Meet the Expert: Dr. Burnam Reynolds '70

When Asbury University alumni return to campus for Reunion, one of the things they say goes something like, “When I came to class, I knew I wasn’t just another student to my professor. He knew me, he challenged me, and I’m better at what I do now because he knew what he was talking about.” In an ongoing Web series, Asbury will feature just a few of the faculty at Asbury who are making a difference in both their subject areas and their classrooms. 

It’s the stuff movies are made of: dramatic themes of myth and money, power and privilege, all set against sweeping landscapes sacred to multiple religions. The Crusades profoundly shaped the economic, religious and governmental environment of the time — and their echoes continue to impact the modern world.

Thus it was surprising to Dr. Burnam Reynolds ‘70, Asbury University professor and scholar of medieval history, to find so little contemporary analysis of the events leading to the Crusades. After all, as he tells his students, “History doesn’t just fall out of the sky.”

Asbury University faculty
Dr. Burnam Reynolds '70

The challenge with investigating root causes of historical events is knowing just how far back to go. Reynolds found a useful historical reference point in Constantine’s conversion in the 4th century — an event before which there was little concern about Christian involvement in military matters, and after which it became increasingly relevant. As his research progressed, he published an article in an online historical journal and presented a paper at the International Symposium of Crusade Studies in St. Louis.

But in addition to the original source material he employed in his research — chronicles of ancient historians, accounts of saints’ lives, church council minutes — he had another source of information for perspective and context: the churches, ruins and monuments scattered across the modern country of Spain. And his companions on these pilgrimages of historical discovery? Asbury students.

For 10 years, Reynolds and Spanish professor Dr. Shelby Thacker have been leading student excursions to Spain for interdisciplinary, hands-on education in language and history. As the group strolls Las Ramblas in Barcelona south to a monument of Christopher Columbus and the Mediterranean Sea, history becomes a sensory experience of the scent of tapas, the song of caged birds for sale and whisper of ocean breezes. In Segovia, another frequent tour stop, Roman aqueducts share a landscape with a small church whose unusual design piqued Reynolds’ interest several years ago: instead of the traditional cruciform shape, the church was round. Some investigation revealed that the church had been built in 1208 by the Knights Templar — a group that began in the Crusades and has since captured the imagination of filmmakers and novelists alike — and modeled after the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

“Seamless learning is more than just a phrase,” Reynolds said. “All of this is woven into one piece of cloth. We can pull out the threads and look at them, but it’s all one cloth. By being there, you see angles you hadn’t noticed from just reading about it. It makes history come alive. It makes things make sense. You can see light bulbs coming on.”

The paper Reynolds presented at the International Symposium of Crusade Studies has grown into a book project on the prehistory of the Baltic Crusades. While less famous than the Crusades in the Holy Land, the Baltic Crusades are also more manageable in scope, and the research has been valuable in helping Reynolds developing a taxonomy for this relatively unexplored topic.

“I’ve had students ask me why the Crusades just suddenly happened, and I never had a good answer for them,” he said. “There had to be a backstory — penance, feudal obligations and warfare, papal power. In a way, students planted the seed for this. It is often argued that a good researcher is probably not a good teacher. But I think if you’re researching, you can share what you learn with your students, and that will make you a good teacher.”

Dr. Burnam Reynolds ’70 has taught history at Asbury University for 40 years. He has published scholarly articles in Britain, the Netherlands and the United States on medieval Church history and its intersection with war. He is the author of a biography of the early medieval monastic reformer and missionary Columbanus and a book on the prehistory of the Crusades for Bloomsbury Press. He is unique as a scholar pursuing research in the prehistory of the Crusades, a topic that can do much to place this still-controversial event in its proper context.

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