East and West at the time of the Crusades (C. Cahen)

East and West at the time of the Crusades (C. Cahen)


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From the West to the East: Claude Cahen, historian of the Crusades

Among the multitude of works published on the Crusades throughout the 20th century (and still today), one stands out for its angle of study, and for the originality of its author. The reissue of " East and West at the time of the Crusades "By Claude Cahen, is an opportunity to return in detail to a fundamental work in the historiography of this subject and of this period.

Claude Cahen, the great historian

We must first introduce the author of this study, as it reflects all his work during his long career. Born in 1909 (died in 1991), Claude Cahen was a normalien then studied at the National School of Oriental Languages; he was agrégégé in 1932, Doctor of Letters in 1940, lecturer then professor at the University of Strasbourg (1948-59), then at the Sorbonne where he chose Paris I from 1970 (he taught there until 1979). A member of the Communist Party in 1939, he was taken prisoner of war in 1940 and released in 1945.

But beyond his busy life and his talent as a teacher recognized and adored by his students, it is his imprint as a historian that must be remembered, and in particular in the history of the Mediterranean, of Islam and the Crusades, which interests us directly here. According to Françoise Micheau ("From the West to the East: Claude Cahen, historian of the Crusades", Arabica, 43, 1996), the historian does not himself know what led him to take an interest in the Crusades, except for the fond memory of his mother recounting the misadventures of Saint Louis; he nonetheless devotes his thesis to North Syria ("North Syria at the time of the crusades", 1938), a work that he later partially renounced, but which opened the way for his study. fundamental on the Muslim world which will be the heart of his profession as a historian, with a unique angle for his time: first to leave behind the “heroic and sometimes legendary historiography of the Latin East” which marks his time, and to give a wider place for oriental sources, and in particular Arab ones. It is therefore always in this spirit that his last major essay is situated, written under difficult conditions (Claude Cahen losing his sight, he dictates a large part of this book), but still essential.

The book

The historian, modestly, does not want his essay to be considered as a "definitive book" on the question but only "to give some directions for research", all in relation to already existing studies, some of which he criticizes. point of view. In the introduction, he thus notes the breadth of publications on the subject (the Crusades, therefore) but which he often judges of poor quality, in particular because of the ignorance of oriental sources, especially Arab ones; here, he specifically points to the work of René Grousset, who is nevertheless considered one of the classics to read in order to know about the Crusades. He explains this angle of study of most contemporary and predecessor scholars by the place of the Crusades in the mental imagery of the West, but also the importance of the context in which the historian works. He notes two main currents in this historiography: first, a monopoly of feudal and clerical circles, rather in favor of a "positive" vision of the Crusade; and a reaction among the laity from the modern age that sees it as an obscurantist enterprise. He does not forget the political exploitations, in particular with regard to colonialism.

Still in his introduction, Claude Cahen regrets that the Crusade is alone an object of study, considered as central for Western civilization, or conversely that the Latin East is treated separately and that the Crusade is not also considered as part of the history of the Orient. The point of view is therefore uniquely Western, and does not take into account interactions, including between different areas such as trade. The historian then wants to place the Crusade in relation to what is not the Crusade, in the Mediterranean and in the West, with particular emphasis on trade.

Its first major part, "The Orient until the Beginning of the 11th Century," first asks the question: was the Crusade a response to Muslim invasions? To answer this, Claude Cahen goes back to the beginnings of Islam and its conquests (including that of Jerusalem, which did not cause a shock in the West), with a global picture on an Islam dominant but fragmented by competition between caliphates, then with the arrival of the Turks the religious fragmentation of Syria, without forgetting an isolated Muslim West. Jihad is not put aside, and Claude Cahen explains its origins. He also mentions the situation of other Orientals, Christians or Jews but also Zoroastrians, and addresses the question of dhimmis without idealizing or dramatizing it, while speaking of a "multi-faith society".

The second chapter, "The Middle East in the 11th century: West Africa" ​​is more specifically interested in the Muslim West and its relations with the East, always in this perspective of an approach on the scale of the Mediterranean, and the political and religious evolution more violent, without this being translated against the Christians or even against the pilgrimages.

Then comes "The West and its relations with the East", where Claude Cahen focuses on the Christian West and more specifically Italy and the Normans and the beginnings of trade, insisting on the diversity of situations according to the regions. , the rise in power of the papacy, but above all the ignorance by the West of its Mediterranean neighbors, Muslims but also Byzantines (despite commercial and sometimes diplomatic contacts); the coming crusade will therefore be carried out in complete ignorance of the enemy.

The chapter "The West on the eve of the Crusade" is important because it lists the different explanations of the call to the crusade, in the ideological and political context, before making a presentation of the military capacity of each "camp" .

The original title “The Crusaders in Asia” opens the fifth part, which presents the First Crusade, its relative disorganization once there, the surprise it provokes in the East, and the not so central role of the Italian cities.

It was then the time for "First Contact", in fact the reaction of the Eastern populations to this attack, a misunderstanding of the scale of the phenomenon and its reasons, and the neutrality and even the mistrust of Eastern Christians. The Muslim neighbors, them, are disorganized and divided, and Byzantium more and more hostile.

Chapter VII, entitled "Latin East and West: political conditions until the Second Crusade" shows the first differences and misunderstandings between the Christian West and the Latin States, the lack of policy and support from the still fragile Western monarchies, except at the level of certain large houses (the Normans for example), a papacy which already seems elsewhere, and a Latin Orient which is therefore not the priority of the moment.

