How the Crusades stay with us

By Mike Horswell

As the Middle Ages ended, the crusades were mostly a fading memory. Yet, today the word and the way it is used seem more popular than ever. How did the crusades return to today’s society?

‘This crusade… this war on terrorism is going to take a while.’ US President George W. Bush, South Lawn of the White House, 16 September 2001.


Propelled to the front of the world’s attention by US President George W. Bush’s offhand remark on the South Lawn of the White House in the days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the crusades have continued to feature prominently in public rhetoric in the first decades of the twenty-first century. Deployed by both Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and ISIS as an example of historic Western aggression in the Middle East and against Muslims, the crusades have also been used by white supremacists and those in the West – such as Norwegian terrorist Andreas Breivik and his emulators. Apparently innocuous forms of crusading rhetoric and imagery can be found, particularly in the names and branding of sports teams, in descriptions of public health campaigns, and in entertainment from literature and art to films, TV dramas and digital games; though the contemporary associations of the crusades have often raised questions as to their continued suitability for these uses. In the aftermath of the Christchurch shootings in New Zealand in March 2019 by a terrorist who referenced various historical figures – including the crusader Bohemond of Taranto – in his attack the city’s successful rugby union team considered changing their name and branding from ‘Crusaders’.

However, the question remains: why has a medieval form of Christian holy war – linked to pilgrimage, the papacy, and Jerusalem – found popularity in the modern world? What accounts for the breadth of its invocations?

Scene from Jade Stadium, Christchurch, New Zealand. Rugby Super 14 Semi-Final, Crusaders vs Bulls, 20th May 2006 – Wikimedia Commons

In fact, the crusades have demanded and received attention since their inception. Crusading was an active concern for several centuries after Pope Urban II’s call in 1095, though it evolved over time and meant different things to different people. Formalised by the papacy, crusading quickly became dominated by secular Western rulers; it gave birth to the short-lived crusader kingdoms and several institutions which outlived its practical pursuit – the Hospitaller and Teutonic military orders being notable among them. With the rise of the Ottoman Turks in the Mediterranean, and the concomitant decline of Byzantium, crusading ventures became less practical and more idealised.

The idea of crusading, once freed from the practical demands of physical crusading, was more easily able to be adopted and adapted, though it had never been entirely coherent. After condemnation of crusading as a corrupt tool of the papacy reigned down from emerging Protestant reformers, Enlightenment figures went further and threw out religious warfare (and, indeed, religion) in its entirety. David Hume had famously condemned the crusades as ‘the most signal and most durable monument of human folly that has yet appeared in any age or nation’, while Edward Gibbon wrote that the crusades ‘checked rather than forwarded the maturity of Europe’. However, there were those who continued to find utility in crusading. The Spanish and Portuguese in the New World could express crusading concepts and identities, while the idea that crusading was a virtuous, chivalrous, expression of total religious conviction and zeal never completely died in the West.

Loving the crusades in the 19th century

When it comes to the modern memory of the crusades, their popularity was reinvigorated by Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt and the Near East in 1798 and the increasing presence of European imperial powers in the eastern Mediterranean over the nineteenth-century. To many – not least the French – the crusades seemed to provide parallels to, and justification for, military interventions in the region. Amidst the turmoil of post-revolutionary past, Frankish involvement in the crusades seemed to be something that all the French could celebrate, whether monarchist or republican. The assertion of a uniquely French connection with the crusaders and their overseas territories was mobilised in justification of military intervention around the Mediterranean. Crusading parallels were drawn for campaigns in Algeria in the 1830s, the Crimean War in the 1850s (in which the French participated ostensibly as defenders of the Christians of the Holy Land) and Lebanon in the 1860s. The Salles des Croisades at the Palace of Versailles, opened in 1843, vividly celebrated a French crusading past.

