Modern Medievalisms: The Crusades

Teaching, research, and more

The Crusades: An Introduction

“No one must doubt that if he dies on this expedition for the love of God and his brothers his sins will surely be forgiven and he will gain a share of eternal life through the most compassionate mercy of our God.”

–A letter of Pope Urban II to Spanish nobles, trans. Louise Riley-Smith and Jonathan Riley-Smith

“O what a disgrace if such a despised and base race, which worships demons, should conquer a people which has the faith of omnipotent God and is made glorious with the name of Christ! With what reproaches will the Lord overwhelm us if you do not aid those who, with us, profess the Christian religion!”

–Pope Urban II’s call to crusade at Clermont, as reported by Fulcher of Chartres and translated by Oliver J. Thatcher

“When he had done speaking, St. Dubricius, archbishop of Legions, going to the top of a hill, cried out with a loud voice, ‘You that have the honour to profess the Christian faith, keep fixed in your minds the love which you owe to your country and fellow subjects, whose sufferings by the treachery of the pagans will be an everlasting reproach to you, if you do not courageously defend them. It is your country which you fight for, and for which you should, when required, voluntarily suffer death; for that itself is victory and the curse of the soul. For he that shall die for his brethren, offers himself a living sacrifice to God, and has Christ for his example, who condescended to lay down his life for his brethren. If therefore any of you shall be killed in this war, that death itself, which is suffered in so glorious a cause, shall be to him for penance and absolution of all his sins.'”

–Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, Book X, Chap. 4

Map of the Crusader States in 1135

When Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote The History of the Kings of Britain in the 1130s, the Crusades would have been part of his political landscape. 

Among the people he dedicated his book to were Robert, Earl of Gloucester (the illegitimate son of King Henry I of England) and Stephen of Blois (Henry I’s nephew and later the King of England). These dedicatees demonstrate Geoffrey’s professional ambitions–you don’t write a book for two of the most powerful men in Normandy and England if you’re not hoping for some kind of favor in return–but also connect him to powerful families involved in the Crusades. Stephen’s father, also called Stephen of Blois, and Stephen and Robert’s uncle Robert Curthose, son of William the Conqueror, both participated in the First Crusade (1096-1099), which led to the establishments of the Crusader States in Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli, and Jerusalem. Not too long after Geoffrey wrote, the Second Crusade (1147-1150) would see Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany unsuccessfully try to take back Edessa from Imad al-Din Zengi, a Turkmen leader. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Geoffrey uses the Crusades as points of comparison when crafting the rhetoric his characters use to talk about the conflicts between the Britons and the Saxons and then, later, the Roman Empire. 

Geoffrey is not the first or last writer from Great Britain to use the Crusades as a way of understanding England (and also Wales, Ireland, and Scotland)’s place in the world, religious identity, and relationships to other countries and peoples, and this tradition of using the Crusades to understand other conflicts and tensions has continued to the present day. One 21st-century example includes former US President George W. Bush’s reference to the “War on Terror” as a “Crusade.”

Headline from the Nation, "The Bush Crusade" by James Carroll

The modern use of “crusade” as a shorthand tends to oversimplify the complex series of religious, ethnic, and political conflicts that comprised the real medieval Crusades, which can perhaps explain its appropriation by everyone from George Bush to the modern alt-right to the American religious organization Cru, which was known until 2011 as Campus Crusade for Christ. In this unit, we’ll look at how different authors and filmmakers have imagined the Crusades, and discuss these wars’ use as a metaphor for examining both England and America’s role in global geopolitics.

