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Historiography of the Crusades

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14th-century miniature of Peter the Hermit leading the People's Crusade
Miniature of Peter the Hermit leading the People's Crusade (Egerton 1500, Avignon, 14th century)

The historiography of the Crusades has been subject to competing and evolving interpretations from the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 until the present day. The religious idealism, use of martial force and pragmatic compromises made by those involved in crusading were controversial, both at the time and subsequently. While the theory and practice of crusading always maintained a rhetorical, legal, and emotional connection with the Holy Land, they also proved applicable to other areas of interest to the Catholic Church. Crusading became integral to Western European culture. The ideas shaped behaviour in the Late Middle Ages and in attitudes rather than action this continued beyond the 15th century.

From the 17th century historians began rejecting religious interpretations instead examining the secular motivations of the crusaders. Applying interpretations supporting the building of nation states they considered these fundamentally discrete from the religious sphere. This made it challenging to reconcile the idealistic and the materialistic. Enlightenment thinkers considered the crusaders culturally inferior to themselves and Protestants considered them morally so.

The internationalism of crusading was an obstacle to those historians wishing to project both the idea of crusading and the Crusades themselves as a nationalistic ideal. By the 19th century the development of nationalism, colonial politics, and critical history increased interest in the subject for the purposes of entertainment and moralising. In the early 20th century a focus developed on the part crusades played as drivers of medieval conquest, economics and legacy. This was reinforced by the establishment of Israel in 1948, which prompted efforts to draw historical parallels. Crusading historiography continues to develop, reflecting a range of issues: belief systems, identity, economics, politics, imperialism, colonialism, ideology, legitimacy, pathological violence, warfare, the impact on non-combatants, inter-faith and inter-ethnic relations, state building, and propaganda.


In modern historiography, the term "crusade" first referred to a military expedition undertaken by European Christians in the 11th, 12th, or 13th centuries to the Holy Land. The conflicts to which the term was applied were later extended to include other campaigns initiated, supported and sometimes directed by the Roman Catholic Church against pagans and heretics or for other alleged religious ends.[1] From the first papal decree in 1095, these differed from other Christian religious wars in that they were considered a penitential exercise rewarding the participants with forgiveness for all confessed sins. Pope Urban II was recorded to have said, as translated by Robert Somerville, "whoever for devotion alone not to obtain honour or money, goes to Jerusalem to liberate the Church of God can substitute the journey for all penance".[2]

The usage of the term "crusade" can create a misleading impression of coherence, particularly regarding the early Crusades, and the definition is a matter of historiographical debate among contemporary historians.[3] At the time of the First Crusade, iter, "journey", and peregrinatio, "pilgrimage" were used as the descriptions of the campaign. Crusader terminology remained largely indistinguishable from that of Christian pilgrimage during the 12th century. Only at the end of the century was a specific language of crusading adopted in the form of crucesignatus—"one signed by the cross"—for a crusader. This led to the French croisade—the way of the cross.[3] By the mid-13th century the cross became the major descriptor of the crusades with crux transmarina—"the cross overseas"—used for crusades across the Mediterranean Sea, and crux cismarina—"the cross this side of the sea"—for those in Europe.[4][5]

Riley-Smith, a dominant and influential figure in academic crusade studies, defined a 'Crusade' as an expedition undertaken on papal authority.[6] This definition excludes the Spanish Reconquista, even though participants were granted Papal indulgences, which conferred the same privileges. Historian Giles Constable identified four specific areas of focus for contemporary crusade studies; their political or geographical objectives, how they were organised, how far they were an expression of popular support, or the religious reasons behind them.[7]


Map of the states of the eastern Mediterranean in 1135
Eastern Mediterranean, 1135; Crusader states indicated with a red cross