The crusades could provide national heroes, as well as (or instead of) a crusading past to draw on. Where France adopted St Louis IX as a pious French crusading king, the late nineteenth century saw a newly unified Germany call on Frederick Barbarossa as the model of a strong ruler for all time. Kaiser Wilhelm II’s 1898 visit to Damascus and Jerusalem, where he rode into the latter city dressed in pseudo-crusading garb, deliberately invoked a crusading heritage which included the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Norway adopted King Sigurd the ‘Jerusalem-farer’, while the new nation of Belgium drafted Godfrey de Bouillon as a national hero. Italian proto-nationalists in the nineteenth century drew inspiration from the unifying power of crusading rhetoric. And in Spain, crusading and Reconquista rhetoric and imagery bubbled up in the conflicts with Napoleonic France, in mid-century political wrangling – especially employed by the ‘Carlist’ faction – and in connection with military campaigns in Morocco. The close linkage of Orthodox faith with the Russian state produced a strong strand of ‘Holy War’ rhetoric, which could bleed into crusader medievalism despite the latter’s Catholic genesis. More quixotically, Adam Knobler has identified the adoption of crusading modes by monarchs in Ethiopia and Bulgaria during the second half of the nineteenth century.


The Crusades and the World Wars

Crusading rhetoric persisted into the twentieth century. Many in English-speaking contexts declared the World Wars crusades, and some argued that they should be seen in continuity with the medieval ventures. These connections were thrown into particular relief by Allied campaigns in the Middle East in the First World War in 1917-18, especially at Gallipoli and in Palestine where the Allies primarily fought the Ottoman Turks. Led by the British General Edmund Allenby, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force was tasked with capturing Jerusalem; successful completion of this objective led to the campaign’s moniker (disavowed by Allenby) as ‘the Last Crusade’. More broadly, Stefan Goebel has observed that, ‘The Crusades, chivalry and medieval spirituality and mythology provided rich, protean sources of images, tropes and narrative motifs for people to give meaning to the legacy of the Great War.’

The interwar years saw crusading deployed for more than commemoration. As the victorious Western powers gained control of crusader sites via League of Nations’ mandates – especially Syria (France) and Palestine (Britain) – attention turned to how to practically interact with the physical legacy of the crusades and crusaders. In 1934 with much fanfare in France the French government bought and subsequently renovated Krak des Chevaliers, the Hospitaller castle in Syria.

Crusading heritage could animate action. Claiming to be the inheritors of a pure medieval past, fascist appropriations of the crusades and military orders were common amongst the diffuse medievalisms of the parties of Adolf Hitler in Germany, Benito Mussolini in Italy, and Francisco Franco in Spain. The latter explicitly had his Nationalist cause in the Spanish Civil War designated a ‘cruzada’ by the Spanish Catholic bishops, to boost the resonance of his fight to an international audience. Franco presented himself as a modern embodiment of the Spanish hero El Cid, who had become associated with the Reconquista, and had a mural of himself painted in medieval armour titled ‘Franco: Victor of the Crusade’.

Mural of General Franco as El Cid, Spain

During the Second World War, the German-led offensive against the Soviet Union of 1941 was touted as a ‘Crusade against Bolshevism’ in an attempt to generate pan-European support from invaded territories. Posters calling the war-effort against the Axis powers a crusade were trialed in Britain, while the American General Dwight Eisenhower who led the Allied invasion of mainland Europe in 1944 famously titled his memoir Crusade in Europe. While the reality of the Cold War relegated comparisons with the crusades to rhetoric – as in the CIA-sponsored ‘Crusade for Freedom’ initiative – more substantive parallels took root in the Arab world and beyond.

‘Clash of Civilisations’

The second half of the twentieth century saw the imperialist uses of the crusades bite back: they were repeatedly employed as examples of continuing Western aggression which spanned centuries by those seeking to stir up anti-Western, anti-colonial sentiment and action. Attempting to oppose European influence and interventions in his realms, the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II labelled Western imperialism a crusade (quoted in 1899) and the idea was taken up by Sayyid Qutb of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Resistance to the West was often conducted through the deployment of Saladin, the Kurdish Muslim leader who captured Jerusalem in 1187 and opposed the Third Crusade. Murals and statues of the medieval ruler were commissioned by the Assads in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq; the equestrian statue in Damascus erected in 1992 features two defeated crusaders at the heels of the mounted Saladin. A reimagined Third Crusade provided the backdrop for one of the most prominent uses of the crusades outside the west, Youssef Chahine’s film El Naser Salah el Dine. Released in 1963, the film was a state-sanctioned reflection of the political vision of Egyptian President Gamal Nasser which celebrated Saladin as a magnanimous, religiously tolerant, anti-imperialist whose state would unite the Arab world.

