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History of the Crusades

  • Historiography and Themes of Research

    Benjamin Weber, 28 July 2020

    Kindly translated by Susan Egdington

    It has never really lapsed, but interest in the history of the crusades has always seen periodic revivals linked to contemporary preoccupations: anxieties arising from the Ottoman conquests of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, or European colonisation at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. Since the start of the 1990s, the intensification of conflicts in the Middle East and questions about the place of Islam in Western societies have revived the interest of researchers in Europe and the United States. Historiographically predominant before the middle of the twentieth century, military history tends to let other approaches set the pace, in terms of religious history, historical anthropology, or global and/or connected history. As Dominique Valérian has already supplied a general survey of the crusades, this is an attempt to highlight the principal aspects of this abundant bibliography (which is variable in its value and novelty) that are connected to military history, without claiming to be exhaustive.

    Historiographical High Stakes

    C. Tyerman (2011) recently produced a sound historiographical survey. The following paragraphs are restricted to highlighting links between some major trends and military history.

    Crusade and Identity

    In the nineteenth century, the history of the crusades asserted itself in a double context: the elaboration of a disciplinary method, and the construction of nations and competition between them. If German historiography was dominated by the first (R. Röhricht, H. Hagenmeyer), French works were strongly stamped with the second. The history of the crusades sought to produce tales of conquering heroes, individual or collective, aiming to spread the greatness of their nation across the world. Above all the crusades were seen as a military activity, parallel with or precursor to European colonisations. Some of these works still remain important, for example the studies of P. Riant and the ‘Société de l’Orient Latin’ (founded in 1875) or, later, those of R. Grousset. More recently a number of researchers have sought to emphasise the participation of other ‘nations’ in crusading: Italy (A. Musarra); Denmark (J. M. Jensen); Poland (M. Gladysz); Cyprus (P. Edbury)… Less centred on military history and less marked by the nationalism of warfare, these works emphasise the tension that exists between universalist claims for crusading and regional and national interests.
    The question of identity is at the heart of the history of the crusades. Many analyses are too ideological, reducing the movement to Christanity fighting Islam. These must be of course put to one side. Several other studies, whatever their scale, have shown how the crusade contributed to the construction of medieval identities by defining ‘self’ in comparison to ‘other’, whether Muslim, heretic, Jew or Eastern Christian. This approach is more anthropological, but war and battle remain important, indeed fundamental, as both occasions and means for the formation of these identities.

    Origins and Development of the Idea of Crusade

    C. Erdmann’s groundbreaking work opened the question of the origins and formation of the idea of crusade and so of the degree of novelty of the appeal of 1095. For a long time the subject remained at the the heart of investigations (M. Villey) and it led to several surveys at the end of the twentieth century: on the sacralisation of warfare by the Church (J. Flori, 2001); the place of crusading for arms bearers (M. Bull, 1993); and the gradual construction of the ideology of the crusade (C. Tyerman, 1998). Less seminal today, these questions are still being examined from new angles, such as the presence of religious during battles (E. Lapina), or the perception of crusading by the crusaders themselves (S. Throop).

    Definition(s) of Crusade

    These works have likewise raised the question of the relationship between crusading and other forms of holy war, and so of the very definition of crusade itself: on this, see the survey article by Daniel Baloup, ‘De l’usage de la croisade et de la guerre sainte au Moyen Âge’. The question is rarely discussed in research today, and the traditional divide between traditionalist and pluralist interpretations appears increasingly artificial. It seems to be accepted that the Church or the lay powers tried to expand crusading to several other fronts, but research has become more interested in close comparisons of the realities of these different theatres of war and in their chronology, their expansion, and reception of this expansion. Thus crusading appears to be a European movement, but it is important to be aware of the particularity of the different fronts. Detailed studies have been numerous: on Iberia, on Occitania (E. Graham-Leigh, M. Meschini) or northern Europe (I. Fonnesberg-Schmidt, A. Murray, 2000) but comparative assessments remain less common (W. Purkis, T. Kjersgaard Nielsen and I. Fonnesberg-Schmidt).

    Some Themes of Current Research

    Reducing the wealth and diversity of current research to a few themes and titles will necessarily be a subjective and imperfect undertaking. The four-volume encyclopaedia edited by A. Murray, 2005, offers thematic entries that will augment the points touched on here.

