Popular culture tends to romanticize the ethos and imagery of the crusader. Crusaders are typically portrayed as chivalric, inhumanly strong, heroic characters, while Muslims are ignored or referenced as a faceless enemy. The romanticization of crusaders manifests in a focus on the Templar Knights, the mystery surrounding them, and their perceived chivalry and superiority. The concentration on the Christian side of the story takes away any focus on the actual historical motivations and conflicts of the Crusades where most criticisms of the crusaders would lie. In the few instances where a religious enemy is explicitly addressed, criticisms of the crusaders can be found.
Templars, Mystery, and Conspiracy
Due to their frequent appearance across many different forms of popular culture, the Knights Templar have become almost synonymous with the Crusades and crusading. Dressed in all white with a bright red cross, the image of a Templar Knight has become iconic and instantly recognizable. Their quick rise to power and substantial wealth has made them an intriguing group.
The main reason for their continued presence in popular culture is their quick disappearance. On Friday the 13th of October, 1307, King Phillip IV of France called for the arrest of the Knights Templar. Their arrests are sometimes even said to be the origin of the legend of Friday the thirteenth being an unlucky day. The king owed the Knights Templar a significant sum of money, and to deal with his debt, he claimed that the Knights Templar were idol worshippers, engaged in homosexual practices, and had committed fraud. Many knights were captured, tortured into false admissions of guilt, and subsequently executed. Despite the drama of these historical events, there is very little documentation surrounding the demise of the Templar order, and only a fraction of the knights have been accounted for. It is probable that many of the knights went into hiding following the executions, but there is no way of knowing. This uncertainty, along with the rather grim and eerie demise, has opened the door for countless legends and theories as to the possible continued existence of these knights. Add to this the fact that the Knights Templar was an elite organized group that had significant power and authority throughout the Crusaders, and it is easy to exaggerate and manipulate historical fact.
Many of the conspiracy theories of the order’s disappearance are based on the fact that the Templar’s first headquarters was the Temple Mount, theorizing that they found something of great historical or monetary value there. One of the first to hint at this was the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Micheal Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln. The authors argue that the Knights Templar was actually formed as a military branch by the Priory of Sion, and that they found The Holy Grail on the Temple Mount. However, they claim the Holy Grail is not actually a cup, but documents proving the bloodline of Jesus Christ and his supposed marriage to Mary Magdalene.
The Da Vinci Code, a novel written by Dan Brown and later adapted into a movie, is built off many of the same conspiracies as that of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, in that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail was actually proof of his bloodline, all of which was known and kept secret by the Knights Templar. (The authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail attempted to sue Dan Brown for plagiarism but lost the court case.) With both these storylines, the power and knowledge of the Knights Templar has been greatly exaggerated to provide a more intriguing story. The authors claim that there is evidence for which these theories could be plausible, yet they are highly unlikely. They have been born out of the insufficient documentation surrounding the demise of the Knights Templar and the mystery that surrounds them.
Another movie that specifically references the Templars and plays off the theory that they found something beneath the Temple is National Treasure. It states that the Knights Templar found a treasure and escaped to America to save themselves from the executions. For a more in-depth look at movies and the way the Crusades and specifically the Knights Templar have been portrayed visit:
Not only has the advent of popular culture contributed greatly to the shroud of mystery that has come to surround the crusaders and their ethos, but it has also obscured the role of Muslim players in the Crusades. In large part, the popular culture of the West tends to place far more significance upon the Christian knights than it does on the Muslims, in a manner often upholding European chivalric code while simultaneously obfuscating the Saracens role as the oft-defensive belligerent. For example, in Steven Spielberg’s 1989 action film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the premise rests on the idea that the Holy Grail of Arthurian legend was found by three brothers and knights of the First Crusade. The film does not elaborate on what the First Crusade entailed exactly, and in the third act, the Grail is revealed to be located in the fictional Temple of the Sun—the exterior for which the ancient city of Petra, Jordan was a stand in—carved into the cliff of the fictional Canyon of the Crescent Moon in the fictional and ostensibly Levantine country of Hatay. Ironically, and perhaps purposely, the Muslim-descended Hatay teams up with the Teutonic-descended Nazis to seize the Grail before Indiana Jones does; when the leaders of both teams, including Jones, reach the final chamber of the temple, they are met by one of the actual knights who had found the Grail. When encountered, the now-elderly knight raises his sword in a chivalrous display of his purpose as the guardian of the Grail, despite the likelihood of his defeat by a younger and spryer opponent. The first minute and a half of the following video demonstrates the role of crusaders in the movie.
