Since the Middle Ages, the subject of the crusades has inspired numerous novelists and poets, from the Italian epic poet Torquato Tasso (1544-1595) to recent authors of historical fiction aimed at both adults and children.
Some authors have consulted the original crusade sources or modern secondary accounts of the expeditions and then used limited historical license to fill in the gaps and produce credible and interesting characters; others have taken considerable liberties with the real events and characters, with idiosyncratic results. Not surprisingly, each writer has approached the crusades from his or her particular viewpoint, but it is possible to identify some common themes and approaches, which can be followed through several centuries. The crusades often formed the backcloth to individual tales of heroism and romance. The exploits of Richard the Lionheart, king of England, on the Third Crusade (1189-1192) and the expeditions of King Louis IX of France in the thirteenth century were particularly popular because they offered opportunities to depict and develop the character of a national hero. The First Crusade (1096-1099), culminating in the capture of Jerusalem in 1099, and, to a lesser extent, the Children’s Crusade (1212), were also obvious subjects, offering not only dramatic events but also individual characters of interest that could be further developed and given a fictional supporting cast. There are, however, only isolated examples of novels and poems about the other expeditions to the East and of the crusades in Europe; the only one that seems to have captured much attention was the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229).
The works produced were of variable quality, and although some, such as the novels of Sir Walter Scott, were very popular and remain in print as classics of their genre today, others, even in their own time, had a much more limited readership, including those that were privately printed and circulated. Nevertheless, the collective portrayal of the crusades in modern literature has contributed to the creation of the popular image of the crusading movement even in the twenty-first century.
Although there were some novels and poems about the crusades in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as the Jesuit Pierre Le Moyne’s epic poem Saint Louis ou la Sainte Couronne reconquise(1658), this period was generally characterized by variations on the work of Tasso and medieval crusade epics. The crusades, however, appealed to the gothic novelist. The earliest gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1717-1797), first published in 1764, purported to be a translation of an Italian story set at the time of the crusades. Walpole was proud of his crusading pedigree, displaying swords at his house in Twickenham that were allegedly from a crusading expedition undertaken by his ancestor Sir Terry Robsart. Walpole influenced contemporary as well as later writers. They included the Reverend Richard Warner, whose gothic novel set in the eponymous Netley Abbey was published in 1795. Here the hero, Baron de Villars, takes part in the Crusade of the Lord Edward (1270-1272). His own son, also called Edward, rescues and subsequently marries a lady in distress, Agnes, who has been imprisoned by her wicked cousin Sir Hildebrand Warren. In the same gothic tradition, another Anglican priest, Charles Robert Maturin (1782-1824), produced a four-volume novel, The Albigenses (1824), which features some of the participants in the Albigensian Crusade, intermixed with the standard gothic elements of sorcery, stifled cries at midnight, and even a werewolf.
The use of the crusades as a subject for novelists and poets really developed in the nineteenth century, and the dominant historical novelist and influence was Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). Scott was brought up on a diet of history, chivalry, and romance, and his library included editions of some of the key crusade texts, such as the chronicle of William of Tyre. Four of his novels are set against the background of the crusades. The last of these, Count Robert of Paris (1831), was set in Constantinople at the time of the First Crusade and was based on an incident mentioned by the Greek chronicler Anna Komnene in which the eponymous hero dares to sit upon the imperial Byzantine throne. To add color, Scott invented characters such as Robert’s wife, the Amazonian Brennhilda, and Sylvanus, the gigantic man of the woods. Although now a literary curiosity, the novel, produced when Scott’s health was failing, is of inferior quality to his other works. More important are his three earlier novels Ivanhoe (1819) and Tales of the Crusaders—The Betrothed and The Talisman (1825), which were inspired by the Third Crusade.