    Military and Logistical History

    Discredited as ‘the history of battles’, military history was neglected by scholarship for half a century: the works of J. Pryor on naval matters and J. France on the First Crusade were out on their own for a long time. The renewal of interest in military history has touched only belatedly on the history of the crusades, and surveys have struggled to emerge from the many but disparate articles. R. Smail’s book, already old, has been complemented by that of C. Marshall: both are focused on battle tactics in the Holy Land. Strategy, as already examined for later periods (A. Lepold, S. Stantchev), is of more and more interest for researchers with a growing interest in problems of logistics (J. Roche on the Second Crusade, X. Hélary on that of Louis IX), or siegecraft (a great number of articles, not superseded by Fulton’s work). Investigations of sacrality have focused on combat and combatants rather than on war itself (E. Lapina, H. Nicholson). Recent studies of war in the Muslim world (M. Eychenne and A. Zouache) have allowed a rethink of knowledge transfer between western and eastern armies but without, in this case too, there being any work of synthesis undertaken.
    On the other hand, the proliferation of archaeological investigations has allowed an important renewal of the study of castles, especially reflections on construction techniques and on systems of defensive fortifications in the Latin States and among the Muslims, and exchanges between these worlds (on this see the bibliographical references of the websites Forteresses d’Orient or Crusader Castles or certain sites that have been the subject of particular excavations, such as that at Montfort by A. Boas).

    The Military Orders

    The religious Military Orders have experienced a far-reaching renewal in the last quarter-century that can be appreciated by consulting the dictionary edited by N. Bériou and Ph. Josserand. Work has not stopped since then in many different areas, many of them closely linked to military history: the Orders’ warlike spirituality; their logistical organisation to supply the front in the Levant; the management of the Orders’ States in Prussia, Rhodes and Malta; the evolution of strategy; and in particular the concept of the Military Orders as the Holy Land’s standing army, or the naval war conducted by the Hospital… This vitality manifests itself in regular conferences, especially the quadrennial ones organised at Palmela by the Gabinete de Estudos sobre a Ordem de Santiago and at London by the London Centre for the Study of the Crusades, Military Religious Orders and the Latin East, and the biennial one organised at Torùn. All result in periodic publications.

    The Society of Outremer

    Debate on the nature of the society established by the Franks in the Holy Land goes back to the nineteenth century and was revisited by several writers in the years between 1950 and 1970, particularly J. Richard, J. Prawer and J. Riley-Smith (1973); their positions were discussed more recently by R. Ellenblum. These works were written in contexts that were preoccupied by the colonial question (in Europe and even more in Israel), and they raise sensitive issues, still today: the originality of the society of Outremer compared with western feudalism; the roles of its different components (knights, burgesses, peasants); the settlement of the Franks in the Holy Land and their enhancement of the territory; their relations with local populations (Muslim, Jews or Eastern Christians). The proliferation of detailed studies – extending to the totality of Frankish communities, in the Levant, in Greece, Armenia, Egypt … and taking into account recent contributions from archaeology, both of Frankish and of Arabic sites – should allow a fresh look, divorced as far as it can be from ideological questions, at questions closely tied to military history, given the context of the establishment and maintenance of these societies.
    The relations maintained by these societies with the West were not restricted to the eight crusades officially enumerated: in reality they were permanent, with the regular arrival of pilgrims, merchants, and knights very often pressed into service for military campaigns. This close and continuous link between East and West remains little studied, despite the work of J. Riley-Smith (1997) and J. Phillips.

    Crusading and Gender History

    Although a number of detailed studies have been devoted to the role of women in the crusades, the insights developed by gender history have revived the the subject over the last two decades, in particular with the works of S. Edgington and S. Lambert, S. Geldsetzer, and N. Hodgson. These works are often concerned directly with military history, whether it is the depiction of women in battle, the roles of women in armies or, conversely, the construction of an image of masculinity in the role of combatant.

