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.

Medieval Christianity

A New History

Medieval Christianity: A New History, by Kevin Madigan, is a general overview of the history and development of the Christian religion in the Middle Ages, AD 600 – 1500.

The Late Antiquity period ended with Christianity becoming the dominant religion in Europe, while Islam dominated North Africa and the Middle East. As the Catholic Church became the most dominant force in the realm of Christendom, it became a more political entity, with secularization intertwining with its supposedly religious nature. Politics in France became a major cause of the papacy’s transfer from Rome to Avignon, and even after the end of this so-called Babylonian captivity, the succeeding popes have acquired a taste for politics that will later culminate in the Reformation scandal.

Meanwhile, the laity became more drawn into the religious life. Monastic orders sprang up, and men and women alike took religious vows and devoted their lives to serving God through renouncement of worldly living. The Crusades called for with the purpose, initially, of taking the Holy Land back from Muslim rule also became a way of religious and penitential life for many, who came to view a holy war as a way of offering their lives to God. 

The practice of Christian faith developed further, and took on forms not too far from our present day Catholicism. The Mass became more elaborate, the cult of saints became widespread and more intense for some, relics and images became central to the prayer life, and devotion to the Virgin Mary developed into a major devotion among Christians. Monastic education gave way to development of theology and philosophy; however, disagreements in the finer points of theology and doctrine lead to the creation and spread of schismatic movements. These were condemned by the Catholic Church, and the need to stop their spread brought forth the institution of the Inquisition, which hunted down and tried the leaders and recalcitrant followers of these movements.

Overall, Medieval Christianity is an excellent resource for understanding Christianity during the Middle Ages. The bibliography is divided by chapter, and provides various other references for deeper study of medieval Christianity, which can be very useful for the more curious readers. I recommend this for everyone wanting to learn more about the Middle Ages but don’t know where to start.

City of Fortune

How Venice Ruled the Seas

Venice, a city within a lagoon, came into being as a refuge for Romans fleeing the barbarians, a collection of islands with virtually no natural resources except salt. Yet the Venetians defied all odds, and rose to become a model republic and a powerful maritime empire.

Much of what made Venice into a formidable power that it was is due to the wars it fought, either for profit (the Fourth Crusade), or for survival (War of Chioggia, the Wars with Ottoman Empire). The Venetians also developed a kind of bureaucracy which, while absolutely convoluted, turned out to be a fairly efficient one. More importantly, Venice’s political model made it very difficult, if not completely impossible, to concentrate power into the hands of a very few elite.

The book City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, by Roger Crowley is the story of how the measly lagoon settlement, in a span of almost one millennium, became the maritime empire that ruled Mediterranean and bridged the West and the East. It also discusses the inner workings of the Most Serene Republic of Venice- the government, the economic system (including the banking and financial innovations rooted in Venetian trade), and many other aspects of the Venetian life.

Additionally, the focus on Venice’s wars also shows much of how medieval warfare looked like, especially the sieges that were so common during the Middle Ages. The coming of the Black Death, and its effects on Venice and the rest of Europe, is also discussed here, as the Plague’s effects had a major role in the successive wars fought by Venice.

City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas is an excellent overview on Venice’s rise to power. It’s aimed primarily for the general readers, so even with scant historical knowledge, one can easily understand and appreciate the book.