Is the world still living in the shadow of the crusades?

For several centuries in the Middle Ages, Christians waged a ‘holy war’ aiming in part – ostensibly, at least – to liberate the Holy Land. Six experts discussed the question for BBC World Histories earlier this year, writing on whether those events, recreated in books, films and firebrand speeches, continue to affect lives and politics in the region and around the globe today

(Illustration by Davide Bonazzi for BBC World Histories magazine)

Suleiman A Mourad: “We invoke the crusades because we want to believe that the past determines the present”

Do we live in the shadow of the crusades? This question suggests a passive role on our part, as if what happened back then explains what happens now. But history is often shaped by what we choose to remember, why and how. History is about the way the present writes the past.

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The history of the crusades is told invariably as a savage, religiously inspired clash of civilisations between medieval European Christians and oriental Muslims. We think that this explains (at least in part) modern violence and the political tension between the west and Muslim countries, linking it to what happened centuries ago between the crusaders and the Muslims.

Some do this by habit, others by connivance. Irrespective of motives, our tendency is to stereotype the present and the past, and to reject their complexity. Indeed, when British General Edmund Allenby entered Jerusalem in 1917, following the defeat of the Ottoman army in southern Palestine, the British media compared him to Richard the Lionheart. When French General Henri Gouraud captured Damascus in 1920, following the French army’s crushing defeat of Arab nationalists, he reputedly stood in front of Saladin’s grave and orated: “Awake, Saladin – we have returned!” Meanwhile, the US wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria are often denounced by Muslim politicians as crusader invasions.

We invoke the crusades because we want to believe that the past determines the present – that these are but different chapters in the same ongoing conflict – and that many people are adamant that old scores must be settled.

What gets lost in this modern exploitation of crusader history is its complex reality. That period of the Middle Ages witnessed a lot of violence, but also countless cases of cooperation, political and military alliance, exchange of goods and science, and forms of religious tolerance between Muslims and crusaders. When the modern history of the crusades was written, starting in the 19th century, scholars were drawn to its violence. They ignored the other evidence because they found no use for it. When we do, though, the history of the crusades will be written differently.

Suleiman A Mourad is historian of Islam and professor of religion at Smith College, Massachusetts, and associate fellow at the Nantes Institute for Advanced Study, France


Helen Nicholson: “We still live with many of the developments encouraged by the crusades: state taxation, magnificent castles, charitable work”

We are still living with the constructed memory of the crusades, and with the mindset that prompted them. Populist religious and national leaders construct myths around the crusades to promote their religious or political agendas, urging their followers to avenge the crusades or to continue in the footsteps of the crusades.

In addition, the word ‘crusade’ has come to mean any struggle against moral wrong – so we have a crusade against drug abuse, or a crusade against poverty. The human urge to intervene on the side of moral good in order to destroy evil still prompts individuals to join great undertakings couched in moral terms, such as the thousands who travelled from Britain in the 1930s to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War, or the young people who joined the so-called Islamic State in Syria.

But were the original crusades a moral battle against evil? Not really. The First Crusade began in 1095 with the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos’s plans to recover territory lost over the previous 20 years to the Seljuq Turks. It evolved into a Frankish-Norman expedition to capture Jerusalem, which had changed hands four times in the preceding three decades. So were the crusades really about controlling land?

By the late 14th century, crusades focused on halting the Ottoman advance into the Balkans – suggesting that the crusades were about defence against an apparently unstoppable enemy. We could compare the crusades to Nato, since crusades involved the co-operation of many nations in an operation of mutual benefit. We could also compare the crusades to the United Nations’ peacekeeping operations, because most Crusades were promoted by the Latin Church, a supra-national organisation. But these comparisons quickly break down under scrutiny.

It would be truer to say that we still live with many of the developments encouraged by the crusades: systems of state taxation, magnificent castles, and the kind of services performed by the likes of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, now the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, which undertakes charitable work around the world.