An engraving by Gustave Dore of Richard I and Saladin at the Battle of Arsur

Materials you’ll need for this unit

  • Celestia A. Bloss, Heroines of the Crusades
  • Tariq Ali, The Book of Saladin (if you haven’t purchased this one yet, personally, I found it a lot easier to get ahold of it as an ebook).
  • ONE of the following films:
    • Kingdom of Heaven (Ridley Scott, 2005)–available on Hulu, available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime or iTunes. (There’s both a director’s cut and a theatrical cut of this film–I’d suggest going for the theatrical cut, because it’s shorter and so we can all be on the same page about the version of the film we’re watching.)
    • King Richard and the Crusaders (David Butler, 1954)–available on Hulu, available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime or iTune

If you can’t get ahold of either of these films, I’ll also be holding Zoom screenings, which we can schedule based on the availability of whoever wants to attend them.

Other resources

  • The Crusades Project has a collection of literary works depicting the Crusades, starting in the Middle Ages and going to the modern era, as well as essays about these works and bibliographies of other relevant sources.
  • Susanna A. Throop, The Crusades: An Epitome–this is a book about the Crusades by a medieval historian that provides a helpful introduction to some of the political and historical context in which thy took place. Helpfully, the press has put the whole thing online to read!
  • In Our Time–Third CrusadeIn Our Time is a history podcast by the BBC. This episode features interviews not only with Crusades historians but also with one of our authors for this unit, Tariq Ali.
  • The Crusades (1095-1291)–An essay by the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this includes background about the Crusades but also links to a lot of medieval artworks and artifacts connected to them.
  • Storymap I made about the Third Crusade

Resources cited in lectures

  • Moses Maimonides, Maimonides on the Regimen of Health: a New Parallel Arabic-English Translation, translated by Gerrit Bos with Latin translations by Michael. R. McVaugh. (Leiden: Brill, 2019; from the lecture on 3/11/22, available from the library here).
  • Catarina Belo, “Some Considerations on Averroes’ Views Regarding Women and Their Role in Society,” Journal of Islamic Studies, vol. 20, no. 1, 2009, pp. 1–20 (from the lecture on 3/14/22, available from the library here).
  • Jonathan Sumption, The Albigensian Crusade (London: Faber, 1978). Print. (From the lecture on 3/14/22).
  • Tariq Ali, The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity (London: Verso, 2003) Print. (From the lecture on 3/16/22; Google Books preview here).
  • Bishnupriya Ghosh, “Once There Was Cosmopolitanism: Enchanted Pasts as Global History in the Contemporary Novel,” Ariel 42.1 (2011): 11-33 (from the lecture on 3/16/22, available from the library here).
  • Arabic Historians of the Crusades, selected and translated by Francesco Gabrieli, translated from Italian by E. J. Costello (University of California Press, 1969) (from the lecture on 3/30/22–available to borrow on if you have an account there).
  • Malcolm Barber, The Crusader States (London: Yale University Press, 2012), esp. chapter 12 (from the lecture on 3/30/22, available from the library here).
  • Thomas Asbridge, The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land (HarperCollins, 2010) (from the lecture on 4/4/22).
  • John D. Hosler, The Siege of Acre, 1189-1191: Saladin, Richard the Lionheart, and the Battle That Decided the Third Crusade (Yale University Press, 2018) (from the lecture on 4/4/22, available from the library here).
  • John Aberth. A Knight at the Movies: Medieval History on Film (Taylor and Francis, 2012) (from the lecture on 4/6/22, available from the library here).
  • Lorraine Kochanske Stock, “Now starring in the Third Crusade: Depictions of Richard I and Saladin in Films and Television Series,” in Hollywood in the Holy Land : Essays on Film Depictions of the Crusades and Christian-Muslim Clashes, ed. Nickolas Haydock and Edward L. Risden (McFarland, 2008), pp. 93-123. (from the lecture on 4/6/22)
  • Jeffrey Richards, “Sir Ridley Scott and the Rebirth of the Historical Epic,” and Paul B. Sturtevant, “Defining the Epic: Medieval and Fantasy Epics,” in  The Return of the Epic Film: Genre, Aesthetics and History in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Andrew B. R. Elliot, (Edinburgh University Press, 2014) (from the lecture on 4/6/22, available from the library here).

Trailers for the Crusades films this unit: