Crusading 101

How to Plan a Crusade: Religious War in the High Middle Ages, by Oxford professor Christopher Tyerman, demolishes the legend that Western crusaders were mere irrational rabble from Dark Age rubble.

Painting of the Battle of Montgisard, by Charles-Philippe Larivière (1778-1876). [Wikipedia]

It is a mark of our hyper-political and hypocritical age that those who are most ignorant of the crusades should condemn the perceived ignorance of medieval crusaders. Sprinkle in accusations of greed, thuggery, and a moral equivalence with ISIS (see former President Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 5, 2015) and it pretty much sums up what many people think they know about the crusades. But popular understanding of the crusades lags decades behind scholars. It is as if a generation of people read Steven Runciman’s three-volume A History of  the Crusades (1951-53) a half-century ago and then, along with their progeny, closed their eyes to everything published after.

In How to Plan a Crusade: Religious War in the High Middle Ages, Christopher Tyerman, Professor of the History of the Crusades at the University of Oxford, demolishes the legend that Western crusaders were mere irrational rabble from Dark Age rubble. Tyerman painstakingly documents the gargantuan efforts involved in crusade organization, recruitment, financing and logistics. He makes the irrefutable case that the crusades were based on faith and reason. He comes out swinging in the book’s Introduction saying,

The crusades have frequently been portrayed as ultimate symbols of of the power of credulity…the blind leading the deluded. What follows argues that in almost all respects this image is false.

Discussion of the crusades is also very often intertwined with skewed perceptions of the broader medieval age. This no doubt leads to consternation for Tyerman and his fellow medieval scholars. Early on he lays the foundation for the existence of medieval rationality and, by extension, the rationality of the crusades:

Few periods of the past have suffered more from modern condescension than the rather patronizingly described Middle Ages, an imagined limbo of coarseness between the civilized worlds of classical antiquity and the Renaissance, a model carefully constructed by fifteenth-century humanists and lovingly polished ever since.

And here:

The assumption that faith or belief is antithetical to reason and vice versa is a canard given wings during the Enlightenment and the demolition of medieval (and, it might be remembered, classical) science.

Tyerman’s book is preceded by James M. Powell’s Anatomy of a Crusade, 1213-1221 (1986), published more than three decades ago. But where Powell focused solely on the Fifth Crusade’s organization and leadership, Tyerman covers the entire crusading period, roughly from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries. He is also geographically inclusive, examining crusades in the Baltic region, as well as medieval Iberia (modern day Spain and Portugal). He offers scope and depth in a very readable narrative. And while more has been written on crusade planning in recent years it largely languishes in inaccessible academic journals and essay collections. Tyerman’s book is therefore original and will be the standard for decades to come.

How to Plan a Crusade’s structure consists in five parts: Justification, Propaganda, Recruitment, Finance, and Logistics. Each part is divided into chapters covering specific aspects of the larger whole. For example, Logistics includes chapters on coordination, health and safety, supplies, and strategy. If your eyes glaze over with the possibility of reading nearly three hundred pages of this sort of thing don’t despair. Parts of the book are admittedly a slog, reading rather like a medieval mail order catalog of crusading necessities. There is simply too much source material to be combed, collected, and considered. Tyerman also jumps around between countries and centuries, often in the same paragraph—an additional challenge for the reader. But despite these minor drawbacks, Tyerman tells a compelling tale with clarity and concision.

Justification for the crusades was the province of the Church. The writing and teaching of Bernard of Clairvaux, and papal bulls such as Quantum praedecessores, Audita tremendi, and Quia Maior, made the case for military action. Tyerman is exceptional in explaining the distinctions between Urban II’s praelia sancta—a holy war that opened the spiritual treasury of the Church for all participants—and the legitime bella, or just war. This illuminates what participants understood about their undertaking and how contemporary sources could write of crusading as an act of love (a theme explored in greater depth by historian Jonathon Riley-Smith). But getting knights and squires to leave their wives—spousal consent was required for much of the crusading period—and travel halfway across the world, risking death and disease and nearly bankrupting themselves in the process, took some persuasion.

