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Who Owns the Crusades?

A new book about the medieval holy wars exposes a crisis in the field of history.

British Library

Is there a historical episode less understood by the general public and more urgently in need of clarification than the Crusades? To some on the right, the Crusades prefigured the modern wars that have been cast as “civilizational” clashes, such as the so-called war on terrorism. That stereotype relies upon a yet broader myth, an idea of the Crusades as religious wars waged by Europeans upon Muslims who had robbed the Holy Land, pitting white warriors against brown—then as now. The Crusades myth always contained a noxious seed—inspiration for white nationalism—that has flourished in recent years. The far right is in love with the Knights Templar (a military order of knights who protected pilgrims) and other Crusaders. The chivalric paraphernalia of the Crusades has been repurposed by Trump-supporting hate groups, while rightwing terrorists, from Anders Behring Breivik to the Christchurch shooter, have used their manifestos to bemoan Muslim “invasions” of white culture. The KKK’s newsletter is called The Crusader.

As the Oxford professor Christopher Tyerman observes in his new tome, The World of the Crusades, the idea that the Crusades were a battleground between distinct racial forces is a fantasy dreamed up by modern geopolitical interests. When President Trump, for example, visited Jerusalem in 2017 to recognize it as Israel’s capital, he fulfilled a key campaign promise made to his often fanatical-religious fan base, who saw the move as both scripturally and historically significant. There’s an influential (though delusional) cohort of evangelical Christians who believe that the rebuilding of the Third Temple is a sign of the oncoming apocalypse—an inherently anti-Semitic brand of conspiracy-theory eschatology that nevertheless behooves the interests of Israeli right-wingers and American neoconservatives alike.

Tyerman is far from the first to note these connections: Medieval history has officially become a newsworthy topic in the media, and various medieval specialists have been tapped to correct the historical record, for the record, in the prestige press. But many of them, Tyerman included, miss the internet’s role in this radicalization of history—including its undermining of the Western academy.

Last week The New York Times reported in detail on YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, which is “capable of drawing users deeper into the platform by figuring out ‘adjacent relationships’ between videos that a human would never identify.” The Crusades are a plum example of a topic that turns into a thread, leading the viewer through a labyrinth towards potential radicalization. You can search “Knights Templar” on YouTube and reach conspiracy theories (“Ten Secret Societies Ruling The World”) within three intuitive clicks. 

Crusades-inflected propaganda has become virtually indistinguishable from alt-right memes on Reddit, 8chan, and elsewhere. On YouTube you can find frightening videos like “Deus Vult - The Crusaders In Iraq,” a 2016 video showing armed men in the town of Bartella, holding earth in their hands and proclaiming, “This is our sand!” “Deus Vult,” a Crusading motto meaning “God Wills It” (which historians are not sure anybody actually yelled on any battlefield), is also part of the lingua franca of the extreme online right.

You might think that the sheer weight of Tyerman’s excellent history—all 520 pages and 160 color illustrations and 14 maps—would be the corrective we need to eradicate the nasty myths that have collected around the Crusades like mold. The problem is that the crisis we are facing goes well beyond the confines of Crusades scholarship. There’s no explaining the alt-right’s appropriation of medieval history without an equivalent understanding of the crisis of belief in history—from the academy to the internet, and everywhere in between.

Early on in his book, Tyerman mentions the algorithm. Since it now plays a key role in the spread of historical information and misinformation alike, it seems a good place to start.

Once upon a time, a very clever young man lived in the town of Béjaïa, Algeria. In the twelfth century Béjaïa was part of the mighty Almohad Caliphate, and a bustling port on the Mediterranean trading routes. The young man’s father moved his family there in 1192, so he could take up a job as public notary in a customs office. The son went to school to learn accounting, where he was riveted by math. Ten years later, in Pisa, the young man published a book called the Liber Abaci. It begins: “These are the nine figures of the Indians: 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1. With these nine figures, and with the sign 0 which in Arabic is called zephirum, any number can be written—as will be demonstrated.”

The Liber represents Europe’s first recorded instance of these number-forms, and of the concept of zero. The word is Venetian dialect for the Italian zefiro, from the Latinized Arabic word zephirum, from the Arabic صِفْر‎, meaning “nothing.” The book also records the first European mention of “algebra,” derived from the title of the Hisab Al-Jabr wal Mugabalah (Book of Calculations, Restoration, and Reduction) by the Persian scholar Al Khwarizmi. It also records the first European mention of the word “algorithm,” derived from Al Khwarizmi’s name.

The young man’s name was Fibonacci, and we in the West have been led to understand that he was Italian. But he was more accurately from Pisa, which in the medieval era became an independent maritime trading city due to its vast wealth. The same was true of Venice, Genoa, and others. They were very well-funded powers, with remarkable navies and money to lend. Fibonacci lived in a professional entrepot then called Bugia, not as a warrior or an enemy, but as a regular person and student who respected his teachers.

Fibonacci, whose world straddled the Mediterranean and its multiple cultures, was not an exception. Well before and throughout the battles we call the Crusades, the Mediterranean was an integrated market connecting most of Europe via a string of ports and trading posts, running all the way to the Strait of Hormuz in Iran, which in turn connected to sea trade with India. The rise of the Italian city-states pushed global systems of accounting and banking forward, helping create the vast trading web that would grow tendrils from Britain to Cairo to China over the next hundred years. If the medieval world were truly split down the middle, with Muslims on one side and Christians on the other, fighting holy wars at the place where they met, then the global economy of the time would not have functioned.

