Post-classical history


Between 1189 and 1191, a cosmopolitan army of western invaders besieged the Palestinian coastal city of Acre, modern Akko. Their camp resembled the trenches of the Western Front during the First World War, fetid, disease-ridden, and dangerous. One story circulated to boost morale concerned the heroic death in battle a few years earlier of a knight from Touraine in France, Jakelin de Mailly. A member of the Military Order of Knights Templar, a soldier who had taken religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in order to devote his life to protecting Christians and their conquests in Syria and Palestine, Jakelin had been killed fighting a Muslim raiding party in Galilee on 1 May 1187. In describing what proved to be a massacre of the Christians, the story had Jakelin fighting on alone, hopelessly outnumbered and surrounded. The chronicler who recorded the story before 1192, possibly an Englishman and certainly a veteran of the siege of Acre, is worth quoting in full:

He was not afraid to die for Christ. At long last, crushed rather than conquered by spears, stones and lances, he sank to the ground and joyfully passed to heaven with the martyr’s crown, triumphant. It was indeed a gentle death with no place for sorrow, when one man’s sword had constructed such a great crown for himself from the crowd laid all around him. Death is sweet when the victor lies encircled by the impious people he has slain with his victorious right hand . . . The place where he fought was covered with the stubble which the reapers had left standing when they had cut the grain shortly before. Such a great number of Turks had rushed in to attack, and this one man had fought for so long against so many battalions, that the field in which they stood was completely reduced to dust and there was not a trace of the crop to be seen. It is said that there were some who sprinkled the body of the dead man with dust and placed dust on their heads, believing that they would draw courage from the contact. In fact, rumour has it that one person was moved with more fervour than the rest. He cut off the man’s genitals, and kept them safe for begetting children so that even when dead the man’s members – if such a thing were possible – would produce an heir with courage as great as his.

Except possibly for the suggestion of sexual fetishism, this story, which would not have convinced all who heard it by any means, represented a standard piece of crusade propaganda. Crusading, fighting for God in return for a promise of salvation, placed a premium on courage, physical prowess, martial skill, and religious conviction. As such, little separated it from other forms of organized violence. Yet the tale of Jakelin de Mailly emphasized certain features particularly characteristic of the Crusades, especially the belief or assertion that violence for the faith will earn heavenly reward. The killer, already a professed religious, becomes a holy man, a martyr, a witness for his God. Such is the hero’s spiritual potency that his physical remains retain a powerful material charge to confer his human qualities to others, even posthumously through his sexual organs. His horrible, violent death was interpreted as ‘gentle’ and ‘sweet’; his memory provided inspiration; his remains were thought to convey virtue. Death was a completion but no conclusion.

On the face of it, few mentalities – enthusiastic for violence, fixed on an afterlife – could be less accessible to modern observers in the western cultural tradition than this. Yet no aspect of Christian medieval history enjoys clearer modern recognition than the Crusades, nor has been more subject to egregious distortion. Most of what passes in public as knowledge of the Crusades is either misleading or false. The Crusades were not solely wars against Islam in Palestine. They were not chiefly conducted by land-hungry younger sons, nor were they part of some early attempt to impose western economic hegemony on the world. More fundamentally, they did not represent an aberration from Christian teaching. Nonetheless, interest and invention exist as two sides of the same historical coin. That in part explains why the world of Jakelin de Mailly and his eulogist has not been consigned to the same obscurity as that of medieval scholastics or flagellants; that and the drama of the events themselves. Jakelin’s death in a desperate and foolhardy skirmish in the Galilean hills may arouse only modest interest. But his presence two thousand miles from his homeland; the cause for which he swore religious vows, fought, and died; the region for which he battled; and the memorable historical figures drawn into the conflict in which he served have ensured his endeavour and sacrifice can still touch a nerve. That is the excuse for this book.