    New Sources and New Approaches

    Research has also undergone a renewal as a result of the examination of new sources. As already mentioned, taking account of archaeological evidence remains fundamental, even if it is made difficult by the political situation in a number of Middle Eastern countries (but there are numerous excavation programmes in Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt …) and by the recurrent problem of the availability of excavation reports.
    Literary sources have also been subject to re-examination recently: L. Paterson, L. Chollet and A. Bale have presented interesting surveys that develop ideas around the reception of crusades and the transmission of their memory. A similar perspective has encouraged the reconsideration of more traditional sources, notably narrative histories, in terms of their transmission, utilisation, and the construction of memory of crusading. The works of J. Flori (2010) and M. Bull (2018) on the early crusades, or P. Handyside on the Old French Eracles version of William of Tyre (2015), are echoed in the analysis of memories of the crusades by N. Paul (2012) and M. Cassidy Welch (2016, 2019). The same approach can be applied to visual sources: old studies of manuscript illumination have been renewed, notably in the collection edited by E. Lapina (2015), but it is a field of study that is largely still to be explored. Although these works have above all stemmed from social history, they draw inspiration from research into contemporary history on the experience of war in the way they deal with the memory of warfare and how this served for the construction of chivalric identity.

    List of Works Cited

    This is not a complete bibliography, nor even a list of the most important reference books for the history of the crusades. It is simply a list of the works cited in the article, brought together here for ease of reference.
    • A. Bale, The Cambridge companion to Literature of the Crusades, Cambridge, 2019
    • N. Bériou and P. Josserand, Prier et combattre. Dictionnaire européen des ordres militaires au Moyen Âge, Paris, 2009
    • M. Bull, Knightly Piety and the Lay Response to the First Crusade: The Limousin and Gascony, ca. 910-c. 1130, New-York, 1993
    • M. Bull, Eyewitness and Crusade Narrative: Perception and Narration in Accounts of the Second, Third and Fourth Crusades, Woodbridge, 2018
    • M. Cassidy-Welch, Remembering the Crusades and Crusading, Routledge, 2016
    • M. Cassidy-Welch, War and Memory at the Time of the Fifth Crusade, Routledge, 2019
    • L. Chollet, Les Sarrasins du Nord. Une histoire de la croisade balte par la littérature (XIIe-XVe siècle), Genève, 2019
    • P. Edbury, The Kingdom of Cyprus and the Crusdes, 1191-1374, Cambridge, 1991
    • S. Edgington and S. Lambert (ed.), Gendering the Crusades, Cardiff, 2001
    • R. Ellenblum, Frankish Rural Settlement in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, Cambridge, 1999
    • C. Erdmann, Die Enstehung des Kreuzzugsgedanken, Stuttgart, 1935
    • M. Eychelle et A. Zouache, La guerre dans le Proche Orient médiéval. État de la question, lieux communs, nouvelles approches, Le Caire, 2015
    • J. Flori, La guerre sainte. La formation de l’idée de croisade dans l’Occident chrétien, Paris, 2001
    • J. Flori, Chroniqueurs et propagandistes. Introduction critique aux sources de la première croisade, Paris, 2010
    • I. Fonnesberg-Schmidt, The Popes and the Baltic Crusades, 1147-1254, Leiden, 2007
    • J. France, Victory in the East. A Military History of the First Crusade, Cambridge, 1994
    • M. Fulton, Artillery in the Era of the Crusades. Siege warfare and the Development of Trebuchet Technology, Leiden, 2018
    • S. Geldsetzer, Frauen auf Kreuzzügen, 1096-1291, Darmstadt, 2003
    • R. Grousset, Histoire des croisades et du royaume Franc de Jérusalem, Paris, 1931
    • M. Gladysz, The Forgotten Crusaders: Poland and the Crusader Movement in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, Leiden, 2012
    • E. Graham Leigh, The Southern French Nobility and the Albigensian Crusade, Woodbridge, 2005
    • P. Handyside, The Old French William of Tyre, Leiden, 2015
    • H. Hagenmeyer, Die Kreuzzugsbriefe aus den Jahren 1088-1100, Innsbruck, 1901
    • X. Hélary, La dernière croisade, Paris, 2016
    • N. Hodgson, Women, Crusading and the Holy Land in Historical Narratives, Woodbridge, 2007
    • J. M. Jensen, Denmark and the Crusades. 1400-1650, Leiden, 2007
    • T. Kjersgaard Nielsen and I. Fonnesberg-Schmidt (ed.), Crusading on the Edge: Ideas and Practice of Crusading in Iberia and the Baltic Region, 1100-1500, Turnhout, 2017
    • E. Lapina (ed.), The Crusades and Visual Culture, Routledge, 2015
    • E. Lapina, Warfare and the Miraculous in the Chronicles of the First Crusade, University Park, 2015
    • A. Léopold, How to recover the Holy Land? The Crusade Proposals of the Late Thirteenth and Early Fourteenth Centuries, Aldershot, 2000
    • C. Marshall, Warfare in the Latin East, 1192–1291, Cambridge, 1992
    • M. Meschini, Innocenzo III e il “negotium pacis et fidei” in Linguadoca tra il 1209 e il 1215, Rome, 2007
    • A. Murray (ed.), The Crusades. An Encyclopedia, Santa Barbara, 2006
    • A. Murray (ed.), The North-Eastern Frontiers of Medieval Europe: The Expansion of Latin Christendom in the Baltic Lands, Routledge, 2000
    • A. Musara (ed.), Gli Italiani e la Terrasanta, Florence, 2014
    • H. Nicholson, Love, War and the Grail: Templars, Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights in Medieval Epic and Romance, 1150-1500, Leiden, 2000
    • L. Paterson, Singing the Crusades. French and Occitan Lyric Responses to the Crusading Movements, 1137-1336, Cambridge, 2018
    • N. Paul, To Follow in Their Footsteps. The Crusades and Family Memory in the High Middle Ages,Ithaca, 2012
    • J. Phillips, Defenders of the Holy Land: Relations between the Latin East and the West, 1119-1187, Oxford, 1996
    • J. Prawer, Histoire du royaume Latin de Jérusalem, Paris, 1969-70
    • J. Pryor, Logistics and Warfare in the Age of Crusades, Londres, 2006
    • W. Purkis, Crusading Spirituality in the Holy Land and Iberia, c. 1095-c. 1187, Woodbridge, 2014
    • J. Richard, Le royaume latin de Jérusalem, Paris, 1953
    • J. Riley Smith, The Feudal Nobility and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, 1174–1277, Londres, 1973
    • J. Riley Smith, The First Crusaders, 1095-1131, Cambridge, 1997
    • J. Roche, Conrad III and the Second Crusade in the Byzantine Empire and Anatolia, 1147, PhD thesis, University of St Andrews, 2008
    • R. Röhricht, Quinti Belli sacri scriptores minores, Genève, 1879
    • R. Smail, Crusading warfare, 1099-1193, Cambridge, 1957 [2nd rev. edn, 2008]
    • S. Stantchev, Spiritual rationality. Papal embargo as cultural practice, Oxford, 2014
    • S. Throop, Crusading as an Act of Vengeance, 1095-1216, Farnham, 2011
    • C. Tyerman, The Invention of the Crusades, Basingstoke, 1998
    • C. Tyerman, The Debate on the Crusades, 1099-2010, Manchester, 2011
    • M. Villey, La croisade. Essai sur la formation d’une théorie juridique, Caen, 1942


