enemies abroad, he has a harder time identifying those who might do him and his loved ones harm once he’s back home. This is problematic, ultimately, because since the film’s thesis is one that insists on a world comprised of wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs, the veteran who kills him – ostensibly suffering from PTSD -- is a wolf, and therefore evil. This governing ideology of the film then, allows the closing moments of the film to perpetuate, however inadvertently, abelist stereotypes (and the impulse to Other veterans psychologically affected by the war) as opposed to encouraging complex thinking and compassion.


December 31, 2016

Cassidy-Welch: Remembering the Crusades and Crusading

Remembering the Crusades and Crusading (Paperback) book cover


Megan Cassidy-Welch (ed.), Remembering the Crusades and Crusading. Abingdon: Routledge, 2017

Reviewed by: Andrew D. Buck (
a.buck@qmul.ac.uk)

The study of crusading memory is a flourishing field, with this volume, edited by Megan Cassidy-Welch, the latest scholarly contribution. As Cassidy-Welch notes in the introduction, this book aims to “draw attention to the diverse ways in which Crusades and crusading were remembered in the Middle Ages and beyond” (p. 8) and clearly hopes to be a stepping stone for future scholarship. To set the scene for this, the introduction provides an overview of concepts of “medieval” memory, and how pre-modern memoria was understood as both the physical storing of information and the communication of remembrance through objects, texts or actions. Cassidy-Welch thus argues that crusaders saw themselves as part of, and regulated their behaviour according to, certain social and religious traditions, such as Christ’s sacrifice and the emulation of the deeds of crusading forebears. Following a fairly useful discussion of current scholarship, Cassidy-Welch sets out the book’s methodological framework, namely the interplay between “communicative memory” (the lived, immediate memory of an event) and “cultural memory” (the process by which memory evolves into an official story, often to create social, political or organisational legitimacy); before setting out its three thematic strands: sources of memory, communities of memory and cultural memory. While more could have been done to lay out the available theological approaches to memory, especially for those new to the field, one certainly leaves the introduction with a clear sense of the road ahead. 

The book’s first thematic strand – Sources of Memory – explores the respective roles of preaching, liturgy, images, material cultures, texts and romances in shaping and preserving crusading memory. It begins with Jessalynn Bird’s (perhaps overly-ambitious) contribution on crusade preaching, which outlines the processes by which crusade preachers incorporated the past, both Christian and heroic, into recruitment sermons. By emphasising remembrance of the suffering and sacrifice of Christ and the holy martyrs, drawing on heroic tradition, and tapping into existing liturgical practices, Crusade preaching became a multi-sensory experience. Eventually, this ensured that the crusading past became something to emulate, with crusaders embodying pious devotion and Christian sacrifice. In a similar vein, M. Cecilia Gaposchkin’s interesting discussion on the liturgical feast which commemorated the First Crusade’s capture of Jerusalem on 15 July 1099, demonstrates that this liturgy cemented the crusaders’ identity as the new Israelites and placed the First Crusade as a key “node” in eschatological history. Thus, by drawing on broader theological and exegetical context, as well as practices from the Advent–Epiphany liturgy, it promoted the notion that, through the Franks, the New Jerusalem had come.

Next comes Elizabeth Lapina’s study of the role of church murals depicting the crusades and how these served to create an imagined past and signify religious and cultural identity. Thus, images of knightly battles or of returning crusaders, when placed alongside heroic figures like Charlemagne or Arthur, could serve to legitimise dynasties. Of particular significance, though, are eleven images of the saintly intercession at the Battle of Antioch in 1098, produced in northern France and England between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. Through these, Lapina shows the emergence of a fascination with Saint George – for his appearance as a warrior, rather than martyr, served to legitimise knightly involvement in crusading – and that Jerusalem, not Antioch, acted as the site of this intercession: almost certainly because it held greater spiritual, Christological, miraculous and eschatological significance. These images thus show how the past served to define the present. Following this is Anne Lester’s illuminating discussion on how objects also created and transmitted crusading memory. Thus, objects bought, brought, or, as was often the case, commandeered, on crusade, could evoke particular events or places related to crusading or the Holy Land. In turn, this allowed family traditions to be created and maintained, while these objects also affirmed social status and relationships and could also cultivate group identity. Through the particular focus on Christ relics, it is argued, we can even see the greater interest in crusading as an act of Imitatio Christi. For Lester, as with Lapina, objects therefore provide an important window into the ways in which crusading entered medieval society, and stayed there.