The word ‘crusade’, a non-medieval Franco-Spanish hybrid only popularized in English since the 18th century, has entered the Anglo-American language as a synonym for a good cause vigorously pursued, from pacific Christian evangelism to militant temperance. However floridly and misleadingly romantic, the image of mailed knights bearing crosses on surcoats and banners, fighting for their faith under an alien sun, occupies a familiar niche in the façade of modern western perceptions of the past. Despite, or perhaps because of, its lack of context, it remains the indelible image of crusading in popular culture, shared even by the sculptors of the late President Assad of Syria. Iconography is never innocent. Assad’s Damascus Saladin is defeating the Christians at their own imperialist game as surely as the Ladybird’s Saladin and Richard I are playing out some 19th-century cultural minuet. Polemicists and politicians know – or should know – that to invoke the Crusades is to stir deep cultural myths, assumptions, and prejudices, a fact recognized by Pope John Paul II’s apology to Jews, Muslims, and Eastern Orthodox Christians for the intolerance and violence inflicted by Catholic warriors of the cross. Although it is difficult to see how even Christ’s Vicar on earth can apologize for events in which he did not participate, over which he had no control, and for which he bore no responsibility, this intellectually muddled gesture acknowledged the continued inherent potency of crusading, a story that can still move, outrage, and inflame. One of the groups led by the fundamentalist religious terrorist Usama bin Laden was known as ‘The World Islamic Front for Crusade against Jews and Crusaders’. To understand medieval crusading for itself and to explain its survival may be regarded as an urgent contemporary task, one for which historians must take responsibility. To this dual study of history and historiography, of the Crusades and what could be called their post-history, this is a brief introduction.


1. Richard I as a romantic warrior hero, depicted in the children’s Ladybird History Richard the Lionheart (1965). The contrast between the imposing figure of Richard and the semi-clad ‘native’ opponents speaks of a marriage between lingering 19th-century imperialism and stock fabrications of popular neo-medievalism.


2. Eastern sophistication confronts western brute force. In this fictional encounter, from the Ladybird Richard the Lionheart, Richard I has broken an iron bar with his great sword while Saladin’s delicately sharp scimitar cuts a silk handkerchief. This typology traces its ancestry to Gibbon in the 18th century and beyond.


3. Saladin as a modern Islamic hero. The statue shows Saladin as victor of Hattin, with an infantryman and a sufi – sword and faith. It was commissioned by the city of Damascus, Syria, in 1992.

Casual modern acquaintance with the Crusades stems from the wide dissemination of crusading motifs from the early 19th century, a rather precious, sentimental vision of an invented medieval past, as in Walter Scott’s popular and influential Ivanhoe and The Talisman, the latter actually set during the Third Crusade. A similar sentimentality infected continental responses; romantic images of crusaders became a stock in trade for artists and poets. The cultural familiarity on which the force of these works relied was maintained into the 20th and 21st centuries chiefly by the popular media of Hollywood, television, and imaginative literature, not all of it describing itself as fiction. Crossovers between history and entertainment at least suggest a market, if only for what the great American crusader scholar of the first half of the 20th century, J. La Monte, forensically described as ‘worthless pseudo-historical trash’.

Crusading has left a physical imprint on Europe. Most obviously, impressive sites associated with crusading or the military orders remain, such as Aigues Mortes in the Rhone Delta, from where Louis IX of France embarked for Egypt in 1248, or the 14th-century headquarters of the Teutonic Knights at Marienburg in Prussia (now Malbork in Poland). Some reminders invoke a sombre message: the plaque at Clifford’s Tower in York commemorates the Jews who died there in March 1190, victims by murder and suicide of Yorkshire crusaders. More intimate evocation of personal responses and the strenuous conviction of individuals thirty to fifty generations ago can be found in quiet corners like the 11th-century church at Bosham, Hampshire, on the edge of Chichester Harbour, whose great chancel arch saw Harold Godwineson on his way across the Channel to a fateful meeting with Duke William of Normandy in 1064 and earned a place in the Bayeux Tapestry. Crosses etched deep in the stone of the door jambs and a cross of Jerusalem more lightly scratched on a nearby pillar, whether marks of anxious hope on departure or of thankful relief at a safe return, speak directly of a physical ideal, witness in almost the ultimate degree of devotion to a belief in the tangibility of the divine that allowed ordinary, faithful laymen, through their own action and the material relics of their God and His Saints, to touch Paradise. That identical crosses can also be seen incised on the walls of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem emphasizes both the startling reality of the experience of pilgrims and crusaders and the gulf between their age and our own. Yet, such memorials leave a trace in the mind.

