Teaching History Differently

Through the Looking-Glass, the Crusades

© tOad

From Ridley Scott’s 2005 movie Kingdom of Heaven to the video game Assassin’s Creed (Ubisoft, 2007), the Crusades have been a source of inspiration for various cultural productions, so much so that this historical episode seems well known to us or at least relatively familiar.

Yet our everyday representations, deeply tinged with Orientalism, are being usefully re-examined in academic research and in particular by the recent work of Gabriel Martinez-Gros, professor of history emeritus at the University of Nanterre. In his latest book, De l’autre côté des croisades, he puts into a new perspective our conventional view of the Crusades on the basis of the writings of two great Arab historians1 allowing us to see them from a completely different angle.

The conventional Western view of the Crusades

The Crusades are usually defined, as historian Michel Balard has put it, as “an armed pilgrimage with the goal of rescuing the Saint-Sepulchre in Jerusalem”. Launched by a papal bull, the Crusades promised whoever went off to fight for Christ various privileges (such as the suspension of their debt repayments) but most of all the remission of their previous sins. This idea of “rescuing” Jerusalem lasted worldwide from the end of the 11th century (it was at the 1095 Council of Clermont, that Urban II proclaimed the First Crusade for the liberation of the Holy Land) to the 14th century, when the prospect of reconquering the Latin countries of the Orient, lost to the Muslims in 1291, was gradually abandoned. However the term Crusades itself did not appear in the Western world until the middle of the 13th century replacing, in French for example, earlier expressions such as “chemin”, “voyage de Jerusalem”," expédition” or “passage d’outre-mer”.

The term “Crusades” and this focus on the Holy Land tends to conceal the diversity of the phenomenon. Jerusalem was by no means the only region targeted by a Crusade. For example, other regions controlled by Muslims, such as parts of Spain or Sicily, but also “pagan” territories in Eastern Europe such as Prussia, land of conquest for the Teutonic Knights starting at the end of the 12th century. Crusades could even occur at the heart of the Christian West, aimed at heretics, i.e. Christians who failed to respect the official doctrines of the Church of Rome: this was the case for example of the Crusade against the Albigensians in southern France from 1209 to 1229.

Religious or imperial wars?

Furthermore, whereas the Crusades are understood in the West as a holy war inaugurated by the papacy, this religious dimension is not really grasped by the Arabs. Thus the Caliph of Baghdad saw the crusaders merely as mercenaries in the service of Byzantine Emperor Alexios 1 Komnenos (1081–1118) or in the employ of the Fatimids, an Egyptian Shiite dynasty. In his account of the beginnings of the First Crusade, Ibn al-Athir describes Jerusalem as an irrational objective. In his view, the conquest of the Holy Land was an absurdity insofar as North Africa offered the West far more profitable perspectives (at the time, the symbolic value of Jerusalem was much greater in the West than in the Muslim world). In fact, his account makes no mention whatsoever of Pope Urban II.

Relying on his sources, Gabriel Martinez-Gros also offers another interpretation of the goals of the Crusades. While he is, of course, not the first to demonstrate that the reconquest of Jerusalem was not their sole objective, he believes above all that the religious dimension was actually less important than the papacy’s “imperial memory”. Thus, the West was mostly trying to reconstruct the Roman empire, to reconstitute Mare Nostrum, i.e. the hegemony of Rome in the Mediterranean Basin. It was thus that the Arabs understood and linked together the warring expeditions to Syria, Sicily and the Iberian peninsula. This imperial perspective also enables us better to grasp the key importance of Constantinople for the Crusaders under Frankish control from 1204 to 1261: far from being a simple “side effect” or mere accident of the 4th Crusade, the capture of Constantinople can be understood in terms of the competition between Franks and Byzantines over who could rightfully claim the legacy of the Roman empire.

A very minor threat to the Arabs

Finally, while the Crusades have a key role in our medieval history, De l’autre côté des croisades enables us to place our priorities in perspective. In the 11th century, when the first crusaders landed in the Middle East, it was the vast conflict between Shiites and Sunni which held the main attention of Muslims. Fot Ibn Khaldûn, the Franks were only one force among others (Berbers, Turks, Mongols) all trying to take advantage of the weakness of the Islamic Empire to enlarge their territories and seize new resources. By comparison, the loss of human life inflicted by the Crusaders was on the whole relatively moderate. In volume 5 of his great work, The Book of Examples, very little space is devoted to the Crusades. The major threat to the Islamic empire came in fact from the East and was personified by the Mongols: after having massacred the ruling Abassides dynasty and exterminated the population of Baghdad in 1258, followed by that of Aleppo in 1260, they relegated Islam to the outer reaches of their new empire which had Beijing for its centre. In the last analysis, the Crusades to the Holy Land had no significant effect beyond Syria and Egypt, while Iran and Iraq, the heart of Muslim power, remained totally unconcerned.

1Ibn al-Athir (1160–1223), a contemporary of the Third Crusade (1189–1192) who spent most of his life in Mosul, and Ibn Khaldûn (1332–1406), a writer of a later era who acted as advisor to many Muslim princes and whose writings are celebrated to this very day.