Ivanhoe, which is now probably the best known of his works and was the most popular in Scott’s own lifetime, features the wicked Templar Sir Brian de Bois Guilbert, the returning Saxon crusader Ivanhoe, and the Black Knight, who is later revealed as King Richard the Lionheart himself. The heroine of The Betrothed is Eveline Berenger, whose fiancé, Hugh de Lacy, the Norman constable of Chester, is absent for several years in the Holy Land, thereby providing an opportunity for Scott to elaborate upon the implications of long crusading absences for the fidelity and welfare of womenfolk left behind. The plot of The Talisman centers around two characters: the poor Scottish crusader Sir Kenneth (later identified as Earl David of Huntingdon, brother of the king of Scotland), who saves King Richard from assassination and marries Edith Plantagenet, a member of the royal family; and a Saracen emir (later identified as Saladin), who provides the miraculous amulet, or talisman, that cures the king. References to the crusades also appear in a number of Scott’s other works, and when he died he was engaged in a novel about the Hospitallers and the Turkish siege of Malta in 1565. These novels reveal Scott’s interest in and admiration for the values of medieval chivalry, but they do not provide an uncritical picture of the crusades. For example, they contrast the corruption of the military orders and dissolute crusaders with the noble Saracen, in particular Saladin.
Scott’s novels were widely read, running to numerous editions. He had admirers from Moscow to the American frontier and influenced fellow writers such as Honoré de Balzac and Aleksandr Pushkin. His works also inspired artists and composers: the plot of Ivanhoe was used in nearly 300 dramas and burlesques, and scenes from the novel were regularly featured in the annual exhibitions of paintings at the Royal Academy in London and the Paris Salon. There were also operas by composers such as Sir Arthur Sullivan (Ivanhoe, 1891) and Heinrich Marschner (Der Templer und die Jüdin,1829). The Italian nationalist writer Tommaso Grossi, whose poem I Lombardi alla prima crociata inspired the opera of the same title by Giuseppe Verdi (1846), also wrote a novel, Marco Visconti (1831-1834), whose plot owes much to Ivan- hoe. William Makepeace Thackeray’s short novel Rebecca and Rowena (1849) is in a less serious vein. The Talisman and The Betrothed left a similar, if less extensive, legacy.
Other nineteenth-century romantic poets were also inspired by the crusades. William Wordsworth’s Ecclesiastical Sonnets (1822) included four sonnets about the crusades, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s The Romaunt of the Page (1844) told the story of a wife who, anxious not to be parted from her crusading husband, accompanies him to the East in disguise and dies without revealing her identity. In fact, the story of the crusader’s wife, mother, or sister and the impact of his departure and lengthy absence, often with no news of his fate in battle, became a standard theme. Other examples can be found in the works of Felicia Hemans and Letitia Landon, who may now be little read but were extremely popular in the first half of the nineteenth century. Collections of Victorian poetry regularly included something relating to the crusades, and some poems were also used as lyrics for songs for home entertainment.
The concept of the crusades as a noble undertaking and inspiration for contemporaries, who sought to emulate the heroic deeds of their medieval ancestors can also be found in Benjamin Disraeli’s Young England trilogy (1844-1847), in particular the third novel, Tancred, which was subtitled The New Crusader.
Given the popularity of Tasso’s epic poem about the First Crusade, it is not surprising that he had some nineteenth-century emulators. One of these was the barrister and diplomat WilliamStigand, whose 300-page epic Athenais, which appeared in 1866, told the story of the thwarted love between the fictional crusader Count Bertrand d’Aureval and Athenais, the niece of the Byzantine emperor Alexios Komnenos. As a student in the 1830s, the American writer Henry David Thoreau, inspired by Tasso and Hemans, wrote a poem entitled Godfrey of Boulogne about the crusaders’ march to the East. The First Crusade was also depicted on the stage in the play Die Kreuzfahrer (1803), by the German writer August von Kotzebue, published in London as Alfred and Emma (1806). This opens in the crusading camp at Nicaea and is another love story, but with a happy ending. After various twists and turns and with the help of a Muslim emir and the papal legate Adhemar of Le Puy, the crusader Baldwin of Eichenhorst is reunited with his betrothed Emma von Falkenstein.
The German playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) set his powerful argument for religious tolerance between Christian, Jew, and Muslim, Nathan der Weise (1778), at the time of the Third Crusade. This was also the context for Der Zauberring (1813) by the romantic writer and dramatist Baron Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, although its main focus is the story of the hero Otto von Trautwagen, custodian of the magic ring, who fights against the heathen. Both works were translated into English and influenced other writers and artists.
