The BBC’s The Crusades is billed as a re-examination of the history of the crusades, but in presenting them as a clash of civilisations between Christianity and Islam, it repeats the ideological justifications for the war on terror.

There is a version of the First Crusade that goes something like this. In 1095, the Pope, Urban II, realising that there’s nothing like a good foreign war to solve your problems at home, called on all good Christians to travel to the Holy Land to seize it from the Muslims. Thousands set out, from rabbles of peasants who passed the time on the way by massacring European Jewish communities, to noble knights and great lords, who were motivated by religious fervour and inspired by the idea that by crusading they could indulge in their favourite activity – killing people – and win salvation at the same time. They endured terrible privations on the way, but at last overcame the Muslim hordes and captured Jerusalem in 1099, after a two-day sack in which they slaughtered many of the inhabitants.

This is broadly what I was taught as an undergraduate twenty years ago, and it’s pretty similar to the version broadcast to the world by the first episode of BBC’s new three-part series on the crusades, presented by Dr Thomas Asbridge of Queen Mary, University of London. Despite its billing as a re-examination of the crusades, it didn’t challenge some of the major tenets of the traditional narrative, even where they are rather questionable. Take the idea that the nobles were crusading for religious reasons rather than by the chance to get rich. This is an opposition which fails to recognise that the crusaders did not have to have just one motivation each, nor that a desire for material gain can be couched in genuinely-felt religious terms, but even on its own terms it doesn’t work. That the main sources for the crusade portray the crusaders as ideologically committed rather than greedy is not actually convincing evidence for their motivation (what, after all, would we expect crusaders and religious writers to say?), and the example Dr Asbridge picked to prove his point was a little unfortunate.

He argued that Raymond de St Gilles, one of the crusade’s leaders, could not have gone for worldly gain because he was already Count of Toulouse, so had rich lands already. The drawback is that Raymond so much preferred the lands he won through crusading – he ended up as Count of Tripoli – that he doesn’t seem to have been particularly bothered when Toulouse was seized by his niece’s husband. Perhaps Raymond was just led astray from his religious purpose by the riches of the mystic East, but the fact that he and many other noble crusaders like him did become enormously richer and more powerful than they would have been had they stayed at home is an indication that the idea of the crusaders as pure knights of God is not as proven as this series would like us to believe. Dr Asbridge did hedge his bets by admitting that a minority of crusaders might have had wealth rather than salvation on their minds, which I found reminiscent of the weaselly condemnations of ‘a minority’ of violent protestors which we’re used to hearing whenever the police attack a demonstration.

The programme also repeated other old, objectionable chestnuts, like the idea that the massacres of Jews in various European towns were carried out by the peasant armies rather than by the noble crusaders. It’s a pity that there wasn’t space for a mention of the research which shows that the main ‘rabble’ army, that of Peter the Hermit, was mostly made up of knights, not peasants, and that many of the crusade armies, not just the supposedly peasant ones, were implicated in pogroms.

These are important issues not just from the point of view of historical interpretation, but for the ideological uses to which the story of the crusades can be put. The idea that the crusaders were inspired by religious fervour only feeds into the view of the First Crusade as a genuine religious war: not a land-grabbing exercise approved by the Church, or an exercise arising from the realities of European feudalism, but an attack by Christianity on Islam. Thus the introduction to the programme promised a tale of ‘medieval knights and jihadi warriors’ and promised to shed new light on how ‘these two great religions waged war on each other’.  This is the crusades as Clash of Civilisations, in which you will note the Muslim inhabitants of modern Syria, Lebanon and Palestine are just as violent and religiously fanatical as the Christians who carried out the unprovoked attack on them. It is also, by the way, inaccurate for the First Crusade at least, since fighting back against the crusaders was not couched in terms of jihad until well into the twelfth century. Whatever the intentions of this particular programme, this portrayal of the crusades fits in with the view which holds that Christianity and Islam have been locked in a titanic struggle for 1500 years, and so the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the war on terror are simply the latest, justified events in that long war.

The relation of this programme to that argument is strengthened by the various montages of modern-day Muslims, as illustrations to the narrative about Muslims in the eleventh century. The intention may well have been to remind the viewer that the Muslim inhabitants of Antioch, Jerusalem, Nicaea and so on were people too, but the effect was unfortunately to show these people as some kind of eternal Muslim ‘other’; not modern people like us but the same as the medieval ‘hordes’ faced by the crusaders. The accounts of say, the response to Pope Urban’s call for the crusade were not after all illustrated with footage of crowds of modern French people.  

Western histories of the crusades have tended to rehearse crusade history solely from the crusaders’ point of view, not least because crusade historians have often tended not to use Arabic as well as western sources. Dr Asbridge did manage to refer to one Armenian source for the final battle for Antioch, but apart from that, this was again the First Crusade as told by the crusaders’ side. There was no indication that the cities of the Middle East constituted an advanced civilisation, and indeed the passing references to ‘hordes’ and ‘squabbling warlords’ could have given the impression that the crusaders were no less civilised than the people they were attacking. If this was supposed to be a revision of the traditional Clash of Civilisations model of the crusades, in places it verged on a revision from the right, as if it was illustrating Tony Blair’s infamous 2006 comment that the war on terror was ‘a clash about civilisation’.

There is a different story which could be told about the First Crusade. That would be the story of how some of the greatest cities of the known world were seized and sacked by a bunch of smelly barbarians from northern Europe, who might have thought that ‘Deus vult’ (God wills it – the crusaders’ battle cry), but who were also keen to get their hands on the riches of a civilisation far superior to their own, and of how the Muslim world finally managed to combine to get rid of them. That would make a fascinating series. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that it will get much of a look in in this one.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.