The Crusades: A Very Short Introduction

Despite its many uses – and abuses – in the political and religious realms, the Crusades are still very little understood, and are commonly portrayed through the lens of propaganda. Christopher Tyerman’s contribution to the Oxford book series of short introductory texts on various topics, The Crusades: A Very Short Introduction, illuminates the complexity of what we know as the Crusades, separating the history from the anachronistic interpretations, and shows how they have become both origin and product of political and religious propaganda.

For one, what would count as a Crusade has changed throughout history. The idea of a just war is derived by Christians from the Bible, and has been in development since the Late Antiquity. The Crusades popularized the idea of a just war in defense of Christianity – holy war. The notion of Jerusalem being in captivity by the enemies of Christ, and the need to free the city and place it under Christian rule, is most reflected in the First Crusade; after that, the Crusades have evolved into wars to serve various other purposes, thus ushering in the use of crusading for advancing its leaders’ agenda.

Even the motivations for launching and joining Crusades are never uniform. Ordinary people certainly saw crusading as a pious act, a route to salvation and guarantee of their soul’s ascension to heaven. Some may have joined out of obligation from their feudal masters. Some may have been motivated by worldly profits, though in the end the Crusades never really made its participants any more prosperous than they were prior.

One common misconception about the Crusades is that they were all against Muslims. Certainly, the original Crusade called for by Pope Urban II to recapture Jerusalem was framed as a holy war against the enemies of Christianity. But the later crusades were primarily political in nature. For instance, the Fourth Crusade ended up besieging and sacking Constantinople, still very much a Christian city at the time. The infamous Albigensian Crusades were directed against the Cathars in southern France, and ended up with Christians massacring their fellow brethren in faith.

And of course, there will always be debates on what exactly would classify as a Crusade. Purported holy wars were called against Muslims in the Middle East, against the Moors in Spain, against heretics all over Europe, and even against Jews in the Balkans. Even for the only truly successful venture, the First Crusade, political and economic expediencies have always been present in the leaders’ agenda. So if Crusades are strictly just holy wars, then what counts as one? As the book shows, this and other aspects of the Crusades are still up for debate.

Which brings us to the author’s main contention: the uses of the idea of crusading long after the Middle Ages. They have always served as potent symbols of noble struggles against “the others”. Christians used the memory of the Crusades to conjure an image of just war against Muslims – and Jews too. The Catholic Church in France invoked the Crusades as an inspiration in the battle against the secularism of the French Revolution. Even in modern wars, “crusading” became synonymous with fighting a good cause, as in the image of the Allies fighting against the evils of Nazi Germany, or America’s War on Terror.

The Crusades is a short but very insightful introduction to the history of the Crusades, both as a series of events, and as an idea. The many ways that the idea of the Crusades is being used to push for agenda are products of the many ways that its history was portrayed, and its memory still serves as catalyst for political ventures. The dangers of using (and abusing) history are illuminated in the way the Crusades have been portrayed through the ages, and this book, as an overview of the discipline, serves as a reminder of the need to understand and separate history from the myths that transform them into instruments of propaganda.