The final two contributions to this thread offer a more textual focus. The first is Darius von Güttner-Sporzyński’s discussion on the early-twelfth-century Polish dynastic chronicle, the Gesta principum Polonorum. In this, it is argued that this text shaped the identity and Christian legitimacy of Poland’s ruling family, the Piasts, through their involvement in “proto-crusading” (wars of conversion against Pomeranian and Prussian pagans). To tie this more effectively with crusading, Güttner-Sporzyński also looks to place the text as part of the outpouring of Christian historical literature after the First Crusade, and so includes a lengthy discussion of the now well-known process by which the crusade’s history was told and re-told from eye-witness texts to the second-generation, largely Benedictine, “theological refinement”. Given that the subsequent attempts made to form links with the First Crusade sources do not rely on issues of provenance, this seems fairly unnecessary. Perhaps more problematic is that, with a couple of notable exceptions – the evocation of the Maccabees and saintly intercession in battle – the links made between the two strands are tenuous, at times misleading. For example, he sees in the Polish description of large pagan casualties an allusion to descriptions of the 1099 massacre at Jerusalem, despite no apparent textual similarities and it being a common trope of any text aimed at demonstrating the legitimacy of a victory (see, for example, William of Poitiers’ account of the Battle of Hastings). In the end, the nub of the matter lies with a problematic attempt to equate a Just War supported by God – which the Gesta principum Polonorum clearly portrays the anti-Pagan wars as, just as William of Poitiers did with the Norman Conquest – with the First Crusade, which was viewed as a salvific act of a penitence, even a pilgrimage (Just War ≠ Penitential War). Thus, while this does provide a useful insight into how memory could create Christian political and dynastic legitimacy, that it seeks to place this within the context of crusading, particularly the processes of memorialising the First Crusade, is rather less convincing. Far more effective is Lee Manion’s examination of crusading romances – in particular the Chanson d’Antioche, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Willehalm, and the prologues and epilogues of William Caxton’s fifteenth-century printed middle-English translations of two crusading romances: Godeffroy of Boloyne and The Lyf of the Noble and Crysten Prince, Charles the Grete – which explores how vernacular literature transmitted crusading memory and shaped it for didactic purposes. Of most interest is his examination of Caxton, who printed his texts when crusading was in abeyance, and England was riddled with civil war, in the hope that the crusading past could divert martial attentions towards a worthier pursuit. This aptly demonstrates how crusading memory was in a constant dialogue with the present, even beyond the high middle ages, and that, rather than simply re-telling the narratives, vernacular texts were shaped to provide models of Christian behaviour.

The book’s third section – Communities of Memory – then turns to the groups who preserved crusading memories, including monasteries, kings, Jews, and the nobility. It begins with Katherine Allen Smith’s excellent discussion on the role played by monastic orders in preserving, interpreting and transmitting the memory of the First Crusade. Whether by supporting departing crusaders, serving as repositories for relics or the bodies of crusaders, or producing crusading texts, monasteries were hubs of crusading memory. Yet, while several monastic authors placed the crusade within sacred time, they also used it to demonstrate the spiritual superiority of monasticism. For example, it is demonstrated, through the Vita Sancti Adjutoris, written by Hugh of Amiens c.1130 to commemorate a former crusader, Adjutor of Tiron, who became a monk at Tiron after nearly two decades in the East because St Mary Magdalene had engineered his release from Muslim captivity, that, although crusading was considered praiseworthy, it was only one step on the true path to spiritual conversion, which culminated in monasticism. A little less convincing, but still interesting, is James Naus and Vincent Ryan’s contribution on how crusading legitimised and memorialised royal status. Indeed, despite a useful introduction to the various problems and motivations of royal crusading, the case study of Richard the Lionheart is perhaps under-explored, and there are occasional slips in insight or critical engagement. As such, whereas they offer the insightful suggestion that Richard’s reportedly impetuous decision to take the Cross without seeking the counsel of his father, King Henry II, was imbedded in both pious concerns and issues of dynasty and legitimacy, the piece then rather skips through the problems and successes of Richard’s crusade planning and execution, and then his legend. As such, the authors skirt around the fact that, while they argue that Richard sought to succeed where his forbears had failed by circumventing the crusading heritage of both his parents, for whom there had been little success and a lot of prevarication, his subsequent two-year delay in departure – which is conveniently sidestepped – does serve to undermine this.