The thread of interpretation of the crusades as persistent imperialist violence, perpetrated by the West, was picked up by Osama bin Laden even before the attacks of 9/11 and continued into the recruiting rhetoric of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS / ISIL / Daesh) in the early twenty-first century. Conceptualised as an episode in the ongoing ‘clash of civilisations’ this version of the crusades as the quintessential expression of the incompatibility of co-existence between ‘East’ and ‘West’ has found a welcome with all those who promote ‘civilisational’ violence or employ the logic of the ‘clash’. Hence the crusades have also become a potent symbol for white supremacists and the far right in Western nations. They accept the same logic as to what the crusades were – an inevitable binary conflict of West vs East, Christians vs Muslims – but invert the heroes and villains.


Crusades today

The crusades have long held a fascination beyond the works of historians, and perceptions of the crusades today are multiple and themselves have a history. While bookshops and libraries hold titles on the crusades which range from academic to popular books, it is likely that most people encounter the crusades through other media. For information many turn to online encyclopaedias such as Wikipedia, YouTube history channels or documentaries. Many, however, will build up an impression of the crusades through the repetition of tropes in various forms of entertainment – historical novels, art, theatrical productions, films, historical dramas, board games and most recently video games. Not that crusading-as-entertainment itself is new: the medieval Chansons de geste, tales of chivalry, and even the contemporary chroniclers themselves, all sought to entertain audiences whilst informing them, recording past events and inspiring their emulation.

Novels set in or around the crusades have a long history, going back at least to Christiane B. Naubert’s Walter von Montbarry (1786) in Germany and Sophie Cottin’s French novel Mathilde (1805), before taking flight in the hands of Walter Scott. Scott’s works were endlessly reproduced and became a multimedia sensation; scenes from novels were painted and used to  decorate daily objects while the stories were produced as operas in the nineteenth century. Torquato Tasso’s epic poem of an imagined and fantastical First Crusade, La Gerusalemme liberata (1581), was so popular that it reverberated in crusade histories, often used as a historical source. No crusade historian has been immune from contemporary popular visions of the crusades and crusaders. Many students enter courses informed by films, TV shows, documentaries, Wikipedia, and video games – all of which engage variously with the works of academic historians.

First World War recruitment poster – Fred Liest, ‘The Crusaders, 1189-1915

No definitive study of the comparative influence of these presentations of the crusades has been conducted, yet anecdotally there are some front-runners for works which have strongly influenced contemporary perceptions of the crusades. Walter Scott’s novel set in the Third Crusade The Talisman (1825) remained influential through nineteenth- and twentieth-century emulators, educators (including the Ladybird children’s book on Richard the Lionheart) and filmmakers. Ridley Scott’s 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven is the most recent Hollywood blockbuster treatment of the crusades, though predecessors included that of Cecille B. DeMille (1935) and cinematic versions of The Talisman. The crusades often appear in adaptations of the Robin Hood legend, including those on screen.

The modern phenomena of digital games has continued to turn to the crusades for inspiration and entertainment. Ubisoft’s hugely successful role-playing game Assassin’s Creed (2007) sold around 10 million copies and immersed the player in visions of Jerusalem, Damascus, Acre, and the Assassins’ stronghold at Masyaf during the Third Crusade.

Less focused on the crusades, but including them as playable events, the strategy game series Crusader Kings (2004-20) and Medieval Total War (2002-7) also brought versions of the crusades to large audiences. Less tangibly, but perhaps more expansively, films, novels and games have repeatedly employed secretive orders of Templars as villains, leading to Umberto Eco’s wry suggestion in the novel Foucault’s Pendulum that the way of identifying a lunatic was “by the fact that sooner or later he brings up the Templars.”

