The Many Myths of the Term ‘Crusader’

19th-century painting of the 1177 Battle of Montgisard by Charles-Philippe Larivière
The term “Crusade” has always been an anachronism—a way of looking back at complex, often disconnected movements with a wide array of motivations, membership, tactics and results and organizing them into a single coherent theology or identity. Pictured: A 19th-century painting of the 1177 Battle of Montgisard by Charles-Philippe Larivière Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In the middle of October, a diver off the coast of Israel resurfaced with a spectacular find: a medieval sword encrusted with marine life but otherwise in remarkable condition. He immediately turned the weapon over to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). Two days later, before the artifact had been cleaned or definitively dated, the government agency released a statement in which IAA inspector Nir Distelfeld said, “The sword, which has been preserved in perfect condition, is a beautiful and rare find and evidently belonged to a Crusader knight.” The news rocketed around the world, with dozens of outlets, including the New York Times, the Washington PostSmithsonian magazine and NPR, hailing the find as a Crusader sword.

In truth, we know very little about the artifact. Archaeology is slow, careful work, and it may be some time before scholars glean any definitive information about the sword. But the international news cycle whirred to life, attaching a charged adjective—Crusader—to a potentially unrelated object. In doing so, media coverage revealed the pervasive reach of this (surprisingly) anachronistic term, which gained traction in recent centuries as a way for historians and polemicists to lump disparate medieval conflicts into an overarching battle between good and evil, Christianity and Islam, civilization and barbarism.

The Many Myths of the Term 'Crusader'
The so-called Crusader sword recovered by a diver off the coast of Israel in mid-October Shlomi Katzin / Israel Antiquities Authority

Although some scholars (including one of the authors of this piece) have argued that we need to do away with the term “Crusades” entirely, most understandably still feel it has value as a category description of a group of complex, interrelated series of Christian holy wars. But the term should never stand alone as an explanation in and of itself. Crusades were waged by Christians against Muslims, Jews and fellow Christians. They were launched in the Middle East, in the Baltic, in Italy, in France and beyond. In the case of the newly discovered sword, we must remember that not every person in the Middle Ages who traversed the seas off the coast of what’s now Israel was a Christian, and not every person who was a Christian at that time was a “Crusader.” By claiming the weapon as a Crusader artifact, the IAA has framed the find (and the period of the sword’s creation) as one of intractable violence and colonialist pretensions.

But the past is messier than that.

The term Crusades, as it’s understood by most modern audiences, refers to a series of religious wars fought by Muslim and Christian armies between 1095 and 1291. It’s a long and fascinating story, dramatized in games, movies and novels and argued about by historians like us. The basics are clear, but the significance is contested. In 1095, Pope Urban II delivered a sermon that launched a disorganized series of campaigns to conquer the city of Jerusalem; against all odds (and in no small part because the various Muslim-ruled states of the area were so disorganized), the city fell to conquering armies from Europe in 1099. Victorious leaders promptly divided up the territory into a small group of principalities that modern European historians have often called the “Crusader states.”

The Many Myths of the Term 'Crusader'
Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont in 1095 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Crusading, or the idea of taking a holy vow to engage in military activity in exchange for spiritual reward, was refined over the next century, redirected to apply to whoever the pope decided might be an enemy of the faith (polytheists and Orthodox Christians in the north, Muslims in Iberia, heretics or rival European Christian powers in France and Italy). In the Middle East, Jerusalem fell back into Islamic hands with the conquest of the city by the famed sultan Saladin in 1187. The last “Crusader” principality on the eastern Mediterranean coast, based out of the city of Acre, fell to the Mamluk ruler Baibars in 1291.

The Crusades weren’t the only events happening during these two centuries in either the Middle East or Europe. Relatively few people were, in fact, Crusaders, and not everything that fell into the eastern Mediterranean Sea during this period was a Crusader artifact. The habit of referring to the “era of the Crusades,” or calling the petty kingdoms that formed, squabbled and fell in these years the “Crusader states,” as if they had some kind of unified identity, is questionable at best. Inhabitants of this part of the Middle East and North Africa were incredibly diverse, with not only Christians, Muslims and Jews but also multiple forms of each religion represented. People spoke a range of languages and claimed wildly diverse ethnic or extended family identities. These groups were not simply enclaves of fanatically religious warriors, but rather part of a long, ever-changing story of horrific violence, cultural connection and hybridity.