In the following part, Claude Cahen is further illustrated by insisting on the economic and cultural domain ("The first half of the 12th century: commerce and spiritual evolution"): the dependence of the Latin States on a commerce Mediterranean (and beyond) on which the Crusades had little influence, including in relations with Muslim countries (Egypt in particular); the growing role of Italian cities and the competition between them; and the absence of the Latin States in the beginning of cultural contacts and exchanges between Latins and Muslims, unlike what is happening at the same time in Spain.

The middle of the century sees according to the historian "an evolution", with the beginnings of the Moslem counter-attack: it is the hour of Nûr al-Dîn and an idea of ​​jihad which reaches Egypt where the Fatimids are overthrown. . At the same time, the Normans became more aggressive, first towards Egypt and then against the Almohads. As for the Italian cities, the North confirms its seizure of power over the South, and tensions increase with Constantinople.

Chapter X focuses on "commerce in the 12th century, its organization, money". It is really developing, in three main directions: Constantinople, Alexandria and Acre. The balance is positive for the West, in particular the Italians, whose fleets are soon supplanting the Muslim fleets. Eastern Latins also benefit, but mainly through Westerners who use their ports, such as Acre. Currency, on the other hand, sees the return of gold (coming from Sudan) which is used by Western merchants as well as by Latin states and their Muslim neighbors; wars do not seem to hinder this growing trade, in particular the Genoese who can afford to financially support the Crusaders, and continue to trade with the Muslims!

When Saladin came to power, Claude Cahen devoted an entire chapter to it in which he also included the Third Crusade.

He then became interested in the institutions of the Latin States (Chapter XII), with the feudal system adapted to the context (smaller fiefdoms, more military obligations, ...) and the importance of religious orders; then he tackles the question of the "natives" (chapter XIII), the little consideration of the Crusaders towards them, including Christians, and the absence of a desire for conversion before the 12th century. He ends this inventory in the 12th century with a chapter (14th) on the armies, the place of castles and the various military techniques, relativizing the exchanges at this level as well.

In the following chapter, Claude Cahen details the Ayyubid period (first half of the 13th century) and more broadly describes the situation in the Middle East during the 13th century, all in the context of new crusades like those of Frederick II and Louis IX; he also insists on the difference in situation and importance at this time between Syria (culturally) and Egypt, the main target of the crusades of the century.

Developments during the 13th century also took place at the level of trade (chapter XVI), with precisely a decline in the importance of Egypt, the shock of the fall of Constantinople, and the still fundamental role of the Italians, to which must be added soon the Provençaux. As for currency, gold is losing its place in the East in favor of silver, but at the same time Genoa and Florence are the first to strike the precious metal in the West ...

The essay ends with "the Mongol period": the crushing of the Middle East between 1220 and 1260, with the fall of Baghdad (1258) as its focal point; at the same time, a Constantinople which becomes Greek again; and of course the fall of Acre and the end of the Latin States, as well as the failure of the Angevins in Sicily and the East.

The appendices should not be neglected, quite the contrary, since they are made up of some forty pages of fundamental texts, mainly from Eastern, Muslim, Christian or Jewish sources.

Conclusions and contributions

It is difficult to summarize all the contributions of this dense but short essay (barely 300 pages). If we quote Françoise Micheau again, we can draw several “key ideas” from the work: we cannot simplistically resolve the crusades to “a titanic conflict between the West and the East” (A. Maalouf), it is necessary to take into account the diversity of political, economic and religious situations; the Crusade has a connection with what it is not, first of all commerce, and it is only one element among many of the relations between Latins and Islam during this period; According to him, therefore, the importance of the Crusades, whether in the West or in the history of the Muslim world, in which he integrates the Latin States, must be put into perspective: they remain a secondary fact, in particular in the face of the Mongol invasions and the coming to power of the Mamluks. It should be noted that Claude Cahen rejects the colonial character of the Crusades and the founding of the Latin States, whether in comparison with the Greek model of Antiquity or that of Westerners in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Unfortunately, even though Claude Cahen’s work is considered a classic today, the history of the Crusades is relatively neglected among French historians. By the time he published (in the 1980s), Cahen regretted being almost the only one, with Jean Richard. We can also obviously quote Michel Balard and his students, even if they mainly focused on the Mediterranean trade of that time. The history of the Crusades is today made by the Anglo-Saxons and the Germans, and always in a Westernist vision, almost ignoring the Muslim "camp" (and its sources), and bringing the Crusade back to its Christian "essence" ...

Fortunately, Claude Cahen has nonetheless inspired historians of Islam in France, who are interested in the specificities of these regions beyond the framework of the Crusades; this is the case with the work of Nikita Elisséeff or Anne-Marie Eddé for example (including her monumental biography, "Saladin", 2008). Likewise, the work of historians on the Reconquista and Al Andalus, such as Pierre Guichard, may also be part of his lineage and his inspiration.

"East and West at the time of the Crusades", despite the confusion (due to the conditions of its writing) that one can sometimes feel when reading it, is indeed a must for anyone passionate about both the Crusades and the history of Islam and that of the Mediterranean.

C. CAHEN, East and West at the time of the Crusades, Paris, Aubier, 1983 (reissue 2010), 302 p.

Read also:

- F. MICHEAU, "From the West to the East: Claude Cahen, historian of the Crusades", Arabica, 43, 1996, p 71-88. Available at http://www.ifao.egnet.net/bcai/.

- J-Cl. GARCIN, “Claude Cahen: Orient and Occident au temps des croisades”, BCAI 1, 1984. Available at the same link.


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