Following from this is Rebecca Rist’s somewhat concise discussion on how Jewish communities memorialised crusading, particularly the issue of papal protection. It examines two chroniclers of the First and Second Crusades respectively, Shelomo bar Shimson and Ephraim of Bonn, through whom it is argued that, while Shelomo’s text offers a very negative portrayal of papal protection during the First Crusade, Ephraim is altogether less interested in pontifical pronouncements and instead focuses on monarchs. Roughly half the length of the other pieces, this feels somewhat incomplete, and whilst the practical assertion is made that papal protection was clearly valued by Jewish communities, and remembered when it did (and did not) come – though Ephraim’s silence does raise unanswered questions regarding this argument; it would have been interesting – in lieu of the surprisingly long notes and bibliography – to see further examples and a lengthier discussion of the ideas of memory being explored elsewhere in the volume. More illuminating, and one of the book’s strongest pieces, is Nicholas Paul and Jochen Schenk’s study of the role of family memory in disseminating and memorialising the crusading ideal. In this, the pair outline how crusading was remembered and promoted through familial traditions of participation – particularly for those families with multi-generational involvement in the Crusades – and through commemoration in epitaphs, and architecture. Likewise, some families also commissioned dynastic histories to glorify past familial crusading exploits, even in competition with the more traditional oral and written texts (particularly of the First Crusade). Through such traditions, and the artefacts or texts which preserved them, the feats of past crusaders, real or mythologised, were transmitted to serve as markers of status and instructional messages for later generations. Dynastic crusading memory was thus crucial to noble legitimacy and identity, and even helped to construct the crusading movement itself.

Statue of Saladin, Damascus
Perhaps of greater interest to the readership of this site, is the final thematic strand – Cultural Memory – which frequently deals with post-medieval memories of the Crusades. It begins with Jonathan Harris’ interesting discussion on Byzantine memories of the crusades, particularly the Fourth Crusade. This event, which saw the capture of Constantinople in 1204 and the creation of a Latin Empire, displaced many Greeks to Nicaea, where accounts of the crusade and its aftermath were composed. In this so-called Nicaean tradition, four key strands of memory were crafted. The first was the memory of the looting and desecration of Byzantine churches, with texts and oral traditions transmitting enduring dismay at the losses suffered at the hands of greedy Latins. Secondly, the Latins were criticised for their schismatic beliefs – which, by the fourteenth century, was as much about anger over 1204 than theological differences. Thirdly, the culpability of Venice in 1204 – though by the 1450s this had so evolved that Venetians were asked to defend Constantinople against the Ottomans because the city had once been theirs. Finally, stories also endured regarding Byzantine culpability in 1204 through the incompetence of the Angeloi and the mistreatment of earlier crusading expeditions. These case studies thus aptly demonstrate how Byzantine society adapted and utilised the traumatic memory of 1204 as a cultural and diplomatic tool.

Next is Anna Rodríguez’s discussion on the complex inter-relationship between crusade and Reconquest in Iberia (albeit largely the Kingdom of Castile) from the twelfth–fourteenth century. Rodríguez argues that although the fourteenth-century Castilian Infante, Don Juan Manuel, the descendent of Reconquest heroes, provided an idealised view of Iberia’s crusading past in a series of moralistic tales, the reality was less clear. Indeed, Castilian monarchs lacked any practical interest in Holy Land crusades, prioritising instead the war in al-Andalus. Likewise, although Castilian nobles took the cross in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, they did so to protect themselves from the king during times of conflict. Even when French crusading forces aided Castile against the Almohads at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, Castilian memorialisation of this victory saw it not as a papally directed holy war, but as a royal victory which cemented monarchical legitimacy. Therefore, while late-medieval chivalric moralism sought to unite Iberian and crusading memory, this only occurred after the Holy Land’s loss de-politicised the movement’s relationship to the Reconquest.                

