Ancient history

The Crusades with Christopher Tyerman

The crusades were driven by a cocktail of causes and motives.

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Even non-historians know about the Crusades. Whether it’s familiarity with artwork or an affinity for moves like Kingdom of Heaven that present a modern take on Saladin, the Crusades have a special hold on people. In this interview, Oxford historian Christopher Tyerman takes readers behind the scenes of his new book about the Crusades.

Read the book by Christopher Tyerman: The World of the Crusades: An Illustrated Guide.

Who is Christopher Tyerman?

I am medieval historian. Born in 1953, I was an undergraduate and graduate student at Oxford in the 1970s (BA 1974; DPhil 1981). Except for a year teaching at the University of York (1976-7), I have taught at Oxford since the mid-1970s and am now Professor of the History of the Crusades and a Fellow of Hertford College.

I first became aware of the crusades as a small child examining the spines of my father’s books that included Steven Runciman’s epic History of the Crusades, decorated with discreet shields.

I have never been attracted much to battlefield details, the fashionable pornography of violence that has appealed to many non-academic devotees of the subject. Initially, at secondary school (roughly equivalent to US High School),  the drama, strangeness and exoticism of the phenomenon drew my interest. However, the more I looked at it, the more it intrigued as an intrinsic part of a past culture, not an aberration or alternatively a definitive force, rather an expression of social, ideological, political and material forces manifest throughout medieval Europe and the Mediterranean.

In research, I have been concerned with understanding the crusades for what they can tell of their wide ambient historical context.

Introduce The World of the Crusades: An Illustrated History.

The idea behind the book was to use material evidence to show the lived reality of crusading as far as possible on its own terms, to place the crusades in their complex settings, and to avoid crude modern stereotypes.

Surviving material evidence allows immediate, direct access and contact with the past. This prompted the inclusion of the pictures. There are 160; I sourced over 600; selection was very difficult.

I hope collectively they aid reader’s involvement in the crusaders’ own world, adding perspective and a dimension to the text, not simply decorative but in the more serious sense illustrative and supportive of the themes of the book.

What are some common misconceptions about the crusades?

That they were part of some eternal ‘clash of civilisations’. This is baleful nonsense, crafted by modern observers, often with faith or political agendas wholly unattached to understanding  the reality or complexity of the past,  in need of some reassuring teleological certainty in assessing current affairs and future prognostications.  

The crusades were driven by a cocktail of causes and motives, ideological, religious, communal, economic, social, cultural, territorial and accidental. They were not restricted to the Near East. They were not aimed at destroying Islam.

They were not in any practical sense defensive. They combined wars of conquest with wars fuelled by a harsh intolerant but far from ignorant or credulous religiosity. The ignorant sloppy and slightly condescending shorthand of ‘age of faith’ fails to appreciate the subtlety and nuances of past (and present)  belief systems.

I could go on. Read the book.  

How is it “the crusades do not hold up a mirror to the modern world so much as a window into remote past experience”?

The past is irrecoverable. Historians cannot and do not study it . All we have is extant evidence from the past, inevitably partial in all sense of the term. That is what historians investigate and try to understand.

If a historian regards everything with a presentist eye, the view will be distorted, lacking the empathy to engage with a lost world. Obviously all scholars are products of their own time and this will influence what interests them. Past historians were interested in high politics, cultural imperialism, economic contest, colonialism.

Every age writes its own crusades, so today western scholarship pays attention to memory, inter-faith and cross-cultural relations, race, popular religion, class, identity and gender. The crusade sources offer rich insights into all such aspects of medieval life including collective and individual experience. But these insights are of their time not ours. The excitement of historical scholarship lies precisely in this contact with a remote past. The process is challenging, difficult, often frustrating and inevitably incomplete. The only certain perspective on the modern world we can bring is that the past was different and that the human condition is complex and should not be confined in clichés or slogans.

Who was Pope Urban II and how did he catalyze the crusades?

Odo or Eudes of Châtillon sur Marne, in the Champagne region of France (c. 1035-99) came from a family of minor noble, familiar with the developing martial culture of knights. He had been a monk at the Burgundian monastery of Cluny before being summoned to Rome to work for the aggressive reformist Pope Gregory VII (1073-85).