The Crusader states established in the Eastern Mediterranean in 1098 persisted in some form for over two centuries, and relied on a constant flow of men and money from the West. Knights either travelled to the Holy Land as individuals, or as one of the military orders, including the Knights Templar, Hospitallers, or the Teutonic Order. The church granted them immunity from lawsuits, forgiveness of debt, and general protection for individual property and family.[8]

This meant the crusading experience and ideology was far more pervasive than the 'Crusades', which were major expeditions launched with Papal support.[9] French Catholic lawyer Étienne Pasquier (1529–1615), was one of the first to number them, a sequence that remains largely unchanged. The 1096-1099 First Crusade was succeeded by the Second (1146–1149), Third (1187–1192), Fourth (1198–1204), and Fifth (1217–1221). In 1228 to 1229, Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor led the Sixth Crusade , with Louis IX of France commanding the Seventh (1248–1254), before dying in 1270 during the Eighth. The Western presence in Palestine ended with the loss of Acre in 1291.[10]

However, crusades were not confined to the Holy Land, and while these are less well-known in Western Europe, they are important in understanding why negative views are not confined to Muslims. Riley-Smith, a dominant and influential figure in academic crusade studies, defined a 'Crusade' as an expedition undertaken on papal authority.[6] This definition excludes the Spanish Reconquista, although participants were granted Papal indulgences, which conferred the same privileges.

The 1209 to 1229 Albigensian Crusade was arguably more brutal in terms of deaths than any of those in the Holy Land. Armies largely composed of northern French Catholics suppressed Catharism in Southern France, estimates of the dead varying from 200,000 to over 1 million.[11] The same region became a stronghold of French Protestantism during the 16th and 17th centuries, driven in part by memories of that period.[12]

The Northern Crusades against pagans and Eastern Orthodox Christians continued intermittently from the late 12th to early 16th century. Increasingly driven by political, rather than religious aims, they were led by the Teutonic Order. Their defeat in April 1242 by one of Russia's greatest heroes, Alexander Nevsky, ended the expansion of Catholicism into Eastern Europe.[13] Two Crusades aimed at halting the Ottoman advance into South-East Europe, Nicopolis in 1396, and Varna in 1444, both ended in disaster. Although the cultural symbols of crusading remained common for some time after, this essentially ended them as a viable military option.[14]


The Sack of Constantinople in 1204 permanently scarred relationships between Western and Eastern Christians

Originally, medieval understanding of the Crusades was narrowly focused on a limited set of interrelated texts, most notably Gesta Francorum which possibly dates from as early as 1099. The Gesta was reworked by Robert of Rheims who created a papalist, northern French template for later works. These all demonstrated a degree of martial advocacy that attributed both success and failure to God's will.[15]

This clerical view was soon challenged by vernacular adventure stories based on the work of Albert of Aachen. William of Tyre expanded on Albert's writing in his Historia. Completed by 1184, William's work describes the warrior state the Outremer had become through the tensions between divine providence and humankind.[16] Medieval writers focused on the crusades as a moral exemplar and a cultural norm.[17]

From its inception, the idea of Holy War used to justify the Crusades conflicted with that of Just War, a concept some argue can be traced back to Ancient Egypt.[18] Building on the earlier work of St Augustine, in the 13th century Thomas Aquinas set out the principles of a 'Just War', which became part of an accepted consensus in Medieval Europe.[19]

As early as the 12th century, many Western rulers viewed 'taking the Cross' as a way to obtain Papal support and financing, for aims that were often political. Growing unease at the morality of crusading, typified by the Sack of Constantinople in 1204, appeared justified by their failure in the Holy Land. They also required acceptance of Papal authority over all Christians, and the universality of the church, concepts that were increasingly challenged.[20]

This trend continued throughout the 14th century, driven by Papal involvement in Italian politics, the Avignon Papacy, use of indulgences and Treasury of Merit. While opposition to perceived Papal corruption led to the Protestant Reformation, even some Catholics rejected the Pope's ability to guarantee divine salvation, an idea fundamental to crusading. They included Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican friar burnt at the stake in 1498.[21]