Visible reminders are strewn across the modern landscape. In London alone, without the Crusades there would be no shopping in Knightsbridge, no cricket at St John’s Wood, no law at the Temple – all places that derive their names from the medieval landlords of these suburbs, the Military Orders of the Temple and of the Hospital of St John, religious orders originally established to succour and protect pilgrims to Jerusalem in the aftermath of its conquest by the first crusaders in 1099. Linguistic and material survivals are matched by a more urgent and in some cases more insidious recognition that has woven the memory of crusading into some of the more intractable modern political problems, the Arab–Israeli conflict, responses to Terrorism, religious inter-faith conflict, the origins of western racism and anti-Semitism, and the nature of and reaction to European and American political and cultural imperialism.

Yet here lurks a paradox. The continuing popular and political resonance of crusading feeds on an historical phenomenon that, both in its own time and later, has lacked objective precision in definition, practice, perception, or approval. In the Middle Ages there existed no single word for what are now known as the Crusades. While those who took the cross were described as crucesignati – people (not exclusively male) signed with the cross – their activities tended to be described by analogy, euphemism, metaphor, or generality: peregrinatio, pilgrimage; via or iter, way or journey; crux, literally cross; negotium, business. This allowed for a flexibility of target and ideology that was matched by a concentration in canon law (the law of the church) on the behaviour of the crusader and the implications of the various privileges associated with the activity rather than any general theoretical formula specifically defining a legal concept of a crusade. Thus at the heart of this form of Christian warfare lay a possibly convenient ambiguity of ideas and action that spawned a wide diversity of responses. The wars of the cross, initiated to regain Jerusalem for Christianity in 1095 and extended over the next few generations to encompass a wide variety of violence against the Catholic Church’s perceived external and internal foes, have been understood by participants, contemporaries, and later observers in a protean variety of ways.

By turns, crusading has been variously interpreted. It has been presented as warfare to defend a beleaguered Faith or the ultimate expression of secular piety. Alternatively, some have regarded it as a decisive ecclesiastical compromise with base secular habits; a defining commitment of the church to accommodate the spiritual aspirations of the laity. As the admired pinnacle of ambition for a ruling military elite, crusading is portrayed as an agent as well as symbol of religious, cultural, or ethnic identity or even superiority; avehicle for personal or communal aggrandizement, commercial expansion, or political conquest. More narrowly, the Crusades appear as an expression of the authority of the papacy in imposing order and uniformity within Christendom as well as securing its external frontiers. Conflicting assessments of the Crusades have described them as manifestations of religious love, by Christians for fellow believers and by God for His people; an experiment in European colonialism; an example of recrudescent western racism; an excuse and incentive for religious persecution, ethnic cleansing, and acts of barbarism; or a noble cause. Steven Runciman, the best-known and most influential anglophone Crusade historian of the 20th century, imperishably condemned the whole enterprise as ‘one long act of intolerance in the name of God which is the sin against the Holy Ghost’.

Even shorn of present prejudices and preoccupations, the history of the Crusades throws up concerns central to all societies, from the forging of identities through the communal force of shared faith and the use and abuse of legitimate violence to the nature of political authority and organized religion. Crusading exemplifies the exploitation of the fear of what sociologists call ‘the other’, alien peoples or concepts ranged against which social groups can find or be given cohesion: Communism and Capitalism; Democracy and Fascism; Christians and non-Christians; Whites and Non-Whites; Them and Us. There can be no indifference to such issues. That is why the study of the Crusades possesses an importance beyond the confines of academic scholarship. Equally, there can be no summoning of the past to take sides in the present. Plundering history to deliver modern indictments serves no rational or benign purpose. To observe the past through the lens of the present invites delusion; so too does ignoring the existence of that lens. However, the burden of understanding lies on us to appreciate the world of the past, not on the past to provide ours with facile precedents or good stories, although of the latter the Crusades supply plenty.


4. ‘At last my dream comes true.’ Punch’s response to the entry of General Allenby into Jerusalem in December 1917. Note the Union Jack flying over the Jaffa Gate to the left of the cartoon. In fact, Allenby carefully avoided any demonstration of overt imperialist or Christian triumph, making his entry on foot.

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