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  • Online Resources

    Benjamin Weber, 28 July 2020

    Kindly translated by Susan Egdington

    Bibliographical Resources

    These days no research facility has the time and money necessary to confront the task of sorting through and selecting to compile a serious and up-to-date bibliography of the crusades. The many attempts available online are mostly guides for students in the context of a specific university course, and so they remain limited and rarely updated.
    • Several bibliographical works have been edited (notably by Atiya in 1962 and McLellan and Hazard in 1989) and can be accessed online. Because of their age they should not be used as a first approach but kept back to a later stage of more advanced research when they can bring to light forgotten works.
    • In contrast, Paul Halsall’s online bibliography is suitable for a first approach to a subject and its sources: it was updated in 2019 but it restricts its coverage to works in English.
    • A little older, the bibliography started by Luigi Rosso for the site Reti medievali (2014) has the merit of including works in French and Italian.
    • On the same site, Marco Meschini brought together an exhaustive bibliography for the Albigensian Crusade, but this was in 2005 and there has been considerable research on the subject since.
    The Crusades, a six-volume history edited by the university of Wisconsin starting in 1968, can be consulted online. It is a bit old-fashioned in its ideas and explanations but is still useful for a chronological framework and for its references to sources (replace "one" in the adress by "two"... for successive volumes).

    Although it is impossible to keep up to date with the great number of recent publications, an attempt can be made by consulting certain specific resources:
    • The site De re militari of the Society for Medieval Military History offers quite a number of reviews of recent works, many of them concerning the crusades.
    • The Society for the Study of the Crusades and the Latin East website has been redesigned recently and is still relatively poor. Nevertheless, there is a useful page on ‘archaeological and field reseach projects’. For members’ publications, it’s necessary to refer to the society’s Bulletin (1981-2001) and from 2002 to the annual periodical Crusades where they are collected on a self-reporting basis. Crusades also publishes reviews of relevant publications.

