5.2 Teaching the Crusades at Key Stage 5

Why should we study the Crusades?

There are clear resonances with today.  Students are made aware of terms like Jihad and Crusade in the media, by politicians and by commentators.   However, there is not always the understanding accompanying these terms.  A study of the Crusades can bring these terms into question and help students to understand the better.

Why are the Crusades a Controversial Issue?

‘The memory of the Crusades lingers in the Middle East and colours Muslim perceptions of Europe.  It is the memory of an aggressive, backward and fanatical Europe.  This historical memory would be reinforced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as imperial Europeans once again arrived to subjugate and colonise territories in the Middle East.  Unfortunately, this legacy of bitterness is overlooked by most Europeans when thinking of the Crusades.'

A.S. Ahmed  ‘Living Islam' London, 1995 p.176.

Much of the literature about the Crusades can give a Christian perspective.  If we read Runciman or Southern, there are clearly areas which talk about the effect of the Crusades on Muslim peoples but it is only recently that there have been Arab historians who have written about the Crusades and historians who have looked at the Muslim perspective.

The way in which we look at The Crusades does tend, if we are not careful, to stereotype both Crusader and Muslim. 

It is important that students are made aware that the view which says that the Crusaders are a force for good and their opponents a force for evil is a stereotype and an idea perpetrated by the Crusader nations.

For many students the Crusades are solely a point of conflict between Christians and Muslims, however, this is not always the case and by tackling such a potentially emotive subject, understanding may ensue.

How can we dovetail the Muslim and Christian perspectives of the Crusades into our teaching?

1. What are the differences and similarities between the Islam and Christianity?

A starting point could be to consider religion.  It is important that there is an understanding of both religions and their different strands.  Some input from students would be appropriate here and this could take the form of a brainstorming or an investigative exercise.

2. What are the stereotypes with which we are confronted?

By looking at stereotypes of Muslim and Christians and discussing them, the students are made more aware that modern day caricatures of the period are trying to create a generalised impression of the past for a present day purpose.

3. How can we offer our students a more balanced account of the Crusades ?

Looking at documents which offer the different view points. (Maybe looking at the same event through different documents).

4. What do we know about some of the main protagonists in this period of History  ?

Asking students investigate and compile the profiles different characters to do with the Crusades and these to include those of Muslim as well as Christian leaders.


What are the differences and similarities between the Islam and  Christianity?

A brainstorming or investigative exercise might be appropriate here and while there are religious differences and similarities, a use of the Islamic calendar as well as the Gregorian calendar, especially for key event is desirable.

For example:

488/1095 - First Crusade.

543/1148 -  Second Crusade.

583/1187 - Reconquest of Jerusalem by Saladin

690/1291 - The Fall of Acre.

What are the stereotypes with which we are confronted?

A: Propaganda poster of Saddam Hussein

Copyright Rex Features Ltd. Reproduced by permission of RexFeatures.



a) the idea of Crusade from this image, produced in the 1980's.

b) what Saddam wants to illustrate by using this image.

B: Europe Cringes at Bush ‘Crusade' against Terrorism found at: The Institute of Communications Studies


a) the idea of Crusade from the article.

b) what made President Bush think that he was launching a crusade.

How can we offer our students a more balanced account of the Crusades ?

(A) What are the problems of evidence?

The Crusades are a Western/Christian phenomenon and, when we study the topic, there is a tendency to look at it from purely a Western/Christian perspective with little or no attention to how it fits in with Eastern/Muslim history or indeed any other History. 

This omission is understandable when we consider that the most available sources (especially those in English translation) are from the Western viewpoint, although historians have been at pains to point out that the sources represent opinion from a variety of Western countries. 