The crusades were preached across Europe. From Pope Urban II’s first call at Clermont in 1095 to the fourteenth century (even after the fall of Acre in 1291), canons and cardinals and monks fanned out to preach the taking of the cross. And while propaganda—as a modern descriptor—is not how medieval audiences understood the preaching of the crusades, it is an apt word for readers to understand this flurry of activity. Though there were other forms of publicity for the crusades, preaching was perhaps the most fitting means of persuasion. As Tyerman observes, “crusade preaching was distinctive.” So much so that by the thirteenth century, lesser known preachers relied on sermon collections of the “stars of the genre.”

Crusade preaching manuals existed, most significantly Humbert of Romans’ erudite effort, De praedicatione s. Crucis contra Saracenos. Here again Tyerman exposes modern perceptions—prejudices really—as entirely unfounded. “One common myth of the Middle Ages,” he argues, “assumes that popular audiences, chiefly the rural peasantry, lived in a perpetual state of murky ignorance of the concerns of high politics. The crusades give the lie to this.”

Princes and paupers heard the call, understood it, and took the cross in great numbers. Recruiting “relied on organization, not emotion.” Ultimately the business of travel to, and fighting in, the Holy Land fell to the wealthy and knightly classes. Nevertheless, the Church opened her spiritual treasury to all. One did not need to wield the sword to obtain the grace. Crusader armies traveled with craftsmen, servants, and cooks. Recruitment often involved public displays and mass audiences and was regularly robed in liturgical ritual.

For all their spiritual and theological foundation, the crusades were still wars of re-conquest (as was the case in Muslim Iberia). Christianity permeated the Middle East for centuries before the arrival of Islam, and the object of crusading was always to return the region—especially Jerusalem—to Christianity. This does not mean crusaders lacked worldly incentives. The “crusade mentality,” Tyerman says, “never excluded profit.” Nor did the existence of other motives negate religious conviction.

That the crusades were first and foremost religious endeavors did not diminish the necessity of practical planning. Practical considerations of cost—as well as any gain—were as integral to medieval war fighting as they are now. Tyerman is superb in detailing all the ways in which the crusades were funded. A complex network of international finance emerges, one in which our modern financial system has roots. “Crusade finance,” Tyerman argues, “contributed to the freeing of the land market, the opening of international credit markets and the creation of novel fiscal techniques.” He also points to surplus moveable wealth as basis of taxation, another means of funding the crusades. He makes the rather depressing case that such assessments constituted the first income taxes.

It is no surprise that formal, institutionalized tax structures were created to pay for thousands of men, horses, and their supplies to journey to the Middle East. It shocks nonetheless to read the section on logistics. Each crusade was a massive undertaking. Tyerman—at risk of crushing the reader under the weight of shipping contracts and charters, purchase agreements, and the like—excels at explaining the intricacies of moving men and materiel across an ocean or continent. Even more interesting is Tyerman’s explanation of the adaptability of crusader armies. Beset by disease, shipwreck, starvation, and recurring attacks of Turkic and Bedouin raiders, crusaders successfully journeyed beyond the sea and for nearly two centuries maintained a presence in the Holy Land. This could not have been done without disciplined planning and organization.

How to Plan a Crusade is meant for the general reader. But it assumes a basic working knowledge of the crusades. Anyone who has read Tyerman’s well known God’s War: A New History of the Crusades (2008), or any other survey is ready for this book. It is a unique achievement, and one that forcefully corrects the astigmatic perception that the crusades were irrational, reactionary, and born of ignorant fanaticism. “Reason,” he says, “made religious war possible, a conclusion that might give anyone pause in the twenty-first century.” Tyerman returns reason to its rightful place alongside faith in the phenomena that were the crusades.

How to Plan a Crusade: Religious War in the High Middle Ages
By Christopher Tyerman
Pegasus Books, 2017
Hardcover, 432 pages

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About Timothy D. Lusch 13 Articles
Timothy D. Lusch has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Saint Austin Review, New Oxford Review, Crisis, Toronto Star, Michigan History Magazine, and numerous other publications online and in print.


  1. You might also want to read John Gillingham’s books about Richard I of England, in which he discusses Richard’s talent in the field of logistics. Richard I was, of course, the most important of the leaders of the Third Crusade.