Helen Nicholson is professor of medieval history at Cardiff University

German Kaiser Wilhelm II in Jerusalem, 1898
German Kaiser Wilhelm II in Jerusalem, 1898. During this visit he re-enacted the conquest of the city – an example of western European powers co-opting images and stories to consolidate collective identities. (Photo by: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Rebecca Rist: “Many Muslims do not view the crusades, which they believe they won, as markedly special events”

In the modern era, western nations have often looked back with enthusiasm to the crusades, and crusading language has been used by many politicians and movements to justify their actions. In the 17th century, Louis Maimbourg’s History of the Crusades (1675) was used as propaganda for the persecution of Protestants in France during the reign of Louis XIV. In the 19th century, European powers used pseudo-crusading and para-crusading rhetoric to justify their imperial and colonial wars.

In the 20th century, crusades were depicted in political cartoons during the First World War. Crusade rhetoric was also a key feature of America’s Cold War discourse, as employed by presidents Harry S Truman and Dwight D Eisenhower when collaborating with Pius XII (1939–58) to denounce the evils of Stalin and Soviet rule.

More recently, certain American movements – for the abolition of slavery, the war against Mormon polygamy, the prohibition of alcohol, and the civil rights movement headed by Martin Luther King – have been cited as examples of modern crusades.

The word ‘crusade’, then, continues to be used to denote a cause which people believe in strongly such as for human rights or against illegal practices. Yet almost all medieval crusades (except the first) were ultimately failures, unsuccessful in retaking Jerusalem or maintaining the crusader states. In the 19th century, the west’s increasing hegemony – seen in the colonialism, imperialism and trade of that era – began to appear to the Islamic world as an attempt to more than compensate for the failures of medieval crusades. For that reason, and others, the crusades continue to affect how the east views the west today.

Yet many Muslims do not view the crusades, which they believe they won, as markedly special events, since Islam and Christianity have frequently been at odds since the seventh century – long before the First Crusade (1095–99). Hence the crusades are, rather, just one expression of a long-standing rivalry between east and west, Muslim and Christian. It is that legacy with which we are still living today.

Rebecca Rist is professor in medieval history at the University of Reading, and author of Papacy and Crusading in Europe, 1198–1245 (Continuum, 2009)


Nicholas Paul: “The crusades’ legacy is powerful because of the predilections of 19th- and 20th-century Europeans”

Confronted with the message, propagated by both the European and Anglophone extreme right and Islamic jihadist groups, that we live in an age of renewed conflict between Islam and the west, many people may understandably conclude that we have inherited an ancient legacy of holy war. We have – though not in the way that many imagine.

The legacy of the crusades today is not due to the continuity over time of any medieval crusading institution. After all, the crusade indulgence offered by the church – a central element of the architecture of these holy wars – had effectively disappeared by the 17th century. Surviving crusading orders, such as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, are now devoted to charitable work. And no modern state, whether in Spain, the Baltic or the eastern Mediterranean, can trace its origins to the ‘crusader states’ established by medieval conquests. Too much historical water – reformation, revolution, global exchange, the rise and fall of empires, the shock of modernity – has passed under the bridge for any modern community to still bear marks of crusading violence.

The legacy of the crusades is, nonetheless, powerful, primarily because of the passions and predilections of 19th- and 20th-century Europeans. They found in the crusades a useful past through which they sought to understand their own world of overseas empires, warring nations and rapid social change. These modern observers constructed a storehouse of popular images and stories – such as the epic encounter of Richard I and Saladin during the Third Crusade – and used them to make claims about morality and collective identity.

Western Europeans took these images and attitudes abroad – for example, in 1898, when Kaiser Wilhelm II re-enacted the conquest of Jerusalem and rebuilt Saladin’s tomb at Damascus, laying a gilt bronze wreath (later taken by TE Lawrence and now displayed in London’s Imperial War Museum). It was in this modern context that a new historical memory of the crusades was constructed – one that stripped away fundamental elements of crusading history and is easily co-opted by those who would make a ‘clash of civilisations’ seem habitual and inevitable.