There is only the occasional poem or children’s history about the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204), but among those who wrote about the Children’s Crusade was the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (In the Harbour, 1882) and the French essayist Marcel Schwob (La croisade des enfants, 1896). There were also several stories designed for children about young French and British crusaders who join the expedition and survive captivity and slavery before their eventual return to the West. These were intended to provide instructive examples of courage and faith under adversity.
The crusading exploits of the French king Louis IX inspired writers both in his own country and elsewhere. In 1873, Louis was set as the subject of the Newdigate Prize, an annual poetry competition at Oxford University, which was won by Cecil Moore. He became a clergyman and used his poem and Louis’s example to exhort others to pursue a contemporary missionary crusade in Africa. Louis’s crusade to Tunis (1270) was also the subject of a lengthy poem, The Last Crusade (1887), by Alfred Hayes. The subsequent expedition to the Holy Land led by the future Edward I of England formed the background to Sir Guy de Lusignan: A Tale of Italy (1833) by the popular novelist Ellis Cornelia Knight, who was a friend of Admiral Lord Nelson, Lady Hamilton, and the royal family. This and The Prince and the Page (1865), by the popular children’s writer Charlotte M. Yonge, both include the standard elements of the attempt on Edward’s life, from which he is saved by the courage of his wife, Eleanor. Yonge adds a second assassination attempt that is thwarted by the intervention of Edward’s page, Richard de Montfort. Predictably, there were several other stories of young English crusaders who accompanied Edward, which generally tell of how they survive Muslim slavery and other difficulties before their return to the West. As with previous crusade stories, there was often a romantic element. John Mason Neale, who is more famous today for his hymns, has his young crusader hero, Everard de Blechingley, betrothed to Isabelle, the daughter of the crusade historian John of Joinville. The events of the Crimean War (1854-1856) and the political rhetoric surrounding the massacres of Bulgarian Christians by the Turks in 1876 also inspired a few poems about the crusades, with parallels drawn between current circumstances and the medieval campaigns in the East.
Those who wrote about the crusades with serious intent did not always achieve the desired result through their choice of plot or literary style. Others, however, deliberately set out to write satire. In his novel Maid Marian (1822), Thomas Love Peacock satirized the romantic medievalism of the Young England movement and the traditional portrayal of Richard the Lionheart. In his Crotchet Castle (1831), Mr. Chainmail is soon diverted from his interest in the Third Crusade by a young lady. The crusades also feature in a number of the comic novels of William Makepeace Thackeray. For example, in Barbazure, one of his characters, Romane de Clos-Dougoet, claims to have been with Richard at Ascalon, Louis at Damietta, and Solyman at Rhodes—a feat that transcends the bounds of historical chronology. There are also stories about crusaders in the highly popular Ingoldsby Legends (1840) by Richard Harris Barham, a minor canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
For British writers, the story of Richard the Lionheart was almost irresistible, and his crusading exploits were celebrated in a variety of literary forms and by a wide range of authors. The story of the captured Richard and his faithful minstrel Blondel inspired a poem by the young Charlotte Bronte (1833), and Richard was twice set as the subject for Newdigate Prize at Oxford University (1828 and 1912). The quality and content of such works varied considerably. For example, Richard was the subject of at least two lengthy but rather mediocre epic poems, one by Sir Henry Bland Burges, member of Parliament for Cornwall (1800), and the other by Eleanor Pordes (1822), the wife of the polar explorer Sir John Franklin. Burges also wrote a comic play called The Crusaders (1817). Its characters include Baron von Poppindorf, a nouveau riche Jewish broker with a mock German accent, who looks upon the Third Crusade as a business opportunity. An anonymous and more traditional historical tragedy in five acts, entitled Richard Coeur de Lion (1861), followed Richard’s career from his coronation to his death. But The Sea King: A Tale of the Crusade under Richard I of England (1895) by Dunbar Hylton took a more imaginative approach, featuring sea nymphs and other marine exotica. Several historical romances influenced by Scott also appeared around this time, set against the background of the Third Crusade, usually in the camp at Acre. At least one drew heavily on Ivanhoe, with a Knight Templar, a Jewess, and interplay between the Saxon heroine and a Norman knight.
