By Mike Horswell
In the twenty-first century the crusades keep cropping up in popular culture, politics and terrorist propaganda. From President George W. Bush’s infamous invocation after the 9/11 attacks that ‘This crusade… this war on terrorism is going to take awhile’ to ISIS’ claims (echoing Al-Qaeda) that Western soldiers and politicians are modern-day crusaders, crusading rhetoric and imagery continues to appear in the modern world. But why?
The medieval expeditions were hundreds of years ago and the socio-political conditions which spawned them are long past; moreover, the First Crusade aside, they were staggeringly unsuccessful in their own terms. Ever since their inception they have commanded the attention of commentators and historians who have sought to articulate the legacy and shape the memory of the events, figures and places caught up in the history of the crusades.
Increasingly the crusades possess contemporary resonance – but it is also apparent that that resonance is uneven. For some the crusades represent everything that is wrong with religion – or Western religion; for others, the crusades are still examples of romantic and chivalrous zeal, or a justified defence of ‘Western civilisation’. Engaging the Crusades provides a place to dig deeper into these contradictory responses and resonances and ask ‘what do the crusades mean today’?
It is to provide possible answers to the questions of their varied and broad legacy, enduring popularity, and the nature of the shape of their memory, that the series Engaging the Crusades was founded by Professor Jonathan Phillips and myself. Beginning with a conference in 2015 we sought to provide a ‘surface area’ where examples of modern uses of the crusades could be brought together and critically evaluated by experts from a number of fields. By the summer of 2020 we will have published four volumes, with a further four in the pipeline.
These volumes feature historians (both medievalists and modernists), scholars of terrorism, digital games, art history, religion and education among a gallery of experts assembled to explore the topic. We wanted to cast the scope of the subject broadly but also to encourage a range of contributors and different forms of involvement. As well as essays by established and senior academics we have included contributions from postgraduate students and independent scholars – to the benefit of the series. While most of the volumes are thematic essay collections, one is a monograph and another the publication of an international survey of scholars working on the crusades as to the perceptions of crusading in their countries.
The topics covered illustrate this breadth. In the first volume, Jonathan Phillips considered the nineteenth-century memory of Saladin in the Near East, demonstrating that while it may have enjoyed a renaissance in the twentieth-century Saladin was not forgotten in the East. Additionally, Felix Hinz documented the use of Holy War imagery in German First World War postcards, Elizabeth Siberry pointed out the importance of trying to establish how books on the crusades were received in her study of library loans of nineteenth-century crusade historians, and my chapter sought to connect British chivalric and imperial uses of crusading in children’s literature.
The second volume included Akil N. Awan’s analysis of crusading rhetoric in ISIS propaganda, Phil James’ case study of a Mexican Templar-themed drug cartel, Marco Giardini’s evaluation of the fracture in twentieth-century Catholic perceptions of the crusades, and Rachael Pymm’s chapter on crusading stamps. Also included were my chapter on what Wikipedia thinks the crusades were, and Hilary Rhodes’ survey of crusader medievalism in the US since 9/11.
The first two volumes contain historiographical essays by Kristin Skottki and Susanna Throop respectively, which consider the ‘state of the field’ of crusader studies; both are fascinating reflections by practicing historians on their own craft. Skottki called on historians to ‘relentlessly’ historicise perceptions of the crusades that are current today to demonstrate their history, while Throop asked crusade scholars to consider their own research, writing and teaching in the contexts of white supremacist appropriation of crusading rhetoric and imagery.
The third and fourth volumes were published in July 2020. The third – ‘Controversial Histories’ represents the culmination of a long-term project by Felix Hinz and Johannes Meyer-Hamme into international perceptions of the crusades today with contributions from over twenty-five countries. Analysed by the editors, the responses are published in full, and present an invaluable foundation for further work. Edited by myself and Kristin Skottki, the fourth volume seeks to interrogate the processes by which figures from the crusades are deemed heroes or villains. It includes studies of Tancred’s reputation (especially shaped by Torquato Tasso’s sixteenth-century epic poem) by Francesca Petrizzo, and a consideration of the oft-forgotten Queen Melisende of Jerusalem by Danielle Park through a recent literary depiction. On the villainous front, John D. Cotts and Marianne M. Gilchrist survey modern representations of Reynald of Châtillon and Conrad of Montferrat respectively, illustrating their plasticity.
The final three chapters contribute further fresh approaches to the topic: I take the memory of Richard the Lionheart and Saladin as a dyad, rather than separating their memories; Elizabeth Siberry looks at the uses of the crusading king St Louis in Britain and Ireland rather than his native France; and illustrating the changeable yet material nature of memory, Carole Hillenbrand presents a brand new translation of the bronze wreath laid by Kaiser Wilhelm II at Saladin’s tomb in Damascus in 1898.
Future additions to the series will include Elizabeth Siberry’s volume on family memories of crusaders in the UK, a volume looking at crusading video games, and two volumes dedicated to the phenomenon of far-right appropriations of the crusades. Together these eclectic contributions demonstrate the breadth of crusader medievalism – the use of the crusades and crusading rhetoric and imagery – and represent the establishment of important groundwork in this emerging area of interest. We’re very much open to ideas for new volumes, whether short monographs of 45,000 words or edited collections.
Mike Horswell received his PhD from Royal Holloway and is the author of The Rise and Fall of British Crusader Medievalism, c.1825–1945. You can follow him on Twitter @mjhorswell