An effective papal diplomat, he was elected pope in 1088.  Much of his pontificate was occupied with rebuilding the political position of the papacy within the western church and politics. His promotion of the crusade—an act that saw the pope marshaling the secular as well as ecclesiastical forces of western Christendom, was closely linked to this policy of asserting papal authority.

Eleventh century wars of expansion by Christian rulers in Iberia, the western Mediterranean and Sicily had led to the further development of late classical and early medieval ideas of legitimate warfare conducted in the interests of Christian faith, ideas taken up by Gregory VII who floated the concept of war as a penitential exercise, not only just but holy.

In 1095, Urban took advantage of an invitation from the emperor of Byzantium to send troops to help reconquer parts of Asia Minor from the Turks, who at the time posed no threat to western Europe at all. To this project was added, by Urban and possibly by the Byzantine emperor as an incentive, the lure of progressing to recapture Jerusalem, ruled since 638 by Muslim rulers, largely pacific and tolerant but increasingly more stringent especially in regard to visiting Christian pilgrims.

Urban promoted his project by a publicity and recruitment tour across southern and western France in 1095-6.

The formal launch of the enterprise came with Urban’s sermon at Clermont in the Auvergne in November 1095.

Pope Urbanus II Preaching the First Crusade. Scan from reprint of 1841/1852 editions of “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” by Charles Mackay, LL. D. ISBN 1-5866-3558-1 This photographic reproduction is in the public domain in the United States because the copyright term is the authors life plus 70 years or less.

How might our understanding of the crusades change if we knew the content of his speech?

No direct evidence of what he said survives. If we had such a copy it might tell us how exactly he saw the idea of a war that gained the fighters remission of their sins; precisely what role the Byzantine invitation played in is pitch; and how central Jerusalem, with all its liturgical, scriptural and apocalyptic resonances, as a place and an ideal,  was to the whole scheme.

As it is we do possess some of Urban’s letters, including one written days or weeks after the Clermont sermon, that gives access to his thinking.

Urban seems to have initiated what for him was a one-off exercise of holy war, giving unique spiritual advantages for a specific expedition, not founding a movement. The crusades as we perceive them were a product of the subsequent events of 1096-99, the First Crusade, not of Urban’s imagination.

Apart from his later use as a founding symbol, Urban’s lasting legacy lies in his getting holy warriors the distinctive badge of the cross the wear, thus becoming bearers of the cross, crucesignati crusaders.

Who were the Templars and how did their story come to an end?

The Military Order of the Temple of Solomon was founded by a group of pious knights in Jerusalem c. 1119. Named after their headquarters in Jerusalem (1119-87) in the al-Aqsa mosque, called with characteristic hazy historical accuracy by crusaders the Temple of Solomon, the Order’s initial function was to protect pilgrims travelling through the dangerous Judean countryside to Jerusalem.

After a successful European recruiting tour in 1127-9 by its leader Hugh of Payns, in 1129 the order received papal recognition and a few years later a widely circulated encomium In Praise of the New Knighthood by Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux, the leading public intellectual of the time.

The Order comprised knights, who swore monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience while retaining explicitly military duties, sergeants, servants, priests and hired troops, an unusual religious order, not precisely monks, more like secular canons, but living under monastic discipline.

The Order was an instant success, soon attracting donations of property across Christendom in the Holy Land where they acted as a sort of standing army. The knights’ cosmopolitan interest and property allowed them to act as international bankers at a period when banking hardly existed. They became financial advisers to many European rulers, especially in France.

Many knights spent time in the west running the Order’s estates not fighting. There was more to the Order than the Near Eastern front line. With the loss of the final mainland crusader holdings in Syria and Palestine in 1291, the function of the Order came under scrutiny.

However, it was the political agenda of Philip IV of France (1285-1314) that determined the Order’s fate. Short of money, long on ambition,  branding himself as leader of Christendom and challenging the unique authority of the papacy, Philip, using a ruthless, brutal and grasping administration, ordered the arrest of members of the Order in his kingdom on Friday 13 October 1307- some argue the origin of the ‘Friday the 13th’ superstition.