The book’s penultimate chapter is Alex Mallett’s contribution on Muslim memory of the crusades. Starting with early-twelfth-century reactions to the First Crusade, Mallett charts the memorialisation of crusades and crusaders by Muslims up to the current day. It is demonstrated that the earliest reactions, while decrying Frankish violence, primarily criticised Muslim disunity. Likewise, as jihad intensified under Nur al-Din and Saladin, and later the Mamluks, the increased level of invective directed against the crusaders served to legitimise these rulers in uniting the Muslim world under their leadership. This was no monochromatic process, though, as Mallett shows that during the rule of the later Ayyubids in the early–mid thirteenth century, whose approach to the Franks was more pragmatic, their policies were either criticised or passed over by authors depending on personal allegiance. In an important corrective to recent scholarship, Mallett also shows how memory of Saladin and the crusades did not disappear during the Mamluk and Ottoman periods, and nor is the modern Islamic view of the crusades limited to the Arab nationalists and Islamists who see an endless “crusading” conflict between East and West (as seen through the varied approaches to the crusades found in the school textbooks of Islamic nations). Mallett thus aptly demonstrates the complex ways in which the Islamic world, and its ruling elites, used (and still use) the crusades as a “yardstick by which the actions of the rulers of Muslim states can be judged” (227).

The final chapter is Carsten Selch Jensen’s interesting study on how the Baltic Crusades have been remembered and used in Estonia and Latvia (or, more broadly, Livonia). Starting with a brief overview of Baltic crusading, Jensen leaps forwards to the Enlightenment, demonstrating that although many thinkers saw the Baltic campaigns, like those to the Holy Land, as wasteful ventures in brutality and greed, which placed an innocent, religiously pure indigenous community under slavery, there were also Germanic nobles who used their perceived crusading ancestry as a tool for legitimacy. In the nineteenth century, this brought German nationalists, who utilised crusading to demonstrate their cultural superiority, into conflict with Estonian and Livonian nationalists who romanticised their own past, emphasising the innocence and freedom of the pre-crusading era (as opposed to the slavery and oppression of the crusaders). These divisions endured into the twentieth century, as calls for independence increased following the First World War, with anti-crusader chieftains or tribes evoked to promote resistance, until Nazi and Soviet occupations ensured that, after 1945, a single narrative was created of a Marxist Baltic war against materialism and greed. As Selch aptly demonstrates, therefore, the crusading past here, as elsewhere in Europe and indeed the Near East, provided the backdrop for nationalism and political struggles far removed from their original events.


Overall, this book has much to its credit. Not all the contributions are of equal value, and there are certainly those which try to do too much, or lack coherence or relevance to the volume’s overall aims, but there are several chapters which should serve as the ideal starting point for anyone looking to explore issues of crusading memory, and which provide important correctives and addendums to traditional ideas or avenues of scholarship. Given the impressive bibliographical data also available for each chapter, this should be a must for scholars of crusading memory, as well as university libraries and teachers of the crusades.     

Andrew Buck
Queen Mary University of London

November 13, 2016

The Medieval Magazine (Anniversary Issue)


The Medieval Magazine, Vol. 2 No. 25 (September 20, 2016) Anniversary Issue: 8 Years of Medievalists.net.

Reviewed by: Richard Utz

Those of us interested in lowering the drawbridge between our own ivory tower scholarship and the broader public interest in medieval culture have been following the path taken by the website medievalists.net. Most recently, The Medieval Magazine, a digital publication that has been enhancing the website for more than a year, celebrated the eighth anniversary of medievalists.net.


For this anniversary issue, the founders and editors, Sandra Alvarez and Peter Konieczny, selected six pieces originally published at medievalists.net for republication. These six pieces are representative of the approaches both the website and the magazine have taken to attract an impressive international audience: “Ten Things You May Not Have Noticed About the Bayeux Tapestry” is a typical “10 things list,” this one providing details, in image and concise descriptions, about the tapestry, for example, of Turold the Dwarf or of King Harold’s men taking of their hoses and tucking in their tunics as they wade through water. A second, more discursive article, “The Norman Conquest of England: The Alternative Histories,” discusses Wace’s Roman de Rou and the Vita Haroldi. A third article tackles the common misconception that people in the Middle Ages did not drink water. A forth article summarizes Emily Selove’s 2012 translation of Al-Khatib Al-Baghdadi’s 11th-century Art of Party Crashing. A fifth piece, “Thanks for the Coffee: A Five Minute Look Back at Medievalists.net,” offers Danièle Cybulskie an opportunity to share her role as staff writer for the magazine and site (she recently published a “best of” version of her short articles in The Five Minute Medievalist, which KellyAnn Fitzpatrick reviewed for Medievally Speaking). And a sixth piece condenses Maya Bijvoet Williamson’s 1998 English translation of the memoirs of Helene Kottaner, servant and confidante to the widowed Queen Elizabeth of Hungary (1409-1442).