In her article ‘The First Crusade : Reviewing the evidence', found in ‘The First Crusade : Origins and Impact' edited by Jonathan Phillips (Manchester University Press, 1997), Susan Edgington talks about the Gesta Francorum, Raymonde of Aguilers and Fulcher of Chartres but also considers other sources but these too are Crusader evidence and come from letters, charters and other Latin historians:

‘Crusader historians are, of course, immensely fortunate that three independent eye witness accounts of such quality have survived.  That the writers travelled with different leaders and therefore wrote from different viewpoints makes them more valuable.  Yet there is a danger of complacency.  Historians have examined exhaustively how the three authors confirm and complement each other; they have looked less readily at the gaps and the shortcomings they have in common.  First these accounts were all written after the event.  They were composed in the light of the successful outcome of the expedition, and this imparts an air of historical inevitability to the narratives....'  Susan Edgington.


Students read this article.  (Depending on the group, all students can read it or groups might be given different parts of it so that there can be class instruction and class discussion).

Discussion regarding

(a) The types of evidence about the Crusades.

(b) Where the evidence comes from.

(c) The shortcomings of the evidence.

(d) What is missing.

On this last point, the lack of Muslim sources will be highlighted.

(B) How do we redress this situation  ?

In order to counteract this omission, we need to look at Muslim sources and literature which examines the Muslim point of view.  The use of websites and literature to show the alternative point of view is important.

For example: 

Perspectives and Religion in the Crusades

Muslim perspectives of the Crusades 

or Carole Hillenbrand  ‘The Crusades : Islamic Perspectives.

Carole Hillenbrand gives a good explanation regarding Muslim sources and their trustworthiness.  Her book could be used to enhance understanding on a variety of issues for example:


The Nomenclature.  Hillenbrand makes the point that the different Muslim nationalities were called the ‘Saracens' or ‘Muslims' by the Crusaders, indicating the lack of insight into the cultural differences at the time.    The name for the Crusaders in the eastern literature was ‘The Franks'. Discussion: how blanket terms fail to acknowledge the cultural and national differences between the countries and peoples of both sides.

Interpretations of the First Crusade. On page 54, Hillenbrand talks about accounts of Muslim reactions to and interpretations of the First Crusade.  Although page 21 of her book she states  :  ‘The Muslim response to the coming of the Crusades was initially one of apathy, compromise and preoccupation with internal problems.'  Her thesis is that there was a lot of division in the Islamic communities and so their reaction to the advent of the Crusaders was half hearted and conciliatory in the first instance.

Alexius Comnenus  She also notes that Muslim sources say that Alexius Comnenus wrote to Muslims (probably Fatimids) informing them of the Franks arrival.

The Fall of Jerusalem, 1099.  In pages 64-66 of her book she talks about the embellishments which have occurred over time of the Fall of Jerusalem, 1099. (This could be an exercise in itself to look at the embellishments and changes in the story of the Fall of Jerusalem and thus the reliability of the evidence and the growth or otherwise of the significance of this event in the Muslim world)

Comparing Western and Eastern Stereotypes of their enemies.  From Chapter 5  :  How the Muslims saw the Franks, Hillenbrand looks at descriptions of the West by Easterners and these could be compared with descriptions of the East by Westerners. 

Impact of Western Culture on the East and Eastern Culture on the West.  Hillenbrand suggests that those in the East thought that they could learn nothing from the Westerners. Some more detail can be obtained from pages 357 - 366 which explains some cultural exchanges.

The Frankish Leaders.  In pages 336 - 346, Hillenbrand gives short descriptions of Frankish leaders by Muslim writers.  As a revision exercise, students might be asked to identify the Frankish leaders from the description given.  For example Ibn Shaddad says of Richard the Lionheart ‘He possessed judgement, experience audacity and astuteness.  His arrival aroused apprehensions and fear in the hearts of Muslims' (Hillenbrand p.336)


Clearly, there are several other areas where there might be comparisons drawn and Chapters 7 and 8 which concerns ‘Armies, Arms, Armour and Fortifications' and ‘The Conduct of War' might be interesting to explore.

What do we know about some of the main characters in this period of History?

This activity involves investigative work on the part of the students.

The reporting may take the form of an obituary and could show both an Eastern and a Western viewpoint.

It may be part of a teaching exercise where students enlighten their colleagues about a particular character.  Each member of the group could be given one character to investigate. As far as the Muslim side is concerned, students should look at Zengi, Nur al-Din (Nureyddin) and Saladin at least.