Over the next few years he bullied a pliant pope, Clement V (1305-14), to investigate, with other ruler’s more or less reluctantly following suit. Using torture, terror and summary judicial murder, Philip and complicit clerics compiled a dossier of Templar confessions including blasphemy, idol worship and homosexuality. Without torture, no evidence of such practices or abuses emerged.

Nonetheless the Order was deemed sufficiently discredited that, again under pressure from the French, Clement, who did at least refuse to condemn the Order, dissolved the Templars at the Council of Vienne in 1312, its assets given to its fellow Military Order, the Order of St John, the Hospitallers, although Philip managed to acquire a large slice.

The final act came in 1314, when the last Master James of Molay, resisting Philip’s judges, was burnt at the stake in Paris. Many Templars disappeared in prison. Others retired on pensions to other orders. Some no doubt re-entered lay society. A few stragglers in the Levant remained ignorant of the fate of their brothers into the 1330s. Thereafter, the Order ceased to exist, its property, such as the Temple complex in London, given over to other use, its name surviving in places such as Knightsbridge in London, Templhof in Berlin and the Rue de Temple in Paris.

All later incarnations and conspiratorial speculations are fiction, the more lucrative the more phony.

BaldwinII ceeding the location of the Temple of Salomon to Hugues de Payns and Gaudefroy de Saint-Homer by Guillaume de Tyr. This faithful photographic reproduction of “Histoire d’Outre-Mer” is in the public domain in the United States and other countries where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years.

Who wrote the most “personal, vivid description of the experience of crusading” and what did he say?

John of Joinville (1224/5-1317) was a nobleman from Champagne in France who went on crusade to Egypt with Louis IX of France in 1248-50 and, in later life composed an account of his crusade experiences in his Life of St Louis (final version 1309).

Joinville describes the vicissitudes of the doomed Egyptian campaign with unsurpassed clear-eyed close-up vividness, recreating the strain, excitement, anguish, bravery, camaraderie, psychological pressure and sheer physical effort of warfare, defeat, and captivity.

To what do we owe most of our understanding of the Second Crusade?

The often chance survival of a few papal and other letters; charters of departing crusaders; a very few Latin texts such as the Journey of Louis VII of France to the East by the king’s chaplain, Odo of Deuil; the anonymous The Capture of Lisbon possibly by an English veteran; or the History of the Jerusalem writer William of Tyre.

Arabic sources, such as those from writers in Damascus or Mosul, are also essential.

Has Christopher Tyerman seen anything breathtaking Crusades manuscripts in the archives?

 I’ve found research cumulative rather than a series of eureka moments. The tingle factor can be found in such things as the crosses scratched by pilgrims and crusaders in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre but also—looking the same—in local churches in the west such as in the English village of Bosham in Hampshire, on Chichester Harbour, perhaps left by those departing in hope or returning in gratitude from Jerusalem. Real people.

What does historian Christopher Tyerman think about Hollywood portrayals of the first crusades?

Not much a movie buff. Kingdom of Heaven was dire, unless you fancied Orlando Bloom & co. It is fiction, so I do not get upset by anachronistic features (the modern liberal Saladin; the woke Baldwin IV; the Jerusalem set; one of the most familiar cityscapes in the world ignored—that great hill with the Holy Sepulchre on top, absurd but funny).

Christopher Tyerman says that Crusades moves like Kingdom of Heaven can mislead audiences into thinking they’re looking at historical depictions of the past.

The only problem is when audiences think they are looking at a genuine recreation of an actual past, attitudes and all, instead of modern arguments (here interfaith relations, tolerance, bigotry  etc) enacted by historicised manikins.

One should not take historical movies seriously as history. Enjoy—or not—for the imaginative modern art form it is, not as history.

What would Christopher Tyerman want to go back in time to see?

To be present at one of the great events would be as confusing as it is attending today’s political rallies or serving in a battle.  I would prefer to sit down to talk, say, to the otter-catcher from Aylesbury 20 miles from Oxford, who set out in crusade in the 120s and ask him why.

Did you enjoy this interview?

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By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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