These six pieces, selected by the editors as representative of the articles published by medievalists.net, demonstrate the editors’ and staff writers’ goals. They know that their readers will not want to plough through entire scholarly monographs-cum-paratexts, but nevertheless love to learn about serious and reliable academic research in concise and informative summaries. All the staff involved in the magazine and website hold undergraduate and/or master’s degrees in medieval studies, and so they are well prepared to appreciate both the academic methodologies informing these studies as well as the necessity to parse them to those who delight in learning about medieval culture as so-called dilettantes or amateurs. Danièle Cybulskie sums up how she and her colleagues understand their own task and role at this specific moment in time:


We are at an amazing point right now. The scholarship coming out of our universities is top-notch and the sharing of that research from place to place has become a thing of beauty. Archaeologists and experimental archaeologists are coming up with new insights as to how things worked in the Middle Ages every day. Digitized manuscripts and new finds are now accessible to millions, so people all over the world can all but touch the relics of the past that were once locked away behind closed doors. News about the medieval world makes the headlines in the mainstream media on a regular basis. Popular histories are flying off the shelves, and a new generation of hip historians is gracing our screens. Historical fiction is no longer a guilty pleasure, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the English-speaking world who hasn’t heard of [Vikings] or [A Game of Thrones]. It’s a great time to indulge in a love of all things medieval. How lucky we are to be a part of it. (p. 53)

I understand Cybulskie’s enthusiastic diagnosis as an invitation to professional medievalists that they, too, should every now and then jump at the chance of sharing the fruits of their scholarly labors with the general public, at medievalist.net, the The Medieval Magazine, Paul Sturtevant’s The Public Medievalist, or any and all of the various mainstream digital and print publications accepting of public humanities essays. They might even consider, horribile dictu, to follow the successful example of the late Norman Cantor, many of whose book-length academic studies are characterized by a clarity of style and absence of jargon that rendered even highly complex matters accessible to larger audiences (including Michael Crichton, who lists Cantor’s 1991 Inventing the Middle Ages among his main inspirations for his 1999 novel, Timeline). And Peter Konieczny’s deceptively simple “[w]e get to learn about the past, and enjoy it too” (p. 64) is in fact a powerful programmatic statement that supports what Aranye Fradenburg, Kathleen Biddick, and Carolyn Dinshaw have recommended to academic medievalists based psychoanalytic and feminist theory.

Earlier this year, I had asked Peter Konieczny about the audience he and his colleagues are reaching with their publications. He responded, in an e-mail of April 17, 2016, that the magazine, which was only about a year old at that time, had roughly 350 subscribers, increasing at about a rate of five new subscribers per week. As for medievalists.net, it has a much larger audience, peaking in January of 2016 at 385,000 monthly users, and at 1,068,000 page views. Overall, medievalists.net has had over 9 million unique visitors and 25 million page views since its inauguration in 2008, a truly impressive record. It is clear that medievalists.net and The Medieval Magazine have been enriching what millions of readers know about medieval culture. And for those among us who still disdain all extra-academic medievalia, let me put things in perspective: How do medievalists.net’s user numbers compare to the impact of the average peer-reviewed essay? According to Asit Biswas and Julian Kirchherr (“Citations are not enough,” The Impact Blog, 2016), in the humanities, 82 percent of peer-reviewed articles are never cited; in the social and natural sciences fewer than one third of such articles are cited, and only about one-fifth of these cited papers were actually read. Overall, an average paper in a peer-reviewed journal is read completely at most by no more than ten people. So it goes.


Medievalists.net occupies a central public space in which academic and non-academic lovers of the Middle Ages can congregate and collaborate. I congratulate Sandra, Peter, and their colleagues on persevering on a path that cannot always have been easy (they clearly experienced many of the kinds of "othering" also waged against Leslie J. Workman, Kathleen Verduin, and Studies in Medievalism), and I look forward to seeing my own interest in medieval culture enriched by the project's future efforts.


Richard Utz

Georgia Institute of Technology

1) Two additional sister sites were recently added to medievalists.net: http://www.earlymodernengland.com/, and http://www.historyoftheancientworld.com/.