Alternatively, students could be given the following quotation to investigate Saladin and see if they agree with Lyons and Jackson's conclusions before they are asked to look at other characters.

‘To his admirers, Saladin on his death-bed at Damascus can be seen as the hero of Islam, the destroyer of the Latin kingdom and the restorer of the shrines of Jerusalem.  Eulogy, however, must accommodate itself to the fact that such a view was not accepted by numbers of his Muslim contemporaries.  He can be pictured by his detractors as manipulating Islam to win power for himself and his family and only then launching on an adventure which still left the Frankish state poised to strike, if Europe were willing to support it at an overburdened and impoverished Muslim empire.' (M.C. Lyons and D.E.P. Jackson : Saladin : the politics of the Holy War' CUP, 1982.

A summary sheet to help student embark on their investigation could look like the one below and students could be asked to present their findings to the rest of the class:

Task: Find out as much as you can about your character.

It is important to look at websites and literature, gaining not only objective but also biased views so that you can defend this person and also pre-empt any criticism of him.

Your line of investigation should include areas which will help you to write under the following headings. 


Date of birth, place of birth, situation (occupation of father etc.).

Career and Importance

What he did and how he did it.

Ideas of how he was regarded

What his side and his enemies thought about him.

Any Conclusions

Comments other than those already made.

You will be giving a presentation to the class about this person and this could take the form of a speech with the help of visual aids (like a PowerPoint presentations, posters or handouts.)

Once the presentations have been made, students should justify why they think that this man should be awarded a prize for his contribution to the ‘Crusades' and after the arguments have been presented, there should be a class vote to decide on the person who made the most contribution.

Alternatively, the students may be asked to investigate and then be ‘hot seated' where they are asked questions by their colleagues who tease out ideas and attributes about the character.

Students should be encouraged to look at different websites and literature considering both the Eastern and Western viewpoint and the consideration of each viewpoint should be a required element of the task.

Is there an alternative to this dovetailing?

In some instances, teachers might find it easier to look at the Islamic and Christian perspectives separately.

Start the work looking at the Crusades from one point of view and then ask the students to think about the areas which they think have been omitted and continue the investigation.  (So, for example, the initial reading and learning could be to do with the Islamic history and the place of the Crusades and once this had been mastered, then a consideration Christian/western history and the place of the Crusades here could be initiated).

See Summary Task on the Fall of Jerusalem in 1197 (attached below)

Some References.

There is a wealth of texts about the Crusades.  Steven Runciman, R.A. Fletcher, Jonathan Riley-Smith and others give a good account of the Western side.  For the Muslim side some of the references below might be useful.

  • Husain, Shahnaz  :  Muslim Heroes of the Crusades, (London : Ta-Ha, 1998).  A short and relatively good starting point, although not a particularly scholarly work.
  • Al-Djazairi, S.E.  :  The Crusades, The Institute of Islamic History, (Manchester UK 2007)
  • Holt, P.M.   ‘The Age of the Crusades : The Near East from the 11th century to 1517, (London and New York, 1986). - some aspects of the Muslim side.
  • Housley, Norman : Contesting the Crusades (Contesting the Past) (Blackwell, 2006).
  • Lewis, Bernard : The Muslim Discovery of Europe (London, 1982)
  • Maalouf, Amin : The Crusades Through Arab Eyes. (Al Saqi books, 1984)
  • Phillips, Jonathan (ed) : The First Crusade : Origins and Impact, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1997.
  • Riley Smith, Jonathan : Teaching History 127, June 2007. Polychronicon : The Crusades,
  • Riley-Smith, Jonathan : What were the Crusades ? Macmillan, London, 1977.
  • Stevenson, W.B.: The Crusades in the East (Cambridge, 1907) - narrative based on the medieval Arabic sources available at the time.
  • Tyerman, Christopher : The Crusades : A very short introduction (OUP, 2004)  Gives some further reading pp. 145 - 147.
  • http://www.muslimheritage.com/
  • http://www.medievalcrusades.com/index.html

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