On the uses of the Crusades

Christopher Tyerman describes a (contradictory) story the Enlightenment liked to tell itself.



Christopher Tyerman describes a (contradictory) story the Enlightenment liked to tell itself.


During the Enlightenment – late 17th, 18th century – the Crusades were fastened upon as examples of religious superstition, of barbarism, of an irrational lack of reason; unreason, because it was seen to be absurd. This involved, of course, a reinterpretation of what religion was. Our understanding of religion is certainly a post-Reformation, but also a post-Enlightenment construct. It’s got nothing to do with how people in the Middle Ages viewed religion. If you said to somebody in the Middle Ages, are you religious? It’s like asking somebody today, do you breathe? And they would say, well, of course. They could be sceptical about the details of the faith, but not about how the world operated.

So the Crusades are used as an example of superstition and how they, the Enlightenment thinkers, are so much more superior to their predecessors – which, again, is a myth. However, they had a problem because they also, these Enlightenment thinkers also wanted to construct a grand story of European dominance, European progress. How was it that in the 18th century, Europe was increasingly dominating the globe?

So on the one hand, the Crusades were regarded by Enlightenment thinkers as everything that was wrong with the benighted, religion-soaked past; and on the other hand, they had to fit the Crusades into a narrative of progress. And they did this by saying, well, although it was a frightful thing, actually the law of unintended consequences meant that the Crusades opened Europe to the outer world, encouraged trade, contact with a more sophisticated East. This led to the growth of Italian cities, which were the cradles of humanism, which, of course, led inexorably to the Enlightenment.

So the crusade at one hand is seen as barbaric, primitive, superstitious; on the other hand, though, it fits into a metanarrative, as people call it, a big story of the progress of Europe to world domination. Now there’s a tension there, but nonetheless, those two poles actually have determined much of modern perceptions of the Crusades.