Lepanto, 1571; won by a temporal alliance, paid for by the Papacy

The failure of the crusades was now presented as symbolic of failings within the Catholic Church, which had corrupted and misused a genuine desire to serve God. In his 1566 work, History of the Turks, Protestant John Foxe placed the blame for their failure on the Church, whom he condemned for persecuting fellow Christians, including the Cathars and Waldensians. This was expanded by the Humanist scholar, Matthäus Dresser (1536–1607), in his commentary on the 1584 Chronica Hierosolyma.[22]

The Renaissance concept of natural law held that all peoples had certain rights, regardless of nationality or religion. Initially developed by Catholic theologians Francisco de Vitoria and Alberico Gentili, it was codified by Dutch humanist Hugo Grotius in the 1620s.[23] As a result, in the face of continuing Ottoman expansion, the Papacy focused instead on temporal alliances such as the Holy League, which fought at Lepanto in 1571.[24]

Divisions caused by the French Wars of Religion meant both the Protestant Bongars and Catholic Pasquier used the crusades to symbolise French unity. Rather than an alliance of European Christianity, they presented them as a primarily French experience, praising the individuals who took part, while dismissing the Crusades themselves as immoral.[10] In 1704, Ottoman historian Mustafa Naima used them as a warning of the dangers of divisions within Islam, an interpretation that remained consistent into the mid 19th century.[25]

Age of Enlightenment philosopher historians such as David Hume, Voltaire, and Edward Gibbon used crusading as a conceptual tool to critique religion, civilisation, and cultural mores. In their view the sole positive effect of crusading was the increasing liberty that municipalities were able to purchase from feudal lords, which had enabled towns to become the source of a new rationality. This was contrasted with a view of the negatives of crusading that included depopulation, economic ruin, the abuse of papal authority, irresponsibility and barbarism. In turn, these opinions were then criticised in the 19th century by crusade enthusiasts as being unnecessarily hostile to, and ignorant of, the crusades.[26]

Alternatively, Claude Fleury and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz proposed that the crusades were one stage in the improvement of European civilisation; that paradigm was further developed by rationalists.[27] In France the idea that the crusades were an important part of national history and identity continued to evolve. In scholarly literature, the term "holy war" was replaced by the neutral German kreuzzug and French croisade.[28]

Gibbon followed Thomas Fuller in dismissing the concept that the crusades were a legitimate defence on the grounds that they were disproportionate to the threat presented. Palestine was an objective, not because of reason but because of fanaticism and superstition.[29] William Robertson expanded on Fleury in a new, empirical, objective approach; placing crusading in a narrative on the road to modernity. The cultural consequences of progress, growth in trade and the rise of the Italian cities are elaborated in his work. In this he influenced his student Walter Scott.[30]

The Long 19th Century; Colonialism[edit]

The Salle des Croisades, at Versailles; used to justify French colonial ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean

Western historians generally argue that until the mid 19th century, the Muslim world showed little interest in the Crusades. Carole Hillenbrand suggests they were a marginal issue compared to the collapse of the Caliphate, while Arab writers often took a Western viewpoint in opposition to the Ottoman Empire, which suppressed Arab nationalism.[31] However, recent scholarship has challenged this perspective.[25]

The decline in Ottoman power led to a contest for influence between Russia, France, Britain, and later Germany. Each claimed to be 'protectors' of different religious groups within the Empire; conflict between France and Russia over these assumed 'rights' was a major factor in the 1853 Crimean War. Each party presented the Crusades in a way that bolstered their own political aims, the Russian view being coloured by 200 years of war against the Crusaders of the Teutonic Order. Memories of the Fourth Crusade meant their fellow Orthodox Christians viewed the Crusades with as much hostility as Muslims, an issue that led to a Papal apology in May 2001.[32]

