Books interview with Christopher Tyerman: “Religious war isn’t an irrational act, and we shouldn’t dismiss it as irrational”

Christopher Tyerman talks to Matt Elton about his new book that considers the practical reality of going on crusade – and, by so doing, reveals the inherent rationality of the Middle Ages

The tomb of the Crusader knight Richard de Crupes.

This article first appeared in the September 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine.


In context

Pope Urban II called for the First Crusade in 1095 with the aim of securing Christian control of the area around Jerusalem, captured by Muslim armies centuries earlier. The resulting wars and conquests spanned hundreds of years and resulted in thousands of people leaving Europe to aid the war effort in the Holy Land. A military effort on such a huge scale required extensive organisation, including the provision of transport, food, equipment and medical care. The impact of the crusades remains contested, but they had a profound effect on everything from trade to culture.

What sort of people went on crusade?

The social reach was very broad. There were the military elites, the urban elites and their entourages and military households, and the wider community who had been recruited to fight as infantry. Beyond that, there’s evidence of quite modest farmers, urban and rural artisans, and rich peasants, all of whom could hope to earn some money on crusades. And obviously poor peasants could have gone, but would have needed someone else’s funds. So it was socially quite embracing –  not just knights and soldiers.

Women went too: lists of crusaders from the late 12th century feature around 10 per cent women. Some were wives, but others went by themselves or in groups – in other words, they weren’t chaperoned. Some rich women even hired groups of soldiers to take with them, so they were very powerful.

The involvement of society as a whole, women as well as men, both followed and is very revealing about wider social structures.

What techniques were used to try to get people to go on crusade?

It was a multimedia activity. Firstly, there was a written side: campaigns would start with papal letters being sent out, as well as newsletters and doctored eyewitness accounts of some atrocity that they wanted to advertise to stimulate attention. There was also a visual aspect: during the Third Crusade, preachers went around with big posters on canvases depicting Saladin and his horse crapping on the holy sepulchre, or pictures of Muhammad beating up Christ.

There were also sermons, which were big theatrical performances. You assembled a crowd who knew what to expect, in the same way that you know what to expect when you go to a pop concert. The preacher would be on the stage, using props and an array of oratorical and theatrical tricks. Most of the sensory perceptions were involved, and the message was a universal one: salvation, duty, necessity. It was carefully constructed to generate the maximum effect.

People signed up for various reasons. You could commit to go because you believed that it was the right thing to do, as people believed that fighting against the Nazis or Napoleon was the right thing to do. So it could be an ideological, emotional commitment. But it was also seen as a respectable thing to do. You were fulfilling your role in society, your cultural obligation.

Your reputation would have been enhanced by going on crusade, with benefits for your material standing. So the pressures on lords were social and cultural as much as religious.

If you were employed, of course, you went – you were an employee, your livelihood depended on your lord and you went with him. You may have believed in it, you may not. This idea that everything was spontaneous is something commentators projected for religious reasons, but the reality of trying to organise an army was exactly the same as in any other period: you needed resources, leadership, social structures, and so on.

The crusades took place over a huge area. What effect did this have on the way they were planned and managed?

Co-ordination was extremely difficult – but it was achieved. Deadlines were set for when people left, and muster points were set at particular times. There were rounds of diplomacy, with endless letters going to and fro preparing for markets and contracts with shippers. We know that the Third Crusade took Germany a year to prepare for and a year to get to the Holy Land. Interestingly, in 1190, Richard I prepaid his soldiers’ wages, recorded on exchequer accounts, and took the money with him to pay them for the next year. And hey presto, they got to the Holy Land at the end of that year.

So there was practical intelligence and planning, and people arrived in a fairly co-ordinated way. This was partly because there were only two seasons in which people could get to the Holy Land by sea, but it was not done by coincidence or chance. There was a pattern to these campaigns, based on networks of communication founded on lordship patterns, regional, monastic and trade links, and connections between towns. These communities came together because they already had contact.