Richard was also a natural subject for writers of children’s fiction. The doyen of this genre was George Alfred Henty (1832-1902), whose novel Winning His Spurs (1882) tells the story of Cuthbert, who is knighted as a reward for saving the king’s life. On his return to England, Cuthbert marries the earl’s daughter and succeeds to the title. The tale of young courage, adventure, and romance became another standard theme: Peter Donne, the hero of Paul Creswick’s With Richard the Fearless: A Tale of the Red Crusade (1904), even turns out to be the son of the king’s secret marriage with Alice of Brittany. In the same year, the adventure writer Sir Henry Rider Haggard was inspired by a visit to the battlefield of Hattin to write a novel about Rosamond, allegedly the daughter of Saladin’s sister and an English knight: in The Brethren (1904) this damsel in distress is protected by two crusading brothers; Robert Irwin (1997) has drawn parallels between Haggard’s Saracens and the Zulus of his other novels. Mary Rowles Jarvis’s Dick Lionheart (1909) has a starker and more contemporary theme. Her hero, an orphan, inspired by tales of Richard the Lionheart, sets out for a distant industrial city and the home of his uncle, where, after the inevitable trials and tribulations, he finds happiness.
This was not, however, just a British phenomenon. In France, Michel-Jean Sedaine’s play Richard Coeur de Lion (1784) inspired a comic opera of the same name by André Gretry. The latter was performed regularly in Paris during the nineteenth century and was adapted for the British stage by a British general who had fought at the battle of Saratoga during the American Revolution, Sir John Burgoyne (1722-1792). There were also Italian, German, and Dutch versions. Another publishing success was Sophie Cottin’s novel Mathilde (1805), set during the Third Crusade. Using considerable historical license, its heroine is the young sister of Richard the Lionheart, who decides to accompany him on crusade and falls in love with Saladin’s brother Malek Adel. He dies in combat, but not before he has been converted to Christianity; Mathilde remains behind in a convent in the Holy Land. Like Scott’s work, Cottin’s novel inspired paintings, plays, and operas, the latter including Sir Michael Costa’s Malek Adel, which was performed in London in 1837.
The linkage between the crusades and contemporary events was most marked during World War I. Poems written by soldiers in the campaigns in the Dardanelles and Palestine portray the soldiers as following in the footsteps of their crusading ancestors. The memoir The Romance of the Last Crusade: With Allenby to Jerusalem, published in 1923 by the actor Major Vivian Gilbert, begins with Brian Gurnay, at the end of his first year in Oxford, dreaming of the crusading exploits of his ancestor Sir Brian de Gurnay, a participant in the Third Crusade. Gilbert then reverts to his own time and the Palestine campaign, portraying his men as successors of Richard’s army, wearing drab khaki rather than suits of armor.
Historical parallels apart, in the twentieth century and up to the present day the crusades have continued to inspire historical novelists, with the same mixture of stories drawn from historical fact and literary whimsy. The First Crusade has remained a popular subject, with more than thirty novels of varying quality, and these have recently been analyzed in detail by Susan Edgington (2003). For example, in 1950, Alfred Duggan published the well-researched Knight with Armour, the story of an English knight on the First Crusade, and his last book, Count Bohemond, a fictionalized biography of Bohemund of Taranto, was published posthumously in 1964. Brother Cadfael, the detective in Ellis Peters’s popular series set in the medieval abbey at Shrewsbury, also has a crusading past, and in The Virgin in the Ice (1982) it emerges that he fathered a son while at Antioch.
The majority of recent works, however, have been published in France. In 1970, Zoë Oldenbourg published La Joie des pauvres, which was translated into English as The Heirs of the Kingdom (1971), which was preceded by her own general history of the crusades. She has also written a series of historical novels about the Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade. And the 900th anniversary of the Council of Clermont seems to have prompted a number of other French novels about the First Crusade by authors such as Anne Courtille (Dieu le Veult, 1995).