Post-1815, France claimed the Eastern Mediterranean as a 'French lake', a deliberate echo of Napoleon's campaign in Egypt and Syria.[33] In Histoire des croisades, published between 1812 to 1822, Joseph François Michaud depicted the Crusades as an expression of French nationalism. Louis Philippe, installed as king in July 1830, used colonial expansion to bolster support for the new regime. In 1830, France occupied Algiers, then backed Muhammad Ali, ruler of the nominally Ottoman province of Egypt, in his unsuccessful attempt to create an Arab state which included Palestine and Syria.[34]

In 1841, the first of 15 volumes of Recueil des historiens des croisades was published, based on original sources collected by the Maurists prior to the Revolution.[35] Louis-Philippe opened the Salle des Croisades at Versailles in 1843, with over 120 specially commissioned paintings related to the Crusades.[36] The Crusader states were portrayed as proto-French colonies, and France the 'historical protector' of Syriac Christians in Palestine. In 1865, the Melkite Patriarch of Jerusalem published an Arabic translation of an 1840 account of the Crusades by Maxime de Montrond, itself largely based on Michaud. This neutralised terms likely to offend, such as 'barbaric', 'infidel', and 'false prophet; rather than "wars of the Ifranj", or "Franks", they were retitled al-hurub al Salabiyya, or "wars of the Cross".[25]

In the 1820s, British authors like Walter Scott and Charles Mills popularised the cult of Richard the Lionheart, but their focus was Medievalism, with the Crusades as a background. In addition, British policy in Arabia and Palestine was managed from New Delhi, whose main aim was to avoid offending Muslims in British India, Persia, or Afghanistan.[37] When General Allenby led a polyglot Allied army, including Muslims, into Jerusalem in December 1917, he entered on foot, and carefully avoided crusading rhetoric or triumphalism. Unfortunately, the British media was not so sensitive, falsely attributing to Allenby the claim that 'Today, the wars of the crusades are ended'.[38]

At the other extreme, Kaiser Wilhelm II exploited Muslim memories of the Crusades to bolster German political and economic aims with an ostentatious tour of the Levant in 1898. He rode into Jerusalem mounted on a white horse, and visited Damascus, where his wife laid a bronze wreath on the Mausoleum of Saladin. He positioned himself as Saladin's successor, and claimed to be 'Protector of the Faithful', but German efforts to harness Arab nationalism against Britain in 1914-1918 proved incompatible with support for the Ottoman regime.[25]


In the first half of the 20th century, 'Crusade' was often used to imply a moral objective. Participants in the 1936 Jarrow March against unemployment called themselves 'crusaders', while Eisenhower, Supreme Allied commander, titled his 1948 account of World War II 'Crusade in Europe'. Others used it in its original 'Holy War' form; the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War, and the Mothers' Movement that opposed US involvement in WWII, both described themselves as crusaders against 'Godless communism'.[39]

This provides context to Steven Runciman's three volume A History of the Crusades, published between 1951 to 1954. Rather than being driven by morality or religion, in his judgement the Crusades were 'a long act of intolerance in the name of God.'[40] An historian of the Byzantine Empire, Runciman was appalled by the Fourth Crusade, which colours his perspective.[41] He portrays western Europeans as ignorant, rough and rude, Byzantines as cultivated, sophisticated, and decadent, while Muslims are tolerant, devout, and warlike.[42]

While criticised for these broad stereotypes and other flaws, Runciman's work 'remains the primary standard for comparison'.[43] One reason is the elegance of the writing; Jonathan Riley-Smith quotes Runciman as saying "[he] was not an historian, but a writer of literature". His approach reflected the 19th century concept of a clash of cultures, expanded into the "clash of civilisations", which sees conflict as driven by religious and cultural values, rather than political or economic. Historian Thomas F. Madden states "Runciman single-handedly crafted the current popular concept of the crusades".[44]

