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Why the Crusades Matter

Christopher Tyerman

The crusades offer features to fascinate and disturb modern audiences. Surviving evidence–literary, archival, archaeological, visual and material–allows access in some detail to individual experiences as well as large movements, to perpetrators but also to opponents and victims. Much of the western historical record of the Levant crusades presents a rare instance of history written by losers. The physical legacy is extensive. The drama of events involving armed conflict across vast geographic distances and sharp cultural, communal and faith boundaries, together with the claims made at the time and later about their significance, have made study of the crusades highly sensitive to intellectual, cultural or political fashion. Each generation writes its own crusades, so current western scholarship now pays attention to memory, memorialisation, inter-faith and cross-cultural community relations, race, popular religious belief, identity and gender, as previous observers concentrated on politics, war, cultural supremacy, colonialism or religious value judgement. For many modern audiences the essential strangeness of the phenomenon still intrigues.

The crusades disturbed patterns of life in startling and bewildering ways, for those who experienced them as much as for later observers. The earnest violence and disruption of long-distance campaigns mirrored the emotional and ideological force of the driving ideals. While crusading shared psychologies with other wars for perceived good causes, it depended on an especially stark legitimacy. ‘God wills it!’ is not only unprovable; it is also unanswerable, free from customary social or legal considerations and constraints, or even the discipline of failure. Behind its theological, liturgical and canonical trappings, crusading displayed a bleak binary model of human belief and behaviour. Its strenuous self-righteousness enshrined a formal intolerance and rejection of empathy, a devotional observance that shackled crusaders to performing a series of expiatory acts with no final resolution except in the unknowable fate of individual souls or the collective providence of the Apocalypse and Last Judgement. That many crusaders saw themselves as acting out of charity for their faith and fellow Christians in a willing sacrifice of self-interest for a higher transcendent purpose adds to the fascination. To attempt empathy with crusaders is not to approve or disapprove but to accept an imaginative challenge, to recognise the existence of very different, possibly rebarbative systems of social values. To these, the material witness bears direct witness.

How important were the crusades to medieval contemporaries? Active participation in crusading was always a minority activity, appealing to different sections of society in different ways in different places and at different times, or even differently to the same groups in the same places and at the same time. There were always voices in the crowds decrying the crusade as there were devotees profoundly moved by it. Established as a normative feature of Catholic Christian teaching and observance by the early thirteenth century, taxation, almsgiving, liturgical performances and vow redemptions lent crusading wide social and imaginative presence. Increasingly, dissemination of crusading stories and images across artistic genres and social borders created its own atmosphere, inseparable from the air men breathed.1 Among certain royal and noble families and in certain cities, traditions of involvement became entrenched, producing generations of recruits and particular habits of ecclesiastical patronage. For centuries, western European diplomacy rang with calls and commitments to aid the Holy Land, fight the Moors, combat heresy or resist the Ottomans. For the ruling elites, and for those aspiring to join them, the Jerusalem war of 1096–9 provided a new, precise and lasting model of respectable violence, religious obedience and chivalric glamour. However, the crusades were far from all-consuming. They reflected as much as formed concurrent mentalities. The traction of crusading among the majority, serving populations can chiefly be surmised only through the testimony of their social masters. Only occasionally, as during the Third Crusade, did crusading exert more than a temporary or marginal effect on major diplomacy or domestic politics. Success on crusade could enhance fame and reputation, but these could be, and were, won in many other settings. For much of the time, even for enthusiasts, the crusade, lit by a glorious past, always remained for the future, the next thing to be done, or the one after that. Away from the campaigns themselves, crusading added a tone and a flavour to Christian culture, politics and society in western Europe, not a determining causal principle.

Nonetheless, the wars and conquests in the guise of the crusades helped shape the political map of Europe, from the Iberian Peninsula to north-eastern Germany and the eastern Baltic. They remain flecked across cultural memories in Scandinavia (as in the myth of the Dannebrog, the flag of Denmark), regions of eastern Europe and the Balkans. They provide national heroes (and villains) in France, Germany, Italy (notably in Venice) and England. For certain zealots, the crusades present a relevant model of religious conflict. For others, the crusades prove the alien quality of the past: impenetrable, irrational, inferior and conveniently distant. The Roman Catholic Church has even taken steps towards apologising for the effects of the crusades. Ironically, outside polemics, in the Levant, imposing ruins apart, only the Maronite Christian Church of Lebanon, officially united with the papacy since 1181, survives as a significant living heir of the crusading era. Besides physical remains and a few place-name elements (e.g. Qala ‘at Sanjil in Tripoli – castle of St Gilles’, i.e. Raymond of St Gilles who built a fort on the site in 1103), in Syria and Palestine the crusades have only left shadows and contested memories.

Yet the crusades still claim attention, not as precursors to modern political or religious conflict nor yet as David Hume’s ‘most signal and most durable monument of human folly that has yet appeared in any age or nation’.2 They deserve consideration for their own sake, as prominent features of half a millennium of European and Mediterranean history, as witnesses to the present’s complex and conflicted relationship with the past, and as testimony to the challenges and contradictions of the human experience. Some of the material evidence illustrated here invites direct historical contemplation and contact with a past on its own terms, not ours. The crusades occupied a real world that it is too easy to claim we have lost. Much remains; much still to be examined and disputed. This is as it should be. It is called history.

1. F. M. Powicke, The Thirteenth Century (Oxford 1962), p. 80.

2. D. Hume, History of Great Britain (London 1761), vol. I, p. 209.

From The World of the Crusades by Christopher Tyerman. Published by Yale University Press in 2019. Reproduced with permission.

Christopher Tyerman is professor of the history of the crusades at Oxford University and a fellow of Hertford College. His books include God’s WarThe Debate on the Crusades, and How to Plan a Crusade. He lives in Oxford.

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