The Many Myths of the Term 'Crusader'
A painting of the 1291 siege of Acre Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

When Stephennie Mulder, now an expert on Islamic art history at the University of Texas at Austin, was in graduate school in the early 2000s, she took part in a dig searching for Roman artifacts in Tel Dor, Israel. “At that time,” she says, “anything medieval was automatically just called … ‘Crusader.’” Mulder, who was already thinking about focusing on medieval archaeology within Muslim-ruled states, says, “I was floored by that.” The team unearthed a number of ceramics—important artifacts, but not what the excavation was looking for. Instead, the objects clearly belonged to the period of the Islamic Mamluk sultanate. They were “kind of just put into a box [and] called ‘Crusader,’” says Mulder. “I don’t know if [the box] was ever looked at again.” She adds, “In calling this period ‘Crusader,’ Israeli archaeology had, in some ways, aligned itself with a European colonial narrative about the Middle East” that privileged the experience of Europeans over those of locals.

Whether the decision to center this discovery within this frame was conscious or unconscious is difficult to discern. The term “Crusade” has always been an anachronism—a way of looking back at complex, often disconnected movements with a wide array of motivations, membership, tactics and results and organizing them into a single coherent theology or identity. As Benjamin Weber of Stockholm University explains, the phrase “opened the way to complete assimilation of wars fought against different enemies, in varied places and often for similar reasons. … [It] took on a legitimizing function. Any contested action could be justified by dubbing it a ‘crusade.’ It, therefore, became a word used to wield power and silence denouncers.”

The Many Myths of the Term 'Crusader'
Commissioned by Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, a great-nephew of Pope Alexander VIII, this 17th-century tapestry was part of a series of 15 depicting a romanticized version of the Christians’ First Crusade into Jerusalem. Public domain via Metropolitan Museum of Art

The word “Crusade” came into use late, long after medieval Christian holy wars began. The Latin word crucesignatus, or “one marked by the cross,” first appeared in the early 1200s, more than a century after Urban II’s call to action in 1095. In English, “Crusade” and “Crusader” don’t appear until around 1700; by the 1800s, the term—defined broadly as a military campaign in defense of one’s faith—had become a convenient way for Victorian historians to mark the past as a battle between what they saw as good and evil, represented respectively by Christianity and Islam. These claims worked especially well as supposed historical justification for contemporary European colonialism, which used rhetoric like “The White Man’s Burden” to paint land grabs as civilizing crusades against “uncivilized” non-Westerners.

Today, the terms “Crusader” and “Crusade” latch onto a nostalgic vision of the past, one that suggests there was a millennia-long clash of civilizations between Islam and Christianity (or “the West”). This is what we have elsewhere called a “rainbow connection”—an attempt to leap over intervening history back to the Middle Ages. But as we argue in our new history of medieval Europe, The Bright Ages, the Crusades weren’t waged solely against Muslims. More importantly, the Crusades ended, ushering in a period of independence and interdependence between Europe and the Middle East. To use the term “Crusader” uncritically for an archaeological discovery in the Middle East is to suggest that the Crusades were the most important thing that happened in the region during the medieval era. That’s just not that case.

Preview thumbnail for 'The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe

Instead of labeling all potentially relevant finds “Crusader,” historians must develop terminology that accurately reflects the people who inhabited the Middle East around the 12th century. A potential alternative is “Frankish,” which appears routinely in medieval Arabic sources and can be a useful “generalized term for [medieval] Europeans,” according to Mulder. It initially had pejorative connotations, being “kind of synonymous with a bunch of unwashed barbarians,” she says. “But as there come to be these more sophisticated relationships, it just becomes a term to refer to Europeans.”

This new phrasing is a start, Mulder adds, but even “Frankish” has its problems. Between the 11th and 13th centuries, “hybridity [in the region] is the norm. The fact that another kind of group [establishes itself in the same area] is just part of the story of everything. It’s always someone. … If it’s not the Seljuks, it’s the Mongols, it’s the Mamluks. It’s you name it.” Mulder isn’t denying that medieval kingdoms were different, but she argues first and foremost that difference was the norm. “I sometimes think that the Crusades looms so large in the European imagination that we tend to give them more of a space in the history of that period than they really deserve,” she says.

The Many Myths of the Term 'Crusader'
Émile Signol’s 19th-century painting of the 1099 conquest of Jerusalem Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

We’ll likely never really know who specifically owned the newly discovered sword. Objects have lives of their own, and the weapon’s journey from ship to ocean floor may not have been its first voyage. But attaching the “Crusader” adjective to the sword matters a great deal because it reveals our own modern assumptions about the object, the region’s past and the people who lived there.

An item like a sword has value. It’s forged with the intention of being passed from hand to hand, taken as plunder, given as a gift or handed down to heirs. In the Middle Ages as a whole, but perhaps especially in this corner of the Mediterranean, objects, people and ideas moved across borders all the time. Let’s celebrate the recovery of this artifact, study it, learn what we can and let it speak to us. Let’s not speak on the past’s behalf with our own modern preconceptions, nor lock in the sword’s identity as a symbol of religious violence. It’s a medieval sword, perhaps of Frankish design. We’ll know more about it soon. For now, let that be enough.

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