Dan Brown’s 2003 book The DaVinci Code has a tenuously similar premise, whereby the protagonist Robert Langdon must race to find the Holy Grail, which turns out to be a metaphor for the supposed bloodline of Jesus Christ himself; although grounded far more in reality, Brown’s book plays up the conspiracy angle regarding the Templars that has become prevalent in much of popular culture.
Chivalry and Superiority
In addition to the focus on Templar Knights and the mystery surrounding them, popular culture references tend to emphasize the chivalry and superiority of the Christian knight. These characteristics, especially when juxtaposed with the diminished role of Islam some popular culture adopts, has been greatly romanticized to highlight the positive aspects of the Crusader ethos. One example can be seen with the popular building block Lego, which had Crusaders in construction sets at one point in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Presented as a faction within the larger Lego Castle theme, who and where the Crusaders were fighting was never explicitly established; rather, the Crusaders were presented as a Eurocentric fighting force without any mention of their Saracen foe or the Levant. According to one catalog from 1992, “The Crusaders are the bravest knights in the kingdom. They are the protectors of the innocent and the keepers of justice.” This is the only discernable information on the matter. In many instances, the allure of the Crusades in popular culture can be traced back to an orientalist understanding of the conflict, whereby Western culture chooses to deify and prop up the Christian knights as the primary motivators, for better or for worse.
Crusaders also act as characters in several fantasy universes, where their abilities are exaggerated into superhuman feats. Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 Edition (D&D 3.5e) is a fantasy role-playing game that is usually played in a tabletop setting, from rules books that provide the basic lines of play. Crusaders are featured as characters in the game, where they are depicted as instruments of their god’s divine will. Crusaders rely primarily on their intelligence and strength in order to overcome the challenges put in their way. In this way the crusaders are depicted as hyper-intelligent warriors that draw on divine power. With this strength from their god, they are able to resist harm and continue fighting even through serious opposition. Crusaders’ strikes are also imbued with divine energy allowing them to smite foes with divine light and zealous charges. With their extensive martial training and their divine toolkit, crusaders are characterized as fearless, powerful frontline fighters that represent their god on the field of battle.
Though they are often perceived as heroic and morally upright, crusaders in Dungeons and Dragons do not have to necessarily serve a god aligned with good; they can also serve a god aligned with evil. In this way the morality of crusaders is not always clear and ultimately depends on the god they chose to serve. Crusaders are also characterized as serving their god with extreme religious fervor; the loss of their gods’ favors would result in the loss of their powers.
Somewhat similar to Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer 40k is a fantasy sci-fi universe that evolved out of a collectible miniatures tabletop game. The universe has expanded to include books, video games and card games all connected to the same lore.
In the Warhammer 40k universe, humans serve the will of the God Emperor, who is essentially the Christian God who has taken human form. The God Emperor united the humans of earth and embarked on the Great Crusade to unite all the lost human colonies across the universe and establish human dominance throughout the universe, forcing the other human settlements into the Emperor’s empire. The Empire also initiates numerous other crusades (ex. Black Crusade, Eternal Crusade, Sabbat Worlds Crusade, etc.) which are undertaken to rid the galaxy of heretics (those who oppose the god emperor) and other races. Whenever the empire perceived a threat to their empire, a crusade was called to combat the forces that could bring harm to the emperor or humanity. These crusades were always fought with religious fervor and with the purpose of completely annihilating their enemies. Religious zeal for the emperor dominates the ranks and scores of crusaders travel across the galaxy bringing ruin and destruction to the Emperor’s enemies. The Crusaders depicted in this universe are physically superior to the average life form, embodying the wrath of the Emperor through their superior strength and technology.
In these two fantasy universes, crusaders are always represented as superhuman, and though they are sometimes depicted as heroes defending humanity, they are also depicted as fanatically and destructively devoted to their god. Unlike in the popular culture references talked about previously, crusaders in Dungeons and Dragons and Warhammer 40k are significantly characterized by their religious devotion. In these universes, religious fervor is inherently connected to destruction and questionable morality, and thus in these popular culture references, crusaders are not always portrayed in a positive light.
