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Historiography of the Crusades

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A miniature painting from a medieval manuscript, showing a man sitting at a desk writing a book.
William of Tyre writing his history, from a 13th-century Old French translation, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, MS 2631, f.1r

The Historiography of the Crusades relates to the study by historians of the religious wars known as the Crusades, which began with the First Crusade in 1096. This article discusses how these interpretations have changed over time, an evolution which continues.

Initiated by the Catholic Church as a means of re-directing Western European military resources away from fighting other Christians and into the conquest of the Holy Land, they were later used to pursue overtly political and economic objectives. For two hundred years after the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099, crusading was an integral part of Western European culture, and presented as a Christian duty. However, even from their inception, it was difficult to reconcile the idealism of the concept with the often brutal methods used by its participants; in the Late Middle Ages, historians also began to compare its reality with Just war theory and Legal war.

By the end of the 18th century, the Crusades were increasingly presented as brutal and barbaric wars of conquest, although they were later co-opted to support French colonial objectives in the Near East. They remain subject to a variety of interpretations and within political Islam are seen as the start of a long history of Western aggression. This criticism is shared by members of the Eastern Orthodox Church who were targeted by Western crusaders, including Greece, Bulgaria and Russia. As a result, the historiography continues to evolve.


Pope Urban II preaches the First Crusade (14th-century miniature)

The term "Crusades" generally refers to military expeditions directed by the Latin Church and undertaken by Western Europeans, conducted in the Near East during the 11th to 14th centuries. These were later extended to include other campaigns supported and often directed by the Catholic Church against pagans, heretics, or for other alleged religious ends. The early Crusades were very different in motives, participants and objectives from the later ones and the validity of using the same term for all of them is debated by contemporary historians.[1]

Their initiator, Pope Urban II, saw as a way to unify Christianity and presented it as a penitential exercise. His precise objectives remain unclear, since the text of the sermon in which he preached the First Crusade does not survive. For example, none of the contemporary accounts mention Jerusalem as an objective and it first appears in Historia Hierosolymitana, a chronicle of the First Crusade written between 1107 to 1120.[2]

The First Crusade was variously described as either iter, "journey", or peregrinatio, "pilgrimage", making participation largely indistinguishable from the existing concept of Christian pilgrimage. This continued to be the case until the end of the 12th century; a 'crusader' became crucesignatus, or "one signed by the cross", leading to the French term croisade or "way of the cross".[1]

Riley-Smith, a dominant and influential figure in academic crusade studies, defined a 'Crusade' as an expedition undertaken on papal authority.[3] This excludes the Spanish Reconquista or Albigensian Crusade, even though participants were granted Papal indulgences, which conferred the same privileges. Historian Giles Constable identifies four areas of focus for contemporary crusade studies; political or geographical objectives, their organisation, popular support, and religious drivers.[4]


1096 to ca 1490[edit]

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 a member of one of the military orders, primarily the Knights Templar, Knights Hospitaller and Teutonic Order. Crusading status granted individuals immunity from lawsuits, forgiveness of debt, and protection for property and family, while the Orders became major landowners and political powers across Europe.[5]

This meant the crusading experience and ideology was far more pervasive than the 'Crusades', which were major expeditions launched with Papal support.[6] 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.[7]

Alexander Nevsky, canonised for his role in preserving the Russian Orthodox Church from German crusaders

However, not all of these took place in Palestine or targeted non-Christians; the Eighth Crusade was fought in modern Tunisia, the Fourth resulted in the Sack of Constantinople and its memory still informs relationships between the Catholic church and Eastern Orthodox Church. The Albigensian Crusade, fought to suppress Catharism in Southern France, resulted in the death of between 200,000 to over one million Frenchmen.[8] The same region became a stronghold of French Protestantism during the 16th and 17th centuries, driven in part by memories of that period.[9]

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.[10] Two Crusades aimed at halting the Ottoman advance into South-East Europe ended in disaster at Nicopolis in 1396, and Varna in 1444. Although the cultural symbols of crusading remained common for some time after, this essentially ended them as a viable military option.[11]

This clerical view was soon challenged by vernacular adventure stories based on the work of Albert of Aachen, later expanded by William of Tyre in his Historia. Completed by 1184, this work describes the warrior state that Outremer had become through the tensions between divine providence and humankind.[12] 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.[13] 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.[14]

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 the loss of the Holy Land. They also required acceptance of Papal authority over all Christians, and the universality of the church, concepts that were increasingly challenged.[15] This trend continued throughout the 14th century, driven by Papal involvement in Italian politics, the Avignon Papacy, use of indulgences and the sale of indulgences through the 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.[16]


