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Two ways of presenting a Crusade

Perhaps more than any other historical period, the way in which the medieval crusades are viewed and described has undergone a radical change as modern western society has evolved and diversified. For much of the twentieth century western historians of the crusades worked within a broadly Christian social framework, in which the concept of crusade was a familiar paradigm, used in a wide range of contexts: ‘crusades’ would be launched against crime, squalor or poverty. The decline in the role of religion in western European society in the late twentieth century and especially the growth of substantial Muslim communities in Europe and North America has inevitably forced a rethinking of the crusades. Where once they were seen essentially in heroic terms, they tend now to be seen as aberrations, which demand apologies to the Muslim world by the modern leaders of the Church.

This shift in public emphasis places the academic historian of the period in a difficult position. History rarely fits into such simplistic patterns and the crusades are no exception. Modern critics who compare the crusades to later European imperialism and who assume that the crusaders were out for material gain can be discomfited to learn that many crusaders who settled in the east were financially ruined by the experience. These two extracts look at one event, the fall of Jerusalem to the knights of the First Crusade, in 1099, in the words of two different Cambridge historians, who reflect something of the shift in approach that has taken place in recent years.

Sir Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades
Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades: A Short History