    Primary Sources

    • The internet Medieval Sourcebook created by Paul Halsall and curated on the Fordham University website (New York) records a great number of texts in English on the crusades, both standard texts and rarer ones, with the source accurately indicated. Being of a certain age, it does not take into account the last 30 years, and it is restricted to English translations. Although it is very useful for teaching, therefore, it has less value for research.
    • The same goes for the (much smaller) collection of sources presented on De re militari, the Society for Medieval Military History website.
    • The Online Medieval Sources Bibliography acts as a portal with a ‘search’ function that redirects researchers to published sources (whether or not they are available on the internet). Necessarily incomplete, it is nevertheless regularly updated and it allows references to be located with ease (multiple searches are possible, by date, author, type of source …).
    • The Recueil des historiens des croisades is a monumental collection begun in 1833 which comprises 6 volumes of western histories; 2 of the laws of Jerusalem; 5 of oriental historians; 2 of Greek, and 2 of Armenian documents. The publication is open to criticism, notably on the grounds that the collation of manuscripts was very incomplete, but it remains essential, if only because many of the texts have not been re-edited since. The whole collection is easily accessible online via Gallica or Internet Archive (see the wikipedia page for the collection for all the links). The Internet Archive version is searchable.
    • The Société de l’Orient Latin published the Archives de l’Orient Latin (AOL, 2 vols, 1881-4) and then the Revue de l’Orient Latin (ROL, 12 vols, 1893-1911) that brought together a great number of sources. All the volumes can be consulted via Internet Archive (ROL, AOL) and the 9 first of ROL on Gallica.
    • The Revised Regesta Regni Hierosolymitani collects the charters of the kingdom of Jerusalem, building on the work published by R. Röhricht in 1893 and revised under the direction of the late Jonathan Riley-Smith and Benjamin Z. Kedar.
    • The project led by Linda Paterson at the University of Warwick, Troubadours, Trouvères and the Crusades, oversaw the publication online of French and Occitan crusade songs (sometimes translated into English, and it is even possible to listen to a vocal performance), and bibliographical pointers. The project finished in 2016; it’s not kept up-to-date but remains functional.
    • Several ancient editions have not been replaced and remain indispensable. For example: J. Bongars, Gesta Dei per Francos, 1611, vol.1 and vol. 2; R. Röhricht, Quinti Belli sacri scriptores minores, 1879 and Testimonia minora de quinto bello sacro, 1882 (Internet Archive); G. Raynaud, Les Gestes des Chiprois, 1887; H. Hagenmeyer, Die Kreuzzugsbriefe aus den Jahren 1088–1100, 1901…

    Other Resources

    • The Crusader Database is a work in progress that aims to compile an inventory of crusaders who left for the Holy Land, based on their appearance in the sources. It currently contains approx. 1100 entries, mainly for the First and Second Crusades and identified from the narrative sources. References to these sources are precise, but the bibliography is often slight and not up to date.
    • The French of Outremer Project led by Nicholas Paul at Fordham aims to be a catalogue of studies on texts produced in French in the Holy Land.
    • The Crusade project of the university of Rochester provides a list of litterary texts (in English) inspired by the crusades since the Middle Ages. Texts are analysed and commented with links to existing on-line publications as often as possible.
    • The Oxford Outremer Map Project (Fordham University) offers an interactive version of Matthew Paris’s thirteenth-century map of the Holy Land: each place name and symbol can be interrogated for explanations and bibliography.
    • The Forteresses d’Orient site of Maxime Goepp has a map, description and numerous photographs of more than 200 medieval fortified sites, from Turkey to Egypt and Cyprus and a link to ‘sources’ that is regularly updated. This information may be complemented by that on The Fortifications of the Crusader Period, a portal to the database CHASTEL that has the ambition to record all the fortifications in the Latin East with exact bibliographical references. So far it has reached letter A, which already contains almost 50 entries.
    • The Bearers of the Cross website is curated by William Purkis, arising from a collaborative project between Birmingham University and the Museum of the Order of St John. It explores the material culture of the crusades and provides an open-access database of the medieval collection of the museum.


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