Addressing the Enemy
Though popular culture tends to portray crusaders largely in a positive light, there are some instances where the portrayal is negative. This tends to correlate with the explicit presence of a religious enemy. While the questionable uprightness of crusaders is glimpsed in Dungeons and Dragons and Warhammer 40k, note both that crusaders still have the potential to be good and also that their enemies are not explicitly identified or characterized. When crusaders are referenced together with a specific religious enemy in popular culture, the criticism of these historic knights intensifies.
This political cartoon to the left is a response to a speech by President George W. Bush following the events of September 11, 2001, in which he referred to the “war on terrorism” as a crusade. Though Bush used the word offhandedly, he used it instinctively to describe the chivalric violence he believed was the necessary and morally upright response to the problems facing his country. Bush faced immense criticism for his reference to the Crusades, as many people remembered the Crusades as a series of historical crimes, hypocritical religious violence, and morally questionable events. In the context of a struggle between America and Islamic groups, the Crusades are more easily remembered as morally repugnant, and thus Bush is portrayed as an unintelligent or corrupt crusader. Unlike in the movies, video games, and other politically distant forms of popular culture that comfortably ignore the Muslim perspective on the Crusades, this political cartoon has to acknowledge that just as there are two sides to the “war on terrorism,” there were two sides to the Crusades. Perhaps when the crusaders’ enemy has to be recognized as another human party, it is more difficult to portray those crusaders in an exclusively positive light.
Two Marvel Comics issues from 1983 entitled “Cry of the Crusader!” and “Holy War!” feature a super villain called the Crusader. Born Arthur Blackwood, he was a seminary student who believed the church should be more involved in fighting paganism, and was dismissed after fighting with a superior. Blackwood becomes endowed with the combined strength of his crusader ancestors, and beginning with Thor, blasphemous for calling himself a god, devotes himself to fighting paganism. When the Crusader is defeated by Thor, a supposed agent of the devil, he becomes riddled with doubt, questioning the righteousness of his crusade. His faith in God and the moral uprightness of his cause shaken, the Crusader goes on to lose battle after battle against the pagans he challenges, causing him to question whether his is actually doing the holy work of God. As in many of the popular culture references to the Crusades, Marvel’s the Crusader is initially portrayed as brave and strong with superhuman fighting abilities. Yet, unlike in most popular culture references, the Crusader is faced with an explicit religious enemy. Though there are never any references to Islam or the specific religious motivations of the historical Crusades, this popular culture example is atypical in that it explicitly presents a religious enemy, forcing the audience to think about the Crusader’s morality, about whether his cause is just. As the audience follows the comic, it begins to suggest that the Crusader’s cause is not, in fact, just. He is not successful in any of his campaigns and is ultimately defeated entirely, proving that whatever powers of faith and strength he believed he possessed were not truly so powerful.
The representation of crusaders in popular culture tends to be heavily romanticized and thus not entirely historically accurate. Firstly, the focus is often on Templar Knights. While one might argue that these knights best represented the ideals of the Crusades, and were probably the most elite of the crusaders, the Templar Knights made up only a small fraction of the historical crusading force. Thus, the Templars do not accurately or fully represent the typical crusader. Additionally, as the Templar order did not arise until after the First Crusade, the Templars do not represent the original religious motivations of the Crusaders, and the focus in popular culture tends to be on their military prowess rather than their religion or piety. The almost superhuman strength, bravery, and intelligence often attributed to crusaders in popular culture, however, may have a basis in their historically elite status and military superiority over the typical crusader. The historical events surrounding the disintegration of the Templar order do lend themselves to the mysteriousness and conspiracies that riddle popular culture references. However, nearly all the stories created about the enigmatic Templars have no historical basis. And again, these stories fixate on the western crusader and his military characteristics, leaving out the Muslim players and most religious aspects of the Crusades. Ignoring these historically critical aspects of the Crusades allows for a simplified romanticization that easily avoids criticism of the historical events.
Popular Culture References
- The Da Vinci Code
- Holy Blood, Holy Grail
- National Treasure
- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
- Dante’s Inferno
- Dungeons and Dragons
- Warhammar 40k
- Marvel’s “Cry of the Crusader!”
- Marvel’s “Holy War!”
- President Bush’s “crusade”