In 2001, President Bush described the War on Terror as a 'crusade'. A comment that passed largely unnoticed in the US sparked negative responses in Europe, and among moderate Muslims, for whom it "recalled barbarous and unjust military operations against the Muslim world."[45] It reflects a widespread view within political Islam that the 'Crusader mentality' never went away, as demonstrated by the history of Western intervention in the Middle East.[46] The Crusades thus link directly to modern military and political developments, including the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, the 1990 Gulf War, or the 1948 establishment of Israel.[47]

Madden suggests this is an artificial construct, derived from the Crusades being used to justify 19th century European colonialism, while in reality they were a mediaeval phenomenon.[48] However, this approach is mirrored by extreme Right-wing elements in Europe and the Americas, who suggest the Christian West once again faces an Islamic threat. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan, or Knights Templar International, commonly employ Crusader symbols, although many are not religious, and consider their domestic political opponents part of the same threat.[49]

Primary Sources[edit]

Armenian historians of the crusades include[52]
Muslim historians include[53]
Contemporary Jewish accounts include[54]


  1. ^ "crusades". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ Tyerman 2019, p. 1.
  3. ^ a b Asbridge 2012, p. 40.
  4. ^ Tyerman 2019, p. 5.
  5. ^ "Outremer". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  6. ^ a b Riley-Smith 2009, p. xi.
  7. ^ Constable 2001, pp. 1–22.
  8. ^ Tyerman 2019, pp. 1–6.
  9. ^ Richard 1979, pp. 376-380.
  10. ^ a b Tyerman 2011, pp. 47–50.
  11. ^ Lemkin 2012, p. 71.
  12. ^ Sumption 1999, p. 252.
  13. ^ Hosking 2012, p. 65.
  14. ^ Madden 2013, pp. 202-203.
  15. ^ Tyerman 2011, pp. 8–12.
  16. ^ Tyerman 2011, pp. 16–17.
  17. ^ Tyerman 2011, p. 32.
  18. ^ Cox 2017, p. 371.
  19. ^ Reichberg 2017, p. viii.
  20. ^ Tuchman 1978, p. 25.
  21. ^ Weinstein 2011, p. 122.
  22. ^ Murray 2007, p. 36.
  23. ^ Tyerman 2011, pp. 38–40.
  24. ^ Hopkins 2006, pp. 59-60.
  25. ^ a b c d Phillips 2011.
  26. ^ Tyerman 2011, p. 79.
  27. ^ Tyerman 2011, p. 67.
  28. ^ Tyerman 2011, p. 71.
  29. ^ Tyerman 2011, p. 87.
  30. ^ Tyerman 2011, pp. 80–86.
  31. ^ Hillenbrand 1999, p. 5.
  32. ^ Howard 2001.
  33. ^ Perry 2019, p. 118.
  34. ^ Goldschmidt 1988, pp. 16-19.
  35. ^ Tyerman 2011, pp. 142–143.
  36. ^ Riley-Smith 2008, p. 54.
  37. ^ Onley 2009, pp. 44-45.
  38. ^ Asbridge 2012, pp. 673–674.
  39. ^ Jeansonne 2002.
  40. ^ Tyerman 2006, p. 29.
  41. ^ Tyerman 2006, p. 560.
  42. ^ Tyerman 2011, pp. 192–199.
  43. ^ Vaughan 2007, p. 159.
  44. ^ Madden 2013, p. 216.
  45. ^ Ford 2001.
  46. ^ Ersan 2020, p. 3.10.
  47. ^ Asbridge 2012, pp. 674–675.
  48. ^ Madden 2013, pp. 204–205.
  49. ^ Koch 2017, p. 1.
  50. ^ Dass 2011, p. 119.
  51. ^ Lock 2006, pp. 26–30.
  52. ^ MacEvitt 2014, pp. 260–275.
  53. ^ Hillenbrand 1999, pp. 9–30.
  54. ^ Cohen 2013, pp. 6–7, 31–54, 92–105.