Nicholas Paul is associate professor of history at Fordham University, New York, and co-editor of Whose Middle Ages? Teachable Moments for an Ill-Used Past? (Fordham University Press, 2019)


Christopher Tyerman: “The crusades were fought from religious conviction and material advantage relevant to their time and place, not ours”

The question assumes contemporary currency of ‘the crusades’, from its use in Islamist propaganda, to etiolated intellectual debate on a supposed clash of civilisations, to English soccer fans cheerfully dressing up as crusader warriors. Exactly who is ‘still living in the shadow of the crusades’? Distanced western academics? Self-imagined heirs of victims?

The historical crusades were not homogeneous. They affected many communities and regions very differently, from the foundation of Prussia, the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christian schism, attacks on European Jewry and the Spanish nationalist myth of the Reconquista, to the transient and peripheral occupation of parts of Syria and Palestine.

The crusades did not create western imperialism or the state of Israel. Wars fought by populist adherence to an ideological or religious ideology may excite modern recognition of a cause – God Wills It! – at once unprovable and unanswerable, but their legacies are imaginative and sentimental.

The 19th-century coincidence of romantic medievalism, Christian mission and the global spread of European empires revived and invented memories of crusading, providing spurious arguments for French and British involvement in north Africa and western Asia. Western proclamation of crusading precedents informed the counter-ideologies of indigenous regional resistance to foreign intervention. Citing historical precedent is often a sign of historical ignorance. Ironically, the bogus ‘West is Best’ neo-imperialist clash-of-civilisation construct encourages its corresponding jihadist twin.

The crusades were fought from religious conviction and material advantage relevant to their time and place, not ours, examples of political and cultural contact as much as of contest and conquest. Their continued legacy derives from pilfering a crude vision of the past to justify contemporary conflict or victimhood. The modern near east is not a product of medieval wars, yet the shadow of the crusades lies across the rhetoric of polemicists. In so far as this influences popular beliefs, the legacy is real; in so far as it claims to represent historical continuity, it is not.

Christopher Tyerman is professor of the history of the crusades at Hertford College, University of Oxford

Susanna A Throop: “The crusades popularised specific narratives and key ideas that remain present in western cultures”

There are many legacies of the crusades, and they are disputed. In 2019, actors worldwide are calling for violence framed as either an extension of or a defence against the crusades. These appeals – and the disputes surrounding them – are highly visible in our news cycles.

It is easy to dismiss such calls to violence as historical appropriation or myth-making. Certainly, historical accuracy is not the main priority of those referencing the crusades. But in using the crusades to claim political power, territory and a righteous obligation to be violent, modern actors are doing what many others, including various religious groups and modern nation-states, have done for centuries.

At least two basic narrative structures of crusading remain in use. The first is the story of a divinely willed victory that results in both individual salvation and the profitable expansion of ‘Christendom’ such as we see in descriptions of the Latin Christian conquest of Jerusalem in 1099. The second is the story of a holy and heroic defeat, in which righteous warriors lose the battle but nonetheless win eternal salvation and earthly renown.

Underlying both these narrative structures are several key ideas: that violence on behalf of God is spiritually beneficial both for the individual and for the larger group of which they are a part; that divine will is manifest in the world, and thus crusading victory demonstrates righteousness while crusading defeat urges redoubled effort; and that there is a connection between holy violence and the assertion of group identity.

These narratives and ideas emphatically did not originate with the crusading movement; they can be identified much earlier in the history of Christianity. However, the many centuries of the crusading movement and historical work thereafter consolidated and reiterated them with vivid imagery, legends and traditions. As a result, the history of the crusades has become a ubiquitous part of the western cultural background, referenced in flags, art, family histories, athletics teams and even in the brands of companies and organisations that seem entirely unrelated. In political discourse, the history of the crusades has long been used to support or contest western nationalism and imperialism. The cultural legacy of the crusades is not only visible in the polemics of violent extremists; it surrounds us.

Susanna A Throop is associate professor of history at Ursinus College, Pennsylvania, and author of The Crusades: An Epitome (Kismet, 2018)

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This article was first published in issue 16 of BBC World Histories magazine