During the Reformation, the failure of the crusades was presented as symbolic of corruption within the Catholic Church, which had misused a genuine desire to serve God. In his 1566 work, History of the Turks, Protestant writer John Foxe condemned the church for persecuting fellow Christians, including Cathars and Waldensians. This was expanded by the Humanist scholar, Matthäus Dresser (1536–1607), in his commentary on the 1584 Chronica Hierosolyma.[17]

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.[18] 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.[19]

Voltaire, whose history used the Crusades and its impact as a way to critique French society

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.[7] 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.[20]

Enlightenment writers such as David Hume, Voltaire, and Edward Gibbon used crusading as a conceptual tool to critique religion, civilisation, and cultural mores. They argued its only positive impact was ending feudalism and thus promoting rationalism; negatives included depopulation, economic ruin, abuse of papal authority, irresponsibility and barbarism. These opinions were later criticised in the 19th century as being unnecessarily hostile to, and ignorant of, the crusades.[21]

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.[22] 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.[23]

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.[24] 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.[25]

The long 19th Century; the Crusades and European Colonialism[edit]

Western historians have traditionally argued that the Muslim world showed little interest in the Crusades until the mid-19th century. 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.[26] However, recent scholarship has challenged this perspective.[20]

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 coloured by 200 years of war against the Teutonic Order. Memories of the Fourth Crusade meant their fellow Orthodox Christians viewed them with as much hostility as Muslims, an issue that led to a Papal apology in May 2001.[27]

Post-1815, France claimed the Eastern Mediterranean as a 'French lake', a deliberate echo of Napoleon's campaign in Egypt and Syria.[28] 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.[29]

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

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.[30] Louis-Philippe opened the Salle des Croisades at Versailles in 1843, with over 120 specially commissioned paintings related to the Crusades.[31] 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".[20]

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.[32] 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'.[33]

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.[20]


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.'[34] An historian of the Byzantine Empire, Runciman was appalled by the Fourth Crusade, which colours his perspective.[35] He portrays western Europeans as ignorant, rough and rude, Byzantines as cultivated, sophisticated, and decadent, while Muslims are tolerant, devout, and warlike.[36]

While criticised for these broad stereotypes and other flaws, Runciman's work 'remains the primary standard for comparison'.[37] 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".[38]

Primary Sources[edit]

Armenian historians of the crusades include[41]
Muslim historians include[42]


  1. ^ a b Asbridge 2012, p. 40.
  2. ^ Jones 2020, p. 34.
  3. ^ Riley-Smith 2009, p. xi.
  4. ^ Constable 2001, pp. 1–22.
  5. ^ Tyerman 2019, pp. 1–6.
  6. ^ Richard 1979, pp. 376–380.
  7. ^ a b Tyerman 2011, pp. 47–50.
  8. ^ Lemkin 2012, p. 71.
  9. ^ Sumption 1999, p. 252.
  10. ^ Hosking 2012, p. 65.
  11. ^ Madden 2013, pp. 202–203.
  12. ^ Tyerman 2011, pp. 16–17.
  13. ^ Cox 2017, p. 371.
  14. ^ Reichberg 2017, p. viii.
  15. ^ Tuchman 1978, p. 25.
  16. ^ Weinstein 2011, p. 122.
  17. ^ Murray 2007, p. 36.
  18. ^ Tyerman 2011, pp. 38–40.
  19. ^ Hopkins 2006, pp. 59–60.
  20. ^ a b c d Phillips 2011.
  21. ^ Tyerman 2011, p. 79.
  22. ^ Tyerman 2011, p. 67.
  23. ^ Tyerman 2011, p. 71.
  24. ^ Tyerman 2011, p. 87.
  25. ^ Tyerman 2011, pp. 80–86.
  26. ^ Hillenbrand 1999, p. 5.
  27. ^ Howard 2001.
  28. ^ Perry 2019, p. 118.
  29. ^ Goldschmidt 1988, pp. 16–19.
  30. ^ Tyerman 2011, pp. 142–143.
  31. ^ Riley-Smith 2008, p. 54.
  32. ^ Onley 2009, pp. 44–45.
  33. ^ Asbridge 2012, pp. 673–674.
  34. ^ Tyerman 2006, p. 29.
  35. ^ Tyerman 2006, p. 560.
  36. ^ Tyerman 2011, pp. 192–199.
  37. ^ Vaughan 2007, p. 159.
  38. ^ Madden 2013, p. 216.
  39. ^ Dass 2011, p. 119.
  40. ^ Lock 2006, pp. 26–30.
  41. ^ MacEvitt 2014, pp. 260–275.
  42. ^ Hillenbrand 1999, pp. 9–30.

Sources and further reading[edit]

  • Spencer, Stephen J. "The Third Crusade in historiographical perspective" History Compass (June 2021) vol 19#7 online