There are also three novels by Jewish writers—Christopher Davis (Belmarch: A Legend of the First Crusade, 1964), Russell Hoban (Pilgermann, 1983), and Amos Oz (Crusade, 1971)—that see historical links between the massacres of Jews in the Rhineland by a crusade army and the Holocaust. From a different perspective, the American Stephen J. Riv- elle’s A Booke of Days (1996) provides a colorful journal of the crusade through the eyes of the knight Roger, duke de Lunel.
As in earlier centuries, the Second Crusade (1147-1149) has not really attracted the interest of the historical novelist, but in 1989 the Portuguese novelist José Saramango published The History of the Siege of Lisbon, an unusual novel that revolves around the decision by a modern copy writer to alter historical fact and make the crusaders refuse the Portuguese king’s request for help.
Richard the Lionheart and the Third Crusade have continued to attract novelists. Charles Pirie-Gordon, an enthusiastic student of history who went on pilgrimage to Palestine with the Order of St. John in 1926, completed the novel Hubert’s Arthur (1935) by Frederick Rolfe (Baron Corvo), in which Richard’s nephew Arthur gains the throne of England and marries the heiress of the kingdom of Jerusalem. He was, in turn, influenced by Maurice Hewlett’s popular Richard Yea or Nay (1900), the story of a romance between Richard and Jehane Saint Pol, who bears Richard’s son Fulk during the crusade and is captured by—and ultimately marries— the lord of the Assassins. Another young squire in the service of the English king is the hero of Magdalen King-Hall’s Jehan of the Ready Fists (1936). Most recently, Kevin Cross- ley-Holland has produced a trilogy whose central character, the young Arthur de Calidcot, comes from a crusading family and himself joins the Fourth Crusade: Arthur the Seeing Stone, Arthur at the Crossing Places, and Arthur King of the Middle March (2000-2003). In satirical vein, the hero of Osbert Lancaster’s The Saracen’s Head, or The Reluctant Crusader (1948) is William de Littlehampton, who achieves crusading fame and fortune much against his natural inclinations in the camp at Acre.
The children’s novelist Henry Treece tells the story of the Children’s Crusade through the experiences of a brother and sister, Geoffrey and Alys de Villacours (1958), with the by now standard elements of disillusionment, slavery, and, after various trials and tribulations, reunion and return home. For the late 1220s, the Irish author Donn Byrne created Sir Miles O’Neill, a cousin of the king of Ulster, who serves as a paid soldier in the East under the command of the Cornish knight Sir Otho de Trelawney (Crusade, 1927).
For the thirteenth-century crusades, however, most writers chose Louis IX: for example, Henry Bordeaux’s play with tableaux and songs, Le Mystère de Saint Louis (1950), which evokes the continuing moral influence of the saintly king, and Hubert Villez’s much less reverent Mémoires de Shad- jar, les amours secrètes d’une reine d’Egypte, subtitled La Tentation de Saint Louis (1969). In 1911, Augustin-Thierry, the nephew of the great French medievalist, whose name he adopted, and Eugène Berteaux even produced a one-act farce, Le Lit de Saint Louis. This opens in a provincial museum, which has the bed of the king as one of its prize exhibits. Its presence proves too great a temptation for the new administrative assistant and his mistress, Margot, and inevitably they are discovered by the shocked curator. Posing as John of Joinville, the American writer Evan S. Connell provides in Deus lo Volt (2000) an idiosyncratic survey of two centuries of crusading, beginning with Peter the Hermit and culminating with St. Louis.
Another American, Michael Eisner, has recently published a novel entitled The Crusader (2001). Set against the background of the last decades of the Latin kingdom, it features tales of treachery, bloodshed, and courage during the capture of Krak des Chevaliers by the Mamlûks in 1271, as confessed by a young Spanish nobleman, Francisco de Montcada, to a Cistercian monk, brother Lucas.
In short, the crusades remain a standard and popular subject for modern literature, with the interplay between fact and fiction and a wide range of literary approaches and styles according to the particular perspective and sometimes nationality of the author.