Returning to works of historians, the three-volume A History of the Crusades (1951-54) written by Steven Runciman stands behind many popular versions of the crusades due to its literary style and pervasive spread: Runciman memorably concluded that ‘the Holy War itself was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is a sin against the Holy Ghost.’ The field of crusader studies continues to thrive: crusading is taught in courses at universities, books on the crusades span academic monographs to popular syntheses, and there is a large and vibrant community of crusade scholars.

The memory and legacy of the crusades is diverse and diffuse. Perceptions of connection, regardless of reality, create powerful affective ties between past and present which provide, and have provided, reassurance, inspiration and identity across centuries and cultures in the West. Nickolas Haydock suggests that the breadth and endurance of these memories shows ‘an enduring and widespread imaginative investment by the West in this imperial, quasi-religious form of medievalism,’ namely crusading. For many, as Knobler argued of the Victorians, the crusades have been ‘the most obvious historic unification of religious piety and manly, martial virtues.’ The medieval orient has stood as the location for Western encounter, revelation and transformation in countless forms of memory and the crusades have facilitated that imaginative work, though much of it was entangled with what Edward Said identified as orientalism.

Yet this memory is unstable and inconsistent. Aspects of crusading memory are picked out from general impressions at different times: to be labelled a crusader or call a crusade can still carry connotations of high moral purpose and strenuous collective endeavour. Crusading can invoke historic campaigns of militant Christianity and also peaceful evangelistic rallies; the crusades can stand as a milestone in the supposed ‘clash of civilisations’ between ‘Judeo-Christian West’ and ‘Islamic East’ and as a label for a period of cultural encounter and exchange. These (often contradictory) memories of the crusades – some older than others – persist and coexist into the present.

The subject of crusader medievalism as a field of study is emerging. Recent research has demonstrated that the ways in which the crusades are perceived has changed and differs between groups of people, and as such need to be examined in its historical context. Establishing which memory of the crusades is being drawn upon and why provides insight into the ways in which the past is, and has been, leveraged and to what ends. The crusades, and what they are thought to signify, are a ‘live’ issue; one that looks likely to remain with us in the twenty-first century.

Mike Horswell is a historian of the memory of the crusades who has taught at Royal Holloway, University of London, the University of Oxford and the University of Bayreuth. He is the co-founder and editor of the series Engaging the Crusades (Routledge) and author of The Rise and Fall of British Crusader Medievalism, c.1825-1945 (Routledge, 2018).

Further Reading:

Albin, Andrew, Mary C. Erler, Thomas O’Donnell, Nicholas L. Paul, and Nina Rowe, eds. Whose Middle Ages?: Teachable Moments for an Ill-Used Past. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019.

Awan, Akil N. ‘Weaponising the Crusades: Justifying Terrorism and Political Violence’. In The Crusades in the Modern World: Engaging the Crusades, Volume Two, edited by Mike Horswell and Akil N. Awan, Abingdon: Routledge, 2020, pp. 4-24.

Elliott, Andrew B.R. Medievalism, Politics and Mass Media. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2017.

Goebel, Stefan. The Great War and Medieval Memory: War, Remembrance and Medievalism in Britain and Germany, 1914-1940. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Horswell, Mike. The Rise and Fall of British Crusader Medievalism, c. 1825-1945. Abingdon: Routledge, 2018.

Phillips, Jonathan. Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades. London: Vintage, 2010.

Riley-Smith, Jonathan. The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam. Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2008.

Skottki, Kristin. ‘The Dead, the Revived and the Recreated Pasts: “Structural Amnesia” in Representations of Crusade History’. In Perceptions of the Crusades from the Nineteenth to the Twenty-First Century: Engaging the Crusades, Volume One, edited by Mike Horswell and Jonathan Phillips, Abingdon: Routledge, 2018, pp. 79–106.

Swenson, Astrid. ‘Crusader Heritages and Imperial Preservation’. Past and Present 226 (2015): 27–56.

Tyerman, Christopher. The Debate on the Crusades, 1099-2010. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011.

Top Image: Stylized depiction of 12th-century Crusader Christian of Ghistelles, in the Martim Moniz Metro Station, in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo by Rick Morais / Wikimedia Commons