The Crusades—or, at least, the Crusades of twentieth century Hollywood and contemporary rightwing lore—never happened. They were a series of wars between people who already knew about each other, lived alongside each other in cosmopolitan cities—though in different configurations in different periods—and had been engaged in various styles of communication for a long time.

The so-called First Crusade began under a specific, local aegis that had little to do with Christ. In 1095, Byzantine Emperor Alexius I requested assistance from Pope Urban II in fighting off the invading Seljuk Turks, a ferocious force of nomadic mounted warriors who had already captured Jerusalem. It may have been a trigger rather than the underlying cause, since the pope agreed so readily: He rapidly issued a call for European knights to help guard its ally from infidel invaders. In 1097, a host of mostly French and German knights and infantry led by noblemen arrived in Asia Minor, where they captured Nicaea. The forces progressed to Antioch, which they only managed to capture because a Turkish traitor opened the gate for them at dawn. They massacred Antioch’s inhabitants. Next stop: Jerusalem. It fell on July 15, 1099.

THE WORLD OF THE CRUSADES by Christopher Tyerman.
Yale University Press, 520pp., $35.00.

This early success gave the European invaders an unrealistically rosy sense of their future prospects. Rumors of miracles and divine intervention spread, and God’s will seemed clear. Shaking off their association with Alexius I, so that European interests could take primacy, the invaders set up set up four new city-states around their conquests, at Jerusalem, Tripoli, Edessa, and Antioch, collectively known as Outremer (French for “beyond the sea”). For the next couple of centuries, those city-states struggled to defend themselves, losing and gaining the same little spots over and over again, while European coalition forces repeatedly returned to help out. Since this happened in roughly six waves, and we look back upon them as heroic and religious wars, we now call them Crusades one, two, three, four, five, and six (with interesting interludes, like the Children’s Crusade).

Religious fervor was a crucial part of recruitment, which spread as far as Norway. Pope Urban II and his inheritors smuggled religious degrees into calls for war and vice versa, building on the writings of Augustine to perpetuate the model of a Christian “holy warrior” who pursues violence in the name of love.  

In reality, there was no spiritual purity to the wars: There were several Crusades against Christians, as when the Fourth Crusade culminated in the sack of Constantinople, the world’s largest Christian city at the time. 

Tyerman’s book ends with the postscript, “Do the Crusades Matter?” The answer must be yes, because fanatical white conservatives the world over are being fed lies, just as their supposed ancestors were fed lies in the medieval era to serve the interests of powerful people. Thousands upon thousands died on the medieval battleground either because they believed it to be spiritually meritorious or because they sought wealth and status abroad. The alt-right really are those knights’ inheritors—but only because they’re swallowing the same destructive propaganda.

At the same time, the actual history of the Crusades has never mattered less, at least in terms of its actual impact on the popular imagination. Professional historians occupy a less influential role in society than ever, as the academic jobs crisis whittles their numbers and their authority drops in the context of the internet. They fight neofascist political cells for authority over the meaning of the past; not a new struggle by any means, but a newly urgent one in the post-9/11 Islamophobic West. Twitter is chock-full of academics who write threads debunking misinformation on the web. But as they write their books and op-ed columns and viral tweets, Nazi-style appropriations of European history in the service of white supremacy bubble up with a new, violent shamelessness (see: “medieval” shields at Charlottesville).

Those neofascist elements are themselves part of the crisis in our moment in history, in which the American government is wobbling under a tinpot, racist, authoritarian-friendly administration.

It is not a coincidence that these distinct types of “history”—from the microscopic work of the archival researcher to the great arc of modernity—would be under threat at the same time. The effects of the internet on historiography cannot be overstated. Anybody approaching a discussion of the past in 2019 is necessarily doing something completely different from their counterparts even 20 years ago. The mega-availability of historical information online to anybody, anywhere, has completely transformed the social role of the people and institutions that previously organized our access to that data: the literate, the learned, the institutional, the rich.

Think of the internet as a vast ocean of written statements. That ocean is not governed by any traditional knowledge structures; users are instead navigated by for-profit companies that seek to maximize engagement, no matter the cost. The social norms of this world are also chaotic, since users can be anonymous and their social contact therefore undaunted by ordinary interpersonal consequences. Interpretations of the ocean’s infinite knowledge float like algae blooms on the surface of the internet, totally unrestrained in their growth by law or shame or “truth,” which we previously relied upon to negotiate on behalf of the greater good. In this universe, “the Crusades” are a hunk of narrative flotsam, floating toward whichever whirlpool in the culture is moving fastest, thickening and speeding up discursive maelstroms wherever it finds them.

Because of the internet’s effect on historiography, history in 2019 is almost impossible to isolate as a phenomenon or field of study. It’s frightening to see the very notion of history transform, aided and abetted by the very same algorithms that Fibonacci wrote down for the West to learn almost a thousand years ago.

That is, finally, the ultimate irony of all historical information: It has no innate meaning whatsoever until interpreted in another time, another political context. The World of the Crusades is an extraordinarily fulsome study of a fascinatingly nihilistic struggle, and anybody would benefit from its readable pages. But its lesson is negative, since Tyerman essentially sets out to prove, at enormous length, that the Crusades do not mean what many people think they mean. It is unclear whether negative lessons have any corrective power in our new information world, where every data point can be as valuable as another, regardless of origin. Tyerman’s lesson is a simple one, which modern scholars must cling to like so many shipwrecked sailors: History is a methodology and nothing more.