An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

November 14, 2013

Riley-Smith: The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam

Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

Reviewed by: Helen J. Nicholson (

This volume contains a slightly revised edition of the Bampton Lectures in America that Jonathan Riley-Smith presented at Columbia University in 2007. The material draws together and builds on research and discussion which Professor Riley-Smith has published separately elsewhere. It provides a useful summary of his views on the nature of medieval crusading, but also continues the history of the movement into modern times. Riley-Smith shows how the concept of crusading and particularly of the military-religious orders was used as an instrument of imperialism during the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth, a phenomenon which he calls paracrusading (including some elements of the medieval crusade) or pseudocrusading (using crusade imagery and rhetoric, but with no other connection to the original crusades). The final chapter discusses how the modern view of crusading held by radical Islam developed from the nineteenth-century European fascination with crusading.

In this volume, Professor Riley-Smith has distilled cutting-edge historical research into an accessible short guide to the concept and reality of crusading over several centuries, fully supported by references to his sources and a full bibliography. Readers will not find a discussion of the debates between scholars of the crusades, but they will find a wide-ranging picture of crusading as a vibrant, growing area of research. The introduction surveys modern attitudes to crusading, especially those of the Greek Church, the Jews, and the Protestant and Catholic Churches. Chapter one considers the Christian ideology which underlay crusading, and argues that modern society cannot understand Augustinian just war theory because Augustine of Hippo saw violence as morally neutral, whereas modern just war theory regards violence as intrinsically evil. Riley-Smith admits that the seeds of the change in emphasis originated in the Middle Ages, but considers that what is now the dominant viewpoint did not become generally accepted until the nineteenth century. He goes on to discuss the crusades as holy wars and the motivations of crusaders, including the origins of the military religious orders as hospitaller organisations which became militarized in the course of their care for poor pilgrims. Chapter two considers crusades as Christian penitential wars, including a survey of crusade preaching.

So far, much of this material is familiar ground. Chapter three moves into less familiar territory, considering the revival of the concept of crusading and of the military religious orders in the nineteenth century. Riley-Smith considers several nineteenth-century schemes to re-establish or found new military-religious orders to defend and promote Christians or, more specifically, Catholic missionary work, in addition to calls for military expeditions which would emulate the medieval crusades. This discussion raises the question of when crusading came to an end – did it last until 1892, when plans for a new military-religious order collapsed? Considering this question, Riley-Smith concludes that these initiatives were in fact stimulated by modern imperialism rather than the old crusading motivations.

The final chapter considers the origins and development of modern radical Islam’s view of crusading. Starting from Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany’s expedition to Jerusalem in 1898, organized by Thomas Cook, Riley-Smith points out that nineteenth-century western glorification of crusading, especially of the Muslim military leader Saladin, led to Muslim commentators taking up the subject, which had previously been largely overlooked in Muslim historiography. He argues that western commentators are unable to supply an effective answer to Islamic radicalism because they no longer understand crusade ideals. In Riley-Smith’s opinion, these ideals were largely abandoned in the West after the First World War, although they did appear during the Spanish Civil War and were occasionally referred to during the Second World War. Of course references to holy war continue into the modern day, in relation to ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland or even in political debates in the US Congress; but they are largely unfamiliar in modern, secularized Britain.

Riley-Smith argues that the modern popular view of the crusades, both in the West and in Islam, ‘has more to do with nineteenth-century European imperialism than with actuality.’ It is impossible, he argues, to understand modern ‘religio-political hostility’ between westernized and Islamic societies, ‘erupting in acts of extreme violence’, unless we are prepared to face up to this fact (p. 79). While agreeing that modern popular views of the crusades are largely based on nineteenth-century nationalist myth, this reviewer would suggest that there are broader, underlying causes which lead modern Islamic radicals to turn to this stereotype. Crusade scholars may demonstrate that the stereotype does not reflect historical reality, but this will not remove the fundamental causes of radicalism, only the rhetoric used to promote it. That aside, in setting out to ‘place the Crusades in Christian history and to understand the long-term effects in the West and among Muslims of the use, and misuse of crusade ideas and images’ (p. 6), Riley-Smith has produced a valuable short guide to the crusade movement in both the past and modern times.

Riley-Smith concludes by reminding his readers that even modern secular societies can produce ideological violence. Modern wars might be fought in the name of anti-colonialism, humanitarianism or liberal democracy, but these are still wars fought for a ‘cultural or even pseudoscientific ideal that is considered by its adherents to be of universal importance’. So may modern wars be crusades under a different guise? This book will not only provide a stimulating read for those exploring the concept and history of crusading, but will help to prompt debate in the classroom on the motivation and purpose of war.

Helen Nicholson
Cardiff University