Christopher Tyerman suggests that how we interpret the Crusades may say more about us than about history.
Well there’s a series of popular misunderstandings about the Crusades that have got to do with attitudes of the past but also current problems. They are seen as an example of medieval brutality in the name of religion – which seems, in a post-Enlightenment age, rather peculiar. In other parts of the world, they have been rebranded as an example of early Western imperialism and colonialism. And both sides of that equation are false.
Well, in the West the Crusades have been misunderstood, really because they’ve been controversial, certainly since the Reformation, when the whole theology and ideology of the Crusade and the authority of the Pope to launch it – the idea that you fight wars and get remission from sins, time off purgatory, salvation – was challenged by Protestants who thought that this was a load of bunkum, absolute nonsense.
And so it becomes part of a sort of internal Christian culture war, if you like, between different sorts of religious perception and confessional belief. This then pursues into debates about the future of Europe, the past of Europe; how is it that Europe comes from the 16th, 17th, 18th centuries to dominate the globe? How do the Crusades fit into that picture? And this raises questions of the motives of crusaders, the purpose of crusaders, which get changed over time and become part of a discourse about progress during the Enlightenment; nationalism and imperialism in the 19th century; and the nature of collective popular war, and ideology and war, in the 20th century.