By Dawn Marie Hayes
The History Teacher, Vol. 40:3 (2007)
Introduction: The Crusades are among the few medieval events with which most students have familiarity. However, during these days of heightened tensions in the Middle East, for many the Crusades have taken on an urgency as a distant historical phenomenon that speaks powerfully to present religious and political concerns. This helps explain why in 2005, two highly visible productions on the subject appeared for popular audiences. Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, a major motion film by Twentieth Century Fox, was released during the first half of the year. Then, in November, the History Channel aired The Crusades: Crescent and the Cross. Releases such as these can be both a blessing and a curse for history teachers. They are a blessing because they will undoubtedly stoke the interest of many student viewers and engage them on some level. They can be a curse though, too, because if they miss the mark, those same students will be left with impressions that instructors will have to labor against for years to come.
Over the past year, I have found that the heightened visibility of the Crusades in popular culture has presented me with a number of teachable moments. The release of these two productions against the backdrop of the current friction between the predominantly Christian West and Muslim Middle East has helped transform the Crusades in my courses from a topic of curiosity to one of intense interest and scrutiny. This is a relatively unique situation for a medieval historian because, although the period is relevant to the modern world, most of the events covered do not have the sense of urgency that one might find in courses on more modern historical periods. For this reason, I have felt a certain amount of pressure to seize the opportunity that the early twenty-first century has offered to those of us who teach the Middle Ages.