Phi Beta Kappa Magee Address-Love, War, and Prophecy in the Twelfth Century: How Medieval Historians Tackled the First Crusade
October 2, 2012 @ 4:30pm — Trimble Forum
Lecture by Department of History professor Katherine Smith
After the decimated, starving armies of the First Crusade conquered the holy city of Jerusalem in 1099, learned Europeans rushed to chronicle what they saw as a miraculous victory to end all victories. Over the next 20 years, more than a dozen histories of the First Crusade were written, making it one of the best-documented events of the whole medieval period. Modern historians have used these texts to reconstruct the military, political, and spiritual dimensions of the expedition in meticulous detail.My talk will take a different approach, reconstructing the interpretive processes by which these chroniclers transformed the First Crusade from lived experience to memory to written history. In these works, we can see medieval historians struggling to understand an event that defied traditional historical methodologies and called for a new kind of interpretive language, one capable of explaining a venture that seemed to fulfill ancient prophecies and reveal the hand of God at work in the world. Techniques borrowed from exegesis, the art of identifying multiple layers of meaning in the language of the Bible, proved especially helpful to the medieval historians of the First Crusade as they sought to understand the crusader's victory. Paying attention to how biblical language and exegetical methods shaped these European histories of the crusade gives us a fresh vantage point from which to re-read some of the most intensively studied of all medieval texts, and helps us better understand the historical reception of one of the most significant events of the Middle Ages. Finally, although my project is rooted in the world of the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, it brings us face to face with some timeless challenges related to the practice of history: How can we evaluate major historical events without the benefit of chronological distance? Is it possible for historians to avoid imposing their own (modern) agendas on sources from earlier time periods? And what role, if any, should moral judgement play in our interpretation of the past?
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The Magee address was established in honor of Professor of Philosophy and Religion John B. Magee, a driving force in establishing a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa at University of Puget Sound in 1986.