To start off the fall semester, UTP is proud to post the following words from author S.J. Allen on the importance of understanding, teaching, and debating the Crusades. Her most recent book, An Introduction to the Crusades, published earlier this year, provides an excellent overview of a very complex time period. We hope that the book, as part of our new Companions to Medieval Studies series, will help to clear up some modern misconceptions of the Middle Ages.
The Crusades have drifted in and out of my life from my first secondary school research paper (thankfully now lost in the mists of time) to this year’s publication of An Introduction to the Crusades. My fascination for these events lies in that fact that they embrace a myriad of medieval cultures and regions. It is also a topic that continues to be revived and redefined in the succeeding centuries, including our own.
Crusade studies are today one of the most popular of undergraduate history courses, and reasons for this are not difficult to understand given current East/West tensions. The subject is, however, a controversial one, for as much as we seek to understand the interactions of eastern and western societies within the medieval crusading context, modern events and circumstances have enabled some to commandeer and manipulate the period to serve modern ends. This “management” of history, no matter its origin, is nothing new, but as both Emilie Amt and I argued in our related sourcebook: “…the Crusades, more than any other medieval event, have become inextricably linked to present-day political and religious debates.” This is perhaps why I believe their study to be important, not just for future medievalists, but for students of all backgrounds and all academic interests. With this in mind, the book’s final chapter, “The Crusades and Modern Memory,” aims to offer students a clear and relevant example of how historical events—their interpretation, remembrance, and use—can change over time, influencing, for good or ill, not only our view of the past, but also how we perceive and interact as contemporary societies. I am certain it is a topic that will stimulate discussion and debate, no matter what the make-up of the undergraduate classroom. For myself, I would share Umej Bhatia’s hope that:
"…a better understanding of the [Crusade] period may offer the scaffolding for an informed dialogue between the west and the Muslim world. As the poster conflict of civilizational clash, the history of the Crusades is an ideal subject for the foregrounding of such dialogue." (quoted in An Introduction to the Crusades)
I would also anticipate that students would come away from the book with a deeper understanding of the nature of the crusading period, that is, to see this not simply as a time of violent conflict, but also one of peaceful coexistence, exchange, and cooperation—a period where truce, treaty, and negotiation played as much a role in the lives of these peoples as armed confrontation.
I would hope that An Introduction to the Crusades proves a useful teaching tool, enabling instructors to deliver engaging exercises and stimulating class discussions, as well as to facilitate further student research. As an interactive text, it is designed to develop a student’s ability to adopt a critical approach. As noted above, it can be read as a stand-alone work, although its use with The Crusades: A Reader should lead to a more developed understanding of the subject and its related issues.
Considering the book as a whole (and with instructors in mind), An Introduction to the Crusades is the second publication in UTP’s Companions to Medieval Studies, a collection of introductory histories that can be used in conjunction with the Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures series. The idea behind the Companions series is to offer both an introductory history as well as texts and topics that engage and encourage students to interact directly with the subject’s primary sources and current academic debates. In my own teaching, I’ve always valued that moment when a student progresses from a descriptive to an analytical approach. The Companions series aims to facilitate this development.
I was fortunate to have, as an exemplary model, UTP’s first volume in this series, The Vikings and Their Age (2013). I also greatly benefited from the advice and guidance of the series editor, Paul Dutton, history editor Natalie Fingerhut, and the knowledgeable, professional, yet incredibly humane team at UTP.
S.J. Allen is Associate Lecturer in Arts and Humanities at The Open University, UK.