How do students react to being taught the topic if crusade? Last week I blogged about the challenges of delivering a one-hour lecture on the immensely broad topic of ‘Crusades and Crusading’. My blog, which you can read (here), noted that although there are a great many number of academic debates, scholarly and general books, and numerous TV documentaries surrounding the topic, it is in fact extremely difficult to define what the crusades were and how they are understood by modern audiences. I chose this as the major theme for the lecture. So, this considered what happened to whom and where; how contemporary authors wrote about these events; how modern historians have understood and interpreted these sources, and finally, how the idea of the crusades has penetrated into modern popular culture. In today’s blog, I offer a review of what went well, what was more difficult, and how the students reacted to the topic.
(Before I begin, I’ll state here that throughout this blog, I utilise the word ‘crusade’ in the loosest possible sense, mindful as I am that the term is at once all-encompassing and perhaps infinitely misleading!)
The first thing that was immediately obvious in writing the lecture was the immense breadth of the subject matter. This posed several challenges. In order to explain the origins of the events of the crusades and reactions to it, it was necessary to go back to the seventh and eighth-century expansion of Islam, and only then discuss 1096 at Clermont, and the beginnings of what we know as ‘crusade’. Following a modern ‘pluralist’ approach (i.e., that the medieval period saw events that may be considered as crusades across various regions and numerous centuries), it was necessary to explain the major events of wars labelled and understood as ‘crusades’ in the Eastern Mediterranean, Byzantium, Iberia, Italy and Sicily, North-Eastern Europe, and Southern France: all information relating to parts of the world a first-year undergraduate student may not be even remotely familiar with, and all of this required before it was possible to talk about how eyewitnesses and contemporaries reported these events.
Following this section on ‘what were the crusades?’, it was able to concentrate on what I really love to do and what I find the students also really enjoy: looking at colourful descriptions and reading lively quotations from written contemporary evidence, and then commenting on what this might mean for our understanding of the crusades. The sources included the anonymous Gesta Francorum, Orderic Vitalis, Guibert of Nogent and Fulcher of Chartres, and I tried to read out my extracts in as dramatic a voice as possible, just to make things interesting and exciting for the students! Together we realised that, following modern approaches by those such as Christopher Tyerman, those who participated in the crusades had no real understanding of the historical significance of what they were doing. None of them had the word ‘crusade’ in their vocabulary, and none of them ever numbered any of these crusades: for them, all wars against non-conforming Catholic Christians were considered part of one single struggle for their true religion.
This allowed us to investigate some previous approaches to the crusades and to summarise some of the perceived reasons for them. These included: European socio-political causes (overcrowding, lack of opportunities for aspiring nobility); the fear of sin among militarily classes and pilgrims; potential long-term objectives of the papacy, and of course, colonialism. The merits and potential shortcoming of all interpretations were explained, and students were encouraged to decide which theories they best agreed with and why.
After this, we had some fun (or, even more fun as it appeared to me)! Commenting on the legacy of the crusades in modern popular culture was a very popular topic, especially since it considered some well-known materials such as Batman comics (the ‘Caped Crusader’), Indiana Jones films (The Last Crusade), computer games (Medieval II: Total War) and the film, Kingdom of Heaven. This brought a fresh sense of relevance to the topic of crusades, and was immediately engaging for the students because of this, and because the examples given might have been perhaps unexpected and therefore pleasantly surprising. In addition, this also added a touch of humour and relevance to the lecture themes.
So, how did it go down, and how did the students react? Following our recent seminars, I asked several students what they thought of the crusades topic and received some very interesting responses. The overwhelming majority considered the crusades perhaps too large a topic for a single lecture. They were required to take many notes about many different events, processes and historical individuals. This was made even more daunting remembering that since this year is the first time many of them had ever interacted with medieval history.
However, happily all seemed to see the relevance of the topic in both the course materials and in today’s modern world. For example, when I asked for a definition of the crusades from the audience at the beginning I received plenty of animated responses, and all seemed to think they knew what they thought they knew a crusade was and what it might have involved. Many also noted that the crusades were a welcome and also an expected topic on a course on European history in the central Middle Ages.
So, where are we having discussed the crusades at length in both the lecture and in more informal discussions? I would certainly welcome comments and feedback from any more experienced parties, but several initial conclusions are visible here. Although most of the students found the topic undeniably daunting, the majority nevertheless seemed happy that they now had an informed grasp of this most well-known of topics relating to medieval history. Significantly, a large proportion of those who enjoyed our discussions suggested that they would be enthusiastic about signing up for the more in-depth module on ‘the crusades’, within the second year of their studies. Of all the possible achievements and relative difficulties that may have been observed through the study of this topic, the most important has been achieved in raising student enthusiasm for medieval history. Victory!