As a professor with an academic specialization in the crusades, I’d like to think that I would be well informed about the existence of a new documentary series on those medieval campaigns (especially when the program features several professors from the institution where I did my graduate degrees). However, if it was not for a few email alerts from my parents earlier this week, I would have been completely unaware of the four-part documentary series, “The Crusades,” that EWTN has been showing over the last several nights.
The last major documentary on the crusades was produced by the History Channel – before that channel mostly ditched history and Hitler in favor of pawn shops and ice road truckers – back in 2005. The production values were impressive and it had some established scholars offering sensible opinions. But the program also had its fair share of flaws. Those shortcomings included prominently featuring Tariq Ali, a novelist who knows about as much (or perhaps less) about the crusades as my grandmother, covering only the first three major crusade expeditions to the Holy Land, and failing to provide a broader context for the genesis of the crusading movement.
Assessed on this metric, the new EWTN documentary series gets high marks. Tariq Ali, thankfully, is nowhere to be found. Part 1 of the series (which aired this past Wednesday night) intelligently explained the wider history of Muslim-Christian conflict in which the First Crusade emerged. Crusading in areas outside the Levant has been discussed over the first two episodes, and the promotional materials for parts 3 and 4 indicate that the series will be examining crusading activity up through the battle of Lepanto in 1571.
Each episode is just thirty minutes long, which can at times give a breakneck pace to the events, issues, and personalities being covered. The first episode offered a commendable overview of the origins of the crusading idea, its appeal to medieval contemporaries, and the success of the First Crusade. A longer consideration of the anti-Jewish pogroms would have been valuable and likely avoided the outdated notion, invoked by the narrator, that the People’s Crusade was mostly a ragtag mob. Also, a clearer explanation of the significant divisions among Muslims in the region would have provided an important insight into why the First Crusade succeeded. However, these are the nit-picky quibbles of a specialist who has probably read too many crusade-related tomes over the past fifteen years.
The production values of the series are solid. Budget limitations are occasionally seen in the reenactments, but even here the camera work is creative and the extensive locations shots give a good sense of the environment and the era. The producers have also secured the participation of several prominent crusades scholars on both sides of the Atlantic, including Jonathan Riley-Smith, the leading crusading historian of the past thirty years and the author of a numbers of books on the topic including the useful primer What Were the Crusades? (Ignatius Press, 2009). I strongly encourage anyone interested in the subject matter to program your DVR or set aside some time tonight (October 10th) and tomorrow night (October 11th) to watch [10:00pm eastern, 9:00pm central] the final two installments of this excellent series.