How did the crusaders find their way?

Well, they knew where they were going. Not initially, perhaps, in the way that we would, by using maps, but through their version of satnav: people, veterans and locals who told them where to go. When you look at itineraries you see that they were organised in a linear way from town to town just like satnav. They were diagrammatic maps just like that of the London underground.

The idea that they set off over the horizon not knowing where to go is a modern myth. By the end of the 13th century there’s plenty of evidence that they were using maps, and there are written accounts of journeys to the Holy Land that specify in which direction to go and how many days it would take.

How did crusaders go about providing medical care?

The idea that medieval medicine was a form of licence to assault and murder is untrue. Crusaders took doctors with them on the Fifth Crusade, for instance, and provisions were made for nursing. Not all wounds were fatal, and you needed to save people’s lives if they had injuries, look after your wounded, and bury your dead. This is true of any army, and true of the crusades.

Obviously the treatment was hit and miss, but there was an understanding of how to treat wounds. You can tell this from surviving skeletons that wounds have healed and so couldn’t have been fatal. This reflects one of my book’s general themes: that these weren’t clods inspired by crude superstition, credulously following some bogus spiritual ideal. Well, to our eyes the ideal may have been bogus, but they thought it through rationally. It had to be explained to them: if the cause of a crusade wasn’t convincing, people didn’t join up. This was not an obedient society, but a questioning one. The medical care shows that we should take these people seriously: these were serious people, doing their best to confront serious problems.

Are there any characters who have been particularly overlooked?

I think that the unsung are the mass of the crusaders. The physical conditions of going on crusade weren’t pleasant. One shouldn’t get sentimental about this, but the common experience of the common person going on crusade was, shall we say, strenuous. There were things to compensate for this, suchas the camaraderie, but it was often tough.

My reaction – and you see this in a lot of historians who write about the crusades – is somewhat split. On the one hand, you have to acknowledge the crusaders’ intellectual and physical effort and psychological stamina. Yet I think that their actions are to some extent characteristic of a very different society from ours. There’s no point in historians even considering whether or not the crusades were a good thing or a bad thing. That seems to me to be sloppy self-indulgence, a condescending judgmentalism of the worst sort that doesn’t help us understand the historical reality. These were real people motivated by very different impulses, even if those impulses are, to me at any rate, repulsive in many ways: the violence, the intolerance, the assumption of religious, racial and moral superiority. Those things were all shared by the other side as well, of course.

One can’t escape from the victims, and any attempt to see the crusades in terms of either moral superiority or moral inferiority of western Europe, or in simplistic debates about the ‘clash of civilisations’, seems to me to be entirely fruitless and historically incorrect.

The excitement of history is to engage with people who were different, not the same, but nonetheless led real lives. We can’t know all about them, or much about them in many ways, but we don’t owe them judgment – we owe them understanding.

How would you like this book to change people’s view of the crusades, and this period more generally?

People put the wars of faith into a category of either admiration or lunacy, or they see them as being alien. These weren’t alien activities, so it’s important to set the crusades in a more explicable, believable context.

The Middle Ages was a time of rationality. The condescension that somehow we’re above superstition now is just wrong: we have homeopathic medicine, for God’s sake!

People did things for rational reasons, and worried about things as we do. Life was difficult, and they came up with rational solutions, whether it was building scaffolding or worrying, as King Amalric of Jerusalem did, if there was any evidence outside the Bible for Jesus’s resurrection. They were asking serious questions about their world as we do: yes, they were doing it with a different knowledge base, but they were still asking questions based on reason and rationality.

We can then turn the lens back and look at ourselves and say that, if religious war is not an irrational act, we shouldn’t dismiss it as such in the 21st century. It is rational, and we must therefore use reason to combat it.


How to Plan a Crusade: Reason and Religious War in the Middle Ages by Christopher Tyerman is published by Allen Lane (432 pages, £25). Hear more from this interview on our podcast at