  2. Initially considered history a profession remained a buff. The Catholic Church is virtually always pilloried for the ‘sack’ of Constantinople. What is ignored are the facts. French and Venetian crusaders arranged with the Gk regent landing and passage thru Constantinople on their way to the Holy Land. When Venetian ships landed, French and Venetian knights disembarked and the ships left port the Gk regent was arrested then murdered by opposition Latins residing there mainly Italians were slaughtered mercilessly. The Venetian knight commander then ordered the Crusader army to attack Constantinople, make redress for the evil inflicted by the Greeks and proceed to the Holy Land, which they did. The ignoring of Crusader history is the legacy of prejudice and later Protestantism. This work by Prof Tyerman and article by Attorney Lusch is much needed simply for sake of honesty and truth.

  3. It is good that the Crusades are now being honestly described. They were entirely legitimate and necessary in order to save the world from Islamic domination, and to prevent Christendom from being utterly destroyed. The Crusades were not honorably waged in every respect, but when has war ever been waged entirely honorably? It is often said that “War is Hell,” and for good reason, but even so war is sometimes necessary and just.

    Contemporary Christianity is currently in far more danger than it ever was when Islam had already conquered two thirds of Christendom and was attacking the last third, which prompted Urban II to call the first Crusade. Today Christianity once again faces the Islamic threat, but this time one much more sophisticated and well-financed, and faces at the same time an ever-increasing hostility from the contemporary militantly atheistic state which has preposterously claimed for itself the authority to “legalize” the murder of innocent humanity.

    Again, it is good that the Crusades are now being honestly described and their legitimacy acknowledged, because it is looking more and more all the time like another one may be necessary.

      • Julian Assange of Wikileaks reported that SoS Hillary Clinton received millions from the same oil-rich Saudi billionaires who were funding ISIS.

        William Kilpatrick, in a Crisis Magazine piece entitled Georgetown Battles “Islamophobia” While Christians are Killed discusses how Saudi money is influencing Catholic institutions.

        For a realistic assessment of the threat Islam poses today, Google up: kilpatrick islam

        to get links to numerous articles by Mr. Kilpatrick on this subject.

      • Oops. I reread your comment and realized you were wondering who would organize and finance another Crusade, not who is organizing and funding Islamic jihad currently.

        Frankly, I don’t know. What I do know is that God always provides all that is necessary in order for us to carry out His will. If if becomes true of another crusade in our times, as it was of old, that huge crowds of Christians find themselves — inspired by the Holy Spirit, I believe — shouting “Deus vult!” (God wills it!), after an exhortation to engage in a crusade to save humanity, then God will provide the means for His will to be done.

  4. I find it interesting that someone would suggest, by inference, that the Crusades were “God’s Will”. It is hard for me to imagine the Jesus of the Gospels suggesting this course of action, no matter the circumstances. Love Thy Neighbor, Pray for those who hate you, seems inconsistent with what was a terrible period of cruelty to our fellowman, even if it was sanctioned by the leaders of the Catholic Church, at that time. Trust in Jesus, and ‘his’ message, just seems a better way, then, and now.

    • You mean the Jesus of the Gospels who drove out of God’s Holy Temple those who were disrepecting it, laying into them with a horsewhip? Seems like He would wholeheartedly endorse the driving out by force of those who were showing far greater disrespect to the Holy places of Jerusalem in the Middle Ages. Not to mention their robbery, rape and murder of unarmed Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. Jesus had a lot to say about those who kill people for showing their faith in Him too.

  5. Good article. Central point of the Crusades, and even going back to Charles Martel at Tours, was to recover what was ours. Most unfortunate that goal was never reached. It should also be noted that, in his efforts to spread Islam, Mohammed murdered the Jewish tribes then living in Arabia as they had been for centuries. Israel has not forgotten. It is unlikely that the Islamic-Christian struggle is finished though it does seem in a period of pause. Every time the west seems on the verge of triumph, Third Crusade, Lepanto, Vienna, Allenby in WW I, we pull back and allow Islam to regroup. The present “invasion” of Western Europe is one result.

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