Back to top

The Crusades Project: Medieval Insular Literature, Introduction


The Crusades Project: Medieval Insular Literature, Introduction

In his survey of the crusades, God's War, Christopher Tyerman observes that
one of the most characteristic literary genres of the later middle ages could be described as 'recovery literature:' books, pamphlets, and memoranda concerned with the crusade, the restoration of Jerusalem and the advance of the Turks. The clerical and lay elites of western Europe found it almost impossible to let go of the Holy Land as a political ambition or vision of perfection. Throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, governments, moralists, preachers and lobbyists returned again and again to a subject in which practical and moral objectives were fused together. (827)
Tyerman also notes that "texts of crusade history and advice continued to be written, copied or, later, printed with undiminished energy into the sixteenth century" (886). But while these texts are significant, so too is the array of fictive narratives that respond to the matter of crusading. The purpose of the Crusade Project's section on Medieval Insular literature, then, is to demonstrate how the literature of the late Middle Ages also responds to and employs crusades motifs and themes in a number of vital ways.

The influence of the crusades on medieval Insular literature has received an increasing amount of attention in the last several decades, and many narratives included in this section of the Crusades Project are ones that gesture broadly towards the superiority of Christianity over Islam as well as the problematic possibilities of coexistence with the unconverted Saracen. Certain texts included in this section, such as The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, take a different approach more akin to what modern audiences might consider a form of proto-orientalism, where the focal point in the texts lie on the fascinating differences between Christians and religious/cultural others. The gestures towards Christian superiority in these texts are muted in favor of a domesticating impulse. Nevertheless, as the entries on each narrative demonstrate, there are motivations and drives behind this domesticating impulse that tie in oblique but significant ways to matters of crusading and the expansion of Christian borders.

Regarding the more overtly violent crusading narratives, it is important to bear in mind that the treatment of the Saracen in these romances would not necessarily have been viewed as polemical in their day—that what might easily be perceived by a modern reader to be religious absolutism, racism, or, at best, euro-centrism, would have been perceived quite differently in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The perceived threat of Islam was a vital one during this time, and fears concerning a generalized "eastern menace," the Turks, and/or the Saracen are certainly reflected in these texts. Cultural fears and prejudices often find their way into popular culture; and whether deliberate or indeliberate they manage, quite often, to reify and reinscribe those perceptions while projecting a fantasy in which the object of concern is removed as a threat or menace. In the case of the romances here the Saracens, Turks, Sultans, Saracen Princesses, etc. are removed, either by conversion or by extermination, as threats to the Christian hero or heroine. The body of the hero or heroine, in so many ways, comes to represent the larger Christian body. The land that he or she seeks to protect in several of these romances does, in many ways, reflect either the Holy Land or Christendom more generally.

Finally, it should be noted that crusades literature in Medieval England included heroes who were both tied historically to the crusades as well as heroes who had no such historic link to those campaigns. Richard I (Lionheart) was the subject and hero of an eponymous narrative that was arguably one of the most popular romances of its day. At the same time, King Arthur is repeatedly cast as a crusader-conqueror, as are various Arthurian knights and completely fictive heroes such as Sir Isumbras or the King of Tars.

In sum, this section of the Crusades project seeks to demonstrate the strong presence of crusades-related themes and motifs throughout Middle English literature in an attempt to show the array of perceptions concerning religious and cultural exchanges and conflicts with the “Eastern” world.